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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Postmortem on Harvard's loss to Cornell (January 30, 2010)


Okay, so right after I wrote about Harvard's rise and a budding rivalry with Cornell, Harvard walks into Cornell and gets creamed 86-50. Cornell, a good shooting team, had no trouble shooting well against the Harvard defense (45.5% from the field and 12 for 27 from 3-point range), and did a fine job of avoiding turnovers (only 8) while Harvard was their usual turnover-prone selves (25), and it bit them because a) Cornell's got a pretty good defense themselves, b) Harvard could not force turnovers from Cornell, plus c) the Big Red managed an impressive 14 offensive rebounds, providing second chances galore during the relatively few times they didn't put the ball in the net the first time. Cornell managed 66 shots from the field while Harvard managed a paltry 36.

All this aside, Harvard was down by a relatively competitive 14 points at halftime, then pulled within 10 with under 13 minutes left, but Cornell shut them down over a 9 minute stretch and ran over them the rest of the way.

Harvard leader Jeremy Lin did manage a strong 19 point effort but matched a season high with 8 turnovers. Point guard Oliver McNally did not manage a single assist for the first time this season. Harvard wasn't dominated badly on the boards, losing that battle 30 to 27, nor did they run into particularly bad foul trouble (20 fouls to Cornell's 19, and only three players had 4 fouls).

But Harvard's bread and butter is their defense, and Cornell walked right over it. All five Cornell starters finished with double figure scoring. The starters shot a combined 25 of 47 from the field: Leading scorer Ryan Wittman actually posted the lowest scoring total among the Cornell starters with 11. Center Jeff Foote led the Big Red with 16, and 9 rebounds.

Basically, Harvard just had a bad day. Teams can have bad days and get lucky with a less than stellar performance from the other side, but being keyed on the game, Cornell seized advantage and finished with an emphatic rout. The odds were on Cornell to win the game anyway, being at home, and no matter how lopsided the score was, it's just one loss. Harvard gets another chance at Cornell next month, this time at home, and if that matchup happened today it would be a 50/50 shot. Unless it's a playoff or tournament game, one game doesn't make a season, and Harvard's got plenty of chances to put this loss behind them before season's end.

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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The newest, hottest college basketball rivalry you didn't know about: Harvard and Cornell


Harvard's in Cornell to play the Big Red today in college basketball. "So what?" you ask?

Unless you're an absolute sports geek or an Ivy League fan (and outside of Princeton most people know nothing about Ivy League basketball), you probably haven't noticed that Harvard men's basketball is having their best season in decades, currently off to a 14-3 start. Harvard's schedule features a road win over Boston College, road wins over halfway decent Seattle U and Santa Clara teams (the Seattle win was a blowout), and their only losses being a close aberration at lowly Army, a reasonably close loss at 19th ranked Connecticut and a 16 point loss at 11th ranked Georgetown. Harvard has run the table at home and gone 7-3 on the road overall against a varied non-conference road schedule.

Jeff Sagarin's ratings currently has them pegged as the 59th best team out of 347 in NCAA Division I Men's Basketball. To give an idea of how impressive that is, the rating of the Ivy League's top team in most years is etched firmly in the 100-200 range. NCAA Tournament at-large bids usually dry up around the 35-45 range of rankings, so Harvard's not far from the talent level of teams that the NCAA lets in without a conference tournament title. Harvard may not have a power conference resume or a superstar talent, but they are legitimately good and this year's team could probably play .500 ball in most multi-bid major and mid-major conferences.

Harvard's emergence likely traces back to coach Tommy Amaker, who played and later cut his coaching teeth with Duke during the 80's and 90's. Amaker's first coaching gig with Seton Hall during 1997-2001 featured middling results (only one 20 win season and NCAA tourney bid), though his Seton Hall teams never finished under .500. Amaker then took over a scandal-tarnished Michigan program and struggled under the weight of sanctions and the always-competitive Big Ten schedule, never reaching the NCAA Tournament during his six seasons there, posting two losing seasons and eventually getting bought out and fired in 2007.

The biggest criticisms of Amaker to this point were that his teams tended to buckle under pressure, especially down the stretch of the regular season. Of course, he also had the pressure of trying to revive two once-proud programs that had fallen on hard times and fell behind their peers in their respective power conferences.

So he made a smart move and took over a team with much less history and much lower expectations in a much less competitive conference. Harvard hired him, figuring why the hell not, and in two seasons Amaker turned what was a typically uncompetitive Harvard squad into the competitive, defensively tough 14-3 squad they are today.

Harvard's led by Senior Jeremy Lin, whose 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game is actually a slight downtrend from last season (17.8 ppg, 5.5 reb, 4.3 asst). From there, there's not a ton of scoring: Forward Keith Wright is the only other player who averages double digit scoring (10.7) per game. They struggle with turnovers on offense (23.9% of possessions), but they are tremendous at getting to the line (48.7 attempts per), and do a decent job of nailing their free throws (75.2%, 12th best in the nation out of 340+ teams).

Again, defense is Harvard's strength. Teams shoot 43.9% against them (15th best in the nation), commit a lot of turnovers, tend to struggle for offensive rebounds, struggle to nail their shots (44.2% field goals against, 27.8% on threes, both in the top 60). Harvard blocks 12.6% of shots and steals on 11.9% of possessions, both numbers in the top 50. Games with Harvard are sloppy, turnover ridden affairs where Harvard gets an edge by nailing inside shots, getting to the line, nailing free throws, then blocking out and putting down the clamps on the defensive end. If you beat Harvard, it's because you're nailing your shots and playing well. If you're sloppy, mistake ridden and can't hit your shots, Harvard's going to stay with and beat you no matter how good you are.

With no conference tournament, and overall Ivy League record determining the NCAA tourney entrant, the pair of games between the two Ivy League leaders (both of which are currently 3-0 in Ivy League play) becomes supremely important. With Cornell sitting in the low 30's in the Sagarin Ratings, they could get in at large if they hold serve. While Harvard is a relatively impressive 59th, they need to win out and win the Ivy League title to get in, and beating Cornell is the biggest step to doing so. These are easily the biggest guns in a traditionally weak conference, and the Ivy League's 2010 ticket to the NCAA Tournament likely comes down to these two teams.

Cornell's resume and history looks a bit better thanks to a gradually built program by coach Steve Donahue. A longtime assistant before taking over at Cornell in 2001, Donahue turned a crappy Cornell team into a average Ivy League team, but has put all the pieces together over the last three years: Cornell is the current back-to-back reigning Ivy League champ.

Like Harvard, Cornell has a modest but strong resume this season in their 17-3 start. Their only blemishes came in a close loss to highly ranked Kansas, a 15 point rout early this season at highly ranked Syracuse, and a 10 point loss at home to 12-7 Seton Hall... all good teams. Wins against middling big/mid conference teams like Alabama, UMass and St Joe's have buoyed their Sagarin ratings along, obviously, with beating 12 non-conference D-1 opponents overall to date.

Cornell is more offense minded and has more offensive weapons. Like Harvard they have a clear leader, in Ryan Wittman (17.9 PPG) but post man Jeff Foote (12.3 PPG, 8.4 rebounds) and point guard Louis Dale (10.5, 5.0 asst) also do damage. The Big Red's strength makes them Harvard's perfect foil: Hitting the shots they take, especially their 3's. Cornell plays decent defense, but their 54.9% effective field goal rate is 14th best in the nation, while they hit 42.1% of their 3's (3rd in the nation).

Like Harvard, Cornell nails their free throws (74.0%, 29th best) and their inside defense is good (43.4% on 2-pointers, with a decent 46.7% effective FG% against). But they take better care of the basketball (turnovers on only 20.3% of plays, around average), and their perimeter defense has issues as teams can nail 3's against them (36.5%, 272nd overall). Fortunately for Cornell, Harvard is not a good 3-point shooting team.

Harvard could still win the Ivy League if they lose this game, but it's not likely: They'd definitely have to hold serve on February 19 when Cornell comes to Harvard, and Harvard would not only have to probably run the table the rest of the way, but either hope that Cornell slips up, not as likely as you think: Ken Pomeroy's estimations indicate that Cornell has a 34% chance of running the table save for one loss to Harvard. Harvard, meanwhile, has only a 29% chance of running the table with a Cornell road loss, as Princeton matches up with the Crimson somewhat well. If Cornell runs the table, Harvard would have to win a playoff game with Cornell per Ivy League tiebreak rules to get the tourney bid.

Ivy League fans have some intrigue to this season even if they're not Cornell or Harvard loyalists, as this has the makings of a great new Ivy rivalry, no matter who comes out on top this season.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

2010 AFC Championship Preview: New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
Favorite: Colts (55.7%)



Jets Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 1.56 (C-)
Drive Success Rate: .629 (C-)
Turnovers per: .165 (D+)

Last week the Jets did things a bit differently against the Chargers, trying to throw the football a bit more despite that being their offensive weakness, instead of playing to their strength and running the football. However, as the game progressed and the Chargers' front seven wore down, they went back to the run, and were able to string together two key touchdown drives to take control and seal what ultimately became a 17-14 win.

Offense Line Run Blocking: C+
Left End: D-
LT: C+
Interior: C
RT: A
Right End: D
Pass Protection: D+

Jets backfield:

QB: Mark Sanchez: F (Rushing: B-)
RB: Thomas Jones: C
RB: Shonn Greene: C

Should the Jets try a similar approach this week, they'll be happy to note that the Colts aren't that much better defensively, and that like the Chargers the Colts aren't especially hawkish for turnovers, which indicates Mark Sanchez can safely throw 20-25 passes provided a safe, solid passing gameplan. If they can wear out Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, they can take control with Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones rotating carries. That said, Peyton Manning can probably engineer at least a couple of touchdown drives, and 20 points isn't out of the question, so the Jets will need a bit more on offense than they got last week versus the Chargers.

Plus last week's Chargers team ran a base 3-4 defense, which is better suited to stop the run than the pass-rush oriented 4-3 the Colts run. Expect the Jets to run the ball sooner, especially if the Colts front four gives against the Jets offensive line and allows them to run off the tackles. The Jets know their best bet is to keep the ball out of Peyton's hands, and the best way to do that is to run run run and try to hold the ball for 30-35 minutes.

Jets receivers:

WR: Jerricho Cotchery: C+
WR: Braylon Edwards: C
WR: David Clowney: F
WR: Brad Smith: F (Rushing: A)
TE: Dustin Keller: D

This is why running the ball is very, very important for the Jets.

Jets defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: A (Momentum Weighted*: A+)
Points per drive: 1.04 (A+)
Drive Success Rate: .591 (A+)
Turnovers per drive: .148 (C)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B
vs left end sweeps: B
Right DE: C
Interior run defense: A
Left DE: B+
vs right end sweeps: D+

Pass Defense: A+
Defensive line vs rush: A
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: A+
vs #2 WR: A
vs Other WR: A+
vs TE: A
vs RB: A

The best secondary in the NFL gave Philip Rivers nearly 300 yards passing and he still couldn't manage more than two touchdown drives. Peyton Manning has the savvy plus the weapons to fare a bit better, but 20 points against the Ravens despite a ton of chances plus a season of relatively meager point totals under a one-dimensional offense indicates he can be contained. Peyton won't turn the ball over and don't be surprised if once again he doesn't take a sack or puts up 250-300 yards somehow, but he's not going to torch the Jets. He's going to have to work very hard for every completion.

Jets Special Teams:

Kicker: C (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: B
Punting: C+
Punt returns: C+

******



Colts Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.43 (B+)
Drive Success Rate: .748 (A+)
Turnovers per: .140 (C)

Offense Line Run Blocking: D+
Left End: F
LT: C
Interior: B-
RT: C
Right End: C
Pass Protection: A+

Colts Backfield:

QB: Peyton Manning: A+
RB: Joseph Addai: B- (Receiving: B)
RB: Mike Hart: D
RB: Donald Brown: D (Receiving: A)

Like last week, don't expect Joseph Addai to be a huge factor versus the Jets' 3-4 front.

Colts Receivers:

WR: Reggie Wayne: B
WR: Austin Collie: B
WR: Pierre Garcon: C
WR: Hank Baskett: F
TE: Dallas Clark: A
TE: Tom Santi: B
TE: Jacob Tamme: F

The Jets are probably the only team that can keep a body on every single one of Peyton Manning's weapons, and as Philip Rivers had to do, Peyton's going to need to squeeze passes into wormholes to move the ball as the game progresses.

Colts defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)
Points per Drive: 1.64 (C)
Drive Success Rate: .688 (C-)
Turnovers per Drive: .144 (C)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: C
vs left end sweeps: C
Right DE: D-
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: D
vs right end sweeps: F

Pass Defense: C
Defensive line vs rush: D-
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: C
vs #2 WR: D+
vs Other WR: C
vs TE: C
vs RB: C-

Once again, the Jets offense isn't facing a great defense, despite Freeney and Mathis' persistent threat on the ends. The Jets can wear this front down, and can certainly run on a 4-3 with an average pass rush (as good as the ends are at rushing the passer, the tackles and blitzers are fairly poor).

Colts Special Teams:

Kicker: C (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: C
Punting: C+
Punt returns: D+

******

So who has the edge?

I can't deny Peyton Manning's talent and adaptability, and I don't doubt he can string together a couple touchdown drives despite the talent on the Jets defense. The Colts are still the favorites... but not by much. The Jets can shorten the game with the run against an average defense, minimizing Peyton Manning's chances to pull the Colts away even if the Jets can't capitalize in the early going. Mark Sanchez doesn't have the ability to win this game by himself, but as always he won't need to. Rex Ryan's good old fashioned defense-and-rushing approach is going to keep this close, and only a Hall of Fame performance by Manning is going to put this game away before the final moments.

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2010 NFC Championship Preview: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
Favorite: Saints (61.0%)


Minnesota cranked a shockingly rattled Cowboys team in Minnesota last week, indicative of their season: Easy wins against teams that are either bad or good teams that are for whatever reason out of their element and don't show up. But they're going into the hostile Superdome in New Orleans this week against a Saints team that does everything they like to do, and arguably better than they do.

The Saints did lose their last three regular season games but don't be fooled: A la the Colts, they essentially folded their tent in Week 15 once they reached 13-0 and were assured of the #1 seed, and gave the backups more playing time. As they showed in last week's 45-14 romp over Arizona, they are just fine, and just too tough to stop on offense when they're trying.

As always, all stats are courtesy of Football Outsiders. All their advanced stats give you a closer look at the marginal utility of all teams and players over (or under) their counterparts.



Vikings Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.44 (A-)
Drive Success Rate: .724 (B)
Turnovers per: .092 (A)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: C-
LT: B
Interior: C
RT: D
Right End: C-
Pass Protection: C

Vikings backfield:

QB: Brett Favre: A+
QB: Tavaris Jackson: A
RB: Adrian Peterson: C (Receiving: B)
RB: Chester Taylor: F (Receiving: B)

If it seems Adrian Peterson's slid a bit this season, well... he has, and his line hasn't been all that strong either. Go figure the team's best success has been running near the left tackle, right in the vicinity of all pro LG Steve Hutchinson.

But while they've ground out some yards here, a big run there, the tailbacks haven't been very efficient. Brett Favre leaned on the ground game early in the season, but go figure his passing numbers took off as the season wore on. They had to, because he had to do more with the passing game as the season progressed. Good thing he had....

Vikings receivers:

WR: Sidney Rice: A+ (Rushing: A)
WR: Percy Harvin: B
WR: Bernard Berrian: C
WR: Greg Lewis: C+
TE: Visanthe Shaincoe: A
TE: Jimmy Kleinsasser: I thought you did this for a living

Again, Percy Harvin is good enough to be split to one of the ends instead of the 3rd wideout in a 3-wideout set, though maybe the reason he makes so many plays is because teams blanket Rice, cover Berrian, put a good linebacker on Shaincoe and Harvin's often left against safeties and nickel backs.
However, the bad news is that Harvin is questionable for the title game after spending the week with migraines. He's improved and expects to play but there's no telling what he can give the Vikes on Sunday after little practice. The Saints are also fairly effective in containing opposing tight ends, so don't expect Visanthe Shaincoe and his strained quad to get open too often.

The good news is that, despite Rice facing better cover corners this week, Bernard Berrian may see more open space on the other side. The vanquished Cowboys were more consistent in covering a team's top two receivers than the Saints were. While the Saints do a fine job of containing opponents' #1 receivers, they don't do as good a job against the #2 or slot receivers. Sidney Rice did have a great game against good cover corners, but Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter will definitely key on him and give him a harder time. Rice can still ring up 4-6 catches, and he is indoors on a rug despite being on the road so he'll have every bit the speed he has at home. Don't count him out: Just don't expect a repeat of last week's dominance.

However, unlike the mediocre Cowboys pass defense, the Saints can contain some of the Vikings' pass weapons, which puts a greater onus on Brett Favre and his running game to make plays on their own.

Vikings defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)
Points per drive: 1.52 (B-)
Drive success rate: .636 (A-)
Turnovers per drive: .118 (D+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: A
vs left end sweeps: D+
Right DE: B-
Interior run defense: B
Left DE: B-
vs right end sweeps: A

Pass Defense: D
Defensive line vs rush: B
Pass rush: B+
vs #1 WR: D
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D
vs RB: C-

There's a big problem looming, and it's not the crappy pass defense: Three of the Vikings' starting defensive linemen, Kevin and Pat Williams plus Ray Edwards, are all questionable with various injuries. Yes, players play hurt in the NFL all the time, but if you're questionable, your injury's bad enough to hamper strength and movement. Even if any or all of the above play, the usually great defensive line is going to get pushed around.

This not only will compromise the pass rush (and likely bottle up Jared Allen if he's the only healthy threat the Saints have to worry about), but the strong run defense as well. The linebacking for the Vikes hasn't been the same either since EJ Henderson's leg snapped like a twig a month ago. If the Saints decide to change it up and go with Pierre Thomas between the tackles, we may be surprised at how easily the Saints can stick their blocks and give Thomas enough space to get to the 2nd level of the front seven.

On top of that, the Vikings aren't particularly good at containing a team's #1 receiver, opting instead to balance their coverage and force that top receiver to make plays, and TBH the Vikes do give up an uncanny number of big plays in the secondary. They don't cover secondary receivers well, and the Saints love to use three wideout sets just like the Vikes do. Don't be surprised if some Saints receiver you don't hear much about, like Robert Meachem or Lance Moore, has a massive game. Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey have a great chance at big numbers as well. Drew Brees shredded the Cards while last week's game was competitive, and chances are likely he'll shred the Vikings too.

Vikings Special Teams:

Kicking: B (Kickoffs: D)
Kick returns: A+
Punting: C
Punt returns: C+

Percy Harvin is typically the key to the return game, but his injury compromises that return game, unless infrequently used Darius Reynaud (4 decent but mostly unspectacular returns all season) finds a crease or two on returns. The Vikes did not return a single kick in their 34-3 romp over Dallas last week.

******



Saints offense:

Points Per Drive: 2.56 (A)
Drive Success Rate: .742 (A-)
Turnovers per: .148 (C)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A
Left End: C-
LT: C
Interior: A
RT: B+
Right End: A-
Pass Protection: B+

Saints Backfield:

QB: Drew Brees: A+ (Rushing: A+)
RB: Pierre Thomas: A (Receiving: A-)
RB: Mike Bell: C
RB: Reggie Bush: A (Receiving: C)

Saints Receivers:

WR: Marques Colston: A
WR: Robert Meachem: A+ (Rushing: A+)
WR: Devery Henderson: B
WR: Lance Moore: A
TE: Jeremy Shockey: A
TE: David Thomas: B-

Sure, the Cards didn't have the defense to pose much of a challenge last week, but the Saints have a ton of offensive weapons. Drew Brees is one of the top 3-4 QBs in the game today. Pierre Thomas is a workhorse relatively fresh since he doesn't have to carry a load... because fellow backfielder Reggie Bush is a freakish playmaker, and Brees has a full arsenal in the passing game: A rotation of Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem (who is also hell on reverses and end arounds) and Lance Moore, as well as top-shelf receiving tight end Jeremy Shockey. No wonder nobody in the NFL has been able to contain this offense. The crappy Vikings secondary sure won't.

Saints Defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: D+)
Points per drive: 1.71 (C)
Drive success rate: .670 (C)
Turnovers per drive: .187 (A-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: D-
vs left end sweeps: D-
Right DE: F
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C
vs right end sweeps: A+

Pass Defense: C+
Defensive line vs rush: C-
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: A
vs #2 WR: C-
vs Other WR: C
vs TE: B
vs RB: C

One bad sign for the Vikes is that, with the exception of Pittsburgh, all the other teams that beat the Vikes this season sported a 4-3 defensive front. And the Steelers' linebackers are fairly big and tough, i.e. in some ways resemble D-linemen in size and strength. 4-3 defenses tend to generate a greater pass rush and give the O-line a tougher time in run blocking, though the weakness comes in pass defense (if the pass rush doesn't get to the QB) and when the rushers get past the trench as there are fewer linebackers to cover the 2nd level. Even if the line doesn't ring up sacks, consistently putting pressure on the QB is usually enough to disrupt the passing game.

Brett Favre's line in his losses:

4 games, 106 for 162 (65.4%, 40.5 attempts per), 1154 yards (228.5 per), 4 TD, 4 INT, 14 sacks (3.5 per)

In 12 wins: 257 for 369 (69.6%, 31 attempts per), 3048 yards (254 per), 29 TD, 3 INT, 24 sacks (2.0 per)

Obviously, QB turnovers and losses tend to go hand in hand. Sacks too, to some extent, and QBs tend to throw more in losses, as when the team falls behind they abandon the running game and throw the football. Note that Brett Favre only threw more than 31 attempts in one of Minnesota's wins: 48 times in Minnesota's 36-10 victory over Chicago on November 29, and Favre largely took over in that game because the Bears have a poor secondary and were playing a soft zone that contained their running game. It made sense to throw every down in that situation. However, with the book out on Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Favre's other weapons, opponents finally keyed on Favre's receivers and it's unlikely the Vikings get a window like that again.

As the Cards found out the hard way, the Saints are a good ballhawking team and can generate turnovers. Favre has gotten much better at avoiding turnovers, but on a bad day he's still good for a couple picks. Add in Adrian Peterson's penchant for the big fumble, and this could get away if the Saints get three turnovers and capitalize on at least a couple of them. The Vikings don't generate as many turnovers and generally have to rely on avoiding those mistakes, while hoping the other team does something stupid, to win the turnover battle.

Saints Special Teams:

Kicking: D- (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: B
Punting: D
Punt returns: D

Rarely does the Saints' fate come down to their below average kicking game. However, the kick return game could chew up a few big returns against a below average kick coverage unit.

******

So who has the edge?

Neither team has much of a pass defense, and with the Vikings' pass rushers hurting, 800+ yards total passing is not out of the question. For the Vikes, it will come down to whether they can avoid turnovers and keep pace on offense. The Saints are going to hold serve on offense. Getting Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor going and being able to kill the clock and keep that Saints offense off the field will certainly help the Vikings. However, the Vikings can't afford to make more than one big mistake, or Drew Brees and Co will make sure this game gets away from the Vikes fairly quickly. Despite their best efforts, the Vikes are in trouble given the Saints defense's nose for the football and, more specifically, taking it away from you.

That said, the Vikings shouldn't fold vs the Saints the way the Cards did last week should they fall behind. They've got enough talent, and the Saints have enough defensive holes, to make a thing or three happen and stay in this game if things go wrong for them. One common denominator in the Vikings' losses, aside from all coming on the road, is that they came against teams with tough defensive fronts. The Saints, for whatever rep their defense may or may not have, aren't particularly tough up front despite a 4-3 front and can be pushed back. That lack of magic formula is good news for the Vikes, even if they are on the road in arguably the most hostile indoor stadium in the NFL.

My friends have money on the Vikes to make the Super Bowl, so that's who I'm rooting for. However, history and the numbers indicate that Minnesota's facing an uphill battle under sea level in the Superdome.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Whose Mascot Would Win In A Fight? Day 3 of a 7 day predictive experiment

Mascot fight results for Wednesday, January 20, 2010:

NBA:

Oklahoma City - WIN
Sacramento - LOSS
Washington - LOSS
Portland - WIN
Orlando - WIN
Charlotte - WIN
Detroit - WIN
Toronto - LOSS
New Orleans - WIN
Phoenix - WIN
Utah - WIN
Golden State - LOSS

Record: 8-4
Overall NBA: 9-5

NCAA:

Michigan State - WIN
Georgia State - WIN
UAB - WIN
Towson - LOSS
La Salle - WIN
Old Dominion - WIN
Duquesne - LOSS
Drexel - WIN
Lafayette - WIN
North Carolina - LOSS
Holy Cross - WIN

Record: 8-3
Overall NCAA: 14-11

Overall: 24-23

******

Now, WHOSE MASCOT WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT for Thursday, January 21, 2010. We're scaling back the NCAA picks again. Life is short. I'm sticking to interesting battles from the first few NCAA games I notice.

NBA Picks:

Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets. You know why the Clippers lose so many games? No mascot. No contest. The yellow rock wins. Pick: Denver

Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers. Cavaliers have weapons. Dudes transplanted from a state with a bunch of lakes probably do not. Pick: Cleveland

NCAA Picks:

VMI Keydets vs Radford Highlanders: They're cadets... except with KEYS, with makes they KEYdets. Meanwhile, Highlanders are immortal warriors with swords. Um... how has Radford not won 12 national titles yet? They must think they have forever, since they're immortal and all, so why rush? Pick: Radford

Chattanooga Mocs vs UNC Greensboro Spartans. 'Mocs' is shorthand for the team's original nick, the Moccasins. That's right, shoes. Comfort shoes vs ancient warriors that spear people to death for fun and profit. Pick: UNC Greensboro

Loyola Greyhounds vs Siena Saints. A saint would never hurt anyone, and to be honest, neither would most greyhounds. The greyhounds, probably hungry from a life of racing after a fake rabbit around a track so degenerates can place bets on which dog will run after the fake rabbit faster, think that since the saints are not bullying them into running after a fake rabbit around a track, must be much nicer and probably has food. So they'll politely whine to the Saints for food, and while the Saints certainly would never hurt these dogs, they do indenture them to a life of holy servitude in which the dogs spend the rest of their lives reasonably fed but enslaved in the name of the lord. Who do you think wins here? Pick: Siena

Samford Bulldogs vs Elon Phoenix. The bulldogs happen upon some ashes, which turn into a fiery bird that rises from the ashes and burns those dogs to a crisp. Ashes to ashes, life to life, and one rebirth is a dozen doggie deaths. Somebody call PETA. Pick: Elon

Arkansas Little Rock Trojans vs Florida Atlantic Owls. If we're talking about the ancient Trojans, those owls are dead meat because they're getting speared. If we're talking about Trojan Latex Condoms, those owls will simply use the lot of them as nesting material, ironically enough, and procreate into infinity. Since it's not 1200 BC, I can only conclude we are talking about the present. Pick: Florida Atlantic.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Whose Mascot Would Win In A Fight? Day 2 of a 7 day predictive experiment

Mascot Fight Results for Tuesday, January 19, 2010:

NBA Picks:
Toronto - LOSS
Miami - WIN

Record: 1-1

NHL Picks:
Tampa Bay - LOSS
Columbus - LOSS
Detroit - LOSS
Atlanta - WIN
Chicago - LOSS
New York - LOSS
Buffalo - LOSS
Los Angeles - LOSS

Record: 1-7
Moral lesson: Hockey has too many ambiguous mascots in order to properly predict victory and therefore the NHL will be abandoned in this experiment.

NCAA Basketball:
Ohio State - WIN
Georgia Tech - WIN
Albany - LOSS
Chicago State - LOSS
George Mason - WIN
Alabama - LOSS
Vermont - WIN
Maryland - WIN
Oklahoma - LOSS
Indiana State - LOSS
Illinois - LOSS
Miami-Fla - LOSS
Northern Iowa - LOSS
San Diego State - WIN

Record: 6-8

Total record: 8-16

******

NOW, for Wednesday's edition, I'll make one slight adjustment. Due to the volume of NCAA Basketball games (as many as 75-100 in a given day), I'll be selective and pick ten interesting ones, i.e. ones that don't involve so many abstractions that a fight is impossible, because WE WANT HYPOTHETICAL BLOOD.

NBA:

Oklahoma City Thunder at Minnesota Timberwolves. Now, Thunder is just noise. However, even the most battle hardened Timberwolf is eventually going to flip the freak out over an excess of non-stop noise, eventually lose his/her mind, piss itself and/or eventually die from the neurosis. Pick: Thunder

Sacramento Kings at Atlanta Hawks. Kings have a wealth of resources at their disposal, including guns. Which they can use to shoot down birds. Pick: Sacramento

Dallas Mavericks at Washington Wizards. Wizards cast magic spells that overcome the laws of physics, and I don't care how much ammo a Maverick has in his gun. Pick: Washington

Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers. Traveling trail blazers happen upon a group of rich assholes who call themselves 76ers based upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 in Philadelphia. Hungry, pissed off and in no mood for this bullshit, the trail blazers proceed to kick the ever loving crap out of these blue blooded wanna be losers. Pick: Portland

Indiana Pacers at Orlando Magic. More inanimate concepts for the Pacers to face, as they wonder if they're ever going to face something, let alone somebody, that they can actually fight so that they can actually win something. Just be glad you're not in the NHL, race starters. Pick: Orlando

Miami Heat at Charlotte Bobcats. When heat collects in Charlotte, it can get rather muggy, but muggy's nothing to a Bobcat. No contest. Pick: Charlotte

Boston Celtics at Detroit Pistons. An angry Irishman walks into a bar in Detroit and is greeted by a pumping car piston, which he then smashes to smithereens before getting shot 35 times by the locals because you're in Detroit now you leprechaun bitch. Pick: Detroit

Toronto Raptors at Milwaukee Bucks. 10 out of 10 velociraptors agree: Deer tastes delicious. Pick: Toronto

Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Hornets. Large quantities of wasps will sting anything to death. Pick: New Orleans

New Jersey Nets at Phoenix Suns. Ever try to catch a giant star with a net? Ever wonder why nobody else has? Pick: Phoenix

Utah Jazz at San Antonio Spurs. "This next song is called 'lonely spur'" [Saxophone] Not much of a fight, is it? Pick: Utah

Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors. A solitary nugget and a warrior. It might take a few strikes to break it. Pick: Golden State

NCAA Basketball:

Iowa Hawkeyes at Michigan State Spartans. Spartans have spears. Hawks have eyes, and plenty of protein. Pick: Michigan State

UNC Wilmington Seahawks at Georgia State Panthers. We've had the bird vs wild cat argument before. Pick: Georgia State

Southern Miss Golden Eagles vs UAB Blazers. The Blazer mascot is in fact a dragon. A dragon. I don't care how golden those eagles are. Those gooses are cooked. Pick: UAB

Northeastern Huskies at Towson Tigers. Huskies are brave and strong dogs, but any old tiger will chew them up. Pick: Towson

La Salle Explorers at Penn Quakers. Quakers are mostly peaceful people, while there is a non-zero chance those explorers might have had to kill and eat one of their own. Pick: La Salle

Old Dominion Monarchs at Delaware Fightin' Blue Hens. I don't care how blue they are and how much fightin' they do. Monarchs are rich, armed, and eat birds for dinner. Pick: Old Dominion

Duquesne Dukes at Rhode Island Rams. Now, Rams pose a little more challenge to a Duke as game, but Dukes are also rich, also armed, and Rams also end up dead. Pick: Duquesne

James Madison Dukes at Drexel Dragons. Dragons don't. Pick: Drexel

Bucknell Bison at Lafayette Leopards. Bison are huge and tough to take down, but a team of hungry, angry leopards can eventually rip them up. FEAST. Pick: Lafayette

Wake Forest Demon Deacons at North Carolina Tar Heels. Here we have two popular but very mysterious mascots. Once known as the Fighting Baptists, Wake Forest was dubbed in the paper after a 1923 win over Duke as Deacons that "fought like Demons." Back in the day, you could change a team's shitty nickname by writing a clever passage in your newspaper that inspired a better one, and thus the nick Demon Deacons stuck. Meanwhile, the Tar Heel is simply a reference to locals of North Carolina, The Tar Heel State. Yeah, great nick for a state, you inbred geniuses. Meanwhile, we are saved by the presence of an actual mascot: Rameses the Ram. I don't care how demonic those Baptist Deacons are. They're gonna get rammed. By Tar Heels. It's gonna be sticky. Pick: North Carolina

Navy Midshipmen at Holy Cross Crusaders. Now, I'm not going to get into the whole Army vs Navy vs Marines pissing contest. But Midshipmen off their boat are no match for angry Christians with swords hell bent on killing and raping everything in their path in the name of God. Pick: Holy Cross

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whose Mascot Would Win In A Fight? A predictive experiment.

My mother leaned on this method in her pro football weekly picks contest (with a surprising degree of success) and, inspired by a post somewhere that mentioned this method, I decided as an homage to her to predict winners of games in the NBA, NFL, NHL and college basketball based on this expert analytical method:

WHOSE MASCOT WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT?

NBA:

Toronto Raptors at Cleveland Cavaliers. A Cavalier would last maybe three seconds against a carnivorous Raptor. Pick: Toronto

Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat. This one is a little more difficult. How much Heat are we talking about here? Are we talking about a warm room? A fire? A volcano? A slightly warmed down comforter? A Pacer's chance of survival is a matter of what he's up against: He burns to death in a fire, but a warm pancake isn't going to phase the man who determines how fast whatever it is he is pacing is going to go.

We must turn to the team's original logo for the answer. The logo features a flaming basketball. However, that by itself does not answer the question: A stationary flaming basketball or one moving slowly enough to be dodged or eventually doused isn't going to vanquish a Pacer, whereas one moving at meteoric speed right at the Pacer will eliminate him easily.

Eventually, we have to side with the inanimate production of energy, simply because its uncertain form makes too unpredictable an enemy for the otherwise one-dimensional Pacer: Pick: Miami

NHL:

Tampa Bay Lightning at New York Rangers. Lightning can never be defeated, but can kill in an instant with an accurate blow to the crown of a Ranger, especially if that Mark Messier looking loser is wearing his metal helmet. Pick: Tampa Bay

Columbus Blue Jackets at Philadelphia Flyers. A Civil War era soldier may have better weaponry, but the Flyer can... well, fly. The trump card comes in the fact that the Blue Jacket has a musket, and I don't care how well you can fly. You take some buckshot in the gut and you're gone. Pick: Columbus

Detroit Red Wings at Washington Capitals. Originally named for the Winged Wheelers that owner James E Norris was a part of in Montreal, the Red Wings may not be a city like the Capitals, but they sure as hell can run everyone over and eventually get out of their cars and take control. Pick: Detroit

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Atlanta Thrashers. Know why Toronto's the worst team in the NHL? Because a damn leaf off a maple tree can't beat anything in a fight. Duh. Pick: Atlanta

Chicago Blackhawks at Ottawa Senators. Aboriginal warriors in a fight with blue blood politicians. Right. Pick: Chicago

New York Islanders at Pittsburgh Penguins. It's dinner time on the Island! Who wants poultry? Pick: New York

Buffalo Sabres at Anaheim Ducks. No really, who wants poultry? Pick: Buffalo

San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings. If this fight were in the Shark Tank, the King would be dead meat. Because the Shark is on land and in the Kings' house, game over. Pick: Los Angeles

NCAA Basketball:

Northwestern Wildcats at Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeye tree is mahogany, 15-25 feet tall, and impervious to the claws and teeth of a Wildcat, but if falling could kill that stupid cat in a heartbeat. Pick: Ohio State

Clemson Tigers at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. A tiger can maybe sway a wasp or two, but a hundred of the little buggers should be able to sting the big cat to death. Pick: Georgia Tech

Albany Great Danes at Boston University Terriers. A great dane fighting with a terrier. Right. Pick: Albany

Chicago State Cougars at Eastern Kentucky Colonels. Whether you're talking about the violent feline cougars or the fortysomething MILF cougars, an elderly colonel is no match for either one. Pick: Chicago State

George Mason Patriots at Hofstra Pride. Pride is a mental concept and a sin, so in essense the George Mason Patriots are at war with themselves, their own egos, their own hubris. And if Jim Larranaga has anything to say about it (and history shows he definitely does), his Patriots shall overcome. Pick: George Mason

Tennessee Volunteers at Alabama Crimson Tide. While a group of unknowing Volunteers stand around wondering what exactly constitutes a crimson tide, a herd of elephants answers their questions in a violent stampede. Pick: Alabama

Hartford Hawks at Vermont Catamounts. A catamount is a form of cougar. That Hawk can fly around and peck/claw away all day, but that lion's going to get his jaws on him eventually. Pick: Vermont

Longwood Lancers at Maryland Terrapins. A terrapin is a turtle. Yes, a turtle. A lancer can poke at that sucker all day but he'll just... well... turtle, and none of the blows will have any effect. The lancer will eventually stab at the ground in anger, snap his lance in half and end up impaling himself. Dumb lancer: No wonder your team's 3-14. Pick: Maryland

Oklahoma Sooners at Texas A&M Aggies. 19th century settlers of Oklahoma vs folks generally predispositioned to agriculture. The settlers are a bit more battle hardened from a long journey as well as a perceived need to kill Native Americans and take their land. The Aggies may have pitchforks, but the Sooners know how to use them. Boomer Sooner... and GIT OFF MAH LAND. Pick: Oklahoma

Indiana State Sycamores vs Missouri State Bears. Bears run into the same problems as the wildcats above when it comes to trees, but the Platanus Occidentalis are even bigger, growing up to 100-130 feet in size. Yeah, good luck with that, Grizz. Pick: Indiana State

Purdue Boilermakers at Illinois Fighting Illini. Let's see, fighting (and likely armed) Native Americans vs trained craftsmen who make steel fabrications. Uh huh. Pick: Illinois

Boston College Eagles at Miami-Fla Hurricanes. Gale force winds in a storm hundreds of miles wide. A bird. Pick: Miami-Fla

Northern Iowa Panthers at Wichita State Shockers. I'm SHOCKED. SHOCKED, I tell you. When Panthers get shocked, I hear they just get angrier and tear you up more quickly. But honestly, the nickname Shocker is short for Wheatshocker, a euphemism for students who harvested fields for pocket money. Yeah, they stand a chance against Panthers. Pick: Northern Iowa

San Diego State Aztecs vs Utah Utes. Now here's a tough question. Which Native tribe would win in a fight? The Aztecs invade as far north as they've ever gone, into colder, more mountainous Northern Ute territory. Ute history shows that their only military successes came when they allied (ill-advisedly) with the U.S. in wars against the Navajo and Apache during the 1860's. Their biggest solo effort? The Meeker Massacre. And the eventual loss of most of their land. A look at the history books, however, show that those Aztecs knew how to kick some ass. Pick: San Diego State

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Coaches can change. Is Pete Carroll a better coach today?


After being introduced as the Seahawks' new head coach, Pete Carroll owned the shortcomings of his first stints as an NFL head coach during the 90's. Peter King has the money quote:


"I didn't know who the heck I was as a football coach. What transformed for me, before getting to USC -- between New England and SC -- was really, I had an epiphany of what was most important to me as a football coach. In that process of putting those thoughts together, it kind of just solidified a mentality and an approach that now has been put in practice for 10 years.

"I feel like I'm bringing a very, very clear message to our football team when we get in our meeting room. When we start this thing off, they're going to know where I'm coming from, because I know where I'm coming from ... The whole challenge here is to get the whole organization on the same page, everybody understands where we're coming from, what we're all about, where we're going, what we're doing. I didn't know that then. I didn't know it. And I'm almost embarrassed to tell you that I [was] coaching an NFL club and I didn't have my act together."


Coaches changing their approach later in their careers and becoming better coaches than before is hardly unprecedented. The most famous NFL example is Dick Vermeil, a workaholic, high-strung taskmaster during his successful Philadelphia Eagles stint (1976-1982) and during the first two years of his comeback with the St Louis Rams before he mellowed out in his 3rd season (to the point of crying at times in front of the media and his team), and, admittedly with the help of great skill-position players at receiver and tailback along with the surprise discovery of an Arena League quarterback who it turned out could play at the NFL level, he found his greatest glory with the Greatest Show on Turf and won a Super Bowl in 2000. He retired after that season, but came back to coach the Kansas City Chiefs and managed a strong 44-36 record between 2001-2005 with the same revised approach.

Now, the misgivings are going to remain until Pete Carroll strings together 11-12 win seasons, until his teams sport competitive running games, until his defense shows up in the NFL's top 10-15 every season and only if the Seahawks team we see in 2010 and beyond show up every Sunday and play competitive games that either end in victory or, when defeated, remain in doubt until the final moments.

But people can change, and if not for that none of us in life would ever get a chance to learn new careers, develop relationships with new people or ever try anything new. While his track record arouses suspicion over his ability to succeed as an NFL coach, that Pete Carroll owned his past NFL coaching failures and asserts that his decade as USC's coach has helped him grow into a better leader and a better coach is encouraging enough for me to say wait and see, even in retaining legitimate doubt.

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If you're going to blame anyone for the Chargers' loss, blame Norv Turner


Philip Rivers took a good deal of criticism for the Chargers 17-14 loss to the Jets, never minding that he was facing the #1 pass defense in the NFL and arguably the best cover corner in the game in Darrelle Revis, as well as working with a terrible running game led by a washed up 31 year old LaDainian Tomlinson, whose performance in light of a so-so season was enough to begin the drumbeat to get rid of him.

Thankfully, some critics have noted that yesterday's loss was not Rivers' fault. And anyone watching with an indiscriminate eye would have noticed that Rivers and the Chargers were able to move the football with the medium-range pass against that vaunted Jets pass defense. It was sudden drive stalls that kept stopping the Chargers most of the time, not a consistent inability to move the football.

Peter King's claim that Rivers' 298 yard passing line was misleading isn't an accurate claim. Let's look at the Chargers' drives and Rivers' contribution to those drives.

1st quarter:

14:56... 6 plays, -2 yards, punt at 11:50... Rivers: 1-2 for 6 yards
9:59... 6 plays, 36 yards, Kaeding shank at 6:28... Rivers: 4-4 for 37 yards
5:29... 9 plays, 49 yards (but 20 yards penalties), punt at 0:46... Rivers: 3-5 for 47 yards

2nd quarter:

14:13... 4 plays, 69 yards, Rivers TD pass to K.Wilson at 12:17... Rivers: 3-3 for 51 yards
10:40... 4 plays, 9 yards, punt at 8:58... Rivers: 1-2 for 8 yards
2:18... 4 plays, 5 yards, punt at 1:44... Rivers: One incomplete pass on 1st down
0:36... 5 plays, 41 yards, Kaeding desperation 57 yard FG falls short... Rivers: 1-2 for 10 yards

3rd quarter:

10:40... 4 plays, 2 yards, punt at 9:41... Rivers: 0-2
6:38... 4 plays, 2 yards, Revis INT at 4:23... Rivers: 3-4 for 12 yards and INT with one completion wiped out by SD penalty
0:51... 2 plays, 1 yard, Leonhard INT at 0:02... Rivers: 0-1 on Leonhard INT

4th quarter:

13:24... 7 plays, 4 yards, punt at 9:27... Rivers: 3-3 for 18 yards, two sacks and a fumble
7:14... 7 plays, 30 yards, Kaeding shank at 4:38... Rivers: 4-6 for 30 yards
3:36... 7 plays, 63 yards, Rivers TD dive at 2:14... Rivers: 4-5 for 79 yards with his biggest completion wiped out by penalty

Rivers' 298 yards didn't come during garbage time. Save for a few sputtered drives, Rivers was completing short and medium range passes against the toughest pass defense in the NFL throughout the game, and his weakest drives came mostly in the 2nd half, well after it became clear that the Chargers running game was not a threat.

It's tough to accurately microanalyze a game due to the contextual variables in football, and how a series of playcalls, outcomes and adjustments sets up the next series of playcalls, outcomes and adjustments. It's easy to say Rivers himself is to blame... if the playcalling was his responsibility and he assuredly gets the job done every week against defenses like the New York Jets with minimal input from the running game.

But Philip Rivers doesn't call the plays, and it turns out Rivers himself did a pretty good job considering his opposition and the circumstances. Rivers appeared to turtle in the second half, but it's very likely that Rivers was just fine and simply ran into a toughened defense: Rex Ryan hammered home the point to his defense that LT and the Chargers' running game wasn't something to worry about. To wit, Norv Turner called a lot of safe inside and off-tackle runs on 2nd and long with LT and Darren Sproles, except LT can no longer make the moves and power runs to overcome when the defense knows he's coming, and Sproles' size makes him an easy tackle when he's running close to the front seven.

It didn't help that Norv's playcalling isn't at all deceptive and a bit conservative: Lots of 1st down and 2nd down runs, with the occasional cross-your-fingers surrender runs on 3rd and 5. A diverse mix of run and pass plays on 1st and 2nd down may have allowed the Chargers to keep the Jets defense honest, in the way that allowed them to move the football during the 1st half. Instead, Turner played it safe when the Chargers held their tenuous 7-0 and 7-3 leads, and tried to control the clock with very beatable running plays that didn't put the tailbacks in space, the one situation where they can still produce. Thus your end result is a bunch of 1 and 2 yard gains and a bunch of 3rd and longs or 3rd and mediums where the #1 pass defense can camp the linebackers at the first down marker, put their All Pro corners on each of San Diego's receivers and dare a tiring Philip Rivers to make perfect throws.

Once the Jets saw that the Chargers running game not only wasn't a threat to move the football, but that the run would come in predictable situations and often close enough to the front seven to make covering the rusher easy, they were able to clamp down on the Chargers receivers and took away what deception and openings Philip Rivers had in the 1st half. Add in the Jets' eventual migration to a heavy running game in the 2nd half (their strength in this game), and the game was in the bag once they took the lead.

Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, howver, should have been able to hit at least one of those two 30-40 yarders, though ultimately this loss isn't really his fault either. If the Chargers had spread the defense more with their running game, LT, Sproles and the Chargers runners could have given them a meaningful contribution, and allowed the receivers room to get open so that Rivers could continue making plays against a defense that conventionally wasn't going to give him any room to throw once they adjusted.

Norv Turner may coach an effective 1st level passing game, but when it comes to game decisions, he sides too often with conservative, safe calls. It's no wonder that his teams frequently fall short: Football is a momentum game, and when you play not to lose instead of playing to win, the other team hits you in the mouth as soon as you lean on your heels.

One of my most vivid memories was an NFL Films clip of Norv's time with the Raiders, during the one year that Randy Moss played for them. The Raiders marched down the field in a tight game needing a TD and got 1st and goal. Norv pulled his star receiver and ran a power-run package on all four plays, getting stuffed all four times he ran. The money shot on the sideline came when Randy Moss exploded in anger after the 4th and goal stuff, screaming, "YOU DON'T TAKE YOUR PLAYMAKERS OFF THE FIELD."

That end to that drive said it all about how Norv Turner coaches, how he falls short as a head coach, and I would be shocked if this man ever coached a Super Bowl as a head coach in his lifetime.

The Chargers have themselves a good passing offense, and even though the defense needs to be retooled and they need to improve their running game, they've got the tools to be an excellent team that can compete for Super Bowls on the basis of their passing game alone, akin to the run and shoot Houston Oilers. However, the team needs a better coach than Norv Turner. To his credit, the 3-wide passing game is in part his creation, but his playcalling in key situations hamstrings its explosiveness. Many coaches can devise a strong passing game: Few can maximize its potential.

Until this sudden 13-3 season (aided in the win column by duo games with the swooning Oakland Raiders, a terrible Kansas City Chiefs team and matchups with duds like the Browns, Redskins, a scuffling Cowbosy team before they recovered and an Eagles team at their lowest form of their good season... good for the 27th toughest schedule out of 32 teams according to the Sagarin Ratings)... Norv had won 10 or more games in a regular season only twice, posting five losing seasons in a 12 year career and three seasons of 8-9 win ball. Last year's Chargers team finished 8-8 with essentially the same personnel and a more average-strength schedule.

It's normally unheard of to fire a head coach after a great season... except this Chargers team did the exact same thing to Marty Schottenheimer after a 14-2 season in 2006. Schottenheimer's team took a 14-3 humbling from the New England Patriots in the 2006 Divisional Playoff and Marty was dismissed immediately afterward. So far be it from the Chargers to can a coach for his shortcomings despite posting one of the NFL's best records. There's no reason they can't offer the same dismissal to a weak-kneed coach who can't fool a defense, adjust his gameplan or make brave calls in big playoff games. A better coach could have gotten this team to the AFC Championship and possibly beyond, even with a below average defense, a non-existent running game and a nervous kicker shanking two relatively tough field goals he normally can hit.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

A long list of thoughts on Jeff Sullivan's ten ideas to fix baseball in the next decade

Jeff Sullivan wrote about ten ideas he had to improve baseball in the next decade. It's a well written article with plenty of ideas: Read and enjoy. There are parts I agree with and parts I don't agree with.

Ideas of his I like:

- Phase in replay and robots. I say this knowing a lot of people, friends acquaintances and the like, who make the argument that the umpire's human element is a valuable part of the game. I personally can take or leave the human element concept, and to a greater extent I'm tired of the biases of an umpire swinging the outcome of games. There is a reason Curt Schilling busted up a Questec machine in frustration during its trial period a decade ago: A machine can't be swayed by Schilling's Star Veteran Status into calling strikes on pitches out of the zone that a typical pitcher would not receive.

And on the flip side, with automated strike zones a young pitcher isn't going to get screwed in a pressure situation against a popular team's star hitter by having all his borderline pitches automatically called balls by an umpire favoring the star team and player. Having an automated system call the balls and strikes would ensure every pitcher a fair, equitable opportunity to get batters out that they currently don't have.

Umpires still can be used on bang-bang base and slide calls, as well as be on hand to back up in case the strike-zone system fails. So they won't lose their jobs: You'll still need four umpires: The home plate ump still needs to act as crew chief and make miscellaneous on-field decisions as well as base calls at home plate and out calls on nearby balls in play. It's just that the ball and strike counts will be handle mechanically, perhaps with an automated system relaying the call or the umpire relaying it from a headset or something.

One added advantage: Ball-strike bickering will virtually disappear, since who will argue with an in-discriminative machine? The only situation where I can see a need to argue balls and strikes is if either side thinks the machine is off-center and needs to be recalibrated or something.

- Quicken pitcher pace on the mound. I'd even go as far as to take a page from other sports and institute a pitch clock. Limit mound visits to 60 seconds from the moment a manager/coach calls time, or 30 seconds from when the coach/manager reaches the mound, or even 15 seconds from when the catcher reaches the pitcher. For the pitch clock itself, I'd say 20 or 30 seconds, and after a pickoff attempt, make it 15 or 20. Throwing the ball to the plate is not rocket science nor a rocket launch. Pitchers are only taking time because they're nervous, tired or stalling.

- Resolve the payroll problem. It's clear that several MLB teams will never have a realistic chance of making the postseason or even posting a winning season while some teams can always buy their way into contention every year as long as they aren't stupid with their money. A salary cap would create parity but the MLBPA would flip out (though to be honest they would flip at any attempt to regulate payroll spending) and as we see with the NFL it could overdo parity and make every offseason a near-total reshuffle of the balances of power. Revenue sharing has not worked as many lesser teams simply pocket the extra money without spending it to improve their teams as intended.

I would suggest a strict limit on draft pick bonuses and maybe even a player salary maximum. Before you question the ethics of a salary maximum, keep in mind most businesses and governments have a set salary structure for every listed position, with minimum and maximum salaries that are subject to cost of living increases as well as negotiated raises in union positions.

- Condense the playoff schedule. Sullivan makes a great argument about the excessive number of off days turning the playoffs into a different situation where teams can lean on top pitchers more than in the regular season, which conversely emphasizes depth over a long haul. Cramming the series into consecutive days forces teams to go deep into their rotations and bullpens as they would in the regular season, ensuring that the teams we see in October resemble the teams we saw from April to September.

- Take measures to reduce take-out slides and home plate collisions. I totally agree. Maybe ejections are a bit harsh, but you can just award a team with outs or runs as applicable. 1) If a player slides spikes-high in a double play situation, both the slider and the batter are automatically out, an auto double play. 2) If a catcher's foot impedes an oncoming baserunner's path to more than half of home plate, the runner is automatically safe and a run will score. Any baserunner in transit to a base at this time will automatically be safe at that forthcoming base and play will end.

Institute those rules and the problem will solve itself.

- Penalize the HBP. Efforts at this time to crack down on beanball wars allow too much room for them to carry on as usual despite the warnings and ejections. Sullivan's proposed penalties are also a bit harsh here, and added to it is the fact that beanball wars usually happen in garbage time of a rout when the outcome's in hand or when the bases are empty, so adding an extra base penalty doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot. The best approach is to go with Sullivan's ejection/suspension proposal: If you as a pitcher headhunt or otherwise go after a guy, you're gone and suspended, no exceptions. The automatic suspension itself is a deterrent: You can make it stiff too, like 10 games, and not allow the offending team to replace the player on the 25 man except with special permission from the Commissioner's office (in unusual cases such as injuries to other players, but these can be rare to prevent loop-holing). Let umpires use their discretion as to whether a HBP was intentional or not: This goes back to the HP Umpire still having a use even if the ball/strike calls are automated.

I'm ambivalent about these:

- Limit or penalize mid-inning pitching changes. I too find most mid-inning pitching changes superfluous and annoying, but I also think managers who over-manage are penalized properly for their over-management in the status quo through overworked relievers wearing down during the season, and a lack of available relievers in later situations when they could be more useful. The inherent lack of modularity such a manager has is also a proper penalty, as he often loads the bullpen with one-dimensional specialists who are limited against other batters and thus have limited application... over more typical relievers who can work a full inning because they can face more batters in more situations.

There may also be situations where a mid-inning pitcher change is practical, not just when a guy is hurt but when a new pitcher clearly isn't able to pitch, as in a guy who walks back to back to back batters. At that point bringing in a new guy isn't about over-managing but about making sure the game doesn't get away due to a wild reliever.

- Even out the AL and NL. I also find the unbalanced league structure dumb (and can see why Bud Selig ill-advisedly tried to contract two teams a decade or so ago). But one obvious problem with going 15 and 15 is that you have to either a) play one inter-league series at all times or b) give one team in each league anywhere from 2 to 6 days off.

See, other leagues get around uneven league arrangements because they don't play series against each other. They play a team once, then immediately move on. Having one team idle at all times works because that team shouldn't be idle for more than a day or two. But in baseball, that's not possible because every team plays a 2 to 5 game series with an opponent (typically 3 or 4) at one time. If a team is idle, they're idle for several days. That opens up a can of worms with regard to competitive balance and rest periods.

If you're cool with eliminating the novelty of inter-league play and having one inter-league series at all times, then sure, move an NL team over (come on over, Rockies!) and make it 15 and 15. Otherwise, your best bet is to ignore the recession and somehow find two new viable markets for MLB teams in the AL, then split the divisions in four 4 team divisions. And good luck with that, because nobody with a remotely viable market has a suitable stadium or the money/financing to build one.

Forget about contraction: The MLBPA will choke a bitch if you even suggest eliminating 50 MLB player jobs (and hundreds of MiLB jobs), and there isn't an owner in MLB right now that would be cool with cashing out his organization: That ship sailed when the Expos were moved out of Montreal.


Ideas I'm not as fond of:

- Penalize intentional walks: I hate intentional walks as much as Sullivan does, and when I'm managing simulated teams I never intentionally walk a batter. But like a specialized bullpen for a micro-manager, the intentional walk comes with its own penalty: You just put an extra guy on base, and history along with pretty much any run expectancy matrix will show you that when you walk a guy, you just increased your opponent's chances of scoring.

That above all else is why I hate the IBB, and why I don't think anything needs to be done. If an old-school manager wants to shoot his team in the foot by intentionally passing a batter, then let him be stupid. Smart managers will pitch around a dangerous hitter and/or use defensive positioning to minimize the risk of damage, giving them an optimal chance of the slugger putting the ball in play and still getting him out, and the team out of a jam. To be fair, teams don't turn to the IBB all that often, even managers who like it more than others, and the leading targets of the free pass see maybe a dozen or so of them in a year.

- Resolve the PED problem. No, I'm in favor of addressing the PED situation and fixing the code for enforcing it. It's just that the definition of PED's problems as well as what the solution would be are each issues many of us see differently.

Whether or not they should be allowed has to keep in mind that Federal law bans most of these substances: Non-prescription steroids, Human Growth Hormone and several stimulants. Allowing their usage in light of their being illegal to possess or distribute in the United States sends a horrible message at best (an active defiance of Federal law by a major organization with a relationship with the U.S. Government) and is a P.R. black eye with a few other cans of worms unloaded on everyone's faces most likely. It would take a major fundamental upheaval of Federal law if you were to allow monitored roid and HGH usage, which FTR I actually would support if not for the existing laws.

As it stands, one of the great ethical issues is neither of the ones that everyone cites: The alleged performance advantage and the health risks. They're issues, yes, but manageable through regulation.

No, the real ethical issue with PED use is that, to use PEDs, you not only have to put your physical long-term health at risk but you also have to risk getting in trouble with the police and the DEA, which can lead to fines and prison time. It would be unethical to allow PEDs in light of the reality that acquiring them comes with a risk of jail time: Imagine telling someone that in order to keep a very lucrative and rewarding job, they have to rape and kill someone every week, and whether or not they can get away with it is their problem.

Extreme example, yes, but it gets to the root of what you're asking players to do if you blindly okay the use of PEDs. It's one thing to ask that a player put his health at risk... another entirely to send the message that he needs to risk going to prison or incurring serious sanctions otherwise in order to remain competitive.

Sullivan's argument that illegal things like fights are allowed in other sports doesn't really wash because the lines blur on the definition of basic assault (especially with consensual violence like tackles or in-game fights), and that not every case of assault is an arrestable offense. If I slap you in the face in a public place, for example, that may technically be assault and warrant legal action but if you walk away and don't file charges, or a cop shows up and realizes it's no big deal and walks away since both parties are cool with what happened, then it's not exactly a felony, is it?

However, possession of a banned narcotic is a fairly black and white, open and shut case. How many times does a cop find syringes and narcotics and walk away without issuing a ticket or arresting anyone? Save the argument about pot, Seattle and the I-75 decriminalization law: They can still cite you if they find it on you or pursue you for some other possible violation. They just can't seek you out solely for pot possession.

I'm not going to act like I know the answer to the PED problem right now. The problem's not solved: Hundreds of undetectable PED varieties exist (the chemical production of such PEDs predates BALCO by several years and continues today as BALCO takes the pariahic bullet on behalf of all such labs), HGH is undetectable in a drug test, and while steroids in particular may be nearly gone, cheaters are always a few steps ahead of the game, and it's very likely many players utilize some sort of otherwise illegal or dangerous PEDs today.

So it's still an issue. But MLB would take a great leap forward to give up the ghost and admit that many players used steroids during the "Steroid Era", that no they don't have much of an idea how many used or who, and that while they're making efforts to combat the problem now they accept that there will always be users among them all, all they can do is be vigilant and that anyone who uses does so at their own risk and will receive no mercy if discovered to be using something banned or illegal.

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Commonly suggested markets for MLB relocation/expansion teams and why they aren't capable of supporting a new team

Portland: PGE Park is so small even soccer's MLS (which doesn't draw the crowds of other major outdoor sports, maybe 15K-20K a game) demanded that Portland build a new, larger venue before the Timbers get promoted. The nearly century old park is built into the ground and has literally no room for expansion. And that discounts the debate over whether there's a market for an expansion team in a relative modest economic region that the Mariners have siphoned regional support from for three decades. You've got to put 25,000 asses in seats every game to succeed: I'm not sure Portland can drum up that kind of interest in what would definitely be a last place team for its first few seasons.

Las Vegas: In case you haven't noticed, the recession and housing crisis has chop-blocked Vegas' economy. On top of that, enthusiasm for AAA baseball and a host of other pro sports ventures has always been weak (Vegas' civic pride is minimal as a city of transplants with allegiances to teams of cities they left behind), and Cashman Field is poorly suited for expansion, as well as barely being a capable AAA venue. And give the summer temps hit 115-120 degrees, a new venue would have to have a roof, making any new proposed stadium a very expensive gamble. And that never minds the sports gambling issues, which may or may not be a real concern. Vegas is a place people go to gamble and be debaucherous... not a place where you can get 25,000 people a night to show up and cheer on a crappy expansion team.

"Virginia": Rarely mentioned whenever "Virginia" is mentioned as a potential market is exactly where in Virginia. Many suggest the Northern area near Washington DC, but eminent domain codes and two MLB teams with stubborn ownership (Orioles, Nationals) make that impossible.

Richmond just lost a AAA team due to a low-grade stadium (The Diamond is seriously just a granite block of stands built next to a baseball field) and barely managed to find a AA team to replace it. Norfolk's baseball venue for the minor-league Tides is AA-quality at best and the Virginia Beach market has never been that hot for sports. There's nowhere to go in Virginia, and nowhere near enough interest to sustain a franchise.

Charlotte and/or Raleigh: North Carolina is actually a hotbed for baseball... college and minor league baseball. The relatively expensive and disconnected MLB brand of baseball isn't assured of playing well here, as pro sports hasn't translated as well to the Carolina economy.

Forays into Charlotte by the NFL and NHL have struggled, and Charlotte lost their first NBA team to New Orleans due to rapidly lost interest (before getting a new team that's had middling results). After a host of newly built sports venues for the aforementioned pro teams, the civic resources are probably too tapped to finance a new baseball stadium, especially after having just paid to build one: The Charlotte Knights just financed a new AAA-quality arena that's nowhere near MLB ready: Their previous facility was actually located far down the road in South Carolina. Not quite up to snuff for an MLB team.

Montreal: The only period where Montreal gave viable attendance support to the Expos was during the early 80's, probably their most successful stretch as an MLB team. After that era sunk, the Expos sunk to the NL's bottom third in attendance and never left, not even during their fool's-gold contention run during the strike-shortened 1994 season. Montreal did get a good pocket of support for the Expos but it was not nearly enough of a fanbase to sustain a team, even before their losing and attendance took a turn for the worst during the late 90's. There's not enough of a baseball market in Montreal.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

2010 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview, Part 4: New York Jets at San Diego Chargers

New York Jets at San Diego Chargers
Favorite: Chargers (50.6%)


Team Efficiency (Using Football Outsiders' Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)):

Jets: 10.6% (15th)... Offense DVOA: -10.4% (23rd)... Defense: -19.7% (1st)... Special: 3.4% (6th)
Chargers: 13.4% (11th)... Offense DVOA: 21.8% (5th)... Defense: 8.8% (23rd)... Special: 0.4% (16th)

So you think the Cowboys-Vikings game is too close to call? This game in San Diego is about as close to call as we'll see this weekend, as an aggressive Jets team and their #1 defense, fresh off a comfortable wildcard win over the Bengals, gets a talented offense from San Diego.

The Jets' not so talented offense, meanwhile, gets a break against a not-too-efficient San Diego defense. The Jets have better special teams, but the Chargers are at home and the Jets have to fly cross country for this game. This is basically a coin flip.



Jets Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 1.56 (C-)
Drive Success Rate: .629 (C-)
Turnovers per: .165 (D+)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C+
Left End: D-
LT: C+
Interior: C
RT: A
Right End: D
Pass Protection: D+

The good news for the Jets is that San Diego's front seven blows: Their front seven is near the bottom of the league in adjusted line yards vs the run, and they're 22nd in adjusted sacks. The Jets didn't get much of a challenge from the Bengals' front seven, and they won't get much of a challenge here unless Shawne Merriman can get the front seven a shipment of Latin America's finest performance enhancers before kickoff.

Jets backfield:

QB: Mark Sanchez: F (Rushing: B-)
RB: Thomas Jones: C
RB: Shonn Greene: C

No, Mark Sanchez didn't get any better. Jets coach Rex Ryan protected him in the wildcard game with a run-centric gameplan that minimized the need for Sanchez to perform (41 of their 56 plays from scrimmage vs the Bengals were running plays, and they ran up 353 yards in 33+ minutes of possession). This week's gameplan will likely do the same. As the Chargers are a banged-up 3-4 team, the Jets can likely get by with the same gameplan.

Jets receivers:

WR: Jerricho Cotchery: C+
WR: Braylon Edwards: C
WR: David Clowney: F
WR: Brad Smith: F (Rushing: A)
TE: Dustin Keller: D

Again, the good news is that the Jets probably aren't going to need too much from this mediocre group of receivers. Just block for the tailbacks, catch some third down passes and get first downs, and maybe get a good wildcat run or three from Brad Smith.

Jets defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: A (Momentum Weighted*: A+)
Points per drive: 1.04 (A+)
Drive Success Rate: .591 (A+)
Turnovers per drive: .148 (C)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B
vs left end sweeps: B
Right DE: C
Interior run defense: A
Left DE: B+
vs right end sweeps: D+

The Chargers don't do their damage with the running game, so that the Jets do a decent job of stopping it isn't a huge concern. A change-of-pace approach to running the ball could open up holes against this defense, especially to the strong side or off left tackle. But in all likelihood the Jets can contain LT and Darren Sproles.

Pass Defense: A+
Defensive line vs rush: A
Pass rush: C
vs #1 WR: A+
vs #2 WR: A
vs Other WR: A+
vs TE: A
vs RB: A

And the good news is that the Jets' strength is their ability to just shut down every aspect of the passing game. We're going to find out how good Philip Rivers really is, because he'll have to make throws and string together drives against an airtight Jets pass defense.

Jets Special Teams:

Kicker: C (Kickoffs: C)
Kick returns: B
Punting: C+
Punt returns: C+

Pedestrian group, though big kick returns from a varied cast of kick returners would help immensely with gaining whatever edge the Jets can through field position.


(Image c/o Sports by Brooks and who knows where it originated)

Chargers Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.60 (A+)
Drive Success Rate: .742 (B+)
Turnovers per: .099 (B+)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: D
LT: C+
Interior: D+
RT: A
Right End: C
Pass Protection: B

No offense scored more points per drive than the Chargers, while their drives ended in success more than all but three NFL teams.

It wasn't because of the run, however. The run blocking was average and, because of the scatback-size of their tailbacks, only worked when the backs ran in open space. It wasn't the line's fault, however: They're actually a solid group and helped keep a lot of pressure off Philip Rivers.

Chargers backfield:

QB: Philip Rivers: A+ (Rushing: D)
QB: Billy Volek: A-
RB: LaDanian Tomlinson: D (Receiving: Just don't)
RB: Mike Tolbert: A (Receiving: A)
RB: Darren Sproles: D (Receiving: A)
RB: Michael Bennett: F
RB: Jacob Hester: F (Receiving: Disgusting)

A host of backs couldn't manage more than garbage-time and low-leverage production on the ground. Mike Tolbert is the only one who showed an ability to grind out high leverage yards as a rusher when needed.

When it came to key yards, the group came up short on the ground, but Tolbert and Sproles did make plays on passes out of the backfield. And while Rivers is fairly durable, it's good to know that if the Chargers have to turn to backup QB Billy Volek, he can still get the job done.

Chargers receivers:

WR: Vincent Jackson: A+
WR: Malcolm Floyd: A
WR: Legedu Naanee: A
TE: Antonio Gates: A+

Well, good thing the Jets are so good at covering receivers, because the Chargers have the most talented receiving corps in the NFL. Any of these three receivers could be #1's on any team, and Antonio Gates is of course probably the best receiving tight end in the NFL. When the proverbial immovable force (Jets pass defense) meets the immovable object (Chargers pass offense), who's going to give?


(Photo c/o The Sporting Blog)

Chargers defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: D+ (Momentum Weighted*: C-)
Points Per Drive: 1.89 (C)
Drive Success Rate: .705 (D-)
Turnovers per drive: .148 (C+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: C
vs left end sweeps: C-
Right DE: D
Interior run defense: D-
Left DE: B
vs right end sweeps: D-

Pass Defense: D
Defensive line vs rush: F
Pass rush: C-
vs #1 WR: C
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: B-
vs RB: F

If Thomas Jones was a good pass catcher, the Jets could abuse the pass-coverage-inept Chargers linebackers all day, but alas, he isn't really.

But he can easily abuse this run defense, which is quite vulnerable up the middle and to outside sweeps and... well, in general. Not sure why this front seven has such a hard time with the run, but they do. The secondary makes up for it with better convergence and gets the unit overall to at least average.

The pass defense is rather weak, which would hurt more if Rex Ryan was going to take the bubble wrap off Mark Sanchez's passing game, which he won't unless the Jets fall way behind and have to pass their way back into it, which honestly isn't likely if the Jets defense holds serve. But if he does, and Sanchez can avoid his specialty (i.e. the retarded turnover), the Jets can hope that Jerricho Crotchery can outplay the coverage. Or at least dump the ball to Thomas Jones and pray.

Chargers special teams:

Kicking: B (Kickoffs: D)
Kick returns: C
Punting: C
Punt returns: C

Nate Kaeding is a productive, reliable field goal kicker but otherwise, this is not a spectacular unit. It may come down to Kaeding's leg, though, so don't sell this advantage short.

******

So who has the edge? Does anyone?

There are X Factors all over the field in this game. The top-shelf Chargers passing game vs the top-shelf Jets pass defense. The underachieving Chargers running game against the more beatable Jets run defense. The low-grade Jets offense and their suspect rookie QB against a bad Chargers defense. The Chargers being at home but the Jets being in relatively favorable warm-weather conditions and having more personnel edges than the Chargers. The Jets' likely run-heavy game plan running right into the strongest aspect of the Chargers' weak defense. And if the Jets do have to throw, their INT-prone QB will throw into a bad Chargers pass defense and hope their decent ability to net turnovers doesn't come into play.

This is one game where I have no idea whatsoever who is going to win.

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2010 NFL Divisional Playoff Preview, Part 3: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Favorite: Vikings (53.0%)


Indeed, like the Ravens-Colts game, this is a much closer contest than the records indicate. The Vikings feasted on the easiest schedule in the NFL, but still had the looks of a legitimately good NFL team. Only thing is, the Cowboys are also legitimately good, going 6-2 against the NFL's top half and battling a somewhat tougher NFC East schedule en route to an 11-5 season and a surprisingly easy wildcard win over Philly.

The Cowboys have momentum but, unlike the Arizona Cardinals, they've got the weapons and performance to back it up. The Vikes struggled a bit in December: They need to make sure it's all put back together by Sunday, and even then the Cowboys have a good chance at the upset.

Team Efficiency (Using Football Outsiders' Weighted Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA)):

Cowboys: 31.2% (3rd)... Offense DVOA: 24.2% (3rd)... Defense: -0.7% (10th)... Special: 1.0% (14th)
Vikings: 17.7% (7th)... Offense DVOA: 15.2% (9th)... Defense: 1.7% (15th)... Special: 4.2% (3rd)

Both teams lean on productive and well rounded offenses to overcome average defenses. However, the Vikes have an added bonus with one of the NFL's best special teams units.



Cowboys Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.05 (B)
Drive Success Rate: .716 (B)
Turnovers per: .052 (A-)

Offense Line Run Blocking: A-
Left End: A-
LT: B+
Interior: C
RT: C
Right End: B
Pass Protection: C

The Vikings' strong pass rush and their ability to get to the scrambling Tony Romo is key to their chances. The Cowboys do their most rushing damage with sweeps around the edges, but fortunately the Cowboys still dabble too much in running up the gut, with which they've only had average success. The Vikings need to contain the edges at all times, run or pass, to contain the Cowboys.

Cowboys Backfield:

QB: Tony Romo: A (Rushing: A+)
RB: Marion Barber III: B- (Receiving: D+)
RB: Felix Jones: B (Receiving: D)
RB: Tashard Choice: A (Receiving: A)

Tony Romo better have his running shoes on, because the Vikings' defensive line are 4th overall in adjusted sacks. Whether its the Williams brothers or Jared Allen breaking the line, Romo is going to get pressured from the pocket a bunch, and he's definitely going to need to run for cover. Can he hit his receivers on the run, or can he run off a few scrambles without getting killed?

The Cowboys can ease a lot of this concern by getting the run going, but that's easier said than done vs the #1 run defense by DVOA in the NFL. But then again, the Cowboys did pile up 198 yards against the 12th best run defense in the league, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that they could run the ball on the Vikings.

Cowboys Receivers:

WR: Miles Austin: A
WR: Patrick Crayton: B
WR: Roy Williams: D+
WR: Sam Hurd: B-
TE: Jason Witten: A-
TE: Martellus Bennett: F

Good news for Romomania: Minnesota's greatest weakness is containing receivers, ranking in the NFL's bottom half against #1 wideouts, secondary wideouts, tight ends and backfield receivers, only showing decent cover ability vs the #2 wideout. Sucks for one of Roy Williams or Patrick Crayton, maybe. Miles Austin, Roy and Crayton are all capable of big games, especially Austin: He caught 7 balls vs a tough set of Eagles corners, and the Vikings are virtual practice squadders in comparison. 100+ receiving yards should be within easy reach, especially in the climate controlled Metrodome with Romo likely having to throw 35-40 passes.

Cowboys defense (Base 3-4):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: B-)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: B-
vs left end sweeps: B+
Right DE: C+
Interior run defense: C
Left DE: C-
vs right end sweeps: C-

The Vikings do what the Cowboys ought to, running a quarter of their rushing plays outside the tackles with their great tailbacks. Sweeps to the Cowboys' right should be containable, but the Vikes get a lot of yards off left tackle, and outside of the right edge the Cowboys are average and very beatable. Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor have had a tough season but they could break out against this unit.

Pass Defense: C-
Defensive line vs rush: C
Pass rush: B
vs #1 WR: B
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D-
vs RB: D

The Cowboys can lock up your starting wideouts, as Philadelphia (which leans on their star wideouts heavily to move the ball) found out the hard way last week. Beyond that, they can be exploited. Bernard Berrian and Sidney Rice may not be likely to post big games, but watch out for Percy Harvin (and why is he part-timing off the bench while the more pedestrian Berrian is starting? As if we need more proof that Brad Childress is a bullet in the Vikings' foot).

Also, infrequently referenced weapons like TEs Visanthe Shiancoe and Jimmy Kleinsasser could make 5-7 catches and get big yards on a weak-ish middle pass defense. Adrian Peterson is not known for his receiving but this Sunday would be a good time to get more familiar with that aspect of his game.

Cowboys Special Teams:

Kicker: D- (Kickoffs: A-)
Kick returns: D+
Punting: C
Punt returns: A-

Watch out for Patrick Crayton. Also, watch out for Shaun Suisham if the game's on the line. Pray it doesn't get that far, Wade Phillips.


Image c/o "My Fantasyland"

Vikings Offense (with grade):

Points Per Drive: 2.44 (A-)
Drive Success Rate: .724 (B)
Turnovers per: .092 (A)

Offense Line Run Blocking: C
Left End: C-
LT: B
Interior: C
RT: D
Right End: C-
Pass Protection: C

Adrian Peterson's had better seasons (18 regular season TDs aside) but he's not getting a ton of help from his line. Brett Favre's also working behind average pass protection: Good thing he scrambles well and can get rid of the ball quickly. Also, good thing the Cowboys' front seven is average at best vs the run and fairly beatable by secondary receivers.

Also, one thing not to expect from either offense is turnovers. Both teams are in the top 3 in the NFL of fewest turnovers per drive. The oft-cited turnover problems on each team, Dallas' Tony Romo and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, have cut down on their turnovers this season.

Vikings backfield:

QB: Brett Favre: A+
QB: Tavaris Jackson: A
RB: Adrian Peterson: C (Receiving: B)
RB: Chester Taylor: F (Receiving: B)

As much as he is loathed and/or revered, Brett Favre is still to this day one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

1300+ yards and 18 TDs by Peterson are enough to make you question FO's DVOA rating system for tailbacks, but by their numbers the Vikings' backs have not been as marginally productive as other backs. That said, the backs are good receivers, which plays right into the Cowboys' weaknesses on defense. Even if the Cowboys can contain the run (not an assured outcome), the backs could net big gains as valve targets if Favre is pressured, or even on set short-range plays as primary receivers.

Vikings receivers:

WR: Sidney Rice: A+ (Rushing: A)
WR: Percy Harvin: B
WR: Bernard Berrian: C
WR: Greg Lewis: C+
TE: Visanthe Shaincoe: A
TE: Jimmy Kleinsasser: I thought you did this for a living

The numbers tell us the Cowboys can only cover two of these guys. They'll definitely lock on Rice. Do they lock on nominal #2 Bernard Berrian, or do they buy the hype and put a body on Harvin, even if he's run out of the slot? They'd be smart to do the latter and force Favre to beat them with Berrian, overtargeting Shiancoe and trying to find the tailbacks in space again and again.

Vikings defense (Base 4-3):

Overall: C (Momentum Weighted*: C+)

* - Weighed to emphasize late season performances over early season performances

Run Defense: A
vs left end sweeps: D+
Right DE: B-
Interior run defense: B
Left DE: B-
vs right end sweeps: A

How does a team get an A on overall run defense while their front line averages about a B? Well, because the linebacking and secondary is also part of the run defense, and they do a fine job of closing in and helping contain opposing rushers, especially to the strong side. The line's consistentcy with interior runs also helps, of course. The Cowboys' ability to run is going to come down to the one thing the running game does well: Sweeping to the outside and finding open space at the line of scrimmage. Lead blocks aren't going to help much against this quick front seven.

Pass Defense: D
Defensive line vs rush: B
Pass rush: B+
vs #1 WR: D
vs #2 WR: B
vs Other WR: D
vs TE: D
vs RB: C-

Though the Vikings have an excellent run defense and pass rush, they are exploitable in the secondary, and if Tony Romo doesn't get crushed by that front four or suffer a relapse of the turnover bug, he's going to throw for 300+ yards and this could be, like the Packers-Cards game, a shootout that comes down to who scores last.

Vikings Special Teams:

Kicking: B (Kickoffs: D)
Kick returns: A+
Punting: C
Punt returns: C+

Aiding that likelihood is Percy Harvin's danger as a kick returner. Even if Romomania leads a scoring drive, Harvin could take the opening kickoff deep downfield, at worst shortening the distance Favre and Co need to travel to respond with a score, but also possible that he breaks a run for a touchdown.

Punter Chris Kluwe does not provide bang for his league leading $5 million annual contract, as his punting has actually been around league average. Whoops! Meanwhile, Ryan Longwell has missed only two field goals all year, one from 30-39 and one from 40-49, while nailing two 50+ yarders. He's not the liability the Cowboys have at kicker.

******

So who has the edge?

I have a friend who put money on the Minnesota Vikings to get to the Super Bowl. I'd like to put his mind at ease by saying the Vikes are likely to win, but I'd be lying: Be very afraid, not because the Vikes are underdogs, because after all is said and done they are still favorites, but only slight favorites. The Vikes have enough weaknesses that play into the Cowboys strengths to make this a nailbiter. Thankfully, the Cowboys also have weaknesses that the Vikings can exploit as well.

If someone put a gun to my head and told me to pick a winner, I'd pick the Vikings, then spend the game writing my last will and testament just in case.

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