Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jets-Steelers Recap

In the highly anticipated AFC championship matchup, it was truly a heartbreaker for the Jets, as they were too little too late against the Steelers. Had a few plays gone there way, or perhaps had they played better in the first half, it may have been a different outcome. But the Steelers will be the ones heading Dallas in two weeks after nail biting finish.

The Jets won the toss and decided to defer. They put the game in the hands of their defense to start it off. The decision is somewhat questionable, since the Steelers, led by Rashard Mendenhall, were able to tear through the Jets to open up the game with a touchdown on the first drive. The Jets, usually a stout run defense, seemed to start off a big sluggish.

Unfortunately for the Jets, their offense started out sluggish too. Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards were absent from the first half of play. Give credit to Troy Polamalu and the Steelers’ defense for stepping up in an area they aren’t known for as much as their defense against the ground game.

After that, the Steelers were driving again. Ben Roethlisberger continued to gash into the Jets’ defense with his arm and his legs. Luckily for the Jets, they made a red zone stop and only allowed a field goal.

Pittsburgh continued to show its defensive toughness by stopping Mark Sanchez and the Jets again. The Jets made some plays but not enough to put together a solid drive that would lead in points. They put him under pressure so he couldn’t make throws, had his big play receivers blanketed, and essentially shut down LaDainian Tomlinson.

After that, an interception by Bryan Thomas saved the Jets from a bigger deficit, but as they continued to struggle, the Steelers continued to thrive. They got a two yard touchdown run from Roethlisberger, who really killed the Jets with his ability to move around in the pocket, make throws on the run, and take it himself. The Jets were now down 17-0.

Desperate to get some points with the half winding down, Rex Ryan had a crucial decision to make. On 3rd and 17 from their own 26, should they go for it to try to get on the board, or run the ball and wait till the next half? I’m not saying Ryan made the wrong call, but it did not turn out the way he planned. Ike Taylor knocked the ball loose from Sanchez and William Gay returned it for a touchdown. I still truly feel that it was an incomplete and not a fumble, which could have changed the entire complexity of the game, but that is water under the bridge now. The Steelers had a 24-0 lead.

Sanchez was determined not to get shut out in the first half, so he stormed down the field and led his team to a field goal before halftime. Still, they would have to make the greatest comeback in playoff history if they wanted to win.

The Jets seemed up for the challenge as they started out the second half with some good third down conversions and an excellent bomb to Holmes for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the Jets offense had a little difficulty until the fourth quarter. They failed to convert on a goal line series, but lucked out when a botched snap by backup center Doug Legursky led to a Jets safety.

After receiving the punt, Sanchez drove again and continued to be clutch, getting a three yard touchdown to Jerricho Cotchery. But they would not get the ball back, for the defense was unable to stop the ever persistent Roethlisberger.

So in this tale of two halves, what went wrong for both teams?

In the beginning, the Jets were really killed by penalties that led to Steelers first downs. In the second half, a roughing the kicker call was also damaging. But they still played hard and never gave up.

Sanchez had an excellent game, throwing for 233 yards and two touchdowns. If you told me before the game that he would have outplayed Roethlisberger, I would have told you they would win for sure.

But what really killed them was the absence of their playmakers in the first half. This caused Sanchez to struggle a little to move the ball.

However, they came out roaring in the second half. Aside from the Holmes touchdown, Shonn Greene put together some monster runs, including one that absolutely destroyed Steelers’ corner Ryan Clark. He finished with 9 carries for 52 yards.

The Jets played excellent football in the second half, but they just couldn’t get it going for long enough to win. Their defense was slow at first, and that was their ultimate downfall. They can look forward to the future however, because Sanchez seems to be growing each and every game. He had a wonderful game, it just wasn’t his year.

This year belonged, once again, to Roethlisberger. Sure, he had a bad game, passing for 133 yards and two interceptions. But his mobility gave the defense headaches, and with support from the rest of his team, he was able to get a win.

Mendenhall was a monster from the start, taking 27 carries for 121 yards and a touchdown. Against the Jets, that is something to be very proud of. He looked a little tired at the end, but battled his way through and will be the main part of the game plan in the Super Bowl.

The Steelers defense was lock down in the first half, but seemed to crumble a bit in the second half. They will have to play a lot better against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, and Big Ben will need to step up his game too if he wants to win a third Super Bowl.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jets-Steelers Preview

Jets @ Steelers

The team of destiny may reside in the Big Apple, but arguably the greatest franchise in NFL history can be located in Pittsburgh.

Heinz Field plays host to an AFC championship matchup of epic proportions between the Jets and the Steelers. The Steelers look to improve the championship resume and win their third Super Bowl in six years. The Jets look to end a drought that has been going on since Super Bowl III.

Everyone knows the road the Jets have taken to get to where they are. They started out strong at 6-1. They got shut out by a tough Green Bay team. They won four in a row, but with questionable, late game victories against the Lions, Browns, and Texans, had people questioning whether they were for real. They got destroyed by the Patriots, 45-3. They made it into the playoffs as the sixth seed, their win over the Steelers being a huge help. They beat two Super Bowl quarterbacks in the past two weeks. And now they are here.

This team has been motivated so well by their head coach, Rex Ryan, and they have a chip on their shoulder heading into this playoff game. Not many people gave them a chance against the Colts. No one gave them a chance against the Patriots. And there are still many doubters who think they can’t beat the Steelers.

The truth is, this will be the hardest test for them. The Indianapolis and New England defenses were not even close to what the Steelers have. They better bring their A game like last week, because these are the NFL playoffs, and they only get harder.

Before the season, who would have thought the Steelers would have been here either? They were missing their starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, for the first four games. And would the late season collapse from last year transition to this season?

The Steelers didn’t care. They were going to play Steeler brand football with or without Big Ben. After winning their first three games and losing the fourth to a tough Ravens team, it was clear that the team was a lot more than just Roethlisberger. Under Big Ben, they went 9-3 in a season with lots of ups, but did have its downs.

For example, with Big Ben under center, the Steelers only beat one team over .500, the Baltimore Ravens. They stole a win in Miami only because the refs botched a play, and they narrowly defeated the lowly Buffalo Bills in overtime. Roethlisberger’s three loses came against the Saints, Patriots, and Jets, three teams with winning records.

He was 8-0 against teams with a losing record, 1-3 against teams with a winning record.

With all of this evidence presented, you still cannot deny the fact that Pittsburgh is a good team. At this time of the year, you can throw those things out the window. They play tough defense and have a pretty exciting offense to watch. However, there is a little bit of a cause for concern with those numbers. Do the Steelers have what it takes to win the Super Bowl? They’ll have to earn it.

With two elite defenses squaring off, it’s going to come down to which offense can win out. Ryan and Steelers’ coach Mike Tomlin will have to be at their best making the right calls and putting their offense in the best position for it to succeed.

Personally, I think the Steelers’ offense is slightly overrated.

I understand, you can’t take anything away from Roethlisberger. He has a 9-2 postseason record. Although he isn’t the most glamorous quarterback in the NFL putting up the biggest numbers, he gets the job done. He is a smart quarterback who can make tough throws even when taking a beating. However, that does not mean it’s impossible for him to have an off game. Despite being sacked six times, he still managed 226 yards and 2 touchdowns against a stingy Ravens defense. But he did have a fumble, and got a lot of help from his own defense making plays (Ray Rice’s fumble) to put him in good field position.

The Jets defense was a nightmare last weekend and there’s no doubt that Ryan is adding in new wrinkles to confuse Roethlisberger to no end. Their schemes were excellent, and nearly impossible to decipher.

That is the reason why I feel Roethlisberger will have an off day.

When it comes to crunch time, he should be able to make plays like he usually does, but throughout the game, he may struggle. If the Jets put Darrelle Revis on Mike Wallace, that takes away the Steelers’ biggest offensive threat. That would lead to Hines Ward being covered by Antonio Cromartie, and that should be a key matchup that is extremely crucial to win for both teams.

A lot of people would point out that Roethlisberger has options in two breakout rookies, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. But if the Jets can control them, their inexperience may hurt them, kind of like it hurt rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski last week. Speaking of tight ends, a lot of people are saying how much the Steelers will benefit from having Heath Miller, unlike they did in the previous matchup. But the Jets did a great job at putting men in the middle to give tight ends trouble. Look for safety Eric Smith to have another big game as he fills in for the injured Jim Leonhard.

Roethlisberger is going to need to look for all of his options in this game, but perhaps none more than running back Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall has had an excellent season, and he played very well in the game against the Jets, rushing for 99 yards and a touchdown, not to mention 5.8 yards per carry.

It will be up to Mendenhall to duplicate the performance to take pressure off of his quarterback and to really move the ball. He will benefit from having Heath Miller to block for him, but the Jets defensive line proved to be very tough last week.

Look for Shaun Ellis to really turn it up again as he’ll try to stop Mendenhall and bring the pressure on Big Ben. It will be important to get to him early and often, that way he doesn’t have time to try to beat the Jets defensive. If the secondary can cover the way they did last week, Roethlisberger is going to be under a lot of pressure, and inevitably, he’s going to go down.

The Jets offense is in a similar situation, attempting to break a defense that simply does not. The Steelers lead the league in total defense, allowing only 14.5 points per game. They also only allow 62.8 rushing yards per game.

With the Jets ground and pound attack of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene, something’s got to give.

The Jets need have some success on the ground in order to have any hopes in getting their offense going. Last time around, they combined for 89 yards on 23 carries. While it’s hard to tell whether those numbers will get the job done, New York cannot leave their running game. Tomlinson will need to lead the way as he looks very fresh this postseason, picking up 125 yards on 26 carries and 3 total touchdowns. Of everyone in this game, he may be the most motivated as he attempts to add a championship to his Hall of Fame career.

The key for the Jets is to try and control the clock, get a lead, and have Greene pound away at the Steelers. Only time will tell if he’s up for the task.There is, however, a bottom line for the Jets.

If Mark Sanchez can’t play well, it will be nearly impossible to win.

After a bumpy outing against the Colts, Sanchez bounced back with three scores in New England. It appears that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has helped make Sanchez comfortable having the reigns of the offense. Sanchez has been shaky at times, but he has made excellent throws at times. The pass to Santonio Holmes last week was absolutely beautiful.

Basically, Sanchez will need to be more of a game manager against Pittsburgh and rely heavily on Holmes, Braylon Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery. Dustin Keller should help him in the short passing game, as well as Cotchery.

However, Sanchez will need to take his shots as well. The Steelers fall out of the top ten in the league of passing defense, so it’s not impossible for Sanchez. He has shown that he is a legit NFL quarterback. While he has been erratic at times and is not in the NFL’s elite, he has the poise, talent, and confidence to win this championship game.

However, the barometer of his success will be Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.

Polamula seemed to be slowed by a bum ankle against Baltimore last week as he missed some tackles. But he is a game changing player who could really give Sanchez hell. If he is a little off like he was last week, Sanchez may be able to run the offense nicely. But if Polamalu is on top of his game, the Jets are going to have to make it an ugly game in order to win.

Like Soldier Field, Heinz Field has received a lot of hype in the matchups for Sunday. Heinz Field is a tough place to play in with all the Terrible Towels waving, but it is considered by some players as the hardest place to kick.

If I’m a Jets fan, I’m not panicking just yet.

Well it is true that there will be a lot of pressure on the Jets special teams, it may not be as much as people may think. Look at the previous matchup between the two teams. Nick Folk made both of his field goals, and Steve Weatherford had three of his four punts landed inside the 20.

While it’s true that Folk’s field goals were both under 35 yards and there will be a lot more pressure in this game, I don’t see the atmosphere being too much of a problem for the clutch Jets.

However, if the game comes down to a Folk field goal, the Jets may be dealing with Doug Brien all over again.

The Jets will receive a boost with Brad Smith back on kick returns. He and Cromartie should help get the offense get good field position. I’m not saying they’ll get another return touchdown, but don’t count it out.

Mike Tomlin already has a Super Bowl ring under his belt, and he looks to get another. However, I feel like the coaching edge goes to the Jets.

Ryan outcoached arguably the greatest coach of the decade, and made himself into a mastermind in the process. Ryan has played a psychological game with opposing teams and coaches by trash talking while motivating his own players. This week, he has taken a different route by staying quiet.

I feel like Ryan is luring the Steelers into a false sense of security by this. His players already have the mindset to beat anyone. They love playing the role of underdog. And if the Steelers take them lightly, they will be beaten.

In the end, I feel like it will be a very defensive minded game. The Jets’ running game should enable them to move the ball somewhat and Sanchez should make a few plays. I say that he winds up with a touchdown pass to Holmes who will no doubt be playing motivated in his return to Pittsburgh. Tomlinson should wind up with another touchdown as well.

The Jets should shutdown the Steelers offense for most of the game, but Big Ben will get his team going at points as well. He should make some plays, but have trouble with the Jets’ secondary and pass rush.

In the end, it will be déjà vu, as the Steelers will make a late drive to get the victory but come up just short. And the score will be close to another playoff game, as Roethlisberger’s team is limited to the same amount of points that Peyton Manning and the Colts had a few weeks ago. Give credit to the coaching staff, as well as a very talented receiving core for this one.

Prediction: Jets 20, Steelers 16

Friday, January 21, 2011

Packers-Bears Preview

Packers @ Bears

So here we are, a little over two weeks from the Super Bowl, and I’m still a bit shocked at what I’m seeing. Two teams meeting that I didn’t really expect to be in it are here. While many people considered the NFC East to be the superior division before the season, it was clear that at the end, the NFC South was on top. Now you will see the NFC Super Bowl representative come from the NFC North. Go figure.

I never considered the Bears an elite team (And I still don’t) because they have been too inconsistent and nothing really jumps out at me. Jay Cutler runs an offense that is good, not great. The defense has been suspect when you move back to the secondary. And the Bears have suffered some rough losses, including an earlier season loss to Seattle, a brutal loss to Patriots, and an absolute mess against DeAngelo Hall and the Redskins. Actually, if it wasn’t for a horribly dumb rule, the Bears would have lost to the Lions in Week 1 and their entire season could have gone differently. Imagine Detroit in the Championship game? Not for a few years at least. The fact of the matter is that the Bears have made it to the title game with a little bit of talent, a little bit of luck, and making the right moves. They were a big surprise this year, and although I feel they aren’t as good as their record says, they are built for this deep postseason run.

It seemed like it would be impossible for Packers fans to forget that nearly fateful day in Detroit. Their star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers had just gone down with a concussion, and their team had lost a stinker to the woeful Lions. Now they were forced with a different reality. Win two of your next three games, against the Patriots, Giants, and Bears, and you will get to the playoffs. As if that didn’t seem bleak enough, the timetable for Rodgers’ return was unsure, so they would have to ride backup Matt Flynn for the time being. I remember after that game telling anyone who would listen that the Packers were dead. They had no chance. It was too late in the season, and who knew if they could win those games even with Rodgers. A late game loss to the Patriots did not break their spirit, but showed how good the rest of their team was. They played at an elite level against the best team in football with their backup QB, and probably would have won if they had Rodgers for even just the final drive. Catching a break from the Giants choking to the Eagles, they steamrolled New York at home and just squeezed one out against the Bears to continue their season. Now they’re red hot, and want nothing more than to bring the Lombardi Trophy to its true home.

When I look at these two teams, I see a good team that needs to get better and an elite team missing one element of their game. The second team mentioned is the Packers, and that element is the running game. I’ve been saying it all along, James Starks is not a definite answer to the Green Bay running game, and that was shown against Atlanta last week. Starks had 25 carries for 66 yards. He should have pounded away at the Falcons to close out the game for the Packers, but a paltry 2.6 yards per carry was not what they needed. Luckily for Green Bay, they didn’t need that because they have Rodgers. Against Chicago, that could be a different story. Unless the Packers take a lead early, they may have a tough time, being that Julius Peppers’ and the Bears’ defensive line should take away the running game. Basically, Rodgers is going to have to beat the Bears through the air. He has the weapons to, but Charles Tillman and the secondary for Chicago will be playing motivated. They need a lot of help from Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, even though it was James Jones and Jordy Nelson to catch touchdowns last week. They need to tear up the field. Not literally.

The reason I say that is because of the ongoing discussion this week about the grass on Soldier Field. Everyone has said that this is one of the toughest fields to play on because it often has small ditches and is very slippery. Since the Bears are used to, they seem to have the advantage. While the players have expressed the discontent for the field conditions, there has never really been a big deal made about it before. While it is easy for receivers and corners to slip, the Bears have sucked it up and played well on their home field. However, I feel that this will not really be a significant advantage for the Bears. First of all, this is the first time in at least a long time that anyone has complained about Soldier Field. There was nothing said by anyone during the Seahawks game. That’s because the Bears didn’t need another advantage over Seattle. I think that people are making this a bigger deal than it is so that the matchup seems more even. Second off, if you take a look at the game against the Patriots, you’ll see why Rodgers should have no problem. In the wind and snow, Brady torched the Bears for 369 yards and two touchdown passes. Great quarterbacks can play through anything. That is why I believe that Rodgers, with an elite receiving corps, shouldn’t have too much of a problem at Soldier Field.

It seems that Rodgers will do what is expected of him. He will pass the ball. A lot. He will get yards. A lot. And he will score touchdowns. A lot. The Bears will have to be at full force to slow him down, let alone stop him. But what about the Green Bay defense versus the Chicago offense? Dom Capers will square off against Mike Martz one of the most anticipated coaching battles of the playoffs. Cutler is going to have headaches all day. The schemes the Packers use are nearly unstoppable, and with a suspect offensive line, Clay Matthews and company should get to Cutler early and often. That means Cutler will have to make smart decisions with his receivers and his running back, Matt Forte. Cutler should throw a lot of passes to Forte in the backfield, but unless he can get something going on the ground, it will be a rough day for the both of them. Add in the fact that Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams should be all over Johnny Knox and Devin Hester, Cutler is fighting a huge battle on offense. It’s going to come down to whether or not Martz can decrypt Capers’ blitzing and coverage scheme. And quite frankly, with everything that’s going in that defense, he may not succeed until it’s too late.

On special teams, the Bears have the luxury of having Devin Hester return punts. However, there is a simple solution to that: punt it out of bounds. If Tim Masthay can just punt it out of bounds, or at least near the sidelines, Hester should be a non factor. Weather pending, he should have no problem.

Two of the best coaches in the NFC square off in this one and the advantage has to go to Lovie Smith. Smith has taken an average team, a one dimensional offensive coordinator, and low expectations to the brink of a Super Bowl. He has the experience of leading a team there before. That team was led by Rex Grossman. That gives him a slight advantage over Mike McCarthy and an excellent Green Bay coaching staff. McCarthy has kept his team focused through its struggles, and has full confidence in his star quarterback, a man he has believed in for years now. This Sunday, we’ll see two battles between some of the NFL’s best coaches. Let’s just hope it didn’t go the same way that the Rex Ryan-Bill Belichick matchup did.

Plain and simple, the Packers are a better team. They can pass the ball better than nearly anyone in the league, and have a truly complete defense. The Bears have advantages in coaching, special teams, and home field. But those are things that a good team overcomes. The Packers are just too good to be stopped by this team, regardless of minimal advantages they have. When it comes down to game time, it will be up to the players on the field, and not Smith. Rodgers should have another huge day passing for three touchdowns again. However, don’t sleep on Cutler and the Bears. He should throw a few of his own. But Cutler is too prone to turning the ball over, which the Packers will make him. Green Bay should take this one, although it will be a lot closer than most people expect due to their absence of a solid running game.

Prediction: Packers 27, Bears 20

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

How the Battle was Won: New York Jets defeat New England Patriots

The New York Jets shocked everyone by dominating the New England Patriots for the majority of their playoff game this Sunday. The Jets did an excellent job at doing everything right, while the Patriots proved to be great choke artists. Although it was only a seven point game, the Jets were clearly the better team, and there is more than one reason why the mighty has fallen.

Going back to their roots, the Jets used their elite defense to lead themselves to victory. The defensive scheme that was displayed was nothing sure of mind boggling. The Jets were able to cover the Patriots receivers so well, which disabled Brady from getting good throws off. Since Brady couldn’t find an open man, he took too long in the pocket, which led to five New York sacks. The Jets were very confusing by making it look like they were playing man coverage when it was actually zone, and vice versa. This puzzled the Patriots and did not allow them to correctly audible. Shaun Ellis had a great game with two sacks. David Harris picked off Brady for this first time in a long time. And all in all, Brady looked helpless. He didn’t understand why or how they were getting beat. He couldn’t comprehend why his super team wasn’t able to figure out the Jets defense. He was harassed in the pocket all day long, which made him hesitant and inefficient. A great thing that the Jets did was put extra men across the middle to clog it up so that way the two tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, would have trouble making plays. They had the blueprint to stop the Pat’s high octane offense, and their execution was nearly perfect.

On the offensive side of the ball, New England had its fair share of miscues as well. The fake punt at the end of the first half was dumb, and Patrick Chung dropping the ball made it look even worse. There were some key drops as well as fumbles, which if the Jets recovered, could have turned this game into a blowout. Finally, there were also several pass plays where Brady threw the ball to a receiver who wasn’t even looking. They were clearly not on the same page, and that really killed the Patriots, who seemed scared and unprepared. So what happened to the unstoppable Patriots? Lack of experience. The two rookie tight ends were basically a non factor in the game. Devin McCourty and Brandon Merriweather were burned on big plays in the secondary. It’s clear that this Patriots team is not the same one that won three Super Bowls. They have an awful defense and a suspect running game. The Jets knew this, which is why they really put the pressure on all these players. This put enough on Brady, who couldn’t overcome the Jets ferocious attack. If Bill Belichick wants his team to go into the Super Bowl, he’s going to need to make a lot of changes so they can get over their slump. New England has lost its last three playoff games.

Mark Sanchez gave the Jets the boost they needed and although there were plays made by everyone, he was truly the MVP of the game. Sanchez completed 16 of 25 passes for 194 yards and three touchdowns. The reason why his yardage was so low was because the Jets ran the ball often and effectively. Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson combined for 119 yards on 27 carries. They were able to open up the passing game for Sanchez who, after a shaky start to the game, passed like a champion. He made tough throws in tight spaces to Braylon Edwards and Dustin Keller. He threw catches that were extended by Edwards and the firey Jerricho Cotchery. And his touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes was beautiful. It reminded me of his game winning touchdown catch in the Super Bowl a few years ago against Arizona. When you’re getting compared to that, you know you’re on the right track. That’s exactly what Sanchez is on after beating his second Super Bowl MVP quarterback in two weeks. All three of his receivers made great plays which they will need to do next week at Pittsburgh. Cotchery’s 58 yard catch to set up the Holmes touchdown swung all of the momentum to the Jets. Sanchez played very well against a weak New England secondary that was 30th in the league in passing this year, so he will have to be even better next week. But they won, and Sanchez was excellent. He outdueled Brady, and showed who the better team was. Another interesting stat is that the Pats had the ball for 35 minutes, while the Jets had it for only 25 minutes. The time of possession battle was thought to be a key, but it didn’t seem to matter in a game that the Jets had complete control of.

At the beginning of the week, Rex Ryan said that this game was going to be him against Belichick. After the game, Ryan said that Belichick won that battle like he always does. Ryan was just being very humble, and we all know that statement wasn’t true. Ryan outcoached Belichick so well, that he knew the game was over before it started. Ryan talked this up so that he would relieve pressure from his players, but at the same time, pumping them up with all the trash talk that was going on. He got them very motivated and had every single one behind them. He coached his team like a family. Also, as I mentioned before, the defensive packages he employed left the Patriots wondering what had just happened. Simply genius. But it doesn’t stop there, because Belichick was very bad too. The benching of Wes Welker was a foolish and cocky movie that showed Belichick didn’t think there was any way they could lose. The fake punt was an unnecessary gamble that showed how overconfident he was in Brady and the rest of the team. They couldn’t really figure out the Jets’ defense until the end of the game, and by then it was too late. And finally, the clock management in the fourth quarter was absolutely terrible. Too many running plays when you have a future hall of fame quarterback combined with no hurry up offense or sense of urgency lead to the Pats having not enough time at the end of the game to make one final push at a comeback. Belichick sat in cruise control and thought he could do whatever he wanted because the game would work itself out. He was sadly mistaken.

In the end, the Jets will take a spot in the AFC championship game that they deserve to be in. Ryan and Sanchez have got something special going in their first two years, and they may finally get over the hump. This is their hardest task yet, however. The Steelers are a complete team with arguably the best defense in the league. Troy Polamalu was not playing in the last matchup, so it should be a whole different ball game. If the Jets can play the way they did against the Patriots, they could pull off another stunner and head to the Super Bowl. As for the Patriots, they will ponder all offseason about what went wrong and what needs to be fixed. And if they can’t figure it out, there could be some major changes made to this continuously disappointing team.

10 Things I took out of the 2011 NFL Divisional Playoff Weekend

10. Joe Flacco is not a top tier quarterback. Flacco’s throws were often high and he committed some bad turnovers. It was clear that even with all those weapons at his disposal, he was not ready to face an elite defense. The Steelers harassed him in the second half and made a remarkable comeback. Until Flacco takes the next step, Baltimore will not reach a Super Bowl.

9. The Steelers are never dead. I hate to say it, but the Steelers look like a Super Bowl team. While I still am unsure as to whether they’ll make it or not, their defense is very scary. A very sloppy first half did not look promising, but Joe Flacco and the Ravens’ offense let them back in that game. Ray Rice’s first fumble since the Prehistoric era could not have come at a worse time, as it completely shifted momentum towards the Steelers. While I still think the Steelers have some problems and can be beat, Ben Roethlisberer showed off his postseason flare yet again, and the Pittsburgh is not ready to relinquish their AFC North throne just yet.

8. The Falcons have the look of last year’s Bengals. What do I mean by that? Last year, the Bengals had a great regular season, surprised everyone, and came out flat and lost their first playoff game. That’s exactly what happened to the Falcons. Their secondary got torched by Aaron Rodgers, and is a glaring need for help. Tony Gonzalez is getting older and may even retire this offseason. So Atlanta is in trouble of falling from the top next year and becoming just an average team with a good offense. I don’t think this will happen, but they have some areas to address. It won’t be easy for them to remain the NFC South champs with the Saints and Buccaneers breathing down their necks. I think they’ll be able to repeat, but they need to get a lot better if they want to reach a Super Bowl.

7. Aaron Rodgers is playing the best football of his career. Sure, we’ve seen him put up big numbers during the regular season, but to play like that in the playoffs in the Georgia Dome? It was an incredible feat for Rodgers, and although the Falcons defense is not among the best, it’s not a cupcake either. He only threw five incompletes the entire game, and the offensive line did a great job at protecting him. The Packers are hot right now, and I don’t think they’ll be able to be stopped before they reach the Super Bowl.

6. Aaron Rodgers will have trouble winning the Super Bowl. Rodgers and the Packers have not played a truly complete defense in the playoffs. The Eagles had their problems, the Falcons were slightly above average, and the Bears secondary tends to be a little soft at times. These teams have been perfect to play for Green Bay because they still don’t have a running game. James Starks had a pedestrian performance against Atlanta, and doesn’t seem like he can consistently be a featured back. Rodgers is playing well now, but he will run into some trouble against potential Super Bowl opponents New York or Pittsburgh. Without the running game, they will have a very tough time against either team if they reach the big game.

5. Pete Carroll has the Seahawks headed in the right direction. Carroll has been fired up all year and the win against the Saints was huge for him and the franchise. They have some pieces, they just need to get some more help and put everything together. In a rough game at Soldier field, the Seahawks hung tight and avoided a big blowout, and it was very promising to see them try to surge a late comeback in a game that was ultimately over. If they re-sign Matt Hasselbeck next year and he’s able to play the way he did in the playoffs this year, they should compete with the Rams again for the NFC West title. However, this time around, the division winner should also have a winning record.

4. The Bears’ offense cannot be counted out. Mike Martz has finally been able to coordinate a healthy run-pass balance, and with Jay Cutler manning the controls, the Bears offense looks legit. The Green Bay defense will give him fits, but I expect Cutler to make some plays and keep this game a lot closer than most people think it will be. Although it was only the Seahawks, if Martz can make that offense roll the way it did this past weekend, Dom Capers’ stingy defense may finally be penetrated.

3. New England is not invincible. The Patriots choked. Again. This will all be covered in my game recap of the Jets-Patriots game, but it showed that any team can beat any other team on any given night. The Jets had the right game plan, and they puzzled Brady to no end. Their execution was nearly flawless, and they denied the Patriots another chance to go to the Super Bowl. New England seemed like they expected to win this game no problem. They had the same attitude when they lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. Basically, they blew it again. After becoming a “dynasty” the Patriots have put on great performances, only to come up short when it matters most. They clearly were beatable, and they were beaten by a better team on Sunday.

2. Rex Ryan’s trash talk has a deeper meaning to it. A lot of people bashed Rex Ryan for his trash talk, but there is certainly nothing to be said about him but praise right now. Ryan had a brilliantly coached game and led his team to a victory over the league’s best team. It’s become clear that Rex isn’t just talking because he likes the sound of his voice. He is motivating his team so well, and has every player behind him. The relationship with his players are fantastic, and he is showing them that while these games will just keep getting tougher, they can win and that he believes in them. This has them playing at the level of a Super Bowl team.

1. The two most complete teams left are in the AFC. With all the hype the Packers are receiving, there should be close attention paid to the AFC championship game. The Steelers and the Jets are the two most complete teams left, and maybe even in the whole NFL. They have two of the best defenses in the league, along with solid running games, playmaking wide receivers, and clutch postseason quarterbacks. Sanchez is 4-1 in the playoffs in only his second year and Roethlisberger is 9-2 with two Super Bowls. Both teams are very well coached, and it should be an awesome game to watch. The Packers still lack that running element, which may eventually spell their doom. The Bears secondary can fall asleep at times and if Jay Cutler is forced to throw interceptions, everything could fall apart for them. It’s nice to see the two best teams in the AFC will battle it out for a Super Bowl berth.

Jets-Patriots Preview

The final matchup of the weekend is a heavyweight bout of epic proportions. The trash talking New York Jets take their talents to New England to face the top seeded Patriots. In a matchup between two teams that really hate each other, expect things to get chip and ugly very shortly. Despite the fact that Tom Brady leads an unstoppable offense, this game could certainly go the way the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game goes: close and low scoring. With all of the background stories and matchups in this game, it is going to be a treat for all fans. There will be a lot of big plays, and maybe some surprises, possibly including the final outcome.

The key for the Jets defense is simple. Tom Brady must be stopped. And if he can’t be stopped, he has to been slowed down. Brady is playing out of his mind right now and hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 6. But in the first meeting between these two teams, Brady threw two picks, and that was without Darelle Revis for most of the game. If there is any team that knows Brady, it’s the Jets. Rex Ryan will have to be very creative in stopping him. First off, the Jets will need excellent play from Bart Scott and the linebackers. The Jets defense is missing Jim Leonhard, and is going to need a lot of help across the middle. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski pose tough matchups in the double tight end set so they will need to be contained. Danny Woodhead is always trouble catching passes out of the backfield and needs to be a top priority for that defense because of big play ability. And you can’t forget Wes Welker who slips in and out of routes to make tough catches. The key is to blitz Brady enough so he can’t throw to these options. Revis may want to rotate around between Welker and Deion Branch to keep them in check. Also, the Jets should try blitzing Antonio Cromartie from the corner. The game plan has to be disrupting Brady in the pocket and keeping him off his feet. The defensive line also needs to do a better job than they did the last time in stopping BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Jets defense has a tough task ahead of them on Sunday, but if they play to their full potential, they will be ready for it.

What happened last week in Indianapolis was remarkable. Mark Sanchez had a subpar performance, yet the defense was able to stop Peyton Manning, and the offense put just enough points on the board to win. The game plan that the Jets had last week was one they’ll need to use this week to. They need to hold onto the ball as long as they can so Brady is kept off the field. Shonn Greene and LaDanian Tomlinson played great against the Colts, and they’ll have to be even better against a tough New England defensive line. If they can keep the running game going and eat up the clock, it will take a lot of pressure off Mark Sanchez, which will enable him to make plays. However, I feel that the real x-factor for that game plan is Jerricho Cotchery. You’ve seen him all year make tough catches in tight spaces when the Jets need it the most to move the chains. He is a clutch player and is a big reason why the Jets won so many games they did. If Cotchery can keep making these check down catches to keep drives moving, it will not only result in more points for the Jets, but it will also mean less Brady. Sanchez has to play very well for them to win this game, but he also has to be very careful. The Patriots have one of the weakest pass defenses in the league, but they also have the most interceptions. Rookie Pro Bowler Devin McCourty and Brandon Meriweather will provide a tough task for Sanchez. But as long as he plays well and gets help from his big play receivers, he should have a good day. Expect to see Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards have their fair share of deep catches, as well as a healthy dose of Dustin Keller. This Patriots defense has gotten better as the season goes, but if Sanchez can make some plays, they could be able to have their way with it.

Ryan and Bill Belichick know each other so well, and should bring out the perfect game plans. I just feel like the Jets will be able to execute it better. The Jets defense should be able to stop Brady just enough, and the offense should perform well and control the clock. Brad Smith will give them good returns that they may desperately need to kick start their offense. People may love to hate Ryan, but he has his team pumped up and heading in the right direction. Expect Sanchez to bounce back from a poor showing against the Colts, as the running game continues to dominate. Brady will throw an interception and the Jets defense should play well enough to slow him down. And the upset that no one thinks is possible (Except for Jets and the always optimistic Seahawks fans) will become real, and give the Jets a second straight AFC Championship game berth.

Prediction: Jets 21, Patriots 20

Seahawks-Bears Preview

The Seattle Seahawks, led by Matt Hasselbeck, look to keep their Cinderella story alive in Chicago on Sunday afternoon. However, he has a daunting take ahead of him. Although the Bears have allowed the 13th most passing yards per game in the NFL this year, they have allowed the 2nd fewest rushing yards per game, and Hasselbeck really needs help from his running game.

Marshawn Lynch will try to build off a decent performance from earlier this year.

In Lynch’s first game as a Seahawk, he took 17 carries for 44 yards and a touchdown. He’ll have to be better than that on Sunday if Seattle wants to advance. The offensive line is the key here to get Lynch is running lanes. If they can open up the passing game for Hasselbeck, he could be in for a big day, as the Bears secondary is relatively soft. But this is all a big if. Julius Peppers needs to be kept out of the pocket and Lance Briggs should be lurking around the corners too. With Brian Urlacher waiting in the wings in the middle, Hasselbeck may still be in for a tough day and is going to need to rely a lot on big play wideout Mike Williams. Basically, everything has to go right for the Seahawks offense. It should be cold and windy in Chicago, and Hasselbeck will need to get used to the weather quickly. This may be his last game as a Seahawk, so expect him to leave everything on the field.

I am still not a buyer of the Chicago Bears being an elite team. The defense is solid, but can let up lots of points at times. The offensive line has let Jay Cutler get annihilated all year. And the running game hasn’t been anything special. Cutler should have his way with the Seattle secondary but looking at the way they played last week, it may be harder than usual. Earl Thomas has really stepped up to become a playmaker and Lofa Tatupa is leading this defense with a lot of emotion. However, in order for Cutler to even throw the ball, he needs to stay on his feet. The Seahawks got to him last time and expect Raheem Brock to have another big game. But Cutler has a cannon as an arm and should produce gaudy numbers. Cutler is far too inconsistent to lead his team to a Super Bowl berth, but I think he’s more than good enough to beat the Seahawks. With Chester Taylor being a non factor this whole year, Matt Forte is really going to have to run the ball well to take some pressure over Cutler. Look for Cutler to connect with Johnny Knox several times, but also don’t be surprised if you see a few interceptions.

The thing that these teams have most in common is their great return games. Both Devin Hester and Leon Washington are dangerous on returns and lightning fast when they touch the ball. It’s going to come down to who has a better special teams coverage. Expect a lot of good returns in this game to set up field position for the two teams. I see Hester returning several punts into Seahawks territory and Robbie Gould may want to consider kicking the ball out of bounds at times, because Washington should do his fair share of damage.

Although this one looks like it should be a shootout, I feel that both defenses will come out strong and keep this one close and relatively low scoring. Expect at least two interceptions from both quarterbacks, and don’t be surprised if Forte coughs out a fumble. In the end, Cutler should have a pretty solid game and throw for three scores. Hasselbeck will be just not as good, and that should prove to be the difference. Sure, the Seahawks definitely have a shot of advancing and maybe even playing another game at Qwest Field. But since they won’t be there Sunday, I really can’t imagine them pulling this one out. It’s going to be very tough at Soldier Field and the Bears should be heading to the NFC championship game.

Prediction: Chicago 24, Seattle 17

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Packers-Falcons Preview

With all the hype going on about the surprise Seahawks and division rematches, fans don’t seem to be focusing as much on a matchup that could definitely steal the show. The Packers and their revamped defense head to the Georgia Dome and face Matty Ice and the Falcons. Matt Ryan has blossomed this year into a clutch quarterback and although he may not be considered one of the league’s elite, he is certainly on that path. His quest is to out duel Aaron Rodgers, a difficult feat. The way the Packers beat the Eagles last week was by blitzing Michael Vick and containing him just enough to win. This week, they may not be so lucky, and they probably won’t see an Akers like performance out of Falcons kicker Matt Bryant. Both bird teams ran very high octane offenses and solid defenses. The difference with Atlanta? They come up big when it matters most.

Atlanta has delivered the kinds of performances this year that have them looking like a championship team. Both Matt’s have made clutch plays to lead them to wins over the Saints, 49ers, Bengals, Ravens, Buccaneers twice, and yes, the Packers. Sure, one could argue that the Falcons could easily be 6-10 if those games don’t go in their favor. But you have to realize two key things. One, the Falcons could easily be 15-1 as well. An overtime loss to the Steelers and a late game loss to the Saints could have easily turned in their favor. And two, they did win those games. Atlanta doesn’t have the look of a 6-10 team. They’re for real and they’ve showed why they can win any game on any given night-especially at home.

The blitzing scheme that Dom Capers showed against the Eagles was perfect in breaking up the rhythm of Vick, but it may not do as well against Ryan. Not taking anything away from Vick, but Ryan excels at making throws under pressure and is a very smart quarterback. Atlanta’s best shot to do what Philadelphia couldn’t lies in Ryan’s arm and his receivers. The Eagles live and die by the big play, but the Falcons are more balanced with short throws and downhill running by Michael Turner. Ryan is going to have to keep his cool when the blitz comes, especially since Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson will be blanketing his options in the secondary. Since Turner isn’t much of a pass catcher, that makes Tony Gonzalez the biggest key to victory for the Falcons. The future Hall of Famer will be a security blanket for Ryan even though he usually doesn’t need one. Gonzalez can be used for check down throws or even as an extra blocker if Ryan sees a blitz coming. It’s also huge that the Falcons have Turner, who needs to have a solid day in order for the Atlanta offense to run smoothly.

In a year where Green Bay basically played without a running game, they might have finally established one in rookie back James Starks. Injured earlier this year, he took 23 carries for 123 yards against the Eagles. It’s hard to argue that Starks will crumble under playoff pressure as a rookie based on those numbers, but we’ve only seen a sample size of him so far. He doesn’t need to be an every down back with Brandon Jackson in on third downs and John Kuhn doing the goal line work, but it seems like they want to rely on him heavily, and I don’t feel too confident in his abilities against the Atlanta defensive line. Green Bay’s best shot at this one is sending in through the air. Rodgers has a plethora of receiving options. The run game is going to be a key to opening up the play action for Rodgers, but if they do, he should have no problem sending that ball to any of his four main wide receivers. All of them can go for the home run pass, but a close eye should be kept on Donald Driver. His toughness and ability to make plays anywhere on the field should open things up for Jordy Nelson and James Jones. Oh, and the Packers have some guy named Greg Jennings too.

The offensive line is going to play a huge part in this game and Atlanta has the edge in that category. They’ve kept Ryan on his feet for most of the year while Rodgers has dealt with concussions at times. If John Abraham and company can bust through the line, it’s going to be a long day for Rodgers. In the end, it should be a shootout. These two quarterbacks are going to show they are the masterminds and decode the defenses that are thrown at them. I’d say Ryan ends up with two touchdown passes-neither of them to Roddy White. Williams and Woodson will be so worried about him and Michael Jenkins will step up and make plays, catching a deep ball for a score. Gonzalez should score too, and Turner will have his fair share as well. On the Green Bay side, Rodgers should have a field day and throw TD’s to all of his receivers with a J in their name (Jennings, Jones, Jordy). John Kuhn will punch in one as well, but they will come up short as the Atlanta offense overpowers them, and Ryan shows why he has ice in his veins. The Falcons’ strong running game gives them the edge.

Prediction: Atlanta 34, Green Bay 28

Ravens-Steelers Preview

With all the praise that the Steelers have received this year, the Ravens have taken a back seat to them. That’s all about to change on Saturday. In recent years, the Ravens have surged in the AFC North, and even the Bengals won a title last year. But it’s been pretty much all Steelers, as they have a chance to win their third Super Bowl in six years. However, this Ravens team is much different than ones in previous years, and they have what it takes to win in Pittsburgh in a divisional rubber match.

In the playoffs, Joe Flacco gives off the vibe of a veteran quarterback. He’s won four playoff games already in his short career. The point being made is that he has never beaten Ben Roethlisberger. The only times Flacco has beaten Pittsburgh is once last year and earlier this year. The starting quarterbacks were Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch. Roethlisberger receives all the postseason credit in the world, but it seems like now it’s Flacco’s time. His receiving core has received an upgrade from Anquan Boldin and T. J. Houshmandzadeh. And he showed last week that when a defense takes those options away (like Troy Polamalu very well may do), he can still rely on his veteran players like Derrick Mason and Todd Heap. Sure, Flacco isn’t going to go into Pittsburgh and put on an aerial clinic. But I feel like he can do just enough, and more importantly, not create turnovers in crucial moments of the game.

The biggest key to the Ravens success is going to be none other than running back Ray Rice. The three year man out of Rutgers is going to get more of his yards through the air than on the ground. John Harbaugh is going to have to keep this offense very balanced, and Rice will need pick up enough rushing yards to keep the Steelers defense honest. But the way they’ll be able to move the chains is to throw Rice the ball. His size and strength makes him a tough matchup for the Steelers and the screen pass will be Baltimore’s best friend. Mix that in with shots down field to the receivers as well check down passes to Heap and you have yourself a dynamic offense that the Ravens have the potential to be. Last week’s matchup at Kansas City showed that they are peeking at the right time, and this game should deliver as another nail biter that these teams normally produce.

Even if the Ravens offense plays to its full potential, it alone cannot win the football game. This is still a defensive football game that will produce just a slightly higher score than recent matchups. Roethlisberger has guided his team so well, but now is the time that everything will catch up to him. The Ravens defense showed glimpses of the past when they were just as stingy as Pittsburgh. Ed Reed is playing with a purpose after the death of his brother and despite injuries (and a run in with some fire), he is playing at as high of a level as ever. Ray Lewis continues his dominance in leading this defense that has forced 10 turnovers over the past 2 games. They’re going to get to Big Ben and force him to make throws that he isn’t capable of making. While I still feel that the Steelers are overrated, they are obviously a very good team. The element of Mike Wallace and the deep ball really juice up their offensive attack. But Rashard Mendenhall is not an elite running back and isn’t one to catch balls out of the backfield like Rice. And if anything happens to Polamalu, this defense could certainly fall apart. The Ravens have the best chance out of anyone in the AFC of beating the Steelers because they match up so well with them. These are two defensive minded teams who now have an explosive offense to back them and that is a sure fire recipe for a close low scoring game that has been the trend of Ravens-Steelers games in the past. So what’s the final prediction? Ben Roethlisberger should get his traditional deep touchdown to Mike Wallace just because that man has rockets on his feet. However, the Ravens defense is going to make Roethlisberger cough up a couple turnovers and capitalize off of the field position they’ll get. Flacco will lead a balanced Ravens attack but he probably won’t be able to get a touchdown pass unless Rice can break a screen pass for a long one. He should, however, get them in position for Rice or even Willis McGahee to score a goal line touchdown. In the end, it will be defense and special teams that win it. A late turnover by the Steelers will set the Ravens up for a game winning field goal by Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundif. He will deliver like he has all season, and this may not only be Flacco’s first win against Roethlisberger, but also a passing of the torch in this division. NFL fans are in for a treat with this rubber match as the Ravens should continue their push to the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Baltimore 16, Pittsburgh 13