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Week 13 Power Poll and Picks

Everyone prepare yourselves. The first seismic shakeup in the power poll has occurred. This comes on the heels of a wild Week 12 that included the unbeaten Titans getting rocked by the Jets, continued resurgences in Dallas and Indianapolis, and a return of the Patriot air assault. The result? A marked shift in the balance of power from the NFC back to the AFC.

1. New York Giants (10-1) Order is restored. The G-Men, who have plowed through a murderous stretch (at PIT, DAL, at PHI, BAL, at ARI) without a single misstep, are now officially the team to beat. (As if they weren’t already.)

2. New York Jets (8-3) When a team rips off five consecutive wins — the latter two coming in New England and in Tennessee — and happens to share a city with the champs, it’s not New York hyperbole to start talking about the prospects of an all-Gotham Super Bowl.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) Suddenly there’s a power vacuum in the AFC. It’s fitting then that a trek to Foxborough is all that stands in the way of the Steelers and their quest to return to the top of the mountain. A win over the Patriots and the road to Super Bowl XLIII effectively goes through Pittsburgh.

4. Tennessee Titans (10-1) After nearly two months on top of the poll the Titans were manhandled by the Jets, raising doubts about their perceived toughness. How they respond these next few weeks will go a long way towards assessing their chances come January.

5. Dallas Cowboys (7-4) Injuries, sideshows and turmoil aside, the Cowboys are 6-2 when Tony Romo is their starting quarterback. Since Romo’s return, T.O. has awakened and the defense has been ferocious. Beware of the ‘Boys.

6. Indianapolis Colts (7-4) In a span of four weeks the Colts have defeated the Patriots, Steelers and Chargers. Taking into consideration an extremely soft schedule down the stretch (at CLE, CIN, DET, at JAX, TEN), you can pencil them in for one of the AFC’s two wildcard berths. Then you can trace over it with a sharpie.

7. New England Patriots (7-4) Another example of how the Patriots set and dead trends in the NFL: After the Dolphins smoked New England in Week 3, everyone wanted a piece of the Wildcat. Now? Not so much.

8. Carolina Panthers (8-3) First their defense struggled to contain the Lions at home. Then it literally stood and watched the Falcons put up four touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 45-28 loss. Not a good direction to be heading in as the holidays approach.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3) If a three-game win streak includes coming back from 21 and 17 down vs. the Chiefs and Lions, respectively, it doesn’t deserve to be called a win streak. A “three-game-avoided-humiliation streak” is more apt.

10. Arizona Cardinals (7-4) The Cardinals exhibited Sunday that they can compete with the best. Now is the time to use the end of the season to improve sufficiently enough to take the next step in the playoffs.

Here are the Week 13 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Tennessee over DETROIT

DALLAS over Seattle

Arizona over PHILADELPHIA

BUFFALO over San Francisco

Baltimore over CINCINNATI

Indianapolis over CLEVELAND

GREEN BAY over Carolina

Miami over ST. LOUIS

TAMPA BAY over New Orleans

WASHINGTON over NY Giants

SAN DIEGO over Atlanta

NEW ENGLAND over Pittsburgh

NY JETS over Denver

OAKLAND over Kansas City

MINNESOTA over Chicago

HOUSTON over Jacksonville

Last Week: 10-5

Overall: 113-61-1

BG’s Showtime Pitch and Week 12 Picks

Anyone who doesn’t pay for Showtime is sleeping on — hands down — the best football show out there: Inside the NFL. Each week James Brown hosts (and mediates) a forum of Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth and the inimitable Warren Sapp. The show, formerly of HBO, accomplishes everything NFL fans are looking for on a program. It’s insightful, edgy and laugh-out-loud funny.

You see, football fans are quite simple in their needs. If you make them laugh, succinctly interpret the game and say a few borderline inappropriate things, they will be happy. Which is precisely why it baffles me that so few are tuning into JB, Phil, Chris and Warren. Oh right, the whole Showtime thing. Well here’s my pitch to every football enthusiast out there to upgrade their cable to the silver package for the next couple of months. (Showtime, you can thank me later.)

Seriously though, these four are the perfect pigskin quartet. Simms and Collinsworth understand and can relate the game as well as anyone in the business. Simms, a former quarterback, is adept at giving us the perspective of the field general. Collinsworth, who spends inordinate amounts of time in the tape room, is always pointing out things the average fan simply isn’t equipped to notice. The two also happen to loathe one another, and that mutual contempt fuels their frequently divergent opinions.

Sapp, meanwhile, is a one-of-a-kind personality. His knowledge — which equates to raw intelligence from the trenches — is invaluable considering the voice of the lineman is generally the least heard (save for Fox’s Tony Siragusa and his live reports from the end zone) but arguably the most vital to grasping the game. With Warren, the mood is always light because he’s in a perpetual state of giddiness and is unrelenting in his shameless pleas for votes on Dancing With The Stars (DWTS has been a great running subplot on the show).

Then there’s Brown, the mercenary moderator of NFL roundtables. He was the point man on Fox for over a decade, feeding the likes of Terry Bradshaw, before jumping ship to CBS in 2006, where he now tosses to Shannon Sharpe. I tell you, the man has seen it all.

JB’s true genius is always revealed when the feuds between Simms and Collinsworth reach a boiling point, at which time he’ll cut in with some sarcastic patchwork comment (“These guys really do get along well off-camera”) just as they’re about to start giving each other backhanders. He’ll then seamlessly segway to Sapp for his take on the topic that previously had both white fellas sporting loony ear-to-ear grins as they traded personal insults.

The big fella always has something to say, and it’s often so outlandish that viewers quickly forget that Simms and Collinsworth are arm wrestling off-camera. A few highlights: His reaction to hearing about ex-teammate Keyshawn Johnson’s pending interior design show on A&E (“Keyshawn, I knew you were a [rhymes with snitch]”); his response after Ray Lewis told him the Ravens were playing the pass against the Giants last week (“I dropped the phone, I dropped the phone”); and most recently, his take on Donovan McNabb not knowing there are ties in the NFL (“When I heard him say it I almost passed out”). It should be noted that Sapp has since apologized to Johnson for stepping out of line, but in my opinion that’s just another reason to watch the show.

What’s most important — and what ultimately makes the show a success — is their collective ability to get beyond the jokes and jabs and give the viewer bona fide insight and analysis. Take for instance their handling of Dallas‘s huge win in Washington on Sunday night, a victory that essentially saved the Cowboys’ season. Collinsworth was enamored with the effect Tony Romo’s return had on the Dallas defense, how upon seeing their leader back the unit played with renewed inspiration and passion. Simms pointed to the fact that Romo put only 14 points on the board and threw two picks. He wanted to know why a defense with eight first-rounders couldn’t have found that next gear when Romo was out. Sapp built on it all by agreeing that in the absence of the starting quarterback, a defense must take the burden away from the offense and dictate games — which the Cowboys D didn’t when Romo was down. Sapp talked about the 1999 season, when his Bucs’ lost Trent Dilfer and were forced to do more in order to make life easier for rookie Shaun King.

They all might have had varied takes on the game, but their contributions were individually and collectively valuable, and flowed well together in spite of any personal issues between them. That’s all it takes to create a successful product.

To sum it up: For ten bucks a month you get a guaranteed 12 rounds of Simms-Collinsworth, countless sound bytes from Sapp and lots of sardonic wit from JB. You get a show about football, rife with humor, tension and drama, yet complemented by an abundance of substance. And don’t forget about the unparalleled game footage provided by NFL Films.

It’s all there waiting for you. So grab the phone and dial up Showtime. You won’t regret it. I promise.

Just tell them Ballgame sent you.

Here are the Week 12 picks (Home teams in CAPS).

CLEVELAND over Houston

DALLAS over San Francisco

TENNESSEE over NY Jets

Tampa Bay over DETROIT

Buffalo over KANSAS CITY

Chicago over ST. LOUIS

New England over MIAMI

JACKSONVILLE over Minnesota

DENVER over Oakland

BALTIMORE over Philadelphia

ATLANTA over Carolina

NY Giants over ARIZONA

Washington over SEATTLE

Indianapolis over SAN DIEGO

Green Bay over NEW ORLEANS

Last Week/Thursday: 11-5-1

Overall: 103-56-1

Finally, I have to shout out my high school alma mater, BB&N, where the football team’s kicker just set a state-record by booting a 58-yard field goal. Pretty ridiculous, eh? The accomplishment got him a feature story on the ABC affiliate in Boston. In case you were wondering, we didn’t set any state records during my two seasons on the squad.

NFL Headlines and Week 11 Picks

I’m never been big on headlines but what the hell, I feel like breaking from tradition. So before dishing out Week 11 picks, here are a trio of underappreciated stories that are bound to become major headlines as the 2008 season plays out.

Colts have Titans feeling the heat!

This is more about Indy than it is Tennessee. The Titans have the AFC South and home field throughout the playoffs sewn up. However, four of their next six games are losable. Ranging from a grudge match (at Jacksonville, Sunday) to a trip game (at Houston, 12/14), not to mention a pair of wars to be waged in the trenches (vs. Jets, 11/23 and vs. Steelers, 12/21), the mettle of the Titans will be tested. And retested. This may be the last unbeaten team still standing, but history will not repeat itself. Tennessee has the look of a solid 13-win squad. Nothing more.

Now let’s consider the Colts. If Bill Belichick doesn’t squander his timeouts two weeks ago, the Colts season is over and for the first time since the NFL realigned Peyton Manning is golfing in January (or watching Eli from the sky box, but we’ll get to that). Instead, a rejuvenated Peyton has led Indy to back-to-back victories over his arch rivals, the Patriots and Steelers. Suddenly the Colts are 5-4, with some swagger. Their toughest matchup over the next five weeks is the Chargers, who as Charles Barkley would gladly point out, are simply turrrible. It’s not inconceivable that they tear through that stretch and head into Week 16 sitting at 10-4. If the Titans start sputtering — which they will — out of the blue you’ll start hearing about a Week 17 “showdown” between the Colts and Titans. A game, mind you, that no one even knew existed in November.

One thing history has taught us is to respect the Colts more when they’re supposedly less (see: 2006).

BYE the way, 11 wins will do it in AFC

Here’s a fun fact. Since the NFL realigned into four divisions per conference beginning with the 2002 campaign, the recipient of the second bye in the AFC has finished with at least 13 wins every year except the inaugural ’02 season. That’s five years running that it’s taken a grueling 13 victories to earn the right to win one home game and play with a Super Bowl on the line. However, every so often the AFC softens (get it?) and 11 wins becomes the magic number. This is one of those years, chiefly because the NFC East has feasted on its brother conference (6-2 record) and the AFC West has been arguably the biggest collective embarrassment the league has seen this decade.

Which brings us to Thursday night, when the 6-3 Jets will meet the 6-3 Patriots, with the winner gaining the inside track to not only the AFC East title, but that crucial second bye. It can’t be sufficiently stressed what a luxury it is for teams to be able to scout potential opponents from the comfort of their homes one week, then host a squad that has just emerged from a fierce playoff battle the next week. There is no more significant postseason advantage in sports. That’s essentially what the Pats and Jets are playing for Thursday. The winner will be 7-3 and competing with the Steelers and Ravens (both 6-3) for that no-longer-so-elusive second bye.

Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Ravens. First to 11 wins … wins.

Giants looking flat-out Patriotic

Dating back to the playoffs, the Giants are 12-1 over their last 13 games. Though it’s not just all the wins they’ve piled up that has them drawing comparisons to the old Patriots, it’s the adaptive brand of football they’ve established. The same brand that launched the 2003-04 Patriots to 32 of 34 including consecutive Super Bowls. As exhilarating as they were to watch last year, the 18-0 Patriots had a quarterback who was never touched and a defense that was never really tested. The Giants, on the other hand, had grown accustomed to adapting to their given opponent, keeping games tight, and excelling in crunch time.

Like the three-time champion Patriots — and as opposed to the 18-0 outfit — the Giants are frequently in close games and can beat you in a variety of ways. Shootouts? Yup, they’ll put points on the board when necessary. Defensive affairs? Look no further than their wins over the Redskins and Steelers this year. Come-from-behind triumphs? Ask Cincinnati (or New England …). The G-Men are nearly impossible to beat because they control both sides of the line of scrimmage and limit their mental mistakes. They have a defense that bends at times, but consistently makes the one huge play required to preserve victory (like last Sunday night in Philly). And then there’s the quarterback, who it seems, is always at his best when the game is on the line. Sound familiar? It should.

Indeed, the Giants hijacked the blueprint of the Patriots dynasty, stuffed it in their face last February, and are poised to use it to become the first repeat champion since New England.

(Please allow me a second to wipe the tears off my keyboard.)

Thanks. Here are the Week 11 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

NEW ENGLAND over NY Jets

ATLANTA over Denver

Philadelphia over CINCINNATI

GREEN BAY over Chicago

INDIANAPOLIS over Houston

New Orleans over KANSAS CITY

MIAMI over Oakland

NY GIANTS over Baltimore

TAMPA BAY over Minnesota

CAROLINA over Detroit

SAN FRANCISCO over St. Louis

Arizona over SEATTLE

JACKSONVILLE over Tennessee

PITTSBURGH over San Diego

WASHINGTON over Dallas

BUFFALO over Cleveland

Last Week: 9-4

Overall: 92-51

Week 10 Power Poll and Picks

At the midway point of the 2008 season, the NFC boasts three of the top five teams, and six of the top ten. See how it all shakes out in the newest power poll.

1. Tennessee Titans (8-0) Titans keep grinding out victories but will need another Music City Miracle if they want to run the table — as some are already boldly predicting.

2. New York Giants (7-1) Champs patiently waiting for Tennessee to get bumped so they can reclaim rightful status as number one.

3. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) With the presidential election serving as a backdrop, the reborn Steelers made a statement on Monday night against the Redskins.

4. Carolina Panthers (6-2) Panthers go into their bye coming off solid home victories versus the Saints and Cardinals.

5. Philadelphia Eagles (5-3) If they beat the Giants on Sunday night, Eagles become the presumptive favorite in the NFC.

6. Washington Redskins (6-3) Skins will look to regroup during bye week after taking a pounding from Pittsburgh.

7. New England Patriots (5-3) They’re … still … here …

8. New York Jets (5-3) Rock-solid win in Buffalo set the stage for divisional showdown with Patriots on Thursday night.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) Losing to a bad Cowboys team before nearly falling to a hapless Chiefs outfit indicate Bucs are going in the wrong direction.

10. Atlanta Falcons (5-3) Five of last eight games are at home — where Matt Ryan’s Falcons are unbeaten. Can you say NFC sleeper?

Week 10 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

ATLANTA over New Orleans

Tennessee over CHICAGO

MIAMI over Seattle

Jacksonville over DETROIT

NEW ENGLAND over Buffalo

Green Bay over MINNESOTA

HOUSTON over Baltimore

NY JETS over St. Louis

PITTSBURGH over Indianapolis

Carolina over OAKLAND

PHILADELPHIA over NY Giants

SAN DIEGO over Kansas City

ARIZONA over San Francisco

Last Week: 9-5

Overall: 83-47

Obama’s In, Cassel’s On His Way

I have never used this website as a political forum, nor do I intend to, but after President-elect Barack Obama’s historic and decisive victory Tuesday night, at the very least I must congratulate my fair city of Boston on it’s seventh major title this decade. This one we can share with the rest of the country.

Speaking of something that at one time seemed highly implausible but has slowly gained steam, let’s talk about the Patriots and their quest for a sixth consecutive AFC East crown.

It’s there for the taking folks, and the steady improvement of Matt Cassel is the reason why.

After a disappointing trip to Indy, we’ll get the negative out of the way first. The Patriots had that game in hand and blew it. Jabar Gaffney blew it by dropping what should have been the defining touchdown pass of the Cassel era thus far.

Bill Belichick blew it by wasting his timeouts. He gave away one on an awful challenge of the number of Colts on the field that would have resulted in a measly five yards if upheld. And he surrendered the team’s last game stoppage when he apparently second-guessed himself after keeping the offense on the field on a fourth and 1 late in the game, trailing 15-12. He sprinted up the sideline in pursuit of the line judge as Cassel appeared to get the first down and was rewarded the timeout retroactively.

David Thomas also had a hand in the demise, as he was whistled for an unnecessary roughness penalty that turned a third and 1 into a third and 16 on New England’s final drive. Unfortunately, because Coach Bill had no timeouts remaining, he couldn’t challenge the spot of the ball before the penalty — which replay indicated might have been a foot or so short of where BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually landed. That could have been the difference between the doomed third and 16 and a far more manageable first and 25.

Mental and strategic mishaps notwithstanding, the Patriots looked good on a national stage against a desperate rival. They had an excellent gameplan — which was centered around keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning — and executed it to near-perfection. The defense did an admirable job of slowing a Colts offense with its full arsenal of weapons. Most important, Cassel was exemplary in leading the offense.

Each week he looks more confident and makes stronger throws. He’s starting to read defenses, as evidenced by his recognizing and calling out the blitzers on a critical third and 8 at the beginning of the four quarter. After alerting the offensive line of where the pressure was coming from, he dropped back and delivered a dart to Randy Moss on a quick slant for a first down.

Cassel is also seeing more of the field. On a third and 4 in the second quarter, after surveying the middle of the field and seeing nothing, he found Gaffney — his third option — on an 11-yard sideline out pattern. Simply put, he’s beginning to understand how to take command of the offense. While he’ll never have the pocket presence of Tom Brady (who does?), he’s more mobile than Brady and has used that mobility to his advantage (34 rushes for 101 yards on the season).

It’s clear that the coaching staff is using the Brady schematic from 2001 to bring the new guy along. Most of what they’ve had him do has been safe and conservative — basic screens, check down passes, quick outs and hooks — but slowly they’re integrating some bolder plays. The gaffed-Gaffney play (a would-be 39-yard touchdown strike that Cassel put in a perfect place on the sideline at the five-yard line) was a glimpse of a what could become a more prolific air attack as he continues to progress.

There’s no doubt Cassel has the arm to get the ball downfield. He’s now starting to show the poise required to do so on a more regular basis, which should soon be paying dividends given the ongoing presence of one Randy Moss.

Again, to underscore the path Cassel is taking right now, look at the numbers from his first half-season: 67 percent completion percentage, 1566 yards, 7 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 83.4 quarterback rating. That means his projected final stats would be something in the neighborhood of 3300 yards, 16 touchdowns, 12 picks and a rating around 85 (assuming he improves a bit).

Brady’s first season? 2843 yards, 63.6 completion percentage, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 86.5. Obviously Brady entered another realm beginning in the fourth quarter of the Oakland game in the playoffs, but it’s indisputable that Belichick is using the same system to hone Cassel as he did Brady. Whether or not that translates to victories in the postseason remains to be seen. But the Pats have positioned themselves to be there, yet again, and this time without the league MVP. That’s pretty special.

Looking at the AFC East — which is cumulatively as strong as it’s been throughout the Patriots’ reign — it’s evident New England has an opportunity to deal some serious blows to its divisional rivals in the coming games. Over the next three weeks they’ll host Buffalo (5-3) and the Jets (5-3) before traveling to Miami (4-4) for a revenge match with the Dolphins. Two wins will put them at 7-4 with a 3-2 record in the division, and assure them of holding first place going into the stretch run.

Considering how the defense has plugged holes in the secondary and stayed an elite unit, and how the coaching staff has craftily worked around the losses of its top three running backs while bringing along a new field general, it’s starting to look like a throwback year in Foxborough.

Implausible as it may have once seemed, Cassel’s Patriots could well be on their way to an AFC East title.

YES WE CAN!