Thursday, December 31, 2009

AFC Clusterf***

We're coming up on the final week of the NFL regular season. Josh has already given you a bit of a rundown on the NFC playoff scenarios, so I thought I would attempt to shed some light on how the AFC might play out. (Keyword: Attempt)

First.. here are the current records and standings:

1. Colts 14-1

2. Chargers 12-3

3. Patriots 10-5

4. Bengals 10-5

5. Broncos 8-7

6. Jets 8-7

7. Ravens 8-7

8. Texans 8-7

9. Steelers 8-7

10. Dolphins 7-8

11. Jaguars 7-8

12. Titans 7-8 (OUT)

Clearly, the Colts and Chargers have 1 and 2 respectively all wrapped up. Patriots and Bengals share conference records and are both 2-2 in games against common opponents. Each of their last games is against another common opponent, so we must go to the Strength of Victory Tiebreaker. There, Opponents in Patriots wins currently have a very slight margin in that category. If the two teams end up tied, there placement could easily come down to how the rest of the league preforms. Frankly, it doesn't matter much. One of them will be #3 and one will be #4.

So, with the easy stuff out of the way, let's look at the Wild Card Picture.. yeesh.

Here is ESPN's listing of how different teams can make the playoffs...

I'm going to try to explain why this is all true. All of my explanations assume no ties.

Six selected to premature Pro Bowl

The Cowboys have six Cowboys named to the Pro Bowl. Mainstays DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis join second-timer Jay Ratliff and first-time selection Miles Austin as NFL all-stars. And while all six may be honored by their selections, these players and their fans would rather see them bypass the Pro Bowl the week before the Super Bowl to play for the Lombardi Trophy.

I'm not a fan of this year's Pro Bowl taking place a week ahead of the Super Bowl. Super Bowl participants will not be playing in the game, and there's a good chance a healthy dose of conference championship game participants will skip the game as well.

For Miles Austin, this selection validates how great his out-of-nowhere season has been. He's been a potential Pro Bowler since his first career start against Kansas City, a 10-catch, 250-yard, two-touchdown explosion that jump-started his season. His selection mirrors that of Tony Romo in 2006, when the quarterback took over for Drew Bledsoe and led Dallas back to the playoffs.

Ware and Ratliff continue to lead one of the NFL's stingiest defenses, as Dallas gives up under 17 points per game, tops in the NFC. More surprising however was that there were the only two selections for the Dallas defense. Not only was Mike Jenkins left off the roster despite a breakout season in his second year in the league, but there was not one other linebacker joining Ware. Keith Brooking? Bradie James? I would have thought at least one of them would have gone as well. While I can see Bradie James being overlooked -- hey, it happened last year too -- but Brooking has been the focal point of the Cowboys defense on so many broadcasts, that I assumed his increased exposure would go along with his high-intensity on the field to earn a selection.

Not surprisingly, Jason Witten made his sixth Pro Bowl appearance. The tight end is now tied for sixth among Cowboys with the most Pro Bowl selections. He's been Romo's favorite target since 2006 and just put up another 80+ catch season.

Seeing Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis each make the Pro Bowl reminds me what the Cowboys should be able to do. With the Cowboys not being able to move the ball efficiently on 3rd & 1 or 4th & 1 over the last few weeks, perhaps these selections will put some pep back in the step of an offensive line capable of overrunning a defense for one measly yard. Gurode and Davis are each going to a third-straight Pro Bowl.

For quarterback Tony Romo, he just missed out on a third-straight Pro Bowl, giving way to Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. He has a career-low in interceptions this year while being super-efficient under center. He has matured into a steady hand at QB, and if the Cowboys don't make the Super Bowl and one of the other three quarterbacks selected does, look for Romo to be the alternate who plays in Miami on January 31.

See the 2010 Pro Bowl selections:

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fighting for the bye

Week 17 in the NFL is on the horizon, and while the AFC playoff picture is a bit more convoluted, the NFC has four teams vying for the No. 2 seed and first-round bye. With Chicago's upset of Minnesota, the Eagles, Vikings, Cardinals and Cowboys all have a chance to earn an extra week off. Here's how and why:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Playoff Bound: Dal 17, Was 0

After beginning the month of December with back-to-back losses and a date with the undefeated Saints looming on the schedule, the Cowboys seemed destined for another year of fading late in the season. Instead, the Cowboys handed New Orleans their first loss of 2009, and used a road game against the rival Redskins as the perfect platform to clinch a playoff berth.

Now Dallas will host Philadelphia on the final day of the season for a chance to win the division, host a playoff game (possibly against the Eagles in consecutive weeks), and even have a shot at a first-round bye. The Cowboys' 17-0 shutout of Washington once again showcased the strength of Wade Phillips' defense, and the offense got on the board with an opening-drive touchdown for the second straight week.

The date with the Eagles at Cowboys Stadium won't be as daunting as last season's win-and-you're-in situation that turned into a nightmare in Philadelphia. The winner takes the NFC East and will most likely host the other in the first round, depending on how the Cardinals and Packers do next week. Dallas beat the Eagles in Philadelphia earlier in the season in an impressive 20-16 victory on Sunday Night Football. So while losing next week isn't a deathblow for any hopes to advance in the postseason, it's certainly a better alternative to host a playoff game than go on the road.

Tony Romo has now led the Cowboys to the playoffs in three out of four seasons as the quarterback of America's Team. With his consistently strong play down the stretch this year combined with a defense that has been stifling any opponent not named the Giants, the Cowboys have a potent combination heading into January football.

The Cowboys' defense is the best in the NFC, giving up only 16.7 points per game. The other playoff-bound teams in the NFC? Here's how all these defenses compare:
NFC Playoff TeamPoints Allowed Per Game
Green Bay
New Orleans

The Cowboys are better than the next closest team by almost three points, the amount of points they need to prevent to make up for missing any field goals. And as much as Dallasites love to hate Wade Phillips and his "Aw shucks" attitude around Valley Ranch, there is simply no denying that his defense can take over a game by shutting down an opponent.

On the other side of the ball, here's how these same six teams have done this season. While the Cowboys had the stingiest defense, their offense doesn't fly quite as high as the rest of the point-churning NFC playoff contenders:
NFC Playoff TeamPoints Per Game
New Orleans
Green Bay

Perhaps it's nice to sit back and enjoy the adage of "Defense Wins Championships" at a moment like this. The order of offensive success is a virtual inverse of how the defenses have done this season. We have seen the Cowboys defense hold the likes of the Eagles (16), Saints (17) and Chargers (20) to some of their lowest scoring outputs of the season.

It's going to be a battle beginning in Week 17 as Dallas jockeys with Philadelphia for a home game to open the playoffs. If Dallas gets the home game, they will either face the Eagles for a third time or the Packers for the second time in 2009. Either way, there should be plenty of game tape to go around.

For now, the Cowboys can enjoy this evening, clinching a third trip to the postseason in four years. Now it's just a matter of getting the elusive playoff victory, not seen in Dallas since '96.

Speaking of enjoying the evening, here's a few thoughts on tonight's playoff-clinching win in Washington:

Meyer's Remorse

It's a classic case of Buyer's Meyer's Remorse.

One day after Urban Meyer announced he would resign as head coach of Florida's football program at the end of this season, the two-time BCS Champion coach has changed his plea. His new plan: to return for the 2010 season after an indefinite leave of absence in the offseason. Perhaps the magnitude of his decision -- halting the sports world for 24 hours -- hit Meyer. Or perhaps the finality of resigning didn't sit well with him.

Most likely, the stresses of hitting the recruiting trail immediately after coaching in the Sugar Bowl weighed on his mind as he decided to resign, but his love of actual coaching, being on the field with his players and preparing for an upcoming game, proved to be the Siren Song that has lured back so many coaches.

It's why College Football is so tough. Consider Meyer's responsibilities -- as with any college football coach -- that require year-round attention:

Bowl Bastardization

Found this story on Yahoo! and had to pass it along regarding the absurdity of Bowl game names these days:

The Worst College Bowl Sponsors
, On Friday December 18, 2009, 1:22 pm EST

The "Tostitos Fiesta Bowl." I can live with that. Chips. A party. Football. They go together.

But a lot of the other college bowls are horrific-sounding concoctions that George Orwell couldn't have dreamed up. The marketing geniuses who ink these sponsorship deals mainly care about just one thing--getting the corporate name in front of the masses. If there's a particular message or product they're trying to sell, they cram that into the name too. And why worry if it sounds like self-parody? Football fans, they assume, are probably too thick to notice.

So with the sponsorship season coming to a climax, here are some of the absurdities that will be tripping across the TV screen:

Gators should be thankful for Urban Meyer

With the news coming down yesterday that Florida football head coach Urban Meyer is stepping down due to health concerns, my immediate thought was that there had to be more to it. Perhaps some sort of scandal he was trying to dodge, or getting out from behind the fan before the shit hit.

But while my initial skepticism may be more a result of living in a world of sports scandals, perhaps this is a genuine example of a man who realizes the pressures of big-time college football coaching aren't worth cutting his life-expectancy in half.

Meyer says his health has become too great a concern to overlook anymore. And while Florida Gator fans might be upset to see him walk away after only five seasons with years and years left on his monster contract, those same fans should be grateful for what he did for Florida football over the last half-decade. Two BCS Championships later, Meyer walking away from the program is a lot more forgivable.

Perhaps this could begin a trend of coaches walking away from coaching sooner than the Bobby Bowden's of the world. It's no secret how tough a job it is to run a big-time college football program. But in a world where big football means big business and big money, coaches who earn millions of dollar are expected to deal with those stresses while still achieving on-field success.

Here's to hoping a coach like Urban Meyer can maintain his health while still finding a way to contribute to college football.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

AFC Playoff Tiebreaker Breakdown

With Week 15 in the AFC now in the books, more than half of the conference is still alive for sixth playoff spots. Specifically, 12 teams are fighting for four spots that have not been locked up. This will take you through all the tiebreaker situations and scenarios to let you know which team holds the advantage one what tiebreakers down the stretch (similar to the breakdown done for the complicated NFC playoff picture last season).

Here's a look at the current standings in the AFC:

1Indianapolis - *14-0
2San Diego - z11-3
3New England9-5
9N.Y. Jets7-7
* - clinched home field advantage, z - clinched division

Lots of teams still alive in the playoff hunt with half a dozen teams at 7-7. Obviously next week's games will go a long way to eliminate a chunk of the field, but for now everyone still has a chance. So with everyone still mathematically alive, here's an idea of why certain teams Jacksonville are #7 while others like Tennessee and Houston would need even more help. We'll keep Indianapolis out of all our analysis as they are already locked into the #1 seed. There are 11 other teams however still jockeying for position.

Tiebreakers in the NFL are as follows for the wild card berths:
1. Head-to-head, if applicable.
2. Best won-lost-tied percentage in games played within the conference.
3. Best won-lost-tied percentage in common games, minimum of four.
4. Strength of victory.
5. Strength of schedule.
6. Best combined ranking among conference teams in points scored and points allowed.
7. Best combined ranking among all teams in points scored and points allowed.
8. Best net points in conference games.
9. Best net points in all games.
10. Best net touchdowns in all games.
11. Coin toss.

For this exercise, we ignore the head-to-head step as it takes a simple glance at the regular season to solve. We're digging deeper. First, the best W-L-T percentage in the conference. Whoever has the best conference record gets the higher seed. For example, while the Ravens have a head-to-head win over the Broncos this year (tiebreaker #1), had those teams not played, the Ravens would still have the #5 seed to the Broncos #6 because of a better record in AFC games.

Win %.727.600.600.600.600.545.500.500.400.400.364

So based on conference records, right now San Diego can clinch a first-round bye with one more conference win or one more New England conference loss. Likewise, while the Broncos currently hold a playoff berth, if they end up tied with Jacksonville by the end of the season, the Jags have a better conference record which could help them leapfrog the Broncos for the #6 seed.

The next step, best won-lost-tied percentage in common games we skip for two reasons. First, we won't know which two teams to analyze when it comes to common opponents, and secondly because even if we had two teams, they might not have the requisite four games to apply this tiebreaker. Thus, we press onward.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Kicking and Screaming

Cowboys fans have been kicking and screaming recently.

A poor output of the former leading to a more vicious helping of the latter.

The Cowboys are moving forward with a new kicker as they have signed Shaun Suisham, the former Redskins who missed two kicks in the Cowboys win over Washington, in place of Nick Folk, who has missed an NFL-leading 10 field goals this season. Suisham will get his first chance at his second go-around with Dallas when he takes on the same Redskins in Washington on Sunday.

But as frustrating as it was seeing Folk miss for six consecutive games -- left, right, short, off the upright -- after looking at all the kickers that have been in Dallas since Jerry Jones took over, he's arguably the most consistent kicker the Cowboys have had.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Romo, Ware ruin Saints perfect season: Dal 24, NO 17

Let's call this what is truly is. This is the biggest win of Tony Romo's tenure as starting quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.

Bigger than Romo's win over Green Bay in 2007 in a match up of two 10-1 teams that gave the Cowboys the inside track to home field advantage. Bigger than his first ever start against the Panthers back in 2006. Bigger than his return from injury against the Redskins last season in Washington.

Romo engineered the offense, flanked by an out-of-this-world defense, as the Cowboys handed the New Orleans Saints their first loss of 2009, a 24-17 thriller that wasn't decided until the final six seconds. The Cowboys snapped a two-game skid, got a December win, and proved to themselves that they are capable of playing with and beating any team in the NFL.

And as tough as Romo's performance was (just look at his heads-up scamper on a broken play where Marion Barber didn't take the handoff), it was matched if not surpassed by defensive leader DeMarcus Ware's superhuman performance all game long after leaving last week's game with a stadium-silencing neck injury. Ware came through with two sacks including the game-clinching fumble, jarring the ball loose from Drew Brees with six seconds left as the Saints were trying to tie up the game. Ware and Romo led by example, and the rest of the Cowboys except Nick Folk followed along.

Cowboys hold down Saints early

Early on in New Orleans, the Cowboys are on top of the Saints, 14-0, thanks to Dallas' defense forcing a pair of three-and-outs on New Orleans first two drives. In the mean time, the Cowboys offense has been churning down the field for a pair of touchdowns.

To give you an idea of the fast-starters that the Saints have been all season, here's a look at the results of their opening drives in 2009:
Week 1: vs. DetroitTouchdown
Week 2: at PhiladelphiaTouchdown
Week 3: at BuffaloTouchdown
Week 4: vs. N.Y. JetsField Goal
Week 6: vs. N.Y. GiantsTouchdown
Week 7: at MiamiPunt
Week 8: vs. AtlantaTouchdown
Week 9: vs. CarolinaPunt
Week 10: at St. LouisIntercepted Pass
Week 11: at Tampa BayPunt
Week 12: vs. New EnglandField Goal
Week 13: at WashingtonPunt
Week 14: at AtlantaField Goal
Week 15: vs. DallasPunt

The Cowboys forced the Saints to punt on their first two possessions for only the second time this season. Both possessions were 3-and-out drives of 9- and 7-yards. As for the Cowboys, they scored touchdowns on their first two drives of the game for an early 14-0 lead.

Marion Barber plunged into the end zone from three yards out after struggling last week to punch in a ball from inside the five yard line on four straight carries.

As for the Cowboys, the two touchdowns on the first two drives were a refreshing change after having struggles on the offensive side of the ball the last two weeks. In fact, it was the first time Dallas scored on its first two drives since Week 1, and they did it while the defense kept a high-powered Saints team in check. Here is how Dallas's first two drives have gone so far this season:
Week 1: at Tampa BayField GoalField Goal
Week 2: vs. N.Y. GiantsPuntTouchdown
Week 3: vs. CarolinaMissed FGPunt
Week 4: at DenverPuntField Goal
Week 5: at Kansas CityPuntMissed FG
Week 7: vs. AtlantaPuntPunt
Week 8: vs. SeattlePuntTouchdown
Week 9: at PhiladelphiaPuntTouchdown
Week 10: at Green BayMissed FGPunt
Week 11: vs. WashingtonPuntFumble
Week 12: vs. OaklandPuntPunt
Week 13: at N.Y. GiantsPuntPunt
Week 14: vs. San DiegoField GoalPunt
Week 15: at New OrleansTouchdownTouchdown

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Stick a Bolt in 'em: Dal 17, SD 20

A second straight games full of missed opportunities has the once division-leading Cowboys now at 8-5 and in dangerous jeopardy of missing the playoffs, firing a head coach, and doubting the abilities of its franchise quarterback.

Dallas failed to punch in a game-tying touchdown on four straight plays from within the Chargers five yard line, and Nick Folk missed another field goal from the 40-49 yard range as San Diego won its eighth straight, beating Dallas at Cowboys Stadium, 20-17. And while it might be head coach Wade Phillips who will end up taking the ultimate fall for the Cowboys failures in December, the players failed to execute when the ball was put in their hands.

The Cowboys ran Marion Barber four consecutive times inside the Chargers 5-yard line on a drive in the second quarter, and each time the Chargers stopped the run. Three of those tries were from the 1-yard line. I wasn't a fan of Jason Garrett calling the back-to-back fade routes early in the season, but you can't fault an offensive coordinator for believing that one of the biggest offensive lines in the NFL can push forward three feet to get into the end zone. Sure, it'd be great to get a play-action pass worked into the mix, but if the Cowboys can't punch the ball from the 1-yard line on three chances, it's on the players.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Romo returns as holder

It's official. Tony Romo will be the holder for the Cowboys' field goal unit on Sunday when Dallas hosts San Diego.

Punter Mat McBriar had been the holder for Dallas this year, taking over after Brad Johnson served as the holder for Nick Folk during his first two seasons. But with McBriar falling on his sword -- hands? -- for three of Folk's eight misses this season, Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamiliis now has a new operation for three pointers. And most importantly, Cowboys fans should not be worried.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

J-Ho got crazy game: Dal 102, Phx 101

Josh Howard returned to the court last night as the Mavs edged the Suns, 102-101, and Howard netted 18 of his 20 points in the second half. For the Mavs, the win brought them even with Phoenix at 15-7, the third-best record in the Western Conference. The Mavs have a two-game lead over Houston in the Division. But while that's all well and good to be playing well enough, it's more important to have the team's should be true #2 guy back.

For the last few years, it's supposed to have been Dirk and Josh, but it's easy to make the case that it's really been about Dirk and Jet, Dirk and Kidd. Howard struggled most of last season with his ankle injury and missed 13 games this season before returning to action last night. The confusing part is not that Howard was able to instantly contribute on both ends of the court, but the fact that offensively he was more potent in the second half than the first half.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Tiger Woods legacy won't be too badly burned

With more and more women coming out of the rough to claim they let Tiger Woods put it in the cup, many are speculating what type of hit his overall image will take. The first $1 billion athlete now has somewhere around nine women saying they hooked up with them. And while Tiger's once golden-boy image might get shaken up for now, this will be something that most people will forgive and forget about in a year or two.

Consider a couple other high-profile athletes who had their image take major hits:

Michael Vick
Just yesterday Michael Vick returned to Atlanta with his new team the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Falcons fans booed their one-time franchise quarterback, but outside of a hurt fan base that really was probably more upset that the starting quarterback and running back were out, no one mentioned WHY the fans were booing Vick. No one said during the broadcast or on SportsCenter or any other highlight show, "...Vick is back in Atlanta facing his former team after spending nearly two years in jail for bankrolling a violent dogfighting organization." Instead, the story was more about how Vick finally had a breakthrough game this season -- running for a touchdown and passing for another -- and may be on his way back to becoming an important part of an NFL team.

People may not have entirely forgiven Vick, and the boos show they haven't entirely forgotten, but more important than either of those factors is the fact that sports fans in general don't care anymore than Vick spent two years in jail. Now it's apparently time to celebrate his success.

Kobe Bryant
Last summer the Lakers superstar won a fourth championship in his sixth appearance in the NBA Finals. He hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy with the #24 on his back, a number he changed to from his old #8 to forget about the past and start anew. It was a past that included Shaquille O'Neal playing the role of co-star to three previous titles. It also helped distance the future hall of famer from a past that included allegations of rape. While the rape charges were ultimately unfounded, Bryant never hid from the fact that he cheated on his wife. That didn't seem to bother too many basketball fans as Kobe's new #24 jersey has consistently been one of the NBA's best sellers, just as good as that old #8 without all the baggage. Sure, at the time, Kobe's image took a hit. He lost endorsements, but that appeared to be more because of the criminal charges rather than the infidelity.

Ray Lewis
Do you remember Ray Lewis as a player who was arrested on allegations of murder at a Super Bowl, or the man who won a Super Bowl MVP while leading a punishing Ravens defense to a championship? Any athlete who gets the opportunity to make a comeback on his career with a renewed chance to prove himself on the field and performs will erase most of the memory of any ugly past transgressions.

So how long will the lingering effects of this entire ordeal follow Tiger Woods around? The rest of his career? Doubtful. Sure, this story will always be an asterisk, an afterthought, on his career, but it will never be the biggest aspect of his overall story. Tiger Woods will be remembered as the most decorated golfer and perhaps the most decorated athlete of all time. Oh sure, there was that whole affair thing back in late 2009 when it surfaced that he had a that whole affair thing, but remember how good Tiger was throughout his career. That's how he'll be remembered.

And as far as these women who are heartbroken over Tiger only wanting them for sex, don't expect anyone to show up to your pity party. None of these women are coming out and saying things like Tiger told them he planned on running away with them. None of them claim he said he would leave his wife for them. Heck, none of them even deny they knew he was married. So if the man is cheating on his wife, why would you deserve any better as the woman who knowingly helped his cheat on his family. Please don't pretend to be the victim in all this. You're not. These women wanted nothing more than Tiger did, to hook up. Now they will get hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars for little more than having boobs and luring a Tiger into the trap.

History will look back favorably on Tiger Woods -- right or wrong as it may be. This will follow him for a little while, but in the big picture, how bad of a hit will his image truly take? Just look at other athletes who have faced public scrutiny. And while few if any other athletes have ever had the stature of Tiger Woods and as high a pedestal to fall from, when people remember Tiger Woods, he will still be standing atop that pedestal as the greatest golfer ever.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Giant disappointment: Dal 24, NYG 31

The Cowboys came into Giants Stadium atop the NFC East with a chance to avenge an early season loss and begin the month of December on the right foot. Instead, the New York Giants amputated that foot and kicked Dallas in the groin with it, en route to a 31-24 win over Dallas to put New York back into the division race while raising the annual December doubts in Dallas.

The Cowboys offense looked sharp enough, but it was the defense and special teams - two areas that had been so strong while the offense tried to find its groove midseason - that provided the biggest letdown. Both phases of the game gave up backbreaking big plays. After the offense scored in the third quarter, the defense gave up a 74-yard pass to Brandon Jacobs, the longest play of his career by 30 yards. Later in the game, when Dallas so desperately needed a stop for a chance to overcome a 7-point deficit, Domenik Hixon daggered the Cowboys with a 79-yard punt return for the game-icing score.

Dallas won the turnover battle (2 to 1), won the time of possession (38:50 to 21:10), won the yardage battle (424 to 337), won 3rd down conversions (9/17, 53% to 4/10, 40%), got more first downs (27 to 15), and ran more than 30 more plays than the Giants (80 to 49). And none of it mattered.

Dallas had a fourth down on its last real chance to keep the game close when there was still ample time on the clock, and where was Jason Witten? The man who already had 13 catches on the day was in the backfield blocking instead of running a route. The result: Romo throws a checkdown to Barber that wasn't long enough, turning the ball over on downs and clinching the win for New York. Romo and Witten connected 14 times on the day, with another catch tacked on late in the game, but not having him available on 4th down seemed more than curious.

The Cowboys were able to tack on a touchdown inside of one minute left in the game, a Romo pass to Miles Austin who played possum on a stop-and-go route to the end zone. With :58 seconds left, the Cowboys onside kick attempt hit Sam Hurd within 10 yards, giving the ball to the Giants. And while the ref who threw the flag on Hurd was in no position to actually see who it touched first, being that the ball hit on the other side of their bodies, the play would have been reviewed anyway, and it was clearly touched first by Hurd, but not by much.

Both teams had 10 days off, as they each played on Thanksgiving. But New York seemed to respond after a thumping in Denver. The Cowboys had strung together a streak of nine games without allowing more than 21 points, a streak dating back to the home-opening 33-31 loss to the Giants. The defense had given up just 14.2 points per game, including seven games where the opponents were held under 20 points. In fact, only the Giants have been able to put up more than 21 points on Dallas this season. Too bad they play twice a year.

What the Giants lacked in quantity, they made up for with quality in terms of offense, with 7.0 yards per play compared to the Cowboys' 5.3 ypp. Steve Smith made several big catches to go along with Jacobs' homerun. On the ground, Ahmad Bradshaw was able to add important rushing yards when needed, including a 29-yarder to get into the red zone.

On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys defense looked good on paper, and even a few times in real life, but when it mattered most, the defense couldn't hold the fort. And it looked like there were plenty of signs that things could be shaky down the stretch after the defense crumbled late in the first half. Dallas had just gone up 10-0 when the Giants needed just five plays (one of them an incomplete pass) to respond with a TD of their own. New York moved 74 yards in five plays (albeit better than when they went 74 yards in one play). The Giants took advantage of a Marion Barber fumble for a short field, leading to another TD, giving New York a 14-10 halftime lead.

(Special Teams) And in the third phase of football, the Cowboys special teams were a little bit too "special" in this one. It's never good to give up a punt return TD, but the Cowboys allowed Hixen to spoil any realistic hopes of a comeback win with his score. At some point, the special teams unit will need to make a legitimate tackle instead of just bouncing off a guy just because he's holding a football. Nick Folk continued to struggle, missing yet another field goal from that 40-49yd range. Missing the 57-yarder is forgivable, but he is now 4-10 on field goals between 40-49 yards and has missed eight field goals this year after missing seven in his first two seasons in the NFL. It's fair to say that while none of his kicks have clearly decided games, he's beginning to cross the line from asset to liability.

It's been easy to take shots at the Dallas offense over the last few weeks -- they don't run enough, too many consecutive fades to the corner, no big plays. There's been a long list of complaints about the offense, but on defense things seemed to be okay. Yeah, there weren't too many takeaways, but opposing teams weren't putting up points. Today, the defense forced a pair of turnovers, the fifth multi-takeaway game for the Cowboys in 2009 (2-PHI, 2-SEA, 3-ATL, 3-CAR). It was a lot better than the -4 turnover battle from the first Cowboys/Giants game.

Early in the game, things looked promising. Gerald Sensabaugh tipped away a pass to the outside. Terence Newman showed great closing speed to break up some passes, including a deep ball over the middle that would have easily put New York in scoring range. Jay Ratliff was able to break into the backfield and force a fumble of Bradshaw to set up the Cowboys first touchdown drive.

While this loss certainly is primarily on the defense and special teams, the Cowboys offense had a chance to pick up some of the slack throughout the game. On the first scoring drive, the Cowboys couldn't capitalize on 1st and Goal from the Giants' 9 yard line. Instead, they settled for a Folk field goal (don't worry, it was from inside 40 yards, where Folk is 10 of 11 this year).

On the Cowboys next drive, they nearly gave the ball up inside the five the ball squirted away from Tashard Choice on a run up the middle. Replay overturned the initial fumble ruling, and Romo found Roy Williams for a touchdown.

Roy Williams
In fact, Roy Williams' first TD was helpful in making us forget his throw-his-hands-over-his-head-and-hope-the-ball-lands-in-them attempt. Williams fought through press coverage within the first five yards, getting past the defender for the score. Williams actually posted his first two-touchdown game since November 11, 2007 with the Lions. He finished the game with 6 catches for 60 yards, including a 25-yarder where he caught a ball thrown slightly behind him on his hip, taking the ball away from the reach of a nearby defender before breaking into the open field for extra yards.

Romo was able to work the ball to plenty of targets early, completing passes to eight different Cowboys in the first half. Jason Witten had his biggest game of the year, catching 14 passes for 156 yards. It might have been better if he'd been in the pattern on the Cowboys 4th down attempt late in the game while trying to mount a comeback. Instead he was in the backfield blocking as Romo hit Marion Barber shy of the first down. Witten did a great job of catching pretty much everything that was thrown to him, including a deflection off a tipped pass. Miles Austin continued his Pro Bowl caliber year, catching 10 passes for 104 yards and a late touchdown that pulled Dallas within 7 points.

A few other thoughts from a loss I still don't understand:

+ Officiating Head-scratcher
Here's a head-scratcher for anyone who understands NFL officiating. Late in the 2nd quarter, the Giants caught the Cowboys in position where several Cowboys were offsides, however before the ball was snapped, the Giants right tackle jumped as well. That ruling should be a neutral zone infraction on the defense and a five-yard penalty. Instead, the Giants were allowed to continue playing, gaining 11 yards for a first down. That's a play that should have been blown dead. The Giants proceeded to score a touchdown on the drive. Not sure if the extra 6 yards would have made a difference or not, but it certainly doesn't help the Cowboys' cause.

+ Blame Leonard Davis for fumble
As the Cowboys were trying to answer the Giants in the 2-minute drill, on 1st and 5 on a screen pass to Marion Barber, Barber got behind right tackle Leonard Davis out in space. Davis seemed to brush aside Mathias Kiwanuka, not really putting a true block on him, and the Giants defensive end knocked the ball from Barber's arms. Barber must not have had a great grip on the ball because the ball-jarring hit didn't pack too strong of a punch. The Giants get the ball on the Dallas 28 and go in for the go-ahead touchdown before the half.

+ Flozell Adams
As the teams went to the half, Flozell Adams cheap shotted one of the Giants, erupting a fight in front of the Giants sideline. A flag was thrown, and the Cowboys began the second half 15-yards in debt. This was an ugly and stupid move by Adams, who seemingly personified the lack of composure the Cowboys demonstrated as the Giants awoke to strike for 14 points in the final two minutes of the first half. Even though this penalty was after the half had expired, it's eerily similar to the dumb 15-yard penalty that Kevin Burnett made two years ago against the Giants just before the half (and of course, the subsequent Jimmy Johnson blow up on the FOX halftime show).

+ End of first half drive
After the Giants scored it's second touchdown in the final two minutes of the first half, I fully expected to take a knee or run a few dive plays to get to the locker room. Instead, the Cowboys launched into a drive to setup a field goal attempt. And while the Cowboys were unable to convert on a 57-yard field goal attempt, it did demonstrate some sort of resolve that most didn't know Dallas had that in it's make in 2009. It's a moral victory, which doesn't really count for much. At some point, Dallas will have to use the talents it demonstrated on that fruitless drive for something more meaningful, such as eeking out a win in the final seconds.

+ Good, bad, ugly coverage
As the Giants made their way down the field to begin the 3rd quarter, the Dallas secondary left Steve Smith, who is quickly becoming one of the more reliable receivers in the game, too open. Alan ball failed to close the gap on Smith, who slipped past a driving Ball and raced 36 yards to the Dallas 25. On the next play, however, Mike Jenkins leapt in front of Mario Manningham for drive-stopping interception, his fourth of the year.

+ Offense, Romo firing on all cylinders
On 3rd and 9, Romo lasers the ball to Miles Austin for a first down. Two plays later on 2nd and 6, Romo again rocketed a ball to Witten just beyond a defender for first down on 9yd line. Then Jason Garrett dialed up a great play: Romo faked handoff to the up-back, faked a toss to Miles Austin heading toward the outside, and hit Roy Williams a step ahead of a DB for the score, 17-14 Dallas. Having Austin in the backfield maked the defense pay extra attention that something "different" may happen. When Romo faked the pitch to Austin, two linebackers headed to the side to cut off Austin, leaving a clear throwing lane for Romo to find Williams for his second TD of the game. FYI: Nov 11, 2007: last time Roy Williams had two TDs in the same game. Romo was 4-for-5 for 48 yards on the drive.

Now the Cowboys find themselves without their lead in the NFC East, tied with the Eagles at 8-4 and currently holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, and only a game ahead of the Giants who swept the season series. The NFC playoff picture just got plenty murkier for the Cowboys, who began the month of December by rekindling doubts of seasons past.

NFC East Standings
Dallas Cowboys8-4
Philadelphia Eagles8-4
New York Giants7-5
Washington Redskins3-9

Dallas still has games remaining against the Eagles and Redskins in the division as well as a home game against the Chargers and a terrifying trip to New Orleans. Some would say Dallas needs three wins in December to clinch the division. Two wins in the final four games should at least mean a playoff berth. But for the next week, the Cowboys must answer questions about their past while trying not start asking the same questions themselves.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Pro Bowl problem

The final Sunday in January. For years that day was synonymous with one thing and one thing only.

The Super Bowl.

But January 31, 2010 - the final Sunday in January - will bring an awkward and eerie feeling to the football world as the NFL plays it's Pro Bowl one week before Super Bowl Sunday on February 7. It's something that was decided prior to the 2009 Pro Bowl which took place in the traditional comforts of Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. But in 2010, the NFL's all-star game will be played in Miami in the exact same stadium as the Super Bowl, just one week earlier.

2010 Pro Bowl moving to Miami

It's not a new notion to have the game moved up to take place between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The NFL has discussed it multiple times in recent years, and Goodell told the Associated Press last month that having the game precede the Super Bowl would avoid a "somewhat anticlimactic" ending to the season.

The initiative to experiment with the Pro Bowl schedule and location was discussed over the past two years with NFL club owners, the NFL Players Association, the NFL Player Advisory Council, and other players, and it received wide player and club support.

"Moving the Pro Bowl to the Sunday prior to the Super Bowl can add even more excitement to Super Bowl week, one of the most anticipated weeks of the year," said Frank Supovitz, the NFL’s senior vice president of events. "Taking the Pro Bowl to new locations can showcase our top players to more fans around the country. We are also in discussions with key leaders in Hawaii to continue our partnership with the State of Hawaii, which has embraced the Pro Bowl for 30 years."

I suppose there are some positives for this game: fans in the 48 contiguous states may be more likely to go to the game, especially in a rough economy where travel to Hawaii could get pricey. However, since when is travel to a Super Bowl city ever cheap? Fans may flock to Miami to see the Pro Bowl as part of the Super Bowl week festivities, but this game is too close to other playoff games as well as butting into the Super Bowl's spotlight.

Here's a few Pro Bowl problems that must be considered with the game being played one week ahead of the Super Bowl:

1. Participation of Super Bowl participants
Over the past three decades with the Pro Bowl calling Hawaii home, players and coaches would report to Honolulu for a week of fun and sun. The Super Bowl participants? They wouldn't get there until a day or two later, taking a winner's walk into the locker room. It's a pride thing, not being able to be there on time because your team made it to the biggest game of the year.

Now with the game preceding the Super Bowl, if a player like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees has a chance to prepare for BIGGEST GAME OF THE YEAR or horse around in some dinky exhibition game, which do you think they will choose? There are usually players who pull out of the Pro Bowl and are replaced by alternates in the game, but with the game being held a week before the Super Bowl, the teams playing for the championship - which usually represent a significantly high number of Pro Bowlers - won't be participating this season.

2008-09 Season
The original 2009 Pro Bowl roster included eight players who played the week before in the Super Bowl - five players from Arizona and three from Pittsburgh. All eight players participated in the game. (See final roster)

2007-08 Season
In 2008, the Giants and Patriots played one of the most memorable Super Bowls in recent memory. One week later, six of the eight Super Bowl participants played in the Pro Bowl, with Tom Brady and Randy Moss skipping the trip to Hawaii.

2006-07 Season
In 2007, the Colts and Bears had a combined 12 players originally selected to go to the Pro Bowl. All five Colts went, including Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Jeff Saturday. The Bears originally had seven selections, with four of those players (C Olin Kreutz, LB Tommie Harris, LB Lance Briggs, LB Brian Urlacher) bypassing the game after a tough Super Bowl loss citing injury/personal reasons. The Bears did have one player selected as an alternate Pro Bowler who reported for duty.

2005-06 Season
In 2006, after a Pittsburgh-Seattle Super Bowl in Detroit, the nine combined players on the original 2006 Pro Bowl roster from each Super Bowl participant all showed up (four Steelers, five Seahawks). In fact, these teams combined to send three additional players who were originally alternates for the game.

2004-05 Season
In 2005, the Patriots and Eagles met up in Super Bowl XXXIX. One week later, three of the five Patriots and seven of nine Eagles on the original 2005 Pro Bowl roster played in the game (total of 10 of 14 selections played). New England's Corey Dillon and Richard Seymour withdrew citing injury, as did Philadelphia's Terrell Owens and Tra Thomas. Each team also had one additional player make the Pro Bowl as an alternate.

To sum up the last five years to gage Pro Bowl participation among Super Bowl participants, 41 of 51 original Pro Bowl selections - not the injury replacements - did go on to play in the game, a rate of slightly more than 80%. It's easy to see where there could be a drop off, as many players will push themselves to play hurt in the Super Bowl, such as Terrell Owens who played on half a foot for Philly after a strong 2004 season.

The trend is easy to see. Super Bowl participants - for the most part - go to the game. That will absolutely change this season. I guarantee it! Not only do I not think that the average watermark of 80% won't be reached. I doubt that any Super Bowl participants will play in the Pro Bowl, even if it is in the same city as the Super Bowl, thus negating any extensive travel from point to point.

2. Participation of NFC/AFC Championships participants
Not only will we see a drop-off (who are we kidding, a complete NO SHOW) from Super Bowl participants, but there will also be a lack of participants from the conference championship games. The game will be played one week after these teams missed a chance to advance to the Super Bowl. When the consolation prize for some players of going to the Pro Bowl usually three weeks away, it at least allows some time for the heart to heal. Instead, for players selected to the Pro Bowl who lose in the conference championship game, this will be an ugly afterthought that many players will respectfully decline. Here's a look at players who lost in the conference championship game who have/haven't participated in recent Pro Bowls...

2008-09 season: Pittsburgh d. Baltimore, Arizona d. Philadelphia
The conference runners up last season - the Ravens and Eagles - had seven combined Pro Bowl selections, with five from Baltimore and two from Philly. All seven played the Pro Bowl three weeks after their respective conference loss.

2007-08 season: N.Y. Giants d. Green Bay, New England d. San Diego
The Packers had four original Pro Bowl selections, led by Brett Favre in his final season with the Packers. The Chargers had eight selections, with seven of the original eight playing in the game with only Antonio Gates missing the game. The Chargers did have tackle Marcus McNeill play as an alternate for the AFC. Still, of the 12 original selections, 11 suited up for the game.

2006-07 season: Chicago d. New Orleans, Indianapolis d. New England
In the year of the resurgent Saints, QB Drew Brees, T Jammal Brown, and DE Will Smith were selected to the Pro Bowl, with Brown missing the game with an injury. As for the Patriots, who finally were toppled by the Colts en route to the Super Bowl, they had one original selection - Richard Seymour - who did participate in the game. Total combined: 3 out of 4.

2005-06 season: Pittsburgh d. Denver, Seattle d. Carolina
The Panthers were trying to get back to a second Super Bowl in three years while the Broncos were looking to finally break through without John Elway. Neither came to fruition. Instead, each team sent four original selections to Hawai'i, as all eight participated in the game. (Note: this was the season the AFC went to it's third and fourth alternates to fill all three Pro Bowl QB spots. The three original AFC QB selections: Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Tom Brady. Palmer and Brady withdrew from the game. First alternate Drew Brees (then of San Diego) didn't play. Second alternate Jake Plummer didn't go either. So Manning was joined by Trent Green and Steve McNair as the AFC quarterbacks. Crazy.) Total combined 8 out of 8 original selections played in the game.

2004-05 season: New England d. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia d. Atlanta
Of the 2004 season's conference runners up, the Steelers sent all six original selections (along with three alternates) to the Pro Bowl to join the four Falcons originally named to the game. That's a total of 10 out of 10 original selections.

Combining the totals over of the past five years, we see that of conference championship participants originally named to the Pro Bowl, 39 of 41 players (95%) suited up in Hawai'i. How many of those players were banged up in the NFC or AFC championship game but still were able to make the trip to Honolulu after three weeks off from the physical and mental strain suffered from falling one game shy of the Super Bowl? It seems that a lot of these guys will decide not to push themselves to get ready to play just one week after perhaps the most disappointing loss of their careers.

3. Game-planning of Pro Bowl coaches
The Pro Bowl teams are coached by the coaching staff of the teams that lose the conference championships. Last year, it was Andy Reid (Philadelphia) on the NFC sideline and John Harbaugh (Baltimore) running the AFC squad. In past seasons, those coaches had three weeks to get over their recent loss that left them one game away from the Super Bowl, take a bit of time to relax, and then head to Hawai'i and create an admittedly scaled-down game plan for the Pro Bowl.

Now with the Pro Bowl being played one week ahead of the Super Bowl here is the timeline for these coaches:
Sunday - Lose conference championship game, miss out on going to Super Bowl
Monday - Get over a loss that could have put you on the "next level" of coaching
Tuesday - Travel to the city you would have gone to a week later, but instead of reporting to Miami to coach the Super Bowl, you're prepping for the Pro Bowl amid the hype of the team that just defeated you a few days ago.
Wed/Thurs - Begrudgingly begin coaching up all-stars instead of your team
Sunday - Take the field in Miami one week ahead of when you really wanted to

Regardless of when the Pro Bowl is played - a week before or a week after the Super Bowl - it's never going to be as rewarding as coaching your team to the Super Bowl. I get that. However, it's got to be infinitely easier to deal with the consolation prize of coaching in the Pro Bowl when it's done three weeks after your team lost opposed to just seven days later as an appetizer to your conquerers showcase.

4. Trip to Honolulu Miami?
Is it really that much fun to go to places like Miami, New Orleans, San Diego, etc for the Pro Bowl? Yes, it's great for the economies of those local areas, and any city who could acquire the rights to the game would love to have it. Why not have the Pro Bowl go to other cities in the US that don't have NFL teams (hell, like Los Angeles). All you'd need is a big enough college football stadium to hold at least 50,000 or 60,000 fans. Play it in Lincoln, Neb. or Fayetteville, Ark. What about Las Vegas? (oh yeah, Pacman Jones, nevermind). Maybe Portland, Oregon or Oklahoma City.

That being said, there is a reason that the NFL doesn't shop this game around and play it in different cities each year. It might be nice for that city to have the game, but that's really all it does. There is still the matter of getting other fans up for traveling to the game, not to mention attracting players to actually PLAY in the game.

There is already a percentage of players who pull out of the Pro Bowl each year even when they aren't hurt. The lure of playing in Honolulu and bringing the whole family to the islands for a fun end-of-season vacation isn't quite the same as going to Detroit the week before a Super Bowl at Ford Field. No one wants to be in the cold weather of North Texas in January 2011 the week before Super Bowl XLV. Sure the stadium is domed, but certain places just aren't travel hotspots during winter. Honolulu presented a platform for the Pro Bowl to always have a unique feel of being somewhere special, somewhere different, somewhere that isn't on the regular road map of NFL teams. By moving the game to a location that simply follows around the Super Bowl like a wannabe lackey, it certainly tarnishes the luster of the Pro Bowl.

The official experiment will begin after the conference championships wrap up on January 24. We'll see just how willing and able the coaches and players of the teams who reach the conference championship game are to work the following week. Don't expect a big turnout from some of the bigger names who advance deep into the postseason. And when those big names decide not to make the trip, the fan turnout will react accordingly. And don't expect the Pro Bowl to continue it's deviation from Honolulu after this experiment flounders, flops and ultimately fails.

Will it be a December to remember?

The Dallas Cowboys late-season woes have been well-documented in the 13 seasons since America's Team last won a playoff game. With the Cowboys sitting at 8-3 with a one-game lead in the NFC East, the final five games on the 2009 schedule - perhaps the most challenging five game stretch this franchise has faced in some time - seem even more treacherous than in years past.

The Cowboys will finish the 2009 regular season with three of five games on the road, three games against NFC East rivals, and two against division-leaders including undefeated New Orleans. It begins Sunday at New York, where the Cowboys were beaten down last season without Tony Romo. And while the Giants have certainly struggled in recent weeks - going 1-5 after a 5-0 start - the Cowboys will also be facing their own recent history.

Since 1996, the last year the Cowboys won a playoff game (going 2-1 in the regular season, 1-1 in the playoffs), the December/January regular-season record for Dallas has been nothing short of sickening. And when they have made the playoffs... eh.

Reg. Season
Barry Switzer
Chan Gailey
L vs. Ariz
Chan Gailey
L at Min
Dave Campo
Dave Campo
Dave Campo
Bill Parcells
L at Car
Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells
L at Sea
Wade Phillips
L vs NYG
Wade Phillips

In 2005 and 2008, the Cowboys finished one game out of a playoff berth, with bad December beats that could have been the difference between a playoff appearance and an early end to football in North Texas.

For the Cowboys to make the playoffs in 2009, they need to win one of the follow final five games of the season:
Week 13@ New York Giants6-5
Week 14San Diego Chargers8-3
Week 15@ New Orleans Saints11-0
Week 16@ Washington Redskins3-8
Week 17Philadelphia Eagles7-4

If Dallas can win two games, they could get to 10 wins on the season and almost certainly wrap up the NFC East. If I had to pick two games that the Cowboys have the best chances to win, I suppose it would be the home game against San Diego, and either game on the road against New York or Washington. However, none of these five games could be considered "locks" like the Cowboys' last game against Oakland.

If the Cowboys win just one game, they might, might, be able to limp into the playoffs, but that would most likely only extend a 1-4 finish to the season into another postseason disappointment.

NFC Playoff Picture
The road to Super Bowl XLIV begins in just six weeks, and only with three of the NFC divisions all but locked up, it seems that just five teams will be fighting for the final three spots, with one of those teams being the NFC East Champ. The Saints, Vikings and Cardinals have 5-, 3-, and 2-game leads in their respective divisions. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants are all still in contention for the NFC East crown, and Green Bay and Atlanta are still fighting for Wild Card attention.

The current NFC playoff picture:

1New Orleans Saints11-0NFC South
2Minnesota Vikings10-1NFC North
3Dallas Cowboys8-3NFC East
4Arizona Cardinals7-4NFC West
5Philadelphia Eagles7-4Wild Card
6Green Bay Packers7-4Wild Card
7New York Giants6-5on the bubble
8Atlanta Falcons6-5on the bubble
9San Francisco 49ers5-6on the bubble

The playoffs would open today with the Packers at Cowboys and Eagles at Cardinals. The Eagles lost in Arizona in last season's NFC Championship game, while the Packers clunked the Cowboys at Lambeau earlier this season.

Who gets home field advantage in the NFC?
The Saints and Vikings don't play each other this season, so each team needs to keep winning down to the final week if they want to lock up home field advantage. Both the Saints (7-0) and Vikings (8-0) are undefeated in the conference, and all remaining Saints games are in the conference, so if the Saints and Vikings finish with identical records, the Vikings would claim home field with a better conference record. Still a long way off, and the remaining platter schedule for the Saints isn't extremely taxing.

The Rest of the Way
Over the final five weeks of the season, the NFC dogfight will pit most of these playoff-bound teams against each other, providing plenty of head-to-head opportunities to edge out opponents for the six spots in the conference tournament. Winner gets the Colts. Every team except the Packers will play 2 or 3 games against this pool of 9 NFC teams for the postseason. Here's a breakdown of each team's remaining opponent's records:
(click team to jump to its remaining schedule)
New Orleans Saints (11-0)22-33.400
Minnesota Vikings (10-1)29-26.527
Dallas Cowboys (8-3)35-20.636
Arizona Cardinals (7-4)25-30.455
Philadelphia Eagles (7-4)32-23.582
Green Bay Packers (7-4)27-28.491
New York Giants (6-5)32-23.582
Atlanta Falcons (6-5)29-28.509
San Francisco 49ers (5-6)21-34.382

Remaining schedules for NFC playoff contenders:
1. New Orleans Saints

Week 13@ Washington Redskins3-8
Week 14@ Atlanta Falcons6-5
Week 15Dallas Cowboys8-3
Week 16Tampa Bay Buccaneers1-10
Week 17@ Carolina Panthers4-7
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 22-33 (.400)

2. Minnesota Vikings
Week 13@ Arizona Cardinals7-4
Week 14Cincinnati Bengals8-3
Week 15@ Carolina Panthers4-7
Week 16@ Chicago Bears4-7
Week 17New York Giants6-5
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 29-26 (.527)

3. Dallas Cowboys
Week 13@ New York Giants6-5
Week 14San Diego Chargers8-3
Week 15@ New Orleans Saints11-0
Week 16@ Washington Redskins3-8
Week 17Philadelphia Eagles7-4
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 35-20 (.636)

4. Arizona Cardinals
Week 13Minnesota Vikings10-1
Week 14@ San Francisco 49ers5-6
Week 15@ Detroit Lions2-9
Week 16St. Louis Rams1-10
Week 17Green Bay Packers7-4
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 25-30 (.455)

5. Philadelphia Eagles
Week 13@ Atlanta Falcons6-5
Week 14@ New York Giants6-5
Week 15San Francisco 49ers5-6
Week 16Denver Broncos7-4
Week 17@ Dallas Cowboys8-3
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 32-23 (.582)

6. Green Bay Packers
Week 13Baltimore Ravens6-5
Week 14@ Chicago Bears4-7
Week 15@ Pittsburgh Steelers 6-5
Week 16Seattle Seahawks4-7
Week 17@ Arizona Cardinals7-4
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 27-28 (.491)

7. New York Giants
Week 13Dallas Cowboys8-3
Week 14Philadelphia Eagles7-4
Week 15@ Washington Redskins3-8
Week 16Carolina Panthers4-7
Week 17@ Minnesota Vikings10-1
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 32-23 (.582)

8. Atlanta Falcons
Week 13Philadelphia Eagles7-4
Week 14New Orleans Saints11-0
Week 15@ New York Jets6-6
Week 16Buffalo Bills4-8
Week 17@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers1-10
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 29-28 (.509)

9. San Francisco 49ers
Week 13@ Seattle Seahawks4-7
Week 14Arizona Cardinals7-4
Week 15@ Philadelphia Eagles 7-4
Week 16Detroit Lions2-9
Week 17@ St. Louis Rams1-10
Remaining Opponents Total W-L: 21-34 (.382)

Plenty of meaningful football left for everyone in the NFC playoff picture. The first round byes in the NFC appear to be all but locked in, but with very little else decided, it truly should be a December to remember (or in the case of the team that ends up struggling this month, a December to forget).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

We run LA: USC 28, ucla 7

The Crosstown Rivalry.
The Battle for Los Angeles.
USC versus UCLA.

The 2009 edition of this rivalry seemed to be getting more hype as the potential changing of the guard game for football bragging rights in Los Angeles. If you read the LA Times before the game, you'd think UCLA could have rolled the Trojans in this one.

For Bruins and Trojans, it's all about LA

One team is surging, the other trying to regain its balance after embarrassing losses and weeks of public flogging.

But for the first time in years the roles are reversed.

When USC and UCLA play for the 79th time tonight at the Coliseum, Coach Pete Carroll and his recently staggering Trojans will try to hold off a Bruins team eager to show that the school's infamous "monopoly" marketing campaign was no joke.

UCLA-USC prediction:

Too close to call (almost)

And yet, after the Trojans suffered two of the worst losses in the program's history in the last three games against Oregon and Stanford, and the Bruins came in winners of three straight, it was the Trojans who looked to have the hot hand while the Bruins stumble around for 60 minutes.

+ Turnovers
The game was seemingly a pretty even affair with the exception of four Trojans takeaways to stifle several UCLA scoring chances. USC picked off Bruin quarterbacks three times and recovered one fumble, with two of the picks coming after UCLA had driven more than 30 yards on the drive. And that's really where the game was won for 'SC as three of the four turnovers led to scoring chances for 'SC.

Interception #1
The Trojans' Malcolm Smith returned a Kevin Prince interception for a 62-yard touchdown to open the scoring, 7-0 Trojans, in the first quarter. When the Trojans have been winning this season, they have been doing it with defense. The Trojans set an early precedent against the Bruins that they would be aggressive while UCLA's offense was at work.

UCLA took over after a Trojans punt late in the first half with delusions of grandeur ideas of getting on the board by halftime. They used defensive pass interference to get near midfield, and completed a pass for 14 yards. The next pass play, from Kevin Prince to Nelson Rosario went for 12 yards before Josh Pinkard recovered Rosario's fumble, halting the Bruins' chances. Instead, USC was able to drive 37 yards in five plays to set up a 50-yard field goal attempt. While the try fell short, USC's hurry-up offense proved potent, with quarterback Matt Barkley able to connect on a few out routes, and the receivers were able to get out of bounds to stop the clock.

Interception #2
The Trojans were forced to punt early in the third quarter, giving the Bruins the ball on their own 24 yard line. The Bruins ran the ball for two yards before Prince threw his second interception, this time to Will Harris, who gave the Trojans offense the ball deep in Bruins territory. It took USC seven plays to move 29 yards for the Allen Bradford 1-yard touchdown run, giving the Trojans 14 points off turnovers.

Interception #3
UCLA again forced a Trojans punt, with the Bruins taking over on their own 22. After driving across midfield to the Trojans' 47-yard line, quarterback Kevin Craft - who replaced Prince after he was knocked out of the game - floated a ball to Pinkard, who picked the pass at the 20 yard line to halt a potential Bruins scoring drive. The Trojans couldn't muster any offense on the ensuing possession and gave up the ball on a three-and-out, the fourth three-and-out for USC in the game.

Any time you win the turnover battle, 4-1, it's very difficult not to win the game. The Trojans defense set the table, and the offense finished dinner by converting turnovers into points.

+ USC Offense
The Trojans offense, for years though of as a big-play machine that cranked up 60-yard runs an 75-yard bombs directly to the end zone, didn't propel that seemingly now outdated stereotype. In fact, until the final five minutes of the game, the Trojans offense didn't have a drive of more than 37 yards in the entire game, and that drive led to the missed field goal at the end of the first half.

USC punted eight times on Saturday night. None of the Trojans drives lasted more than nine plays. The offense didn't get into the end zone until midway through the third quarter, and yet USC still seemed to be in control the entire time. The average drive moved just 20.1 yards (and only 13.8 yards per drive until the final two drives moved a combined 120 yards).

Matt Barkley was average at best for most of the game. There were times he tried to force balls, which he was able to complete on occasion. Other times he either missed or ignored an open man down field for an underneath target. I doubt he is not confident in going for the home run, however, he did pass up several chances to swing for the fences. Having said that (thank you Curb), he was able to work the short game to help move the chains. Of his 206 passing yards, 91 of them came in the fourth quarter, which is either a good thing that he was able to produce when it mattered most, or a scary reality that he was only able to amass just 115 yards through three quarters. Take your pick. Is the glass half full or half empty?

It just wasn't that great a game for the offense, but thanks to adding on some extra points in the final frame, the numbers didn't look too bleak.

+ The Controversy?
Did you hear about the "big controversy" with this year's USC-UCLA game? I know I didn't. I got a phone call today from a friend asking what I thought about last night's controversy. I was shocked. What controversy? What did I miss from Row 82 at the Coliseum?

The controversy in question refers to the Trojans touchdown strike after UCLA's called timeout when USC was trying to kneel down to kill the rest of the clock. I didn't realize this was such a big deal for a team to keep playing after being challenged to do so. Consider this:

The Bruins got the ball after a Trojans' touchdown, putting USC up 21-7 with 1:30 left in the game. After a 19-yard pass play to get near midfield, Craft threw four incomplete passes, turning the ball over on downs. Throwing four times with 1:30 left in the game and trailing by 14 says that the trailing team - UCLA - is still trying to get points on the board and keep this game competitive. If they can add on a touchdown to pull within seven, they can look back and say, "See, we only lost that game by 7. It was a close game. We're narrowing the gap between these two programs." In reality, adding that touchdown could do a lot for UCLA, and they were right to go for it. Instead, they didn't get it. They turned the ball over on downs, and USC took over on the UCLA 47 with 0:54 seconds remaining.

The Trojans walked out to the 47, broke the huddle in the victory formation, and took a knee to begin the process of running out the clock. The whistles blew, and the clock stopped at 0:52. UCLA had called a timeout. No problem here. UCLA is essentially saying that they aren't done playing. They have timeouts left, and if USC wants to run down the clock, they are going to have to run the ball, thus creating a greater possibility of a fumble or any sort of turnover, than the "safe play" of taking a knee. UCLA wanted a chance to get the ball back for that extra score, so they called timeout.

Having said that, if UCLA called timeout, presumably because they still wanted to play, to score, and to leave their mark on this game, then the Trojans should have every right to do the same. UCLA expected USC to continue to try to run out the clock, a process made easy by handing the ball off to a running back and having him stay in bounds. Instead, USC play-faked the run, and Barkley aired it out to a wide open Damian Williams for a 48-yard touchdown strike. 28-7 USC.

After that play and the ensuing extra point, the sidelines cleared in a stand off that saw a referee thrown to the ground by someone from UCLA. It was a good play call because UCLA was expecting run, and the Trojans faked the run to add their extra touchdown. Why should they add the extra touchdown? Well, if the results of this game have such a big implication on recruiting, then the Trojans should want to add an extra score to entice recruits to "join a winner" if they plan on playing big-time football in Southern California.

It's not running up the score. It's not poor sportsmanship. It's nothing more than a competitive game between two rivals. One was ready to head to the locker room with a 21-7 victory, so Pete Carroll ordered the troops to take a knee. UCLA wanted the ball back, so the Trojans gave it to 'em -- by kicking off after an extra touchdown to sweeten the win.

+ USC Defense
The USC defense regained some swagger with a 7-point stunting of UCLA's offense. It doesn't negate the 55 points given up to Stanford in the previous game two weeks earlier at the Coliseum, but it certainly helps take some of the sting away. The Trojans defense was able to disrupt the Bruins passing game, limiting quarterbacks Kevin Craft and Kevin Prince to a combined 18-of-39 for 188 yards and three interceptions. The Bruins running game, well their traditional running game, was held to 60 yards. They were able to more than double their ground game total by using designed quarterback draws and other QB scrambles to tack on 74 yards against 'SC. That was really the only thing UCLA was able to do that USC couldn't control, but when the QBs had to make plays with their arms instead of their feet, the Bruins came up empty-handed.

The four-turnover performance tied the 2009 season-high for USC's defense, equalling the mark against Arizona State three weeks earlier. It was evidence that the Pete Carroll defense that has become so potent and feared since 2001 still has the potential to take over a game, and that the efforts seen against Stanford and Oregon are more aberration than atrophy.

+ Punting aplenty
With one game left in 2009, the Trojans have punted 53 times, averagin 4.8 (so, five) punts per game. That seems like a lot more than in years past. Looking at the numbers, the Trojans in the Pete Carroll era (since 2001) have done a good job of not giving up the ball in past seasons, as this year's 4.8 punts per game could wind up being the highest since before the back-to-back National Championships.

YearPuntsPunts Per Game

Here's the breakdown of USC's punting in 2009 by game:

vs. UCLA

USC Punting
J. Harfman836345.41154

vs. Stanford
USC Punting
J. Harfman310535.00037

at Arizona State
USC Punting
J. Harfman829737.11151

at Oregon
USC Punting
J. Harfman623238.70048

vs. Oregon State
USC Punting
J. Harfman313244.00047

at Notre Dame
USC Punting
J. Harfman415338.30159

at California
USC Punting
J. Harfman312040.00047

vs. Washington State
USC Punting
J. Harfman313946.30251

at Washington
USC Punting
B. O'Malley416441.00053

at Ohio State
USC Punting
B. O'Malley518837.61041

vs. San Jose State
USC Punting
B. O'Malley620834.70345

The Trojans may not be going to the Rose Bowl, and the string of consecutive Pac-10 championships will officially end next week, however USC still is the big dog in Los Angeles. I leave you now with this image of Rick Neuheisel declaring the LA football monopoly officially over (two years ago). How's that going?

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