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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
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
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

NFL Power Poll and Week 4 Picks

With September in the rearview, it’s a good time to break out the first edition of the Power Poll. There are some huge games this weekend (BAL at NE, NYJ at NO, SD at PIT, GB at MIN), which means a shakeup is imminent. For the time being, here’s how the Top 10 rounds out after three weeks.

1. Baltimore Ravens (3-0) The Ravens have never had a good offense, let alone a top-ranked one. Only the Saints have scored more points than Baltimore’s balanced attack.

2. New Orleans Saints (3-0) Three wins, two on the road, with a combined margin of victory of 64 points. This is the best team in the NFC until proven otherwise, something the Giants will have their shot at come Week 6.

3. New York Jets (3-0) First the Jets silence the Texans in Houston, then they back up their trash talk in New England before gutting one out vs. the desperate Titans. Hands down, the three most impressive wins of any team.

4. Indianapolis Colts (3-0) Back-to-back primetime victories in Miami and Arizona have those few Indy skeptics shaking their heads in disbelief. Again.

5. New York Giants (3-0) A win vs. the turnover-prone Cowboys stands out because the G-Men crashed the party at new Cowboy Stadium, but holding the Bucs — hapless as they are — to 86 yards of offense last week is pretty  impressive.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) Between Hard Knocks, the stomach punch they endured in Week 1 vs. the Broncos, and the way they’ve responded since — winning at Lambeau Field and pulling off a shocker of a comeback vs. the Steelers — the Bengals deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

7. Minnesota Vikings (3-0) You can only beat who’s on your schedule, but the fact remains the Vikings drew the Browns and Lions before needing a for-the-ages Favre missile against San Francisco to polish off a somewhat dubious 3-0 start.

8. New England Patriots (2-1) Even without Welker, the Pats offense of old returned vs. the Falcons last week. Sure, they had issues getting the ball into the end zone, but 445 yards of total offense is still 445 yards of total offense.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) The Eagles have weathered the early storm in the face of injuries to McNabb and Westbrook, not to mention the ongoing Vick saga.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) If Jeff Reed makes either a 38 or 43-yard field goal Week 2 in Chicago, the Steelers are 2-1 and nobody’s panicking.

Week 4 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

NEW ENGLAND over Baltimore
WASHINGTON over Tampa Bay
Tennessee over JACKSONVILLE
HOUSTON over Oakland
CHICAGO over Detroit
Cincinnati over CLEVELAND
NY Giants over KANSAS CITY
Buffalo over MIAMI
Dallas over DENVER
SAN FRANCISCO over St. Louis
PITTSBURGH over San Diego
MINNESOTA over Green Bay

Last Week: 11-5
Overall: 30-18