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Sorry Rex, But It Isn’t Happening

Published: January 9, 2010

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Jets head coach Rex Ryan proclaimed his team as a Super Bowl favorite a couple of days ago when assessing how his football team would fare in the playoffs.

This is the same guy who thought his team had no shot of making the playoffs after a frustrating home loss to the Falcons. He said nothing for the last couple of weeks of the regular season.

It took the playoffs for the bombastic head coach to finally get back to do what he does best.

Joe Namath begged to differ with Ryan on how this team would do.

Ryan is not wrong for believing in his team, which has the talent to make a January run with a great defense and a great running game. But January football features quarterbacks that need to make the big plays that win games in the postseason.

This is why the Jets are not going to do much in the playoffs. Mark Sanchez is not ready to play on this stage just yet.

It’s hard to think Sanchez will do much tomorrow unless he surprises everybody. Palmer can be trusted to put up at least one or two touchdowns, and a bounce back performance by the Bengals quarterback is why Cincinnati will defeat the Jets in the wild-card game. So this is going to be short-lived for Rex’s bunch.

It should be a close game, with great defense and an efficient running game. Look for both teams to score points to the point the game will come down to the fourth quarter. In fact, itmight just come down to the final possession of the game.

But does anyone think Sanchez has what it takes to lead in that stretch? Can he engineer a long drive that can give the Jets a chance to finish and win the game?

He’s shown so far that he can’t. For example, against the Falcons, when the Jets had a shot to win the game, he threw an interception to dash all hope.

To be fair to him, though, he gave the Jets a chance to win by scoring a late touchdown against the Jaguars. The Jets led with two minutes to go, but the defense failed to finish as Maurice Jones-Drew ran for a touchdown.

It’s possible he might do the same, but what evidence is out there that he can. He showed no progress late in the season and struggled to understand what Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and Jets quarterback coach Matt Cavanaugh was teaching.

It was so bad that Ryan got involved in trying to help his beleaguered quarterback by bringing in Yankees manager Joe Girardi to help him how to slide not to mention showing those color-coded plays to help him.

Sanchez never had to do much in the final two weeks since he was told to give the ball to Thomas Jones. Now, he has to utilize the running game if the Jets are going to win a game in January.

Ryan believes the Jets can get by with a quarterback who does not have to do much. Afterall, as a member of the Ravens coaching staff in 2000 he witnessed Baltimore win a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer of all quarterbacks.

That said, that was a fluke. It’s hard to go far without a great play by the quarterback. It’s something Ryan should remember when he watched Joe Flacco struggled in the AFC Championship game last year.

No one expect Sanchez to go throw 25 times here; he doesn’t have to air it out for the Jets to win. He needs to execute on third down at every opportunity and put his team in a position to get points.

A touchdown would be nice, but field goals would be good enough here.

Maybe Sanchez proves everyone wrong. That’s the beauty of sports. We always expect the unexpected in postseason games where great moments formed.

Unfortunately, don’t expect it.

That’s why it was not wise of Rex to open his mouth unless he is really sure.

It’ll be up to his quarterback to make him look like a prophet not a fool.

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Seahawks Attempt to Turn Corner With Heavy Pursuit of Pete Carroll

Published: January 9, 2010

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Pete Carroll appeared cool and relaxed on the telecast of Thursday night’s BCS Championship. He calmly questioned Texas coach Mack Brown’s decision to run a shovel pass just before halftime, resulting in an interception for a touchdown and a 24-6 Alabama lead. The USC coach, though, did not seem on the verge of a major career move.

Roughly 12 hours later, Carroll emerged as the leading candidate in the Seahawks’ coaching vacancy after the firing of coach Jim Mora on Friday.

A proposed deal between Carroll and the Seahawks to become the team’s new coach is likely, according to multiple reports. The former New England Patriots and New York Jets coach is set to sign a five-year deal at approximately $7 million a year to become the Seahawks’ president and coach, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Earlier in the week, Carroll met with Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times. During a Wednesday press conference, Mora sidestepped a question on whether Leiweke guaranteed his return next season, telling reporters “I haven’t talked to Tod in a day, (he’s) busy with some other things.” The comments may suggest that Leiweke could have been courting Carroll in the days following the Seahawks 17-13 season-ending loss to the Titans.

“We’ve made a tough decision today,” Leiweke said in a statement Friday. “It became apparent after conducting an extensive internal audit, that a new direction was needed to provide an opportunity for the organization to be successful. Today’s decision, while difficult, is part of the process in building a franchise with a new vision in 2010.”

Since USC won the second of back-to-back national titles in January of 2005, Carroll has been approached by several NFL teams, most notably the Atlanta Falcons and Miami Dolphins. The previous deals have reportedly not included an opportunity to serve in a front office capacity, a probable sticking point. A spokesman in the USC Sports Media Relations Department said rumors of Carroll’s return to the NFL have surfaced for the past several years at the end of the college football season.

“Pete’s name comes out at this time every year,” the spokesman said in a statement. “In the past, he hasn’t commented on such reports. At this point, we have nothing to report.”

Ironically, Carroll’s four-year record of 33-31 with the Jets and Patriots is similar to the 31-33 record Mora has compiled in four seasons as a head coach in the league. In the postseason, Mora is 1-1 after leading the Falcons to the NFC Championship in January of 2004, while Carroll is 1-2 in the playoffs. Since Carroll left the Patriots following the 1999 season, however, he has won more than 83 per cent of his games at USC, including seven straight Pac-10 titles from 2002-2008.

During Carroll’s tenure at USC, Seahawks middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu anchored the Trojans’ defense for two years and received First-team All-American honors in the 2004-2005 season.

A year later, Tatupu earned the starting middle linebacker position in Seattle and led the Seahawks to the NFC Championship. In the week leading to the Super Bowl, Seahawks safety Michael Boulware told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that USC would have won the national championship, and the Seahawks would not have captured the NFC title had Tatupu remained in college.

“He (Carroll) sets the bar highit’s like a pro team down there,” Tatupu said in an interview with the Press-Enterprise. “It’s very structured, like a job. You’re expected to perform well.”

Either by fortune or design, Carroll’s defense is structured in the same manner as the scheme used by Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley during the 2009 season. Bradley is a disciple of former Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and operated a system based on the “Tampa Two,” which frequently employed two and three-deep zones.

Kiffin also served as a mentor for Carroll at the University of Arkansas in 1977, when the young coach was an assistant in the secondary in the defensive coordinator’s system. It is there Carroll learned the principles of the 4-3 under blitz, predicated on jamming the box with up to eight defensive players.  

“In principle, we want to give our players a chance to know exactly what they have to defend.  We also want to give them an attitude in which to do that.  We want to be an attacking, aggressive football team,” Carroll said in a speech during a Nike coaching clinic. “We want to attack into the gap at the snap, get off the ball to play on their side of the field and get after the quarterback.” 

One Seahawks’ player familiar with Carroll’s tendencies on offense is wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The former Cerritos (Calif.) College wideout has spent the past several offseasons working out with Trojans quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs. This past summer, Houshmandzadeh took extensive repetitions with USC freshman quarterback Matt Barkley.

“One can only assume coming from SC, (Carroll’s) had a lot of success,” Houshmandzadeh told Seattle-area radio station ESPN 710 on Friday. “Guys are going to listen to what he has to say because of his track record. I think his experience will help him out.”

Before a deal with Carroll is finalized, the Seahawks must fulfill the requirements of the league’s Rooney Rule by interviewing a minority candidate for both their coaching and general manager vacancies. John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Minority Alliance, said in a phone interview Friday afternoon that he spoke with Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier earlier in the day.

Wooten said Frazier expects to meet with Seahawks officials, despite previous reports that the Minnesota assistant coach declined an interview. Frazier is expected to interview with the Seahawks on Saturday in Minneapolis, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The chairman of the alliance also said Seahawks officials have indicated they will create two separate positions for president and general manager of the team. Wooten said he provided Seahawks officials with a list of minority candidates that includes: Giants Director of College Scouting Marc Ross, Lions Vice President of Pro Personnel Sheldon White, Texans Director of Pro Personnel Brian Gardner, Chiefs Director of Pro Personnel Ray Farmer and Titans Director of Pro Scouting Lake Dawson.

The Seahawks could fulfill the requirements of the Rooney Rule by naming Carroll as team president and a minority candidate such as Ross as general manager, the Seattle Times reported. Wooten added that Seahawks officials indicated to him that they would begin the interviewing process for general manager next week.

In terms of minority coaching candidates, Wooten said the list he provided to Seahawks officials includes: Frazier, Dolphins wide receiver coach Karl Dorrell, former Buffalo interim coach Perry Fewell, Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Johnson, Broncos running backs coach Bobby Turner, and Ravens defensive backs coach Mark Carrier. Carrier earned First-team All-American honors as a safety at USC.

Houshmandzadeh said the possibility of Carroll’s hire could invigorate a locker room in strife at the tail-end of the season. The Seahawks finished 5-11 and lost their final four games by a combined margin of 123-37. As the players cleared out their lockers on Monday, several openly questioned their trust in the offense.

“Everybody has something to prove,” Houshmandzadeh said of the possibility of playing for Carroll. “It’s like meeting a woman for the first time (and) taking her on a date, man. You got to do everything you can to impress her. We are all on high alert, we have to come out and do our best.”

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Bill Cowher Unlikely to Coach in 2010

Published: January 9, 2010

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Former Head Coach Bill Cowher wants to coach again, that is a certainty.

Cowher’s options are seemingly limited as this year as head coach firings are few and far between, especially considering the number of other high-profile coaches available. So far, his options run the gamut from the Buffalo Bills to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

At this point and time, other teams like the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, and Chicago Bears are high contenders as well, but their current coaching contracts prohibit them. Each team’s current wheelmen have uncertain futures with their teams, so only time will reveal the result.

Cowher isn’t simply settling for a vacant headset and a wad of cash, he is looking for a position similar to Mike Holmgren’s when he was in Seattle. Cowher wants control over the personnel and overall direction of the team.

Tampa Bay has offered Cowher a $6 million deal, but, Shanahan’s $7 million contract with the Washington Redskins nullifies Cowher’s chances for taking such a low bid. Buffalo also has a chance at nabbing Cowher but their small market and marginal roster talent won’t be enough to attract “the chin.”

Cowher’s most likely destination is Charlotte. The Carolina Panthers have promising young talent on both sides of the ball and a potential franchise quarterback in Matt Moore.

John Fox has one more year on his contract and Jerry Richardson has made it clear that Fox will retain his position through 2010 but, with General Manager Marty Hurney’s contract expiring in June, the Panthers are in terrific shape to give Cowher a big, fat contract and unlimited control at the start of the 2011 season-that is, if Cowher is willing to wait.

The threat of a lockout in 2011 and the end of the current CBA is also a concern for both team and Cowher but he will sign with a team regardless. Also, Cowher has lived in North Carolina for a number of years and will, no doubt, have the support of his family if he opts to stay in the area.

Cowher may not commit to any team this year, but that doesn’t mean his talents won’t be missed.

Next year, there is sure to be a number more of head coach firings and, while Carolina will likely remain at the top of Cowher’s short list, a number of other teams will be vying for his leadership.

Any decision that Cowher makes needs to come quickly, though. His Super Bowl win in 2005 is slowly becoming a moot point.

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Underdog Ravens Must Focus On Four Key Points Sunday

Published: January 9, 2010

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Amongst the other three anticipated matchups of the weekend, one that isn’t getting a load of exposure is the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. 

Maybe it’s due to these two teams being fairly familiar with one another, or the fact that the Ravens are basically being written off as people feel they don’t stand a chance against Tom Brady and his Patriots.

For a number of reasons, though, there is a case to be made for the Ravens in this wild-card game. Sure they are clear underdogs against an equipped Patriots team that has been well-balanced all season, but Baltimore has all the weapons needed to contain the Patriots at Foxboro.

1. Defense

When you think of Baltimore, you think of defense. If you have the opportunity to catch the pre-game warm ups, pay close attention to the Ravens huddle. Linebacker Ray Lewis will be more fired up than ever, and he has reason to be for this game.

Ranked third in total defense on the season, and fifth in stopping the run, the Ravens will throw everything including the kitchen sink at Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Laurence Maroney.

In the past, the Ravens defense has rattled Brady. Besides Lewis, expect a few corner blitzes early from cornerbacks Chris Carr and Domonique Foxworthy. The two have combined for six interceptions on the year, and if one of these guys gets a hand on the Patriots quarterback, be prepared to see a half throw and a loose ball on the ground.

Ed Reed is also a talking point in this one. Last season, he kept the Ravens alive in the postseason, and is the backbone of the Ravens defense. Although he’s been injured for parts of the season and has barely padded his stats, Bill Belichick will be well aware of his presence.

2. Get Ray Rice Going Early

Another positive that the Ravens have is the ability to mix and match running backs between Ray Rice and Willis McGahee. Few teams in the league have the freedom, and the Ravens need to take advantage of it.

The underrated running back out of Rutgers, Rice has made a name for himself in his second season in the NFL. Seven touchdowns and 1,339 yards on the year speaks for itself.

Burst after the tackle is one of Rice’s strengths. If the Ravens get a quick turnover from the Patriots deep in their own territory, handing the ball to Rice to pound some yards would be the best option.

3. Less Time Joe Flacco Has the Ball, the Better

Like I said, giving the ball to Ray Rice is the better option. Although Flacco is still developing and really finding his arm in the NFL, he still isn’t the type of guy that you want to rely on too much in a playoff game of this importance.

After starting the season off poorly, things gradually got better. Twelve interceptions for twenty one touchdowns on the season aren’t bad numbers on the season for a second year starter, but with a defense like New England’s to face (especially with Vince Wilfork right across from centre), having Flacco bide time with the ball in the pocket isn’t an option for Baltimore.

4. Penalties

For those of you who watched the Monday Night Football game five weeks ago against Green Bay, you’re pretty much used to the color yellow by now.

The Ravens aren’t the most penalised team in the league, but they suffer enormous yardage loss on pass interference calls.

Offensively and defensively, they simply cannot afford to making mistakes that cost them yards. A team like New England is dangerous, whether you give them a one-yard advantage or a 15-yard advantage. 

Ravens wide receivers need to avoid the pushing and shoving game on the offensive side of the ball. Physicality is a must to win, but the Ravens are only doing themselves harm when they get too hands on when covering deep routes.

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NFL Playoffs: Opening Round Predictions and Scores

Published: January 9, 2010

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The NFL Playoffs have finally arrived and for the first time in several years, there is no real favorite to win it all. The Super Bowl is wide open this year and what about the possibility of a Rodgers vs Favre playoff rematch? How about Manning vs Brady again? The battle of the USC quarterbacks should be interesting on Saturday as well. Or perhaps McNabb will finally break through and win a ring.

Last postseason I did picks just like these and predicted the Cardinals would play in the Super Bowl, they did. Let’s hope I can be as accurate as last year and hopefully we have a January to remember! Feel free to give me your predictions as well, it is always great to hear other opinions. Let the predictions begin…

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Possible Cleveland-Miami Trade For Cribbs If No Deal Is Reached

Published: January 9, 2010

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Browns offer Cribbs new deal…..

Cribbs is disgusted…..

Browns say offer is final…..

Cribbs and agents act very unprofessional…..

BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH……….

If Cribbs can’t act professional and a deal cannot be negotiated, the Browns should deal him. It shouldn’t matter if we can just bench him. The value we can get over benching him is too much.

Therefore, I have a possible trade between the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins. It is definitely lopsided towards the Browns, but not too lopsided.

The Miami Dolphins get:
-KR/PR/WR/RB Joshua Cribbs
-QB Brady Quinn
-CB Bradnon McDonald

The Cleveland Browns get:
-QB Chad Henne
-SS Yeremiah Bell
-WR Ted Ginn Jr.
-CB Nate jones or Jason Allen

Miami gets the king of the wildcat offense and the best special teams player in the NFL, or maybe even all time.

They also get a quarterback who can manage a game and play well with a good offense like Miami’s and has experience under the wild-cat offense.

McDonald is somewhat of just a throw-in in this trade but could really help the Dolphin’s defense in the secondary.

Cleveland gets a new and young and successful quarterback who, not exactly 100% proven, is better than both Quinn and Derek Anderson.

They also add a defensive leader in Bell, who can intercept the ball (had three this year), sack a quarterback (7.5 in his career), and is a tackling machine.

They get Cribb’s replacement in Ginn who is a better receiver than Cribbs, and has blazing speed which could help open the Browns running game up.

Lastly, they get a player to add depth into the Browns secondary. Either Jones or Allen could start, or play behind a player the Browns acquire in the offseason, hopefully the draft.

Yes, like I said, the trade is lopsided and favors the Browns, but Miami loves the wildcat. Cribbs could run it better than anyone.

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Eagles Will Beat Dallas: Roll On, Super 5, Roll On

Published: January 9, 2010

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As my four regular readers know, I met Donovan McNabb, or as he is referred to in this space, Super 5, three weeks ago. He is my favorite athlete is the history of Philadelphia sports.

Today, Rich Hoffman of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote a piece saying that Super 5, barring a run to the Super Bowl, will not be back next year.

I am a big fan of Rich Hoffman. He is the best Philly columnist since the legendary Bill Lyon. I happen to agree with him here. I have said, repeatedly since April, that the Eagles will not bring Super 5 back without at least a conference championship.

Here’s where Rich and I differ: I believe that the Birds get it done this year. And it starts Saturday.

Yeah, I know, the Cowboys have exercised the December demons. They finished the season 3-2, including a win over the NFC’s top seed, New Orleans.

They swept the Eagles, including a 24-0 shelling in the final week of the regular season. In 19 third meetings involving teams with a regular season sweep in NFL history, the team that finished the season sweep has won the third game 12 times.   

Tony Romo dumped that bad luck heifer Jessica Simpson.

The Cowboys got this, right?

Wrong.

Because we have Super 5.

Look, 3-2 is nice, but the Eagles were 6-1 down the stretcha fact everyone seems to be forgetting. Andy Reid has never (AND THE ROCK MEANS) ever lost his first playoff game. Wade Phillips has never won his first playoff game.

Romo is playing well, but he’s never won under the playoff crucible.

Super 5 has won nine times in the playoffs. He, also, has never lost his first playoff game.

The Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game since 1996, but, really, that is more a function of circumstance. They had some really bad teams in there, and some really bad coaches too, so we’ll throw that one out. The bottom line is, this game will come down to one thing: the play of Donovan McNabb.

Here’s the thing. He wasn’t very good last week. There has been an enormous amount of negativity around him and the team this week. There is some sentiment that it is time to move on. His back is against the wall.

Every timeevery single timeMcNabb has been backed into a corner, he comes out fighting. Last year, he played seven of the worst quarters of football I have ever seen from any player, at any position. He was benched at halftime in that brutal Baltimore game.

How did he respond? Oh, all he did was light up Arizona for 260 yards and four touchdowns to kick off a stretch where the team finished the regular season 4-1 to make the playoffs and go to the NFC Championship for the FIFTH time in his career.

Speaking of NFC Championships, let’s go to the 2004 game. The Eagles were in their fourth one in a row, and there was talk that McNabb should be traded because he was going to lose AGAIN. Michael Vick and the Falcons, fresh off beating Brett Favre in Lambeau, were going to come to the Linc and beat the Eagles, too.

What did McNabb do then? Well, he didn’t lose there, either, winning 27-10.

At the end of the regular season that year, the Eagles sat their regulars for the last two games, and there was talk that they would be rusty and McNabb would lose the first playoff game. McNabb was so rusty that he outdueled Daunte Culpepper for the win, 27-14, throwing for 286 yards and two touchdowns.

Earlier that year, the Eagles lost to the Steelers, and all the focus was one the “argument” that McNabb and Terrell Owens had on the sidelines. All week, the talk was about McNabb’s lack of leadership, Owens’ lack of respect, and how the team would come apart. What happened?

He had 345 yards and four touchdowns. Against the Cowboys. In Dallas. Including a 14.1 second, Playstation-esque, if I hadn’t seen it and you told me about it I wouldn’t have believed it scramble.

And now we have Tony Romo. The up and coming Dallas superstar is going to pass McNabb by, right? He will shred the Eagles defense, right? McNabb will struggle and choke, just like he always does, right?

When I met McNabb, he had a friend with him. I told them what a big fan I was, about the article I wrote calling him the greatest player in Philly sports history of my lifetime, and how I was so sick of the haters.

His reply? “We love the haters. They make us stronger.”

So count him out. Write him off. Call him a choker. I won’t. Not now, not ever.

Eagles 38, Dallas 24.

Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock.

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The Most Improbable Championship: the 2001 New England Patriots

Published: January 8, 2010

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This is part two of a decade retrospective. Part one is here.

Looking back, it’s hard to appreciate just how absurd the 2001 Super Bowl championship Patriots season was.

This was a team that had gone nowhere in 2000 and looked to be going nowhere once again. The Pats had made moves, to be sure, but they were all veterans on the downside of their careers (Bryan Cox, Otis Smith, Roman Phifer), players who hadn’t done anything yet (Mike Vrabel, David Patten), and castoffs (Antowain Smith, Jermaine Wiggins).

In fact, they opened the season by losing to the woeful (as in “just coming off a solid decade of losing seasons” woeful) Cincinnati Bengals. (Though the Bengals did go on to post an 8-8 record that year behind Jon Kitna. Go figure.)

Then came the events of Sept. 11, and everything was thrown into chaos. The nation, looking for something to distract itself from an ever-darkening world outlook, turned to sports.

The NFL cancelled its games that weekend, moving the Patriots’ contest with the (then 1-0, but eventually 1-15) Carolina Panthers to the end of the season. Instead, the Pats would face off against their hated rival, the New York Jets.

In that sloppy game, Bledsoe took a hard hit from linebacker Mo Lewis, and the franchise’s fortunes changed forever. In stepped a young, unknown sixth-rounder from Michigan: Tom Brady. The Pats, though, still lost the game.

(To continue my Bledsoe love from the last installment: Bledsoe was ridiculuously injuredhe had a sheared blood vessel and was bleeding internally. He came back in on the next series. He took an insane amount of punishment to give his team the best chance to win. Again, underrated.)

Brady was an odd choice to start the next game, against a ferocious Indianapolis team. After all, the Patriots had Damon Huard, a veteran who had backed up Dan Marino (and had filled in admirably during Marino’s occasional absences). Yet Belichick had confidence in the young player and had the chutzpah to bet his career on that feeling.

The Pats crushed the Colts, 44-13, in a day where the defense reigned supreme. Cox set the tone early, nailing Colts receiver Jerome Pathon over the middle. Otis Smith and Ty Law each got a pick-six, and the Pats had put up 20 points before the Colts even got on the board.

Someone once said (I think it was Charlie Weis) that the 2001 Patriots had suffered in the first few games because Bledsoe had become the franchise guythat is, when things got rough, everyone would stand around and wait for him to make a play.

Thing is, you can’t play football that way. Plays develop when everyone on the field is trying to make things happen. So Bledsoe wouldn’t be able to change things, and the team would lose.

That theory is true, and I think this game shows it. Brady actually did very little to win this gamehe was 13-of-23 for 168 yards and no TDsbut everyone else stepped up their game, and they crushed a superior team.)

The Pats also dropped their next game to the Dolphins, with Brady going a lackluster 12-of-24 for 86 yards (though opposing QB Jay Fiedler only threw for 87 yards in a game that set offensive football back 75 years).

The next game, though, is where the legend of Brady truly began. New England was facing off against a resurgent Chargers team (3-1 after a 1-15 season) and Doug Flutie. The Pats were down by 10 in the fourth, but Brady let the team on field-goal and touchdown drives (the latter coming with 36 seconds left in the game), tying the game up. In a recurring theme, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winner in overtime.

(This game sent the Chargers into a tailspin. They finished 5-11 and dumped Flutie for then-rookie Drew Brees. Essentially, this game ended Flutie’s career. Sorry, Doug.)

(Also, this was the only game in which then-star-receiver Terry Glenn played, because he got into a tiff with Belichick. That’s rightwith Bledsoe injured and Glenn deactivated, the Pats played 13 of their 16 games without either of their offensive stars.)

The Pats were 5-4 heading into a game with the reigning Super Bowl-champion St. Louis Rams.

They made it a tight game, even leading at one point, but Smith fumbled on the goal line, and they ended up losing by seven. Still, the game showed that the Patriots could face off against the top teams in the league.

The Pats would not lose again that season.

Their first-round matchup was against the hated Raiders, and became one of the few games in NFL history to receive a nickname: The Tuck Rule game. It was played in a driving snowstorm, and much of the game was unremarkable.

The Pats were down by 10 when Brady dropped back, pumped his arm and was hit by corner Charles Woodson. The ball came loose, and it was ruled a fumble on the field, with the Raiders recovering.

Upon further review, referee Walt Coleman determined that Brady’s arm was still moving forward and, though he obviously had no intention of passing, the loose ball was still a forward pass.

The rest of the game seemed inevitable. The Patriots tied it up, and Vinatieri hit the hardest kick of all time to win the game in overtime.

Raiders fans, of course, claim the call was unfair. Even if this call was completely wrong (it wasn’t), you could claim it was karma from 1976, in which an infamous “phantom roughing the passer” call was made against the Patriots in a playoff game against these same Raiders. The call gave the Raiders the game, and they ended up as eventual Super Bowl champions.

It all balances out.

The AFC Championship game against the Steelers was when it became apparent that this team was living in some alternate-universe sports movie.

Brady was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, leaving – who else – Drew Bledsoe to lead this team to victory. Bledsoe completed his first pass in months, then took a hard hit as he was running out of bounds (in a play eerily similar to the one that ended his tenure as Patriots starting quarterback). He responded by nailing a pass to David Patten in the corner of the end zone.

(What few people remember, though, was that Bledsoe’s performance for the rest of the game was somewhat… lackluster. He went 10 for 21 and 102 yards, and the team’s only other offensive points that day came from a Vinatieri field goal in the fourth quarter.)

(By the way, check out Troy Brown’s punt return touchdowns that year. The dude would just run straight ahead, parting defenses like the Red Sea. I haven’t seen anyone do that since.)

The only team standing between the Pats and glory was the Rams.

This team looked laughably overmatched, like the team that lost to the Bears 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. Hell, the game was even being played in the same buildingthe Louisiana Superdome.

From the start, though, things seemed to break the Patriots’ way. Even the introductions seemed charmed, with the Pats choosing to be introduced as a team, instead of player-by-player.

Watching the team video from 2001, you can see Ricky Proehl, just before introductions, saying, “Tonight, the dynasty is born.” That must’ve really pissed the Pats off, because not only did they beat him in this Super Bowl, but they came back and defeated his Panthers team in 2003.

The lesson? Never say anything camera-worthy before a big game.)

The Patriots jumped to a 14-3 lead, behind an overpowering defense (which led to a 47-yard Law interception return for a TD).

The first game against the Rams had helped, after all. In David Halberstam’s book “The Education of a Coach,” he recounts how Belichick solved the Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” offense.

According to Halberstam, Belichick realized the Rams attack was centered around running back Marshall Faulk. In the first game, Belchick had though Kurt Warner was the key figure, and attacked him without effect. Through film study, Belichick saw that Faulk set the team’s rhythm, and told his players to constantly hit Faulk, no matter where he was on the field.

Many said Rams coach Mike Martz was foolish for not using Faulk enough. Belichick’s defense, though, kept Martz from using Faulk in the way he wished to use the back. Martz was unwilling to change to a more successful, but less comfortable, way of doing things.

The Rams rallied quickly, scoring a quick 14 points in the fourth quarter to tie the game.

The Patriots got the ball with 1:21 left in the game. John Madden said Belichick should play for overtime. Belichick disagreed.

(Tom Brady said offensive coordinator Charlie Weis gave him the tactical plan for the drive – try a few safe throws, and see where things go. He then went to Bledsoe, who told him to “just sling it.” Who says that? If you needed further proof that this season was life imitating some insane sports movie, there it is.)

Brady threw a couple of passes to running back J.R. Redmond, then found Troy Brown with a 23-yard strike.

Spiked ball. Vinatieri kick. Patriots win, 20-17.

(Catch part three on Monday)

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NFL Playoff Preview: Rematches and The Significance They Bear

Published: January 8, 2010

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So this is how the NFL does a doubleheader.  

This weekend, three games will feature matchups between teams that played each other just a week before.

So it begs the question: Just how is the game planning affected?

A lot of times, it depends on the context and scenario’s from the previous week, the regular season finale.  

Each situation is different.  Some teams had everything locked up, some had everything to play for, and some had fates that fell somewhere in between.

That said, here’s a look at each game and the dynamics surrounding them.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. New York Jets

Going into last week’s game, the Bengals essentially had everything wrapped up, postseason-wise.  

The Jets, on the other hand, were fighting for their playoff lives.

So, were the Bengals playing a vanilla scheme, as to not tip their hand for a future playoff meeting?  Or are they in trouble?  

Coach Marvin Lewis has been relatively coy this week, not divulging any information of note, as well he shouldn’t.  But chances are, a better Cincinnati team will take the field this Sunday.  Plus, they’ll now be in their own stadium.

Conventional wisdom says that it’s the Jets who have the most scheming to do, given that it was they, having everything to play for, who showed the Bengals everything they had.  

Granted, Chad Ochochinco and Co. stumbled a bit towards the end of the season.  But on the whole, Cincinnati remains fundamentally sound.  

Throw in the fact that they should be playing emotional, inspired football in the wake of Chris Henry’s death, and this team should be dangerous.   

Pick: Cincinnati

Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Last week, with the NFC East title on the line, the Eagles got shellacked by the hungry and resurgent Cowboys.  

While that might initially cue the red flags and warning signs in Philly, there’s actually no need to panic as much as some might think.  

See, the pressure’s on Dallas.  Having to beat a team twice in a year is hard; beating them three times is even more difficult.  Plus, it is they, not the Eagles, who have everything to lose.  

After years of December futility, the Cowboys finally put together a decent winning streak last month.  Can they keep it up?  

Also, their embattled coach, Wade Phillips, must win this game to keep his job, recent success be damned.  At least that’s what most are saying, anyway.  Who really knows what goes on in the mind of the mercurial Jerry Jones.  

So, all of that said, look for Philadelphia to be looser, more hungry and loaded with tricks up their sleeves.  Rest assured the players have been reading the press reports all week that have them getting blown out by the Cowboys.  

Pick: Philadelphia

Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers

Other than players’ personal statistics, the Cardinals really didn’t have too much to play for last week.  And it almost bit them in the butt, with Anquan Boldin getting injured.

The Packers, on the other hand, are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, peaking at just the right time.  

Then again, Arizona is sporting a better record and winning percentage in the final three games than they did last year, when they went to the Super Bowl.  

Look for the Cardinals to have a few more wrinkles in their scheme than the Packers. Green Bay defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, will no doubt be coming up with a plan to disrupt the timing-dependent Kurt Warner.  

And no doubt Arizona coach Ken Wishenhunt knows this.  With another chance given to them after a heart-breaking loss in the title game last year, they will be on a mission to better their playoff showing.  

This won’t be your same old, inconsistent Cardinals.  The question, however, is whether or not Green Bay can weather the storm.  

At any rate, this game promises to have an intriguing result no matter who wins.  

Why?  The winner will face the Vikings the next week in the divisional round.  Either way you slice it, there’re storylines aplenty; both squads have an interesting history this year with the Minnesota Brett Favres.   

Pick: Cardinals  

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this weekend is the fact that no matter their respective division, all teams have the proverbial “knowing each other well” factor going on.  

As we all know, that makes for much better football.  In fact, this could be one of the more interesting and noteworthy wild card weekends in recent memory.  

An honorable mention on this list is the New England vs. Baltimore game.  They, too played each other back in Week Four.  

So, sit back and savor the storylines.

Relish the higher level of intensity.  

Just don’t let anyone tell you this weekend is short on excitement.   

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What Pete Carroll to Seattle Could Mean For The Seahawks Draft

Published: January 8, 2010

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Rumors continue to swirl this evening about Pete Carroll being courted for the now vacant head coaching job in Seattle.  While nothing is definite (yet), let’s take a moment and speculate on just what that could mean for the Seahawks in the upcoming draft.

The Seahawks are coming off a forgettable 5-11 campaign, one that saw the eventual termination of Jim Mora Jr.  While the roster needs for the Seahawks may seem plenty, really filling the void at just a few spots would go a long way.

The most staggering stat that you see when running down the rankings of 2009 is that Seattle was 30th in pass defense, 22nd in interceptions.  If you ever wanted to hire a guy to help with that, Carroll’s your man.  He’s held defensive coordinator positions and defensive backs coaching gigs at various collegiate and NFL stops in his career.  He’s got an impressive pedigree of defensive players from USC in the NFL now (Troy Polamalu, Lofa Tatupu, Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, etc), so picking the right players to fit a team should be no problem.

Seattle has two first round selections in the 2010 draft, the sixth spot and 14th spot.  If Carroll is gunning for a defensive back with either spot, he can probably count out Tennessee’s Eric Berry, who is a virtual lock to be a top five pick. 

That leaves Carroll’s own All-American project, safety Taylor Mays.   Mays was built up to be the west coast Eric Berry, but his senior season was not overly impressive.  He ended with only one interception, and his size (6-3, 236) leaves many wondering if he may eventually project as a linebacker.  Though he does bring tremendous speed to the table.

So then what about Florida’s shut down CB Joe Haden?  He’s only  a junior, but has declared for the draft and is ranked by many to be the top corner in the draft. 

Carroll would have his choice between Mays and Haden, but Haden may be the safer pick for a true DB. 

The other need for Seattle is on offensive line, with a group that was in the bottom third of the league in sacks allowed.  Many think Oklahoma State OT Russell Okung will be a top 5 pick, just out of the Seahawks’ reach.  Should he fall to the sixth spot, there’s no reason Seattle shouldn’t snatch him up.  By far the best tackle in this year’s class.

Should Okung be gone, there are numerous other tackles to choose from.  The best though is Anthony Davis from Rutgers.  At 6-6 325 he’s a massive size perfect for run blocking in the NFL, something the Seahawks must improve upon (they finished 25th in run yards per game).  Other potential OL picks would be Bruce Campbell from Maryland, Bryan Bulaga from Iowa, or USC’s own Charles Brown.

Filling the defensive back and offensive line with first round talent would be a great start for Carroll.  But we know the Trojans are more than grinders and smash mouth defenders.  He’s got a vast array of offensive weapons, and perhaps he’d be looking for that in the first round.

Many have suggested the Seahawks should target a quarterback.  With a QB class that’s pretty deep, there’s no need to get on in the first round.  You’ll have Bradford and McCoy and Clausen go off in the first round likely, but there will be talent behind them with guys like Jevan Snead from Ole Miss and Dan LeFevour from Central Michigan.  Carroll can afford to be patient with a QB, since Hasselback still has some good years left.

But perhaps a speedy tailback that’s versatile in the passing game would help?  Look no further than Clemson’s CJ Spiller, a dynamic playmaker from the running back position and as a wideout.  Spiller excels best, however, in the return game.  Seattle had 109 receptions from the running back position in 2009, proving the guys in the backfield do more than just run with the ball. 

Seattle does have a decent pair of backs in Julius Jones and Justin Forsett, so it would be hard to see exactly where Spiller would fit in right away beyond special teams.  Do you use a first round pick on a special teams guy?  It may not hurt to help Seattle’s aging receiving corps and get a wideout.  There’s plenty in this draft, and either Illinois’ Arrelious Benn or Cincinnati’s Mardy Gilyard should be lingering in the second round for Carroll to pounce on.

Look for an interesting draft from Seattle regardless of who their coach is.  With so many potential roster spots to fill and two first-round picks, big decisions await the new head man at Qwest Field.

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