Friday, August 31, 2012

NFL 2012: Previewing the NFC

NFC East

1.) New York Giants 13-3 (1)  (OVER 9)

After winning the 2007 Super Bowl, the Giants started 2008 11-1. They were the best team in the NFL entering December, but Plaxico Burress decided to carry a gun in sweatpants into a club (and have Michael Bloomberg make an example of Plaxico). The Giants this season could easily follow everything that the 2008 Giants did, other than the nightclub shooting part. The 2008 Giants were better than the 2012 Giants at only three units: linebacker, o-line and running back. The 2012 Giants have a better secondary, d-line, receivers and, most importantly, Quarterback. The Giants should be fine in 2012, and they are flying slightly under the radar. That over under is ridiculously low. The Giants are closer to the team that finished 6-0 than the team that started 7-7.

2.) Philadelphia Eagles 11-5 (5)  (OVER 10)

Oh, the Eagles. The "dream team" might actually have a season much closer to a dream in 2012. The Eagles defense came on strong late in 2012 under, yes, Juan Castillo. Without Samuel, the Eagles can get to more straight bump-press man coverage schemes that should work better. Their d-line is still beastly. As for the offense, for some reason, I think DeSean Jackson will actually try this year. He really wanted that contract, and did nothing to earn it, so maybe he will go the other way from the many people who played hard to get the contract and did nothing after. Sure, Vick getting hurt is always a risk, but Nick Foles looks a lot more competent than Vince Young. Overall, the Eagles could easily win this division if the Giants slip, but either way, trusting the Reid-Vick duo was not a complete mistake by Jeff Lurie.

3.) Dallas Cowboys 7-9  (UNDER 8.5)

The Cowboys are close to falling apart. Jason Witten's spleen is about to explode, and so is the Jerry World Machine in Dallas. Miles Austin is still gimpy and Dez Bryant is being babysat like a three year old. The whole thing just seems like a mess. Add in a defensive coach who thinks way too highly of himself and his abilities, and a secondary that still has no safety help, and this team probably wouldn't match what they did a year ago. Their offense is still good enough to stay competitive, but a tough schedule with the NFC South and AFC North will not make life easy in a fight to beat last years 8-8 record.

4.) Washington Redskins 6-10  (UNDER 6.5)

Why does anyone think the Redskins defense is any good? I really want to know, because I have heard this theory that RGIII could have a good rookie season due to a good defense, but here's a nice trend line: 296-336-377-367. Those are the points allowed total over the past four years for the Redskins, starting with 2008 and ending with 2011. That defense is old. They have three young players that are quite good in Orakpo, Kerrigan and Carriker, but guys like Hall, Fletcher, and Cofield aren't getting much younger. As for the offense, because this is Mike Shanahan they probably will still have a good running game, but RGIII doesn't have the best of receiving weapons. Add it all up, and the team will be improved from 2011, but not much so.

NFC North

1.) Chicago Bears 12-4 (2)  (MY LOCK OVER 8.5)

The Bears are the first of two teams that were 7-3 last season before losing their starting QB. Both teams I have playing each other in the Super Bowl. As for the Bears, I think every offseason move they have made has been really good. I love getting Brandon Marshall. He and Jay Cutler were one of the most dynamic young QB-WR combos in the NFL in their day. I love the drafting of Alshon Jeffery. I love signing Michael Bush, who is much better as a back-up, pound-the-rock type than a feature back. I like going to Tice's schemes that will emphasize more protection for Cutler. That defense is still quite good if slightly old, so they better put it together this season. The team is easily good enough to clear the 8.5 wins on the over, and will challenge the Packers for the division.

2.) Green Bay Packers 11-5 (6)  (UNDER 12)

The Packers won't go 15-1. They won't have a QB set a record for passer rating or throw 45 TDs to 6 INTs. That said, they won't have the worst pass defense of all time in terms of yards allowed either. The Packers are an interesting team. They weren't 15-1 good last season. Despite rarely trailing in the 2nd halves of games, they didn't really blow out a whole bunch of teams, and were totally one-sided. I have to think they turn into something between what they were in 2010 (a good offense and a great defense) and 2011 (a below average defense and an extremely efficient machine of an offense), which results into something like what they were in 2009 (a good but inconsistent defense and a great offense). That season resulted in an 11-5 season, and I think this one will too. There definitely will be some regression for the Packers, and in reality they were more of a 12-4 or 13-3 team last season, so 11-5 seems about right. As for the over/under, picking any team to win 13 games (the OVER in this case) is pretty insane.

3.) Detroit Lions 7-9  (UNDER 9.5)

In many, many cases, this is the life cycle of a team. Year 1: surprise playoff berth. Year 2: fall back to earth and miss the playoffs. Year 3: reach their true level and make the playoffs once again. This is what happened to the Belichick Patriots from 2001-2003, or the Walsh 49ers from 1981-1983. I have a feeling this will happen to the Lions in 2012. It is important to remember that after a 5-0 start, the Lions finished the season 5-6. Stafford almost definitely will not throw for 5,000 yards, and their running game is barely any better. Their defense is about the same. Ndamukong Suh might go back to the level he showed as a rookie, and that D-Line is still pretty ferocious. However, if the d-line doesn't get home, the Lions have little in the secondary to stop guys like Rodgers and Cutler from feasting on them. They still have a really, really bright future, but as for their present, it isn't all that sunny.

4.) Minnesota Vikings 3-13  (UNDER 6)

I feel bad that Leslie Frazier will most likely get fired after a desolate season, but the Vikings should bottom out. They finally decided to commit to a QB in 2011, but seemingly overdrafted Christian Ponder (Joe Webb is still the most exciting backup in the league, though). With Peterson possibly starting the season slow, and migraine-prone Percy Harvin the only good receiver, the Vikings offense is probably among the worst in the NFL. As for the defense, well, they still have Jared Allen, but with the Williams Wall deroding and the backend getting worse and worse, the Vikings have one of the worst defenses in the NFL as well. Good luck for Vikings fans, though, is that Matt Barkley is sitting out there, a glimmering prize. Hope is a good thing.

NFC South

1.) Atlanta Falcons 10-6 (3)  (OVER 9)

They might actually be better than a 10-6 type team, but that is what a tough division and matchups against the good NFC East and underrated AFC West will do to you. The Falcons biggest offseason move was getting the best off-man corner in the NFL in Asante Samuel, who will combine with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson to form the best corner trio in the NFL. The pass rush needs to get better. Ray Edwards can't possibly have a worse year in Atlanta in 2012 than his year in 2011, so that is a good sign. As for the offense, they are among the most consistently good offenses in the NFL. They will rarely be great, but they have a player that could be great in Julio Jones. His increased production should replace what could be decreased production from Tony Gonzalez (of course, Gonzalez is a mythical figure that might never decline). The Falcons will be fine, and stand to gain a lot from the Saints mess, and should reclaim the division as the pendulum of the NFC South swings Atlanta's way again.

2.) New Orleans Saints 9-7  (UNDER 10)

Here is another team that will in no way match the offensive numbers they put up in 2011. There is no way Brees will get close to 5,400+ yards, or the team with 7,700 yards on offense. And yes, quite a bit of this has to do with the loss of Sean Payton. He perfectly connects with Brees and that is now broken. I seriously think the loss of Payton will have a large effect on that team. The defense might improve with Spagnuolo, but the Saints don't have the horses up front that the Giants or even the Rams (Chris Long, Robert Quinn) had. The guy on the Saints who had the most sacks in 2011 was Roman Harper. He's a safety, and having a safety lead the team in sacks isn't a good thing. An offense that will most certainly get worse, and a defense that might not improve as much as most people think with no coach or even backup coach for six games equals a disappointing season in every way.

3.) Carolina Panthers 7-9  (UNDER 7.5)

It is babysteps for the Panthers in 2012. There is a chance they have a Lions from 2011 type surge up to playoff contention, but I think that defense is still far away. The Lions at least had a really good pass rush going for it on that side of the ball. Plus, Cam's rookie year is probably not repeatable. The team in general is still firmly in the right direction, and I like Ron Rivera as a coach, but the team still has too many holes. The good part, though, for Panthers fans is that they will still be among the most fun and entertaining mediocre teams in the NFL. That is life with one of the best young QBs in the game and a defense that can't stop anything.

4.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11  (UNDER 6)

Call me the opposite of a true believer of a team that is getting hype mainly because of going on a Free-Agent signing spree and hiring a Belichick Apostle. Yeah, those things are proven ways to succeed in the NFL, aren't they? I have no idea why Greg Schaino is still able to live off of one great season six years ago, but it is ridiculous how many people assume he will be a good NFL coach. Also, Vincent Jackson was perfect for Philip Rivers and that Norv Turner offense. I have huge doubts about how well he will play for Josh Freeman in this offense. Carl Nicks is a safer pick, but still, one player does not a line make. I still have questions about Freeman, who's great play in 2010 was mainly based off an unsustainable interception rate. This team had one of the worst stretches in NFL history late in the season and we are ready to just forget about that because of signing a college coach?

NFC West

1.) Seattle Seahawks 9-7 (4)  (OVER 7)

I made the statement in my 10 predictions piece, and I stand by it. The Seahawks are a good bet to win that division. Their defense is one of the best in the NFL, led by one of the NFL's best secondaries, with tall corners Mike Sherman and Brandon Browner, and good young safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Their offense has a young o-line and one dynamic receiver who is finally, supposedly healthy. They also have a top-5 running back from 2011. Add it all up, and the Seahawks look like a perfect team to make it back to the playoffs. They are another team in the rise, and I feel happy for Pete Carroll, who has gotten far too much derision for merely average results in New England. By the way, this is also a pretty good lock to go OVER the projected 7.

2.) San Francisco 49ers 9-7  (UNDER 10)

I still like them long term. That defense is quite amazing, but what was arguably more amazing is that the 49ers barely had anyone get hurt last year. No way is that happening again. I don't really like their moves at receiver, as they brought in two guys that are more #3's to add to a receiving corp that still is not any good. I do like the pickup of Brandon Jacobs to take some of the heat of Frank Gore, who is close to running into the ground by this stage. Alex Smith has weapons, but I still think that he will throw some more interceptions. At the end of the day, there is no way the 49ers will be that healthy, or have a +28 turnover differential again. Those things will regress back towards normal, and the 49ers will too, at least for a year.

3.) Arizona Cardinals 6-10  (UNDER 7)

The Cardinals are a talented team without a head, and I think that is felt more this season than last because of drawing the AFC East and NFC North, as well as the Eagles and Falcons in intra-division games. The o-line is even worse this year than it was last year, and the team already won some extremely unrepeatable games under John Skelton. I have a feeling that John Skelton is what his statistics were and not his record. The defense still has pieces, but their age at key positions as well as lack of depth in the secondary. The Cardinals are a decent team, and if they actually get a franchise QB, they have the talent to win 10 games. That's probably why they should've gotten Peytao.

4.) St. Louis Rams 4-12  (UNDER 6)

Oh the sad, sad Rams. Did you know that the Rams set a record for the worst record over a 5-year span. I think they will get a little better, but the Rams are barely any better than they were a year ago. The defense could go either way, and the offense still is devoid of any receiving talent or offensive line talent. I love Steven Jackson, but his time is probably running out as a premier running back in the NFL. He can only do so much. The Rams will take some time to grow, and I hope that ownership gives Jeff Fisher the chance to make it happen, but it will be a long, slow process.

Projected Playoffs

1.) Giants 13-3
2.) Bears 12-4
3.) Falcons 10-6
4.) Seahawks 9-7
5.) Eagles 11-5
6.) Packers 11-5

Wild Card Playoffs

(3) Falcons over (6) Packers 28-21

The Falcons are in a good position to beat this Packers team. They have the secondary to slow down the Packers offense, and the Packers defense cannot come close to rushing the passer to the level they were in 2010.

(5) Eagles 27 over (4) Seahawks 14

The Seahawks are a good team, but they are not really on the Eagles level. The Eagles have the quick, speedy receivers that could give the Seahawks' secondary problems, while the Seahaws don't really have the receivers to give the Eagles secondary issues.

Divisional Playoffs

(1) Giants over (5) Eagles 23-17

A close game between two divisional rivals. This furthers the comparison between the 2008 season, as the #1 seed Giants laid an egg in the divisional round against the Eagles. This time, they don't lay a total egg, and beat the Eagles for the 2nd time in three weeks.

(2) Bears over (3) Falcons 27-16

The Bears are the perfect team to beat Atlanta. They have a running back that can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Falcons probably won't be able to get a good run game going against the Bears, and I don't like their team playing an outdoor playoff game in January.

NFC Title Game

(2) Bears over (1) Giants 24-21

The Bears do to the Giants what the Giants did to the Packers and 49ers in their playoff runs. The Bears will have a tough time blocking the Giants front, but I just like this matchup for the Bears for some reason. I don't think the Giants will be able to consistently move the ball against a Cover-2 team like the Bears.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

NFL 2012: 10 Underlined Predictions for the 2012 Season

With the NFL Playoff Countdown almost over (and it will end), it is time to look towards Year 1 of Decade 2 of my NFL Experience, or what is more commonly known as the 2012 NFL Season. To start, here are 10 underlined (not bold) predictions for the 2012 NFL Season. A lot of this will allude and play off what I will reveal in my AFC and NFC Previews later this weekend.

1.) Defenses return in force, as no QB throws for 5,000 yards or 40 TDs, and at most one team scores 500 points.

I had the same prediction before the 2010 season, and that came mostly true. In 2009, nine QBs threw for 4,000 yards and in 2010 only three did. Last year, ten QBs did the feat (and three topped 5,000). Last year, three teams scored over 500 points, including two top-5 teams (Saints, Packers). The only previous season to have multiple teams scoring over 500 was 1998 (Vikings and Broncos). I'll say this, no QB is throwing 5,000 yards. All the people drafting Brees or Brady high in fantasy leagues and just expecting 5,000 yards and 40+ TDs will be in for a surprise. There are two reasons why I feel this way: 1.) the 2011 season, partly due to a lockout, was a fluke that will just not repeat itself, and 2.) Replacement refs, who have been calling a lot less illegal contact and pass interference. The league is still moving in a pass-first and offense-first direction (despite absolutely no evidence that TV ratings and league interest is tied to scoring or passing), but 2011 was a fluke. Expect a slight correction in 2012.

2.) Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III don't make like Dalton and make the playoffs, but another rookie QB does.

Andrew Luck and RGIII inherited bad teams with bad offensive units (Colts o-line and Redskins skill positions) and marginal defenses (Colts) and tough divisions (Redskins). There is one rookie QB to inherit none of these things, and it isn't Mr. Lauren Tannehill (my God is that woman hot). Recently named starter Russell Wilson is that man, and he has the perfect situation. First, he's in a weak division, with the Rams still rebuilding, the Cardinals still QB-less, and the 49ers due for some serious regression. Next, he's good a defense whose floor is above average and whose ceiling is great. He has an offense with no bad positional groups. Receiver is the only questionable one with Sidney Rice's health. The Seahawks also have a great home field advantage, a manageable schedule (most of their hard out-of-division games are at home - New England, Green Bay) and a team that was already 7-9 with Tarvaris Jackson. The Seahawks will win the NFC West.

3.) The Cowboys become the Eagles, and the Eagles become, well, the McNabb era Eagles.

The Eagles enter this season with some of the hype they entered last season with, what with the 'dynasty' talk replacing the 'dream team,' while the Cowboys are getting some preseason love, with the selection of Morris Claiborne and the return of DeMarco Murray and co. But to me, the Eagles are clearly the better team. The Cowboys under Romo have peaked. They were 8-8 last year and deserved to be 8-8. The Eagles were 8-8 but deserved to be about 10-6, but threw away some early season games and then had to suffer the Vince Young experience. The Cowboys could easily be worse than 8-8, what with losing Miles Austin for some period of time and with Jason Witten's spleen becoming a supporting actor in the 2012 Cowboys show. The Cowboys defense has supposedly improved with the additions of Claiborne and Brandon Carr, but their safeties are still awful and their d-line has regressed. As for the Eagles, their backup QB situation is better than in 2011 seemingly, but their front-line talent is fine. Juan Castillo's defense seemed to gel as 2011 wore on, and they still have among the league's best pass rushes. DeSean Jackson promises to be more focused in 2011, and for some reason I believe him. The Cowboys will implode, and Jason Garrett could easily be fired after a third straight year without the Cowboys in January.

4.) The Texans get the AFC's top seed as they capitalize on the league's worst division.

The Texans after 10 games were the NFL's 2nd best team. They were 7-3, had the league's best defense and the third best offense. They had a top-5 pass and rush defense, with a QB with a 96.8 passer rating and the third best rushing attack in the NFL. They were the league's most complete team. Then Matt Schaub got hurt, and the Texans treaded water. They still managed to make the playoffs for the first time and win their first playoff game. They are flying under the radar heading into 2012 mainly because of a perceived salary purge in the offseason which saw them lose Mario Williams and Eric Winston. Of course, they managed that 2011 season with Mario Williams playing six games. Williams is gone, but Reed, Barwin and Watt are all a year older and better. Plus, Andre Johnson should play more than 7 games in 2012. Their o-line is still among the best in the NFL even without Winston. The best part for the Texans is that they can feast on the AFC South, a division with two rookie coaches (Mularkey and Pagano), a rookie QB (Luck), two sophomore QBs (Locker, Gabbert), and a sophomore coach (Munchak). Outside of Houston, this is the worst division in the NFL in 2012, and the Texans should go at least 5-1 in the division. They are still the most complete team in the AFC (Pittsburgh is probably 2nd), and they are, in my opinion, the best team in the AFC. The Texans will make the playoffs again, but this time, Matt Schaub will be behind center, not TJ Yates.

5.) Peyton Manning has one of the best three seasons of any QB in the NFL.

Peyton Manning seems healthy. He has weapons that equal what he had in Indy from 2007 to now, with Thomas, Decker, Caldwell (who played well when Palmer was his QB), Tamme and Dreessen equaling any combination of Wayne, post-injury Marvin, Moorehead, rookie Collie, sophomore Garcon and Dallas Clark. The best part is he has the best o-line he's had since 2006. Even without Chris Kuper for some time, the o-line is so much better than any Colts line since 2007 that it is scary. Manning had barely any time to throw from 2008-2010, and no real running game because of that same shit-ay o-line, but now it is all different. That o-line is good, and Manning hasn't had good in some time. Manning can be great in Denver because that offensive situation is great, and plus that defense isn't good enough for Manning to relax. There might be more than three QBs to have more yards or TDs, but in terms of their complete effect as a player, Manning will be a serious MVP candidate.

6.) The Steelers, despite having a defense as old as the city of Pittsburgh itself, will have the NFL's best defense, and LaMarr Woodley will be the centerpience.

Yes, it was largely due to the 49ers giving up 27 points in the season finale, but the Steelers did lead the NFL in scoring defense once again in 2011, which was the 3rd time in 4 seasons (2009 being the outlier). Well, I think it goes to four out of five. The Steelers defense may be "old" but just like the Steelers defense in the early 2000s, those older players will be phased out, and history shows that the transition will be smooth. Ziggy Hood is ready to break out, and Cameron Heyward and Steve McClendon are getting their MS in LeBeau-ology as we speak. Their top players are closer to the end than the beginning, but they are still in their primes. The Steelers defense in 2011 was the best in the AFC without Harrison and Woodley for 7 games a piece. They won't be that injured in 2012, and I think Woodley could be one of the better defensive players in the NFL in 2012. He has been slowly getting better each year, and now at 26, can have the first season of what could be a great middle portion of his career.

7.) The Falcons do what they do, win a division despite being the 2nd or 3rd most captivating team.

The Falcons had easily the least interesting offseason of any NFC South Team. The Panthers are close, but they still have Cam in all his glory, and a lot of hype entering 2012. The Buccaneers went out and signed two major free agents in Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks and replaced Raheem Morris with Belichick-neophyte Greg Schaino. The Saints had that little bounty kerfuffle, and will start the season with an interim for their interim. The Falcons, well they sat quietly off of their 24-2 desolate playoff loss to the Giants, and made one move, but it could be huge. A lot of fuss is being made of the Falcons losing Curtis Lofton to the Saints, but their trade for Samuel could be a lot more important. Asante Samuel, by Football Outsiders game charting, has been either the best or second best corner in the NFL the past three seasons. He should excel in that defense, and with Samuel in toe, the Falcons have quietly assembled the best trio of corners in the NFL, with Asante joining Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. I expect Ray Edwards to have a better season in 2012, and that offense is still good. Michael Turner's age and decreased production should be offset by Julio Jones, who showed quite a few flashes of the star he could easily be. The Falcons are just two years off of a 13-3 season. They might not reach those heights, but they probably won't need to to reclaim a division that has, since its creation in 2002, never been defended successfully.

8.) There's a surprise sleeper Wild-Card AFC team, but it isn't one of the two logical choices (Bills or Chiefs).

The most teams that have returned back to the playoffs in the AFC since the new format in 2002 is four, which has happened twice. In 2008, the Titans, Steelers, Colts and Chargers made it back from 2007, and in 2005, the Colts, Broncos, Patriots and Steelers made it back from 2004. This year, I think four teams will make it back. Out of the two that don't, the obvious choice in Cincinnati. Surprise sleepers rarely do all that well the next year (but often rebound in year 3, so 2013 might be nicer for the Bengals). The worst playoff team in the bunch last year was Denver, but they went out and got Peyton. No, I think Baltimore, off of losing Suggs for a long time, will be that second team, and in their and Cincinnati's place will land two of the following: Jets, Raiders, Chargers. The Bills and Chiefs are a little too hyped for my liking. Big moves in FA never really work, and the Chiefs still employ a coach with little track record of success, and a QB who has done little in KC outside of one fluke low-interception year in 2010. The Jets are in that position where the season could easily go 5-11, but they still have a ton of talent. That defense is more versatile now than it was the past two seasons, and Santonio Holmes should be healtheir in 2012. The other two are a pair of AFC West Teams that have nice pieces. The Chargers are still a good bet because they still have one of the three or four best QBs in the AFC. The Raiders have a lot of talent, but little depth. If they stay relatively healthy, they can win 10 games. That could all go away if the starters get hurt at the pace they did last year. The Raiders and Chargers (and Jets) have as much of a chance at the playoffs as the Bills and Chiefs.

9.) Totally Bold, Inane Prediction: Week 17 will be crazy, and it will all end with a little bit of 2011 dejavu on NBC.

Just looking at the Week 17 schedule, almost every game seems potentially interesting. Jets @ Bills could have Wild Card implications, as could Ravens @ Bengals (though I feel the Bengals will take a step back away from Wild Card contention), Bears @ Lions (ditto for the Lions), Panthers @ Saints (although that could easily be for what team will just reach above .500) and maybe even Cardinals @ 49ers (hey, we can dream, right?). That said, there are two potentially massive games, and they both echo the ending of 2011. The first is Raiders @ Chargers. That could easily be for a wild card spot, and it would harken back to Week 17 in 2011, where the Chargers beat the Raiders in Oakland, a game that had the Raiders won, they would have made the playoffs. That said, it would all be an appetizier to what could, and I would put money on this, be the SNF Game: Eagles @ Giants. That could be for the division, much like Cowbooys @ Giants Week 17 last year was. I expect the Giants to win their game, win the division and push the Eagles to another jaunt through the Wild Card rounds.

10.) Both Manning's play in the title games, and mirroring the brother's Harbaugh in 2011, both lose, to the Texans and Bears respectively.

I'll talk more about that Texans and Bears prediction later when I do my conference previews (I did talk about the Texans a little bit in point #4), but I'll talk here about that other part. I've bought into the Broncos, man. I really have. That o-line is just so much better than anything Manning's used since 2006 (of course, he won 13, 12, 14 and 10 games, two MVP awards with those bad lines). His weapons are fine, his running game good. That defense is built to play with a lead. I bought into the Broncos, but just not enough, I guess. There is something that seems too perfect to believe about the Broncos actually winning it all in Year 1. Do I want to believe it? Yes, but I just can't see it. I hope it doesn't end as ignominiously as Favre's Title Game loss in Year 1 in Minnesota, but I think it does have its expiration date, at least as far as 2012 is concerned. As for the Giants, they have a habit of losing playoff games when they are expected to win (against Carolina in 2005 and Philly in 2008), and after what should, in my mind, be a great regular season, most will expect them to win. I think they can get by one game, but I'm not ready to live in a world where Eli Manning has three Super Bowl rings. I think they get two steps away from reaching that place. Archie and Olivia Manning have had so much to cheer for, but giving them the palpable hope of Eli and Peyton's teams squaring off against each other in the Super Bowl in Archie's ol' stomping grounds of New Orleans and then snatching that idea away at the last minute seems like something that is just cruel enough to happen.

Up Next: The AFC Preview

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Decade of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Conference Title Games - #7-1

Tier IV – The Great Games

7.) 2008 AFC Championship – (A6) Ravens 14 @ (A2) Steelers 23
Review: In the first year of the newly-revived Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the Steelers beat the Ravens for a 3rd time after beating them 23-20 in Heinz and then 13-9 in a smashmouth game at M&T Bank capped with a 92-yard TD drive by Ben. This one wasn’t as close, but the hits were just as many. It started out in (smashmouth) style with two Ravens needing medical attention after the opening kickoff. It featured sacks by the usuals: Suggs, Woodley, Ngata, Polamalu, and great play by everyone around on both defenses. Every score seemed like a minor miracle. Any first down for the Ravens (198 yards in the game) seemed like a large miracle. The Steelers led 13-0 and 16-7, but both leads were answered with Ravens’ TD runs by Willis McGahee, keeping the Ravens in a game they were mostly outclassed in by a defense that was just 5% better. Flacco played like a rookie in a Conference Title Game, throwing three interceptions and going just 13-30, but timely red-zone defense kept the Ravens in the game. In the end, it ended the way any Ravens-Steelers slugfest should, with a dramatic pick-6 as the Ravens were driving for a potential game-winning field goal. Troy Polamalu did the honors, cutting in front of a Flacco pass and weaving his way to the house for the capper in a hard-hitting night in Heinz Field. 

Interesting/Memorable Play: Steelers 2nd round bust Limas Sweed had an interesting two plays. First, he dropped a walk-in touchdown and then, in what is mostly seen as an act of cowardly fright, faked being hurt so he could curry up some sympathy. Two plays later, he laid out Frank Walker with a massive, Hines-Ward-ian block.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The Steelers first touchdown came courtesy of one of the strangest plays you will ever see. Ben Roethlisberger, like he does, escaped a sack and spun and heaved a ball downfield off-balance. The Raven defender overran the ball, and Holmes came back and caught it, and then weaved his way for a 62-yard touchdown. The play really should have been a sack or an interception, but somehow, someway, Santonio Holmes did what he did constantly in the 2008 postseason.

6.) 2008 NFC Championship – (N6) Eagles 25 @ (N4) Cardinals 31

Review: The Colts comeback from 21-3 down in a game still to come on this list was as memorable as any in recent memory, but here, the Eagles came back from a 24-6 halftime deficit on the road and took a 25-24 lead after a 62-yard TD by DeSean Jackson. Too bad for the Eagles, though, as Kurt Warner and the Cardinals put together their only drive of note in the 2nd half just in time, with a 7:40 long, 14-play march to retake the lead for good. The drive featured a 4th and 1 pitch-out to Tim Hightower at midfield and a 3rd and Goal screen pass for a TD to Hightower again. The game itself was a wild affair, with Larry Fitzgerald scoring three 1st half TDs, including one on a end-around pitchback that I alluded to back in the description of the 2005 Wild Card Game between the Steelers and Bengals. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles answered with three straight TD drives of their own in the 2nd. In what was the final NFC Championship for both quarterbacks, McNabb was slightly erratic at times, but threw for 375 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT, while Warner was brilliant, going 21-28 for 279 yards and 4 tds with no picks. Fitz, DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis and Brent Celek all had big games. It was a nice shootout that was never really boring (even as the Cards took that 24-6 lead). A nice precursor to the epic shootout that would be in that stadium 51 weeks later.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game really turned on one brilliant pass. It was the Eagles 2nd drive of the 2nd half (after a fumble and then a Cardinals punt), and with 6:41 remaining in the quarter, still down 24-6, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 18 from their own 31. In what may have been his best pass as an Eagle, McNabb perfectly shot a 50-yard pass to Kevin Curtis, which changed the game completely. If the Eagles won, it might be remembered as one of the biggest plays of the 2000s.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The Game set a couple records that aren’t exactly good ones. This game marked the first time that both Title Game participants won fewer than 10 games (not to mention the first time since the 2002 AFC Title Game where neither team won 12 or more games), with the Cardinals going 9-7 and the Eagles going 9-6-1. It also marked the lowest combined seeds for Title Game opponents, with the Cardinals being the NFC’s 4th seed and the Eagles the 6th.

5.) 2011 AFC Championship – (A2) Ravens 20 @ (A1) Patriots 23

Review: This game probably would go in the higher section if either Lee Evans gets that 2nd foot down in time (or holds onto the ball, but if he got the foot down a little sooner what Sterling Moore does becomes irrelevant) or Billy Cundiff makes his kick and it went overtime. Instead, we got merely a great game between the AFC’s best offense and best defense in 2011. The Ravens used every ounce of resourcefulness that they had to stay with the Pats, three times holding the Patriots to field goals and twice picking off Tom Brady (including a sweet pick that Bernard Pollard tipped to Jimmy Smith off of a ridiculously dumb deep pass by Brady to Matthew Slater). Joe Flacco, after a useless 1st quarter, got into a rhythm, and ended up with over 300 yards, largely to both Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin had huge big days. In the end, the Patriots did what they used to do in 2001-2006, win a close game where they were possibly outplayed. The Patriots offense was able to run the ball better than what most would have expected, but their passing game was limited by a Ravens defense that tackled exceptionally well, making sure. The game featured everything, including a classic Brady drive (although it came quite early in the 4th) which ended with a Brady 4th and 1 QB-sneak for the game-winning touchdown, a weird matchup where the Patriots tried covering Anquan Boldin with Julian Edelman on their final drive, and in the end, some kicker-related luck bailing the Patriots out.. If not for that last part of that last sentence, this could have been the 1st of two classics on the best title game day in recent history.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Right before the Ravens last drive, the Patriots were in almost the exact same position they were in five yearas earlier. The Patriots had the ball with 4 minutes to go needing one first down to effectively ice the game. Just like last time, they couldn’t get it. Just like last time, it was a great safety defensing a pass on 3rd and 4. Last time it was Bob Sanders nearly pick-sixing Brady, here it was Ed Reed playing great coverage on Aaron Hernandez. Sad the similarities didn’t perfectly continue in the ensuing drives.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: After the game, Jim Nantz, before letting Tom Brady speak, rhapsed poetic about Brady being the 2nd QB to make it to 5 Super Bowls and basically stopped just short of giving Tommy a Happy Ending. Then, in one of my few favorite Brady moments, Tommy took the mike and immediately debunked Nantz’s shit, saying “I played like crap today.”

Interesting/Memorable Moment 2: One of the few memorable images of the end of the game situation that I like to see is that beautiful picture of Vince Wilfork (who played stellar) with his helmet off and steam rising from the top off his head.

Tier V – The Epics

4.) 2011 NFC Championship – (N4) Giants 20 @ (N2) 49ers 23 (OT)

Review: Other than Lambeau Field, no stadium in the NFL has as much 'mystique and aura' as Candlestick Park, and with the new stadium coming soon, this could easily be the last playoff game played in the 'Stick, and damn was it great. As the rain slowly went away, the game become more and more special, a truly awesome spectacle of defensive football played in a sparkling, dark night by the Bay. Both defenses dominated, with the Giants sacking Smith three times, and the 49ers repaying the favor six times. Justin Smith absolutely killed David Baas, Chris Snee and Kevin Booth. It was just staggering watching Eli Manning drop back 64 times and getting hit repeatedly, but keeping his team in the game just enough. For the 49ers, the story was, once again, Vernon Davis, who had three catches for 112 yards and a pair of scores. Alex Smith returned to mostly what we think of Alex Smith, going 12-26, but much of that has to do with the insane pressure he faced, and the incredible inability of any of his receivers to get open (The 49er receivers combined for one catch for three yards). Still, with the two Davis TDs (one catch and run for 72 yards and one 27-yard deep post), they led 14-10 midway through the 4th quarter. The 49ers forced a Giants' three-and-out capped with an Aldon Smith sack, when Kyle Williams went back to punt. Then, his name forever became etched in San Fran history right next to Roger Craig (at least when it comes to fumbling), as the punt bounced off of his knee. The Giants recovered, and six plays later, Manning fired a 17-yard TD to Manningham on 3rd and 15. The 49ers then proceeded to dominate the Giants offense the rest of the day, sacking Manning two more times, but only put up a field goal to tie the game. They almost got their fumble (in what would have been eerily similar to the Craig fumble scenario), but Bradshaw's fumble was ruled dead as forward progress was stopped. Then, to cap off this play was Act III: OT. The new rules were, again, deemed unnecessary, as both teams couldn't get anything going. But after the Giants second-punt of OT (set up by a Ahmad Brooks sack), Kyle Williams again fumbled, and the Giants recovered. The only drama left was Lawrence Tynes, who has a history of both huge makes and bad misses, but he nailed his 2nd NFC Championship Winning Field Goal in OT in 5 years, ending a game that no team deserved to lose.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Kyle Williams (who I learned later is the son of White Sox GM Kenny Williams) was only the main returner for the 49ers because Ted Ginn Jr. was hurt in the Saints game, and I'm sure he, more than anyone, would've wanted Ginn to play. That said, it was his 40-yard kick-off return that set up the 49ers at the 50 for their game-tying field goal in the 4th quarter.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Before the OT coin-toss, the game ref does a little meet-and-great with the players, telling the rules, giving them the timeout and challenge scenarios, and all that generic garbage. Well, Ed Hochuli decided that instead of being rote, he would take the time to recite Shakespeare, giving us a 1 minute 11 second long introduction to OT. The best part of the moment was the audible groan that came on the crowd at about the 0:40 mark of the speech.

3.) 2009 NFC Championship – (N2) Vikings 28 @ (N1) Saints 31 (OT)

Review: Well, what became maybe the 2nd most famous Championship Game of this era, has now become easily the most infamous. Truthfully, my opinion of this classic is skewed a little because of the events of 'BountyGate', but for this, I will try to forget what I now know. The game itself was a case of the Vikings doing everything in their power to both win and lose the game at the same time. It was a study in drama, with both teams having many moments where their fans must have felt it was all doomed. The 1st half was mostly normal, with the teams trading touchdowns, as the Vikings opened the game with back-to-back TD drives capped off by a 18-yard run by Peterson and a touchdown toss to Sidney Rice. The Saints got their two with a screen pass for 38-yards to Pierre Thomas and another TD pass to Devery Henderson. Then, on a seemingly innocous punt right before the half, the game became a greek tragedy. Reggie Bush muffed a punt. That set off a string of unlikely, and for most Minnesotans, harrowing events. Set up at the 5-yard line, the Vikings gave the ball right back as Favre and Peterson screwed up a handoff. The 2nd half was more of the same, with the Vikings thoroughly dominating play, outgaining the Saints 235-48 in the 2nd half. Yes, you read those numbers right. The more shocking side was the Vikings defense just swallowing up the Saints, forcing four three-and-outs in the Saints 6 possessions in the 2nd half. The Vikings themselves moved the ball right down the field on all but one of their six 2nd half drives, but other than two touchdowns on angry Peterson runs, they ended in infamy. Four 2nd half turnovers, including a fumble by Bernard Berrian at the Saints 5 yard line, and a fumble by Percy Harvin at the Vikings 10, and a interception by Brett Favre (on a play that should've been called roughing the passer) all played a part in the Vikings inability to win a game they absolutely deserved to. They still had a chance, though. After giving their win away, they had a chance to still win, despite losing the turnover battle four to one. On their last drive, the Vikings drove down to the Saints 33 with over a minute to go, when their true meltdown occurred. First, came a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, and then, on 3rd and 15 and the prospect of a 56-yard field goal, Favre rolled out and tried to make a play, but Tracy Porter undercut the route and picked it off. To OT it went, and a Saints drive that could've ended twice, but after a bad pass interference call gave the Saints a 1st and 10 at the Vikings 29, it was all over. Garrett Hartley nailed the 40-yarder to give the Saints a win they didn't really deserve, but considering the Vikings gave it away, it wasn't as if the Vikings deserved it any more.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Why did the Saints OT drive have controversy? First, on a 4th and 1 jump rush by Pierre Thomas, the ball appeared to be dislodged for Thomas's arm. He did 'recover' the ball, but by then he was back behind the yard line that he needed to get to. A case could be made it should've been a turnover on downs. Two plays before that, Brees (who was only 17-31 on the day - again, just a bad game for the Saitns offense) overshot Colston, but Ben Leber knocked the ball out of Asher Allen's hands. Even in OT, the Vikings had their chances.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: That Favre interception resulted in over-criticism for Favre, because had he just thrown it away, it was still a 56-yard field goal, but I can understand why Favre didn't try to run the ball. He had been battered all day. BountyGate or not, it was a beating that elicited a response of "how mean the Saints are" from my Mom. Favre's ankle resembled a misshapen plum after the game. They beat him down, yet he still went 28-46 for 310 yards. It was, in all honesty, the last great game of Favre's career.

Tier VI - The Games that Defined the Decade

2.) 2007 NFC Championship – (N5) Giants 23 @ (N2) Packers 20 (OT)

Review: For one night, it seemed like nowhere in the world mattered as much as Green Bay, Wisconsin. During a asininely cold night in Green Bay (the temperature stayed steady between -1 and -3 degree, with the wind chill between -20 and -23) the Giants and Packers played out a true epic. The Giants set the tone early, with a field goal march to open the game, highlighted with Brandon Jacobs running over Charles Woodson, a pointed statement to the Packers that this would still be a highly physical fight despite the frozen conditions. The Giants added another field goal on a drive that, much like the rest of the game, featured a lot of Plaxico Burress. Matched up against bump-and-run extraordinaire Al Harris, Burress abused the pro-bowler, with 9 catches and 110 yards in the first half alone. The Packers offense was largely stagnant, but scored a dramatic 90-yard touchdown from Favre to Donal Driver: the longest touchdown in Packers playoff history. Then, despite the temperature still being low enough to make it the 3rd coldest NFL playoff game ever (behind the Ice Bowl and Freezer Bowl), the game itself heated up. The Giants and Packers and Giants again drove for touchdowns in a tightly played third quarter. The Giants first TD drive was the most memorable, as they got two straight 3rd Down conversions via penalties, as Harris was called for Pass Interference, and then Nick Collins called for roughing the passer. All this set up a 4th Quarter with the Giants leading 20-17. The Packers quickly tied the game with a field goal set up by a crazy play where Favre, after eluding a sack, blindly tossed one deep and was picked off by McQuarters, only for LT Mark Tauscher to force a fumble which was recovered by the Packers. From that moment on, the Giants dominated the game, but just couldn't put the Packers away. They stoned the Packers run game (Grant 11-19 on the day), and force Packers punt after punt, but the Giants couldn't capitalize. First, midway through the quarter, Tynes pushed a 43-yarder. They traded punts before the Giants forced another Packers 3-and-out, where the craziness reached its apex. On the punt return, McQuarters was stripped, and three Packers had a good chance to recover the ball around the 50. The Packers were that close to potentially stealing the game (they were outgained on the day 377-264), but Dominik Hixon jumped on the ball. After gaining two first downs, the Giants were in position to win the game, but on the last play of regulation Tynes shanked a 38-yarder giving the Packers one more chance. The Packers did win the toss, but on Favre's final throw as a Packer, he threw behind Donal Driver and Corey Webster picked him off. Three plays later, with the Giants now facing a field goal longer than either of the two 4th Quarter misses, Coughlin called on Tynes one more time. The third time really was the charm, and Tynes just nailed the 47-yarder. The Lambeau crowd that was loud throughout fell into an eery silence. They must all have felt that they waited out four hours of an epic football game in epic weather just to see the Giants come in and end Favre's dream season, and in the end, his Packer career.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Plaxico Burress was just insane. He caught every type of pass against Harris. Quick posts, fade routes, fade stops, crossing routes, deep throws, quick outs. It was just masterful. During the game, after making his 8th catch, he went over the the Packers sideline and shouted "You Can't Cover Me! This Fucker Can't Cover Me!". And the Packers switched Woodson on him for a play, and Burress caught another one. Just an exceptional game.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Lawrence Tynes would get his 15 minutes of fame, appearing on Dave Letterman the next week. He was, surprisingly, a good guest, quipping that after he missed the 2nd field goal he was "thinking what it would be like to live in Green Bay" in fear of what the NYC crowd would do to him.

Interesting/Memorable Moments: The cold did wreak havoc on the game, and it led to some great moments. First, was Michael Strahan's perfect speech before the game, where he stated "the past is the fucking past. This is the present. Cold is temporary, a Championship is Forever." The cold is probably best remembered, though, for what it did to Tom Coughlin's face, as he became as red and frozen as a strawberry popsicle.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Something that really helps this game was just how aesthetically beautiful. The Packers green jersey is quite brilliant, and the Giants road uniforms (despite, oddly, not featuring blue) are the better of the two. Either way, with the uniforms, the almost white field and the dark, isolating feel of Green Bay, the game itself just looked like you were watching an epic film more than a football game.

1.) 2006 AFC Championship – (A4) Patriots 34 @ (A3) Colts 38

Review: This might just go down as the most famous non-Super Bowl in the modern NFL. It was the game that best personified the Manning/Brady rivalry, as it was the first time both really played well in the same game, and that combined with a little comeback, some crazy scores and a great finish equated two the best Championship Game maybe ever. It all started out so normal for Colts fans, as the Patriots looked like the Patriots from their dynasty days, and the Colts looked like little sheep. After trading punts, the Patriots sandwiched a Colts field goal with two TDs that both featured 4th down conversions during the drive. Then, already up 14-3 midway through the 2nd, Asante Samuel picked off Manning and raced back for what looked to be a game-stopper. The Patriots compounded this dominance by sacking Manning twice on the next drive (although they nearly allowed a 97-yard TD to Marvin Harrison), and driving on their next possession inside the 20, until a little offensive-pass interference pushed that drive back. The Patriots had to punt, and the Colts put together their first real fluid drive of the game right before the half. They had to settle for a field goal, but the game was back to normal pace, and, as many Patriots would later attest, Manning had figured it out. 32 points in the 2nd Half later, that much was obvious. The Colts first scored TDs on back-to-back possessions to start the 3rd quarter, erasing the 15 point deficit in 11 minutes. The Patriots answered with a crazy scrambling TD toss after a long kick-off return by Hobbs. The Colts answered that with a TD drive that included a beautiful sideline post route to Dallas Clark. That score happened early in the 4th Quarter, which would prove to be among the most dramatic quarters in NFL history. First, the teams traded punts and then they traded field goals. The Patriots were aided by good special teams returns, but also didn't get what looked like a pass interference call which forced them to kick a field goal to make it 34-31. Then, looking at 80 yards to potentially change his whole career, with just 3:43 on teh clock, Manning threw three straight incompletions. It was Manning fulfilling so many's worst impressions, as he "failed in the clutch." Luckily for Manning, Brady and the Pats, for what would be the first time late in a close playoff game, choked harder. Needing just one first down to essentially wrap up the game, the Pats were first called for a 12-man in the huddle penalty (something completely forgotten about the game), then after two quick completions, the Pats had a 3rd and 4. Four yards away from another win against the Colts. Four yards away from beating the Colts in their own building, and a date with an eminently beatable Chicago team. The Pats went for the kill, as they spread the field and tried to hit Troy Brown on a route that he's run hundreds of times, but Sanders read it and nearly picked off Brady. Manning got one more chance to perform big in the clutch, and that he did. Against a furious pass rush, Manning completed a quick 11-yarder to Wayne, a deep post for 32 to Fletcher off his back foot and a 21-yarder to Wayne. Then, with 1st and 10 at the 11, the Colts did the most un-Colts-like thing: run three straight times, pounding it down the "physical" Pats. Addai scored on 3rd and 3, finally giving the Colts the lead. The Patriots would go as far as midfield on the next drive, but Brady finally threw a pick at a 'clutch' moment, as Marlin Jackson caught it and slid to the ground, hugging the ball. The RCA Dome exploded like never before, and the rivalry, and league in general (I'll get to this) was never the same.

Interesting/Memorable Plays: Three lineman scored touchdowns in this game. One was the Colts pulling a Belichick on the Pats, with Manning tossing a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, but the other two made for an eery coincidence, as both Logan Mankins and Jeff Saturday recovered fumbles by their running back in the end zone for touchdowns.

Interesting/Memorable Player: Reche Caldwell had a notoriously awful game. He had just two catches, and two infamous drops. One was a wide-open drop in the end zone. The other was more infamous, as the play started with teh Colts having only 10 guys on defense, and leaving Caldwell wide open. Caldwell furiously waved his arms trying to get Brady's attention, but never could. By the time the ball was snapped the Colts were racing over the Caldwell, but he dropped a simple catch. Of course, nothing is more memorable from Caldwell than his deer eyes.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was the largest comeback ever in a conference championship game, with the Colts coming down from 21-3. The Colts also set a record for most points in the 2nd Half of a Title Game, with 32. From the 2:00 Warning of the 1st to the end of the game, the Colts outscored the Pats 35-13, and outgained them 289-115.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: I'll write more about this later, but this game was arguably the game that started the NFL's paradigm shift to offense-first teams. The previous six teams to win teh Super Bowl before 2006 (Ravens, Pats, Bucs, Steelers) were all defense first teams that allowed under 300 points. Including the '06 Colts, the last six (Colts, Giants twice, Steelers, Saints, Packers) have been more mixed, with four allowing more than 300 points, including the three of the four highest totals for Super Bowl winning teams. The game also signalled the end of the defense-first Patriots that won Super Bowls. Fuming over the offenses inability to put up more points in teh 2nd half, the Pats went out and traded for Stallworth, Welker and Moss and turned into an offensive juggernaut. The modern pass-happy NFL started that night, and all because Brady couldn't complete a simple 4-yard pass to Troy Brown.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Decade of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Conference Title Games - #20-8

I'm continuing my look at the last ten years of football, the ten years of my life as a die-hard fan, by looking back at football at its best. The games. The Playoffs. This will be the first part of two lists ranking the Conference Title Games of the past 10 years on NFL Football. First, we look back at the games ranging from aggresively boring to just good. The real treats are yet to come.

Tier 1 – You’re telling me this is the best the conference has to offer?

20.) 2003 NFC Championship – (N3) Panthers 14 @ (N1) Eagles 3

Review: The Eagles played in some really boring Championship Games from 2002-2004, but the 2003 one was the worst. Muhsin Muhammad caught a TD on a pass where the Eagles DB fell down early in the 2nd quarter, and that was basically a wrap. Donovan McNabb and Koy Detmer combined for four interceptions, three of which were thrown to Ricky Manning, Jr. The only lasting memory of this game, other than the fact that 70,000 people wanted to burn that place down, was DeShaun Foster’s great 1-yard touchdown run where he broke two tackles. Other than that, just a waste of a game on an awful day of football.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: How bad were the Eagles? Their three points equals the lowest point total ever for the home team in a Championship Game since the modern playoff format began in 1978 (before this, the 'home team' could be the team with the worse record). The 2000 Raiders also scored just three points in a loss to the Ravens. Of course, those Ravens were one of the best defenses ever.

19.) 2004 NFC Championship – (N2) Falcons 10 @ (N1) Eagles 27

Review: I told you these were bad games. This was the only Eagles’ NFC Championship win during the Reid-McNabb era, and it was a pretty boring dominant effort by the Eagles. Vick was held to 26 yard rushing and 11-24 passing by a masterful gameplan by the late, great Jim Johnson, while the Eagles received stellar play from Donovan McNabb (17-26 for 180 and 2 tds) and Westbrook (6.0 yards per carry). As you can see, it was the type of game where you know the whole story just looking by the statistics. It was a dominant effort on a cold afternoon at the Linc.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Chad Lewis caught two touchdowns in the game, and on his second TD catch to ice the game, he broke his foot. Lewis was replaced for the Super Bowl by veteran Jeff Thomasen, who was orking as a construction foreman at contracting firm Toll Brothers when he received the call.

18.) 2005 AFC Championship – (A6) Steelers 34 @ (A2) Broncos 17

Review: In what may be the best playoff game ever played by Ben Roethlisberger, he went 21-29 for 275 yards and two tds against the league’s 3rd rated defense. The game wasn’t close to interesting as Jake Plummer was stripped and threw a pick in the 1st half and the Steelers turned both into TDs. Hines Ward’s TD catch late in the 1st half made it 24-3 at intermission and basically ended all hope in the game. The Broncos did cut it to 27-17, off of long touchdown toss to Ashley Lelie and a Mike Anderson run, but were never seriously in the game, turning the ball over four times while never getting a turnover. It was the most dominant road performance in a Champioship Game in this stretch, which made it extra boring since the once fired-up Mile High crowd was stunned into silence.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This is the most recent AFC Championship Game (and along with 2002 the only AFC Championship Games in this stretch) to not be played in New England, Pittsburgh or Indianapolis. The last six have been played exclusively in these places, as the Colts, Patriots and Steelers have all hosted a pair. In this span, the NFC Title Game has been played in five different cities, with San Francisco, Arizona, New Orleans and Green Bay all hosting once, and Chicago the only city to host two.

Interesting/Memorable Fact 2: In what is heavily correlated with the last fact and odd considering the rash of upsets in recent years that have defined the playoffs, this is the last time a road team won an AFC Championship Game. Since then, the AFC Champion much like the home team, has been rotated between Indy (2), Pittsburgh (2), and New England (2). In that span (’06-’11) a road team has won the NFC Title Game three times (’07, ’10 and ’11).

17.) 2002 NFC Championship – (N2) Buccaneers 27 @ (N1) Eagles 10

Review: In what would be the last game ever played in Veteran’s Stadium, the Buccaneers avenged three straight losses (two in the ’00 and ’01 postseason) to the Eagles by hammering them 27-10. The Eagles started out the game fabulously, as Brian Mitchell returned the opening kick 75 yards, and Duce Staley scored on the very first play, but that was the last touchdown the Eagles would get. The game turned on a 47 yard catch by Joe Jurevicius. The Buccaneers scored on a short toss to Keyshawn, and added another TD on an Alstott run to make it 17-7 at the break. The game was then sealed by a dramatic 90-yard interception return for a touchdown by Ronde Barber. The Philly policed station 100 officers to control possible riots in what they assumed would be an Eagles win. They were never used, and I’m guessing the Philly police let them leave the Vet in the 3rd quarter.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was just the 2nd game the Buccaneers won in their franchise’s history when the temperature at the opening kickoff was under 40 degrees. The 1st such game came just four weeks earlier, as the Buccaneers went into Chicago and won 16-0.

Tier 2 – The Best team Flexes Their Muscles, and I’m oddly Intrigued.

16.) 2003 AFC Championship – (A3) Colts 14 @ (A1) Patriots 24

Review: In weather that could only be described as a wintry mix so awful that it would have exceeded Bill Belichick’s most hopeful expectations (Colts' columnist Bob Kravitz called it Belichick's vision of Hell for Manning), the Patriots stopped a Colts offense that hadn’t punted in their first two playoff games. Peyton Manning had the worst day of his career. It actually didn’t start out too bad, as on their initial possession, the Colts drove the length of the field, but Manning threw an interception into the end zone. It was all downhill from there. In the 1st half, Manning threw another pick, Marvin Harrison fumbled inside the Patriots 20, and on their 1st punt of the playoffs, the snap flew over punter Hunter Smith’s head for a safety. Due to Brady (interception into the Colts end zone) and the Patriots’ inability to cash in these short fields for TDs, the Colts were only down 21-14 with 1:50 left when they started a drive. Four incompletions (including two obvious un-called defensive holding penalties) later it was all over, and the Patriots accomplished their finest defensive performance. Of course, like many things the Patriots have done since, there was a little wee controversy about what really was a decisive win.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The fallout from the game tends to be spinned that Jim Irsay, Bill Polian and the Colts whined and got new rules added. That is mostly hogwash. Yes, Bill Polian (and only Bill Polian) complained, but there was no new rule. The NFL just told the officials to start enforcing the illegal contact rules that had been on the books since 1978. Also, the NFL admitted that they missed six illegal contact and defensive holding calls against the Patriots, including the 3rd and 4th down passes on that last failed drive when the Colts were down 21-14.

Interesting/Memorable Fact 2: This is the last AFC Championship Game to really feature adverse weather. There were a few flurries in the 2008 AFC Title Game in Pittsburgh, but there was no rain or snow in any of the games since. It really is amazing that in those days, when the Patriots needed bad weather, they always seemed to get snow or wintry mixes in the playoffs (Tuck Rule, ’03 & ’04 vs the Colts).

15.) 2005 NFC Championship – (N5) Panthers 14 @ (N1) Seahawks 34

Review: Qwest Field, had ever been so damn loud, and the Seahawks made sure that it stayed that way all game long. It really started when Seahawks backup-QB Seneca Wallace caught an over-the-shoulder sliding grab from Matthew, and then Jerramy Stevens scored the next play. Two picks of Delhomme later and the Seahawks were up 17-7 and it was all over. The Seahawks laid the biggest Conference Title Game smackdown in this 10-year period, outgaining the Panthers 393-212 (quite a bit of that 212 came when it was already 34-7). They ran 81 plays to the Panthers 49. Matthew played a quintessential Matthew game going 20-28 for 218 and two scores, while Shaun Alexander for once did something in the playoffs with 132 yards and two scores. The Seahawks defense pounded the Panthers. All you need to know is the Panthers two scores came on a punt return and a garbage time TD when it was 34-7, and Steve Smith, after 22 catches in the first two playoff games, had five, and just one in the 1st half.

Interesting/Memorable Play: On a 1st Quarter run, in one of the most brilliantly obvious displays of blocking, Walter Jones drove 300 pound Mike Rucker 25 yards downfield on one block, paving the way for a 20 yard run by Shaun Alexander.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: In Jake Delhomme’s previous six playoff games, he went 5-1 with a line of 98/157 for 1,446 yards (9.2 y/a) 10 TDs/2 INTs for an overall QB rating of 108.3. His individual game QB ratings in that stretch were 104.5, 96.6, 109.5, 113.6, 100.6 and 120.6. So his worst playoff game to that date was a 96.6 (the 2OT win over the Rams). In this game, he was 15-35 for 196 yards with 1 td and 3 picks for a QB rating of 34.9. How bad was he in this game: His next playoff game would have a higher QB rating, and that was his 5-pick disaster against Arizona.

14.) 2004 AFC Championship – (A2) Patriots 41 @ (A1) Steelers 27

Review: How do you turn a close game into a blowout? The Patriots were leading just 3-0 with the Steelers driving at the Pats 40 with a 4th and 1. The Bus was stuffed, Brady hit Deion Branch for a 60 yard TD the next play, the Steelers answered with a field goal, to which the Pats replied with another TD drive and then Ben was pick-sixed. And Voila! 24-3 at the half. The Steelers did make a game of it, running for 163 yards and closing within 31-20, but never had a chance to get any closer. Brady was great going 14-21 for 201 yards and two TDs (with a 101 fever, reportedly), while Ben wasn’t, throwing three picks among his 24 throws. The Patriots, just one week after limiting the league’s best scoring offense to three points finished their two-part magnus opus in style by dropping 41 (34 on offense) points against the league’s top scoring defense, the last seven of which were on a classic, eff-you end-around TD run by Deion Branch. They only won the Super Bowl by 3 (suprise), but this two game stretch cemented the 2004 Patriots legacy as one of the greatest teams of All-Time.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game could have become something, but Bill Cowher did what he does and went conservative. Facing 4th and Goal from the 3 down 31-17, the Steelers could have gone for it, and had they gotten the TD they would have made it a one score game. Instead, Cowher elected to take the field goal to make it 31-20 (barely any better than 31-17 and Patriots ball at the 3). The Steelers never got the ball back any closer than 14.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The Patriots final score (to make it 41-20) came on a sweet end-around run by Deion Branch. The most ballsy part of the play was the Patriots ran that exact same play on their first offensive snap of the game. That time, it gained 22 yards. This time, it went for a score.

Tier III – The Good Games

13.) 2010 AFC Championship – (A6) Jets 19 @ (A2) Steelers 24

Review: I thought the Steelers would hammer the Jets in this game. I was absolutely, completely, totally right... for a half. On the first possession of the game, the Steelers drove down the field in a monster 15-play drive that featured eight Rashard Mendenhall runs. It took 8:32 off the clock. The Steelers would add 10 more points on offense with a field goal and a Ben bootleg TD run. Then, right after the 2:00 warning, the Steelers, in all their might, flexed their muscles with a Woodley sack, and then Ike Taylor sack fumble that was returned by Willie Gay for a TD to make it 24-0. I guess at this point the Steelers thought the game was over. The Jets deserve a ton of credit for making this a game, as Mark Sanchez had another good playoff game, going 20-33 for 233 yards and two tds to bring the Jets back to 24-19 with three minutes to go. Then, despite Roethlisberger to that point being 8-17 for 105 yards and two picks, Ben hit two big passes to close out the game. The MVP of the game was definitely Rashard Mendenhall, who had 121 yards on 27 carries, many of which came with a lot of yards after contact. For the 2nd straight year, the Jets couldn't beat one of the AFC's Glory Teams in the AFC Championship Game. They did get a little closer this time, though.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game clinching pass from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown was an eerily similar play (a roll out to the right and low throw to the crossing slot receiver) to Manning’s final pass in the Wild Card game to Blair White. Manning threw a little low, and was criticized because due to the incomplete Sanchez had time to come back. Roethlsberger had a far worse game, but because he did complete that one pass, he wasn’t criticized while Manning was.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: It is no secret that the AFC in the 2000s was dominated by the Pats, Colts, Steelers and Chargers. The Jets had the chance to do something truly special: beat all three teams consecutively. In fact, just beating two (the Colts and Pats) made them special. Only the 2004 Patriots managed to beat two of the big three in their Super Bowl run. The 2005 Broncos beat the Pats but couldn't beat the Steelers. The '06 Pats beat San Diego but lost to Indy. The '07 and '08 Chargers beat Indy but couldn't against New England or Pittsburgh. In '09, both the Ravens and Jets lost to Indy after beating the Pats and Chargers, respectively. The Jets could beat Manning and Brady, but Ben stood in their way.

12.) 2010 NFC Championship – (N6) Packers 21 @ (N2) Bears 14

Review: The Packers came in fresh off their 48-21 win in Atlanta, and drove down the field on their first position, with Rodgers going 4-4 for 76 yards and running for the touchdown. Rodgers completed his next pass as well, for ten more, but after that moment and it looked like the Packers would blow the door off the NFC's 2nd seed. However, with the Packers around midfield leading 7-0, the Packers fell, and it became a tight game. Rodgers went just 12-25 for 156 yards and two picks in the rest of the game. The Bears defense made this a game by playing inspired football, and good on them for doing it, as the offense sputtered for 3 quarters under Cutler and Todd Collins before a brief, '15 minutes of fame' type renaissance under Caleb Hanie. The most memorable part of the game is probably either BJ Raji’s crucial TD to put the Packers up 21-7 and clinch it, or the Jay Cutler injury situation, where after he seemed to get hurt, Cutler brooded on the sideline without displaying any notable affliction. The Bears all insisted he was hurt, but the Media didn’t have it, crucifying Cutler for having the gall to leave a game where, we would find out, he tore his PCL. In the end, Caleb Hanie brought the Bears to the Packers 27 yard line down 21-14, before Sam Shields ended it with a pick. Somehow, despite the fact that the Bears were on their 3rd QB, they really almost could have sent this game to OT, and that is a truly special achievement by the Bears players and defense.

Interesting/Memorable Play: This game had the 2nd most notable QB tackle of the decade, with Aaron Rodgers just clipping the feet of Brian Urlacher after Brian intercepted a Rodgers pass at the two yard line. Again, everyone seems to forget the red zone interception to credit Rodgers for the tackle, showing his clutch play. Maybe it would be more clutch to, you know, not throw a pick inside the 10 yard line?

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This game started a weird coincidence where three consecutive Title Game winning QBs (Rodgers, Roethlisberger later that night, Brady in the 2011 AFC game) won despite throwing no TDs and two INTs. The even stranger part is the losing QBs in those title games threw for five TDs and four INTs (and this game had only one of the TDs and three of the INTs).

11.) 2002 AFC Championship – (A2) Titans 24 @ (A1) Raiders 41

Review: In the last playoff home game the Raiders have played, Oakland won a mini-shootout over Tennessee in a game that was quite entertaining, despite the seemingly comfortable Raiders win by the score. Despite the Raiders playing well in the beginning with scores by Garner and Jerry Porter, the Titans led 17-14 nearing halftime after a 33-yard TD pass to Drew Bennett and a gutsy 9-yard TD run by McNair (one of two rushing scores for him). Then, with 1:38 left, Robert Holcombe of the Titans fumbled, at his own 16. The Raiders recovered, scored a TD two plays later, forced another fumble on the ensuing kickoff, and added another field goal to take a shock 24-17 lead into the half. The Titans hung around with some great play from McNair and trailed just 27-24 entering the final quarter, the Raiders hung back-to-back TDs on them with runs by Rich Gannon and TD-Vulture extraordinaire Zack Crockett. In the end, Rich Gannon was nearly flawless, going 29-41 for 286 yards and three TDs with no picks, and while McNair was solid passing and he and Eddie George combined for 120 yard rushing, they couldn’t match the NFL’s best offense in 2002 playing at its best.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Not counting scrambles runs by Rich Gannon, the Raiders called ONE rushing play in the first three quarters. They were known as a truly pass-heavy team for much of the season, but this was the zenith of that particular strategy. Literally, just one rushing play. Of course, on their game-clinching drive that made it 34-24, they ran it five times in seven plays for 32 yards.

Interesting/Memorable Fact 2: This game marked a whole lot of lasts. It was the last time the AFC was won by a team other than the Patriots, Colts or Steelers, and the last game with Jim Nantz as the CBS NFL Today studio show host and Greg Gumbel as the lead play-by-play guy (they switched roles the following year), as well as the last game featuring the old NFL on CBS theme music. Other than the fact that Manning became PEYTON F. MANNING starting in 2003, I prefer the old days in every way (Nantz not WASP-ing it up with Nantz, the old theme music, the Raiders being good).

10.) 2006 NFC Championship – (N2) Saints 14 @ (N1) Bears 39

Review: Despite the 25 point margin, this was a close, fun game. The Bears did everything you would expect from the 2006 Bears other than Devin Hester returning one to the house. They got a little ‘Good Rex’ (4-4 for 68 yards on the key TD drive to make it 25-14) but mostly bad Rex (7-22 otherwise). They got great running (196 yards on 46 rushes, helped control the ball for 37 minutes) and great, fumble-causing defense (The Bears forced four turnovers, including three fumbles). The Bears used fumbles and great Tampa-2 coverage to go up 16-0, but then the Saints got extremely pass-happy, to admittedly mostly good results. They got a score right before the half, and added another on a sweet 88-yard swing pass TD to Reggie Bush. But, after a missed field goal to potentially take a 17-16 lead, and a Drew Brees intentional grounding in the end zone, the Bears, as the snow got harder, got better. They sacked Brees and picked him off, and turned both failed drives into TDs of their own with runs by Cedric Benson and that pass to Berrian. They ended the game with an emphatic last TD by Thomas Jones, who scored on a Bush-esque cutback. It was beautiful, ol’ school, Chicago football.

Interesting/Memorable Plays: On the Bears TD drive in the 2nd quarter to make it 16-0, they ran eight plays. All of the plays were rums by Thomas Jones, The drive went: Jones for 14, Jones for 2, Jones for 33, Jones for 7, Jones for 2, Jones for 2, Jones for 7 and Jones for 2.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: On the Saints attempted field goal to make it 17-16, they used Billy Cundiff as their kicker (of missed 32-yard field goal against New England fame). The weird part about that is the Saints carried two kickers, John Carney was the normal kicker, while Cundiff was the long-field-goal and kick-off specialist. Because it was a 45-yard try, they used Cundiff, who, of course, missed it short.

9.) 2007 AFC Championship – (A3) Chargers 12 @ (A1) Patriots 21

Review: In a frustrating game for Patriots haters (and Mercury Morris), the Chargers played exceedingly determined on both sides of the ball except when they got inside the 20 yard line of the Patriots. Playing with a torn ACL, Phil Rivers gimped his way around the field, but threw for 211 yards on 19-37 throwing, including fitting some tight passes to V-Jack and Chris Chambers. On the other side, Brady was human (after his 26-28 inhuman performance against the Jags) throwing three interceptions, including one into the end zone when it was a 14-12 game. But the key to the game was the Chargers four times having to kick field goals in the red zone (amazingly, Kaeding was 4-4 in the game), while the Patriots had three TDs in their four Red Zone trips (the other being the Cromartie interception). The Chargers really did everything they could, especially on defense, to keep their offense in the game, but that offense just could not bang one home, a fittingly ironic way for the Chargers to lose their best shot to get to a Super Bowl in the Norv/Rivers era.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The Patriots ended this game in style, After Norv Turner stupidly punted on 4th and 10 at the Patriots 36 with 9:21 left, the Patriots ran the last 9:13 off the clock in an epic 15 play drive that featured four straight 3rd down conversions, including a 3rd and 11 to start the drive. As ridiculous as the punt was, it is more ridiculous to think that the Chargers never even got the ball back.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: On 3rd and 1 from the Patriots 7 down 14-9, the Chargers were their closest ever to scoring a TD and taking a lead, but on a hand-off to Michael Turner, the late, great Junior Seau shot the gap and stoned Turner for a two yard loss. The Chargers kicked their 4th field goal and never scored (or came that close to scoring) again.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The game is infamous for LaDainian Tomlinson sitting on the bench with his dark-visored helmet on for much of the game after he had to leave the game early. Despite being universally respected (unlike Cutler who is very much hated), Tomlinson was hammered for the decision to sport this look, as many, I would assume, felt he was brooding his life away under the helmet and cloak.

8.) 2009 NFC Championship – (A5) Jets 17 @ (A1) Colts 30

Review: In truth, this was Peyton Manning’s best game ever as a Colts QB. Against the league’s best pass-defense, a team that had shut down the Chargers, holding them to 14 points the previous week, and held the Saints to 10 offensive points in the Super Dome, and had been incredible all year, Manning went 26-39 for 377 yards and three TDs (on three straight drives). The big producers were Pierre Garcon (11 catches for 151 yards and a TD) and Austin Collie (7 catches for 123 yards and a score). This all happened despite the Jets starting out the game really well. The Jets answered the Colts first field goal with a 1-play 80-yard TD to Braylon Edwards, and answered the Colts next field goal with another TD set up with a WildCat throw by Brad Smith to Cotchery. After recovering a fumble, the whole stadium might have been nervous, but Manning and Co. had been in this spot before, trailing 21-3 to the Pats in 2006. The hidden secret behind the 17-6 deficit was the fact that the Jets hadn't really stopped the Colts, but the Colts were forced into two field goals. That stopped happening, and that lead quickly disappeared. Right before half, Manning turned the switch and hit Austin Collie with three straight passes for 80 yards, including an absolutely perfectly thrown 46 yard pass. In the 2nd half, the big plays stopped coming for the Jets, and Manning just got hotter, repeatedly hitting tiny windows and running up and down against the Jets. In the end, the Colts scored 30 points on a team that averaged giving up 15, threw for 377 yards against a team that averaged giving up 154, and gained 461 yards against a team that averaged giving up 252. They dominated the best defense in the NFL in the last real vintage Manning Colts Offense performance.

Interesting/Memorable Play: After having their opponents miss five out of six field goal attempts in the 1st two rounds of the playoffs (including four of those misses from under 45 yards and three from under 40), the Jets saw Jay Feely go 1-3, missing from 44 when the score was 0-0, and a crucial miss from 52 on their opening drive of the 2nd half. Karma's a bitch.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Coming into the game, the Jets touted their ground & pound gameplan, where the ground was in reference to their NFL-best running attack. The Colts came into the game with their NFL-worst running game. So of course, the Jets run for just 86 yards on 29 carries (2.9 ypc) while the Colts go for 101 on 24 carries (4.2 ypc).

Inteesting/Memorable Fact 2: From the 1:19 mark of the 1st half of this game to the 1:23 mark of the 1st half of the 2010 AFC Championship Game (so encompassing 59:56 of the 120 in the two games), the Colts and Steelers outscored the Jets 48-0 (24-0 for the Colts in the remaining 31:19, and 24-0 Steelers in the first 28:37). In the other 60:04 in those two games, the Jets outscored the Steelers and Colts 36-6.   

Up next, seven great games, four of which are among the best sporting events I have ever seen.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.