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.

Fumble
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
2009534.8
2008473.6
2007634.8
2006493.8
2005332.5
2004513.9
2003443.4
2002655.0
2001796.6


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

vs. UCLA

USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman836345.41154
Team836345.41154

vs. Stanford
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman310535.00037
Team310535.00037

at Arizona State
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman829737.11151
Team829737.11151

at Oregon
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman623238.70048
Team623238.70048

vs. Oregon State
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman313244.00047
Team313244.00047

at Notre Dame
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman415338.30159
Team415338.30159

at California
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman312040.00047
Team312040.00047

vs. Washington State
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
J. Harfman313946.30251
Team313946.30251

at Washington
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
B. O'Malley416441.00053
Team416441.00053

at Ohio State
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
B. O'Malley518837.61041
Team518837.61041

vs. San Jose State
USC Punting
TOTYDSAVGTB-20LG
B. O'Malley620834.70345
Team620834.70345

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?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for offense: Dal 24, Oak 7

Don't dismiss it as a game against the Raiders. The Cowboys desperately needed the confidence and swagger that comes with a half-dozen big plays after consecutive weeks of offensive ineptitude.

The Cowboys (8-3) used the struggling Raiders to cure what ailed them, unleashing all offensive weapons in a 24-7 win on Thanksgiving that should silence critics as the Cowboys enjoy a mini-bye before a division showdown in New York in December. Dallas racked up 494 yards of offense, including 195 on the ground, as everyone from Felix Jones to Roy Williams made significant contributions.

During the short week since the narrow win over Washington, the Cowboys offense has been under the gun due to its lack of big plays on offense since the Eagles game. They were nearly shut out in Green Bay, but added a meaningless TD late in the game. But on this day, the Cowboys offense came out gangbusters, airing it out and pounding on the ground.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, however. The Cowboys figured out half of the equation. They were able to make the big plays frequently, but too often they were unable to follow up on that momentum and translate some of those plays into big points. Here's a look at the big plays - plays of 20 yards or more - that the Cowboys made on Thursday against Oakland:

Cowboys Big Plays:

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st
2nd & 6
Dal 24
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep middle to M.Austin to OAK 27 for 49 yards

This big play was immediately followed by a false start (-5), 1 yard run by Barber, Romo sacked, illegal use of hands (-10), McBriar punts from Oak 41 on 4th & 24.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
1st
1st & 10
Dal 23
T.Choice up the middle to OAK 11 for 66 yards
(from RAZORBACK, direct snap to Choice)

The Cowboys followed up this long run by giving the ball back to Choice where he promptly was stopped for no gain. Not really his fault - no NFL player is turning down the ball - but Jason Garrett has to give him a chance to catch his breath, right? On the run for no gain, Dallas was flagged for holding (-10). The drive stalled, and Nick Folk kicked a consolation field goal from 36 yards.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
2nd
2nd & 4
Dal 27
T.Romo pass short left to M.Austin pushed ob at OAK 46 for 27 yards

Dallas finally bucked the trend of struggling to finish after the big play. The very next play, Romo handed off to Felix Jones, and the Cowboys home run hitter finally knocked one out of the park for the first time this season.
2nd
1st & 10
Oak 46
Felix Jones up the middle for 46 yards, TOUCHDOWN

Jones galloped into the end zone for the first TD of the game, celebrating by leaping around like a Gramatica trying to hurt himself. The fourth big play of the day for Dallas finally results in serious ramifications for the Raiders. Dallas led 10-0.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
2nd
1st & 10
Dal 28
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to M.Barber pushed ob at OAK 30 for 42 yards
Pass complete in the flat to Barber out of backfield.

After big plays by Tashard Choice and Felix Jones, the veteran of the trio of running backs got loose out of the backfield for a big gain down the sideline. However, Dallas followed Barber's big burst with a false start, an incompletion, a 9-yard pass, and a sack of Romo for -5. Dallas sent on Folk to attempt a 49-yard field goal which clanged off the upright, resulting in no points despite the big play.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
2nd
1st & 10
Dal 37
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to M.Austin pushed ob at OAK 43 for 20 yards

The drive was all about the arm of Tony Romo and the churning legs of Miles Austin. Everyone wanted the Cowboys to have a stronger running game after the loss in Green Bay, and while the ground game has responded, there's no doubt that it's the passing game that truly fuels the offensive fire in Dallas. After a run by Barber for no gain, the Cowboys went to the air again:
2nd
2nd & 10
Oak 43
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to J.Witten to OAK 22 for 21 yards
(Pass complete on crossing pattern)

Dallas got into striking range with the first big play to a tight end of the 2009 season. For anyone keeping track, this was the Cowboys' 11th game of the year. Dallas kept things in the air as Romo looked for Austin on the next play. The speedy receiver was originally awarded a touchdown when it appeared he rolled over a defender and avoided being down, but replay overturned the 22-yard score into a 14-yard gain. Two plays later, Romo and Austin hooked up on a bubble screen for the drive-capping touchdown. Credit Doug Free with the block that gave Austin enough wiggle room to find the end zone.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
3rd
1st & 10
Dal 20
(Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep left to J.Witten to OAK 43 for 37 yards
(Pass complete on a seam route)

Dallas looked like they would be starting the third quarter with the same high offensive energy that they displayed in the second quarter, however it didn't materialize on this drive. Barber ran for 0, Romo was sacked for a loss of 5, and one incomplete pass later, the Cowboys were punting from Oakland territory.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
4th
1st & 10
Dal 48
T.Romo pass short left to J.Witten to OAK 8 for 44 yards

The long pass to Jason Witten helped set up the gravy on the turkey in this Thanksgiving win. Choice scampered for 6 yards before Romo hooked up with Roy Williams for a 6-yard touchdown. Dallas led, 24-7.

QuarterDown & Dist.Yard Line
4th
3rd & 1
Dal 20
M.Barber runs right tackle to OAK 48 for 32 yards

Barbers big run helped even out his average for the day but did little else. Dallas had a 17-point lead at this point, and didn't necessarily need to add more points, which was good because they didn't. This play was followed by Barber for 1, Barber for 1, a pass to Felix Jones for 5, and another punt from Oakland territory.

Of punter Mat McBriar's six punt attempts, three of them came from within Oakland territory, and a fourth had a line of scrimmage at the Dallas 49. Sadly, that doesn't illustrate a great ability to capitalize on some of the big plays the Cowboys made, but it was certainly enough to beat the hapless Raiders.

There must be more to show for the 494 yards of offense than a mere 24 points against Oakland, however after back to back 7-point outings, this game will provide solid footing for a Cowboys team looking to reestablish its identity as a big play offense.

The Cowboys now get 10 days off before their rematch with the New York Giants at the Meadowlands. New York ruined the debut of Cowboys Stadium en route to a 5-0 start while Dallas was a mere 3-2, limping into the bye with an overtime win over the Chiefs. It seems the Giants and Cowboys are two very different teams since so early in the 2009 campaign. New York endured a four-game losing streak, as Dallas leapfrogged the rest of the division. However, the Cowboys are facing a must win game at Giants Stadium if they have any desire to win the NFC East. If New York wins, they hold the tiebreaker with two wins over Dallas. If the Cowboys win, they'll retain their division lead with a very rugged schedule still ahead. Should be a great battle.


A few more thoughts on a Thanksgiving thumping:

+ Defense
The Cowboys defense did a good job of stifling the Raiders offense until Dallas was able to build a substantial lead. However, they still allowed the Raiders to open up holes and move the ball on them. At the end of the day, they allowed seven points, so it wasn't all bad, but on more than one occasion someone in silver and black was one tackle away from going the distance.

Anthony Spencer led the way with a pair of sacks on Bruce Gradkowski. Spencer out-shined Greg Ellis, the man he replaced in the starting line up, with 8 tackles (6 solo) in the game. He along with Demarcus Ware (1 sack) and the rest of the front seven put frequent pressure on Gradkowski, hitting the QB 10 times throughout the game.

Unfortunately, the defense was unable to force a meaningful turnover. Ware sacked Gradkowski on the final play of the first half, forcing the ball loose, and Jay Ratliff fell on it with no time on the clock. Not as big as the single turnover in last week's game - an interception by Spencer to halt the last real chance for Washington. A few defensive backs had opportunities to step in front of balls, but there were no glaring drops of interceptions.

Dallas is -4 on the season in the turnover differential, tied for 24th in the NFL with a mere 7 interceptions, and tied for 18th with 6 recovered fumbles. That's 13 takeaways in 11 games, not an impressive total by any stretch. The other division leaders in the NFC:
- New Orleans has 29 (20 INT, 9 fumbles recovered) ... +10
- Minnesota has 16 (7 INT, 9 fumbles recovered) ... +6
- Arizona has 16 (11 INT, 5 fumbles recovered) ... -5

Still plenty of work left to do on the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys are middle of the pack in total yards allowed, but they are giving up only 16.5 points per game, which is third-best in the NFL, and tops in the conference.

Points Per Game Leaders (*including Thursday's games)
RK ... TEAM ... PTS/G
1. Indianapolis ... 15.7
2. New England ... 16.4
3. Dallas ... 16.5*
4. Cincinnati ... 16.7
5. Baltimore ... 17.1
6. Denver ... 17.2*
7. Washington ... 17.8
8. Pittsburgh ... 18.4
9. NY Jets ... 18.9
10. Minnesota ... 19.3

+ Miles Austin
It seemed during the middle of this season that Miles Austin was the only Cowboy capable of going off for a big play. While he got plenty of support from others on the offense, the young receiver still led the way with big plays. He finished with seven catches for 145 yards and a touchdown, giving him a total of 824 yards (currently 7th in the NFL) and 8 touchdowns in 2009. He is currently tied with Reggie Wayne for the most 20+ yard plays with 15. He still may not be the official #1 receiver for the Cowboys, but get ready for some well deserved Pro Bowl talk.

Austin has the third-most yards of any NFC receiver, and the second-highest yards per catch average in the conference. His 8 TDs is tied for second with Vernon Davis behind Larry Fitzgerald's 9 in the NFC. It's not just numbers, but it's how his play changes the game for Dallas. There might not be many others from the Cowboys offense joining him in the Pro Bowl, but Austin is well on his way to locking up an invite.

+ Roy Williams
Speaking of receivers, Roy Williams made an appearance in Thursday's contest, catching two balls for 15 yards and a touchdown. It wasn't much, but it's better than the bagel he put up last week. This week he didn't have any glaring drops, which could be considered an improvement. Perhaps the biggest contribution of Williams against the Raiders was that he drew the attention of Nnamdi Asomugha for most of the game. He was only targeted four times. It's a rough paradox of success for Roy: should Romo throw to him if he's covered by such a good cornerback, or is he expected to be able to beat that coverage regardless? Either way, Asomugha covering Williams left Austin able to roam free.

+ Nick Folk
Bad news for Nick Folk. I realize that his only miss on the day was from 49 yards, but that dropped his season field goal percentage to 73.7 (14 of 19), which has Dallas as the 25th most accurate field goal team in the NFL this season. In 2008, Folk's work was good enough (20 of 22, 90.9%) for fourth-best percentage in the NFL. The list of teams with uglier field goal percentages on the season so far: Carolina (73.3), Cincinnati (70.6), Jacksonville (64.7), Houston (64.7), Atlanta (62.5), Tampa Bay (50.0).

Folk is 6-for-6 from inside 30 yards, and still 3-for-4 from 30-39 yards out, however he has struggled from longer range this season. He is 4-of-8 from 40-49 yards in 2009, a 50% rate of success down from his 10-of-11 mark on 40-yarders in 2008. He's not missing by much, but as the Cowboys begin the tough test of a December schedule that has them facing three division opponents and two more division leaders, they'll need as many three-pointers as they can get.

+ Punting at the video board
Raiders punter Shane Lechler is averaging a whopping 51.5 average yards per punt, with a 44.5 net yards per punt in 2009. He punted nine times in Thursday's game, and if he didn't hit the board during the game, it's safe to say that no one is going to. He did cause folks in our section to hold their breath a few times as punts continue to rise toward the board, but Jerry's TV remains unscathed.

+ 3rd Downs
It's odd that the Cowboys were able to control this game so well, and were able to make big play after big play during the game, yet they remained relatively hopeless on 3rd down conversions. Dallas extended drives just a third of the time, converting 4-of-12 third downs. And yet, it wasn't even the worst 3rd down success rate the Cowboys had in a win this season.

Here's how the Cowboys did on 3rd downs in other games this year:
(losses in italics)
at Tampa Bay ... 3-of-10 ... 30.0%
vs. New York Giants ... 6-of-11 ... 54.5%
vs. Carolina ... 5-of-13 ... 38.5%
at Denver ... 3-of-14 ... 21.4%
at Kansas City ... 5-of-12 ... 41.7%
vs. Atlanta ... 6-of-13 ... 46.2%
vs. Seattle ... 7-of-13 ... 53.8%
at Philadelphia ... 7-of-15 ... 46.7%
at Green Bay ... 3-of-12 ... 25.0%
vs. Washington ... 3-of-11 ... 27.3%
vs. Oakland ... 4-of-12 ... 33.3%

+ Running Backs
It's pretty cool when a trio of running backs has everyone gain at least 60 yards on the ground, not to mention the 41 additional yards that Barber had in the passing game. Here's the rushing stats:
Dallas Rushing
CARYDSAVGTDLG
F. Jones7689.7146
T. Choice36722.3066
M. Barber14614.4032
T. Romo1-1-1.000
Team251957.8166

+ New York Giants
The New York Giants were unable to ride the wave of success after snapping their four-game losing streak in overtime last week. Denver dismantled the Giants at Invesco Field in the Thursday night game, 26-6, to drop the Giants to 6-5, two full games behind the Cowboys in the NFC East. While the Giants did win the only head-to-head battle so far, they too have a rough road the rest of the way if they are going to battle for the division or even a wild card berth.

+ Schedule the rest of the way
Here's the schedules for the NFC East contenders (Dallas, Philly, New York) as well as the only other legitimate Wild Card contenders (Green Bay, Atlanta) as it stands right now. New Orleans, Minnesota and Arizona all have large enough division leads that if they were to miss the playoffs, it would be due to some catastrophic collapse.
Remaining schedules of NFC contenders:

DallasGreen BayPhiladelphiaNew YorkAtlanta
8-3
7-4
6-4
6-5
5-5
W vs. Oak
W @ Det
WAS
L @ Den
TB
@ NYG
BAL
@ ATL
DAL
PHI
SD
@ CHI
@ NYG
PHI
NO
@ NO
@ PIT
SF
@ WAS
@ NYJ
@ WAS
SEA
DEN
CAR
BUF
PHI
@ ARI
@ DAL
@ MIN
@ TB

Big Bounce-Back: Mavs 130, Rockets 99

It seemed like something the same old Mavericks would do, blowing a fourth quarter lead to an opponent after dominating the game for 41 minutes. After the ugly late-game collapse against a shorthanded Golden State Warriors team two nights ago, the Mavs (11-4) responded in a way that certainly did not represent that same old mentality.

The Mavs thrashed Houston, 130-99, in the I-45 series in a game that may not have been that close. Dallas found itself in a similar situation as the night before against the Warriors, leading late in the game. The difference: they kept on pushing their lead even after getting up 91-77 over the Rockets heading into the 4th quarter.

It's not the first time this season where the Mavs recorded a solid road win over a quality opponent after a bad beat at home. And that simply hasn't been a trait of the Mavericks in recent years. Maybe it was those light blue jerseys. Whatever it is, it's working to help this team respond when it needs to.

The last few years, it hasn't been uncommon for this team to relax with a lead and thus allowing their opponents back into a game. It hurt against Golden State on Tuesday, especially considering they used just six players, including three that played all 48 minutes. But on Wednesday, Dallas gained back some composure - not to mention the return of Shawn Marion - and at one point ran off 26 straight points. Any time an NBA team goes on a 26-0 run, it's not just great offense, but the Mavs defense was creating stops at the other end of the court.

Houston mustered just four fast break points compared to the Mavs 20, and Dallas dominated from the floor, shooting a .655 clip on Wednesday. The Mavs got a tremendous boost from not only Jason Terry, who threw in a game-high 27 points on 10-of-11 shooting off the bench, but there was a Tim Thomas sighting as well, as the power forward came off the bench for 23 points.

One of the most meaningful accomplishments of the game came on a Jason Kidd assist to move into second all-time in career assists. Kidd's seven helpers brought his career total to 10,334 (he's still a helluva long way from John Stockton's 15,806).

Kidd's handprints were apparent even after he sat down for the fourth quarter. With about 2:30 left in the game, J.J. Barea collected the ball at the defensive end of the court, began dribbling up court, and then raised the ball high above his "6-0" frame, and slung a length-of-the-court bounce pass to Rodrigue Beaubois for an easy layup. That's a Jason Kidd pass if I've ever seen one, and it was executed perfectly by Barea.

Keep looking for those plays, plays that guys on this team wouldn't have made in years past. I realize it's a late-game assist in a blowout win, but it represents an increase of talent across the board.

Getting back Marion was great after a three-game absence. When Josh Howard and Erick Dampier return, this team will emerge as a true threat in the Western Conference.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tony Romo: Robber

Watching the news in Dallas tonight, there has apparently been a break in a case of robberies in the Dallas area. According to the local NBC station, Anthony "Tony" Romo has been arrested by Dallas police in connection with a string of violent robberies. No word on whether or not he'll be able to take the field against the Raiders on Turkey Day.

video

For more on this, check out the daily police blotter on the NBC DFW website (the 4th story listed).

And to think it would come to this after two consecutive games in which the Cowboys were held to only 7 points. Does a man making $67 million really need to rob a quickie mart? Or is just a nice way of blowing off steam in a post-Jessica world?

We did hear about Tony Romo the do-gooder in past seasons. Maybe it's because he's playing the Raiders this week that he's trying to get more into the mind of his opponent.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Check back tomorrow evening for the Thanksgiving game recap.

Monday, November 23, 2009

NFC Playoff Picture - Week 11 wrap up

With all the NFC teams now with 10 games in the books (the AFC still has a MNF "thriller" between Houston and Tennessee tonight), let's take a look at the playoff picture, and which teams currently have the best shots at the the Wild Card berths - especially considering three of the four NFC divisions are all but locked up with six games left.

AFCWLTDif
East
Patriots730126
Dolphins550-2
Jets46024
Bills370-73
North
Bengals73048
Steelers64047
Ravens55066
Browns190-148
South
Colts1000112
Jaguars640-36
Texans54027
Titans360-66
West
Chargers73064
Broncos640-13
Chiefs370-70
Raiders370-126
NFCWLTDif
East
Cowboys73056
Giants64031
Eagles64062
Redskins370-32
North
Vikings910113
Packers64059
Bears460-19
Lions280-120
South
Saints1000165
Falcons55024
Panthers460-46
Buccaneers190-130
West
Cardinals73053
49ers460-2
Seahawks370-37
Rams190-157

The Vikings and Cardinals each have three-game leads in the NFC North and West, respectively. The undefeated Saints are up by five games on the Falcons. Only the NFC East remains up in the air, with the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles all within a game of each other. So who is making the playoffs in the NFC?

If the playoffs started today, the NFC playoff picture would look like this:
1. New Orleans Saints, 10-0 (South)
2. Minnesota Vikings, 9-1 (North)
3. Dallas Cowboys, 7-3 (East)
4. Arizona Cardinals, 7-3 (West)
5. Philadelphia Eagles, 6-4 (WC)
6. Green Bay Packers, 6-4 (WC)

On the outside looking in:
7. New York Giants, 6-4
8. Atlanta Falcons, 5-5
9. San Francisco 49ers, 4-6
10. Carolina Panthers, 4-6
11. Chicago Bears, 4-6

A few explanations:
The Cowboys hold the No. 3 seed over the Cardinals for the time being, as Dallas has a 6-2 conference record compared to Arizona's 5-2 record in the NFC. Looking at conference records, you will see that Philly has a better conference record (5-2) than Green Bay (5-3) or New York (4-3).

The Eagles, Giants and Cowboys will all get a chance to face each other in the back half of the season with games against each other.
Week 13 (Dec 6): Dallas @ Giants
Week 14 (Dec 13): Philadelphia @ Giants
Week 17 (Jan 3): Philadelphia @ Dallas

The Cowboys do hold head-to-head tiebreakers over the Falcons and Panthers, but a lot still has to happen for either of those NFC South teams to get into the postseason. This race is going to be between the Packers and the entire NFC East to determine the remaining three NFC playoff teams.

Keep an eye on the number of conference wins that these teams put up. The Cowboys remaining conference games are at New York, at New Orleans, at Washington and home against Philadelphia. Do you feel good about any of those games? The conference opponents are a 25-15 overall (.625).

The Giants have conference games left home against the Cowboys and Eagles, at Washington, home to Carolina, and at Minnesota. The conference opponents record: 29-21 (.580). It's certainly not an easy road, but the game against Minnesota on the final week of the season might be against a team with nothing to play for if they've locked up the bye, and there is no shot of catching the Saints for home field advantage.

The Eagles in the conference will be home to Washington, at Atlanta, at New York Giants, home to San Francisco, and at Dallas. It's a pretty balanced conference schedule for Philly, whose NFC opponents are 25-25 (.500) on the season, but they will be on the road against the two tough division opponents, which might make this an uphill battle for them.

Finally, the Packers finish their conference schedule at Detroit, at Chicago, home to Seattle, and at Arizona. It's a pretty comfortable conference road - the teams are combined 16-24 (.400) - compared the the schedule of the NFC East trio, so look for Green Bay to make a late-season charge. The Packers own the head-to-head over Dallas, and because they will not play New York and Philadelphia this year, the Pack might have to go down the list of tiebreakers if they are even with the Giants or Eagles. After conference record, the next tiebreaker is common opponents (minimum four). Each team plays the Cowboys, Buccaneers, Vikings and Cardinals this year, so that will be applicable if it comes down to it.

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