Joe-Pinions: Sports

29 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 8

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 29/10/2010

Picks for Week 8:

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Miami Dolphins

The Bengals have had an uneven first half to their season so far.  They have somewhat defied some expectations that their collection of talented yet troubled cast-offs and rejects, including an older yet still effective WR Terrell Owens and CB Adam “Pacman” Jones, would spread conflict and discontent.  Up to this point, they haven’t done so.  Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the real reason why the team acquired such players in the first place – to bolster the team’s talent level – has similarly not met expectations either up to this point.  Six games in, they’ve only gone 2-4.  Some people say that they are under-achieving.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins are at 3-3 after six games.  They tend to keep games close, then get in position to score just enough points to beat their opponents.  Except for their blowout loss to New England in Week 4, they excel in never being out of contention in games, letting their solid running game, adequate passing game, and stout defense give them enough plays to win.  The flipside, of course, comes when the other team just outplays them, even by a small amount, at the crucial game-deciding moments.  They need to generate more fire from that offense.

Cincinnati may have the home field advantage, but the DOLPHINS have fewer issues to deal with this week.  The Bengals will not have Pacman Jones in their secondary; while the “Fish” aren’t exactly known to be an aerial team, they are competent enough to exploit any weakness the Bengals secondary shows.  Carson Palmer is also battling injuries and may not even play, which only makes things more difficult for the Bengals.  Finally, with their hopes for a playoff spot already looking lost due to the strength of their division rivals, the Bengals may not have enough incentive to play like tigers given their sub-500 record.

Oakland Raiders vs. Seattle Seahawks

Yes, I know I’ve had Raiders games the last two weeks, and a Seattle game last week as well.  What can I say?  I think this is an interesting game.

The Raiders absolutely annihilated the Broncos in Denver last week, 59-14.  Running back Darren McFadden just went crazy last week against the Broncos, completely masking the Raiders’ mostly feeble passing attack.  The defense also made its share of plays, including a “pick six” by cornerback Chris Johnson early in the game.  Coming home after such a conquest on the road should only boost the Raiders’ spirits.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, excel at Qwest Field, but the team is still on a quest to find similar performance on the road.  They have a decent 1-2 record on the road (they are unbeaten at home), so they have yet to find a comfort level away from Seattle.  Oakland will be a difficult team to beat, but throughout his career head coach Pete Carroll has shown a penchant for being resourceful and inventive in finding ways to win.

I want to pick Oakland for this game, but I have a feeling the SEAHAWKS will catch the Raiders a little full of themselves.

New Orleans Saints vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

I’ll confess that I was torn about choosing this game or the New England Patriots vs. Minnesota Vikings game.  Yeah, I could have jettisoned either one of my previous two games above and accommodated the Pats vs. Vikings, but I honestly think that those two games are more compelling as football games and a little tougher to pick a winner from; the Pats vs. Vikings game is mostly interesting because of the Brett Favre angle, in my opinion.  There’s no way the Patriots will lose to the Vikings.  It just won’t happen, unless aliens kidnap both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

But I digress.

The Saints are 4-3 after seven games; they could very easily have been 2-5 given their close and somewhat lucky wins over two teams with two wins combined (the 49ers in Week 2, and the Panthers in Week 4).  They simply don’t look as explosive on offense as they did last year, and defensively they don’t seem to be making as many plays and taking the ball away from the opponent.  They can still move the ball, and they can still score, but the whole show looks far less spectacular than it did last year. 

Meanwhile, the Steelers give the impression of a storm gathering energy, just building up power and strength just before making landfall.  For New Orleans fans and residents, this must be an uncomforting, even unsettling, idea (apologies to those with extreme sensitivity to allusions to Hurricane Katrina; I absolutely mean no disrespect).  The offense should continue to improve with each passing week as Ben Roethlisberger gradually ramps his play up, and the defense will remain the constant force it traditionally has always been.  They have yet to lose with Big Ben back in control of the offense.

Almost unbelievably, I would think that the defending Super Bowl champion Saints are the underdog at home against the mighty Steelers.  I’ve vacillated over this pick this entire week, choosing one team, then the other, for my pick in this game.  But I must register a committed choice for the sake of this blog’s weekly NFL picks.

The SAINTS, then, will march off with a spooky victory on Halloween night.  I’m too afraid of the powers of voodoo being called up against me if I picked against the hometown team.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos

My friend Tim from the UK wrote a great blog entry on this game; read his 49ers vs. Broncos preview here.

I won’t repeat everything he said, though I strongly agree with what he wrote.  Essentially he echoes many of the same sentiments about the 49ers that I’ve been railing about weekly here in my own blog.  I will add, too, that the 49ers’ offense is embarrassing, and the defense is over-worked and sometimes plays too conservatively, especially when the team is nursing any sort of lead late in games.  The team looks too often as if they are playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.  In other words, the 49ers look like they get uptight and avoid taking risks to their detriment, which affects their execution on both sides of the ball and therefore kills their chances of seizing the win.  

The Broncos also have their problems.  As Tim said, their running game, once much-vaunted and effective no matter who was toting the rock for them when Mike Shanahan was the head coach, lacks efficiency and explosion.  The Broncos’ fortunes will ride quarterback Kyle Orton’s right arm and head coach Josh McDaniels’ schemes.  Defensively, all they need to do is make sure they crowd the line and take Frank Gore out of the game and force the 49ers to throw.  Easy enough game plan, and probably easy enough to execute against such an unimaginative offense as the 49ers.

I’ll directly quote Tim’s entry as I pick the 49ers to win this game:  Who will win? My head says Denver hold all the aces, but my heart says San Francisco will come out on top if they can establish their ground game and rely on Willis and Clements to force some turnovers. A weather forecast which predicts light rain all weekend may also help neuter the Broncos’ potent pass offense. 49ers to win a low-scoring encounter, 20-17.

Well said, Tim.

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16-12 after seven weeks with four games apiece.  Last week I said that I’d be doing well if I picked half of those four games correctly.  This week I’ll repeat that sentiment.  I think that none of these four games are locks; I could go 0-4 with this week’s picks.  

We’ll find out by the end of Sunday night!

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25 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 7 Results

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 25/10/2010

Here are our Week 7 results:

Tennessee Titans vs. Philadelphia Eagles:  We got this game RIGHT.  The Titans continued their brutalizing ways and utterly dominated the Eagles, almost doubling Philadelphia’s score 37-19.  Second-year Titans WR Kenny Britt caught seven Kerry Collins passes for a total of 225yds (Collins finished with 276yds passing) and scored three touchdowns against an obviously ineffective Eagles pass defense, suggesting that Philadelphia’s game plan was to contain Titans RB Chris Johnson.  They did that, limiting the explosive running back to just 66yds on the ground, but could not stop Britt and Collins.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals:  Another RIGHT pick.  Qwest Field continues to be home sweet home for the Seahawks as they beat the Cardinals 22-10.  The Seahawks consolidate their hold on the division lead as well as continue to establish the fact that Qwest Field is one of the NFL’s best home environments.  Newly-installed Cardinal starting QB Max Hall had a thoroughly miserable day; getting knocked out of the game early in the second half may have ironically been a personal reprieve, given his performance (4-16 passing for 34yds, 2 sacks, 13.5 passer rating).

Denver Broncos vs. Oakland Raiders:  Wow, talk about getting things WRONG.  The Oakland Raiders jumped on the Denver Broncos’ collective throat early and crushed their blue and orange-garbed rivals, 59-14.  The Raiders scored early and often off of Broncos miscues and earned the greatest single-game total in their storied history.  They left the mile-high city on a gigantic high.  The Broncos, meanwhile, left home for a one-game sojourn to far-flung London and the world-famous Wembley Stadium.  They were probably glad to simply leave the scene of their humiliating loss to their most hated rival.

Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers:  By picking the 49ers to win (they really really REALLY should have), I got this game WRONG.  Broken hearts beat in San Francisco as the 49ers somehow contrive to lose against the hitherto winless Carolina Panthers 23-20.  Continuing trends that are as alarming as they are now getting sadly familiar, the 49ers committed myriad breakdowns and miscues.  They were penalized for false starts, holding, and other indications of poor teaching of basic techniques by the coaching staff with regularity; in fact, the 49ers are committing more errors with each passing game, which suggests a widening disconnection between the disillusioned players and the ineffective coaching staff.  

Both the offense and defense were to blame for this latest debacle.  While RB Frank Gore was having a very good day on the ground, the offensive line was ineffective in protecting the passer.  The inevitable happened early in the second half.  On the third play of the third quarter, Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith and knocked him out with a sprained left shoulder.  Later Smith revealed that the play was designed to have a seven-man protection; how a defensive end (not a dogging linebacker nor a blitzing defensive back) managed to have a clean shot at the quarterback with a seven-man protection call is baffling beyond description.

The 49ers tapped David Carr to replace Alex Smith, but for all intents and purposes the game was as good as lost when Smith went out.  Carr was completely ineffective at passing, looking completely out of rhythm and completely unadjusted to playing at full game speed.  The Panthers, of course, fully understood the ramifications of Smith’s exit and clogged the box with more men than the 49ers could block, completely shutting Frank Gore down in the second half.  

The Niners defense was not blameless in this disaster, either.  They made Carolina quarterback Matt Moore look like a Pro Bowl QB, allowing 308yds passing and two TDs.  The 49ers defense did seize the lead with around 13:00 minutes to go in the game when Moore threw an interception to 49ers DE Ray McDonald, but allowed the Panthers to score the decisive ten final points in the game by playing a pathetically-soft coverage scheme without sending hardly any pressure to the Carolina QB.  What’s worse was that when the 49ers did send dogs and/or blitzes, the Panthers were always able to punish the 49ers with a key long completion.

The 49ers have demonstrated that they have mastered getting leads late in the game, then surrendering the lead at the very end.  Whether they do so with inept offense or inept defense is immaterial; all that matters is that this team simply does not know and understand how to win.

The question for the beleaguered 49ers now is:  When do we just cut our losses and start over?

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As I expected, this was going to be a difficult set of picks.  I feel satisfied with going 2-2 this weekend, even if I (still) feel so much pain from the 49ers’ loss.  The season’s total stands at 16-12.

I hope Week 8 brings at least a 49ers victory in London.  I’d trade doing better than 50% in my pick ’em game for a 49ers in.

23 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 7

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 23/10/2010

Picks for Week 7 of the 2010 NFL regular season:

Tennessee Titans vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Titans return home after a Monday Night drubbing of division rival Jacksonville to face a Philadelphia Eagles squad that has many questions facing it.  Chief amongst the Eagles’ concerns is the question of who will be the starting quarterback, Kevin Kolb or Michael Vick?  Given two straight victories and a very strong performance last week, coach Andy Reid has decided to stay with the hot hand and keep Kolb in the starter’s role.  The Eagles are also short at wide receiver, with DeSean Jackson out after suffering a concussion last week against the Falcons.  For a pass-happy team like the Eagles, it will take effective adjustments by Coach Reed to overcome Jackson’s absence from the lineup.

Tennessee is also hurting, with starting quarterback Vince Young likely to be out due to injuries to his left knee and ankle.  Fortunately for the Titans, their offense isn’t designed to be as dependent on Young as it is on running back Chris Johnson.  The Eagles have to slow Johnson down and force the Titans to beat them with the pass.  At least the Titans have a good veteran backup in Kerry Collins.

So, who wins this between two teams sitting on 4-2 records?  Home field is an advantage, so in this game of well-matched opponents I’m picking the TITANS for the second week in a row.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals

In this all-NFC West matchup, the 3-2 Seahawks host the 3-2 Cardinals.

In all honesty, it’s difficult choosing between these two teams.  Both are teams in transition.  The Seahawks are in their first year under new head coach Pete Carroll, and while the offense still looks to be based (at least to some degree) on the West Coast Offense that former head coach Mike Holmgren installed during his tenure in Seattle, it’s not quite the same.  Coach Carroll is smart enough to not radically alter the offense in his first year at the helm.  Defensively, he’s also made only relatively minor tweaks.

The Cardinals are also a team in the midst of change.  Kurt Warner is gone at quarterback, Matt Leinart was sent packing, and so now Derek Anderson is at the controls of an offense that runs best with an accurate passer taking the snaps.  Unfortunately, Anderson is accurate only if he was chucking nuclear bombs at pin-sized targets; head coach Ken Whisenhunt’s air attack requires surgical laser strikes.  The Cardinals’ biggest playmaker, WR Larry Fitzgerald, has suffered as a consequence, with reduced production.

Somehow, though, the Cardinals are still able to eke out wins despite the incompatibility of its quarterback to the requirements of the coach’s offensive strategy and philosophy.

Will any of this matter in this match-up in Seattle, though?  The Seahawks enjoy one of the best home field advantages in the entire NFL, and I firmly believe this will be a decisive factor in the SEAHAWKS winning over the Cardinals.

Denver Broncos vs. Oakland Raiders

In a game between two old and bitter rivals, records don’t matter.  Histories don’t matter.  Nothing matters except for the fact that you’re playing against a nemesis, and usually games like this bring out the best out of both teams.

And so the 2-4 Denver Broncos host the 2-4 Oakland Raiders.

The Broncos are in their second year under head coach Josh McDaniels, but so far success on the field has proven elusive.  Coach McDaniels is still molding this team’s roster so that it more closely fits his philosophies and strategy.  Almost unbelievably, he ostracized several of the Broncos’ leading players, including former QB Jay Cutler (traded to the Chicago Bears) and WR Brandon Marshall (eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins).  In 2009 alone, his first year at the helm, McDaniels cut, waived or traded an astonishing 28 players!  (Considering that a typical regular season game day roster is composed of 53 players, this truly is a staggering number.)  Obviously, after gutting the roster and essentially deliberately starting from scratch, the Broncos have no real expectations for 2010.

In contrast, the Raiders have simply just been another one of those NFL franchises that seems to navigate the unfriendly waters without a strong captain at the helm.  You get the sense that, in his heart of hearts, head coach Tom Cable wants to lead his team and take control of this rudderless ship, but since he works for Al Davis, the desire remains unfulfilled.  The Raiders’ run of nearly an entire decade of utter chaos and futility is unmatched in the league, facilitated as it has been by archaic philosophies both on and off the field of play.  Off the field, the team’s talent evaluators are still subservient to Al Davis’ over-reliance on the “measurables” of any prospect; they still chase after the strongest, the biggest, the fastest people available without apparently looking at whether or not these prospects are actually the best football players available.  Two of the team’s more recent first round draft picks, ex-starting QB Jamarcus Russell (who was cut before this season started) and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, are good examples of this flawed approach.  The team (over)paid these players for far more than what their actual production on the field actually merited.  On the field, the Raiders completely lack panache and sophistication on offense.

Like many of the teams struggling this year, the Raiders are deficient at quarterback.  Ex-Redskin Jason Campbell was brought in to replace Jamarcus Russell, but he appears to be completely burnt out and washed up.  His play lacks sparkle and fire; he looks like he’s just going through the motions, that he’s content to simply collect his paycheck.  That’s unacceptable for any quarterback at any level of football, so it’s no surprise that his backup, Bruce Gradkowski, has completely outplayed him.  Unfortunately, the gutsy Gradkowski suffered an injury a couple of weeks ago, and his availability for the game against the Broncos is questionable.

I can’t see how the BRONCOS are going to lose this game.  They’re at home, they’re playing a hated rival that’s dangerously unfocused and unsophisticated at the best of times.  It would be surprising to me if the Raiders escape Denver with a win.

Carolina Panthers vs. San Francisco 49ers

If the 49ers had lost their game against the Raiders last week, this would be a battle between two winless teams.  Instead, we have a team searching for its first win on the road playing against a team seeking its first win of the season (interestingly, this is the identical scenario to last week’s 49ers vs. Raiders game).

The Panthers are at home, but are playing with a very thin roster.  Injuries and pathetic play from key positions (WR and QB, respectively) have resulted in 0-5 record.  Coach John Fox is fighting for his coaching future in the NFL, and coming off a bye playing against an apparently bad team that may be distracted by an in-season overseas trip may just be what his team needs to get that elusive first win.  But troubles at quarterback, where erstwhile starter Matt Moore struggled mightily before Fox pulled him out and inserted highly-regarded rookie Jimmy Clausen, and a depleted receiving corps have resulted in the NFL’s most anemic offense.  However, they will most likely get top playmaker Steve Smith back this week.  The question is, with none of the team’s quarterbacks even managing to complete fifty percent of their passes for the season, will it matter that the team’s best wide receiver returns to the lineup?

Meanwhile, the 49ers are still very firmly in crisis mode despite the team’s denials.  The 2010 season was expected to mark the team’s long-awaited return to the playoffs, and some pundits (including me, I must confess) believed that if enough things broke right for them, the team could make a run deep into the playoffs; instead, the team’s big deficiencies in coaching and lackluster and mistake-laden play on both sides of the ball have resulted in a 1-5 record after six games.

Head coach Mike Singletary is a charismatic leader of men, but charisma is not enough to be a successful head coach in the NFL.  The very best coaches combine natural charisma and leadership with the ability to teach, and this is where the 49ers are hurting the most.  On offense, week in and week out we see the same kinds of mistakes happening.  We see holding penalties, breakdowns in communication between the quarterback and his skill position teammates, breakdowns in the quarterback’s protection resulting in sacks, hurries, fumbles, and a rattled quarterback, a lack of impact blocking from the offensive line…  And the defense suffers its share of lapses too, with broken coverages and disappointing mental mistakes during the heat of battle (Nate Clements’ lost fumble on an INT return against Atlanta is a wound still very fresh and bleeding in my mind).

Quarterback Alex Smith is derided by the fan base, but in my opinion the derision is not wholly well-deserved.  Smith is a victim of circumstances; I don’t doubt his effort and his sincere desire to live up to the mighty standard of quarterback play that is traditional in San Francisco.  But with so little consistency and continuity in his coaching…  let’s just say that I believe even Steve Young would not have become the same Steve Young we now know had he been in Smith’s cleats.

Regarding this particular game:  The 49ers are actually in a dangerous spot here.  They are playing a team coming off its bye, with its best player returning from injury as well.  The Niners won last week against a weak Raiders team, but did so unimpressively, and they are also preparing for an unusual overseas game in London next weekend against the Denver Broncos.  Between a rejuvenated opponent, the possibility of resting on their dubious laurels, and being distracted by the game in London, the 49ers are ripe for a loss against the Panthers.

Nevertheless, I’m picking the 49ers to win this road game.  Despite the 1-5 record after six games and all the reasons for why things have turned out the way they have, there is a reason why the Niners were thought of as the pre-season favorites to win the NFC West, and there is a reason why the Panthers were the consensus pick to finish either last or second-to-last in the NFC South.  The Panthers simply don’t have enough playmakers on the roster.  As long as the 49ers play with a minimum of mistakes, they should win this one.

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14-10 after twenty four picks isn’t bad.  This week’s picks come from games that may not really represent the cream of the NFL, but they were difficult games to pick winners for.  Three of the four games feature teams with identical records, and the last features two teams separated by one game in the win column.  I think I’ll do well if I get half of this week’s picks right.

We’ll find out by Sunday evening how well these picks have gone.

20 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 6 Results

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 20/10/2010

Did quite well this week:

New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens:  The Patriots won in overtime, which means I got this game WRONG.  As predicted, this was a great game between two of the more powerful teams in the AFC.  New England won in overtime after overcoming a ten point deficit in the final quarter.  QB Tom Brady and WR Deion Branch, who had returned to the Patriots after four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, hooked up together for nine completions.  Incidentally, that is precisely the same number of catches erstwhile Patriots deep threat Randy Moss (now in Minnesota) had collected prior to being traded prior to Week 5.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns:  Big Ben Roethlisberger made a triumphant return to the Steelers, leading the team to an easy 28-10 victory over the Browns.  I got this game RIGHT.  The Steelers’ prodigal son showed a little bit of rust, but Big Ben was still able to throw for three touchdowns in his first action of 2010.  The Browns, meanwhile, trotted out rookie QB Colt McCoy in place of Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, both out with injuries.  McCoy did well to gain more yards than Roethlisberger (281yds vs. Roethlisberger’s 257yds), but that glory was fleeting as he was sacked five times and lost many of his receiving corps to injuries during the game.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans:  Though I got this game’s ultimate result RIGHT by picking the Titans winning over the Jaguars, I was so wrong by thinking it would be a close game.  The Jaguars simply could not do much against the Titans’ defense, scoring a measly three points.  Tennessee, meanwhile, scored thirty points despite losing starting QB Vince Young to leg injuries (sprains to both his left knee and left ankle).  His backup, Kerry Collins, was effective and efficient.  The Jaguars also lost their starting QB, David Garrard, but his reliever, Trent Edwards, couldn’t match Collins.  In truth, as far as offensive stars go, this game was supposed to have been a match-up between the Titans’ Chris Johnson and the Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew, two of the most electric and productive running backs of recent times.  Johnson outgained Jones-Drew, almost doubling his Jaguars counterpart by a factor of 2:1 (111yds:57yds).  Clearly, the Titans defense did a much better job of taking the Jaguars’ number one option away than Jacksonville’s defense did against Tennessee.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Oakland Raiders:  The 49ers won, which means I got this game RIGHT.  The Niners won their first game of the season, besting their cross-town rivals in the so-called “Battle of the Bay.”  In the midst of a persistent rain shower, the 49ers ironically did not make any of critical errors on the field.  Rain usually results in very messy games; the slippery ball usually means more lost fumbles and interceptions thrown, as well as the possibility of blown coverages due to bad field conditions.  The Niners, though, committed none of these mistakes.

The Raiders did a very good job of stifling the 49ers’ offense for most of the first half, forcing them to punt after gaining minimal yardage on their possessions, until San Francisco finally drove for enough yards to score a field goal at the end of the first half.  Alex Smith completed less than half of his pass attempts (16-33), but he made very good decisions by throwing the ball away when no one was open, instead of forcing the throw into coverage and risking interceptions.  He also threw for two touchdowns in the second half, giving the 49ers the necessary cushion over the Raiders to secure San Francisco’s first win of the season.  Frank Gore also showed up, gaining 149yds in his biggest outing of the year so far.

The Niners still have much work to do.  The offensive line’s play has to improve.  Alex Smith is no different compared to all quarterbacks:  He does his best when he is protected, and his performance suffers when he is not protected.  Smith did improve in his decision-making, but the line has to get better.  They looked relatively good against an Oakland D-line and linebacker corps that didn’t look like it showed up to play hard; most teams’ front sevens do much better than what the Raiders’ did.  But Smith is not the only beneficiary of improved O-line play:  Frank Gore and the running game desperately need consistently great performances from the O-line.

That’s really where it all begins.

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3-1 again this week, which takes my season total to 14-10.  My two week hot streak has grown to three weeks, going 10-2 out of twelve games.

Can we stay hot for a fourth straight week?  We’ll find out in about a week’s time!

16 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 6

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 16/10/2010

On to our picks for Week 6!

New England Patriots vs. Baltimore Ravens

This game promises to be one of the better games on the schedule for this week.

The Patriots traded away WR Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings, apparently having decided that team chemistry and harmony were far more important than the potential advantage of having one of the best deep threats in the NFL.  Some have suggested that the loss of Moss would lead to a corresponding drop in production for wideout Wes Welker.  I’m not sure if this will be the case, if only because 1) Tom Brady is excellent at pre-snap reads of defensive formations and post-snap diagnosis of coverages and 2) Brady has several options to throw the ball to.  In particular, I’ve been impressed with rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez, who has been excellent in getting open (or, opposing defenses are still either underestimating his capabilities or don’t have enough scouting film on him to know how to best account for him on the field).  What the Patriots have lost most with Moss gone is the deadly vertical threat, but this may not matter so much since he hadn’t been productive for the Patriots so far this year anyway, with just nine receptions in four games.

New England’s biggest problem on offense is that they have a huge void in the running game.  Fred Taylor is out for this game with an injury, as is Kevin Faulk.  Ben Jarvus Green-Ellis is expected to have the lion’s share of th carries.

With New England’s running game assumed to be a lot less effective with Taylor unavailable and the vertical passing game expected to be scaled down, the Patriots are expected to run plenty of passing plays that stretch the field horizontally.  This may play into the hands the Baltimore Ravens’ defense.  With the lack of both a clear and present danger on the ground and a deadly vertical receiving threat, expect the Ravens to flood the field with their coverage, allowing their pass rushers to penetrate Tom Brady’s protection and forcing him to throw under duress.  Despite the absence of strong safety Ed Reed and the lack of any established stars amongst their perimeter defenders, the Ravens still have one of the league’s top defensive units.  The Patriots’ offense has lost its multi-dimensionality, at least until the team can somehow generate a significant output from its ground game.  If the Ravens only have to defend against one dimension of the opposing offense, they have the advantage.

On both sides of the ball, the Ravens simply look and feel like they have the more physical, more imposing team.  They can pound away with a strong running game spearheaded by RB Ray Rice, and QB Joe Flacco has been steady and solid at the controls of a passing game that’s still trying to establish itself.  Flacco himself is big and physical, as are his top receiving threats, Derrick Mason, Anquan Boldin, and T.J. Houshmanzadeh.  Their size and strength advantage could overwhelm the more lightly-built Patriot secondary.  Defensively, the Ravens might be missing Ed Reed, but somehow they are still one of the top-ranked units in the NFL.  Ray Lewis leads this unit, and as such are a mean, nasty, yet intelligent group.  It will be interesting to watch Lewis and company match wits and brawn against one of the most intelligent quarterbacks in the game today.

I pick the RAVENS to win on the road in New England.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cleveland Browns

Ben Roethlisberger returns to the Steelers lineup as the prodigal son after enduring a four-game suspension (originally, the suspension was six games, but was reduced to four) for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, specifically for a tangle with the law in Milledgeville, GA.  Some pundits believed that the best the Steelers could do in Big Ben’s absence was to split the four games, citing the drop-off in quality at the quarterback position.  Instead, Pittsburgh did better than expected, emerging with a 3-1 record going into their Week 5 bye.  Now, fresh off the week off and with a healthy amount of practice, Roethlisberger seems to be ready to take the reins of a team many think is the strongest favorite to win the AFC this year.

Big Ben’s return will be helped by the fact that he and the Steelers are facing a Cleveland Browns in transition.  The Browns’ offense is still a work in progress, with serious questions at the quarterback position.  Team boss Mike Holmgren signed Jake Delhomme to the team during the offseason, as well as Seneca Wallace, but neither quarterback has proven to be the panacea the team and its fans have been desperate for.  Instead, rookie Colt McCoy will start.

The STEELERS win this home game big.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Tennessee Titans

In some respects, these two teams superficially resemble each other.  For example, both Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio spent their college years at USC.  Both teams seem to be built on similar general principles:  Strong, physical play on both sides of the ball; a dedication to the ground game; a conservative passing game that’s content to maintain possession of the ball; and a belief that defense wins the day.

Incredibly, both teams, along with their two other AFC South division co-habitants, are at 3-2 after five games.  What this means is that whoever wins this Monday Night Football game will have at least a share of the division lead.  In a division that looks to be one of the toughest in the NFL, this game’s significance becomes magnified exponentially.  Not all four teams can earn an AFC playoff berth.

I think both teams’ defenses are essentially equal to each other, so they cancel each other out as factors.  The offenses, then, will have to determine which team comes out on top.  While I like Titans RB Chris Johnson, I think that Jacksonville’s defense is good enough to keep him contained.  Not only that, but he is also going to be playing with a sore thigh, so this will further limit his production.  What this all means is that quarterback Vince Young will have to make the big plays.

The Jaguars, meanwhile, have the home field advantage.  While that really doesn’t seem to mean all that much in Jacksonville (the Jaguars have long had problems selling out their own home games on a consistent basis), the fact that this is a Monday Night Football game on home soil against a big division rival with at least a share of the division lead at stake will give the Jags a good push.  QB David Garrard is good at making the most of his opportunities to pass, while RB Maurice Jones-Drew is simply electric.

Don’t be surprised if this game comes down to the final possession.  Whoever has the ball last will likely win this game.

I see the TITANS pulling off the upset on the road.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders are winless on the road so far this year.

The San Francisco 49ers are simply winless.

Something has to give in this “Battle of the Bay.”

The Raiders revert to using Jason Campbell at quarterback since Bruce Gradkowski is hurt.  Campbell had looked indecisive in his stints as starter before Gradkowski replaced him in the starting lineup, so it will be interesting to see if he can regain some personal momentum and reclaim the starting QB position by merit rather than because of injury to his own replacement.  He will be helped by an ever-improving running game spearheaded by RBs Darren McFadden and Michael Bush, as well as underrated TE Zach Miller.

Meanwhile, the 49ers desperately want – NEED – a win.  In their first five games, they have been blown out on the road in two of the most hostile settings in the entire NFL (Seattle and Kansas City); they have also lost three close games that they could have easily won, two of which were at home.  The 49ers have had several recurring themes in their games:  Uneven performances on both sides of the ball – neither the offense nor the defense have been consistently good for the entire game, even though they both enjoy stretches of outstanding play which hint at the potential they possess; an alarming propensity for making game-changing errors at critical parts of the game – miscues on defensive coverage, ill-timed lost fumbles or interceptions; and obvious signs that the players are losing their poise on the field when the pressure starts to ramp up.

On the field, the key to the 49ers’ success appears to be down in the trenches:  Line play on both sides of the ball has to improve.  Defensively speaking, the defensive line has to improve its performance.  On running plays, they have to soak up the blocks to allow LBs Patrick Willis, Takeo Spikes, Manny Lawson, and Parys Haralson (and their relievers) to make the tackle.  Willis, in particular, has to remain unblocked as often as possible, as he is a game-changing force.  Unfortunately, the opposing offense recognizes Willis’ importance, and so devote specific blockers to account for him on every play.  On passing downs, they have to generate a solid pass rush to protect the secondary.  Pass rush pressure and sacks have to be generated with less reliance on dogs and blitzes, as these tend to compromise the integrity of the coverage structure.

Offensively, the O-line simply has to do a better job.  I think this is the 49ers’ unit that has under-performed the most.  They’ve not done a good enough job in run-blocking, and Frank Gore’s production has dropped off to a mere trickle compared to what we know he is capable of.  The pass protection has also been inconsistent.  Alex Smith is actually like ALL quarterbacks:  He performs best when he feels he is protected.  Unfortunately, he has yet to enjoy extended stints of good protection.  If the 49ers want to see improvements on offense and take full advantage of their very good skill position players, the offensive line’s play has to stop being so offensive.  The O-line has to improve its play.

So, who wins in this Northern California showdown?

Go 49ers!

NFL

After 20 games picked, my record currently stands at 11-9.  I had a bit of a slow start, but I’ve gone 7-1 in the last two weeks.

I’m hoping to go 4-0 this week, if only because that will mean that I hope my 49ers don’t break my heart and lose again.

We’ll find out what Week 6’s picks were right or wrong after Monday Night Football.

Play along if you want by registering your own picks from these games in the comments section.  It’ll be great fun to compare results.

See you after Monday night!

15 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 5

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 15/10/2010

A bit late with last week’s results.  Life’s been busy, and time too much in short supply this week.

Anyway, here’s how I did last week:

Carolina Panthers vs. Chicago Bears:  Da Bears won this game rather easily, so I got this game RIGHT.  This was emphatically not the game to watch if you like seeing stellar play from the quarterback position:  Both teams fielded their second-stringers, though in Chicago’s case Todd Collins got the start due to Jay Cutler’s concussion.  Collins finished the day with a mere 32yds passing, four INTs, and a pathetic 6.2 passer rating.  Jimmy Clausen did not look good for Carolina, either, but at least had the excuse of having a very poor receiving corps to work with.

Oakland Raiders vs. San Diego Chargers:  Since the Raiders beat the Chargers, I also got this game RIGHT.  The game started inauspiciously for San Diego, with two blocked punts (resulting in a safety and a touchdown) in their first two possessions and a 12-0 hole early on.  But you simply can’t keep a powerful offense like San Diego’s down, and the Chargers roared back into the game and seized a 17-15 lead by halftime.  No only that, but the Chargers’ pass rush succeeded in knocking Raiders QB Bruce Gradkowski out of the game late in the 1st quarter.  Despite the  Chargers’ obvious advantage in the quality of its roster, the Raiders rallied with Jason Campbell inserted in Gradkowski’s place and fierce, determined effort by the defense, which forced the Chargers into making silly mistakes during the endgame.

New York Jets vs. Minnessota Vikings:  I got this game RIGHT as well.  The Jets won despite Vikings quarterback Brett Favre completing his 500th (and 501st) career touchdown pass and passed the 70000 passing yards mark.  On a night when he was the focus of everyone’s attention for all the wrong reasons (Favre is currently being investigated for allegedly sending some rather distasteful photographs of himself as well as engaging in acts that may be construed as sexual harrassment in the workplace when he was the Jets’ quarterback two years ago), Favre actually had a terrible night despite his record-setting personal accomplishments.  He went 14-34, earning 264yds, but also lost two fumbles (now leading that statistical category) and threw a critical interception that virtually ended the Vikings’ hopes for a comeback against the hometown Jets.  In contrast, Jets QB Mark Sanchez continued his steady play from recent weeks, displaying excellent pocket presence and decision-making ability.  It’s easy to see how the Jets keep on winning, and the Vikings are continuing their slide into mediocrity.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia Eagles:  Despite scoring first, the 49ers lost at home to the Eagles, meaning I got this pick WRONG.  The Eagles were without injured quarterback Michael Vick, but Kevin Kolb played an unspectacular but mostly effective game in his place.  Banged-up halfback LeSean McCoy helped the Eagles’ cause by earning 92yds on the ground and a touchdown, while the defense played better than usual, jamming the line of scrimmage and negating Frank Gore.  Alex Smith committed a few errors, including two INTs and a game-turning fumble late in the third quarter just when the 49ers were driving for a score that would close the gap to the Eagles.  Smith endured a very visible tongue-lashing from Coach Singletary and was almost benched, but earned some measure of redemption by leading the 49ers to two very impressive touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, getting within one touchdown of the Eagles.  Unfortunately, the comeback was not completed; a stunt and twist by the LE and the DT confused the blocking on the right side of the 49ers’ O-line, and Smith was forced to throw under severe duress.  He was hit as he was throwing, and the floating pass was intercepted easily by the Eagles’ secondary.

The 49ers found themselves with a frustrating 0-5 record after five games.

49ers

The 49ers’ problems continue to be exposed as the season rolls on.  Head coach Mike Singletary’s huge weaknesses, his apparently complete inability to plot strategy and make sound tactical decisions during game day, seem to have overcome his charismatic aura and ability to lead through sheer force of will.  The team looks to have regressed badly from their form from the last half of last season on both sides of the ball; the offense looks like it lacks poise and variety, which means it’s predictable and therefore easily exploitable by the opposing defense, and the defense looks like it’s largely reactive instead of attacking.

In reading various comments by 49ers fans and the media that follow the team closely, quarterback Alex Smith is the easy scapegoat for the team’s woes on offense.  However, I myself am not so quick to condemn Smith.  While I don’t believe he’ll ever be as good as Joe Montana or Steve Young (never mind John Brodie in the late 1960s-1970s, or Jeff Garcia through the mid-1990s-early 2000s), he’s not a bad quarterback.  He certainly has improved greatly from the time I first saw him play in his first year (2005).  I think he’s actually got plenty of potential left in him.  He has a good live arm, and he has excellent mobility for a man his size.  He’s 6’4″, but when he’s on the move, throwing on the run, he clearly is an athlete, able to throw on bootlegs and waggles with precision, assets that the last three great 49ers quarterbacks (Montana, Young, and Garcia) all had.  He’s an intelligent guy, able to learn complex offensive systems.  The proof of this last point is the fact that he’s been exposed to so many offensive systems run by so many offensive coordinators hired by the 49ers.  No other quarterback in the NFL has had to absorb so much information within the last six years or so.  Sadly, the unfortunate consequence of all this is overload, which we see whenever Alex Smith is in the midst of really intense situations.  He seems to lose his poise and starts to press, and when he does, he makes mistakes.

In my opinion, the biggest issues with the 49ers offense are both its predictability (they have an alarmingly dominant tendency to run on the early downs) and the disappointingly poor play of the offensive line.  I’m not really sure why the 49ers offense is so stagnant, but some say that this is a reflection of Coach Singletary’s philosophy and approach to offense.  If this is indeed the case, then I would say that Coach Singletary’s philosophy and approach are a bad match for the 49ers’ offensive players.  Just look at the Niners’ skill position players:  TE Vernon Davis; WRs Josh Morgan, Michael Crabtree, and now speedy Ted Ginn; super-versatile TE/H-Back Delanie Walker; even RB Frank Gore; all these guys are all accomplished playmakers in the passing game.  Even from the small sample size available of these players from the last couple of years, you can clearly see that the 49ers have impressive depth in options for a multiple-option passing game.  However, even with a wealth of options at the skill positions, the other big weakness in the Niners’ offense makes the desire to have a more wide-open and varied offense a little difficult to realize.  The offensive line’s play has been atrocious, in my opinion.  How else can you describe the Niners’ woes in punching holes in the opposing teams’ defenses for Frank Gore to run through?  How else can you describe the fact that Alex Smith faces so much pressure whenever he drops back to pass?  This is why I’m reluctant to condemn Smith so easily as most other fans and analysts want to.  If Smith had ample time to set up in a pocket and read coverage and find his open receivers, I’m fairly sure that he would be able to do the job and silence all but the most vociferous (yet also least knowledgeable) critics.

NFL

Three correct picks out of four takes my season totals to 11-9.  I’ve been hot the last two weeks, going 7-1 over the last eight picks.

Tomorrow I’ll post my picks for this weekend’s games.  We’ll see if I can continue the hot streak.

If only the 49ers can get as hot…

9 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 5

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 09/10/2010

NFL Pick ’em picks for Week 5, 2010:

Carolina Panthers vs. Chicago Bears

The Chicago Bears were riding high going into Week 4.  They were 3-0, including a hugely impressive win on Monday Night Football in Week 3 over long-time rival Green Bay.  They could be forgiven for feeling quite flush with confidence.

Then they ran into the buzz saw that was the New York Giants defense.  Big Blue‘s defensive unit made an emphatic statement by sacking Bears quarterback Jay Cutler NINE times in less than a complete half of football.  In fact, Cutler was knocked out of the game with a concussion; this concussion has also necessitated to his being officially listed as unavailable for Chicago’s Week 5 showdown with the Carolina Panthers.  Relative unknown Todd Collins starts in his place.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are dealing with quarterback issues of their own.  Matt Moore, who ended last season with a solid string of games, earned the nominal starting spot at quarterback at the beginning of the year, but struggled mightily in the first four games.  Head coach John Fox, who is trying to secure his next coaching contract, grabbed the hook and yanked Moore out and inserted highly-touted rookie Jimmy Clausen into the starting role for this Week 5 matchup.

The Panthers have other big injuries to deal with.  Specifically, standout WR Steve Smith is out for at least the game against Chicago, which means Clausen will have precious little weaponry in his arsenal.  The Panthers have three rookies in their receiving corps, and most of their other skill position players are unknown role players at best.

Da BEARS, then, take this game despite being the road team.  The Panthers simply don’t have anything left in the cupboard.

Oakland Raiders vs. San Diego Chargers

This game has all the potential of being a so-called “trap” game for the San Diego Chargers.  They crushed the hapless Arizona Cardinals last week, 41-10, and enter Oakland feeling mightily confident, even cocky.

On the surface, this looks like a lopsided match up.  For sure the Chargers have the more potent offense, with playmakers at every position.  The Raiders, meanwhile, will have to deal with the absence of their top two running backs, Darren McFadden and Michael Bennett, from the game against the Chargers.  Third stringer Michael Bush gets the start.  Defensively, the comparison is closer.  Oakland’s unit is young but very well-coached and effective, led by shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

A part of me wants to believe the Raiders have enough potential to beat San Diego this weekend; my best friend Rick’s birthday is next weekend, and a win by his Raiders will prove to be an excellent early birthday gift, wouldn’t it?  But his lovely wife Monette is a die-hard San Diego fan, and she’s expecting their first child (she’s due next year), so I don’t want to pick against her either.

So I pick the Chargers to win this game, right?

Not so fast.  I swore an oath to not pick the Chargers again after I branded them bums because they let me down in Week 3 in Seattle.

What am I supposed to do, then?

Aw, what the heck.

RAIDERS for the win.  (Happy birthday, Rick!  And sorry, Mo!  It’s your Chargers’ fault!  They let me down in Seattle!)

New York Jets vs. Minnesota Vikings

Brett Favre returns to New York amidst a scandal that seems a bit muted in the American sports press (considering 1) who’s involved, and 2) the fact that it’s quite salacious) for a Monday Night Football tussle against the Jets.

Favre, of course, was a New York Jet for one year before retiring, then un-retiring, for the fifteen thousandth time in his career.  Apparently, during his time with the Jets, he was slinging not just footballs around, but a certain body part as well (I love what Jason Whitlock calls him on Twitter).

Okay.  No more Brett Favre slagging.  Frankly, my hatred for this man and for everything he stands for is near limitless, and I don’t want this blog entry to be poisoned with more Favre hate-o-rade.

The Vikings are reeling due to Favre being out of sync with his receiving corps.  Sidney Rice, Favre’s favorite target last year, is still out with a hip injury, and Percy Harvin remains sidelined with migraine-related symptoms.  Because Favre opted not to participate in most of the pre-season training camp, he hasn’t built up enough confidence with the other receivers.

But Favre does get a new toy to play with.  WR Randy Moss is now a Viking, thanks to a stunning mid-season trade by the New England Patriots.

Favre and Moss are likely to be in the NFL Hall of Fame someday, but will they have enough chemistry together in their first game together to beat the Jets in New Jersey?

The Jets are no slouches, though, and they are playing at home.  After a bit of a shaky start against the Baltimore Ravens, the Jets seem to have found their rhythm on offense.  Quarterback Mark Sanchez seems to be getting more comfortable by the week and isn’t pressing as much as he did earlier in the season, playing well within his limits and making mostly good decisions.  WR Braylon Edwards has emerged as the go-to receiver, and LaDainian Tomlinson seems to have found the Fountain of Youth lately.  Defensively, outstanding cornerback Darrelle Revis continues to heal his injured hamstring and has deemed himself ready for Moss and the Vikings.

The Jets of 2010 vintage seem to be going out of their way to cultivate controversy.  (Proof?  Their appearance in the now-annual HBO NFL mini-series Hard Knocks, the Inez Sainz situation, and Rex Ryan’s massive excess of personality.)  This week, though, the focal point of controversy is squarely on Brett Favre.

The question now is:  Can the Vikings win in New York despite the growing storm of scandal surrounding their quarterback?

My pick is the J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets! for this week.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Philadelphia Eagles

An indicator of the expectations heaped upon the San Francisco 49ers this year, this is their second game in front of a national audience this season.  This week they face the Philadelphia Eagles in a home game on Sunday Night Football.  In their first nationally-televised game, a Week 2 Monday Night Football showdown against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, they almost beat the reigning champs with mostly effective offensive attacks and a defense that limited the explosive Saints.  Except for four costly turnovers (most of which when they were deep in the scoring zone) and, ultimately, the defense’s inability to contain Drew Brees one last time, the 49ers could have escaped that game with a victory at home after getting destroyed the previous week in a very hostile Seattle road game.

The Niners are sitting on an 0-4 record, coming off a very disappointing, potentially soul-destroying, last second loss to the Atlanta Falcons.  Once again, turnovers and a defensive breakdown at the very end of the game spelled doom for the 49ers.  The Week 4 loss to the Falcons was gut-wrenching, especially since they seemed to have had the game locked up when cornerback Nate Clements intercepted Atlanta QB Matt Ryan deep in Atlanta territory with about 90 seconds left in the game.  All Clements needed to do was kill the play, either by falling down or by stepping out of bounds.  Either way would have been the smart football play to make.

Instead, instincts apparently over-ruled logic, and Clements tried to take the pick back to the end zone.  He was throttling down on his INT return, obviously trying to work his blocks in front of him, when Atlanta WR Roddy White zoomed in from behind and punched the ball out of Clements’ grasp.  Not only that, but White also actually recovered the fumble he caused, giving the Falcons one final shot at stealing the game from the 49ers.  Clements’ apparently lackadaisical ball security technique as well as his lack of situational awareness (as soon as he made the interception, I started yelling “Get down!  Get out of bounds! Kill the play!”) highlights a basic deficiency in the 49ers as a whole:

This team is in desperate need of teachers in the coaching staff.

Clements’ fumble was inexcusable, in my opinion.  A lack of situational awareness is something that players on a professional sports team ought to never be accused of having.  But I think the coaching staff should also be held accountable for something like this, since ball security and knowing what the game situation is at all times are but two of the most basic fundamentals that good coaches and coaching staffs drill into their teams from Day 1.

Now, onto this game’s specifically.

Philadelphia is experiencing a bit of a mini-crisis of their own at the moment, with the electric Michael Vick sidelined for this game.  Kevin Kolb thus returns to the starter’s role, a role given to him by head coach Andy Reid.  Vick had been riding a streak of very good performances, making plays with both his arm and his legs, and making very few mistakes.  Kolb, meanwhile, has looked confused as he tries to take over from Donovan McNabb.

Defensively, the Eagles are also not as great as they used to be.  They don’t seem to be making as many of the pressure plays (dogs, DB blitzes) count for as much as they always seemed to, and they look vulnerable to the run as well.

The Eagles may not say so, but theirs is a team in transition at the moment.

What does all this mean for the 49ers?  In my opinion, they have their best opportunity to win and stop a further slide into the morass right now.  Alex Smith should get adequate protection from his offensive line, and if he does, he should be able to make throws to his skill position teammates, specifically wideouts Josh Morgan and Michael Crabtree, as well as tight end Vernon Davis.  Frank Gore is due for an explosive performance as well, so I expect him to go off like dynamite against the Eagles.  Defensively speaking, the 49ers defense ought to be able to get to Kevin Kolb and disrupt the Eagles offense’s timing.  Look for new starter at strong safety, rookie Taylor Mays, to make a couple of huge plays.  Mays looks like he’s got great ball instincts as well as superb athletic ability which helps to get him where the ball is going to be just before it gets there.

The game is in San Francisco, and Philadelphia has had to travel across the country to get there.  I pick the 49ers to finally get on the win column.

NFL

Opportunity is knocking, not just for the 49ers, but for me as well.  I’m sitting on an 8-8 record so far after four weeks.

Will I end up above .500 after this week’s games?

We’ll learn by the end of Monday Night Football.

6 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 4

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 06/10/2010

This week’s results:

Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots:  I thought this would be a closer game than it was, but ultimately the Patriots won, meaning I got this game RIGHT.  Despite the fact that WR Randy Moss did not make a single reception and looked listless and uninterested during the game (some have speculated this one performance sealed his fate and was the final domino to fall before his trade to the Minnesota Vikings), the Patriots won 41-14.  The Dolphins did a good job to hold New England to a mere six points in the first half, but the kickoff return for a touchdown at the start of the third quarter was merely the first of a series of special teams plays which broke the game wide open for the Patriots.  It goes to show that 1) football is a three-phase game – offense, defense, and special teams – , and 2) the Patriots are probably still the best-coached team in the NFL as evidenced by the superbly effective game plan adjustments the team made for the 2nd half.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens:  It was a close game.  Baltimore beat Pittsburgh 17-14, which means I got this game RIGHT.  More than just the score, though, I also thought correctly that the Ravens offense would be the crucial difference.  QB Joe Flacco led the Ravens to the winning score very late in the final quarter, going 4-4 on the winning drive and hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh for the game-clinching touchdown.  A great game between two teams who may wind up fighting for the right to represent the AFC in this year’s Super Bowl.

Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans:  I got this game RIGHT by picking the Texans for the win.  Both teams combined for seven touchdowns and 55pts (the final score was 31-24).  It wasn’t quite the aerial show I thought it was going to be, but Texans QB Matt Schaub did throw for two TDs with no INTs, and RB Arian Foster (who was benched for most of the first half of the game for disciplinary reasons) added a TD on the ground (in addition to his TD reception) and 131 rushing yds from 16 carries to lead Houston to victory and a 3-1 record after four games.

Atlanta Falcons vs. San Francisco 49ers:  I picked the RIGHT team to win in this game, though how my San Francisco 49ers lost this game truly broke my heart and depressed me.  The 49ers did a good job to jump on the Falcons and lead 14-0 in the 1st quarter.  New 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Johnson had a palpable effect, with better performances from under-achieving WR Michael Crabtree especially and a more multiple and varied attack.  49ers QB Alex Smith looked sharp and confident early in the game, leading the team to its first score with a TD pass to TE Vernon Davis.  The second TD came via a blocked punt recovered in the end zone by new starting strong safety, rookie Taylor Mays.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, that was all the scoring they would do for the rest of the game.

While the defense did a solid job limiting the Falcons’ offense, it simply cannot win an entire game by itself.  Almost as a matter of routine (a very dangerous one, at that), the 49ers defense spends more time on the field than the offense does.  The defense gets tired, and when football players get tired, they inevitably make mistakes.

The 49ers defense made what should have been the defining play of the game when CB Nate Clements intercepted Matt Ryan with a minute and a half left in the game, and the 49ers leading by one.  After intercepting the ball, Clements ran towards the Falcons end zone, apparently looking to set his blockers in front for a successful scoring romp, when Falcons WR Roddy White made THE play of the game by running down Clements from behind and punching the ball out of Clements’ hands.  The 49ers lost the scrum for the fumble, and the Falcons drove for the winning field goal as time expired.

This was a soul-destroying way for the 49ers to lose what looked like their first victory of the year.  When Clements ran for the end zone after his interception, I was thinking to myself, “Get down!  Kill the play!  Get out of bounds!  For goodness sake, DO NOT LOSE THE FOOTBALL!”  Instinct took over for Clements, unquestionably, and over-ruled the logical side of the brain.

It hurts me to think it, to say it, to believe it on some level, but the 49ers are simply not a very smart football team.  The Clements interception run-back was just the latest example of this.  The team’s continuing inability to execute precisely for the majority of the game makes me think that the players are playing at an amateur level, when everyone else in the league is playing pro-standard ball.

As sad as that is, sadder still is my growing understanding that, despite my affection for the head coach, ultimately it’s his responsibility to ensure that the team plays up to its potential.  Mike Singletary, you are an admirable man, and I want to follow you where you lead, but honestly this team needs better teachers right now.  And I’m not sure if you can give that to the team.

49ers

Forgive me for being “Captain Obvious” for a moment, but it’s rather easy to see how to best play the 49ers.

Just pressure the quarterback.

Clearly, when the opposing defense starts to send dogs and blitzes at the 49ers offense, the pressure gets to Alex Smith, and he starts to make mistakes.  When the O-line does a good job protecting him, he frankly looks pretty good.  He is sharp, he is accurate, and the ball gets to the correct receiver.  But when the O-line protection starts to spring leaks, he looks like he’s got no composure, frazzled.  Against Atlanta he threw two interceptions, killing momentum and losing the chance to score more points.

What I think is going on with Smith is actually still growing pains; many people conveniently (or inconveniently, depending on your point of view and outlook) forget that, despite the fact that this is his sixth season in the NFL, he has played maybe just a bit over three seasons’ worth of games due to injuries as well as status on the depth chart.  The fact of the matter is it takes time to develop as an NFL starting quarterback.  He has many reasons for why his development has been slow and painful, chief of which might be the fact that he has never really had any continuity when it comes to his coaching (how many offensive coordinators has he been exposed to now?  Six?  Seven?), but fans are exhausted and impatient and lack the understanding of the fundamental reality of Smith’s situation.

Perhaps more than most NFL fan bases, 49ers fans expect great play from the quarterback position.  Alex Smith frustrates the fan base because he’s not Joe Montana; he’s not Steve Young, nor John Brodie, nor Y.A. Tittle or Frankie Albert.  He’s not even close to Jeff Garcia.  With such a painful tenure with the team thus far, it’s hard to imagine the fans forgiving the team if it does what I think is the sensible thing:  Extend Smith’s contract to a maximum of two more years, just to finally establish whether or not he can be a good NFL quarterback worthy of the team’s rich legacy at the position.

Unfortunately for Smith, this is his final year on his contract.  With the team in turmoil due to its continuing failure to realize its potential and to fulfill the relatively lofty expectations for this current season, it’s probable that he won’t be back next year.  I’m not even sure if head coach Mike Singletary and most of his staff will be back next year either.

NFL

Four games in Week 4, and four correct picks.  4-0 for this week takes my season total to 8-8.

Next week is a chance to get above the .500 mark, so bring it on!

2 Oct 2010 – NFL Pick ’em, Week 4

Posted in Football (NFL) by txtmstrjoe on 02/10/2010

Week 4 picks, fresh out of the oven!

Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots

Even during the apex of the Bill Belichick + Tom Brady era (assuming, of course, that this coach+player combination has already peaked), games against the bitter division rival Dolphins have been very tough games for the Patriots.  This Monday Night Football match-up promises to offer up more of the same.

Versatile running back Ronnie Brown, ever-improving young quarterback Chad Henne, and a solid defense will challenge Brady, Randy Moss, and the Patriots in what will likely be a game with both teams scoring at least three touchdowns each.  In the end, I think the PATRIOTS come out on top with either a score by their defense or via a last-second field goal.

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens

The Steelers have been without their troubled star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger since the beginning of the season, who is serving a four-game suspension for legal issues off the field.  Losing a quarterback, especially one of Roethlisberger’s caliber, for an entire quarter of the regular season very often dooms a team’s playoff aspirations.  Nevertheless, the Steelers have steamrollered their way through their first three games and established themselves as perhaps the early-season AFC Super Bowl contender.  Are they overachieving?

The Ravens picked up Anquan Boldin in the off-season, and many pundits thought that the addition would give up-and-coming quarterback Joe Flacco another receiving option and spark Baltimore’s offense, giving the team an offense worthy of its always-stellar defense.  Through the first three games, Boldin has been solid if unspectacular, and Flacco has been a little unsteady, probably due to some uneven play by the O-line.  At 2-1, are they underachieving?

This is the best game on this week’s schedule, in my opinion.  Normally, my thinking is that the home team gets the advantage in such an even game, but I’ll buck the trend and pick the RAVENS to upset the Steelers on the road.  Why?  The Ravens have a great defense (almost a match for Pittsburgh’s transcendent unit) and will limit RB Rashard Mendenhall’s production; the Ravens’ offense will likewise be limited by the Steel Curtain, but it will produce more than Pittsburgh’s and will be crucial difference in this game.

Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans

This game has the potential to be a high-scoring affair.

No, seriously.

The Raiders have Bruce Gradkowski at quarterback.  He’s not someone most people think of as one of the NFL’s great quarterbacks, and his form and technique aren’t classical.  But unquestionably, the ex-backup QB plays with great instincts and leadership, and the Raiders always have played better when he’s on the field than when the nominal starter (first mega-bust Jamarcus Russell, then the disappointing and probably burnt-out Jason Campbell this year) is playing.  Gradkowski’s play elevates his teammates’, so expect a lot of yards and points as they play against a weak Houston defense against the pass.

The Texans, meanwhile, have a great offense.  Matt Schaub is at the controls of one of the league’s best passing games (led by WR Andre Johnson), and RB Arian Foster is explosive on the ground.  The Raiders’ defense is young and improving, but I think it will be struggle against the Texans.

TEXANS win in Oakland, simply because they ought to not have any problems scoring against a defense that is far from the elite standard.

Atlanta Falcons vs. San Francisco

The Falcons did last week what the 49ers couldn’t (but probably should have) in Week 2:  They beat the New Orleans Saints.  Last week’s victory could be the Falcons’ official coming-out party, the game where they announced their intentions to take the always-competitive and entertaining NFC South and parlay the division crown into a big playoff run.

Meanwhile, the 49ers are in a state of near-chaos.  The roster used to be the team’s main deficiency, but this year it looks to have been improved.  Now the main problems look to be in the coaching staff.  Mike Johnson is the team’s new offensive coordinator, replacing the very-experienced (yet frustratingly inadequate) Jimmy Raye.  The 49ers’ offense isn’t lacking in terms of strategy, but could improve in game day tactics and adjustments.  More importantly, the team as a whole needs much better teaching in terms of technique and execution.

As much as I love head coach Mike Singletary for his ability to inspire and lead through strength of character, the team needs better teachers on its coaching staff.  Is Mike Johnson the answer, insofar as the offense is concerned?  It’s impossible to say, but I know all 49ers fans (including your writer here) hope that he is more effective than Coach Raye was.

At least the defense looks to be in better hands.  Despite the fact that the 49ers surrendered a lot of points to both Seattle (Week 1) and Kansas City (Week 3), it’s very difficult to contain the other team if your own offense isn’t giving you much.  On the other hand, it’s a bit of a travesty to allow Matt Cassel to score three touchdowns through the air.

So… who do I pick in this game?  My heart says San Francisco, but my brain says pick the FALCONS.

(I hope I get this particular pick wrong, though.)

NFL

After three weeks and twelve picks, I’m sitting on 4-8.  Picking games isn’t easy, but it’s fun!  Join in with me, if you wish, by registering your picks on the games I selected in the comments section.  We’ll tally up and compare at the end of each week’s schedule (either late Monday night, or sometime on Tuesday).

Hope to see your picks!

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