Saturday, January 30, 2010

Seven (Semi-Controversial) Steps to a Super Bowl Title for the Philadelphia Eagles

NFC Championship: Philadelphia Eagles v Arizona Cardinals

Now that some proverbial grass has grown under our feet since the season ended, it becomes easier to make an assessment of the Philadelphia Eagles. Objectivity tends to increase as the raw nerves quiet down and the disappointment fades from this season's crash landing in Dallas.

Make no mistake, though, Eagles fans are still painfully aware of the cruel hidden crater that suddenly enveloped what seemed to be a promising season. In the relative blink of an eye, an NFC East title and a no. 2 playoff seed became a return trip for the no. 6 playoff entrant to battle the division champion Cowboys.

Besides the postseason degree of difficulty being substantially raised, the beating imparted by the Cowboys in the regular season finale also pierced the Eagles bubble of confidence. And, importantly, when the Cowboys pretty much administered a deja vu encore performance six days later in the playoffs, it exposed the Eagles flaws for everyone to see.

The bottom line is that the Eagles were not as good as they appeared when they were reeling off six straight wins and positioning themselves to win the NFC East. However, the gap they need to close to make them a true Super Bowl contender is not the wide chasm that seemed to be ripped open in Dallas.

Many in the Philadelphia media and Eagles fanbase have already concluded that the situation calls for profound changes. Some have suggested that it is time for the team to move in a totally different direction and launch into a re-building phase.

Of course, the most consistent themes involve moving on from Andy Reid and/or Donovan McNabb. To a certain degree, this comes with the territory of their respective roles as the two most influential individuals in the organization's quest for the ever elusive Lombardi Trophy, but it also glosses over what might actually get it done.

Followers of the NFL over the past decade know that the Eagles have been flirting with a championship, having advanced to the NFC Championship Game five times and the Super Bowl once over that time frame. They persist in their arduous journey, but can't seem to land at their destination.

Contrary to popular consensus, I remain in the camp that says the best path to a Super Bowl title is to finish paving the existing road rather than take a jack hammer to it and start all over again. With that in mind, here are my seven steps to bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia.

1. Sign Sheldon Brown to an extension.

Sheldon Brown had arguably his best season and is an important cog in the Eagles defensive scheme. Additionally, he serves as a role model for younger players with his mental and physical toughness.

The team has no one prepared to step into a starting cornerback role. A creative reworking of Brown's contract to secure him for three years and reward Brown for his commitment and contributions would ensure the necessary cornerback tandem to run the Jim Johnson scheme as well as send a positive message throughout the locker room.

2. Trade Michael Vick before the draft.

During the regular season, Michael Vick made it clear that he still desires a chance at being a starting quarterback in the NFL. The Eagles should accommodate him and extract something of value for their mostly failed experiment this season. There are several teams around the league who desperately need a quarterback and Philadelphia still holds an option on the former Pro Bowler for next season.

It was clear that teams around the league had interest in him last summer when the Eagles shocked the football and animal lover world by inking him to a deal. Since then, Vick has only enhanced his value by staying out of trouble, displaying a more humble, team oriented approach and flashing his pre-incarceration talents late in the season.

It is reasonable to assume that teams such as the Bills, Panthers, Browns, Raiders, Rams, Redskins or Bucs would take a shot on him for a 2nd or 3rd round draft choice considering there are so few options. With yesterday's news from Kurt Warner, you can add the Cardinals to the mix since Matt Leinert has done little to evoke confidence- and, of course, it would seem wise for the Vikings to acquire an insurance policy while they wait out the annual Brett Favre watch.

3. Acquire hard hitting free safety through the draft or free agency.

The Cowboys highlighted the tremendous void created by the departure of Brian Dawkins and the lack of hitters in the Eagles secondary. The 'Boys almost made a mockery of the situation by relentlessly running slants and curls back-to-back weeks because no one feared going across the middle. It was so bad that Roy Williams actually looked like the player Jerry Jones thought he was acquiring.

In addition to the impact on pass defense, a hard hitting free safety would also be highly beneficial in run support. The Eagles defensive style works best with a free safety who can come up to the line to blitz and stick running backs.

Because it appears that a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will not be in place, some potential free agent candidates such as the Packers Nick Collins, the Colts Antoine Bethea and the Rams O.J. Atogwe will become restricted. This makes a signing less likely, so using a high pick to draft a safety seems imperative.

USC's Taylor Mays, Georgia Tech's Morgan Burnett, Georgia's Reshad Jones and LSU's Chad Jones fit the mold and all may be available in the second round. Florida State's Myron Rolle would be an ideal addition due to his intelligence, leadership skills and overall athelticism. Tennessee's Eric Berry and Earl Thomas are the most athletic and highest rated safeties on the board, but would represent a trade off for ballhawking skills.

4. Veer away from team philosophy to draft a quality every down linebacker.

Overall, the best thing that can happen for the Eagles defense next season would be the return of Stewart Bradley. He was evolving into a leader and a force on the football field prior to going down with a knee injury before training camp officially began. Along with the departure of Dawkins, his absence had profound impact on the Eagles defensive schemes and struggles throughout the season.

Bradley possesses every down skills capable of stuffing the run and dropping into coverage that could not be replaced by anyone on the Eagles roster and was routinely exploited by opponents. This was especially true with the Dallas Cowboys in the final two games as they repeatedly ran audibles based on the skill sets of the Eagles personnel on the field.

History suggests that it takes almost a full season for players to fully recover from major knee surgery and regain their former level of play. Accordingly, the Eagles would be wise to sign a free agent or use a high pick to draft another scheme-diverse linebacker to go along with Bradley.

Unrestricted free agent Karlos Dansby would be a great addition, and at 29, would still be within the strike zone of organizational philosophy. The draft offers only one sure fire prospect worth selecting in the first round in Alabama's Rolando McClain; however, there are several players such as Florida's Brandon Spikes available in rounds 2-3.

A high pick obtained for Vick would help give the Eagles the maneuverability and/or depth of picks to be able to get a safety and linebacker who could make an immediate impact. The team already has four picks in the first three rounds, so filling weaknesses in the secondary and at linebacker, while also being able to take at least one best available player on the board, is well within their reach.

5. Rework Brian Westbrook's contract and go back to the future.

Since their season ended, many media reports and talk show hosts have suggested that Brian Westbrook's days are over in Philadelphia. This has been based upon his injury history, his lack of use in the Wild Card Game and the current terms of his contract.

More simply put, the consensus is that Westbrook will not be worth $7.25 million with continuing ankle, knee and head trauma issues. For his part, Westbrook has not indicated that he wants to retire or leave the team.

The best solution for the Eagles is to go back to the future. The team should return Westbrook to the same specialty back role in which he had been highly successful early in his career and renegotiate the terms of his contract accordingly.

By paying him -and- playing him less, it would be the ultimate win-win. Westbrook could avoid the beating and accumulated toll on his body, while extending and finishing his career with the Eagles. In return, the team would get an explosive back adept at running draws, catching balls out of the backfield and blocking- as well as retain a respected team leader.

LeSean McCoy, Leonard Weaver and newly signed Martell Mallett can do the heavy lifting. Westbrook would provide the perfect complement if used in a more limited capacity that would keep him fresh.

6. Shore up and set the offensive line before training camp.

Heading into training camp, the Eagles as well as outside experts felt that offensive line would be a particular strength. After letting veterans Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas walk via free agency, the team signed Stacy Andrews and traded for Jason Peters. With former Pro Bowler Shawn Andrews returning from injury, there was reason for optimism.

Unfortunately, things started to go awry from the outset and the team was forced into a game of musical chairs across the offensive front all season. The brothers (Shawn taking another sabbatical and Stacy never finding his form) provided nothing to the team, others were dinged up and center Jamaal Jackson suffered a season ending knee injury in December.

The Eagles cannot afford to head into training camp with any uncertainty regarding the Andrews Brothers. Over the next few months, the team needs to use whatever means necessary (including behavioral analysis, Rorschach testing or a "Wipe Out" obstacle course) to make a definitive call whether these two players are in or out.

If the latter, they need to move on quickly. The best course of action would be to stray from organizational practice in the Andy Reid era and sign a seasoned veteran as a stop gap measure for 1-2 years. The Titans Kevin Mawae or Packers Chad Clifton are two potential free agents that come to mind that could be integrated with a little creativity. Think of pulling a reverse Runyan or Thomas.

7. Extend McNabb and let him finish the job.

Alright, why not save the best and most controversial step for last? The clamor about trading Donovan McNabb has been hot and heavy since the twin meltdowns in Dallas.

Between his lack of production in those games, the same absence of a Super Bowl Championship as all of the previous Eagles signal callers, his press conference performances and his pre-game air guitar stylings- consensus amongst the Philadelphia media and fanbase seems to lean towards launching the Kevin Kolb era.

Speculation about Warner and Favre retiring has only served to ramp up these discussions since McNabb would appear to be a great replacement on each of those teams. Of course, the fact that football pundits throughout the country see him as an ideal fit on these Super Bowl contenders is the exact reason that the Eagles should not let him go.

Unless the Eagles are convinced that they will not be able to field a team around him that is strong enough to win, it would be crazy to part ways. Kolb appears to be one of the better back-ups in the league, but it is a pipe dream to think that he will become a franchise quarterback.

Now that Warner has officially announced his retirement, it is doubtful that Philadelphians would suggest that Arizona break up their team and start from scratch. And, they didn't win the Super Bowl with Warner, but you would be hard pressed to find Cardinals fans who believe they have a better shot with Leinert.

Interestingly, though, they covet McNabb. The Eagles have him, along with the same type of nucleus that could land the Lombardi Trophy, so why not finish the job in Philly?

The gap between the current Eagles team and being a true Super Bowl contender can very reasonably be closed heading into next season. Seven relatively simple and semi-controversial steps is all it will take. The Eagles are close- its no time to turn back now.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Paradox that is BrettFavre

NFC Championship: Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints

As he vacillated and labored through the NFC Championship Game, and then through his post game comments, "BrettFavre" continued to cement what has now become his legacy. For all the big game appearances, prolific stats, John Madden hero-worship and post touchdown histrionics, BrettFavre will best be known as the great paradox.

Sunday evening, the football had barely settled in the goalpost net before the BrettFavre watch officially began. Cameras followed him as he navigated around the field to gauge his body language and reactions in hope of gaining a glimpse of the future. In the post game press conference, questions alternated between that day's game and whether he planned to dress in purple and gold several months down the road.

The Saints dramatic overtime win that will send the Vikings players home for the offseason and the New Orleans players to Miami for the organization's first ever Super Bowl was somewhat of a microcosm of BrettFavre's career. He was up and down, energetic and tired, ageless and worn, jubilant and sullen, savvy and foolhardy, convicted and conflicted, spectacular and not so much- all in just a few hours time.

In a season that had an "all in" feeling for most Minnesota fans, coaches and players alike, the "Johnny-come-lately" quarterback who was leased for a year to put the talent-laden Vikings team over the top, couldn't quite get it done. As is his signature, BrettFavre made a valiant effort, persevering through a pummeling at the hands of the Saints defenders- looking like a modern day NFL Kirk Gibson.

For most of the day, BrettFavre and the Vikings appeared to be battling themselves as much as the top seeded Saints team across the line. Despite BrettFavre being pounded all day, the Vikings moved up and down the field with relative ease, but seemingly every time they appeared ready to seize control, they coughed up the ball.

On his own accord, BrettFavre alternated firing strikes and misfiring bullets, but ultimately racked up 310 yards through the air. However, he also accounted for three of the team's five costly turnovers- one on a botched handoff and two others on errant passes.

For all the self-inflicted wounds though, BrettFavre had Minnesota in position to win the game at the end of regulation. After getting the ball on his own 21 with 2:37 left to play, BrettFavre drove his team to the outer edge of field goal territory with 17 seconds on the clock. After an inexplicable penalty for having twelve men in the huddle moved the Vikings to the far reaches of kicker Ryan Longwell's range, the next play underscored the game and the career of BrettFavre.

He rolled to the right to avoid pressure and encountered three options. BrettFavre declined the opportunity to dump the ball in the flat for a short gain or run for ten yards. Instead, he chose to make the "cardinal sin" of passes- heaving the ball across his body to the far side of the field- into the waiting hands of a Saints defender.

As much as Green Bay Packers fans have experienced the giddy heights induced by BrettFavre making seemingly impossible plays and spectacular throws throughout his career, they have also felt the same crushing blows delivered by a quarterback trying to do too much. What made this even a little bit more cruel for Vikings fans, though, was that BrettFavre kept his risk-taking gunslinger persona under wraps all season until this fateful moment.

This split second decision truly does capsulize the enigmatic QB. He could have taken the safe path and run, but instead chose to attempt the attention grabbing sensational throw that most of his peers around the NFL would have never even considered.

Throughout his career, many times it has worked and his legend grew. Other times, like yesterday, it ended in the crash of a season of Super Bowl promise.

This seems highly consistent with the ambivalent player who holds an entire organization and its fanbase hostage every offseason as he waffles to decide if his career will continue. Its the "Hey, look at me" kid riding a bike with no hands. Sometimes he looks masterful- sometimes he's picking gravel out of his knees.

BrettFavre also has a way of eliciting the ambivalence in others. There are many things to admire about him. He's a fearless gamer with a laser arm who carves up secondaries with surgical precision. He's a perpetual kid, celebrating every touchdown with the exuberance of a World Series game winning home run.

His statistics and wins continue to mount. As displayed on Sunday, he is an iron man who is always on the field, regardless of the battering imparted by opposing defenses. He's a folk hero in living flesh. And, Madden gushes about him like a school girl fawning over the Jonas Brothers, fusing his first and last name together into one enthusiastically repeated word.

But, for all the great that is BrettFavre, he is a contradiction. He sometimes melts down on the league's biggest stage with a postseason record that does not quite measure up to his regular season resume. He can make disastrous throws more fitting of rookies, surely not 40-year old decorated NFL veterans. He's not opposed to running up the score or calling an audible to pad his already impressive stats.

He hijacks SportsCenter from February through August with the annual "BrettFavre Watch", seemingly looking to stay in the spotlight and avoid "two-a-days." Although it can be endearing at times, his over-celebrating every touchdown with the exuberance of a World Series game winning home run can get old. And, Madden gushes about him like a school girl fawning over the Jonas Brothers, fusing his first and last name together into one enthusiastically repeated word.

With the Vikings season hitting the wall in New Orleans, BrettFavre is now off to contemplate his football future while he rides his tractor and watches his fishing lure bob in the water. Although he waved off questions in the press conference saying that he needed some time, BrettFavre couldn't help but to plant the seed of speculation with an ESPN reporter before he departed by saying it was "highly unlikely" that he would be back.

Of course, this statement evokes the same level of confidence of a Mark McGwire or A-Rod saying they only took steroids for medicinal purposes and didn't even realize that it might aid performance. Well, actually, maybe less confidence.

Considering that BrettFavre had arguably the best regular season of his career, was healthy all season, thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Vikings team and came within one bad penalty and ill advised pass of a trip to the big game- the odds of a return would seem high based on logic. But, as avid sports fans know, BrettFavre is fueled by high octane emotion that sometimes clouds reason.

There is no debating that BrettFavre has been good for the game and is a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. It is also clear that the Quadragenarian put together one of his finest seasons and was arguably this year's NFL MVP.

As we launch into the annual "BrettFavre Watch", there also can be no denying that the legendary player remains a paradox. He wows us and he frustrates us, he makes us laugh and he makes us frown. At the end of the day, though- he entertains us like few players can.

My money is on another offseason of waffling by BrettFavre, followed with a triumphant Escalade escort to the Vikings training camp to ink another one year lease sometime in the latter part of August. And as annoying as the annual seven month debate will be, importantly and begrudgingly, Minnesota and the NFL will be clearly better off with BrettFavre in uniform.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

NFC Championship Preview: Brees Better Bet Than Favre

NFL Divisional Playoffs - Arizona Cardinals v New Orleans Saints

When the Saints go marching into the Superdome on Sunday evening to face the Minnesota Vikings, they will be lugging with them the dreams of the New Orleans long suffering fans. Only one other time in the team's mostly star crossed history has it advanced this far in a quest for a championship, but that season ended there with a disappointing blowout.

Although their opponents in the NFC Championship Game have four times reached the Super Bowl in its history, the Vikings similarly have yet to end a season in jubilation. Fans of both teams share the same high hopes that this will be their year.

Drew Brees and his dynamic offensive unit are on a mission to forever erase the bad memories of paper bag mask days gone past. And, on the other side, ageless Brett Favre and his young proteges look to finish what no other Vikings team has been able to do before.

The hard, cruel reality of the NFL's annual single elimination tourney, though, is that the dream will end for one team and their fanbase on Sunday night. Conversely, the other triumphantly heads to Miami for Super Bowl 44 and further lifts the energy and anticipation in their hometown city.

While the AFC contest pits teams of contrasting styles (as detailed in yesterday's post  AFC Championship Preview: Can Ryan's Jets Beat the Colts Varsity?), the NFC matches teams that are closer to mirror images. Both the Saints and Vikings can score points in bunches and are led by the two highest rated quarterbacks in the NFL this season.

On defense, Minnesota boasts the stronger unit in traditional terms of limiting yardage and scoring, but New Orleans makes up for any deficiencies with its opportunistic style. As they did last week against Arizona, they force turnovers and score points. Led by former Vikings star Darren Sharper, the Saints defense scored a remarkable 8 touchdowns in the regular season.

Both teams have struggled with pass coverage, although some of this relates to opponents playing catch-up. The Saints finished 26th against the pass, but with some of their secondary back at full strength after injuries, this number might belie their true capabilities.

The Vikings compensate for pass coverage issues with a heavy pass rush, led by All Pro Jared Allen. They led the NFL in sacks and will surely look to keep the pressure on Brees, but may be limited by the absence of its other three starters on the defensive line. All three are listed as "questionable", so this could have an huge impact on the Vikings chances.

On the other side of the line, the Vikings feature one of the NFL's biggest names in running back Adrian Peterson, while the Saints deploy a running back by committee approach. Oddly enough, the Saints have been more effective on the ground, especially considering that Peterson has not cracked the century mark in eight weeks.

The front four has also been instrumental in the Vikings 2nd rated run defense. Besides the injury factor, because the Saints tend to use the pass to set up the run, it is reasonable to assume that they will still have some success on the ground. Look for them to run delays and draws with under-rated Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell, and try to get Reggie Bush in space to take advantage of his explosiveness.

A good portion of the fireworks during the regular season and thus far in the playoffs have come through the air as Brees and Favre have had spectacular years.  A strong argument can be made that either of them should have finished ahead of Peyton Manning for the league MVP trophy.

If Bush plays with the same determination and energy as a week ago, it could be a long day for the Vikings. Brees will look to get the ball out quickly and make the Vikings pay for over pursuit by swinging the ball to Bush on the edges. His favorite target continues to be Marcus Colston, but Brees does an exceptional job getting everyone involved in the offense.

Favre will attempt to use his big arm to get the ball down the field and change things up by dumping the ball off to Peterson, Chester Taylor and hopefully Percy Harvin, who is a game time decision due to migraines. The Vikings big vertical threat is lanky, fast and athletic Sidney Rice, who lit up the Cardinals with three touchdowns.

From a pure talent perspective, the Vikings could be the best team in football. However, the Saints look to be healthier, have home dome advantage and seem to have intangibles in their favor.

The ultimate swing factor comes down to the two QB's, though. Brees has a history of consistently playing well in big games, and although he has had the greater fan fare, Favre has had a Jekyll and Hyde persona in big games throughout his career.  On Sunday, my money is on Brees and the Saints to continue their quest to make  "The Aints" moniker a distant memory.

Vikings 27
Saints 31

Friday, January 22, 2010

AFC Championship Preview: Can Ryan's Jets Beat the Colts Varsity?

New York Jets v Indianapolis Colts

Sunday's AFC Championship Game between the New York Jets and Indianapolis Colts is a compelling match-up for many reasons. There is a lot we know about it, including the fact that the Jets ended the Colts undefeated season just a few weeks ago by beating their "Jayvee" squad. But, the key question now is whether the Jets can beat the Colts "Varsity?"

This contest pits two first year head coaches with polar opposite styles. Jim Caldwell is reserved and understated, having tutored under gentlemanly Tony Dungy. Conversely, Rex Ryan is bold and outspoken, learning from his life long role model- and clearly sharing the DNA of-  his father,  Buddy Ryan. Caldwell tends to blend into the background in a small market, while Ryan is front and center  in the country's largest setting.

Ryan has already proclaimed that he would be shocked if his team does not advance to the Super Bowl. Although this elicits memories of his father's style, it is not pure braggadocio- but, rather calculated and purposeful. Ryan wants his young, upstart team to believe in itself. He knows that half the battle will be won in the minds and attitude of his players.

Don't expect a return salvo from Caldwell. He is content to simply focus on his game plan and preparing his players for Sunday's rematch. Caldwell also knows that although the Jets had five less wins in the regular season, they will present a stiff challenge to his #1 seeded club.

As different as they are, the two coaches do share one thing in common, though. Both have outperformed expectations in their rookie seasons, albeit for different reasons.  Ryan is trying to advance the Jets to the Super Bowl with a rookie behind center, while Caldwell is stepping into the shoes of a coaching icon with a totally revamped staff that created some reported player unrest in the offseason.

The two teams are also a contrast in styles. The Colts rely on a prolific, pass happy offense to score lots of points and keep its middle of the road defense off the field. Conversely, the Jets rely on their stingy defense to give their conservative, run oriented offense a chance to win.

While New York is led by first year quarterback Mark Sanchez, Indianapolis is anchored by one of the most accomplished signal callers in league history. And, make no mistake about it, Peyton Manning is clearly the "on the field" offensive coach, often animatedly running the "no huddle" and  calling plays at the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Sanchez wears a color coded wrist band that is the NFL's equivalent of "Quarterbacking for Dummies."

Ryan is careful not to ask too much of Sanchez and takes pressure off him by dialing up a steady diet of run plays that leans on a strong offensive line and two talented backs. Veteran Thomas Jones racked up more than 1,400 yards and 14 TD's during the regular season, but has yielded to rookie Shonn Greene in the postseason to do the heavy lifting. Greene has amassed 263 yards rushing over the first two playoff games, averaging 6 yards a pop.

The Jets strengths and tendencies match-up well on paper with the Colts, since they struggled against the run in the regular season. It also limits the impact of defensive end Dwight Freeney, who is one of the NFL's fiercest pass rushers.

In last weekend's game against the Ravens, the Colts defense stepped up to limit running back Ray Rice.  Besides having fresher legs due to a week off, defenders  aggressively swarmed to the ball and dared quarterback Joe Flacco to beat them. It is highly likely that the Colts will use a similar approach on Sunday, so Sanchez will need to avoid negative plays and selectively take advantage of opportunities presented to him.

Not surprisingly, the biggest star and most influential player on the Jets plays on the defensive side of the ball. Cornerback Darrelle Revis continues to shutdown the best receivers opponents have to offer, so a great deal of his focus will be alternated between Manning's top two targets- Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.

Another favorable factor for the Jets relates to their style of defensive play. They do not rely heavily on rotating personnel, which provides less opportunity for Manning and the Colts to exploit weaknesses with the "no huddle" package.

A real key for New York will be to avoid getting down early by anything more than one score. If Indianapolis maintains a lead and the Jets can no longer afford to continue banging away on the ground, they could force Sanchez into turnovers that would kill any chance of an upset.

Manning will likely come out firing in hopes of dictating the tempo. The Colts do not want to get into a low scoring defensive battle since it is more probable that the more physical Jets would wear them down over the course of the game.

On paper, a 14-2 team hosting a 9-7 team wouldn't seem to be a very compelling contest, but the opposite is true. One interesting story line relates to the game being a rematch of Super Bowl III that provided credibility to the upstart AFL when the heavy underdog Jets followed another brash leader to an upset win over the Colts. This time around, Ryan plays the part of Broadway Joe with his pre-game bravado.

Another story line tests conventional wisdom that good defense and a strong running game beats a good aerial attack in the NFL postseason.  So far, this formula has served the Jets very well, but there is a reason that they won five fewer games than the Colts.

Of course, the most interesting aspect is that the Jets wouldn't even be here if not for their come from behind, upset win over the then unbeaten Colts. The irony is that Caldwell may have gift wrapped the Jets postseason invitation with his decision to pull Manning and other starters a few weeks earlier.

Previously, the regret had centered on the Colts losing a chance at making NFL history with a perfect season. Caldwell shrugged it off and reiterated that his only objective was winning the Super Bowl. In a weird twist of fate, he may yet regret the decisions made a few weeks ago because the Jets may be the team best equipped to derail a trip to Miami.

The Colts clearly have the best regular season resume, including this season's league MVP, but the match-ups favor the Jets. It is also worth noting that on the way to a 14-0 start, Indianapolis had a string of comeback victories. And, although Manning has had a spectacular career, his work in the postseason has been more pedestrian.

New York should be able to contain the Colts lackluster running game while committing a safety to cover Pro Bowl tight end Clark. With Revis blanketing Wayne, the Jets will force Manning to lean on inexperienced receivers Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon. Meanwhile, the Jets should be able to chew up yards on the ground and keep Manning off the field.

Against the odds, it says here that history can repeat itself and the Jets can beat the Colts Varsity.

Jets 17
Colts 16

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

NFL Power Rankings Top 15 Championship Week

NFC Divisional Playoff game between New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals

What appeared to be a slate of four highly competitive contests in the divisional round turned out to be mostly the opposite. The rested teams appeared to have a major advantage with fresh legs and pent-up adrenaline- at least for 3 1/2 games. The one outlier was the New York Jets, led by their charismatic and care free head coach Rex Ryan.

The weekend festivities kicked off with the Arizona Cardinals visiting the SuperDome to play the New Orleans Saints in a game that had all the makings of a shootout. It turned out that way on one side, but apparently the Cards did not get the memo. After Tim Hightower broke through the line and went the distance on the first play from scrimmage to give Arizona a quick 7-0 lead, it was all Saints from then on in as they rolled up a 45-14 win.

Drew Brees returned to the form he showed over the first 13 weeks, carving up the Cardinals weary secondary with surgical precision. He was also given a tremendous boost by the Saints energetic defense that made life miserable for the red hot Kurt Warner and Reggie Bush. With his bootylicious girl friend looking on from a luxury suite above, Bush put on a show from wire to wire.

Appearing to be operating at a different speed than the Cardinals defenders, Bush raced for spectacular touchdowns on a 46 yard run in the first quarter and an 83 yard punt return in the third quarter. Overall, he accumulated 84 yards rushing on only 5 carries, 24 yards receiving on 4 catches and 109 yards on punt returns. He inflicted some serious damage on the Cards while hardly breaking a sweat.

In Saturday's late game, the Indianapolis Colts appeared to have shed the disappointment of their coach packing it in on their undefeated season as they jumped to an early lead and rode their defense to an easy 20-3 decision over the Baltimore Ravens. The Colts game plan was to key on Ray Rice and force second year QB Joe Flacco to beat them throwing to his substandard set of receivers.

Heading into the contest, the Ravens appeared to have a favorable match-up pitting their 5th ranked rushing offense against the Colts 24th ranked run defense. Stacking defenders to stop the run first, especially with the advantage of having the week off, Indianapolis provided little room for Rice to operate and exposed the Ravens one dimensional offense. It did not bode well for the Ravens when they fell behind by a couple touchdowns and had to play catch-up.

With half the promising weekend already filled with lopsided games, NFL fans were pumped for a Cowboys-Vikings game on Sunday that surely would not follow suit. Dallas came into the game with a five game winning streak and exuding an air of invincibility. Minnesota had home field advantage, an NFL best 9 Pro Bowlers and a legendary quarterback on its side. This was going to be a slugfest played to a dramatic finish.

Wrong again. Apparently the 'Boys didn't get the memo, either. While the Cowboys squandered opportunities, Brett Favre and Sidney Rice seized the moment. The pair hooked up for 6 connections totaling 141 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the Vikings defensive line was throwing the Cowboys around like crash test dummies and had QB Tony Romo running for his life. The pressure resulted in 6 sacks and got the best of him as he fumbled the ball three times (two lost) and threw one unbelievably bad shot put interception. It was a long day for Romo, but the Vikings defense clearly won this battle in the trenches.

Minnesota and Favre were giddy with excitement as they mounted a big lead and never let the Cowboys seriously challenge. For good measure, Favre called an audible with a 27-3 lead and under two minutes left in the game to pile on with a run-up-the-score TD pass.

The weekend finished with the upstart New York Jets taking on the AFC's hottest team. The Chargers entered the postseason on an 11-game winning skein, but faced a Jets team full of bravado along with a defensive resume to validate it.

The first half of action played out much the same way as the three earlier games. The Bolts appeared to have more energy and swarmed to shutdown the Jets top ranked run game. Unfortunately for them, missed field goals and penalties limited them to a 7-0 halftime lead.

After the break, the momentum seemed to shift with the Jets continuing to wear down the Chargers with its pounding running game and suffocating defense. The Jets harassed Philip Rivers into throwing two second half interceptions ( three for the game, which he had never done before) and had him looking flustered.

Rookie signal caller Mark Sanchez capitalized on the last pick to fire a TD strike and give his team a 10-7 lead at the outset of the 4th period. A few minutes later, fellow rookie Shonn Greene burst threw the middle for a 53-yard touchdown run that seemed to break the Chargers spirit. New York held on to defeat a somewhat stunned San Diego team. Is it possible to have a "do over" in the vote for NFL Coach of the Year?

  1. Colts (14-2)- Colts looked fresh and hungry for a title
  2. Saints (13-3)-Picked up where they left off in Week 14
  3. Vikings (12-4)-Greater energy overwhelmed 'Boys at line
  4. Jets (9-7)- Two dimensions and the Dilfer approach works
  5. Chargers (13-3)- Fell apart in 2nd half in all 3 phases
  6. Cowboys(11-5)-Was this the same team that crushed Philly?
  7. Packers (11-5)-Best team out of the Super Bowl hunt 
  8. Cardinals (10-6)-Rested Saints beat up Warner and Cards
  9. Ravens (9-7)- Colts dared Ravens to win via the air
  10. Eagles (11-5)-No more "do overs", season's over
  11. Patriots (10-6)-What happened to "The Team of the Decade?"
  12. Bengals (10-6)- Crashed after a promising start to season
  13. Steelers (9-7)- Pulled out another- but too little, too late
  14. Texans (9-7)- First winning season, but no postseason
  15. Falcons (9-7)- Strong finish to disappointing season

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Philadelphia Eagles Must Learn from Brian Dawkins to Win a Super Bowl

Broncos vs. Eagles

Ten days ago, the Philadelphia Eagles concluded yet another season with the bitter disappointment of unfulfilled Super Bowl aspirations. After 43 years in the NFL's Super Bowl Era, the Eagles remain one of fifteen teams that have never taken home the Lombardi Trophy. Much will be debated in the 2009-2010 postmortem, but this year's failure arguably traces back to one fateful decision last offseason.

Surely, winning a Super Bowl is a lofty goal and a daunting task. Each year, only 1 of the league's 32 teams realizes this dream. Or, expressed another way, all things equal at the outset of a season, each team has a paltry 3% chance to be holding the trophy at the end. From a historical perspective, it is somewhat staggering to see that just eight teams have garnered 72% of the 42 Super Bowl Championships to date.

So, you can see, the Eagles and their fans have a great deal of company, but this offers no solace in Philly. Misery may love company, but not in this city. Considering the teams loyal and passionate fan base, and the Eagles multiple flirtations with greatness over the past decade, the dismay, distress and disenchantment tends to be much more intense amongst this team's fan base.

Over the past ten years during the Andy Reid/ Donovan McNabb generation, the Eagles stoked fans hopes by advancing to the NFC Championship Game five times and the Super Bowl once, but failed to be the one team spraying champagne when all was said and done. Prior to 2000, although disappointment was abundant, fans had little opportunity to feel the anticipation of winning it all as the Eagles only made it as far as the Championship Game and Super Bowl in that magical 1980 season under Dick Vermeil.

When put into this historical perspective, the Eagles' success over the past decade is in marked contrast to the prior period- in a very positive way. It is not even close. Clearly, owner Jeffrey Lurie and his regime have done a remarkable job of transforming the Eagles organization into a perennial contender that is the envy of many franchises around the league.

A significant part of that metamorphosis relates to the work of Reid and the quarterback he chose to lead the way on the field. But, like any successful business or entity, a good deal of it traces to the organizational philosophies and practices that are put into place. Some are highly apparent and some are subtle, albeit influential. These run the gamut from risk taking to decision making to salary administration to continuity and more.

One philosophy that has governed the team is to catch players on their upside and avoid investing in those who's skills may diminish over the contractual horizon. Surely, there is some sensibility to this approach, especially when viewed superficially.

Why not always get the most bang for your buck? Some previous Eagles regimes have been guilty of the opposite, hanging onto and tying up valuable cap space with veterans whose skills had clearly diminished. Sustainability is always a delicate balance.

When viewed against this back drop, the current philosophy towards players advancing in age has served the organization moderately well. Of course, it is often conjecture in terms of how a departed player would have performed.

This season began with great promise in Philadelphia, but the team's fateful decision at the end of last February may have doomed the season all along. It was then that they allowed fan favorite and now seven time All-Pro Brian Dawkins to be lured away from the organization that has been his professional home for his entire accomplished career.

In the case of Dawkins, the folly of letting him walk is validated in many different ways and clearly evident to die hard Eagles fans. His addition propelled the Broncos defense to the top of the NFL rankings after being one of the worst a season ago. Players, coaches, fans and writers around the league recognized his still abundant talents and contributions by naming him to this year's Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.

More locally, as the Eagles progressed through the regular season, and then were dismantled by the Cowboys in back-to-back games, the impact of Dawkins' absence became painfully apparent. The 'Boys repeatedly loped across the middle of the field on slants and curls. They took advantage of the Eagles shoddy tackling with bubble screens and draws.

These tactics were relatively rare with the specter of Dawkins jacking up receivers who dared to go there or hurdling forward in run support to level running backs. Besides making opponents cast a wary eye to always account for him, Dawkins set a tone and raised the bar for the rest of the Eagles defenders. His leadership was sorely missed from the season's opening kickoff through their somber exit in Dallas.

Lurie, Reid, Joe Banner and the Eagles organization need to learn from this regrettable decision not to sign the team's spiritual and emotional leader for the previous dozen years. In retrospect, it has become abundantly clear how big a role Dawkins has played in the new millennium success. Players of Dawkins caliber are few and far between- and especially rare when they are also undeniable leaders and role models.

The current Eagles regime has crafted a winning philosophy and approach, but must extract wisdom from its most recent failings. Rather than remain steadfast in its approach to aging veterans, particularly team icons such as Dawkins, the team needs to recognize that exceptions are always warranted. The sum total of some player's worth to the team is more than just his physical talents.

One can only hope that this administration realizes its major faux pas in letting Dawk finish his career in any other uniform than midnight green. Adjusting some of the policies and practices that have gotten them to the precipice is critical to get them over the hump to ultimately realize that ever elusive championship. The first litmus test will be their handling of Sheldon Brown and Brian Westbrook this offseason.

Lurie and crew would be wise to cast an eye across the street to get a chemistry lesson from the Phillies. The two neighboring teams have shared similar histories, but have taken divergent paths of late with the city's baseball team capturing a World Series title in 2008 and coming close again in 2009.

Somewhere along the way, the Phillies organization realized the secret recipe combines talent, attitude, mental toughness and leadership. Dawkins brought all of the above to the Eagles- and would have been worth every penny that it would have taken to keep him. And, I can not help but think, if not for this regrettable decision eleven months ago, this season might have ended very differently.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New York Jets- San Diego Chargers: AFC Divisional Playoff Preview

Carolina Panthers v New York Jets

Part 3 (see Part 2 for coverage of Sunday's Cowboys-Vikings game)

The New York Jets land in San Diego full of confidence that they can leave with a win and advance further in the postseason. First year head coach Rex Ryan has players believing that they have peaked at the right time and a winning combination capable of taking down any of its potential opponents.

In a twist of irony, the Jets do most of their best work on the ground and thwart the opposition's attempts at moving through the air with the best cover corner in the business. With a rookie quarterback guiding the offense, Ryan's game plan is devised around its strong running game and top ranked defensive unit, which has long been a winning formula in the NFL postseason.

Darrelle Revis has rapidly gained well deserved recognition throughout the league one game at a time as he has unfailingly shut down the best wide receivers on each opponent. He is indiscriminate in his work, sending home upstarts, Pro Bowlers and All-Pro's alike with the same frustration and similar dismal numbers.

Revis' focus today will likely be on San Diego's Vincent Jackson, who has been quarterback Philip Rivers' favorite target amongst his wide receivers. A bit of encouraging news for the Chargers, though, is that Rivers spreads the ball around and their passing game is not predicated on one star receiver.

Tight end Antonio Gates was San Diego's leading pass catcher, accumulating 79 receptions and 1,157 yards. With Revis hawking Jackson, expect Rivers to set his sights on Gates all day long. He will also likely look to get the ball to running backs Ladainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles in space to take advantage of their explosiveness. Rivers has been an under-rated star performer who demonstrates great resourcefulness, so he will likely find a way to move the ball and get some points on the board.

While the Jets finished first in pass defense by a wide margin, they were somewhat mortal in terms of run defense. Their #8 ranking could be a bit of an illusion, though, as teams often chose to keep the ball on the ground due to their inability to get anything going through the air. Regardless, gone are the days of running the football being a Chargers strength. Tomlinson rushed for less than 800 yards and averaged but 3.3 yards per carry.

When the Jets have the ball, they will rely on their top ranked running game and keep the reigns on QB Mark Sanchez. Thomas Jones, who has been battling a bruised knee, is their veteran stalwart having rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns during the regular season. With Jones slowed by injury last week, rookie Shonn Greene amassed 135 yards on the ground to lead the Jets to victory over the Bengals in the Wild Card game.

This is a great match-up for New York as the Chargers struggle mightily to defend the run, yielding 4.5 yards per carry. It could be a long day for San Diego if their offense can not keep their defense off the field, because Ryan will surely be looking to exploit this mismatch. The Chargers will undoubtedly stack defenders in the box to stop the run and force Sanchez to beat them through the air. The Bolts could conceivably benefit, though, from a week of rest and have an edge over a Jets offensive line that played last week and had to travel cross country.

New York was almost dead last in passing, but that largely relates to frequency. As he did a week ago, Sanchez has proven that he can be the good steward that Ryan desires by protecting the ball and making big throws when called upon.

This game will be closer than many expect considering that San Diego enters the postseason as the hottest team in football. The match-ups and a Jets team believing in themselves will take this to the wire, but Philip Rivers will find a way to pull this one out.

Jets 16

Chargers 17

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings: NFL Divisional Playoff Preview

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys - Wild Card Round

Part 2 (see Part 1 for a preview of Saturday's games)

While the Arizona Cardinals and New Orleans Saints may provide the best theatre in the NFL this weekend, the two most balanced teams go head-to-head in Sunday's early game. The Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings have a lot of similarities, with strength on both sides of the ball. And, although each has talent at skill positions, both teams are built the old fashioned way on a foundation of strong interior lines.

In Sunday's game, the big name offensive players will likely grab the spotlight, but the game will be won or lost in the trenches. Of all the great action this weekend, this contest provides the most compelling match-up for NFL traditionalists due to the overall balance of talent and style of play. Here is my take on what to expect:

Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4) - Sunday, 1 PM ET

Both the Cowboys and Vikings have something to prove in this year's postseason. The former is desperately trying to reverse fortune and re-establish itself as a championship caliber franchise after going 13 years between playoff wins. The Cowboys took one major step forward by breaking that string with a resounding win over the Philadelphia Eagles last Saturday evening, but feel they have the ingredients and momentum to make a Super Bowl run.

For the Vikings, they continue the organization's quest to bring its first Lombardi Trophy to Minneapolis after several flirtations, whiffing on the team's four trips to the Super Bowl. With the addition of ageless Brett Favre to an already talented cast, fans and players alike believe this could be the year that the Vikings finally break through. Sunday may possibly be the biggest hurdle as they host the white-hot Cowboys who are similarly motivated to realize their potential and by the failings of seasons past.

Favre brings veteran leadership and a swagger to the team that was clearly missing for man years. He also brings a proven playmaking ability that has transformed a run oriented offense into the NFL's second highest scoring team. And, with the emergence of its young receivers, the Vikings have many ways to hurt opponents.

Of course, the team still boasts having one of the best running games in football with Pro Bowler Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor operating behind its hefty offensive line. Peterson is a powerful runner with the ability to break a long run anytime he touches the ball, though this occurred much less frequently this season. Taylor provides a good change of pace with his ability to dart through creases and catch the ball circling out of the backfield.

Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin provide Favre with two athletic, playmaking targets not found in this city since the days of Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Rice accumulated 1,312 yards as the team's top receiver, using his speed and length to haul in passes. Harvin provides a pure explosiveness that earned him this year's NFL "Rookie of the Year." Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is battling injury, but has been a favorite red zone target for Favre all season.

Wade Phillips and the Cowboys will try to counter the Vikings potent offense by attempting to keep pressure on Favre with four pass rushers. Outside linebackers Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will be instrumental to this tactic as they blitz from the edges. If the 'Boys can get in Favre's face with just four rushers, this will allow them to drop seven into coverage as well as allow inside linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking to key on stopping Peterson.

It is likely that Dallas will contain Peterson with their 4th ranked run defense, so expect Brad Childress to eventually turn Favre loose. The Vikings tendency is to attempt to establish the run early; therefore, a key to the game will be for the Cowboys to capitalize and take an early lead. Dallas will also be looking to divert Favre's eyes away from his receivers and towards avoiding pass rushers by breaking down the pocket and getting hits on him.

Like their opponent, the Vikings possess a very stout run defense having yielded only 87 yards per game throughout the season. It appears that Marion Barber will be back in the starting line-up after sitting out most of last week's game with an injured knee. He provides a pounding style and is complemented perfectly with the very speedy Felix Jones. Regardless of Barber's health, expect to see Jones on the field for at least 50% of the snaps due to his home run potential.

The Cowboys are much more likely to come out throwing to avoid wasting early possessions against the Vikings tough run defense. Tony Romo is playing with tremendous confidence and has been one of the league's hottest passers over the second half of the year. Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett will once again try to exploit the post catch capabilities of Miles Austin and Patrick Crayton with bubble screens and slants.

A large part of the offensive game plan will involve Pro Bowler Jason Witten. The Vikings defense has had difficulty covering tight ends all season, so look for Witten to work the seams early and often. Once the passing game is clicking, Dallas will mix in plenty of draws and delays to slow down the Jared Allen-led front four. Garrett and Romo have been particularly effective in adjusting plays according to the weaknesses of the defensive personnel on the field at any given time.

This will be a hard fought game. I expect the Cowboys to take the early lead and use a similar formula that has made them the hottest team in the NFC. Eventually, Miles, Jones and Witten will break off some long gainers. Conversely, Favre may be finding themselves playing catch-up all day, with the relentless Dallas pass rush getting the best of him at the end of the day. With Favre always a press conference away from contemplating retirement, Vikings fans may go home wondering if the Cowboys took away their best shot at that elusive trophy.

Cowboys 28

Vikings 24

Friday, January 15, 2010

NFL Divisional Playoff Preview- Part 1

Green Bay Packers v Arizona Cardinals - Wild Card Round

One of the best sports weekends of the year kicks off tomorrow with the NFL Divisional Playoffs. Fans are treated to two full days of action with this year's slate featuring some especially compelling match-ups. A solid argument can be made for any of the eight participating teams to advance to next week's Championship Games.

An interesting aspect, albeit to the chagrin of some NFL traditionalists, relates to the fact that weather will not be a factor in any of the four contests. There will be no frozen tundra this week with three games played in domes and the fourth being hosted in temperate San Diego. Accordingly, all of this weekend's action will be determined based on strategy, preparation and execution.

Of course, the four teams that spent the previous weekend resting and watching the Wild Card round by virtue of their well earned seedings have a little bit of a jump start on their opponents. This has been less of an advantage in recent years, especially a year ago when three visiting teams advanced. Here is a preview of what to expect in Saturday's games, including my predictions on the eventual outcome. Neither pick is made with a great deal of conviction.

Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3) - Saturday, 4:30 PM ET

The Cardinals head to New Orleans fresh off one of the most action packed and thrilling playoff games in NFL history. Arizona's overtime victory came on a defensive score after three hours of trading touchdowns with the Green Bay Packers in a game that looked like a cross between Arena Football and an NCAA tie breaker.

Like a year ago, the Cardinals were led by senior statesman Kurt Warner, who posted some other worldly numbers. Despite missing one of his star receivers, Warner connected on almost 88% of his 33 pass attempts for 379 yards and 5 TD's.

Because he got a late start in his career, and was once prematurely considered washed up after being hampered by a thumb injury, Warner is arguably the most underrated quarterback in the league's history.

Speculation has begun to grow that the Cardinals signal caller may call it quits after this season, but fans can be heartened by living in the present and knowing that Warner gives them a shot to win against anybody. After prevailing in last week's dramatic shootout against a very talented Packers team, the Cardinals have been rewarded with facing the NFC's top seed on enemy turf, so once again, the team's hopes will rest firmly in Warner's capable hands.

It appears that wide receiver Anquin Boldin will be shut down once again due to multiple leg injuries. Accordingly, the team will rely heavily on Pro Bowl receiver and part-time acrobat Larry Fitzgerald along with Steve Breaston and Early Doucet.

On offense, the Cardinals match up very favorably. They will likely keep the ball in the air, while discriminately mixing in the run to keep defenders honest, as they try to exploit the Saints 26th ranked pass unit. The hallmark of the Saints defense has been creating turnovers, so if the Cardinals can avoid turnovers, they very well could outscore their opponents for a second consecutive week.

While this is a positive view, it also implies that Arizona's biggest challenge will be keeping Drew Brees and company out of the end zone. The Saints feature the NFL's most prolific offense, having averaged more than 400 yards and almost 32 points per game. These numbers are even a little watered down by the final couple games when the team was playing out the string.

In my book, Brees should have been the NFL's Most Valuable Player this season. He finished the season with a 109.6 quarterback rating on the strength of a 71% completion percentage, just shy of 300 yards per game and 34 TD's. Regardless of what may not being sitting on his mantle, the Cardinals surely realize the challenge they face in trying to slow him down.

Like their opponent, the Saints will also try to take advantage of a Cardinals pass defense that finished three spots higher in the regular season, and was torched by Aaron Rodgers for 422 yards last Sunday. But similar to New Orleans, the calling card of the Cards unit is forcing turnovers, both by jumping routes and stripping balls.

Vegas has established the over/under for this game at 57 points. Although hefty by normal standards, this seems light to me. Expect another highly entertaining shootout with the game coming down to a missed field goal or a key turnover. Because neither team will be able to stop the other, I anticipate that a gambling play by Darren Sharper or a member of the Cards aggressive secondary will tip the game one way or the other.

Cardinals 42

Saints 44

Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2) - Saturday, 8:15 PM ET

With adrenaline still pumping from a thrilling opening game, NFL fans will switch over to catch the nightcap featuring two bitter rivals. The Ravens travel to Indianapolis to face the formerly beloved team that picked up and left Baltimore in the dark of the night.

The city endured a dozen years without an NFL team before they wooed away Cleveland's franchise. In a complicated twist, the team was renamed the Ravens, while Cleveland was awarded an expansion team and the "Browns" name. All this is to set the stage that there is still lingering hostility in Baltimore towards the Colts franchise, so a lust for revenge provides added incentive to the fans, if not the players.

On the surface, by virtue of the teams' respective regular season records, the Colts would seem to be heavy favorites, but the late season trends would indicate otherwise. The Colts rolled to 14 straight wins and appeared poised to run the table, until rookie head coach Jim Caldwell suddenly pulled Peyton Manning in Week 16. The move resulted in a loss of the game and possibly the spirit of his players.

Conversely, the Ravens finished the season on a high note after being up and down all season. They have won four of the last five games, including a surprising blowout of the Patriots last weekend in Foxboro. And, importantly, the team seems to match-up well against a Colts team that narrowly beat them in Week 11.

After struggling early in the season, the vaunted Ravens defense has come together in the latter part of the season, finishing third in both total yards and points allowed. They also play an attacking style that forces turnovers and can make for a very long day for even the best opposing QB's.

The Colts, of course, feature one of the all-time best in reigning MVP Peyton Manning, who continues to build his resume over 12 seasons. Manning earned his fourth MVP trophy by leading his team to the most wins, while racking up 4500 yards and 33 TD's. As usual, he will look to spread the ball around, but will surely keep a heavy focus on his top two pass catchers, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.

Indianapolis will find difficulty establishing anything on the ground against the Ravens stout run defense. Veteran Joseph Addai is not quite the same back he was a couple years ago. In order to compensate, Manning will try to hit Addai in the flat to open up opportunities down the field.

On the offensive side, the Ravens match up well with the Colts. Second year running back Ray Rice has emerged as a star, finishing with more than 2,000 yards in combined rushing and receiving yardage this season. He also comes into the game with the "hot hand" (or "hot quads") having compiled 159 rushing yards against the Patriots. Meanwhile, Indianapolis has struggled against the run, finishing 24th in the NFL.

The Colts defense fares a little better against the pass, but Baltimore's second year signal caller Joe Flacco will be constrained by a conservative game plan. Head coach John Harbaugh will be perfectly intent to rely on his tough defense along with Rice and back-up Willis McGahee to keep the ball out of Manning's hands.

A Ravens upset would not be surprising at all. This could become reality if Indianapolis falls behind early and then looks to Manning to lead a comeback as it did so often during the season. If the game stays close, the experience edge of Manning over Flacco should prove to be the difference.

Ravens 20

Colts 23