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On Aaron Hernandez

In a Boston sports week that can only be described as surreal – the Bruins squandering the Stanley Cup, Doc Rivers skipping town, Danny Ainge officially kabooming the Celtics – Aaron Hernandez somehow managed to keep the spotlight fixed squarely on himself. A formidable accomplishment indeed.

While it will likely be some time before Hernandez is officially classified a murderer, the court of public opinion – as it tends to do – has already issued its verdict. Sometimes that’s not a good thing, but in the case of Hernandez – which, let’s face it, appears to be so cut and dry the only thing it’s missing is a literal smoking gun – it’s justified. In line with the public, or just a beat ahead, the Patriots cast their own ruling, releasing Hernandez shortly after he was taken into custody on Wednesday. There were those who immediately pounced on the opportunity to castigate the Patriots for employing a player with documented character issues and an emerging murky past as it pertained to firearms.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, that was remarkably just the beginning of a series of revelations over the next 48 hours, the last of which potentially tying Hernandez to an unsolved double homicide in downtown Boston last summer.

There is no disputing Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick made a gross miscalculation in giving Hernandez a $37.5 million contract extension last year. And to a lesser degree, even drafting him to begin with. But like it or not, this is how the Patriots do business. The NFL may not be overflowing with suspected murderers, but it’s also not a league dominated by choir boys. Checkered pasts are a part of the game, and – justifiably or not – the Patriots have always conducted themselves with a sense of arrogance when it’s come to players who fit that description.

They believe in their system, one that stresses team over individual. Slates can be wiped clean, but leashes are short. Whenever Belichick has taken on a player of questionable character, he has laid out in no uncertain terms that there’s a certain code of conduct that must be adhered to in Foxborough. Any deviation will and has resulted in the swiftest of rear-end kicks out the door.

The bottom line is Belichick has always had the utmost confidence in his ability to take a player whose moral compass was slightly off-kilter, and recalibrate it through the structure and discipline of his program, the work ethic and leadership of Tom Brady and the unified end of success on the football field. More often than not, he’s succeeded. If you want to deride his failures, have at it with guys like Adalius Thomas or Albert Haynesworth, whose character issues proved to be beyond Belichick’s capacity to rectify.

Aaron Hernandez, on the other hand, is quite simply another case altogether.

Again, this is not to excuse the monumental disaster the Hernandez era in New England turned out to be. The Patriots are responsible for their actions. Did they fail their fans, their brand and themselves through their affiliation with Hernandez? Absolutely. Like they’ve done in the past, they invested in a talented but morally-questionable individual whom they believed they could turn onto the right path with the right handling. It is right there, however, that the parallels to past experiments begin and end.

Because if everything is as it seems, the Patriots didn’t get a troubled young man in need of direction, but rather a sociopathic, morally empty, cold-blooded killer. And the only person who should have to shoulder that burden is Aaron Hernandez.

Super Bowl contenders: Who makes the cut?

The NFL prides itself on being an equal opportunity league. The turnover of playoff teams from one year to the next is traditionally at least 40 percent. It was a 50/50 split in 2011.

Since the Patriots won three out of four Super Bowls from 2001-04, five of the last seven champions have played in the Wild Card round. Three of them (’05 Steelers, ’07 Giants, ’10 Packers) ran the road gauntlet as Wild Card teams, and a fourth – the ’08 Cardinals – came within a minute of doing the same.

While gaudy, prolific regular seasons can captivate the masses, the trend of the league over the last seven years has illustrated time and again that it’s not how you get there, but the momentum you carry into January. Because of that, it’s difficult to gain a good handle on the true Super Bowl contenders until December at the earliest.

Then again, if we wait until then, there won’t be much to talk about around the Thanksgiving table, will there? Here’s a pre-Turkey Day stab at categorizing the contenders:

The pretenders – Baltimore, Seattle
The Ravens look like they blew their best chance at a second Super Bowl last season. Since Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff teamed up to flush the AFC title down the toilet in New England last January, Baltimore has been careening toward mediocrity – despite a house-of-cards 7-2 record through nine games. The Ravens’ defense is banged up and unable to stop anyone, allowing over 390 yards per game, fifth worst in the NFL. Joe Flacco, who by his own admission was poised to enter the ranks of the elite, is barely a Top 15 quarterback and only seems to play well against the Patriots. Yet the Ravens appear charmed, drawing Pittsburgh twice in the next three weeks with Ben Roethlisberger’s status in question. Baltimore looks headed for a second straight AFC North crown and a home game in the first round. One it will likely lose.

If the Seahawks had managed to upset the 49ers for sixty minutes instead of forty a few Thursday nights ago, they would be occupying a far more significant tier of these rankings. Seattle has the league’s No. 4 overall defense, as well as the fourth-ranked scoring defense. Marshawn Lynch always gains steam as the season progresses and is the type of unrelenting, downhill runner that can make life miserable for opposing defenses in the playoffs (hello: New Orleans, 2010). In addition, the number-crunchers at Football Outsiders have Seattle ranked third in the NFL by their total DVOA metric. However, because of that loss on Oct. 18 (and San Francisco’s subsequent tie), the Hawks trail the Niners by two games in the loss column in the NFC West, meaning they are all but assured to be on the road in the playoffs should they get there. And Seattle can’t win on the road. Russell Wilson has thrown eight interceptions in five games away from CenturyLink Field, four of which the Seahawks have lost.

The faux-tenders – Atlanta, Houston
Has an 8-1 team ever looked as ordinary as the Falcons? They should have lost to Carolina in Week 4, were outplayed by an awful Raiders team in Week 6, did everything they could to blow a 21-point fourth-quarter lead to the Broncos in Week 2 on Monday night and couldn’t score with three chances from the 1-yard line and the game on the line last Sunday against the Saints. The argument for the Falcons is they are seasoned after consecutive one-and-dones in the playoffs. From this view, the Atlanta defense is pretty much the same unit that was tuned up by the Packers and Giants, and Mike Smith is pretty much the same coach that has tightened up in each of those blowouts.

On paper (and the field, for that matter), the Texans shouldn’t be lumped with the Falcons. Houston boasts the No. 2 overall defense and No. 3 scoring defense in the league, along with the presumptive defensive player of the year, J.J. Watt. They can stop the run and feature one of the game’s best safety/corner tandems. So why are the Texans relegated to this status? For one, despite the growing up they did in the playoffs last year, they did so without their starting quarterback. As well-constructed of a team as Houston is, this is still a quarterback-driven league, particularly when it’s all on the line, and I’m not convinced Matt Schaub is ready to stare down the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world with a championship on the line. And sorry, but Super Bowl contenders don’t get their clocks cleaned at home in a nationally-televised game like Houston did by Green Bay in Week 6.

The caveats – Pittsburgh, Chicago
The jury is still out on the Steelers and Bears because of their ailing quarterbacks. If Jay Cutler experiences lingering post-concussion effects, it could be deja vu for the 7-2 Bears, who were 7-3 at the two-thirds marker last year and had the makeup of a legitimate contender before Cutler was felled. Likewise for the Steelers, who simply have no chance without a 100-percent Roethlisberger.

The uncategorizables – Giants
So the Giants won six of their first eight, highlighted by a 26-3 stampeding of San Francisco that is neck and neck with Aaron Rodgers’ six touchdown passes in the aforementioned Sunday night smackdown for the season’s most impressive victory. They’ve since dropped two straight games, Eli Manning has looked terrible and the schedule is murderous down the stretch. Hmmm, where have we seen this before …

The lurkers – New England, San Francisco
As usual, the Patriots are tough to quantify. They once again feature the league’s highest-powered offense, ranking No. 1 in total yards per game (430.3) and points per game (33.2) with room to spare in each category. Seventh in passing, fifth in rushing. In terms of total DVOA, New England is second overall, and its three losses have been by a combined four points. Yet in two of their last three games, the Patriots have been forced to pull rabbits out of their hats against the Jets and Bills. Back-to-back games against Houston and San Francisco in Weeks 14-15 will be interesting, but will probably tell us more about the Texans and Niners than the Pats.

Indeed, if San Francisco is able to fly cross-country and knock off New England in primetime on Dec. 16, the road to New Orleans could realistically be going through the City by the Bay. That said, Tom Brady rarely loses at home, in December or to NFC teams in the regular season. Tough to see all three happening at once. That’s not to say the Niners aren’t serious contenders. Quite the contrary, as this team is built to beat any NFC heavy-hitter minus the Giants, who just flat-out have San Francisco’s number.

The favorites – Green Bay, Denver
If the 49ers are built to beat Green Bay (they are) and the Giants pose legitimate matchup problems for Green Bay (they do), how can the Packers be the favorite to come out of the NFC? First, the defense, which has quietly regained its 2010 form: solid against the run (98.3 yards per game, tied for 10th in the NFL) and able to bring consistent pressure (28 sacks, tied for second). Then there’s Rodgers, who far too many questioned after four lackluster performances (by his standards) dating back to the playoff loss to the Giants last year. Rodgers didn’t look great to begin the season, and Green Bay lost two of its first three games (well, according to the replacement refs). Since The Seattle Job, the Packers are 5-1 and Rodgers has been in message-mode.

During their four-game winning streak, the Broncos have scored 35, 34, 31 and 36 points. Peyton Manning has established himself as the clear front-runner for MVP, the defense leads the league with 33 sacks and is ranked sixth overall. And just in case you were wondering, the Broncos are No. 1 in total DVOA. They haven’t lost since Week 5 in New England, and a cursory glance at their schedule indicates there’s a good chance they won’t lose again until a potential rematch with the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And by the looks of it, that one may very well be in the Mile High City.

Taking the NFL pulse at season’s midway point

Some quick-hitting thoughts as the calendar flips to November and the 2012 NFL season reaches the halfway marker …

The West is already won
The AFC West appears to be a tightly-contested race, with only one game separating the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders. Don’t be fooled. At 4-3, Denver is poised to run away with the division after emerging from a grueling first two months that included games against at least four contenders (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and New England). Peyton Manning looks more comfortable by the week and the schedule shakes out favorably.
The Broncos can start fitting themselves for a three-seed unless San Diego finds a way to keep playing the Chiefs.

The NFC West has calibrated itself after a collective September surge that few, if any, saw coming. Since the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams started a combined 11-4, they have gone 0-9. San Francisco, meanwhile, is humming along at 6-2. At their best, the Niners have looked like a team destined for another deep January run. But they have also been pummeled by the Vikings and Giants, raising some questions about their ability to consistently win in the trenches. While the Jekyll and Hyde act could be a cause for concern in the long run, it won’t prevent San Francisco from cruising to its second straight NFC West title.

Talib the difference-maker in New England?
Trades are rare in the NFL, but don’t tell that to the Patriots. Bill Belichick has proven over the years that he will buck the trend if he feels he can acquire a potential impact player at a reasonable price (Randy Moss in 2007 and Deion Branch in 2010, both acquired for fourth-round draft picks, come to mind). Hence the deal for corner Aqib Talib, whom New England obtained Thursday in return for a 2013 fourth-rounder.

The longtime Buccaneer is one of the elite corners in the game, a position that has been a major problem spot for the Patriots since the departure of Asante Samuel after the 2007 season. Talib arrives with a good deal more baggage than that which he will stick in his new locker, but Belichick has never been fazed by so-called “character issues.” Some of his bold moves have paid off (Corey Dillon, Moss), others not so much (Albert Haynesworth). If Talib embraces the opportunity and helps shore up the Patriots’ only glaring weakness, they will be tough to beat in the AFC.

Dolphins/Colts has playoff implications
On Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins and Colts will tango at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the winner moving to 5-3 and squarely on track for 10 wins. The 10-win plateau is traditionally a goal set by teams with playoff aspirations. Indianapolis is coming off a 2-14 season and Miami didn’t inspire too much confidence during its stint on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” which is to say this game wasn’t exactly highlighted in yellow on the “games to watch” list as recently as early October.

But these teams have combined to win six of their last seven, Indy on the strength of a coming-into-his-own Andrew Luck and Miami thanks to the league’s No. 5 scoring defense. In a weakened AFC this year, whomever comes in second between Baltimore and Pittsburgh in the AFC North looks to have a secure hold on the first Wild Card spot. The second Wild Card is up for grabs, and the winner of this game will have the inside track heading into the cold months.

Another Giant slide in the offing?

The Giants pull into the midway point at 6-2, the fifth time in the last six years they have won at least six of their first eight games. Only once in that span did they manage better than four wins over the second half of the season (5-3 in 2008). To be fair, the schedule almost always breaks poorly for Tom Coughlin’s crew. This year is no different, as the Giants face a daunting second half that includes games against the Steelers, Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens, along with divisional games vs. the Redskins and Eagles.

It’s tough to envision the Giants managing better than a split of that slate, but given that they’re currently the only team in the NFC East over .500, it’s reasonable to assume that 10 wins will secure the division. Of course, the caveat to all this is the one time the Giants produced a strong second half and locked down home-field and a first-round bye in ’08, they were bounced in the divisional round by the Eagles. Go figure.

No matter what, NFL’s black eye will linger

It looks like the NFL referee lockout will end in time for the regular officials to be back on the field for the Week 4 games. But that by no means ensures the issue is a thing of the past. Not after the Packers were hosed on Monday night by an official who had been deemed unfit for Division I college football.

If and when late December rolls around and Green Bay is fighting for a playoff spot and comes up a game short (unlikely) or loses a tiebreaker it would have otherwise won (very much a possibility) and therefore loses a bye or has to go on the road in the postseason, the aftershock will be greater than the quake.

golden-tate1It didn’t take a polished football mind to see this coming. From the outset, it was clear the replacement refs were overmatched. Not counting subjective elements of the job (which even the regular officials struggle with, albeit not to the degree of the replacements) the scabs proved incapable of consistently spotting the ball correctly, marking off penalty yards, keeping timeout inventories, awarding challenges and generally maintaining order and game flow. In other words, the stuff that fans, and more importantly, players and coaches take for granted. That’s not even mentioning a few glaring conflicts of interest that surfaced.

That was the writing on the wall, the fodder for news conferences, talk shows and water coolers. You could take your pick of issues plaguing the replacements on the field, and make a solid case as to how they were overmatched. It wasn’t until Sunday night in Baltimore, however, that “overmatched” became “utterly ill-equipped.”

In the biggest game of the season to date – a rematch of the AFC Championship Game between the Patriots and Ravens – the replacements were cooked from the word go. Players engaged after the whistle on nearly every play, which stripped the game of any semblance of rhythm. The refs tried to counterbalance that by throwing so many flags it was fair to wonder if it was free banana night at M&T Bank Stadium. Both teams were victimized by terrible calls.

Then, on the game’s final play with the Patriots leading, 30-28, kicker Justin Tucker hooked a 27-yard field goal over the left upright. Was the kick good? Did it sail to the outside of the upright? Replays showed it was too close to call. The only person who could definitively tell was the official standing underneath the upright. He signaled “good,” and the game was over.

Analysis of the first two weeks had already shown that the replacements were being influenced by the home crowds in respect to the calls they made and in what situations. After all, the majority of these guys had never worked in front of more than a few thousand fans, let alone upwards of seventy or more.

So was the kick good? Or more to the point, if it was indeed slightly wide left, was that official capable of processing the brain wave to criss-cross his arms in front of a bloodthirsty Baltimore crowd that not long ago had managed the clearest and “loudest manure chant” Al Michaels had ever heard? Was the official thinking about Billy Cundiff in the AFC title game and how he might not escape M&T Bank Stadium with his extremities intact if he signaled no-good? Or was he making the call he was paid to make? Would he have made the same call on the same kick at Gillette Stadium?

It’s impossible to know, but after a similar occurrence at CenturyLink Field twenty-four hours later – only this time far more egregious and hideous – one that unequivocally cost the Packers a win, all those questions are valid. And that’s what happens when a monolith like the NFL loses its credibility.

The referees may be on their way back this weekend. As for the integrity of the league, the best-case scenario is January.

Brady’s day of reckoning arrives

It had to be this way.

Four years ago the Patriots played with fire in the desert and got burned. It only got worse after that.

Fans who watched Bernard Pollard crush Tom Brady’s knee before the 2008 season – ie the original Campaign of Revenge – had a heartbeat rightfully questioned whether they would ever again see Brady play for that stubbornly elusive fourth ring. Home playoff losses to the Ravens and Jets nudged that possibility closer to a reality.

Yet somehow, someway, on the strength of one of the least convincing and most peculiar 10-game win streaks one could possibly imagine, this latest Patriots installment has managed to claw its way to back to the big one. En route, Brady and Co. have snuffed out nearly every team that halted them in Januarys past.

bradyAnd so we arrive in Indianapolis, the final stop on the Patriots Campaign of Revenge 2011. One last batch of demons to exorcise.

A Lombardi Trophy will go to the winner of Sunday night’s game, but it is what that trophy represents that sets Super Bowl XLVI apart from the others that have preceded it.

Back in early 2005, Brady had just led New England to its third title in four years. A 27-year-old, fourth-year starter, the former sixth-round pick could have decided to become a cabdriver and still would have been as ironclad of a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there ever was.

Fortunately, Brady stuck to the football thing, winning more in a 10-season span than any quarterback before him. Included in the run were four seasons of 14-plus victories (the other 31 teams combined had five in that span), nine AFC East titles, six AFC Championship games and, now, five Super Bowls.

Brady always talks about leaving points on the board, a perfectionist mentality that is no doubt also a metaphor for how he views his own career. Just how many wins – and titles – have been left on the board is a question that must both haunt and drive him.

From the Champ Bailey play in Denver in 2005, to Troy Brown running an out when he was supposed to run an in against the Colts in the AFC Championship in ’06, to the slew of plays the Patriots wish they had back in The One That Got Away in the desert four years ago …

That said, to scorn an ill-fated play is to defy the breaks of the game and bounces of the ball that make football such thrilling entertainment. It’s a little like moaning about missing the final Powerball number. It’s a tough break, for sure, but the ball still had to bounce the right way on the first five in order for you to have a chance at the jackpot.

For the Patriots, there was The Tuck Rule Game, without which there is no foundation on which a dynasty is built. There was Drew Bennett allowing a fourth-down catch to slip through his hands in the final minutes of a frigid and nail-biting divisional game against the Titans in 2004. And no one will soon forget the back-to-back stomach punches endured by the Ravens in the persons of Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff two weeks ago.

The bounces of the ball went the Patriots’ way from 2001-04, and then not at all after that until recently. They’ve certainly aided the Giants, too, most notably this postseason in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, when the ball glanced off the knee of Niners return man Kyle Williams on a pivotal fourth-quarter punt with San Francisco leading, 14-10.

Had Williams steered clear of the football, the Patriots may well have been meeting the 49ers – a more favorable matchup than the Giants – in Super Bowl XLVI. As crazy as it sounds, snagging that seemingly unattainable fourth ring at the expense of San Francisco would have left something to be desired.

Brady has lost five games in 22 tries in his postseason career. One apiece to the Broncos, Colts, Giants, Ravens and Jets. In each of those instances of playoff failure, a team got the better of him on that day. But never twice. Brady beat Indy in 2003 and ’04, the Jets in ’06 and Denver and Baltimore last month.

That leaves but one vendetta to be waged.

What is often lost in the gut-wrenching conclusion to the 2007 season is how surreal the ride actually was until the very end. That outfit was, and will remain, one of the greatest of all time. But the reality is it cannot receive its rightful due until, and unless, Brady is able to snatch a ring away from the team that snatched immortality away from him.

By the time Sunday night turns in Monday morning, Brady’s legacy will be stamped. That is not to say the book is closed on the Patriots after Super Bowl XLVI. This New England team is going to get better before it gets worse.

However, for Brady, the book will essentially be closed. He will either have won his record-tying fourth Super Bowl by charging through the last remaining team with which he had a score to settle – and therefore finally elevate all the positives of the 18-1 season – or he will see his legend marked by a permanent asterisk. An asterisk denoting the fact that despite all the winning he has done (and will likely continue to do), all the records and all the history, there was one quarterback and one team that flat-out had his number.

Yes, the task is daunting. The stakes are seismic.

But just know. It had to be this way.

Taking in a striking NFL landscape

With the NBA lockout threatening to swallow up the entire 2011-12 season – and slam shut the closing window on the Celtics’ chances at one final title run – it seems like a good time to relish the presence of football, and what has thus far been a riveting 2011 campaign. Consider the following:

• For the first time since the late 90s, the two undisputed best teams in the league (Packers, 49ers) reside in the NFC.

• Three quarterbacks (Brees, Brady, Rodgers) are on pace to annihilate Dan Marino’s single-season passing record of 5,084 yards.

• In this new era of gaudy air attacks enabled by concussion-related rules in place that essentially force defenses to play with one arm tied behind their backs, Tim Tebow is 3-1 as an NFL starter while running an offense that bears more resemblance to Navy’s than any other NFL team.

• A neck injury has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Peyton Manning is the most important/valuable/indispensable player/coordinator/on-field general to his team in the history of the sport.

Typically, by mid-November all the chatter is geared toward which squads are contenders and which are bound to regress to the mean. That’s because roughly half of the teams are at or above .500 around Thanksgiving, but in reality at least bradybelichickone-third of those “playoff-hopefuls” are nominally such, and nothing more (aka the pretenders).

These days, however, there are a pair of juicier subplots that need to be investigated in more detail before the annual playoff-push commences.

Reports of Patriots’ demise premature … again

By tuning up the Jets on Sunday night, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady notched win No. 117 together, passing the Don Shula/Dan Marino tandem for first on the all-time victories list. The caveat being they did it in 35 fewer games.

So how does this relate to the here and now? First, it’s officially silly to write off the Patriots in the regular season. Period. Naysayers, naturally, have free rein to trash New England for its recent playoff inadequacies. That hate is founded for a team that is a combined 41-16 (.719) in the regular season since its last postseason win. Second, to not give New England the benefit of the doubt in a division it has owned each of the last seven years Tom Brady has been on the field is shortsighted.

Now, considering the cupcake schedule the Patriots are staring at over the stretch run, it’s going to be tough to legitimately appraise what looks like, at worst, a 12-4 team. The real answers won’t come until January. But teams start to develop patterns by this time of the year, which slowly evolve into identities.

As opposed to recent New England outfits – which, let’s face it, were gifted with talent but plagued by a soft underbelly – this squad has a certain spunk to it. The next-hand-on-deck mentality that was the hallmark of the title teams has made a cameo, most notably on Sunday night, when the Patriots trotted out of a defensive backfield that had even the omniscient Al Michaels grasping at straws in pursuit of arcane nuggets. Alas, even Google only knows so much about the Sterling Moores, Antwaun Moldens and Niko Koutouvides of the world.

Lest we forget, the Patriots of yesteryear were perennial long shots and afterthoughts – rife with castoffs and perceived nobodies – but they embodied the intellect, discipline and toughness of their pair of leaders, which permeated through the ranks, 1-through-53.

Preparation and toughness, more than anything else, wins in January. And while the Patriots have already lost more games than all of last regular season, it’s been their resiliency that has kept them hanging around until the bitter end of tilts against the Cowboys, Steelers and Giants that they had no business winning (something that can’t be said of Jets 28, Patriots 14; and Browns 34, Patriots 14).

aaron-rodgersThe Packers are frighteningly good

Not exactly a newsflash, I know. But for those counting at home, Green Bay has not lost since dropping a 31-27 affair in New England last December … with Matt Flynn at quarterback. Since then, it’s been two wins to close out the 2010 campaign, four more en route to a world championship, and nine straight to begin the title defense.

Between the 15-game win streak, the otherworldly play of Aaron Rodgers and the 2007 Patriots still fresh in everyone’s memories, it’s difficult not to at least start thinking about the possibility …

Here’s my two cents: With a Thanksgiving game in Detroit and a trip to the East Coast 10 days later to face a Giants squad that is well-constructed to give the prolific Packers’ offense fits and also capable of putting up its fair share of points (ie the formula for beating Green Bay), I’m not ready to say the 2011 Packers are 16-0 in the making.

Though this is without a doubt the fiercest squad since the ’07 Patriots, and right there with the ’01 Rams as a team you must absolutely conjure up the perfect game plan for – and execute flawlessly – to even have a chance of prevailing.

In addition to the seemingly limitless explosive offensive potential of Rodgers and Co., the much-maligned Packers defense is a good deal better than it gets credit for. When Clay Matthews is flying off the edge and forcing quarterbacks into accelerating their progressions, and when Green Bay’s All-Pro caliber corners are playing off one another and in cohesion – as opposed to bickering among themselves – that D is a unit to be reckoned with (see: Packers 45, Vikings 7)

That said, Green Bay still has the feel of a 15-1 team with the potential to go 18-1 (the right way).

2010 Wild-Card Preview

Three Week 17 blowouts giving way to a trio of wild-card rematches. Wow. Let’s get right to the breakdowns of a quartet of truly pick ’em Round 1 games.

NY Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Make no mistake.  The Jets are dangerous.  They can run the ball and defend the run.  The defense gave up just 14.8 points per game in the regular season, best in the league.  Darrelle Revis is a shut down corner, having neutralized a handful of the finest wide receivers in the game this year (Randy Moss twice and Andre Johnson among others).  As winners of five of the last six, they’re peaking at the right time, highlighted by the 37-0 thumping they doled out to the Bengals last Sunday.

While that game should certainly help the psyche of the Jets, it was far from a true representation of the Bengals.   Cedric Benson — the eighth-leading rusher in the AFC — was inactive.  Receivers flat out dropped four of Carson Palmer’s first 10 passes.  The Cincinnati defense was without a handful of cogs, including Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Rey Maualuga and Chris Crocker (all are expected to play Saturday).  Surely not to be overlooked is the fact the Jets were playing for their season.  The Bengals were not.

Now the tables have turned.  Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in nearly two decades.  They’ve had only two chances, the most recent of which saw Palmer suffer a devastating knee injury on his first pass against Pittsburgh in 2006.  It’s taken the franchise four years to recover from that blow, and Sunday is their first chance to avenge the misfortune.  As if they don’t have enough motivation, they will also be playing in the memory of their fallen teammate, Chris Henry.

With the fans at Paul Brown Stadium foaming at the mouth, and Mark Sanchez — who has turned the ball over multiple times on six occasions this season — being counted on to lead his team to victory as a rookie in a hostile environment in the playoffs, it’s tough to see the Jets beating Cincinnati twice in seven days.  The Bengals D, which ranked ninth in the NFL with 19 interceptions, will pick Sanchez in a big spot and notch that elusive playoff win.

Bengals 19
Jets 13

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at New England Patriots (10-6)

The Patriots have been forced to start developing a new offensive identity on the fly less than a week after losing Wes Welker to a massive knee injury.  His loss really throws a wrench into New England’s Super Bowl chances, but shouldn’t drastically affect the outcome of this game.  The Ravens are a talented team; their proponents would point to the four games they’ve lost by three points or fewer and more relevant, the 27-21 defeat they took to the Patriots Week 4 at Foxborough when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-down pass inside the New England 10-yard line with under a minute to go.  A few different bounces of the ball and the Ravens could be 14-2.

The flip side to that is they are simply not as mentally tough as their AFC runner-up squad of a year ago.  Teams that have success in January typically aren’t on the short end of close games in the regular season, because those are the ones that are playoff-like, in that they require 60 minutes of physical commitment and superior mental toughness to prevail.  In the postseason, when talent gaps are reduced and intensity and competition levels are raised, the team with the psychological edge usually comes out on top.  Baltimore hasn’t shown any signs of having that edge in 2009.

Even without Welker, the Patriots will be able to move the ball on a front-seven heavy Ravens defense.  The Baltimore corners range from decent (Domonique Foxworth) to below-average (Fabian Washington, Chris Carr).  Because of that, Ed Reed will be forced to shade towards Randy Moss all day, which should open up the middle of the field for some seam routes from the tight ends, running backs and Welker’s replacement, Julian Edelman.

When two teams are relatively even on paper, as the Pats and Ravens are, two main factors come into play when trying to determine a winner.  1) Who’s the home team and how significant is its home-field advantage?  2) Which team is more disciplined?  In respect to Question No. 2, the nod clearly goes to the Patriots, as the Ravens were second-to-last in the NFL in number of penalties per game (7.2) and were flagged for the most penalty yards (68.4) of any team.  New England ranked fourth- and 10th-best in the penalty categories, respectively.

As for home-field advantage, the Patriots were 8-0 at home during the regular season.  Tom Brady has never lost a home playoff game (8-0) and the franchise has won 11 straight do-or-die contests at Foxborough, the second-longest run of home dominance in history (Green Bay won 13 in a row at Lambeau Field).  All those streaks will continue Sunday.

Patriots 24
Ravens 20

Green Bay Packers (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

The Cardinals snuck up on everybody last year — pulling a stunning upset of Carolina en route to a Super Bowl berth —  but won’t have that luxury this season.  Despite being undressed by the Packers last week, the defending NFC champs have many wary of picking against them.  Turning a 9-7 season into a Super Bowl run will do that.  However, even though the Cardinals finished one game better than last year, this is not the same team it was a year ago.

Arizona’s passing game, No. 2 overall in 2008, slipped to 12th this year.  The offense has continued to turn the ball over in droves, yet the defense hasn’t made as many big plays to offset the offense’s carelessness.  The team’s turnover differential, which was even in 2008, dropped to minus-5 in ’09.

Injuries are a major concern for the Cardinals as well.  Blessed with the closest thing to good health throughout the 2008 playoffs, Arizona has suffered a bunch of injuries this time around.  Anquan Boldin missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a sprained ankle.  The team leader in sacks, Calais Campbell, will be taking the field Sunday with a broken thumb.  In the defensive backfield, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is nursing a bruised kneecap.  And the status of safety Antrel Rolle (thigh) is still not clear.

The Packers, meanwhile, have been tearing teams apart on both sides of the ball.  They’ve won seven of their last eight, the only loss coming at Pittsburgh (37-36) on a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Mike Wallace touchdown pass with no time on the clock.   They’ve put up nearly 31 points a game in that span and surrendered just 15.6.   Aaron Rodgers has had an MVP-caliber campaign leading the offense while the new 3-4 scheme instituted by first-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers has helped the defense come into its own; 24 of the unit’s 37 sacks came in the second half of the season.

When you combine a swarming and pressuring defense like Green Bay’s with a quarterback like Kurt Warner, who likes to survey the field in the pocket, a recipe for disaster is brewing.  As great as he is, Warner has a habit of giving the ball away in the face of a fierce pass rush.  With Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson (9 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 touchdowns) on the prowl, the Packers D will make some big plays.  The offense will too, rendering the Cardinals’ defense of their NFC crown a brief one.

Packers 29
Cardinals 24

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

Every so often, there’s a wild-card game with Super Bowl implications for both teams. Saturday night the Eagles and Cowboys will clash for the second time in seven days and third this season.  The winner will have to be considered a favorite to come out of the NFC.

Judging from last week’s tilt, Dallas is the obvious choice in the rematch.  The Cowboys jumped on the Eagles from the beginning and dominated them at the point of attack throughout, piling up 179 yards on the ground while holding an excellent Philly pass rush to a pair of sacks.  The game was over by halftime.  Who’s to say the same thing isn’t going to happen again?  Bear with me.

First off, Donovan McNabb played an ugly game.  He didn’t put enough air under a deep pass to DeSean Jackson in the second quarter.  A sure touchdown and 7-7 tie would have been the result if not for the poor throw.  On the ensuing drive — after the Cowboys had taken a 14-0 lead — McNabb led the offense 67 yards to the Dallas 14 before fumbling a snap out of the shotgun and turning the ball over.  Ballgame.

To think McNabb will submit a similar performance in the playoffs is to both underestimate the quarterback and undervalue his track record.  Other than Tom Brady, McNabb is the only slinger this decade who has never lost a playoff opener.  He’s 6-0 in his career.  He’s also had success away from Philadelphia in January, winning three road playoff games, including in Minnesota and New York last year.  You will see a whole different Donovan McNabb come Saturday, which spells trouble for a Dallas secondary that Jackson has proven he has the jets to get behind (along with every other secondary in football).

Not to be forgotten is Brian Westbrook.  Since returning from a second concussion, he’s totaled 20 touches in two games.  Between the delicate nature of concussions and the fact that Philly’s postseason fate was never in question, there was no reason to rush him back.  Westbrook will be more significantly featured this time around, and at the very least, his presence should keep some of the Dallas edge rushers a little more at bay.

As golden of an opportunity as the Eagles blew in missing out on the second bye in the NFC last week, that loss swung all the pressure back onto Dallas.  Whereas — had they fallen to Philly in Week 17 — the Cowboys would have been a wild-card team not many expected to go on the road and win, they are now the prohibitive favorite of the weekend.  They’re hot, they’re at home and they’re playing a team they pushed around seven days ago.  Dallas is expected to win.

That could be a problem for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff contest since 1996 and a quarterback who has so far experienced an inglorious run in the tournament.  A loss Saturday would drop Tony Romo to 0-3 in his postseason career and give the Cowboys seven consecutive defeats in January, which would be an NFL record.  The burden of expectation weighs especially heavy when history is not on your side.

One final note: Of the 19 times divisional opponents have met for a third time in the playoffs after one team swept the other in the regular season, 12 have made it a three-game sweep.  However, last year the Giants swept the Eagles in the regular season … and lost at home in the playoffs.  In 2007, the Cowboys swept the Giants, and yep, lost the rematch of the rematch at Texas Stadium.  Translation: In today’s NFC East, it is nearly impossible to pull off the trifecta.  These teams are all too balanced and know each other too well not to make the appropriate adjustments.

The Eagles are going to come out with a better gameplan — they are known to get crafty in the playoffs (hello, Michael Vick?) — and execute it far more soundly than last week.  The Cowboys will end up wilting under the pressure of a tight affair in the fourth quarter because whether or not they’ll acknowledge it, that monkey remains on their back.

Eagles 30
Cowboys 27

Patriots’ Decade Still Lacking Final Chapter

More often than not, teams that rise to greatness use adversity as a springboard at some point before their ascent.

The 2003 Patriots jettisoned franchise mainstay Lawyer Milloy a week before the season opener at Buffalo. Milloy ended up with the Bills and played a significant role in Buffalo’s 31-0 Week 1 pasting of the Patriots. It was a stunning and brisk series of events that culminated with ESPN’s Tom Jackson proclaiming “they hate their coach.” New England proceeded to win 34 of its next 37 games and back-to-back Super Bowls.

The 2007 Giants, an exceptionally talented yet wildly inconsistent outfit, took the Patriots’ quest for a perfect season as an affront to their manhood, and spilled blood in a meaningless Week 17 defeat. The first ever moral victory in football galvanized the fragmented G-Men, and spurred them on to the biggest upset in the history of the game.

Most recently, the 2008 Cardinals were eviscerated by New England in late December. The 47-7 humiliation left them at 8-7 and returned the franchise to its familiar place atop the dubious list of gridiron laughingstocks. Somehow, less than six weeks later those same Cardinals found themselves leading Super Bowl XLIII with less than a minute to go. They may have lost the title game, but suffice to say they wouldn’t have seen the light of the second round had they not banded together after being so nearly torn apart.

Is it a coincidence that the three most stirring tales of teams overcoming adversity this decade directly involved the Patriots? I say not; the Patriots have been the gatekeepers and headline-grabbers of the NFL since 2001. They have had as much reason to hate the universe as the universe has had to hate them.

Love em or hate em, from Pats-Rams to Pats-Giants to Steelers-Cardinals — not to mention everything Brady-Manning — this decade has been the most riveting and divisive in league history. And it’s principally because of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Isn’t it fitting then, that in the final year of the 00s (or aughts or whatever you want to call them), things have seemingly come full circle for the Pats?

Touted as a redux of the ’07 juggernaut (by yours truly, among quite a few others), these Patriots have struggled — to say the least — uncharacteristically showing themselves to be starters and not finishers; able to throw the first punch, but not take the last. Blown second-half leads accounted for four of their five losses. The word “rebuilding” was associated with the franchise for the first time since Belichick took over in 2000.

Then the hammer dropped. After a stinging 22-21 loss to the Dolphins, the Coach preached renewed commitment and dedication to his players, a tenor undoubtedly echoed by the Quarterback. When three of those players showed up a few minutes late to a team meeting the following week because of a snowstorm, he sent them home.

Adalius Thomas pulled the proverbial twisting-of-the-knife by sounding off to the media. Randy Moss, meanwhile, remained silent but despondent. The seams weren’t just fraying, they were ripping apart.

Not surprisingly, postmortems of the ’09 Patriots got written, Thomas was deactivated for the game vs. Carolina, and Moss submitted such an atrocious and listless performance that the team probably had to check the standings for confirmation of its “victory”.

Oh, how times can change on the fly in the NFL. Less than three weeks removed from that New England win wrapped in a moral loss, the Panthers are suddenly looking like the team that went 12-4 a year ago, this after croaking the Vikings and Giants by a combined 51 points.

Simultaneously, the Patriots have been busy notching their first true road victory of the year in Buffalo and dominating Jacksonville in what was unquestionably their most complete effort of the season. The defense, which made big play after big play against the Jags, has been solidified by the returns of James Sanders and Shawn Springs to the starting lineup.

The New England secondary, for so long its Achilles heel, now boasts a formidable combination of veteran leadership (Sanders, Springs, Leigh Bodden), explosiveness (Brandon Meriweather) and depth (Brandon McGowan, Jonathan Wilhite, Pat Chung). The unit has a whole has allowed 9 points per game over the last three.

On the other side of the ball, Brady is no longer being counted on to throw the ball 40 times a game; during the win streak, the Patriots have run the ball 58 percent of the time (110 rush plays/81 pass plays) for an average of 163 yards per contest. Fred Taylor’s return has certainly helped the running game. Through the air, Brady has started to find his tight ends again while Wes Welker continues to be the steadiest presence in the game.

And there’s Moss. The man so many believed would pack it in and call it quits — he who is averse to adversity — has been recharged, reinvigorated, reborn … whatever you want to call it. All that’s necessary to know is he snagged three touchdown passes last Sunday, had this exchange with the same fans who booed him two weeks ago, and gave an impassioned postgame speech that anyone who watched “Inside the NFL” was lucky enough to see and hear.

Does all this mean the Patriots are poised to capture their fourth Super Bowl as the final bell tolls on the aughts? Time shall tell, but for now it’s clear the Patriots are not the same team they were in mid-December.  They met their darkest hour head on and emerged from it stronger, healthier and more balanced.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Coach did not lose the team.  The Quarterback rediscovered a bit of that mojo. The Receiver has a whole new look in his eyes. The mission is back on.

Week 17 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

BUFFALO over Indianapolis
CAROLINA over New Orleans
Jacksonville over CLEVELAND
Chicago over DETROIT
HOUSTON over New England
Pittsburgh over MIAMI
MINNESOTA over NY Giants
San Francisco over ST. LOUIS
Atlanta over TAMPA BAY
Philadelphia over DALLAS
ARIZONA over Green Bay
DENVER over Kansas City
Baltimore over OAKLAND
SAN DIEGO over Washington
Tennessee over SEATTLE
NY JETS over Cincinnati

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 158-82

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

Halladay Deal Could Be Second “Holliday” for Fantasy Owners

With exactly one week before the MLB Trade Deadline, Roy Halladay — the biggest prize available — remains a Blue Jay, and general manager J.P. Ricciardi indicated Tuesday the club is unlikely to deal the ace.

Naturally, that statement can be chalked up as GM jockeying, and Ricciardi is one of the best in the business when it comes to that.  When he first made it known that he would be open to hearing Halladay offers back on July 7, two of the first phone calls he received were from Theo Epstein of the Red Sox and Brian Cashman of the Yankees.

The one thing Toronto would like to avoid is dealing Doc to an AL East foe, because 1) it would further alter the balance of power in baseball’s most competitive division, and 2) Halladay is the one guy available who would be an absolute game-changer in the never-ending Sox-Yanks arms race.

However, any smart GM knows that if he wants to max out the value of a star player whose departure is imminent, the talks must first go through Boston and New York.  In this case, Halladay has one year left on his contract, and as opposed to the past, said he does not want to sign a contract extension.  Which means Ricciardi essentially has three windows in which to deal him for some significant parts: before the Trade Deadline, in the offseason, before the 2010 Trade Deadline.

The chances of Halladay landing in Beantown or the Big Apple are slim, considering the prices would likely be too steep for either club — probably Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard from the Sox or Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes from the Yanks — to bite on.  But a bidding/prospect war is exactly what Ricciardi wants, and any fantasy owners with Halladay should want the same.  Why?

Because there’s another team in the Northeast Corridor that has the pieces to acquire Halladay, and as opposed to Boston and New York, really really needs his services.  That would be the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Relying on a rotation that includes Cole Hamels (struggling), Jamie Moyer (ancient) and Joe Blanton (serviceable at best), the Phils can’t expect to mount a serious title defense come October without doing something significant to their rotation, particularly given the imploding act that has been Brad Lidge this year.  The one bright spot on their staff has been 26-year-old rookie left-hander, J.A. Happ.  Happ is big (6-6), throws in the mid 90s and is 7-0 with a 2.68 ERA in 23 games (11 starts) this season.

If the Phillies can get Toronto to accept a package of Happ and a few other top prospects (outfielders Michael Taylor and Dominic Brown have been discussed), Halladay’s fantasy value will go through the roof.

Think about it for a minute.  Doc has spent his entire career pitching in the trenches of the AL East, the majority of which he’s done in the era of the unbalanced schedule.  Of his 273 career starts, 68 (or 25 percent) have come against the Red Sox and Yankees.  He’s hurled 20 complete games from 2007-09, most in the bigs, and possesses a career ERA of 3.46.

Now, project those numbers to a league without the DH and a division with the Marlins and Nationals instead of the Red Sox and Yankees.  Yikes.

Everyone saw what CC Sabathia did when he made the move to the NL in the second half of 2008 (11-2, 1.65 ERA, seven complete games in 17 starts).  Well, Halladay is better than Sabathia, so fantasy owners can do the math.

While Halladay talks have dominated the airwaves and water coolers for the better part of three weeks, just as I was writing this piece, a deal of comparable proportions actually got done.  The Cardinals sent three players to the A’s in exchange for outfielder Matt Holliday.

This is a major move for St. Louis, as the Cardinals look to bolster their lineup for a run at a second World Series in four years.  But it’s just as big for fantasy owners with Holliday, who was never right in the American League in the middle of an extremely soft Oakland lineup.  But if he was ever settling into a groove, it was just recently, as he’s hit .344 with a .986 OPS this month.  Additionally, he came out of the All-Star break swinging a fiery stick, cranking three homers and knocking in 11 runs over the last eight games, easily his most prolific stretch this season.

So not only is a scorching Holliday headed back to the familiarity of the National League, but he’s leaving a lineup where he protected the likes of Kurt Suzuki and Scott Hairston, and slipping into a batting order where he’ll likely hit between Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick, the most fearsome slugger in the game and one of the hottest hitters over the last month.

For all intents and purposes, Holliday was a fantasy bust for the first three months of the 2009 season.  Those days appear to be over, as he’s shown signs of life lately and is now primed for a monstrous stretch run with a contender.

Owners with the bopper should be licking their chops, and if they happen to also employ one Roy Halladay, there just might be a second “Holliday” coming within the next week.