Friday, December 30, 2005

Wrapping Up the NFL Wrap-Up

Here’s the last of The Sandlot’s four-day NFL season wrap-up. We finish up with the AFC South and West divisions.

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts
For some reason, losing two meaningless games, including one on the road just days after head coach Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide, has caused all the so-called “experts” to dismiss Indy’s Superbowl chances. I guess winning 13 games in a row, including victories over playoff teams Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New England and Jacksonville (twice), securing home field advantage where they haven’t lost a meaningful game in two years as well as having the most successful QB-to-WR combo in the history of the NFL doesn’t give you a fighting chance of winning the conference championship. Let me be very clear about this: Indy’s going to beat Arizona this weekend by at least four touchdowns, then they’re going to take a week off to get ready to beat Cincinnati by three touchdowns, then they’ll beat the winner of the Pittsburgh-Denver game decisively, then win the Superbowl in an absolute offensive barrage. Don’t believe the rest of the hype, suckers—the Colts are the champs in 2005.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Nice season. Good work. Don’t let Chad Johnson hit you in the butt on the way out of Cincinnati. Better luck next year, guys. You might also try to get put in a division that doesn’t include Indianapolis, because you’re looking a wild card berths at best for the next few years.

Tennessee Titans
I don’t think they’ll part ways with Jeff Fisher, even though I’ve been on record since the beginning of the season that I’d love to see him coaching the Rams next year, but everyone knew that this was a rebuilding year. What I think would be ideal is if they could draft a QB, then let Billy Volek take over the team with Steve McNair serving as #2, but more importantly, serving as Jedi Master to the freshly drafted padawan learner. We have to remember that the Titans were the youngest team in the league with an average age of 23, and since McNair’s like 54 years old, take him out and the average age is probably around 19. They’ll learn, and they’ll be back in the playoff discussion in a couple of years.

Houston Texans
This team is so bad, they’ll probably beat San Francisco and miss out on Reggie Bush. I don’t think Bush is going to help them much; they’ve got a competent QB in David Carr, but the poor guy has to play behind the worst offensive line in the league. Dom Capers should have coached himself out of any future employment, but some schmuck will probably hire him to run a defense or something similarly stupid. If they really want to win, they should trade the Bush pick for a host of linemen. Don’t be surprised if Mike Martz interviews for this job, too, especially if they draft and sign Rocket Reggie. If that happens, he’ll be the only decent Bush to ever come out of Houston.

AFC West
Denver Broncos
Yes, I know I’m the same guy who went on for weeks about how this team stunk. Hey, Bill Simmons gets paid to do this, and his season record is one game below .500, so you get what you get. The thing is, even if Denver gets past its first playoff game in the second round, who I think will be Pittsburgh, by the way, their reward will be their third consecutive playoff demolition in Indianapolis at the hands of the Colts. Anyone else confident of the phrase, “Jake Plummer, Superbowl QB?” Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Kansas City Chiefs
Things to love about the Chiefs: 1) Dick Vermeil; 2) Trent Green; 3) Larry Johnson; 4) Tony Gonzalez; 4) Arrowhead Stadium; 5) the fact that KC knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs last week, ensuring only one more week of listening to NFL “experts” fawn over a slightly above average team who’s not even going to the playoffs this year. Of course, there is one negative about that fact, and that’s missing out on Marty Schottenheimer’s annual playoff game!

San Diego
Sit down, shut up, go away.

Oakland Raiders
So, I guess Randy Moss wasn’t the answer after all, hmmm?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

NFL Wrap-Up Continues: The AFC East & North

Now we venture into the fierce territory where this year’s Superbowl champion lurks to its forthcoming ascent to glory, the American Football Conference. I’m so old that I remember when the NFC Championship was the real Superbowl and the AFC team was the sacrificial lamb for the big game. In fact, the NFC’s absolute dominance over the AFC in the 1980s and 1990s may have been the reason why the commercials, with their over-the-top humor, sex and spectacle, became more watchable than the games themselves. This dynamic has turned 180 degrees, however, where any of the six playoff participants in the AFC would be legitimate favorites to beat any NFC team that emerged. Today we’ll start with the East and the North, then finish with the other two divisions tomorrow.

AFC East
New England Patriots
Everyone’s getting all a-swoon with the sudden resurgence of the defending champs. I say, in the words of Winston Wolf, “Let’s not start [CENSORED] each other’s [CENSORED] just yet, gentlemen.” Let’s see who they’ve beaten during their four-game winning streak: Jets (3-12); Tampa Bay (Florida team playing in cold); Buffalo (5-10); Jets, again (3-12). They’ve dominated weak competition (especially in their own division) while losing games to quality teams. If they win this week and Cincinnati loses, if I’m interpreting NFL seeding rules correctly, they would get the #3 seed. Their reward? Hosting the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers. If they get the #4 seed, they play Jacksonville (Florida team playing in cold weather. Either way, a wild-card win sends them either to Denver or Indianapolis for the divisional round. I’m not counting them out until they’re on the losing side of the score at the end of the fourth quarter, because these guys are money when it matters, but I’m not telling Bob Kraft to clear another space in the trophy case, either.

Miami Dolphins
Wow, this is the most interesting team that nobody at all is even discussing. First-year head coach Nick Saban tells the media that he’s punting the entire season in terms of wins and losses in favor of evaluating talent for next year, which was fodder for ESPN Radio for a good two weeks of hand-wringing. Since that time, they’ve won five in a row with a chance to finish with a top-eight record in the conference. Heck, if they were in the NFC, they’d be competing for a wild-card spot. Not to mention that wandering pothead Ricky Williams has run for more than 600 yards and five TDs in limited duty, including 172 last week against Tennessee. This team is going to the playoffs next year, and maybe the Superbowl year after next.

Buffalo Bills
This is the team that motivated me to stop engaging in weekly picks. Sandlot regular contributor Tuck explained it best: “Buffalo beats teams with weak run defense, loses to teams with strong run defense.” The Bills just lack any sort of personality—what are they? A running team? A passing team? A defensive team? Answer: A mediocre team that’s going nowhere anytime soon.

New York Jets
I know that many people, myself included, looked at the Jets’ run last year and thought 2005 was when they would take the next step to compete for a championship. Well, that hasn’t happened, obviously, and whether Herm Edwards stays or goes, it’s time to select “Restart” from the main menu and begin rebuilding a new team. Curtis Martin is long past his prime and should either retire or accept a limited role in the same way Marshall Faulk has in St. Louis, and they need to cut ties with Chad Pennington and find a new quarterback. May I suggest Brad Smith from Missouri? He’ll be available in the second or third round if they want to take a chance.

AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals
This is when we start talking about playoff experience. Marvin Lewis has it from his time with the Ravens, but this is his first time as the head coach. His talented but young team has virtually no experience with the NFL playoffs. You know what the playoffs are like? It’s like the difference from going to a small high school with a graduating class of less than 200 in which you were at the top of your class, lettered in four varsity sports, never had to do homework and got a big, fat scholarship to a big university. When you get to the big university, the work is ten time harder than you ever had, the reading volume is overwhelming, classes are huge, and everyone in them is just as smart or smarter than you. That’s the difference between regular season success (high school) and the playoffs (big sink-or-swim university). Can the Bengals handle the pressure and intensity? Their first-round foe will probably be Pittsburgh or perhaps Jacksonville. They are on the flip side of New England: they have to beat Kansas City, who’s still hanging on to playoff hopes, on the road in order to host a game against either Kansas City or Pittsburgh. KC doesn’t lose at home in December. Who would you rather play, the Steelers or the Jags? If I’m Marvin Lewis, I’m throwing in the towel this weekend. But will resting key players like Palmer and the Johnsons derail their momentum? I’m telling you, this is juicier than a daytime soap opera. Stay tuned...

Pittsburgh Steelers
This team’s nickname (and their QB’s) ought to be Lazarus. A juggernaut for the first ten weeks of the season, Big Ben gets hurt, they lose crushing games to Baltimore, Indy and Cincy, where they are all but left for dead in the playoff race as Jacksonville, San Diego and Kansas City all look poised to pull away. Ben’s got a bad knee and a broken thumb. Bettis looks like the mileage has finally broken down the bus. The formerly dominant secondary gets picked apart by Manning and Palmer. “Lazarus, come forth!” They dominate Chicago on the road, no less, expose Minnesota’s fraudulent resurgence, then annihilate Cleveland. Now all they have to do to get to the playoffs is beat Detroit at home in Pittsburgh. Can you say, “slam dunk”? If I were a gambler, I’d bet the house on this game. They’ll get either New England or Cincinnati next week in the wild card round, and at this point, I’m picking the Steelers to win either of those games.

Baltimore Ravens
So what’s up with this team? As I predicted earlier this week, Brian Billick’s staying put as the head coach for at least another year. Kyle Boller has emerged in the past 2-3 weeks as a legit QB and team leader. Tasmanian Devil Ray Lewis should be back from injury next year to solidify a defense that is still one of the most formidable in the league. Playing a schedule based on this year’s losing record—at least outside of the division, which will be just as tough next year—the Ravens have to get to the playoffs next year or else clean house; in my mind, with all things equal, they’ll be out of excuses.

Cleveland Browns
This was not Romeo Crennel’s team. Romeo Crennel won’t have his team for another two years. They need a quarterback and a running back. Again, may I suggest Missouri’s Brad Smith, even if you move him to RB? The defense will come together next year. The offense will need two years to come together. They will be improved next year, and a force to be reckoned with year after next. It’s to the credit of Cleveland’s ownership that they are not using Charlie Weis’s instant success at Notre Dame to hold against Romeo; it’s much harder to coach up an NFL team than it is a college team because the talent at the pro level is much higher and more equal. Little things like discipline and play execution make a much bigger difference in the college ranks, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where Weis resides. It takes more than that in the pros; it takes talent and time for a team to buy into a coach’s entire system, and Crennel’s just going to need the time to implement his.

Tomorrow: AFC South and West

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

NFL Season Recap: NFC South, East

Continuing with yesterday’s post looking at the NFL division by division as we wrap up the regular season and head into the playoffs, we continue with the rest of the NFC, where the playoff picture is even more complicated.

NFC South
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I didn’t think the Bucs had a chance to win with either Brian Griese or Chris Simms. Guess now you know why I teach English instead of working for a sports news organization. They’ve got the Ain’ts at home in Tampa this weekend, while Carolina has to win in Atlanta. I like Tampa to win the South and host a game wild-card weekend, and that’s about it, because if they win, they have to go to Chicago. No Florida team is winning at Soldier Field, and that’s that.

Carolina Panthers
They’ll probably beat Atlanta because they need to in order to secure a wild-card berth, and then they’ll play the NFC East champ, whom I expect to be the NY Giants. I don’t see them beating the G-Men in the Meadowlands in January. This is a team that has championship potential if they can only find some consistency from week to week in all aspects of their game, but especially in their offense. Jake Delhomme may be going to the Pro Bowl from the NFC, but he’d be no better than a backup on the AFC’s top eight teams. I don’t know if I want to hitch my wagon to that star.

Atlanta Falcons
Please, can we have enough of the “let Michael Vick be Michael Vick” talk? The fact of the matter is that Atlanta’s offensive scheme relies on a power running game combined with the West Coast passing scheme. The problem is that NFL defenses figured out how to stop the West Coast offense about ten years ago (someone tell Jim Mora, Jr., would you?), so all you have to do to stop their offense is plug the run up the middle and have cornerbacks keep Vick from running around the end, and that’s why the Falcons have been average this year. Vick needs a wide-open offensive scheme like the Colts, Chiefs, Rams and Vikings have used. A conservative offense allows D-coaches to scheme for Vick too much, plus they had to deal with a tougher schedule than last year combined with improved competition in their division. Better luck next year (or not, since you’re in Atlanta, the WORST SPORTS CITY IN AMERICA!!!)

NewOrleansNewJerseySanAntonioBatonRougeLosAngeles Saints
Memo to Paul Tagliabue, et. al., NFL offices
Re: Saints
1) Move team permanently to Los Angeles
2) Buy out Tom Benson and install less scuzzy ownership (see Red McCombs/Minnesota)
3) Fire Jim Haslett and entire coaching staff
4) Rename team “Rams”; send “Cardinals” mascot back to St. Louis; dissolve Arizona franchise and send former owner Bill Bidwell on “fact finding” mission to Iraq to see if “NFL Mideast” can catch on the same way “NFL Europe” has captured the imagination of sports fans in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Barcelona!

NFC East
New York Giants
I’ve said most of what I wanted to say in the “comments” box from yesterday’s post, so here it is again: “Elvis Grbac never had the arm that Eli Manning does. We have to remember that this is essentially his rookie year, since he didn't come in last year until the season was half over. In two years, Eli will be challenging his brother for league MVP honors. I agree that he makes poor decisions at times now, but the reason the Giants are a legitimate threat to win the NFC title have more to do with their defense and Tiki Barber (who should be in this year's MVP conversation) than Eli.” I’ll add that they should win on the road at Oakland to clinch the division and host the wild card next week.

Washington Redskins
I’m not sure about people who say the Redskins “came outta nowhere.” Huh? They have a Hall of Fame coach, a Pro Bowl caliber defense, a veteran QB with postseason experience and one of the best running backs in the league in Clinton Portis. So where’s the surprise? They will be Philadelphia this week to secure the second wild card spot...

Dallas Cowboys
...which leaves Dallas on the outside looking in. Good. I freaking HATE the Dallas Cowboys. I always have, all the way back to Tom Landry and his stupid hat and Staubach and Dorsett and Pearson to Jimmy & Jerry, Aikman, Emmitt, Irvin, to Parcell’s bunch of no-names and retreads. I love to watch Dallas lose. It would be nice to see a crappy bunch of losers like this year’s Rams put the final nail in the Cowboy’s playoff coffin.

Philadelphia Eagles
Mulligan. Tee it up fresh next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NFL Season-End Wrap-Up

So, as we enter into the last week of the NFL’s regular season, let’s take a last look around some of the more interesting stories in the league. We’ll start close to my heart with the NFC West and NFC Central, then tackle two more divisions in the next few days leading up to the final playoff spots and speculation about what’s going to happen in the postseason.

NFC West
Seattle Seahawks
They finally took the next step, shrugging off all other pretenders in a weak, weak, weak NFC West, but also taking care of business in the NFC as a whole, tying up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But has any other #1 seed been more suspect in the postseason since the Missouri basketball team got a #1 seed in the NCAA tourney a few years back? I can’t find anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest who’s a true believer. Nothing short of a conference title—and maybe even a Superbowl victory—will establish this team as legitimate. I think Chicago, New York, Washington, Carolina and Tampa can all have an honest chance at going to Seattle and beating the home team. We’ve got three or four weeks to wait and see, but so far, they’ve done everything they needed to do, and they deserve credit for that.

St. Louis Rams
An absolute disaster of a season, and rightly so. Injuries have depleted starters; the offensive line was far beyond offensive, and the defense is cover-your-eyes awful in every way, but especially against the run. Stephen Jackson looks lost on the field, they have no QB (Bulger’s hurt and apparently chronically fragile), Marshall Faulk is likely to retire depending on who gets hired to coach next year, and the front office is more dysfunctional than the cast of “Arrested Development.” A complete housecleaning, from top to bottom, is in order. This isn’t going to be a competitive team for another 2-3 years, if that.

Arizona Cardinals
Rumor from Bernie Miklasz of the StLPD says Denny Green’s interested in coaching the Rams if he can get out of his contract with Arizona. Two years after coming out of the broadcast booth to turn this disastrous franchise around, he’s ready to hit the “Eject” button. Kurt Warner couldn’t work miracles a second time around, and I’m hard pressed to believe that Jesus Christ himself could do anything to change the fortunes of this cursed franchise unless he first cast Bill Bidwell and his spawn out of the owner’s booth first. Bidwell’s living proof that not every wealthy American deserves their good fortune.

San Francisco 49ers
Frankly, I’ve always hated the Niners. I hated them when they sucked in the 1970s, I really hated them with the white-hot fury of 1,000 stars when they dominated in the 1980s, and I’m not even remotely close to even half-empty on my giant surplus silo of schadenfreude when it comes to the misfortunes of this sorry bunch of misfits. Hey, if it wasn’t for the Rams, they’d still be in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. These guys lose even when they win, and I hope it lasts for at least the rest of the decade.

NFC Central
Chicago Bears
Come on, does anyone really believe Rex Grossman is going to take this team to the Superbowl, even with this kind of defense? What’s scary to think about is what this team will look like next year with what will surely be a revamped offense. No one else has mentioned this idea, so I think I’m the first to throw it out, but Mike Martz is only a few weeks away from looking for a job. Why not visit old friend Lovie Smith and ask him to return the favor you gave him a few years back. Now imagine Lovie’s Chicago defense with Martz’s psychotic offensive scheme. That’s scary!

Minnesota Vikings
Clean house, top to bottom. Everyone goes, from the GM to the towel boys. Hit the restart button and rebuild this franchise from the ground up. Keep Brad Johnson and Paul Edinger. Everyone else is expendable. Zygi Wilf will not tolerate this embarrassment for longer than one more week. Brad kept us from being a laughingstock, but even before the tough losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, no one really considered this team a playoff threat.

Detroit Lions
Fire Matt Millen. Until the Ford family does this, they’ll be stuck with a powder-blue Edsel for the foreseeable future.

Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre should circle the Hall of Fame induction date in 2011 and walk away, waving his hand with his Superbowl ring on it. After Favre leaves, they can set about scuttling this garbage scow and set about the business of rebuilding something resembling an NFL team.

Tomorrow: NFC South and East

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Homestretch

Just four fun-filled weeks left in the NFL until the playoffs start, so let's take a look at the league's version of musical chairs and see who's gonna get left out when the music starts.

Legitimate Contenders
Seattle Seahawks
They've already clinched the West and are making a strong push for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I've never believed in Holmgren's birds, but if they can secure home field, they've got a shot. Alexander looks like a top-three candidate for league MVP, Hasselbeck's making smart decisions, and the defense is opportunistic.

Carolina Panthers
They've been down, then up, then down for a couple of weeks, now back up again. I'd like to see some consistency out of this group, but right now I'd say they're the only team with a real chance of beating Seattle on the road in the playoffs

Thanks for the Nice Season and the Single Playoff Loss
New York Giants
Strong defense, scary weapons on offense, Captain Bligh getting it done coaching on the sidelines—so what's the problem? There's three of them, actually: 1) Eli Manning's still too inexperienced to get it done when it counts in a pressure situation; 2) WAY too many stupid penalties; 3) If Jay Feeley were a horse, Coughlin would have shot him, skinned him and sent him to the glue factory two weeks ago. You can't win in the playoffs without a reliable field goal kicker.

Chicago Bears
Scariest defense in the league combined with weakest, most anemic offense ever assembled. Defense wins championships? Not if you can't score at least 20 points in the playoffs. Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio reported on Dec. 6 that in the past ten years, only four teams have won a playoff game while scoring less than 20 points. Lovie, you're doing a great job—now return the favor to Mike Martz and hire him as your offensive coordinator for next year's Superbowl victory.

Tampa Bay Bucanneers
Anyone think Chris Simms is taking this team to a championship? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller...?

Nitroglycerene Teams
Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta
I call them this because they might blow up on themselves before the end of the season and not even make it into the playoffs, but they could also run the rest of the table, get into the playoffs and upset a team or two. Strengths: Dallas has Parcells' smarts and experience; Minnesota has Brad Johnson playing the smartest QB in the league right now combined with an improved (and improving) defense; Atlanta has Michael Vick. Weaknessess: Dallas has Drew Bledsoe; Atlanta can't make up its mind how to best use Vick's multiple weapons; Minnesota—well, come on, this is the Vikings...

A League of Their Own
I'd not only love to see them run the table, I'd like to see the Colts go out in the next three weeks against strong teams—Jacksonville, San Diego and Seattle—and just crush them. Wouldn't that make a huge statement about their supremecy going into the playoffs? As I've said throughout the season, the first goal is home field advantage, which still isn't certain yet, so they don't need to back off anytime soon.

Legitimate Contenders
Yeah, I know I thought they stunk at the beginning of the season, thanks mainly to their opening week stinker at Miami. Lesson: Never underestimate Mike Shanahan. He may not be the most sparkling personality in the world, but he gets the job done consistently season after season. The biggest question for Denver is whether Jake Plummer will help them win or lose in Indiapolis, where they have been crushed in their past two playoff games.

If the Jags hand the Colts their first loss this weekend—a possibility, though not a probability, IMHO—they will build confidence for playoff success. I don't think they will be able to beat the Colts twice in one season, however, and certainly not in another game at Indy. Jax's defense remains impressive, but they have scoring problems regardless of which oversized QB is driving the car.

I see the Bengals as the biggest threat to beating out Indy for the AFC title just because they are the only team who can keep up with Indy's pinball-machine offense in a scoring shootout. Chad "The Mouth" Johnson has all but guaranteed a Cincy victory over Indy for the Superbowl berth. If it's anything like the first game, it ought to be one of the most exciting games we've seen in a long time.

This Schedule's Some Kind of Sick Joke, Right?
San Diego and Kansas City
Both teams are legitimate playoff contenders, both have tough defenses, both have powerful running games and skilled quarterbacks. So what's the problem? Let's take a look at the next four games for each teams...
SD: Miami (tough defense), at Indy ('nuff said), at Kansas City (don't lose at home in December), Denver (division leader).
KC: at Dallas (nasty defense), at NY Giants (division leader), San Diego (see above), Cincinnati (also see above)
Both of these teams could make the playoffs, or both could fall short. Either way, it's unlikely that either one will get a first-week bye, so it's back-to-back road games after completing these equally brutal four-game schedules. Yikes! It's probably too much to overcome.

Not This Year
New England and Pittsburgh
NE will win the west by default, but they're a first-week loss to the wild-card team that will almost certainly have a better record than the Pats. I'm not even sure that Pittsburgh will make the playoffs at all. Big Ben is hurt, the running game is no longer dominating games, and the defense is giving up too many points and big plays. I don't see how they can overtake both SD and KC for the last wild card spot.

More playoff previews to come after this weekend's games!