January 30, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII Prediction

Had something come up this week that kept me from writing the piece I'd hoped. Can't let this game go unpredicted, however, so here's a quickie, down and dirty.

The Cardinals surprised me twice--they won't do it again. With Kurt Warner playing at his current level they have a passing game that has shown it can beat anyone. His ability to make quick reads and unload accurately under pressure is the perfect antidote to a Steeler pass rush capable of turning less accomplished passers into pudding. If Anquan Boldin is right and can keep Pittsburgh from loading up on Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona could find enough seams in the Steeler defense to stay with Pittsburgh.

The Cardinals defense is still a question mark for me. Ben Roethlisberger isn't likely to miss as many open receivers as Donovan McNabb did two weeks ago. And if the Steelers are able to convert enough early third downs to extend drives, and start to beat on the Cards a bit, I can see the Pittsburgh physicality wearing them down.

Still ... the Cardinals fooled me twice. They won't fool me again. If they aren't blinded by the Super Bowl lights, come out early playing like they believe they belong there and can keep the game within a possession or two into the third quarter, with the way Warner has been playing I would not be surprised to see them walk away the most unlikely NFL champion since ... well ... you tell me.

I just don't think it's going to happen.

You may have heard this one before, but ... defense wins championships. You know how I feel about Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Quite simply I think he's the best in the game. And he's had two long weeks to dissect the Cardinals offense. I don't expect him to "stop" the high-flying Cardinal offense, but I do expect him to slow it down. And more importantly, I expect him to force it into a couple of mistakes.

Don't be too surprised, though, if as it sometimes happens the matchup that does not get all the headlines proves to be the difference in the game. Come Monday we may all find ourselves talking not about the great Steeler defense (which they are) and soaring Cardinal offense (which they ... might), but about Pittsburgh's Big Ben Roethlisberger becoming a two-time Super Bowl winner, and first-time Super Bowl MVP, in the first five years of a suddenly Cantonesque-looking career.

Yeah, I went there.

As far as who I'm "rooting for" ... strangely, as much as I love a good underdog story, I find myself waffling this year. Maybe it's a function of getting older, but part of me wants to see the team I feel deserves the title win it rather than one that, frankly, I'm not sure I feel has earned its way to the top of the mountain just yet. Not a big fan of perennial afterthoughts crashing the King's Table on the strength of 9-7 seasons that, most years, earns you a road wildcard trip to the number one seed.

Good news, I guess, is either way I'll be able to feel good for the winner. Two interesting teams, some great story lines and two very distinct styles. Should be fun.

Pittsburgh Steelers 27
Arizona Cardinals 17


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January 25, 2009

Remembering the 2008 Washington Redskins

It has only been four weeks since the Washington Redskins wrapped up their 2008 season. And yet, even as the ups and downs of a season both energizing and exhausting begin to recede in the rear view mirror, it has already begun to crystallize in memory.

Trailing in the fourth quarter of the home opener, in danger of falling to 0-2 and perhaps sending rookie head coach Jim Zorn's debut season spiraling out of control before it even gets started, QB Jason Campbell avoids a fierce New Orleans Saints pass rush and unloads deep to a streaking WR Santana Moss, turning the game around and launching Washington on an unexpected, eye-opening four-game win streak.

As time passes, some football seasons get reduced to a few lasting impressions, a few indelible images. Others just sort of ... fade away ... not so much lost as relegated to dusty boxes tucked away in a dark corner of the mind’s attic.

Today I found myself wondering how, or even if, I will remember the 2008 Redskins. And not surprisingly, doing so triggered a mental movie reel of seasons past against which they might some day be compared.

The surging Redskins go on the road and beat Dallas and Philadelphia, in consecutive weeks, on the strength of a brutal running game, an emerging Jason Campbell and an opportunistic, inspired defense. No single specific play really stands out, with the possible exception of rookie safety Chris Horton’s brilliantly choreographed game-clinching interception against Tony Romo in Dallas.
More, what emerges is the sense that this is a different Redskins team; quite possibly the first in a generation capable of reclaiming a proud organizations' rightful place among the NFL elite. What may well carry on in memory about the two week stretch is boyish owner Dan Snyder, just after the Eagles win, unselfconsciously expressing what every Redskins fan with a heartbeat felt that day.

Since trips down memory lane can easily slip from pleasant jaunts to marathon treks, I’ll begin, arbitrarily, at the dawn of The Glory Years, and offer here just a few thumbnail mental snapshots of seasons past that stand out, alongside which 2008 may, or may not, someday take its place.

1982 - K Mark Moseley’s fifth field goal of the day in the swirling December snow of RFK Stadium beats the New York Giants, clinching the Redskins first playoff berth in six long years. DE Dexter Manley steam-rolls Dallas QB Danny White in the NFC Championship, knocking him cold and out of the game. DT Darryl Grant high-steps into the end zone with Manley's deflection of a Gary Hogeboom pass, knocking out the hated Cowboys and propelling the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl. There, RB John Riggins brushes off Don McNeal like so much sleeve lint and rumbles into immortality.

1983 - QB Joe Theismann, Riggins, The Hogs, The Smurfs and The Fun Bunch score at will all season, shattering the NFL record. Good thing too, given The Pearl Harbor Crew. They overwhelm the then–L.A. Rams 51-7 at RFK, in the divisional round, then survive the 49ers and some QB Joe Montana magic to take a second straight NFC title, before heading back to the Super Bowl and a shot at Dynasty.

Rocket Screen. Jack Squirek. Marcus Allen.

The Pittsburgh Steelers come to town. Again no one play stands out–this one turns out to be about the overwhelming sense the 6-2 Redskins are physically overmatched, and the slap-upside-the-head realization that neither the team nor young Jason Campbell are ready for prime time. 2008 swims sharply into focus–the Redskins may be 6-3, but they are not among the league elite.

1985 - NY Giants legendary LB Lawrence Taylor gestures in panic toward the Redskins sideline, having just snapped Theismann’s leg like so much kindling. A few minutes later, Jay Schroeder’s first NFL pass—a perfect downfield sideline rope to Art Monk—suggests life might go on after all.

1987 - Head Coach Joe Gibbs, on his knees, watches with the rest of us as Minnesota QB Wade Wilson's fourth-down pass to RB Darrin Nelson, Redskins' CB Darrell Green and the RFK goal line converge in the final minute to decide the NFC Championship. Two weeks later, we witness the 35-point blur of brilliant madness that is the second quarter of Super Bowl XXVI ... a moment that has long since passed from memory into legend.

1991 - Sorry–some boxes are too heavy to thumbnail.

Dallas II. On their final game-clinching drive, the Cowboys Riggo-Drill the Redskins on their own field. As captured perfectly by a similarly attuned fan, that image may well prove the defining moment and lasting memory of the 2008 season, coloring it forever as one that got away.

1993 - The Redskins thrash the Dallas Cowboys at RFK in the season opener, Richie Petitbone's head coaching debut–and the realization comes that there might be life after Gibbs. What follows is fifteen weeks of psychic whiplash, and a 4-12 finish. Perhaps there would not.

1994 - A hot, young new head coach–a Cowboy, no less–rides into town. Name of Norv Turner. A quarterback named Heath Shuler is drafted third overall. Hello, Franchise. Shuler gets picked off no less than five times at RFK by the moribund Arizona Cardinals, and the Redskins fall to 1-6. Hello, Reality. Cool rookie backup Gus Frerotte, in funky throwbacks, beats the Colts in Indianapolis a week later in his debut. Washington finishes 3-13, but that’s okay. Turner is collected, competent and confident. "What we do works."

1996 - A stirring, stunning 7-1 start. All of Redskindom is pestering Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser to bring The Bandwagon out of mothballs. Tony's terse answer? "After Buffalo." An average Bills team tramples–and exposes–the Redskins, 38-13. Eliminated by week 15, a decisive season-ending win over Dallas in the final game at storied RFK Stadium is rendered bittersweet.

Seattle again. One final, brutal, game-clinching drive briefly resurrects hope.

1999 - Exit the Cooke Era, enter the Snyder. FB Larry Centers glides up the San Francisco sideline to beat the 49ers and clinch a playoff berth. The Redskins dominate Gus Frerotte's Detroit Lions at FedExField in Round 1. In round 2, at Tampa Bay, Brian Mitchell takes a kickoff back 100-yards to provide a double-digit second-half lead. The Redskins D is playing great. Could it be? QB Brad Johnson throws a killer interception, and Bucs RB Warrick Dunn does a Houdini, turning a potential game-clinching fumble recovery into a game-changing Bucs touchdown. Dan Turk (RIP). No, it could not.

2000 - Hype, championship-style. CB Deion Sanders, DE Bruce Smith, S Mark Carrier, QB Jeff George. Jeff George? The celebrity Redskins under-achieve from jump, barely squeaking by Carolina, then losing to hapless Detroit. Injuries pile on injuries. 44-year-old K Eddie Murray, good for about 42 yards, is asked to come up with 49 against the Giants in a late season game ripe with playoff implications. Exit the Turner Era.

2001 - Enter Marty Schottenheimer. A flaccid 0-5 start includes one of the most disheartening games in modern Redskins history, a 37-0 shellacking at the hands of Green Bay on Monday Night Football. LB LaVar Arrington–the new face of the franchise–comes up with a "look what I found" pick-six against the Carolina Panthers to finally stop the bleeding. The Redskins slug and claw to 5-5 ... then slip, slide and gag down the stretch to finish 8-8. General, we hardly knew ye.

Back-to-back losses against the Giants and Baltimore Ravens. Once again, no specific plays stand out, only further confirmation these Redskins are not contenders. Worse, there is a deepening conviction that the organization may be fatally flawed. Watching them badly, predictably, lose the battle in the trenches against the league's better teams, with little indication the powers-that-be see the same, there is a sense this team may have truly lost its way.

2002–03 - No doubt a defense mechanism, I seem to have reduced immediate recall of The Spurrier Era to one indelible image.

2004 - The Return of the King.

2005 - a classic Gibbsian December run brings a playoff berth. The Redskins defensively dominate the Buccaneers in Tampa in Round 1. A dropped interception by CB Carlos Rogers and prehistoric offensive performance combine to leave them short in Seattle in Round 2, but no matter–the Redskins are back.

2006 - Or perhaps not.

2007 - Sean Taylor ... and tragic magic down the stretch. Jason Campbell goes down, Todd Collins comes on and sparks instant offense that leads to another successful December playoff run. Up in Seattle, a perfect bounce of a muffed Seahawks kickoff return finds its way into WR Anthony Mix's hands, and Mix roars into the end zone. It doesn’t count, of course, and ultimately the Redskins go on to lose, but for a few shining moments the Redskins are the NFL's “It” team, and the sky is the limit. Then, Joe Gibbs announces his surprise retirement.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Up in Cincinnati in week 15, against a woeful Bengals team, the Redskins are still alive for the playoffs and a great story in Zorn’s rookie campaign. They seem to go through the motions for a half, and fall behind. What looks like a stirring comeback effectively ends with FB Mike Sellers' goal-line fumble ... and the competitive part of the season is over.

How 2008 is remembered down the road will be different for all of us, of course. We all bring our own unique perspectives, expectations and biases to the table. But it is also largely dependent on what comes next.

If the Redskins soar over the next few years, this 8-8 season could come to be remembered much like Joe Gibbs’ debut in 1980–a stepping stone to great things. Or, if they continue to stumble or just tread water, 2008 may slowly blend in with the many other isolated seasons we scarcely remember at all.

That’s how it is with memories. As they become more distant, they slowly blend into the context in which they were born.

How will 2008 be remembered? Will it be remembered at all?

Only time, and circumstance, will tell.


January 20, 2009

January 20, 2009

Many thought this day would never come.  Many who did, died to make it happen. Regardless of our politics, religion, color, sex, age, creed or any other label that might apply ... may we all be proud today of the giant step forward made by this, our imperfect Union. 

January 16, 2009


For all the fun we’ve had at Jim Mora’s expense over the years, he still gets credit for uttering the single most resonant comment about the National Football League in its storied history.

“You don't know. You just don't know. You may think you know, but you don't know. And you never will."

The NFL slapped us all upside our know-it-all heads last week and reminded us of that undeniable truth. Show me one serious prognostication before the 2008 season—or for that matter, from the week between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs—that had the Arizona Cardinals hosting the Philadelphia Eagles for the NFC Championship, and I’ll either show you a modern-day Nostradamus or someone who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.


The Arizona Cardinals. Hosting the NFC Championship.

I’m 48 years old. Over the course of my lifetime the Cardinals have never been anything more than a sidebar. Yes, there have been a few interesting players and memorable moments over the years (as you would hope from a franchise that has been around since 1920) but if you pushed me for an off-the-cuff review, my Cardinal Memories could probably be summed up thusly:

Jim Hart.
Mel (Freaking) Gray.
Conrad Dobler.
Terry Metcalf.
Moving to Phoenix. Phoenix?
The 1998 playoff win over the Cowboys in Dallas.

So if you’re a Cardinals official, player or fan, please understand why so many of us are seemingly unable to give your team the “respect” you crave, and probably deserve, for what you have done to get where you are today. 

Truth is, a half-century of “who?” cannot become “whoa” overnight. It just can’t. Frankly, we’re still kind of in the whiplash phase here. We need a little more time.

A win on Sunday to send you jetting off to Tampa Bay and a shot at the brass ring in SB XLIII wouldn’t hurt either.


Sunday, Jan. 18, 6:30 pm EST

I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

Not so much because of how damn hard it is for someone of my generation to envision the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, but my sense that the Eagles are still riding Destiny’s Wave.

Hey, the Cardinals can score. There are some stunned, accomplished football minds down Charlotte way who can attest to that. And their defense has been playing lights out the last couple of weeks. On top of all that, they are playing at home in windless, climate-controlled comfort, with house money. Nobody expected them to be there in the first place—they figure to play loose, let it all hang out and take their best shot.

Thing is … the Eagles defense isn’t just playing lights out, it’s playing borderline insane. You know when the Eagles last gave up a passing touchdown, which figures to be the Cardinals’ best shot? Five games ago—a garbage-time, one-yard flip from Eli Manning in Philly’s dominating 20-14 win over the Giants in New York that started them on their run.

The good news, at least for Cardinals fans, is that one week before that, in Week 12, the Eagles defense gave up three passing touchdowns to some guy named Kurt Warner. Goods news only travels so far, however.

For one, those three TD tosses came in a 48-20 home loss to these same Eagles. For two, Warner also threw three interceptions that day. And for three, the other QB that day, some guy named McNabb, threw four touchdown passes against zero interceptions.


I think the Eagles will do to Arizona what they did against the Minnesota Vikings in the wildcard round, only in reverse. Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, one of the best in the business, sold out to take away the Vikings top (and really only) threat, Adrian Peterson and the running game. He forced Minnesota to beat him throwing the ball, and young QB Tarvaris Jackson was not up to the challenge.

Against Arizona I look for Johnson to sell out limiting the Cardinals down-field passing game, inviting them to beat him with sustained, run-heavy, short-pass drives. I don’t think running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower will be up to it.

Philly won’t completely shut down stud Cardinals receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin—I think the Cardinals will have some success moving the ball—I just think they’ll struggle to finish drives.

Outside of Philadelphia and certain Pennsylvanians jonesing for a Turnpike Super Bowl, I think all the NFL world is a Cardinals fan this week. I know I am. No one loves a good underdog story more than me, and there’s definitely something to be said for shaking up the NFL hierarchy from time to time.

I just don’t think that time is here.

Something tells me the Eagles’ romance with Destiny lasts at least one more week.

Eagles 26
Cardinals 20


Sunday, Jan. 18, 3:00 pm EST

Anyone else found themselves thinking this week that the NFL world has done a 180?

To me, as an NFL fan old enough to remember well the 1980’s, this one has the distinct feel of an old NFC Championship grudge match. Two aggressive, powerful defenses and straight-at-you, physical running games, slugging it out in the icy January night for the right to go to the Super Bowl and overwhelm some poor finesse passing team from the AFC.

It’s like we’ve piloted a time machine 25 years into the past, only to find the world as reflected in a mirror. Or something.

At any rate …

I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Both the Raven and Steeler defenses are playing about as well right now as defense can be played. I think they will turn this into a game of attrition—field position, turnovers, last-mistake-loses. 

Vegas has the over/under hovering around 34.5 this week. If I was a betting man, I’d take the under and try to hide my grin.

Baltimore safety Ed Reed is playing on such a different level he could easily define this game with another one of those “oh no he di’ent,” game-changing plays he’s made look so routine of late. Or maybe Raven running back Willis McGahee could find a seam or two in the Steeler D and do just enough to tip the scales Baltimore’s way.

But if I had to put my own hard-earned money down, I think the deciding factor would be the one matchup I see which favors one team over the other dramatically enough to be “the” difference. Not QB Ben Roethlisberger over QB Joe Flacco, as you might be thinking—though that’s a decided advantage given the experience factor.

No, I’m thinking Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau over Joe Flacco.

For my money, LeBeau is the best in the business. I think he will put his 50 years of football experience to good use, and create just enough confusion in the Ravens’ rookie QB’s mind, in enough key situations, where at some point Flacco will make the one big mistake that proves the difference.  That one misread that leads to one bad throw into traffic at one crucial juncture. That one split-second of indecision in the pocket that leads to that one strip-sack that ends up heading the other way.

I like the way Baltimore goes about their business. I like the way they have built their team, and I like the no-frills way they play the game. As much as it pains me to say it as a Redskins fan, that’s the team I’d like mine to be when it grows up.

But as much as I see echoes of the Ravens' 2000 championship team in the 2008 version, at the end of the day I’m going to take the Steelers in this one. I can’t look past the one matchup I think is the one real mis-match in this game … and for me, tips the scales.

LeBeau versus Flacco.

I did the math.

Steelers 16
Ravens 13

January 6, 2009

Best Weekend in Sports (Pt. 2)

As I was saying, the NFL Divisional Playoffs provide the best weekend in sports. Every year I anticipate it, and every year the league delivers. 2008-09 looks to be no exception.

By the end of the weekend, one suspects even the hungriest NFL appetite will be sated.


Sunday, Jan. 11, 1:00 pm EST

Ah, yes. The Meadowlands. January. The NFC East.

If you blur your eyes a little, you can almost see the irascible Buddy Ryan leading the likes of Ron Jaworski, Wilbert Montgomery, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner and a host of Eagles icons onto the windswept Meadowlands carpet to do battle with Big Tuna, Phil Simms, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro, Leonard Marshall and a host of other names that start to roll of the tongue if you let them.

That the names this Sunday are Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Westbrook and Brian Dawkins, facing off against Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, Brandon Jacobs and Justin Tuck, matters not. For those of us who have followed NFC East football for any length of time, this one is old school, classic Gang Green versus Big Blue. A throwback. A streetfight. And for any pure fan of the NFL game, a January treat.

A little over a month ago, this one would have been easy to call. The Eagles were in imploding, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid were feeling more Brotherly Wrath than Love, and the Giants were a juggernaut, seemingly rolling toward a second straight NFC Championship.

Today, not so much.

Philadelphia is the one rolling, on a 5-1 run that includes a 44-6 woodshed job on Dallas Cowboys to clinch a playoff spot in the regular season finale and a solid road playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings–a tough home team one player away from serious Lombardi contention.

The Eagles best player, RB Brian Westbrook, is healthy and dangerous as ever. And if you believe in this kind of thing, given their resurgence and the way the seas parted to allow them into the playoffs in the first place, they look to have that certain feel of Destiny about them.

The Giants, meanwhile, find themselves where so many high playoff seeds have found themselves over the years–having locked up a playoff spot early and played few meaningful games down the stretch.

Add to that the two-week break they earn with the bye, and it can be hit or miss whether the top seeds hit the field with the edge they need to perform at the highest level–the level that earned them that seed to begin with.

All that said ... even in consideration of Philadelphia’s convincing game 13 win in New York, my head isn’t buying them. Not in the Meadowlands in January. It might take the Giants a quarter or two to get ramped up, but they will. In the end, home field, a healthy sledgehammer in RB Brandon Jacobs and 20-year-veteran kicker John Carney’s steady right leg will prove the difference.

Somewhere, Joe Morris will be smiling.

New York Giants - 23
Philadelphia Eagles - 17


Sunday, Jan. 11, 4:45 pm EST

With apologies to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the story here is the other guys. Particularly for fans who lived through the Norv Turner Era in Washington.

So if you’ll excuse the indulgence ...

There is a movement afoot to “give some love” to the star-crossed Chargers head coach this week. After all, his team, left for dead after a 4-8 start, not only rallied to make the playoffs, but beat first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts once they got there.

Well, maybe you're ready to go there, but not I. Not yet.

Don’t get me wrong–it isn't that I don’t like the guy. I do. It's just that down deep in my soul somewhere, I still believe that Norval Eugene Turner is the Plaything of the Gridiron Gods. I still believe that somewhere Up There, They have keep old, well-ventilated voodoo doll of the man around just for kicks. And that they pick up from time to time, grin evil grins, and perforate it with red-hot knitting needles, just to see his reactions.

And I can’t quite shake the feeling they fully intend to pull the rug out from under him this year.

And you know what? All kidding aside, it would probably be just. Maybe I’m out there alone on this one–but where the majority of comments this week seem to be in praise of Turner for rallying the troops, I find myself wondering if maybe it wasn’t more a case of his team winning in spite of Norv Turner’s unique brand of leadership, not because of it.

That's not hating, it's observation. Two years ago, Turner inherited a 14-2 Chargers team universally regarded as Super Bowl ready; as just needing someone other than Marty Schottenheimer and his Amazing Shrinking Cojones come playoff time.

Turner inherited a budding franchise quarterback in Phillip Rivers, arguably the NFL’s top running back in LaDanian Tomlinson, a likely Hall of Fame tight end in Antonio Gates, and the number one scoring offense and number seven scoring defense in football.

In his first year, he took that team to 11-5, beat the punchless Tennessee Titans in the wildcard round, then upset the Colts at home in the divisional round before going to lose to the undefeated Patriots in the AFC Title game. Not bad. Not great, given the talent at hand, but not bad.

In his second year, with his imprint firmly on the team, he was 4-8 at the three-quarter pole before rallying to finish at .500. Which by all counts, should have been the end of the Chargers’ season. Yes, really.

In the 39-year history of the AFC West since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only four teams have ever even finished second in the division at .500 or worse (the ‘98 Raiders, ‘98 Seahawks and ‘88 Broncos at 8-8; the ‘75 Broncos at 6-8).

Given that no AFC West has ever won the division at .500, and with it received the home field advantage, and further given that the two AFC wildcard qualifiers this year both went 11-5, one could almost be tempted to say the gods smiled on Norv Turner.

So which is it? Are Turner’s Chargers a scrappy, resilient bunch who refused to quit at 4-8, rallied around their coach and stared failure down ... or a deeply talented bunch of underachievers, two years removed from 14-2, backing into the playoffs against all historic odds despite him?

We’ll know more with the benefit of hindsight, obviously. But for now, I simply cannot shake the feeling that by allowing this Charger team into the playoffs, the Gridiron Gods are setting a decent man up for yet another pratfall; another of the gut-wrenching, soul-killing, my-god-did-that-just-happen losses that fans of his previous teams know only too well.

And I can’t quite convince myself that, at some point in the very near future, They will conspire to leave this poor gentleman once again looking like someone ran over his puppy.

For what it’s worth, I’m pulling for Norv. What can I say, maybe the gods will tire of torturing Norv and move on to Jerry Jones.

And I love puppies.


San Diego Chargers - 23
Pittsburgh Steelers - 16


Pittsburgh Steelers - 20
San Diego Chargers - 19


So enough deep, insightful football analysis.

42" Plasma – check.
Comfortable chair – check.
Phone silenced – check.
Cold beverage – definitely.

Let the games begin.

Best Weekend in Sports (Pt. 1)

In my world, the NFL Divisional Playoffs are quite simply the best weekend in sports.

There may be other two-day events in the conversation–NCAA Final Four, final two rounds of the Masters, World Cup finals, maybe a few others you can feel free to argue at your pleasure–but if you’re reading this, my guess is that for you, as for me, the NFL is king in your sports universe.

Yes, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial American holiday, and I suppose as such it remains the crown jewel for some. Not me. To me it’s been co-opted; it no longer belongs to the fist-in-the-air fan in his faded jersey, it belongs to the martini in the suit. Not so this weekend. The divisional playoffs weekend is all about the love of the game.

Two days. Eight teams. Four winner-lives, loser-dies, fist-meets-flesh, real-life dramas. For those of us unabashedly passionate about our sports, it just doesn’t get any better.

And as it does every year at this time, the National Football League has once again set our table with a full, rich four-course meal.

Bon appetit.


Saturday, Jan. 10, 4:30 pm EST

If you’re looking for fast-break football, look elsewhere–this one may break bones.

If you are a fan of the Tennessee Titans, the one team you probably do not want to see coming to town this weekend is the Baltimore Ravens. The team that has set the NFL standard for defensive dominance for a decade is finally getting some offensive support–and the result has been eye-opening.

Rookie QB Joe Flacco hasn’t been great, but he’s been good enough, in enough key spots, to get the Ravens long-dormant offense to at least carry its own weight. And for a team playing defense like the Ravens are–with otherworldly FS Ed Reed redefining the term “ball hawk,” first-ballot Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis having apparently discovered the fountain of youth and providing a brand of in-your-face leadership rarely seen in today’s free agent millionaire NFL–that has been enough to turn this into one serious group of Poe folks. (sorry)

I like and respect Tennessee head coach Jeff Fischer, who might well be the most underappreciated head coach of our time. I think QB Kerry Collins’ redemption story is compelling. Didn’t really care for the guy in his younger, brasher days, but this grizzled-veteran incarnation, having overcoming silly odds to lead his an unlikely team to the heights, has been hard not to appreciate. Plus I usually love home field advantage at this time of year.

But these Ravens are nasty. They’re feelin’ it–you can see it building. And unless young Mr. Flacco completely unravels (always a possibility with a rookie, though he’s shown no signs of doing so), they may be on the threshold of scary good.

As in Y2K good.

Baltimore Ravens - 20
Tennessee Titans - 16


Saturday, Jan. 10, 8:15 pm EST

When a team goes sixty-one years between home playoff wins, it is understandable that not all NFL fans take them very seriously after one home wildcard victory. I’ll admit to struggling a bit with that myself. Fortunately, at least for fans of the Carolina Panthers, the people charged with preparing them to take on the upstart Cardinals Saturday won’t have that problem.

Rest assured head coach John Fox and Co. do not see that old familiar red-and-white uniform–so much NFL filler for decades–and think 60 years of futility. They are looking at them as they are today; an explosive passing team led by a revitalized former Super Bowl and league MVP in QB Kurt Warner, backed by a scrappy defense, that happens to stand between them and a return to NFC Championship Game and shot at taking care of some serious unfinished business.

Think the current Carolina regime has forgotten SB XXXVIII? There will be no overconfidence on the Panther sideline–no “looking past the Cardinals.”

Don’t get me wrong; if this game was being played in Arizona, I’d like their chances. The energy at Roll-away Bed Field last weekend, when the Cardinals took out the Atlanta Falcons, was a huge factor–both in terms of how it affected the young Falcons and the way it focused an Arizona team whose collective mind often seems to wander on the road.

But the game will not be played in climate-controlled comfort. It will be played on the East Coast (where the Cardinals went 0-5 this season), on real grass, in the elements (current forecast: rainy, mid 50's). More importantly, the host Panthers (8-0 at home), while not spectacular in any one phase, are the kind of balanced, all-around team that always proves tough in the hyper-intense, last-mistake-loses atmosphere of the NFL playoffs.

Much as I try to picture Warner hooking up with stud WR’s Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin enough to outscore Carolina, what I keep seeing instead is Carolina QB Jake Delhomme finding WR's Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad, and the Panthers baby running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart taking over the game in the second half, and DE Julius Peppers and Panther pass rush cutting loose on Warner late protecting, and maybe expanding, their lead.

In a game I don’t believe will be as close as final score indicates ...

Carolina Panthers - 30
Arizona Cardinals - 20




January 1, 2009

What Went Wrong: The Experts Weigh In

So that's that.

With their loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the 2008 Washington Redskins (8-8) capped off a rollercoaster season—one that began with tumultuous regime change, had their fans breathing the rarified air of contenders in October, and saw them brought precipitously back to earth as pretenders in December.

Along the way, there were great moments we won’t soon forget—like the brilliant Campbell-to-Moss bomb against New Orleans that gave the Redskins life in week two, and the back-to-back road wins in Dallas and Philadelphia to reach 4-1 and ignite January dreams.

There were crushing moments we’d like to forget—like the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town and systematically throttling the 6-2 Redskins under the bright lights of Monday Night Football, exposing the chasm between the Redskins and the NFL elite ... and the crushing Mike Sellers’ goal-line fumble in Cincinnati that effectively ended the 2008 season.  

And so now we head into Expert Season, the eight month odyssey between this season and next that everyone—from the highly-paid talking heads on TV to the office know-it-all in the next cubicle—will spend telling you What Went Wrong.

It was the Quarterback.  Jason Campbell couldn't read defenses, stared down receivers and took too long to windup and deliver. Defenses didn't respect him so they stacked the line of scrimmage, took away the run and short passing game and voila—offensive suckitude. 

Can't win without solid QB play.

It was the Offensive Line. Every starter was over 30—no wonder they wore down around midseason and became a sieve. They were a drive-blocking, smashmouth group assembled under a previous regime suddenly being asked to tap dance the delicate rhythms of the west coast offense. And there was no depth. 

Can't win without solid OL play.

It was the Play Calling. Coach Zorn was awesome early—beautifully timed gadget plays, running when they expected pass, passing when they expected run. But once the league got some film on him, they caught up, and Zorn had no answers. Or maybe once he got to 6-2, he got complacent and thought all he had to do was line up, run off tackle, rely on his defense and simply "not lose the game."  

Either way, can't win without innovative, aggressive playcalling.   

It was the Receivers. Santana Moss was a number two receiver masquerading as a number one, and Antwaan Randle El a number three passing himself off as a number two. The rookies weren't good enough to get on the field, much less contribute. And as a group they didn’t know that making pretty catches on crisp, six-yard routes, on third-and-seven, does nothing but sell Maalox. 

Can’t win without a solid receiving corps.

It was the Defense. Yes they finished statistically in the top five, but they couldn't rush the passer, and as a result didn’t force the turnovers that set up the short fields that lead to the easy touchdowns that win games. And when push came to shove they couldn't get that one last stop when they absolutely, positively had to, and it cost the Redskins, at the very least, the St. Louis, second Dallas and San Francisco games. 

Can't win without a pass rush.

It was Vinny Cerrato. He doesn't believe in drafting linemen, wastes time doing radio shows instead of scouting and has a demented laugh.   

Can’t win without a solid General Manager.

It was Dan Snyder.  As has been the case since he bought the team in 1999, all he was really interested in was 1) making money, and 2) getting to play Fantasy GM in the offseason. That's why he continued to charge a fortune for stadium parking and beer and kept Vinny Cerrato around.

Can’t win without an owner willing to spend gobs of money but otherwise keep his mitts off the team.

It was [fill in the blank].

Here's the good news—you and I know better.  We know it wasn't any one of those things, it was a combination of some or all of them. 

We know that debating which of those areas was most responsible is great fun, but also understand that doing so is like trying to break down, in cold percentages, which part of sipping champagne at sunset off Oahu, having just made love to a special someone on the deck of the yacht you bought with the $250 million you won in the lottery, is what makes the moment the most special. 

And, of course (sorry, back to reality), we know that no one—not Dan Snyder, Vinny Cerrato, Jason LaCanfora, Mike Wilbon, Doc Walker, Brian Mitchell, Steve Czaben, Chris Mortensen, Peter King, Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis, little old me, the guy in front of you at the checkout or your chatty co-worker—has their finger on "The Truth of The Matter." 

Only Jim Zorn, Greg Blache (and maybe one or two other top assistants who sat in on enough meetings, were on the field for enough practices and in enough film sessions over the course of the season to know who did and did not do what in any given situation, and what if anything they as coaches could or should have done about it) are even remotely qualified to speak on the specifics, or offer what would pass in a court of law as expert opinion on What Went Wrong—and they ain't talkin'.  

But for the rest of us, acting like we do know is irresistible. And the offseason is long.  And nature abhors a vacuum.  

So we're going to do it anyway.

Of course, as any clear-thinking observer already knows, the REAL problem with the 2008 Redskins was the clear disconnect that developed over the course of the season between what was in Jim Zorn's head as he drew up game plans and called plays from the sidelines, and what the players actually executed on the field.

The trick of course is determining the reason for that disconnect. 

Could be Zorn lost confidence in his quarterback, offensive live, receivers or running back somewhere along the way, and with it, the freedom to call the kinds of plays he really wanted to.

Could be he hit his head around midseason and simply forgot how to call plays.

Could be Campbell either could not (rushed/nobody open) or would not (hesitant/confused) throw the passes Zorn called.

Could be Jason Campbell changed too many plays at the line ... into bad ones.

Could be that one player here or there simply got beat, on enough key plays, for said key plays to not work the way they were designed, even while the other ten players were kicking ass.

Could be the head coach was a rookie, going through rookie growing pains, implementing a new system, working with 8-8 talent assembled under a different regime with a different system in mind.

Could be some combination of all those things.  Could be something else entirely.

Fortunately, we have eight long months—and no shortage of experts—to sort it all out.

Welcome to the offseason.