Sunday, January 22, 2006

Fool me twice; shame on me

Ok. Seems like the consensus among NFL pundits is that Pittsburgh and Carolina will win tomorrow. The conensus reasoning is...well...there really isn't any. It's just that Carolina's and Pittsburgh's wins were more impressive because they came on the road against supposedly better teams. Denver's win seemed equally impressive as those wins. It's only Seattle that underperformed, but perhaps some of that can be blamed on Shaun Alexander leaving the game due to injury.

Fact is, I have no freakin clue who should win any of these games. Technically, both Seattle and Denver have very distinct homefield advantages--Seattle with the noise and Denver with the altitude. Alexander's injury aside, Seattle is still much healthier than Carolina as well. At this point, the offense is going to go entirely through Steve Smith...I'm not sure how honest Nick Goings can keep Seattle. Can Delhomme to Smith really outscore Seattle? I'm not so sure. Carolina has a great secondary, but their front 7 will be missing Julius Peppers. I think Alexander will establish himself and let Hasselbeck go play action. I'm going with Seattle, 24-17.

Pittsburgh is the ultimate "momentum" team right now. After they lost at home to Cincy and I wrote them off, they've turned into the White Sox of football, winning a bunch of games in a row. I'd dissed their offensive line, but they protected so well against Indy's stellar D-line I don't have many doubts. At this point, I'm not even doubting Ben Roethlisberger. I imagine P-burgh will try to score quickly again and deflate the crowd, which worked so well in Indy. Okay, that's a pretty ridiculous statement. Of course scoring is good. But I can't help thinking back the game they did lose to Cincy, and seeing how Roethlisberger unraveled when having to throw 40 times. R-berger needs to pass 20 or so times in the first half, and then 10 times in the second. Regardless, I think the Steelers will be able to put up a couple TDs and a couple FGs--maybe more if their defense gets turnovers. And I have a feeling they will. Jake Plummer is gonna try to be a hero, and I think it may cost him. A pick in the 4th quarter will seal the deal. Pittsburgh wins 20-17.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Obliviousness/obligatory Knicks post

So I was in attendance at last night's Bulls/Knicks game, which is now front page news because during overtime, Knicks forward (and former Bull) Antonio Davis entered the stands after his wife got into a confrontation with a couple of fans. I was sitting in the very last row of the upper deck behind the basket, and I had no idea any of this happpened. The game had gotten chippy thanks to a Chris Duhon/Maurice Taylor shove-off, but due to my nosebleed seats (I couldn't even hear the PA announcer clearly) and my immersion in what was an engrossing game, I had no idea that Davis had entered the stands and been ejected. I don't think too many other people noticed either, or else I surely would have heard other people talking about it.

That aside, it was a hell of a basketball game, with Ben Gordon breaking my heart again on a buzzer-beating 22-footer in overtime. Gordon missed a similar shot at the end of regulation, and although Jamal Crawford defended him equally well this time around, Gordon rose to the occasion. It was an up and down night for both teams, particularly in the second half. The first half was rather lackluster, with only New York's Quentin Richardson and Gordon standing out. Both shooters found their stroke, and Q was the only Knick in double figures at halftime. The teams traded punches in the 3rd quarter, with neither team making a big run until Chicago pulled ahead by 9 with about 8 minutes to go in the 4th quarter. The Bulls ran some nice plays offensively, and the Knicks destroyed themselves with sloppy, telegraphed passes. Over the course of the night, at least 3 crosscourt passes were intercepted by alert Bulls defenders and taken the other way for easy fast break points. In all, the Knicks turned the ball over 23 times, which led to 27 Bulls points.

New York's collective lapse in concentration cost them the game, because with about 4 minutes to go in the 4th, the Bulls started missing open looks, and the Knicks started scrapping to get every loose ball and defensive rebound, which enabled them to come back and send the game into overtime. It's definitely a positive sign that the Knicks were able to muster up the energy after being so lackluster minutes before, but when it came down to it, they just couldn't quite make enough shots to win the game. Channing Frye particularly struggled, and he seemed a completely different player from the one whom I saw go for 11-13 and score 30 points on January 6 at MSG. Since then, Frye is only 28-66.

I'm concerned that the reason for Frye's dip in form is that he has not been in the starting lineup. Larry Brown favors Antonio Davis and David Lee over Frye at this point, possibly because starting center Eddy Curry can't rebound and both Davis and Lee can. But with Stephon Marbury out for the next week (by the way, if he had been playing, the Knicks probably would have won) and Davis likely to be suspsended, Brown would do well to put Frye back in the starting lineup and play him 30 minutes a game. Frye started out shooting poorly and consequently passed up open looks. With Marbury out, the Knicks need another consistent scorer in the lineup, because Curry's range is about 5 feet from the basket (if that), and Crawford, Richardson, and Nate Robinson are all streaky.

Just to remain somewhat unbiased in coverage, I'll say that the Bulls have one of the best guard-tandems in the league with Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon. Both players are multi-faceted offensively with the ability to shoot from the perimeter and to drive, and from what I could see, they both defend well--last night they combined for 5 steals. They're not Chauncey Billups/Richard Hamilton yet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar output in a couple of years. The Bulls are weak on the front line, and they would've done well to try to combine Eddy Curry's offensive post presence with Tyson Chandler's defensive/rebounding abilities. Darius Songaila had a nice game off the bench, but he's a perimeter forward. Simply put, they don't have an interior scorer, and that only works in the NBA if you have Michael Jordan or insane perimeter guards like the Pistons currently do. In a conference that's stronger than people realize, the Bulls will either miss the playoffs or crash out in the first round. As for the Knicks, I'll be happy if they finish in front of the Raptors. No sense in tanking to move up in the draft either, as they don't have a first rounder for about the next million years...sigh.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

25% right 100% of the time

My gut sucks. I suppose I'll keep this up next week just for the comedy factor! I don't feel quite as bad because most of the "experts" were wrong as well. In a way it upsets me because they get six figures to be as wrong as I was. But no matter. The Indy/Pitt game was particularly exciting in the 2nd half. Indy definitely deserved to lose the game. Their ineptitude in the first half was shocking. Chicago's defensive collapse was also a huge surprise. The best unit in the league should not make that many coverage errors. Yes, a couple of those long passes were on slips, but there was hardly ever any safety help on Steve Smith. The two best units in the NFL this season fell completely flat after a bye week. Hard to understand how that happens.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

NFL Divisional picks, this time with more wrong!

I'm not going to embarrass myself this time around. No sir. Keep it brief, no statistical reasoning whatsoever. Just go with the gut. That's right, go with the gut!

Washington at Seattle
Washington looked terrible last week, and they were lucky they weren't playing against a team with a better offense. This is why the home team wins divisional games 80% of the time or whatever. I'll take the chalk here, especially when it's the loudest crowd in the NFL. Washington might score 17 again, but Seattle will double that total with their well-balanced attack.
Seattle wins 34-17

New England at Denver
Here's the one where everyone's picking the Pats, because you "can't pick against them until they lose". That reasoning is absurd, but I am sadly going to have to go along with it. New England's secondary has improved a great deal, and I don't think Mike Anderson is the answer. Neither, for that matter, is Jake Plummer. This could be the best-played game of the bunch, and it could come down to the last quarter. You know what that means. Time for Adam "Living Statue" Vinatieri to shine.
New England wins 27-24

Carolina at Chicago
What's changed from 2 months ago? Grossman in for Orton for the Bears and Foster in for Davis for the Panthers. I'd call that an even trade. Foster is an overrated running back anyway because he usually busts one long run a game to up his yardage totals. Usually, he's only good for 3 per carry. Against the Bears, a team that can actually tackle, it'll be even worse. Last game, the Bears let Steve Smith get 140 yards and still held Carolina to 3 points. I think it will be more of the same this time. I expect the Bears D to provide the Bears offense with at least 10 points on a platter, with Grossman being responsible for another 10. Sounds about right.
Chicago wins 20-10

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis
The Colts are still the best team in football. Sorry. And the Steelers still let Jon Kitna put up 17 points on them. You can pretty much double that with Peyton Manning at the helm. This is one of those matchups where the Colts are superior at nearly every position, and they're at home. I'm not in the mood to go against something like that. So yes, next weekend will be the most anticipated NFL game of the past 10 years or so.
Indianapolis wins 34-13

Monday, January 09, 2006

New advice:

Don't pay attention to any predictions I make about football. 16 games do not a large enough sample size make!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

NFL Wild Card Preview/stabs in the dark

I'll be the first guy to admit that my football knowledge is gleaned mostly from Madden NFL versions 97 through 06. I tried to change that a bit this year, and became a regular vistor to Football Outsiders, a football site dedicated to statistical analysis. The site is dedicated to overturning conventional "wisdom", such as RUNNING THE FOOTBALL and STOPPING THE RUN that pundits spout 24/7. F.O. also tries to disprove the idea that yardage is the best measure of sucess and the best predictor of future success. The site recognizes that some yards are more important than others, and devised a system that measures which plays are successes and which plays aren't. For example, a 2 yard run on 1st and 10 is unsuccessful in their system, but a 2 yard run on 4th and 1 is successful. Makes sense, no? The site translates all of these successful and unsuccessful plays into a percentage above or below average, and then adjusts for opponent difficulty, resulting in a stat called Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, or DVOA. A teams overall DVOA is then split into Offense, Defense, and Special Teams values, with special teams encompassing placekicking, kickoff returns, punt returns, kickoff coverage, and punt coverage. There are additional statistics for evaluating individual players, but even they admit such a task is Herculean in football, a sport that requires the coordination of all 11 players on the field for a play to be successful. Consequently, I will mostly be using team DVOA to assist in my predictions.

I've found DVOA to be very helpful in making predictions in individual games this season, helpful enough that I finished in the 91% of all Yahoo users, who number in the hundreds of thousands. My number would have been higher had I not forgotten to make my picks in Week 7. Disregarding Week 7, I successfully picked the winners in 159 out of 242 games. Not bad, not bad. Anyway, this entire preface is really more of a disclaimer. Though I don't know much about football, I'm learning, and I have Football Outsiders to thank. With that, on to the games.

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati
This is the rubber match in a divisional rivalry that saw the away team win each game. Both teams looked so impressive in their respective away wins, that everyone (including myself) bought into the winner of the game as the team to beat in the division. It just so happened that Cincy's win came later in the season, so everyone turned out to be right. While the Bengals may have finally won the division, Pittsburgh finished on a much stronger note, with dominating victories over Cleveland and Detroit. Cincinnati, meanwhile, looked terrible in a game it tried to win, a home loss agaist Buffalo, and then mailed it in at Kansas City in the season finale by resting most of its starters. After witnessing last year's Eagles, I became convinced that momentum going into the playoffs really doesn't matter very much, and that will especially be the case here between teams that know each other so well. It's better to throw out the mitigating circumstances (save for Cincy's homefield advantage) and look at how the teams match up on paper.

This just in: the Steelers have a great defense. In terms of DVOA, they ranked 2nd in the league against the run and 8th against the pass. Another newsflash: the Bengals have a great offense. They ranked 6th in passing DVOA and 6th in rushing DVOA, but if you throw out their white flag game against Kansas City, they'd be in the top 5 of both categories. The Bengals had trouble scoring in the red zone against Pittsburgh in their loss, and definitely corrected the problem in the victory. I expect that success to continue in this game, and I also expect 3 or 4 long pass plays to Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

It's no secret that the Steelers love to run the ball, but it surprised to find that they actually ranked higher in pass DVOA (8th) than run DVOA (11th). It's also no secret that the Bengals struggle to stop the run (24th in run DVOA), but make up for it with their predeliction for interceptions, which help give them the 10th best passing defense. In a sense, the Bengals offense will determine its defense, because if the Bengals go ahead quickly, Pittsburgh will be forced to play against the strength of the Bengals D, something that did not work too well in Cincy's 38-31 victory in Pittsburgh. Ben Roethlisberger has not shown me that he can win a game with his arm, especially with his thumb banged up the way it is. I've read a couple of articles saying that he still can't pass with the kind of touch he wants to, which plays right into the hands of the Cincinnati secondary.

Moving on to oft-overlooked special teams, the Bengals have the edge in every phase except for punting. Placekicker Shayne Graham and kick returner Tab Perry are particular strengths. I have a feeling that punting won't matter as much in this game because both offenses should be able to move the ball, which negates the Steelers advantage a bit. In what should be a close game, Cincy's edge in the kicking game will prove decisive.

Prediction: Bengals win 34-31

Jacksonville at New England
This game is hard to read because New England has improved so much in the second half of the season, and there's no way to know how well Byron Leftwich will perform for Jacksonville coming off his injury. Since New England's defense was so horrible their defense languishes in the depths of the rankings (27th overall and 29th against the pass). While Tedy Bruschi's return seems to have helped the run defense (ranked 13th), the secondary is still incredibly banged up. Even without Leftwich in the lineup, David Garrard played well enough to keep the Jaguars as the 9th ranked passing offense; Fred Taylor and LaBrandon Toefield combined for the 12th rushing rank. If not for the brilliance of Tom Brady and his many weapons, the Jags would actually have a better offense.

As it is, the Pats passing offense ranks 2nd. Unfortunately for them, this plays right into the hands of Jacksonville's true strength, their 5th ranked pass defense. They're not too shabby against the run either, ranked 14th. New England's rushing offense is subpar, ranking only 19th. If Tom Brady wants to win, he will have to overcome one of the toughest pass defenses he has faced this season.

The teams match up evenly in special teams. Not surprisingly, New England and future public statue Adam Vinatieri have a decided edge in placekicking. But Jacksonville is much better on kickoff coverage, and New England is nothing special when it comes to kick returns. Five extra yards of field position might not make a difference though, because of the Vinatieri factor.

It pains me to make a prediction, but I can't stop coming back to the New England passing offense against Jacksonville's passing defense. These guys held Indianapolis to 10 points in Indy! I have a gut feeling that they will replicate the performance and stun the Pats.

Prediction: Jaguars win 28-27

Carolina at New York
Maybe it was because he was on my fantasy team, but I had a kick watching Tiki Barber run wild this season. Maybe it's the way he fixed his fumbling problem by carrying the ball up on his shoulder, and maybe it's that great brow of his. Whatever it is, I know that he should be able to run against Carolina's 12th ranked run defense. It's not a bad ranking, but I have faith in Tiki. As much as I like Tiki, I hate Jeremy Shockey with a blinding passion. Yet that won't stop me from proclaiming him as a top 3 tight end in this league, and he should also be able to run wild over the Panther linebackers, who ranked 19th in the league against tight ends.

Carolina's rushing game is already anemic (ranked 29th). Now it has to go up against New York's 3rd ranked rushing defense. Granted, New York is missing two of its best linebackers in Antonio Pierce and Carlos Emmons, but the real strength of the defense is the line, led by Michael Strahan. I think the New York defensive line will stop the run and pressure Jake Delhomme into throwing interceptions. Carolina will be unable to run and will be forced to throw to their only true weapon, Steve Smith. New York will double team him, and I don't think Carolina has the personnel to give Delhomme a viable safety valve.

Both teams were among the leaders in total special teams. Placekicking is strong for both teams, as is punting, although Carolina's put coverage is particularly strong--2nd ranked in fact. Once again, I think the teams relative strengths cancel each other out and no team will have a huge advantage in special teams.

People will probably make a big deal out of Eli Manning's inexperience and tendency to throw interceptions, but despite Jake Delhomme's experience, he throws picks just as often. When it comes down to it, I can't get by the fact that Carolina has one legitimate offensive threat, and when that threat is a wideout, it's easier to stop him than if he's a running back or quarterback.

Prediction: Giants win 27-14

Washington at Tampa Bay
This game is a rematch of one of the best games of the regular season, a 36-35 thriller that Tampa won on a 2-point conversion. That was the start of a 3 game losing streak for Washington, which they then followed with a 5 game winning streak. More notable than the fact that they actually won these games was that their offense caught fire, scoring 30+ points in the last three games of the season. Not only do they score points, but they score with balance, ranking 10th in passing offense and 9th in rushing offense, thanks to the resurgences of Clinton Portis and Santana Moss. Despite the hype surrounding Ronde Barber, Tampa ranks only 15th in passing defense, although they do sport the top ranked rushing defense. I still think Portis is good enough to get enough carries to keep them honest (in the game earlier this year, he gained 144 yards), which should allow Santana Moss to get over the top.

Tampa's offense suffered from a lack of identity most of the year, at least until Chris Simms found his sea legs, so to speak, and Cadillac Williams fully recovered from his injury. Of course, Tampa hung 36 on Washington earlier, solely based on Chris Simms throwing deep to Joey Galloway (18.7 avg) and Edell Shepherd (29.0 avg). Will that happen again? I'm not so sure. Simms didn't come close to replicating his performance against Washington the rest of the season. Simms averaged 9.6 yards per attempt against Washington, but ended up at only 6.5 for the season and never topped 7.0 again. The performance smacks of "outlier". I say that Simms struggles against Washington's 5th rated pass defense, and Cadillac won't get much mileage (sorry, had to do it) against the 7th ranked defense.

This is the only wild card game in which one team holds a slight edge over the other, with the advantage going to Washington. They have big advantages in in kickoff returns and punting, while basically running even with Tampa in the other categories. Getting good field position is vitally important for the weaker Tampa offense, and if Washington can punt the ball deep and inside the 20 consistently, it will be tough for Tampa to overcome.

In short, I don't trust Chris Simms to beat Washington's defense again, which ranked 2nd overall this season. Washington has been scoring points at will recently, and while they won't break 30, they will score more than enough to beat Tampa on the road.

Prediction: Washington wins 28-14

Forever Young

I wonder how many newspapers will have the above as their headline? Probably a few. Count me among those absolutely dazzled by Vince Young's otherworldly performance in the Rose Bowl. I'm sure quite a few of those Heisman voters would change their votes after tonight's game, which left no doubt in my mind that Young is the best player in the country. I'd only seen Young against Ohio State, and was not impressed by his passing ability. A lot has changed in four months, as Young completed 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards, only made one bad pass all night, and didn't turn over the ball. It took me a while to get accustomed to his effortless sidearm sling, which initially make his passes look like there isn't a lot of velocity on them. By the time Texas took the lead in the second quarter, I realized that Young was actually throwing lasers and I should not let my eyes deceive me.

Young's legs are what makes him such an effective player, but the fact that he has become such a smart quarterback makes him a singular talent--yes, even more so than Reggie Bush. Bush wasn't very impressive in this game. There were only 3 plays where he had any running room. One of them ended in his ill-advised lateral attempt, one was a touchdown, and the other came on the penultimate play of the game. Those other 15 touches or so showed me nothing phenomenal. Granted, on any other team, Bush would have gotten 20+ carries, but when you have a power back as good as LenDale White, you have to split the carries. While Bush is clearly better in the open field, White is the better running back as far as recognizing holes and finishing runs. White will make an NFL team very happy, while I think Bush will fall somewhere between Brian Westbrook and Marshall Faulk. Given his performance tonight, I'm leaning toward the Westbrook end of the spectrum. Dangerous, but not dominant.

Bush's fumble clearly was a huge factor in the game, but Pete Carroll made some very poor decisions as well. Early in the first quarter, USC faced a 4th and 1 on the Texas 18. I have always advocated taking points early, but Carroll gambled and went for the first. If USC were on the Texas 1 or 2 yard line, I would have agreed with the decision. But getting a first down here doesn't guarantee a touchdown by any means. In that situation, 3 points is more sure than 6, even with a mediocre kicker. One look at the final margin tells you exactly why you should almost always take the 3 points early in the game.

Carroll's second bad decision was to go for it on 4th down with 2:24 remaining in the game. There hasn't been too much criticism of his move, with most of the pundits praising him for "going for the win". But much like the earlier play wouldn't have guaranteed the touchdown, this play would not guarantee the victory, as Texas still had 2 time outs left. Yes, it would have been much much tougher for Texas to have won if USC had converted the 4th down, but wouldn't it also have been tougher on them to start from their own 20 yard line? Or perhaps even farther back had USC gotten off a good punt? I say yes. Texas got the ball back at their own 44 yard line, and it took them 1:50 to drive those 56 yards. The math says if USC had forced Texas to go about 30 more yards (which would have been a likely outcome of a punt), Texas would have needed about a minute more to score. Texas only had 19 seconds to spare at the end of the game. Obviously, Texas would have been capable of going 85 yards in the same 1:50, but the odds would have been much longer. The one thing that Vince Young didn't do was complete a long pass--the Texas passing game was based entirely on mid-range underneath routes to the tight end and outs and curls to the wideouts. Punting the ball would have forced Young to do something he hadn't done all game, which was complete a pass of 30 or so yards. When it comes down to it, Pete Carroll decided that it was worth risking 3 points in the first quarter and 30 yards in the fourth quarter. Both times, USC lost the things they risked, and they ended up being the margin of defeat.

I was raised as an Ohio State Buckeye fan, so my heart will probably always consider the 2003 Fiesta Bowl as the top bowl game. My head knows, however, that this game was better because of the incredible players involved. Vince Young and Matt Leinart are 2 of the top 5 quarterbacks ever to play, and Bush and White are probably in the top 10 as running backs. The 2003 game was a Cinderella story, but the 2006 Rose Bowl was a game that actually exceeded the ridiculous hype heaped upon it, thanks to the greatest clutch performance in college football history.

My only hope is that the NFL playoffs provide half the drama. Hopefully I will put up some playoff preview capsules tomorrow.