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NFL Power Poll and Week 15 Picks

1. New Orleans Saints (13-0) December has gone for the Saints the way it went for the Patriots in 2007: some close calls but the same results.

2. Indianapolis Colts (14-0) Jacksonville became the latest in a slew of Indy opponents to outplay the Colts but end up on the losing end.

3. San Diego Chargers (10-3) With the way they’re playing and their recent history vs. Indianapolis, the Chargers have to be the favorite to come out of the AFC.

4. Minnesota Vikings (11-2) The Vikings got back to basics last week by unleashing a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson on the Bengals.

5. Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) The Eagles, who have quietly won four straight, are again playing their best football coming down the stretch.

6. Green Bay Packers (9-4) Between their second-ranked defense and an MVP-caliber campaign from Aaron Rodgers, the Packers are set to enter the playoffs as the wild-card team nobody wants to face.

7. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) The Bengals were already starting to stumble before Chris Henry was killed, which is why it’s tough to gauge how they will respond in light of the tragedy.

8. New England Patriots (8-5) Coming off the most tumultuous week of the Bill Belichick era, the Patriots found a way to beat the Panthers and avoid a total team implosion.

9. Denver Broncos (8-5) Nobody expected the Broncos to win in Indy, but they still blew a chance to sew up the 5-seed in the AFC.

10. Arizona Cardinals (8-5) With the Jekyll and Hyde act the Cardinals have performed this year, neither a return to the Super Bowl nor an inglorious first-round playoff exit at home would shock anyone.

Week 15 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

Indianapolis over JACKSONVILLE
NEW ORLEANS over Dallas
New England over Buffalo
Arizona over DETROIT
TENNESSEE over Miami
Cleveland over KANSAS CITY
Houston over ST. LOUIS
NY JETS over Atlanta
PHILADELPHIA over San Francisco
DENVER over Oakland
SAN DIEGO over Cincinnati
PITTSBURGH over Green Bay
SEATTLE over Tampa Bay
BALTIMORE over Chicago
Minnesota over CAROLINA
NY Giants over Washington

Last Week: 11-5
Overall: 137-71

NFL Power Poll and Week 14 Picks

With four games to go, both the Saints and Colts remain undefeated, the Chargers are making their typical late-season push and the Patriots are uncharacteristically tearing at the seams.  How has all that affected the latest power poll?  See for yourself.

1. New Orleans Saints (12-0) Washington had the Saints cooked last Sunday but poor special teams left the door open and Drew Brees pounced.

2. Indianapolis Colts (12-0) History has told us it’s not a good thing when the Colts wrap up home field advantage too early.

3. San Diego Chargers (9-3) If there’s any doubt about San Diego’s finishing abilities, look no further than Phillip Rivers’ unblemished 15-0 record in December.

4. Minnesota Vikings (10-2) A little bit of the old, gun-slinging Brett Favre made an appearance once the Vikings got down to the Cardinals last weekend.

5. Cincinnati Bengals (9-3) With consecutive road games in Minnesota and San Diego looming, it’s looking like the Bengals are going to have to settle for the No. 3 seed in the AFC.

6. Green Bay Packers (8-4) The Packers haven’t missed a beat since giving Tampa Bay its only win of the year a month ago, winning four straight in impressive fashion.

7. Arizona Cardinals (8-4) An epic 99-yard drive by Vince Young is all that has prevented the Cardinals from winning five in a row.

8. Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) The Eagles have weathered the injury storm and are back in the driver’s seat for the NFC East thanks to the Cowboys’ continued December woes.

9. Denver Broncos (8-4) The Broncos have bounced back admirably from a midseason swoon and have a wild-card berth in their sights.

10. Dallas Cowboys (8-4) It’s gut-check time for the Cowboys, who have to deal with the Chargers, Saints, Redskins and Eagles in a brutal final stretch.

Week 14 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

Pittsburgh over CLEVELAND
New Orleans over ATLANTA
Green Bay over CHICAGO
INDIANAPOLIS over Denver
Buffalo over KANSAS CITY
MINNESOTA over Cincinnati
NEW ENGLAND over Carolina
NY Jets over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Miami
BALTIMORE over Detroit
HOUSTON over Seattle
TENNESSEE over St. Louis
OAKLAND over Washington
San Diego over DALLAS
NY GIANTS over Philadelphia
Arizona over SAN FRANCISCO

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 126-66

NFL Playoff Picture and Week 13 Picks

The calendar has turned to December, which is another way of saying the NFL playoff picture is coming into focus. Right now, it looks like the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and the pursuit of the second bye in the AFC are going to be hotly contested, whereas the wild card and division races are likely to be less dramatic. Let’s get right to it.

The Saints dispelled any skepticism about their elite status by blowing away the Patriots on Monday night, and in doing so officially opened the discussion on the possibility and likelihood of a 16-0 season. Of course, there’s a team in the AFC that’s also 11-0, but the major caveat is the Colts will have wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by Week 15 (16 at the latest). Which would indicate the Jets and Bills will be seeing their fair share of Jim Sorgi in Weeks 16 and 17.

New Orleans, on the other hand, very well may need to register a perfect season to ensure the NFC playoffs go through the Superdome. That’s because the Vikings, currently 10-1, fell to an out-of-conference opponent in the Steelers and therefore will hold the vital conference-record tiebreaker if the two teams finish with identical records (the Saints have completed the AFC portion of their schedule).

There are a few possible bumps in the road down the stretch for Minnesota, beginning this Sunday night in Arizona. That’s followed by a home game vs. Cincinnati (who already downed Green Bay at Lambeau Field earlier this year), road contests in Carolina and Chicago before the season finale at home against the Giants. Looking at that schedule, 14-2 seems likely for the Vikings. That means the Saints should be able to drop one of their final five (at WAS, at ATL, DAL, TB, at CAR) and still retain home field.

The No. 2 seed in the AFC — crucial because it gives a team a week off and a home game in the divisional round — is probably not going to the Patriots, although it’s still possible if they run the table. The more probable scenario has the second bye going to the winner of the Bengals-Chargers game in San Diego on Dec. 20. Both teams are 8-3 and both have manageable December schedules. Plus if they each finish 12-4, the winner of the head-to-head matchup will obviously hold the tiebreaker for postseason seeding. Huge game.

As for the wild-card races, we’ll know for sure after this weekend if there are going to be any in the NFC. Right now, the Eagles and Packers occupy the two slots with 7-4 marks. Still very much in contention are the Falcons and Giants, who are each 6-5. The Giants host Dallas (8-3) on Sunday, a game that will either thrust the G-Men into the thick of both the wild-card and NFC East races, or put a premature end to their season. The Falcons welcome Philadelphia in a must-win game that quarterback Matt Ryan has already been ruled out of. A loss to the Eagles finishes Atlanta. Green Bay can take a big step toward January by beating the Ravens on Monday night.

In the AFC, 10 wins looks to be the magic number for a wild-card spot, and the Broncos (7-4) should reach that with winnable games vs. Kansas City (twice) and Oakland at home. There’s little room for error, though, as Denver will have to travel to Indianapolis and Philadelphia in Weeks 14 and 16. If the Broncos take care of business against the teams they should beat, they’ll end a three-year playoff drought.

As for the other AFC wild-card berth, the Steelers, Ravens and Jaguars all sit at 6-5, but the sixth and final spot is Pittsburgh’s to lose. The defending champs finish with one of the league’s easier final slates (OAK, at CLE, GB, BAL, at MIA).

Recent history says the second Steelers-Ravens game will decide who’s taking to the gridiron and who’s watching from the couch come January. Given the way the Steelers played in defeat Sunday night (losing 20-17 in overtime) with a guy, Dennis Dixon, who had thrown a total of one NFL pass before Sunday, it’s tough to imagine the Ravens coming into Heinz Field and sweeping the Steelers, particularly if both Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are back as scheduled.

Then there are the Titans. The dark horse. The squad everyone in the AFC is mindful of and — whether they’ll admit it or not — wants nothing to do with. Since getting blanked 59-love by the Patriots, Tennessee has blasted through five consecutive opponents, becoming the first team to lose its first six and win its next five. It’s no coincidence Vince Young has quarterbacked each of those victories, the latest punctuated by an awe-inspiring 17-play, 99-yard winning drive vs. the Cardinals, in which Young converted three fourth downs (including fourth-and-goal from the 10 with no time left). If you saw it live, you became a believer in VY and the Titans, plain and simple.

Which makes this weekend’s game between the Titans and Colts in Indianapolis absolutely humongous. Chris Johnson (he who is literally making a run at the all-time single-season rushing record) proclaimed on “Inside the NFL” two weeks ago that Tennessee was going to win out, finish 10-6 and become the first team ever to make the playoffs after such a putrid start. If the Titans can find a way to hand Indy its first loss of the year … let’s just say you’ll start seeing replays of that Johnson clip everywhere.

For now, here are the latest playoff projections.

AFC

1. Indianapolis Colts (14-2)
2. San Diego Chargers (12-4)
3. New England Patriots (12-4)
4. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
6. Denver Broncos (10-6)

NFC

1. New Orleans Saints (15-1)
2. Minnesota Vikings (14-2)
3. Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
4. Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
5. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
6. Green Bay Packers (9-7)

Week 13 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

BUFFALO over NY Jets
Philadelphia over ATLANTA
CHICAGO over St. Louis
CINCINNATI over Detroit
INDIANAPOLIS over Tennessee
Denver over KANSAS CITY
New England over MIAMI
PITTSBURGH over Oakland
New Orleans over WASHINGTON
CAROLINA over Tampa Bay
Houston over JACKSONVILLE
San Diego over CLEVELAND
NY GIANTS over Dallas
San Francisco over SEATTLE
Minnesota over ARIZONA
GREEN BAY over Baltimore

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 116-60

Fourth-and-2 and Week 11 Picks

Let’s go back to Jan. 21, 2007.  The site is the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the contest is the AFC Championship.  The Patriots have watched an 18-point lead evaporate and are clinging to a 34-31 advantage.  New England is faced with a third-and-4 at its own 46.  There’s 2:30 remaining in the game and the Colts are down to one timeout. Translation: One more first down and it’s over.

The Patriots fail to convert, as Troy Brown uncharacteristically doesn’t make the same read as Tom Brady and runs an in-route when Brady is anticipating an out.  The Patriots punt the ball back to the Colts and Peyton Manning promptly leads a crisp 7-play, 80-yard championship-clinching drive in 77 seconds. For the Patriots, out the window goes a fourth Super Bowl victory in six years and the title of greatest dynasty of all time.

Yet perhaps more significant, the driving force behind a vengeful drive for perfection is spawned. As a result of that failed third-down and the ensuing culmination of an epic Manning comeback, the Patriots would embark on a furious spending spree that would net their just-a-tad-not-good-enough offense Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth.

The message out of Foxboro was clear and decisive: We have taken every measure to ensure that if and when we’re confronted by that scenario again, Manning will NOT get the ball back in his hands.

17 wins, zero losses and 365 days later, the Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game, and had the Chargers not shocked the world by knocking off the Colts in the Dome, we just may have seen that philosophical change come to fruition.

See, time was, Belichick’s defenses — be it in blizzardy New England or climate-controlled Indianapolis — had the talent, gameplan and execution to go to war with Manning for 60 minutes and come out on top.  Over the last few years the tables have turned, though, partly because the Pats D has aged.

But the real reason is Manning has entered a new zone cerebrally.  Defenses can no longer win a 60-minute battle against him, no matter how crafty the scheme or how precise the execution.  The guy will always make the adjustments.  Coverages that burn him for picks in the first quarter he will look at on his satellite snapshots on the sideline, hatch a new plan of attack and put a quick six on the board when he sees the same coverage again in the fourth quarter.

He did it on the biggest play of the championship drive in ’07 (a 32-yard sideline pattern to backup tight end Bryan Fletcher) and again last Sunday, recognizing that the Patriot corners were jumping slants and hitches and thus becoming increasingly susceptible to double moves.

Which brings us, at last, to the fourth-and-2 that no one has been able to stop talking about this week. Did Belichick make a mistake? Yes he did. Was the mistake going for it on fourth down? An unequivocal NO.

Forget about the history for a moment and look at Sunday night’s game on its own. The Patriots offense was as dominant and free-moving as it had been at any point during the undefeated season, amassing 477 total yards vs. a depleted Colts secondary. On the other side, the Patriots played inspiring defense for three quarters before beginning to tire, holding Indy to 14 points. Of course, that was exactly the time when Manning implemented his adjustments and started to exploit the fatigued Pats D.

(Side note: A major argument for Belichick punting the ball was that his defense had already stopped Manning in the fourth quarter. That’s barely true. Here are the Colts first three drives of the quarter.

Drive No. 1 — Begins at Indy 21, 5 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 2:04.
Drive No. 2 — Begins at Indy 18, 1 play, Manning intercepted by Jonathan Wilhite on a duck that he clearly lost grip of as he released it.
Drive No. 3 — Begins at Indy 21, 6 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 1:49.

Watch Drives Nos. 1 and 3 then look at the ball Manning throws to begin Drive No. 2 and tell me he wouldn’t have found the end zone on that possession if it weren’t for a fluky throw. Thus I must respond with an emphatic PUH-LEASE when folks assert the New England defense was capable of stopping the Colts when Manning had 2:08 and a timeout to boot.)

That Belichick opted to go for it and failed is a perfect segway into how — despite making the correct decision on fourth down — Belichick still played a major role in the game being lost. Almost everyone with an opinion will assert that the fourth down miss was the final — and fatal — move by the Hooded Coach in his latest chess match with Manning. It wasn’t.

Aside from the fact that the Patriots had used all of their timeouts (including an unprecedented stoppage before the drive even started because of personnel issues, which ended up being the one they needed to challenge the spot of Kevin Faulk’s reception on fourth down), Belichick didn’t properly articulate the big picture to his defense. I use the words “properly articulate” because he must have been prepared for the eventuality that the conversion attempt could miss, in which case the strategy would become allowing the Colts to score the inevitable touchdown in an expedited fashion so Brady could salvage some time to work his own magic (remember, the Patriots only needed a field goal to win once Indy scored).

For some reason, though, Belichick didn’t relay that message to the defense, and sure enough, it bit him when Brandon Meriweather dragged Joseph Addai down from behind at the 1-yard line on the second play of the ensuing Colts drive. If Meriweather had allowed Addai to walk into the end zone (as he was about to do), Brady would’ve had roughly 1:10 to get his team into field goal range.

If you’re a New England fan, you know what that means. Just like Belichick knew what it meant for Manning to get the ball period, regardless of field position. Dunzo.

Anyone who still believes that Belichick made the call because of hubris or ego or early signs of senility is sadly misinformed. Moreover, they fail to appreciate that this man has probably endured countless sleepless nights ruing his decision to give the ball back to Manning on that fateful fourth down 34 months ago.

Once again, I’ll reiterate: On its own, given the circumstances, he made the right call. When you consider the history involved, and the fact that the demise (if you can even call it that) of the Patriots dynasty can arguably be traced back to that one play in the RCA Dome, there’s only one answer to the question of whether Belichick made the right move in sending Brady back out there.

And the question itself is rhetorical.

Week 11 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

CAROLINA over Miami
DALLAS over Washington
DETROIT over Cleveland
GREEN BAY over San Francisco
Pittsburgh over KANSAS CITY
MINNESOTA over Seattle
NY GIANTS over Atlanta
New Orleans over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Buffalo
Indianapolis over BALTIMORE
Arizona over ST. LOUIS
San Diego over DENVER
Cincinnati over OAKLAND
NEW ENGLAND over NY Jets
Philadelphia over CHICAGO
Tennessee over HOUSTON

Last Week: 11-4
Overall: 93-51

NFL Power Poll and Week 10 Picks

1. New Orleans Saints (8-0) With a couple of cupcakes in the Rams and Bucs on the horizon, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints not to look ahead to a monster Monday Night showdown with the Patriots on Nov. 30.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-0) The Colts have looked mortal the last two weeks, squeaking by the Niners and Texans to remain unbeaten.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-1) If the Vikings run through Detroit, Seattle and Chicago at home over the next three weeks, they’ll head into December with a great shot at snagging the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) The champs sure look like they’ve hit their stride, but they still have to avenge a Week 3 loss to the Bengals if they want to capture their third straight AFC North title.

5. New England Patriots (6-2) A win in Indy Sunday night will change the entire landscape of the AFC, as the Patriots will become the odds-on favorites for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) It’s a tall task, but the Bengals can all but wrap up the AFC North with a victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday.

7. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) Fanfare aside, the Cowboys have been playing at a high level for the last month, highlighted by a rousing come-from-behind win in Philadelphia last week.

8. Denver Broncos (6-2) The Ravens and Steelers established the blueprint for beating Denver: throttle the short-passing game and force Kyle Orton to beat you deep.

9. San Diego Chargers (5-3) If the Chargers can take care of the Eagles at home on Sunday, they will be in prime position to assume control of the AFC West with a win over the Broncos next week.

10. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) The Cardinals can’t seem to decide whether they’re the team that nearly won the Super Bowl or the one whose most famous player was Rod Tidwell until last year.

Week 10 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

SAN FRANCISCO over Chicago (picked Tuesday)
CAROLINA over Atlanta
MIAMI over Tampa Bay
MINNESOTA over Detroit
NY JETS over Jacksonville
PITTSBURGH over Cincinnati
New Orleans over ST. LOUIS
TENNESSEE over Buffalo
Denver over WASHINGTON
Kansas City over OAKLAND
ARIZONA over Seattle
GREEN BAY over Dallas
SAN DIEGO over Philadelphia
New England over INDIANAPOLIS
Baltimore over CLEVELAND

Last Week: 8-5
Overall:
82-47

Good Health Could Mean History for Celtics

The new NBA season is not even two weeks old, yet the Celtics have already drummed up the lion’s share of controversy so far.

To get things started, Rasheed Wallace said Boston could “definitely” make a run at the ’96 Bulls and 72 wins. He made the proclamation before having played a single game with his new squad.

Next — less than 48 hours before Opening Night, no less — Glen Davis broke his thumb punching out one of his old high school buddies. The incident occurred in the street at 4 a.m. after a night probably not spent playing backgammon.

Then, in the fourth game of the season vs. New Orleans, Rajon Rondo scrapped with Chris Paul in the second quarter before talking some smack to him after the game while Paul was in the middle of a conversation with Paul Pierce. That caused CP3 to get visibly heated and attempt to seek Rondo out for an encore. And the question became, could you blame him?

Rondo has a reputation for being a pain in the rear, to put it lightly. He earned that m.o. at Kentucky, and as everyone from Danny Ainge to Kevin Garnett to Kobe Byrant can corroborate, he’s carried it into the league. Trash-talking and contempt-breeding, but also exceptional at what he does, Rondo is pretty much a microcosm of the 2009 Celtics (particularly with Sheed on board and KG in axe-to-grind mode).

When you look up and down the roster, it’s hard not to see a team that — with good health — could make Sheed look prophetic when all is said and done. It’s also a group that will clearly not be making many friends throughout the league this year.

Judging from the first six games of the season, a few things stick out. There’s Rondo himself. The kid made a quantum leap in the playoffs last spring, emerging as the premier point guard of the postseason before the Celtics were eliminated (might that have been the essence of his parting shot for Paul the other night?). He seems to have gotten to the point in his career where he’s determined to dominate games with his passing and defense. Scarier yet, he knows he can do it (look no further than the 26 assists and four steals he piled up while taking a total of 10 shots in a pair of wins over the Cavs and Bulls).

With Rondo and a rock-solid Kendrick Perkins flanking the Big Three, the Celtics boast the best starting five in the NBA, bar none. It’s their bench, though, that will ultimately determine whether they can challenge the ’96 Bulls.

Wallace is Wallace: long and versatile, capable of carrying an offense on any given night he has his stroke. Fellow newcomer Marquis Daniels is a big and strong guard who, in addition to his scoring capabilities, is a two-fold upgrade for the team because he can run point with the second unit and allow Eddie House to move to the two-guard spot and do what he does best: fire away from the perimeter. That’s an eight-man rotation that doesn’t even take into account Davis (who’s on track to return in a month) and Shelden Williams (who’s averaged 7 and 6 getting Big Baby’s minutes).

That depth is what should help the Green overcome their only real weakness, age. It has already, in fact, as the Celtics were able to pull out a 92-90 win in Minnesota in their first of seven road back-to-backs. Playing successive nights in different cities is a tall order for guys like Garnett and Ray Allen, given their NBA odometers. But because they had dispatched of Philadelphia by 31 points the night before, Pierce (31 minutes), Allen (31) and Garnett (23) had the legs to play heavier minutes against the Wolves.

Back to Wallace for a moment. In addition to the depth he adds, an All-Star caliber player coming off the bench, his presence late in games is going to completely alter the defensive strategy opposing coaches employ against the Celtics. In the past, teams could double Garnett, who would be forced to find the open man on the perimeter. That in itself was always a tall order, given how adept Garnett is at finding shooters out of a double team.

But with Sheed on the floor in place of Perkins in crunch time, defenses are going to have play much more straight up against the C’s, who will be able to isolate KG with a trio of shooters surrounding him on the perimeter and Rondo lurking in case of a breakdown. Simply put, it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to defense the Celtics in the closing minutes of tight games.

On the other side, it’s going to be equally hard to score on Boston in close games. Through six games, the Celtics already lead the pack by a landslide in average points allowed (81.5) and are one of three teams holding opponents to 40 percent from the field.

If there is a blueprint for 72 wins, the Celtics have exhibited it thus far. And for what it’s worth, they “only” need to go 66-10 from here on out.

NFL Power Poll and Week 8 Picks

The 2009 NFL season is nearing its midway point with three undefeated teams still standing.  That trio heads the latest power poll, but how does the rest shake out?  Read on.

1. New Orleans Saints (6-0) Turning a 21-point deficit into a 12-point win in Miami last week was a resounding statement on the part of the Saints; too bad Reggie Bush had to soil it with premature talk of an undefeated season.

2. Indianapolis Colts (6-0) Coming off a bye, the Colts are rested and poised to put a hurting on the reeling 49ers.

3. Denver Broncos (6-0) The Broncos have passed all the tests so far, but a midterm exam in the form of a road game vs. the desperate Ravens will determine whether they’re head-of-the-class material at the midway point.

4. New England Patriots (5-2) Mopping up a couple of doormats by a combined 94-7 was fun, but the Patriots will come out of their bye facing a defining stretch (MIA, at IND, NYJ, at NO, at MIA).

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) The Steeler D showed its fangs for the first time all season last week, returning a fumble and pick for scores to knock off the previously undefeated Vikings.

6. Minnesota Vikings (6-1) Things don’t get any easier for Minnesota, who face a monumental task as Brett Favre makes his return to Lambeau Field in enemy colors.

7. New York Giants (5-2) One streak will end for the Giants on Sunday: their two-game losing streak or their four-game winning streak at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

8. Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) The Bengals bandwagon has made more stops than a city bus, but after their 35-point thrashing of the Bears, everyone’s back on.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (4-2) With back-to-back home games vs. the Giants and Cowboys, the Eagles could take command of the three-team race in the NFC East.

10. Arizona Cardinals (4-2) Wtih consecutive wins over the Texans, Seahawks and Giants, Arizona has clearly shaken off the Super Bowl hangover.

Week 8 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

Houston over BUFFALO
CHICAGO over Cleveland
DALLAS over Seattle
DETROIT over St. Louis
INDIANAPOLIS over San Francisco
NY JETS over Miami
NY Giants over PHILADELPHIA
BALTIMORE over Denver
Jacksonville over TENNESSEE
SAN DIEGO over Oakland
ARIZONA over Carolina
GREEN BAY over Minnesota
NEW ORLEANS over Atlanta

Last Week: 11-2
Overall: 67-36

NFL Power Poll and Week 7 Picks

When all is said and done, Week 6 of the 2009 NFL season will go down as Statement Week. The Saints, Patriots and Broncos all made varying statements, and all were emphatic. Naturally, those statements led to some hefty changes in the power poll.

1. New Orleans Saints (5-0) The Saints — who are on pace to break the Patriots’ 2007 scoring record of 589 points — have outscored their opponents by 99 points through five games, punctuated by a 48-27 undressing of the Giants last Sunday.

2. Indianapolis Colts (5-0) Peyton Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards every game this season, a prime indicator that the Colts will be undefeated entering November for the fourth time in the last five years.

3. Minnesota Vikings (6-0) As wildly entertaining as they’ve been, the Vikings can’t continue to give up 248 yards through the air (ninth-worst in the NFL) and expect to keep winning.

4. Denver (6-0) Knocking off Dallas and New England back-to-back before rolling over the Chargers in San Diego on Monday night has been duly noted by this panel of one.

5. New England (4-2) They’re baaaaaaack….

6. NY Giants (5-1) Just an ugly performance from the vaunted Giants D in the Big Easy last week, one that was probably good to get out of their systems sooner rather than later.

7. Pittsburgh (4-2) Already armed with the league’s No. 2 passing attack, the Steelers can expect to start clicking on all cylinders defensively now that Troy Polamalu is back.

8. Atlanta (4-1) The Falcons have impressed early, but they’ll be tested with four of the next five on the road (including contests at the Saints and Giants).

9. Cincinnati (4-2) After a total breakdown in the second half at home vs. the Texans last week, the verdict is still out on the Bengals.

10. Baltimore (3-3) The Ravens are three plays away from being 6-0 (Mark Clayton’s fourth-down drop at New England, Carson Palmer-to-Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left vs. Cincinnati, Steven Hauschka’s missed field goal with time expiring last week in Minnesota).

Week 7 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

HOUSTON over San Francisco
Green Bay over CLEVELAND
San Diego over KANSAS CITY
Indianapolis over ST. LOUIS
PITTSBURGH over Minnesota
New England over TAMPA BAY (London)
NY Jets over OAKLAND
CAROLINA over Buffalo
CINCINNATI over Chicago
DALLAS over Atlanta
New Orleans over MIAMI
NY GIANTS over Arizona
Philadelphia over WASHINGTON

Last Week: 9-5
Overall: 56-34

Angels on a Mission, But Has Anyone Noticed?

Let’s get this straight.  The Angels are the only team with a winning record in the regular season (56-44) against the Yankees over the last decade.  They are the one club that has bumped New York from the playoffs twice in that same time period. Individually and collectively, they’ve gotten to the Yanks one rock in the rotation, CC Sabathia (who will start Games 1, 4 and 7), as good, if not better, than any other lineup in baseball.

Oh, and they vanquished their own demons — those big, bad Red Sox — in truly Red Soxian fashion en route back to the pennant stage of the playoffs.

Yet, given all that meat and potatoes, next to no one has given them a shot against the mighty Bombers from the BX.

This is where it gets interesting, because there’s one group of people — other than Angels fans — that actually believes the Halos might just pull this thing off. Nope, it’s not the nation (better than 60 percent of the country has the Yanks). The sportswriters? Guess again, or simply tweet Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, Buster Olney, or every single ESPN guy who they like in the series.  Give up?

It’s Yankee fans.

Take it from an ardent Boston supporter and firmly entrenched New Yorker: Yankee fans don’t want anything to do with the Angels.  They haven’t for some time now.  And whether or not they’ll admit it (some will), Yankee fans — gulp! — were actually rooting for the Red Sox to stage another cardiac comeback against Anaheim.

Now, was part of that sentiment rooted in the 2004 ALCS, which was the last time New York was a series (and out) away from the World Series?  Naturally.  The Yankees, just like their fans, have yearned for the last five years to exact cold revenge on Boston for The Collapse.

But surly as they can be, Yanks fans have also become increasingly pragmatic as the years have mounted without the raising of that elusive banner No. 27.  They want to win to again, pure and simple.  Want to have that parade down Broadway for the first time since pre-9/11.  After missing the playoffs for the first time since ever (OK, 1993) last season, in 2009 they started to pick up a whiff of a previously unknown sensation: desperation.

Considering the last eight years have schooled them on the knowledge that success in October is nowhere near as cut and dry as it once seemed, they would have liked nothing more than to have travelled the least bumpy road back to Broadway.  As it was this October, that road would have gone via the Mass Pike and Lansdowne Street.

Who can really dispute that?  Once they hit their stride, the Yankees abused the Red Sox in every which way, winning 9 of 10 after dropping the first eight.  On some days they clobbered them, others they shut them out.  Even snatched a few away late for good measure.

So on the one hand was the team they were certain they would have defeated, and in doing so would have avenged the most humiliating loss in the history of the game.  (Can you say two birds, one stone?)  On the other hand was the one team that has consistently had their number throughout their mortal years and is firing on all cylinders after its most satisfying triumph since Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

That, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much sums up why the Yankee faithful were either boldly or silently hoping that Jonathan Papelbon could record the final strike in Game 3 of the ALDS and plant the seeds of another Sox rise from the dead.

When that didn’t happen, everyone from Washington Heights to South Jersey began to realize that things weren’t going according to the plan.  Other than those folks, though, no one else has seemed to appreciate the implications of an Angels-Yankees battle for the pennant.

Like the fact that Chone Figgins (.313), Bobby Abreu (.333), Torii Hunter (.544 SLG) and Mike Napoli (.333) have all had their fair share of success against Sabathia.   The fact that Maicer Izturis (.500) and Howie Kendrick (.667) have absolutely owned the burly southpaw, going a combined 13-for-22 vs. CC in their careers.  The fact that as a whole, the Angels lineup has similarly abused A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte.  The fact that their combined average against the three Yankees starters in 2009 is .317.

And above all, the fact that every one of those guys, in addition to every other player in that uniform, will be (and has been) playing every game of this season in memory of their fallen teammate, Nick Adenhart.

This team is on a mission that’s far bigger than baseball, and given the ferocity and determination with which they’ve torn through the ’09 campaign and the Red Sox in Round 1, it’s simply absurd that so few people believe in them.

The Angels aren’t worried about that, though.  They believe, and that’s really all that matters.

Week 4 Intel and Week 5 Picks

October is always the month in the NFL where the pretenders begin to get peeled away from the contenders. This happens because coaching staffs start to have a sufficient enough sample size to gather intel on certain fast-starters that have caught the league by surprise.

Examples in 2009 are the Broncos, Bengals and Bears, among others. Each one of those squads has cast aside some sort of negative rep (ie the Broncos defense, the Bengals’ finishing capabilities, the Bears’ lack of consistency at quarterback) to go a combined 10-2. However, they can all be be sure that opposing staffs are going to target some tendency or expose some weakness in a facet of their performances that had gone previously undetected.

While there are typically 10 or so teams in each conference entertaining realistic playoff aspirations in October, that number will be pared down to about eight by the beginning of November. The accruing of intel and the adjustments made as a result are why at least one of those aforementioned teams will be a string of losses removed from their September triumphs once the leaves are falling.

Before looking ahead, though, it’s probably wise to revisit some of the big games from Week 4, as it’s not often that there are so many matchups so early in the season that are capable of providing big-picture intel. By my count, there were four such games last week.

Big Game No. 1 — Patriots 27 Ravens 21

Intel gained: This was a classic December-like bout: big plays, lead changes, momentum swings, fourth-down drama, you name it. As much as everyone wanted to write off New England after a near 0-2 start, the fact is the ’09 Patriots boast a balanced and evolving offense, are solid on special teams and have a defense that has some punch to it. You can say the same about the Ravens, which is why this game was so hotly contested and could have very well gone the other way had Mark Clayton not dropped a fourth-down pass deep in Patriots territory with little time left in the game. There’s no doubt this meeting may end up serving as the precursor to a clash in January.

Big Game No. 2 — Saints 24 Jets 10

Intel gained: Interconference tilts are always interesting, if only for the fact that teams are seldom familiar with one another. From this game emerged some valuable intel, most notably that the Saints — unlike versions 2006-08 — no longer need to put up 35 points a game to win because they actually have a defense. It may not be a Top 10 unit, but it doesn’t have to be, it just needs to have some playmaking ability. The addition of Darren Sharper (5 INT, 2 TDs) has given it just that. On the Jets side, we learned that Mark Sanchez is still a rookie and capable of making some huge mistakes. The NFL learning curve is both harsh and unforgiving.

Big Game No. 3 — Steelers 38 Chargers 28

Intel gained: At 28-0, this game was such a blowout that Steelers fans actually departed Heinz Field en masse before Phillips Rivers decided to go (cue LL Cool J vo) ALL PHILLIP RIVERS!! The guy is a warrior and takes any obstacle as a personal slight, which is why San Diego improbably found itself within a touchdown late. The Chargers still lost the game, though, and the way they’ve cumulatively staggered out of the gates the last few seasons isn’t exactly something to be proud of. However, there’s no disputing the Bolts always end up playing their best football down the stretch. For the Steelers, the beginning of their title defense hasn’t been pretty but they remain one of the elite teams in the league and boast an air attack the likes of which has never been seen in Pittsburgh. While the defense seemed helpless during the Rivers onslaught Sunday night, that’s understandable given the temporary loss of Troy Polamalu.

Big Game No. 4 — Vikings 30 Packers 23

Intel gained: This contest was all about Brett Favre, and rightfully so. Given the game was played at the raucous Metrodome and under the spotlight of Monday Night Football, Favre’s surgical dominance of his former team wasn’t difficult to predict. But with their vaunted defensive line and the ongoing presence of one Adrian Peterson, it’s understood the Vikings are going to be tough to beat this year. It was the Packers, led by Aaron Rodgers, who showed some resolve and refused to back down from the stage. Given all the hoopla, Green Bay put forth an impressive performance, one that would suggest it may indeed be a whole different ballgame when the teams meet again on Nov. 1 at Lambeau Field.

Week 5 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

BUFFALO over Cleveland
Pittsburgh over DETROIT
Dallas over Kansas City
Minnesota over ST. LOUIS
NY GIANTS over Oakland
PHILADELPHIA over Tampa Bay
CAROLINA over Washington
BALTIMORE over Cincinnati
SAN FRANCISCO over Atlanta
Jacksonville over SEATTLE
Houston over ARIZONA
New England over DENVER
TENNESSEE over Indianapolis
NY Jets over MIAMI

Last Week: 11-3
Overall: 41-21