Friday, January 21, 2005
-Lose free agent critical to previous year’s team’s success, prompting a lot of fretting from the fans about this year’s chances.
-Surprise everyone by winning the NFC East.
-Surprise everyone by winning home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
-Win opening round game.
-Play in the NFC title game before the home fans.
This is the Eagles fourth consecutive NFC title game, and hopefully their first victory in one since the 1980 season when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 20-7 to go to Super Bowl XV. This is the Falcons first NFC title game in six years, since they surprised the seemingly invincible 15-1 Minnesota Vikings (remember Randy Moss’ rookie year?) and went on to lose the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, John Elway’s final game. The pressure of history is firmly on the Eagles, who desperately need to win and shake the label of “can’t win the big one”. Meanwhile, the Falcons have no pressure on them. Their 11-5 season was a surprise to everyone in the NFL, including themselves.
I think the game is interesting chiefly as a matchup of Vick v. McNabb. Two African-American QBs. But the similarities end there. Vick, the first pick of the 2001 draft, has had his NFL career hyped and analyzed and talked about to death. For a quarterback who has played just 43 games in his career, Vick has had a big impact on the league. His image is everywhere and his explosive plays always find their way to Sportscenter and NFL Primetime. McNabb was over-shadowed, despite being the #2 pick in the 1999 draft, by flashier colleagues like Dante Culpepper and generally hasn’t gotten the attention Vick has. Despite being the NFL’s runner-up for MVP in 2000, McNabb has been very under-rated: criticized for his supposed lack of accuracy, failures in the NFC title game, McNabb has stood tall and played with consistency and confidence. While Vick has outstanding scrambling skills, his ability to throw the ball is inconsistent at best. McNabb has transitioned from having to carry the offense with his legs and become one of the NFL's deadliest passers.
The addition of Terrell Owens to the Eagles offense dramatically helped McNabb:
Completion % / Yards per Pass Attempt / TD-INT
2000: 58.0% / 5.9 / 21-13
2001: 57.8% / 6.6 / 25-12
2002: 58.4% / 6.3 / 17-6 (missed 6 games)
2003: 57.5% / 6.7 / 16-11
2004: 64.0% / 8.3 / 31-8
The addition of T.O. elevated the Eagles offensively this season:
Points: 24.1 per game, third in NFC
Rushing Yards: 102.4 per game, tenth in the NFC
Passing Yards: 248.1 per game, fourth in the NFC
Third Down %: 36.9, sixth in NFC
The Eagles are weak running the ball (losing Buckhalter in the pre-season hurt), but their passing game has never been stronger. Witness last week’s victory over the Vikings: even without T.O. McNabb hit on 21 of 33 passes, striking on short and intermediate routes with authority. The Eagles strategy has been to throw the ball to loosen up the opposing defense and then hit them with some runs to keep them honest.
The Falcons could not be more different:
Points: 21.3 per game, seventh in NFC
Rushing Yards: 167.0 per game, first in the NFC
Passing Yards: 150.0 per game, fifteenth in the NFC
Third Down %: 36.3, eighth in NFC
Probably the only NFL team to rush for more yards than they threw for during the 2004 season. While the Falcons run a variation of the West Coast offense like the Eagles, the Falcons inability to throw the ball with consistency shows that they haven’t mastered the system. What’s more, the Falcons have looked terrible during their regular season losses, totally befuddled and confused by quick defenses that jammed their running lanes. Look for the Eagles to play eight men in the box, with Brian Dawkins functioning as an extra linebacker.
The Eagles have always been a great defensive team, putting pressure on the quarterback and shutting down opposing passing games, however the Eagles have been weak against the run since Jeremiah Trotter left after the 2001 season. Trotter’s return to the lineup sparked a dramatic change in the Eagles defense: formerly porous against the run, the Eagles became pretty balanced:
Points Allowed: 16.3, first in NFC
Rushing yards allowed: 118.9, sixth in NFC
Passing yards allowed: 200.8, sixth in NFC
Sacks: 47, second in NFC
The Falcons unit is stronger against the run (you’d have to be, playing the Carolina Panthers twice a year), but weak against the pass:
Points Allowed: 21.1, sixth in NFC
Rushing yards allowed: 105.1, second in NFC
Passing yards allowed: 220.4, twelfth in NFC
Sacks: 48, first in NFC
The Falcons make up for their passing yards allowed by rushing the quarterback. Sunday will match up the two best pass rushes in the NFC.
Four times a charm? As Andy Reid said, he’s getting tired of coaching the NFC team in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. However, while the pressure is on the Eagles in the media I don’t think the fans are quite as anxious as in years past. The 2002 team looked like a Super Bowl winner, so its loss to the Bucs was disheartening. The 2003 team seemed like the Eagles last chance at winning: the team had declined in talent so much between seasons, that many assumed ’03 was the Eagles last shot. And here we are again. I think the Eagles are calm and confident this year, knowing that this team is the best that they’ve taken to the big game yet.
The Falcons, in contrast, look like a team that is playing above its talent level. Simply put, the Falcons aren’t that good: their offense is 80% Vick, 10% Dunn, 5% Duckett and 5% Crumpler. If Vick struggles, the Eagles win in a walk. The Eagles are strong enough to survive a bad performance from McNabb, or if the defense fails to stop Vick, the offense is good enough to get into a shoot-out with the Falcons and win. On both sides of the ball the Eagles are deep, balanced, tough and ready. This team will win.
Prediction (revised): Eagles 38-13
Monday: I’ll give my thoughts on Sunday’s games and, if the Eagles are in it, I’ll breakdown the Super Bowl matchups. Otherwise, back to baseball and there is a lot to talk about: the Phillies arbitration deals, singing Offermann, etc.
Thursday, January 20, 2005
The Steelers played well on paper defensively in 2004:
Rushing defense: 81.2 ypg, 1st in the AFC
Passing defense: 177.2 ypg, 3rd in the AFC
Points Allowed: 15.7 ppg, 1st the AFC
Takeaways: 28, tied for 7th in the AFC
Make no mistake about it, the Steelers played some good football and made some big plays in 2004. Then again, the Steelers impressive defensive performance was (partly) a product of their opponants: they played the Baltimore Ravens, the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals all twice each. Six of their sixteen wins were against four of the AFC's five worst scoring offenses. The Steelers also didn't face the AFC's top three scoring teams: the Chiefs, the Chargers and the Colts.
In contrast, the Patriots look a little worse on paper:
Rushing defense: 98.3 ypg, 5th in the AFC
Passing defense: 212.5 ypg, 10th in the AFC
Points Allowed: 16.3 ppg, 2nd in the AFC
Takeaways: 30, tied for 3rd in the AFC
Worse than the Stillers, but the Patriots played a higher caliber of opponants in 2004, holding the Colts in 24, the Chiefs to 19 and the Rams to 22. The Patriots occasionally gave up yardage to opponants, but forced turnovers and generally left opponants frustrated. Beating Peyton Manning twice in a season is impressive stuff. If the Patriots are weak anywhere defensively, it is in their secondary, a vulnerability the Steelers seem unable to exploit given their run-oriented nature and Big Ben's poor performance against the Jets.
Advantage: slight edge to the Patriots.
The Steelers and Patriots are two very different teams on offense:
Rushing yards: 154.0, 1st in the AFC
Passing yards: 170.0, 15th in the AFC
Scoring: 23.3, 8th in AFC
Third Down Conversions: 42.9%, 4th in AFC
For all of the talk about Big Ben, the Steelers key players in 2004 were Duce and Bettis. Their ability to run the ball was impressive and critical to the Steelers season. The Steelers inability to throw the ball with success is surprising with all of the hoopla over Big Ben: the Steelers were a little better than the Ravens throwing the ball.
Rushing yards: 133.4, 6th in the AFC
Passing yards: 224.3, 6th in the AFC
Scoring: 27.3, 4th in AFC
Third Down Conversions: 45.1%, 3rd in AFC
The Pats are a very balanced team. Having Corey Dillon in the lineup is the biggest difference between this game and the Steelers 34-20 win on Halloween. With Dillon in the game I don't think the Steelers can afford to tee-off on Brady and play blitz the QB. Meanwhile, the Patriots mission, especially with Big Ben struggling, is clear: stop Duce, stop Bettis. Put eight guys in the box and make Big Ben air the ball out, especially if the weather is lousy.
Advantage: the balance of the Patriots wins out.
This is the fifth time in a decade that the AFC title game is going to be played in Pittsburgh. Bill Cowher is a dropped hail mary from being 0-4 in those games. I've never been a big fan of Cowher: his teams always seem to get out-coached and out-fought in the playoffs.
I think Bill Belichick, in contrast, is a genius. The Patriots never seem out of it: they always seem aggressive, intelligent and cohesive. They execute flawlessly. Man-for-man the Steelers might have more raw talent, but Belichick makes better use of his. Belichick is the reason why the Pats are favorites to win despite having to some to cold, snowy Heinz Field to face 57,000+ screaming Steelers fans.
Advantage: Patriots (coaching strategy trumps homefield).
Prediction: Patriots 24-21.
Wednesday, January 19, 2005
Here are a few random links I've seen of interest...
Ex-Eagle Cris Carter ("all he does is catch touchdowns") picks the Eagles and Patriots to win this weekend. I can't disagree. The Patriots veteran experience will be key for them. I noticed there is a lot less enthusiasm this week from die hard Stillers fans since they lucked out against the Jets. Everyone in the Steel City have gone from buying plane tickets to Jacksonville to assuming Tom Brady will win his third Super Bowl MVP.
The Inquirer's Phil Sheridan makes the bold argument that Dante Culpepper is a better QB than Michael Vick, and therefore the Eagles should have an easy time with Vick because they shut down Culpepper twice. I'm not sure comparing Vick to Culpepper is really valid. I'm not sure comparing anyone to Vick is really valid because I don't think there are any QB's in the league like Vick. I do agree that Vick is an awful passer, and I do agree with Sheridan that most of the hoopla surrounding Vick is just hot air. I faulted Culpepper for his consistency, but Vick is far worse. I think the NFL is counting on Vick to turn in a superlative performance because they want him as their new poster boy, but if he lays an egg this could really damage his endorsement career.
Oh, and if I'm a Falcons fan there is one thing that bothers me: if we are so good, then why did we give up just three fewer points than we allowed during the regular season?
A pair of nice columns this week from SI's Peter King. First, King discusses how badly Peyton Manning failed against the Pats and chimes in with a few random thoughts about Big Ben and the Eagles Greg Lewis. Amongst other things in King's column...
...I agree with King that Big Ben's flop in the Jets game is worrisome and that Steelers fans are in real denial about it. I've lived here for nine years and I've never seen Steelers fans have more unconditional love for a QB than with him. There are tens of thousands of Big Ben #7's being worn every day when I go to the Mall, the supermarket, etc. Even with Kordell or Neil O'Donnell, people didn't just trust them the way they trust Big Ben to win it, which is why so many Steelers fans seem shell-shocked by what happened with the Jets. The Steelers will rise or fall with Big Ben Sunday, so this could be the defining moment of his career.
...King likes Greg Lewis this weekend against the Falcons secondary. I hope Donovan tries to spread the field a little to slow down the Falcons pass rush. If the O-line can keep the Falcons off Donovan like they did to the Vikings (he had ridiculous amounts of time back there), this should be a great game for us.
King's second column is his weekly "Ten Things I Think I Think". Page down to read his attacks on the Vikings owner Red McCombs. I agree with him completely. McCombs is a ridiculous meddler and needs to be scolded by the league. Too many owners throw tantrums and expect to get their way. The NFL needs to watch Nanny 911 or something.
Dr. Z has a column about the stupidity of teams playing conservative football at the end of the game. That's one great thing about the Birds: even with a lead they play their base defense, always blitzing and putting pressure on the opposing QB. No prevent D in Philly ... Dr. Z's argument that Lombardi was an innovator is an interesting one, and goes against the image of him as being The Last Traditionalist.
Nice piece in the AP about Jeremiah Trotter's importance to the Eagles. Whenever my Steelers friends talk about an Eagles-Steelers Super Bowl they always scoff at the Eagles defense and claim that the Steelers would just pound the Eagles with Bettis like on November 7 and they'd have the game in the bag. They are utterly wrong: since Jeremiah was inserted into the Eagles starting lineup, the Eagles have been stout against the run. In the six games Trotter played in after November 7 the Eagles gave up a Baltimore Ravens-like 70 yards a game. You have to wonder how the 11-7 game would have turned out ith Trotter clogging the middle of the D: Bettis had 149 yards rushing on 33 carries. Without Bettis running rampant through the Eagles line I doubt the Steelers could have jumped out to their 21-0 lead and the Eagles could have had the opportunity to battle back into the game. An undefeated season might have been had...
I liked the opening line of Stephen A. Smith's profile of T.O. (mocking Atlanta for fair-weather fandom), but what I really like is how Smith's writing seems so finely tuned to capturing T.O.'s personality. I don't like arrogant, self-absorbed sports writers (they act and think too much like dim-witted talk radio hosts) but there is something entertaining about Smith that I can't dislike ... oh, and T.O.: we all appreciate the confidence in the team, we really do, but please don't give the Falcons bulletin board material.
ESPN's John Clayton likes the matchup problems that Brian Westbrook creates for the Falcons. As I said, this year feels different than 2003 and years past. Here are some reasons why:
1. Better run defense with Trotter in the middle.
2. Better pass rush with Jevon Kearse on the line.
3. More confident wideouts with T.O. watching over them.
4. Westbrook stretching the defense.
I think Westbrook could be the key to the game. The Falcons strength on defense is their pass rush, but their ability to blitz and get pressure on McNabb could be undone by their need to assign someone faster than a linebacker to keep tabs on Westbrook.
I plan to preview the Stillers & Pats tomorrow and then the Eagles & Falcons (or as I call it: the Bird Bowl) on Friday. Next week, I return to baseball. Convenient, isn't it, that spring training starts right after the Super Bowl wraps up?
Tuesday, January 18, 2005
(in 102 Games)
86 Runs Created
… then he breezed through Triple-A Scranton …
(in 29 Games)
21 Runs Created
…and played well during his callup with the Phillies…
(in 19 Games)
7 Runs Created
… so what now? Howard is 26 and wants to play MLB baseball full-time. His natural position, first base, is occupied by a future Hall of Famer. The Phillies have discussed dealing him, and Howard himself seems eager to leave to play first base in the majors. Should the Phillies deal him? I say no:
Let’s start by discussing the exceptional talent that Howard possesses. He is a lot like a younger version of Jim Thome: he hits for power, gets on base and plays first base. Although projecting stats for players with scant MLB experience is difficult, here is what Bill James projects Howard will do if he plays with the Phillies in 2005:
Games: 112 / Injury Risk: Low
Runs Created: 82
That he’d be a productive bat, even if he falls short of these numbers, there is no question. Can the Phillies afford to keep him, with Thome entrenched at first? I say yes: as insurance for 2005. Thome is rated as a high injury risk in the 2005 Bill James Handbook, projected to miss something like 20-30 games. Thome already missed 19 last season and 15 in 2002 (remarkably, he missed just 3 in 2003), so he’s hardly Cal Ripken, Jr. It seems likely that Howard will get to start a dozen to two dozen games at first in 2005, to say nothing of DH-ing during interleague games and coming off the bench to pinch hit. Howard could play up to fifty or sixty games for the Phillies, and if Thome goes down with an injury, maybe more. Imagine if the Phillies dealt Howard and then lost Thome for the season? They’d be finished.
What other positions could Howard play? At the moment the Phillies outfield is full, but Kenny Lofton in centerfield is a transitory solution at best. The Phillies could move Pat Burrell to center and put Howard in leftfield. All indications are that Howard is athletic enough to play in the corners of the outfield.
My point is that I think the Phillies need to keep Howard, have him play off the bench and as a part-time starter in 2005 and find a spot for him in 2006. Third base? Left field? He is a tremendous talent, and it would be short-sighted for the Phillies to let him go, particularly with guys like Thome, Bell and Abreu entering their mid-30’s. I think keeping Howard is sound decision-making for the future and a prudent insurance policy for the present.
Monday, January 17, 2005
My wife in white ... shame she couldn't have worn this on our wedding day.
My wife looks good in green, doesn't she?
-Was there a duller game in the playoffs than the Rams-Falcons slaughter? It was awful to watch. I think even the Rams were embarrassed by their performance and knew they didn’t deserve to be in the playoffs.
-What happened to the vaunted Steelers jauggernaut? I expected them to manhandle the Jets but that didn’t happen. Instead they needed the Jets to miss two field goals before pulling it out in OT. If the Steelers go on to win the Super Bowl than we know God is a Steelers fan, because they should be going home right now. Their survival on Saturday (especially on the field goal that hit the crossbar) was pure luck. The Jets were the better team.
-I have to admit to being stunned at the Patriots 20-3 upset of the Colts. I thought this was Peyton Manning’s year to shine. I thought he’d victimize the Patriots depleted secondary. I thought the Colts would win and go on to the Super Bowl, but the Patriots out-played them in a game that looked like an echo of last year’s AFC title game. The Patriots are one of those teams that don’t look impressive, but they are greater than the sum of their parts when they come together to form a complete team. Their strategy of running the ball kept Manning on the sideline and exploited the weakness of the Colts defense. It was brilliant. I’ve never been a fan of Tony Dungy: for a guy who coached as much talent as he over the years I find it odd that he’s never gotten a team to the Super Bowl. Sunday I thought he was thoroughly out-coached by Bill Belichick.
-I have a theory about why the Eagles won 27-14 against the Vikings: jersey power. Two years ago for Xmas, my wife gave me a green McNabb jersey. I wear it whenever the Eagles play. Since I got the jersey the Eagles have gone 25-7 in the regular season. Hmmm … well, I mentioned to my wife that I wanted to get a white T.O. jersey and she ended up finding me one on eBay which arrived on Thursday night. For the game Sunday I had my wife wear #5 while I wore #81. Double jersey power! Coincidence the Eagles won? … Okay, I’m not that superstitious but I was thrilled by how well the Eagles played yesterday. They were aggressive, mentally sharp, and ready to play the game.
I was impressed how the Eagles defense seemed to be toying with the Vikings in the first quarter. Poor Dante Culpepper looked baffled by the Eagles defensive schemes. I think it messed him up for the rest of the game. Defensively yesterday was a good sign for next week. The Vikings, like the Falcons, are a big play team. They thrive on the deep pass or the big scramble to generate momentum. The Eagles kept everything in front of them and allowed the Vikings little. I think that augers positive things for next week. The Eagles defense is much better and more aggressive than last year’s unit now that Kearse and Trotter are there.
I was equally impressed by the Eagles offense: no T.O., no problem. The Eagles seemed to move the ball through the Vikings defense at will. What amazed me was that McNabb had just three yards of rushing. I think everyone assumed he’d have to carry the team on his back with his legs and that didn’t happen. Mitchell, Pinkston and Lewis stepped up and delivered when they needed to. Scarily, the score could have been 37-14 if the Eagles hadn't let time expire or if Mitchell had been called out at the one-yard line instead of a touch-back.
As always the Vikings seemed out of it. For all of their talent and chances, the Vikings are historic underachievers, constantly collapsing at the end of the season or choking in the playoffs. This Vikings team seemed out-coached and no play illustrated that better than their disastrous fake field goal. Even if Moss had stayed on the field as planned, they would have been flagged for 12 men on the field. That’s just incompetence.
-Predictions … AFC: I was stunned by how mediocre the Steelers looked against the Jets. Mentally, I don’t think they were ready to play the game, and Big Ben looked terrible. The Patriots looked like an veteran team taking care of business, cool as the other side of the pillow (thank you, Chris Berman). On paper the Steelers look like the better team and they did win back on Halloween 34-20, but the Patriots look like a cohesive veteran unit, they didn’t have Corey Dillon back on Halloween, and they have momentum. And they are better coached than the Steelers. I think the Patriots will develop a strategy for exploiting the Steelers weaknesses. Call it 24-21 Patriots over the Steelers … NFC: Don’t you just feel that this year is different than all of the rest? I suspected that the Eagles were out-matched against the Panthers last year, that McNabb wasn’t mentally ready to lead the team against the Bucs in ’02, that the ’01 team was too young to take-out the Rams. This year is different. The offense seems deadlier than in the past, and the defense seems more aggressive and confident. I actually have confidence in Mitchell, Lewis and Pinkston to stretch the opposing defenses, and I think the Eagles D can shut down the opposing offenses (inc. their running games). Out of the four Eagles teams to play in the NFC title game, this year’s version is the strongest. I have nothing against the Falcons, but their offense is 90% Michael Vick. His ability to run is tremendous, but they can’t throw the ball with any consistency. Their defense is good, but I don’t think anything can break McNabb’s concentration right now. I think the Eagles new, Kearse / Trotter-centric defense will cap the Falcons ground attack and the Falcons wideouts will be handcuffed all game long. And I think the Eagles offense will score often enough to keep the game out reach. Eagles 33, Falcons 21.
-Baseball notes: Uh-oh. Carlos Delgado is looking at the Marlins and Mets. I’d hate to see Delgado 19 times a year. This is a guy who has a near .400 OBP and near .600 slugging percentage. Why teams haven’t been pursuing him, I have no idea. Here are Bill James 2005 predictions for him:
.390 OBP / .565 SLG / 35 HR / 35 2B / 109 RBI / 110 Runs Created
With Hudson in Atlanta, Pedro and Beltran in Queens and Delgado in Miami, I don’t see why the Phillies couldn’t slip to fourth this year. That’s how competitive the NL East has gotten.
Tomorrow: Ryan Howard, insurance policy.