Thursday, January 04, 2007
In the NFC, though we went with the homer pick and took the Panthers to win the NFC South and represent the conference in the Super Bowl, it wasn’t quite as ugly. The Clarion had the Bears and the Seahawks winning their respective divisions. Chalk, you say. Big whoop. Well, we did pick three NFC East teams to go the playoffs; the Cowboys, Giants and Eagles. Of course, the staff picked the Cowboys to win the division, and if you’d told us McNabb was going to get hurt mid-season, we’d capped the E-A-G-L-E-S out at seven wins, tops.
Let’s start there, in Philly, with one of the most remarkable stories of the season, Jeff Garcia, pulling the Eagles together. It just goes to show how much play calling and philosophy matter in the NFL. The Eagles didn’t change any personnel to speak of, other than QBs, between the McNabb led team that was struggling mid-season and the Garcia led team that got on an amazing roll down the stretch to pull out a 5th NFC East title in six years. Garcia stats are not significantly superior to McNabb’s. Nor would anybody in their right mind, tell you that Garcia is a better quarterback than McNabb, either in pure physical combine skills or on game day. The big change under Jeff Garcia, though Garcia was a three time Pro-bowler, was not so much him, as the way going to Garcia affected Andy Reid’s play calling and philosophy. All of sudden Michael Westbrook was getting all of the touches he could handle. The run was a bigger percentage of the Eagles play calling that it had been at any time during the entire Andy Reid era. This change in the play calling mix had the knock-on benefit of changing the time of possession numbers radically in the Eagles favor. Keeping the defense off the field more, revitalized Jim Johnson’s guys. They took off, even without the freak, Jevon Kearse. Led instead by future Hall of Famer, Brian Dawkins, the Eagles defense has been kicking ass and taking names, allowing just under 18 points a game in the final five games of the season.
The Giants on the other hand were done. The Clarion had left them for dead after the Saints blew them out in the Meadowlands the second to last week of the season. We had thought them fried as they limped down the stretch. With Ernie Accorsi leaving we were(and are) ready to argue that they should seriously reconfigure the roster. But, somehow, lo and behold, when everyone else continued to play crappy, as bad as they had or worse, Manning, the defense, Plastico...future talk show host, Tiki Barber saved them. Threw them on his back, as much as one player can possibly do in a football game and carried them to the playoffs on a Saturday night in Washington, DC. Not even a great quarterback could not have done what Tiki did, they still need somebody to catch the ball. Tiki took the rock under his arm, and had two 50+ yard runs to paydirt and another touchdown. He was unstoppable, and defense still nearly let Jason Campbell, starting for only the seventh time in his career come back on them.
For the Giants to win, they will need that kind of career best game from Tiki, again. Even if they get it, they might lose. Coughlin is a coaching mistake waiting to happen, and the Eagles are a lot better than the Skins, offensively and defensively.
This one almost seems too simple, where could the Giants possibly have an edge?? The Clarion likes the Eagles QB, coach, and defense better than the Giants, at best pass catchers are a push (esp. with Shockey limping on a bad ankle.) Even at the position the Giants are the strongest, running back, the Eagles answer Barber and Jacobs with Westbrook and Buckhalter.
The Giants will be lucky to keep it respectable, and they’ll have to, or it will be Tom Coughlin’s last game.
The other NFC game is less clear cut. The Cowboys are struggling. Romo hasn’t looked as good, down the stretch. T.O. is completely mental at this point, looking like Mike Tyson about two fights before he stared up from the canvas at Buster Douglas in Tokyo. When the guy the coach used to call “she”, Terry Glenn, is your most stable wideout, Cowboy fans gotta be grateful for tight end Jason Witten.
The Seahawks have been banged up all year. The Clarion has long been a believer in the jinx of the Super Bowl loser, too. Hasselback hasn’t looked himself once since the injury. Alexander has also been up and down since getting hurt. And it always seems like Seattle’s wideouts should be better, the list of names on the roster always looks terrific, Branch, Engram, Hackett, Jackson, but, will they drop the ball? Of course, Seattle’s punk tight end can be counted on to come up small, unless it is a yapping contest. Who comes up big for the Seahawks? Carries’em when it gets late? This paper can’t find an answer to that query and we have never been big Holmgren fans in the past.
So somehow, despite their recent struggles, despite Seattle’s twelfth man advantage, the Clarion likes the Cowboys to advance here. There may be a sliver of a sentimental vote for Parcells associated with that feeling.
Over in the AFC, we’re going counterintuitive on you again. Despite the fact that we here have bagged on the Colts all year. Despite how atrocious the Colts run defense has been and is. Despite the fact that we still believe that Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy will continue to be playoff chokers. Despite the fact that they are playing the League’s second leading rusher in Larry Johnson. The Clarion likes the Colts, this week ONLY. Possibly big, the Kansas City passing defense is vulnerable, ranking in the lower half of the league, allowing 208 passing yards per game, and having yielded more touchdown passes than they have made interceptions. How much does Larry Johnson have left in his legs after an all-time record 415 carries this season? Aren’t the Colts 8-0 at home this year? Can the Chiefs keep up in a shootout on turf? Every time the Clarion remembers what Trent Green look liked in college, we are amazed that he ever made it. Even if the Chiefs can keep it close, much as the Clarion likes Herm Edwards--the person, Herm Edwards--the clock manager, is not who you want on your sidelines in a tight playoff game.
In the other AFC game, it is even simpler. Jets coach Eric Mangini has done an incredible job. He should be at least co-coach of the year with Sean Payton of New Orleans, but this is the week the Jets miracle run ends. Do we even have to go through the list of reasons why? It starts and ends with Brady, as good a game manager as Chad Pennington is, Brady is Brady. (much as Pete Gillen once said about Duke.) The Patriots running backs are also far superior. The Patriots defense is better. The Patriots have the confidence of having been there and done that in the playoffs. The Patriots have home field. As good as the Jets up and coming coach staffing has done, as much as Belichek misses former assistants Crennel, Weis, Mangini, et al. Who is the master and who is the apprentice? Luke didn’t beat Darth Vader the first time they fought. (Yes, the Jets have better receivers, don’t kid yourself into thinking that will have a material effect on the outcome.)
A few further thoughts as we look ahead to next weekend…
New England was the preseason pick, how can the Clarion abandon them now? Who in their right mind picks against Tom Brady in the playoffs?
But, but, but, boy the Ravens look tough, a superb defense, playmakers we love, veterans with Super Bowl experience. In Steve McNair, a great leader who wants a ring badly. (How can you not root for a guy who came up a yard short after a great drive on the biggest stage of them all?)
Somebody from the NFC will make the Super Bowl. They will have a chance to win. A very small chance.
Best bets this week:
One---Get in on the early bet on the Super Bowl. If made right now, Vegas has posted a line that has the AFC representative giving six to whomever comes out of the NFC . Jump on that.
Two---The Colts giving six and a half to Kansas City.