timbersfan's WunderBlog

The Reducer: Week 22, Separation Sunday

By: timbersfan, 12:53 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

In seasons past, Super Sunday (the term Sky Sports uses to market Sundays in which several of the Premier League's top teams face off) meant long, tedious buildups to long, tedious matches between cagey, defensive teams. You'd come out of these double-headers feeling cheated; a 1-1 draw, a cagey, 1-0 home win. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I'm sure Premier League titles have been decided on those days, but it sure never felt that way.

The lead-up to this past Sunday's round of games felt different. Tottenham could legitimately make a title claim, Arsenal could gain ground on Chelsea for the last Champions spot. City and United, despite being the class of the league, were there for the taking. For those of us looking for a more-than-two-club title race, Sunday could actually be "super."

There might have only been two good halves played between Spurs-City and Arsenal-United, but in the end the two North London clubs were left, respectively, ruing their luck and cursing their manager, while the Manchester clubs saw the rest of the league recede in their rear-view mirrors.

Manchester City 3, Tottenham 2


• After a pretty tight, cautious first half, the second act of Spurs-City was the equivalent of chasing a bunch of energy strips with two cans of Monster Khaos. From the 56th to the 65th minute there were four goals.

• Samir Nasri's goal for City's opening score was the first time I felt like Roberto Mancini's band of well-paid outsiders hit the dizzying heights of their early-season form. It was reported on Monday that Johan Cruyff was not particularly impressed with the quality of play in the Premier League, but even he must have golf-clapped that pass from David Silva. That was a big goal for Nasri, who had been a walking, pouting portrait of £25 million on fire for the last two months or so. Also, is the sound of a shot nearly snapping a net off the goal the best sound in sports or the best sound in sports?

• City's second — coming off of an Edin Dzeko header into a tumbling Joleon Lescott — was an example of why this City team are so hard to stop. Their first goal was all Continental flair, movement without the ball and passes placed into the path of a cutting player. Their second was the polar opposite: ugly, physical, and equally difficult to defend.

• They're hard to stop and they're hard to love. City's behavior, while nothing out of the ordinary for a Premier League team in a tight, up-and-down match, could be described flatteringly as "careless," or more accurately, "dirty." Lescott's elbow on Younes Kaboul; the "sweep the leg, Johnny" move Mario Balotelli performed on Benoit Assou-Ekotto, and, of course, Balotelli's stomp of Scott Parker's dome.

• Okay, Mario: I don't know that I have seen an athlete quite like him before. We've had jesters, geniuses, loudmouths, and game-changers. But I don't recall seeing them all rolled into one player like this. He's like some unholy combination of Ian Wright, Eric Cantona, and Joey Barton. He's like his own weather system: unpredictable and always having an impact. Speaking of impact, is there a more game-changing sub in the league? When Roberto Mancini sent Balotelli on in the middle of the second, it was one part tactical substitution and one part mind game. As soon as he got in the pitch it felt like everyone was waiting for something to happen; for the storm to come. They certainly got it. Balotelli's stomp on Parker earned him a four-game ban. His penalty kick got City that much closer to their first Premier League crown.

• If Edin Dzeko's goal was an example of why City are hard to contain, Gareth Bale's goal for Tottenham's equalizer was, in turn, an example of what makes Spurs so special this year. It's easy to attribute their success to the sheer athleticism of the squad and Harry Redknapp's "fucking run around a bit" tactical philosophy. But there was Bale, popping up in the middle of the field, a position from which he's becoming increasingly dangerous. This Spurs side, with every game, become more and more fluid. They play the most exciting football in England. Too bad they likely won't have any silverware to show for it.

• Whenever I see Micah Richards do one of his bombing runs down the flank with the ball at his feet, I let out a deep, guttural "Ohhhhhh Yeahhhhh" in the voice of the Kool-Aid Man. Richards has been my favorite player of the season; he puts the fears of a vengeful, wrath-addicted god into opposing wingers tasked with marking him, and looks like he could play any position on the field (and often does). If there's any justice in England, he's starting for the Three Lions at right back when they take the pitch in Donetsk against France in their opening Euro 2012 fixture.

• Does Emmanuel Adebayor get to that Bale cross? Jermain Defoe nearly split himself in half reaching for it, and with Adebayor you never know if he's going to make the run in the first place. But that miss was a matter of inches and Adebayor is six inches taller than Defoe.

Manchester United 2, Arsenal 1


The Gunners' loss to Manchester United, at home, was their third straight defeat. Had you offered it before the game, honest Arsenal fans might have taken a 2-1 loss to the defending champions, especially given what happened the last time the two faced off. For Arsene Wenger, the problem wasn't so much the result but the way in which it was received by the club's fans. The term "crisis club" is often tossed around liberally, but I can't think of anything else to call Arsenal.

What seemed to rankle most fans, to say nothing of club captain Robin van Persie, was the substitution of Andrei Arshavin for young Gunner Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The Ox had just created Arsenal's first score, carving open United and finding van Persie for the goal. Wenger promptly hauled him off for Arshavin, triggering a deafening chorus of boos from the home crowd and a look of exhausted bewilderment from van Persie.

Arshavin promptly got roasted by Antonio Valencia (who played out of his mind on Sunday), leading to Danny Welbeck's United winner. After the match, when pressed on the matter, Wenger had this to say: "Oxlade-Chamberlain had started to fatigue … He was sick during the week. Arshavin is captain of the Russia national team. I have to justify a guy of 18 who's playing his second or third game? Let's be serious. I have to stand up for the substitutions I made. I've been 30 years in this job and have made 50,000 substitutions and I have to justify every time I make a decision? I do not have to explain to you every single decision I make."

He was defending himself to a prying media but, in reality, he was addressing his club's supporters. It's hard to decide what's more unbelievable: that a section of Arsenal's fans want a change in management, or that they might be right.

Every year it's the same thing: Facing a rash of injuries, Wenger is forced to put the team's livelihood in the hands of inexperienced or unqualified players. In seasons past, the quality of players like Cesc Fabregas or Jack Wilshere helped Arsenal leg it over the line with a Champions League place in hand. But it doesn't look like that's going to happen this year.

No, Wenger does not owe the fans an explanation. He's won league titles, FA Cups, and was instrumental in building the club a new mothership of a stadium in North London. But he can't be surprised when they get so frustrated at the substitutions-by-physio-chart. Nor can you be can you be shocked when you come out and say it would be a shame to lose points because you didn't have any fit fullbacks, then you lose points because you don't have any fit fullbacks. He has enjoyed something that few coaches or managers have in professional sports: trust. He's starting to lose it. Obviously from his fans, and perhaps, most important, from his players.

Many have noted the face van Persie made at the Oxlade-Chamberlain-for-Arshavin substitution; it reminded me a lot of this Liverpool moment from April 2010:


Manager Rafa Benitez was gone two months later. Fans can be won back. It's harder to do the same with your star players.

A few notes on United …

• One of the more damning indictments of Arsenal is just how much Manchester United have done in similar circumstances. They, too, have seen their defensive line torn apart by injuries and poor form. They've spent a fortune on a keeper who needs eye surgery. They, too, had to bring in an aging club legend in lieu of any significant mid-season signings, and manager Sir Alex Ferguson has also had to deal with limited funds to buy players. Yet here they are, in second, three points behind City.

• I don't know how much longer that three-point gap will stay that close, though. In the coming weeks, City face Everton, Fulham, Villa, Blackburn, and Bolton. United, on the other hand, get Stoke, Chelsea, Norwich, and Liverpool. It will take an incredible effort on United's part to stay within shouting distance of City through the month.

• Part of the reason United has remained so competitive in the face of all this adversity is because different players have, at different points, stepped up. This is a side that used to go as far as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo took them. If you had said in the beginning of the season that United's key players in January would be Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck, you would have been sent straight to Shutter Island.

• If you were wondering where the hell Javier Hernandez was, you're not alone. Chicharito didn't get off the bench Sunday, despite being available to play. According to Ferguson, "Chicharito has had his issues this year."

Step Overs

• As joyous as the celebrations were in Manchester, there was nothing but gloom on Merseyside this weekend. Everton drew with Blackburn, and Liverpool suffered what was, in many ways, their worst defeat of the season to Bolton. For Everton this could be a case of one miracle too many. David Moyes has been shuffling an increasingly tattered deck. In seasons past he could rely on getting goals from crazy Australians (Tim Cahill) and saves from crazy keepers (Tim Howard). Every year, Everton's best players or brightest prospects were picked off, and every year Moyes somehow kept the club competitive. But the lack of investment has finally cost the Toffees. The only reason they'll probably steer clear of the relegation battle is because the teams below them are so awful.

• Liverpool, on the other hand, has no excuse. And nobody seemed to know that better on Saturday than Kenny Dalglish. The club legend threw his team under the bus and then backed up over them to make sure he knew they'd been run over. "The foundations of this club have always been based on respect for other people. You can't come to places like this thinking all you need to do is turn up to get a result. That's what I think we did today, and that's why we were taught a lesson. It's not the right way to represent the club. I don't think we were even ready to play the game. That's probably why we lost a goal after four minutes. I don't think the way we went about our work was correct."

• Having lost two of their last three and looked abject doing so, it would be easy to say Liverpool are out of Champions League contention. It would be easy, were it not for Arsenal, Newcastle, and Chelsea looking so awful over the weekend. Newcastle were maybe due a loss like the one they suffered to Fulham (5-2). But Chelsea is inexplicable. Norwich boss Paul Lambert sent out his side with the instructions, "Don't get fuckin' beat!" Perhaps Andre Villas-Boas should have taken a page from his playbook, lit his extensive dossiers on fire, and told his team, "Go fuckin' win."

Goal of the Week: Gareth Bale, Tottenham Hotspur


Bale might be Welsh, but he puts a ton of English on this strike.

Quote of the Week: From the BBC report on Harry Redknapp's tax-evasion trial

"The prosecution allege Mr. Redknapp instead received a secret payment from Mr. Mandaric into an account in Monaco in the name of 'Rosie 47' — a combination of his pet dog's name and his year of birth — the prosecution said."

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What If Chip Kelly Had Taken the Bucs Job?

By: timbersfan, 12:50 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

There’s limited value in writing about things that didn’t actually happen (“What if the South had won the Civil War?” “What if Winona Ryder had been cast in The Godfather III instead of Sofia Coppola?” Etc.). But something almost happened on Sunday that’s worth considering, at least briefly: For six hours, it looked like Chip Kelly was going to become coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. By the time I woke up Monday, the rumor was already extinct; Kelly was staying at Oregon. And that bland reality destroyed the mesmerizing unreality of what he might have done to the NFL.

The question everyone had while the Kelly story still seemed real was obvious — would he try to use the same hyper-accelerated, run-based “blur” offense that regularly obliterates the Pac-12? I’m sure every NFL traditionalist would have argued, “No way. That would never work at the pro level.” And perhaps those purists would be correct. But why hire Kelly if that wasn’t what the Bucs wanted? He’s skilled at manipulating complex personal issues (history has proven that his handling of the LeGarrette Blount fiasco in 2009 was virtually perfect), and he knows how to motivate. But there are plenty of conventional choices who understand the modern athlete just as well. You don’t hire a guy for that motive. Kelly’s value is as an offensive innovator; philosophically, he’s able to mainstream what’s happening on the progressive fringes of football culture. My assumption is that he would have made the Bucs play like the Ducks.

Now, would this have worked?

I have no idea. If forced to guess, however, I would argue "probably." Tampa Bay would have needed to reinvent its offensive line, and there would be a few early games where the Bucs would get hammered like nails. But no one would want to play them. No one would ever want to prepare for them. I’m sure everyone assumes he’d have gotten quarterback Josh Freeman decapitated, but I’ve noticed a (pretty transparent) trend among running QBs at the pro level: The mobile guys who run away from people (Michael Vick, Sam Bradford) inevitably get caught, and then they get hurt … but the mobile guys who run through people (Cam Newton, Tim Tebow) somehow seem to thrive. If you consciously make contact part of your game, contact becomes normal. As a pocket passer, Freeman — at his very, very best — is maybe the ninth or 10th best quarterback in the league (his rating in 2010 was a competitive 95.9). But as a dual threat in a high-volume attack? I don’t think 5,000 yards of total offense is unthinkable. Moreover, every college class (for the next ten years) is going to be saturated with quarterbacks who are genetically engineered to run this kind of scheme, and most of them will go undrafted until at least the third round. Every April, Kelly could have burned all his early picks on defense and still found plenty of skill position speedsters on the second day of the draft. The uniqueness of his specific offensive needs would have worked against what every other team was hunting for.

So, in closing, if Tampa Bay had lured Kelly into their clutches, the Bucs would have won three Super Bowls before 2020.

(You see what I mean? This is what happens when you write about things that didn’t actually happen.)

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The Shootaround: NBA News, Notes and The Unbreakable Memphis Grizzlies

By: timbersfan, 12:49 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

Living Legends

During last season's playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies were a shocking success story, knocking out the Spurs and taking the Thunder to seven dramatic games before being knocked out. But in some ways seeing the Grizz sitting atop the Southwest Division (albeit by a matter of a few win percentage points), after nearly a month of the 2011-12 season, is almost equally impressive.

What's even more impressive is the way in which the Grizzlies are competing; they're seemingly playing at a playoff-like temperature already. Reading quotes from postgame reports, you get the sense that the togetherness and resolve that carried them through their 2010-11 playoff run has carried over to this season.

After Monday night's come-from-behind win over the Warriors, Rudy Gay, who scored three points in the final 23 seconds, had this to say: "We showed what we’re made of. We showed our toughness. There was a lot of yapping in the huddles. We went through a lot to get it.”

It was just the Warriors, man! Relax! Or don't! Because the Grizz need a little fire in their bellies right now. After all, they're going into battle without their star power forward and beating heart, Zach Randolph.

When Z-Bo collapsed early in the season, tearing a ligament in his knee, I thought I heard the distinctive sound of Cinderella's glass slipper shattering. There was no way the Grizzlies could repeat last season's success without their leading scorer and rebounder, right?

Wrong. You hear that sound? That's the sound of M-Town chanting "Ru-dy! Ru-dy!" The Grizz have won seven straight and Rudy Gay has been the leading scorer in five of those contests. It makes a weird kind of sense; in the absence of Randolph, the engine of last season's playoff triumph, Gay, a player who was absent for all of that playoff run, has come into his own.

I feel the same way about invoking the Ewing Theory as some people do about saying "Candyman" five times into the mirror, but it's worth noting the marked improvement of players like Mike Conley (13.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 20.9 PER), O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol (15.2 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 21.4 PER) have had in Randolph's absence.

Maybe, since there's not the obvious A1 option in the post, the ball is moving around more. Maybe guys aren't ready to let go of last season's elation. And maybe head coach Lionel Hollins isn't willing to let them do so. The coach's take on Randolph's injury might lack poetry ("That’s life."), but whatever he's telling his players in the locker room is working.

A West Coast swing, like the one Memphis continues Tuesday night in Portland, is usually a big test for any team. But somehow I get the feeling the Grizzlies will come out of it fine. They are, after all, pretty good at being tested.
Around The League

Remember how, following the botched blockbuster trade between New Orleans, Houston and the Lakers, rumored to have been nixed by NBA commissioner David Stern, everyone from Joe League Pass to Kobe Bryant was feeling a little weird about Stern's involvement in the future and fortunes of a specific NBA franchise? But Stern basically told all parties to be cool? How's being cool working out, Eric Gordon? "In terms of my contract extension, Dell Demps indicated that it’s out of his control and NBA commissioner David Stern has the last determination on the contract extension." Cool.
Lost in the Flip Saunders news from Tuesday morning was another impressive performance by the Sixers on Monday night. Most surprising was the play of rookie Lavoy Allen, a Temple University product, who came of the bench to score 10 in 17 minutes. Allen scored the Sixers' 100th and 101st points last night. This meant those in attendance won free Big Macs the next day at McDonald's, making Allen an instant cult hero. "I'm feeling for a couple of Big Macs tomorrow," Allen said. Ah, Philly.
Monday saw the Boston Celtics put up a little bit of fight, in more ways than one. The C's pounded the Magic, 87-56. They also got a little feisty with Orlando, as Dwight Howard and Jermaine O'Neal nearly came to blows. After the game, Howard was full of passive zings and colorful explanations for what transpired. On the near-brouhaha: "I didn't run up on him because it's basketball. We're not MMA fighters." On getting dogged by Kevin Garnett: "There's no way KG should be beating me up and down the floor. He's 40 and I'm 25." Kevin Garnett is 35.

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The Fabulous and the Flops of the Conference Championships

By: timbersfan, 12:46 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

How close were Sunday's conference championship games? Well, if you consider the final scores to be a sign of how close they were, let's go with the closest ever. Two three-point wins meant that the combined margin of victory for the Patriots and Giants was just six points. That's never happened before; in fact, the combined score differential of the two conference championship games has never been in single digits. The previous record was 12, set several times, most recently last year.

Close games inevitably produce heroes and scapegoats, the validity of which we discussed Monday. Today, we're going to get past Billy Cundiff, Lee Evans, and Kyle Williams to take a look at those players who offered a little more or a little less over the course of the entire game, as opposed to making their name on one or two big plays. This is the conference championship edition of "The Fabulous and the Flops."


New England Patriots 23, Baltimore Ravens 20

Fabulous: Lardarius Webb. The Ravens defense didn't have its best game against Tom Brady, but Webb was a big reason why they were able to force Brady into a performance that, by his words, "sucked." Webb spent most of the day matched up against Wes Welker, and was a big reason why Welker was limited to just six catches for 53 yards. (Remember, Welker averaged nearly eight catches and more than 98 yards per game this season.) Webb did have an illegal contact penalty that nullified an interception, but the interception only happened because Webb committed the penalty, so it's not quite as bad as it sounds. In addition, Webb had an acrobatic interception of Brady to set up the first Ravens score of the day, and he was the one who stopped Brady on his first sneak attempt at the goal line during the fourth quarter. Webb is a restricted free agent this offseason, but along with Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, he should serve as a cornerstone of the Ravens defense for years to come.

Flop: Dannell Ellerbe. As the inside linebacker alongside Ray Lewis in Baltimore's 3-4, Ellerbe doesn't get a whole lot of attention. His role on Sunday, though, was huge; with the elite Patriots tight ends lining up on the other side of the field, Ellerbe had to be responsible and aware in zone coverage, try to keep up in man coverage, and make tackles on ball carriers without allowing extra yardage. He wasn't really able to succeed in any of those categories. Watch Tom Brady's completions and you'll see plenty of Ellerbe chasing the ball carrier around while losing ground. He made just three tackles all day, and they were each well past the line of scrimmage. He also committed a face mask penalty on BenJarvus Green-Ellis that turned third-and-5 from the Ravens 15 into first-and-goal from the 6, setting up the Patriots' opening touchdown.

New York Giants 20, San Francisco 49ers 17

Fabulous: The Niners' front seven, which put up staggering numbers against a battered Eli Manning. We mentioned the totals Monday — six sacks and 12 quarterback hits in 64 dropbacks — but let's go into the specifics. Ray McDonald had 2.5 sacks. Justin Smith only had one, but he knocked down Manning on four occasions. Patrick Willis had a sack and two knockdowns. Aldon Smith had a sack that saw him beat right tackle Kareem McKenzie twice on one play. They also had five tackles behind the line of scrimmage for a loss while holding Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to under 3.5 yards per carry and just three first downs on 25 rush attempts. The Giants briefly lost center David Baas during the game, but they will absolutely need to get more out of McKenzie and fellow tackle David Diehl during the Super Bowl.

Flop: Alex Smith. While he somehow finished with a higher passer rating than Manning, Smith struggled to find any sense of consistency, didn't get the ball out to his receivers on time, and threw way too many passes into the dirt. It's always a little unfair to do this sort of analysis, but let's take away the long Vernon Davis touchdown and the meaningless throw to Delanie Walker for 29 yards on the final play of regulation. Otherwise, Smith went 10-of-24 for 94 yards while throwing for three first downs and failing to convert even one of the 12 third downs he faced. The Davis play was valuable, of course, but you can only score a maximum of six points on one play, no matter how impressive it is. Smith failed to move the ball down the field far too frequently, and it cost his team the game.

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Humblebrag Power Rankings: The King Is Dead, Long Live the King

By: timbersfan, 12:45 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

Hey guys! After taking December off, I am happy to be back delivering Twitter's finest Humblebraggers to you. After so much time off, I was hoping our boy, Totes McGotes, would crack the list again. And he almost did, but part of me feels like he is artificially baiting me, and I refuse to bite.

I don't think I am just being paranoid. You see, when Totes doesn't make the list, he tweets about how he "forgot to feed the machine." I love that Totes is into the Humblebrag thing. He's a great sport, always has been, but I want him to really earn his spot. Here are two examples from this month of what I'm talking about:

@TotesMcGotes : "One of my good friends is on Undercover Boss tonight. Weird. They are kind of portraying him as a dick so far tho."

Too easy — and he knows that including the word "weird" pretty much always qualifies you for a Humblebrag.

@TotesMcGotes: "Thinking about hiring another personal assistant. Who wants a really kickass jobby job? #BossTotes #HorribleBosses #job"

Once again, too easy. "Another personal assistant?" It's like he's doing a parody of a rich guy.

Maybe I'm being too hard on him, but I just feel like those are too tailor-made to be real. He threw me fastballs, but there is something off about them. Here is an example of Totes from the glory days:

@TotesMcGotes: "I just realized I've only showered in ONE of my FIVE showers since I've moved in here. This must change #totesproblems"

That's the stuff right there. Pure unadulterated Totes.

Aside from that, there's some pretty good stuff this month. If January is any indication, this is going to be a PRETTY good year for faux-bragging. Enjoy!

10. @Charlene_Malin

This is from a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, weather lady.

"It's kinda awkward waiting at the mechanic's office where commercials of me are playing... I don't think the mechanic recognizes me :) "

Soooo then not that awkward, huh?

9. @TinieTempah

"I can't do the 'mean stare' @ bad drivers in traffic anymore cos they jus go 'Oh look its Tinie Tempah' & start waving, then I wave bk. :-("

At first I was all "Who the fuck is Tinie Tempah?" Then I looked him up and saw that he is a British rapper. But I still can't help but feel like I wouldn't know who he was even if I were British.

8. @NoelClarke

"That awkward moment when the pizza man, starts saying he knows you. "you don't know me, just gimme my food" LOL"

Once again, another British fellow. His name is Noel Clarke and he's an actor. I've pretty much only seen the British Office and then roughly the first 90 seconds of Downton Abbey, so I'm admittedly not up on my Brit culture. However, even if this guy were wildly famous, this is still a pretty egregious Humblebrag.

7. @nataliekhill

"I've DANCED in 3 bway shows, 2 national tours, 2 Vegas companies & a ton of regional & I still feel like an ass in a Zumba class."

I love the phrase "ton of regional" as a brag. It started pretty impressive and then kinda ran out of steam with "ton of regional." You could have just said "three Broadway shows" and left it at that.

6. @ArianFoster

"It's still surreal to me that people take their hard earned money to purchase my jersey. Everyone I see a 23 walking around I smile."

Hey, don't just assume that their money is hard-earned. I'm sure there are plenty of people spending their easily earned money on an Arian Foster jersey. And also probably a fair number of people spending no money on an Arian Foster jersey.

5. @CorbittChandler

"Man, I am beat up. You do a few front squats with 300lbs and 150 deadlifts at 135lbs in a WOD and everything goes to crap. #gettingold"

I can barely lift myself out of bed, so these numbers seem impressive. They may not be to people who work out, but to me they are, so this qualifies as a Humblebrag.

4. @twestp

"getting in shape for no good reason. #habit"

Another fitness Humblebrag.

Getting in shape is its own reward, bra!

3. @Andrej_Pejic

Andrej Pejic is a model.

"Its kind of insane though, the world is at the brink of depression, military conflict and ecological collapse and me in a bra is global news"

Whoa, whoa, whoa. GLOBAL??? NEWS???? It was neither of those things! At most it's what, like, a hundred teenagers jerked off to because their parents turned on SafeSearch or something.

2. @1jennylane

"hmmm. my own song is stuck in my head. interesting."

I would give anything to hear this song. Anything.

1. @kanyewest

I am actually shocked this is Kanye's first time on the list. He's coming out swinging.

On January 4th, Kanye West went on a Twitter rant unlike anything — wait, LIKE anything — he's ever done before. Some of it was incomprehensible lunacy, but peppered throughout were some pretty choice Humblebrags. Several of them. Here are a few samples:

"I know this is not a very rapper thing to say but I haven't bought a new car or piece of jewelry in about 2 years..."

I don't trust the validity of this statement.

"What good is fame and prestige if you can't use it to help people... I want to help by doing what I know how to do best .. create"

I mean, I know you have fame and prestige, Kanye, but YOU aren't supposed to say that.

"I appreciate having the most nominations at the Grammies but I feel so conflicted by the fact that award shows sometimes are completely... ...illogical"

Hey man, some people didn't get ANY nominations, ya know? Just be happy. I just want you to be happy, Kanye.

Thanks! See ya next time!

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What Should Jets Fans Root For (Other Than Stadium Collapse)?

By: timbersfan, 12:44 AM GMT on January 26, 2012

For the second time in four years I am forced to burn in my own sports hell as a Jets fan, watching the Giants and Pats slug it out for the Super Bowl. This year however is tenfold worse than 2007. After two consecutive championship disappointments THIS WAS TO BE THE YEAR. Rex could say whatever he wanted because, dammit, we were gonna do it! We were gonna take the division from the Pats, and even had the rare luxury of sticking it to the Giants on our march to the big game! Fast forward five agonizing months, though, and my greatest fears have been realized.

On the one hand, a Patriots Super Bowl win would be yet another reminder that the Patriots are our Daddy, the Yankees to our Pedro. The dream that their evil empire was broken was just that — a dream. But a Giants win would mean we Jets fans will be engulfed in a hellish "jokes on you, fatboy" world. While the opening of The Dark Night Rises trailer has offered a glimmer of hope, I fear that the chances the field collapses into the ground are slim. So who should this shamed Jets fan want to lose more?
— Rami L.

Because I can't even begin to slip into the psyche of someone who's so devotedly Gang Green — my own nerves are a little too frayed after Sunday night to get all Method in that role — I posed this question on Twitter. I asked Jets fans whom they'd rather see win it all, adding that I figured the answer is probably not quite so clear-cut this season as it was during Super Bowl XLII. After all, it was the Giants who this year helped all but end the Jets' season. (Plus, Rex Ryan's Big Mouth has made the relationship between the Jets and the Giants all the more fraught and divisive of late.)

Most people, though, said the decision was just as obvious as before, many invoking Red Sox-Yankees as a comparison. Here were some of my favorite responses, broken down into themes:

The Doctrinaire:
"Giants, no question. Hate for Pats far outweighs dismay at seeing fellow NY team win."
"rooting for the patsies is like a yankee fan rooting for the red sox, that is never acceptable"
"The answer is ALWAYS 'Not The Fucking Patriots'"

The Help Me, I'm Surrounded by Massholes!:
"as a jet fan I'm rooting for the Giants. (Note- I live in New England)"
"Giants. I live in Boston, so I enjoy watching the car careen off the cliff."

The Self-Interested Basketball Fan:
"leaning pats. The more angry ny fans there are the more likely dantoni gets fired when ppl turn back to basketball #WTFKNICKS"

The Self-Interested Hockey Fan:
"Don't care, as long as they beat the Rangers tonight." (Note: Too bad so sad!)

The Self-Aware Jets Fan:
"Giants. Fans easily less obnoxious than Pats fans … and Jets fans know about being obnoxious."

The Shockingly Selfless:
"Giants since I have a lot of family and friends who are fans so at least they can be happy." (Note: Awwwwwwwww!)

The Dark Knight Rises Scenario of Which You Speak:
"hoping for the dark knight rises scenario where someone blows up the entire field …"
"Outside of the stadium imploding, rooting for the Pats — live in NYC area surrounded by Giant fans — have heard enough from them …"

The Reverse Ray Bourque:
"shaun ellis"

The "Mayhem" Guy From Those Insurance Commercials:
"I'm with the Giants for NYC solidarity and because if they win again it'll be the greatest act of sports trolling EVER."

The "Can't Handle the Truth":
"I just can't handle the concept of Eli being talked about as 'among the greats of the game.' #sorry #allelialltheguhhhh"

and finally, the Not Our Kind, Dear:
"Gross, don't talk to Jets fans."

(That last one may have changed a few minds.)

Now that Avery is out of the NHL (good night, sweet prince) who takes over his mantle as the most-reviled player in the league? I figure Scotty Hartnell made a pretty good case for himself during 24/7.

— Harrison E.

It's not just Avery who is gone, it's also, in some ways, Matt Cooke, who has had one of the more unexpected transformations in his play this season. Cooke has served just eight minor penalties for 16 minutes in the box through 49 games — compare that with last year, when in 67 games he racked up 37 minors, five majors, two misconducts, and a game misconduct for a total of 129 PIM. That's not to say he's not still hated — reputations last a long time, and he's recently become tangled in some questionable play — but compared with the last few seasons, he's really toned down his act.

Hartnell is definitely up there, though, and the fact that he can also score goals — he had his sixth career hat trick the other night in a 6-5 loss to the Bruins, whom we'll get to in a moment — makes him stick even more in the craw of opposing teams. (Alex Ovechkin and P.K. Subban can fall into this category sometimes themselves.) Other current players, in no real particular order, who incite absolute rage for a living include guys like Patrick Kaleta, Alex Burrows, Maxim Lapierre, Dan Carcillo (more like KARMAcillo; he suffered a season-ending knee injury while delivering an illegal hit, and on second thought is it too late for me to take back that terrible pun?), Steve Ott, Chris Neil …

I'm sure I'm forgetting and/or including players that will send some wronged hockey fan into a frenzy, so to put the cherry on top I'll end the list with "the Boston Bruins." (I have to admit, though, that while I frequently root against them, I do kind of harbor some fondness for the sheer unapologetic ridiculousness of that roster. This post by Steve Glynn does a great job explaining why it works.)

Is it too much to ask for Zdeno Chara to start quoting lines from Rocky IV before/during games? I mean, the Bruins are already becoming the most hated team in the NHL, they might as well embrace it fully. If Big Z had said "If he dies, he dies!" after putting Pacioretty into the wall, the whole of North America would have gone insane … but they probably would have built a statue of him in Southie. I also would pay to see Chara skate up to the opposing captain before each game to say "I must break you" in his best Slavic accent. This would start each match on the proper note.

— Joseph B.

See what I mean? And this e-mail hasn't even addressed Brad Marchand or Milan Lucic, or the White House's latest public enemy no. 1.

But here, let's all forget about today's NHL and rejoice in its filthy, filthy past. (The NO FEAR shirt might be my favorite part. No COED NAKED?) This clip will make everyone feel better, and also possibly worse.


I have a number of female friends whose friendship means the world to me. I call most of them by their last name as opposed to their first name. I'm going to guess that a lot of guys refer to you as Baker, as opposed to Katie. Do you think a guy referring to a girl by her last name implies something deeper than what it is at face value?

— Mike M.

Typically I think it implies that you don't particularly wish to make out with them … and your description of these ladies as "female friends whose friendship means the world to me" suggests to me that maybe I'm right. Even platonically, though, the last-name thing can get tricky; my own personal reactions to it have ranged from, "Ugh, who is he to think he's on a last-name basis?" to, "OMGHECALLEDMEBAKESWE'REBESTFRIENDSNOW." It's akin to the parts of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Elijah Wood tries to reenact, frame-by-frame, the cherished memories that Kate Winslet had with Jim Carrey, but something about it just doesn't feel right to her, you know? Anyway, the tricky part happens when you try to make the switch from the last name to the first. This is much more of an issue in reverse — so many guys not only go by variations on their last names but are so utterly defined by them that it's awkward for a new girlfriend to attempt the switch from, say, "Fitzy" to "Patrick" without sounding like a teacher or mom.

In your opinion, when a girl says "its not like that" when referring to a male friend, how often is it like that? 100%?

— Matt A.

It depends. Is the guy calling her by her last name?

I recently got back from a trip to London and during my travels I was introduced to a little magazine called Hello. Now, I've been known to read a gossip mag or two, or three, in my time, but I'd never ever been as enthralled as I was by this magazine. Is there something about British celebrities that makes them way more interesting than US ones? I was more transfixed by a story about how Kate Middleton hosted a charity dinner alone (on only two days notice no less!) than I was by "celebrities, they're just like us!" which is normally my favorite part of the magazine. Anyway I think we need US Weekly and In Style to start covering more British royalty and reality stars. What do you think?

— Will K.

First of all, I love a man who can readily admit he enjoys celebrity mags. Most of my guy pals, when we're boarding a long train ride or settling into the backseat for a road trip, wrinkle their noses when I offer up my stack of Stars and Us Weeklys. (Remember back in the '90s when Us was a rival to Entertainment Weekly? That was weird.) Slowly but surely they can't help but glance over as I study each page, peering close at the enhanced photos of rogue celebrity cellulite and shaking my head in disagreement with Who Wore It Best? because NO JESSICA SIMPSON DIDN'T. By the time I get to the latest on La Lohan they can't help but weigh in. "Oh my god, that's what she looks like now? She used to be … "

"Oh, I know," I say, handing them their own issue so they'll stop reading over my shoulder. They always accept it.

Anyway, the thing about British celebrities and royals and D-list reality stars is that in order for them to be fully appreciated, they need to be covered by the British, for the British. It's hard for me to explain precisely why, other than (a) during the royal wedding the best commentary by far was by catty Brits in fascinators with titles like "Royal Household Correspondent," and (b) well, just look at this piece from last year, which remains a gem of the genre — make sure you scroll all the way down to see how wonderfully and calmly they bury the lede. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, what should really happen is that British writers should just take over all U.S. celebrity coverage as well. They may be the only people who do headlines better than the New York Post. I just clicked over to the Daily Mail website (which, if you liked Hello, you should absolutely add to your bookmarks), and these are just three teasers picked at random that are currently displaying on the main page:

Cougar Town Courteney Cox prowls around with her muscly legs on show in a little black dress
Looked far younger than her 47 years

The grandma who's a mum again at 53 … despite the fact she was still taking the Pill just in case
Debbie Hughes, from Daventry, Northamptonshire, took a pregnancy test after her family teased her about putting on weight, expecting the notion that she was having another child to be swiftly ruled out. But after putting on her reading glasses to decipher the result, the astonishing news began to sink in.

Sending a message? Seal sings Let's Stay Together on TV while ex Heidi Klum remains silent after split
Seal was happy to show his face (Okay, that one's just cruel!)

and this, in a section marked "EDITOR'S SIX OF THE BEST":

So, why the interest in beach volleyball, Minister?
Government claims it is a coincidence MPs "bought double the number of tickets for 'skimpy outfit sport'"

See what I mean? The U.K.'s Olympics coverage is going to OWN. Oh, one important PS: I don't think you've been reading In Style, as you wrote, unless you've recently become interested in which $400 blouses Gwyneth Paltrow uses as smocks for her children. I assume that's just a mash-up of In Touch and the highly underappreciated Life & Style. (Speaking of which: If this constitutes Kristin Cavallari's baby bump, then it's possible I'm currently carrying septuplets.)

Is there a stadium in the world more ironically (and painfully) situated than Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators? You walk out the front doors (like I did 5 minutes into the first period of a game vs. the Blue Jackets in which two fights occurred in the first 62 seconds) and you're surrounded by honky-tonks and bedazzled cowboy boots. Slap-shots and spurs? Face-offs and a drunk Tennessee grad singing "Walkin' in Memphis" to a crowd of MILFS wearing rhinestone cowboy hats? Tell me there's a more unlikely place.

— Micah C.

I've not yet been to Bridgestone Arena — or Nashville at all, for that matter — but it's one of the highest rinks on my list, in large part because of the disconnect you describe. (Though I'm willing to bet that there's "a crowd of MILFs wearing rhinestone cowboy hats" lingering in or around more NHL arenas throughout North America than you might realize.) I can see how the juxtaposition could be colossally depressing in a year where the team was playing poorly and in front of lots of empty seats. But the Predators these days are setting franchise attendance records and holding their own in the league's toughest division. And this is a team with a promotion in place that gives free Goo Goo Clusters (the "original Southern confection") to every fan in the arena if a Nashville player scores with a minute to play in the second period. The other night this was done by Mike Fisher, who had managed to get himself traded to Nashville in part to be closer to his country-singing wife … Carrie Underwood. What about this whole "Smashville" situation is not to love? I'd be shocked if an All-Star Weekend isn't held there within the next couple of years. Really, the only downside I can think of might be how many instances of the phrase "hockey tonk" the fans in Tennessee must have to endure on a daily basis.

Give us one band that you're listening to right now that we all should be too.

— Bohdi S.

Fitz and the Tantrums! Normally a sentence in a band's origin story like " … a week and a half later we're opening for Maroon 5 on their college tour" might serve as a bit of a warning sign, but hey, we've all done what we've had to do on our way to where we are now. (I once wrote an article that was essentially about how great all asses look in Lululemon, so I say this from experience.) They're a six-piece, guitar-free group whose members and sound I've seen favorably compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Daryl Hall, and … the Sister Act soundtrack. Obviously, it was that last one that grabbed me. You can read an assessment that uses way more music-y words and includes a wealth of great quotes in Rolling Stone, written by Grantland's own Andy Greenwald!


Per your question, I actually am listening to them right now because I'm going to their concert in San Francisco this Thursday night and could not be more excited, particularly after reading this review of a show in Boston this summer. (I'm a crier too.) When/if the time comes I fully intend to withdraw the entirety of my 401(k), take on a high-interest loan, and beg them to play at my wedding. (Hey, they performed at Occupy Wall Street with only a drum circle accompaniment, so you never know what they'll say yes to.) You're all invited. In the potentially really long meantime, here's a link to their Spotify page.

On a scale of 1-10 what's your excitement for this Super Bowl and how confident are you? As a huge Pats fan this is the perfect match up for Brady and Belichick to get their revenge on that stupid, should-have-been-a-sack, lucky-as-only-a-Manning-could-get catch in Super Bowl 42. I can't wait for this game. Bring it on. Oh, and how are the Eli love blinders?

— Ted C.

I had to special-order the Eli love blinders from an unmarked voodoo shop in New Orleans so they haven't even arrived yet. On a scale of 1-10 my excitement is somewhere around a 7.5 — I am just way too nervous right now to get it cranked up to a 10. As I wrote the other day, this postseason for the Giants, while of course glorious, is actually stressing me out more than the 2007 run did. It's just so difficult to get to the Super Bowl, and so many things have to go exactly your way, that this game feels a bit more high-stakes than '07 did. Put it this way: If it were to take the Giants another four years to get back to the big game again (which, in the NFL, is a VERY optimistic assessment), Eli Manning would be 35 and Tom Coughlin would be at home making exasperated faces at his remote control.

And between the revenge angle for the Patriots and the fact that the Giants beat them in a close game during Week 9, which I think is so hard to do a second time, and the realization that Angry Tom Brady plays with Hulk levels of super-strength … well, my confidence cowers somewhere around a 4. But then I start thinking about how that's silly and reverse-jinx-y and how Jason Pierre-Paul is going to rip the Hulk's head off and how Rob Gronkowski will be playing on an ankle that appeared to bend in a way I don't wish to witness again, and it oscillates back to, I don't know, a 6.5? The good news is that I live on the West Coast, so either way, there will be more than enough time to drink in the victory or drink away the pain.

Having just watched my beloved Patriots secure a spot in the Super Bowl, I had but a moment to relax. Seeing the Giants win suddenly put me in a somber mood. Forget '07, I had to deal with another major issue: my girlfriend of 2.5 years is a Giants fan. Worse, much like yourself, she has an uncanny love for Eli Manningface. Every time he checks at the line and screams "Omaha!" she giggles. If the Patriots win, she will always have, "Hey, remember '07?" If the Giants win, she gets to taunt me on how they're now 2 for 2 in Super Bowls against the Pats and that Eli is only a Super Bowl behind Brady. Should we even try and watch this game together?

— Ryan F.

Let's consider the options, and I'm going to assume for this exercise that your respective devotions are equal, or at least close enough. The first is watching it just the two of you, which I doubt is what you meant anyway. (If it is what you meant, though, the answer is NO NO NO SAVE YOURSELVES.)

The second is taking her to a party that will be populated mostly by Patriots fans, because there's safety (and celebration or solace) in numbers. The danger: I've often witnessed that lone-wolf fans of one team, when placed in hostile territory, tend to become not shrinking violets but instead shrieking voices. It's a me-against-the-world mentality that leads to loud "in your face"s and touchdown celebrations that would, on the playing field, merit a 15-yard penalty. If the Patriots lose, not only will you be devastated — you'll also be the guy who brought that douchebag Giants fan. (This is a gender-neutral assessment, by the way. If your girlfriend wrote in with the same question I'd give her the same answer with the teams swapped around.) And what if there is, like with gunmen, a second Giants fan there? You could wind up watching hugging and high-fiving all night, and you're not gonna like it.

The third option is to go to a more diverse or less intense party, hope it has a second TV somewhere, and drink heavily. (This is what I have done in the past.) The fourth option is to split — either for the night, or forever. Not to freak you out, but this is a pretttttty major test of what sounds like an otherwise healthy and long-lived relationship. Godspeed, giggles, and go Giants.

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NFC Championship: Role Reversal

By: timbersfan, 1:18 AM GMT on January 21, 2012

The Giants and 49ers have swapped costumes. Back when these two teams faced each other in six playoff games over a 12-year stretch from 1981 through 1993, when Parcells and Walsh were actual coaches as opposed to progenitors, when dynasties weren't subject to the salary cap, when rivalries between historically great teams actually played out in the playoffs on a seemingly annual basis and when the organizational philosophy of those two teams produced polar opposites that have now gone 180 degrees. These Niners are like those Giants, a team seemingly dedicated to hitting the opposition in the teeth. And these Giants are far more like those Niners, throwing the ball all over the field at their leisure. Joe Montana begat Eli Manning. Lawrence Taylor begat Aldon Smith.

In those games, the outcome seemed to follow the style: The Giants won the low-scoring ones and the 49ers won the high-scoring ones. Including the nine regular-season games between the two, the teams played five games where the two offenses combined to score 30 points or less. The Giants went 3-2 in those games. In the 10 games where the offenses scored 31 points or more, the Giants were 2-8.

These two teams combined for 47 points when the Niners struggled to a 27-20 win in November, but make no mistake: The game could serve as a prototype for the new team style under Jim Harbaugh. They played the game at an incredibly slow pace, with just 19 meaningful possessions split between the two teams. The 49ers-Saints game from last week, for comparison, witnessed 31 possessions. Against the Giants in Week 10, the 49ers dominated on special teams, picking up an extra possession with a successful unexpected onside kick, going 4-for-4 on field goals while averaging better than 50 yards on each of their punts. They won the turnover battle, two to one, and kept Alex Smith out of danger. The Niners turned the game into a battle of defense, special teams, and field position. No team on planet Earth is better at winning that sort of game than they are.

That's not to say the Giants played terribly, since they were a Mario Manningham drop away from tying the game on their final drive. Eli Manning completed his first 10 passes and had five drives of 70 yards or more, and that was without Ahmad Bradshaw. And besides, that was the old Giants! These are the playoff Giants, the team that discount double checked Aaron Rodgers onto the golf course! They've changed!

Well, if we're going to wonder whether the Giants can flip the script once more and beat the Niners in San Francisco, that seems like a good place to start. How, exactly, have the Giants changed?

Giants on Offense

GIGANTIC BREAKDOWN

Type Comp % Pass Y/Att Run Y/Att TOs/Game 3D/4D Conv Sack Rate
Regular Season 61.0% 8.4 3.5 1.5 37.0% 4.5%
Playoffs 67.7% 9.2 4.6 0.5 53.1% 3.0%
The above table includes a number of key rate statistics for the Giants offense as split between the regular-season edition and the team that's shown up in wins over the Falcons and Packers. The bad news for simple narratives is that the Giants haven't just improved in one facet of the game. Overnight, the offense has somehow gotten better at everything. Eli Manning is simultaneously more accurate and aggressive while reducing both his sack rate and turnovers. The running game has gotten significantly more efficient, and when the offense slows down, they've picked up third down at a ridiculously high rate. Let's put it in perspective a different way, by comparing the Giants' postseason performance to a regular-season offense that put up numbers at a similar level, and then where the Giants would rank in each category if they played like that for the entire 2011 season:

GIGANTIC COMPARISON

Type Comp % Pass Y/Att Run Y/Att TOs/Game 3D/4D Conv Sack Rate
Giants (Playoffs) 67.7% 9.2 4.6 0.5 53.1% 3.0%
Similar Reg. Season Team Packers Packers Texans 49ers Saints Saints
Rank 3 2 7 1 1 1
So, basically, the Giants have morphed into an offense that features Aaron Rodgers handing off to Arian Foster behind the Houston offensive line, with Drew Brees coming in to avoid sacks and keep the offense on the field on third down, while retaining the conservativeness of Alex Smith and avoiding fumbles altogether. That's quite impressive.

If you're like us, the warning sign going off in your head is screaming, "UNSUSTAINABLE!" Of course it's not sustainable. It's only two games, the Green Bay defense looked terrible, Atlanta was missing their best cornerback, you get the idea. Nobody's that good, not even the offenses we talked about above. The question isn't whether the Giants can keep it up, but whether they can keep it close to what they've done. And if you're a Giants fan looking for some level of hope, you're probably pinning yours on health. Outside of losing tackle Will Beatty, this is probably the healthiest Giants offense to take the field since the beginning of the season. Tight end Jake Ballard is gimpy, but all in all, the Giants have their full complement of skill-position weapons to an extent they really haven't all season.

We can safely say that the Niners are likely to take away the newfound improvement in the Giants running game, which ranked dead last during the regular season in yards per carry. Although the Giants were without Ahmad Bradshaw during the first game, the Niners had the league's best run defense and held the Giants to just 93 yards on 29 carries, an average of 3.2 yards per rush. New York had 13 carries for two yards or less, with five for no gain or a loss of yardage. And that was with Beatty in the lineup at left tackle.

The passing game might not see a huge downswing, though, since Manning really played well against the Niners. As we mentioned, he completed his first 10 passes before finishing 26-of-40 for 311 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. In addition to the gruesome Manningham drop that would have tied the game, Manning saw Victor Cruz drop a 20-yard pass with room to run after beating Carlos Rogers. He ran the very same route on the next play and Manning underthrew the pass, producing a Rogers interception.

The Cruz-Rogers matchup will be one to play close attention to on Sunday. The Giants had great success with Cruz lined up in the slot against Rogers, producing two long completions in addition to the big play that would have been if for the Cruz drop. The first was on a blown coverage that saw Rogers seemingly think he was in zone coverage and release Cruz alone into the middle of the field, only to find that everyone else on the team was in man coverage. Later, the Giants ran a very slight pick play to get Cruz a half-step down the sideline, which he turned into a 36-yard reception. The Giants clearly wanted to go after Rogers, and while he picked up a second interception after Manningham quit on a route over the middle, they had enough success that you should expect them to go after him again on Sunday.

The final drive of this game, though, would give Giants fans nightmares if it happened again. There was the Manningham drop on a slightly overthrown ball after he beat 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. After picking up seven of their first 11 cracks at third down, the Giants failed on three different third downs during their last possession. That included a bizarre draw call on third-and-2 from the 12-yard line with 1:20 left that went for no gain, a Kevin Gilbride special. They picked up two fourth downs to continue the drive, but after the failed draw, Justin Smith batted down a Manning pass at the line to end the game. It was a rare moment in the sun during this game for the Defensive Player of the Year candidate, as the 49ers were able to sack Manning just once, and it came on a coverage sack. That sounds like good news for Giants fans, but the flip side is that the Giants didn't really get to Alex Smith, either.

49ers on Offense

That fearsome Giants pass rush only sacked Smith twice in 32 dropbacks, and it didn't come from anything produced by Jason Pierre-Paul or Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora did pick up one of the two sacks, but it was a clear coverage sack after Smith stood in the pocket for five seconds, while the other takedown came courtesy of a Linval Joseph spin move. 49ers tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis did an excellent job on the usually dominant defensive ends of New York. Davis, in particular, deserves a lot of credit for improving during his second season after a very difficult rookie campaign. If this game happened last year, we would be making turnstile jokes about the Giants running through him, but that's no longer the case.

While the Giants have improved their defense in the playoffs, it hasn't been because of a dominant pass rush. Let's run that same chart from before, but this time for the D:

GIGANTIC DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN

Type Comp % Pass Y/Att Run Y/Att TOs/Game 3D/4D Conv Sack Rate
Regular Season 61.3% 7.5 4.5 1.9 39.5% 7.5%
Playoffs 57.5% 5.3 4.8 2.0 33.3% 6.5%
Whether it's because of a decline in performance or a change in scheme, the sacks haven't been coming at the same rate during the past two weeks. That's a tradeoff the Giants will take, though, for what they're doing against the passing game as a whole. That dropoff in yards per attempt is incredible, especially considering that they just finished a game against the Packers, who averaged a league-leading 9.3 yards per attempt during the regular season. The Giants were 20th in yards per attempt during the regular season, but they would be first by three-tenths of a yard if they put up a 5.3 YPA during the first 16.

The 49ers should average more than 5.3 yards per pass during this game. In the initial encounter between these two, the Giants went all out to stop Frank Gore, all the way down to putting 10 guys into the box on some running plays. They basically dared Alex Smith to throw on first and second down, and it worked. Gore only got six first-half carries before leaving with a knee injury, and they went for a total of zero yards. Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon combined to take his place and run for 50 yards on just eight carries, but the Giants weren't as aggressive about their run defense after Gore left. With Gore back in the lineup and Smith coming off of a career-making day, it will be interesting to see if the Giants remain that aggressive about stopping the run.

Smith was mostly effective, going 19-of-30 for 242 yards with a touchdown and an interception that wasn't his fault whatsoever, as Ted Ginn dropped a pass off of his hands and into the air, with Corey Webster picking it off. The San Francisco game plan in the passing game was relatively simple, as the Niners basically went after cornerback Aaron Ross as frequently as possible. Most of the time, that meant throws to Braylon Edwards, but Edwards is no longer on the active roster, and Ginn, his replacement in the starting lineup, is questionable for this weekend's game. Will the Niners have the same confidence going after Ross on throws to Kyle Williams? Smith generally avoided going after Webster in the first game, short one red zone series where he threw at Webster three plays in a row. The Giants were also without nickel back Prince Amukamara during the first game, which would normally help, but it's hard to see the Niners going three-wide all that frequently because of their injury issues at wideout.

If the Giants want a starting point for what to focus on, it's to force the 49ers into going a long way with the football. Both of the Niners' touchdowns in this game came on drives that started with 50 yards or fewer to go for a TD, and in the Saints game, all of their points from the first three quarters came with 54 yards to go or fewer. They pulled out two long drives for touchdowns to finish the game, but that might also have been an alternate reality where Vernon Davis is a legitimate superhero.

Oh, and while Davis will get a lot of hype after his mammoth performance in the fourth quarter last week, he's probably going to spend a lot of his time on Sunday helping out with the blocking duties up front. He only had three catches for 40 yards during the first game, and virtually all of that came on a 31-yard touchdown pass. Like the first big Cruz play, Davis' touchdown came on a blown coverage where middle linebacker Greg Jones fielded Davis before releasing him into a zone coverage that wasn't there. Hopefully for Giants fans, Michael Boley (who was injured during the second half and missed the Davis TD) and Chase Blackburn (who wasn't even on the roster at the time) will do a better job of knowing the scheme than Jones does.

Special Teams

Ah, the Niners special teams. We highlighted their dominant performance during the first game in the introduction, but it's also worth noting that the Giants gave the Niners a few gifts. Punter Steve Weatherford booted a 29-yarder out of bounds to set the Niners up at midfield, while gunner Derrick Martin committed three penalties across two punts (yes, including two on one play) to add 10 yards to Andy Lee's masterstrokes. After last week's failed onside kick from the Packers and San Francisco's successful attempt during the first encounter with New York in Week 10, it's safe to say that the Niners won't try to surprise the Giants with an onsider on Sunday.

The Prediction

Having picked against the Giants twice, only to see them win both times, it would be easy to continue some sort of reverse jinx play by picking against them a third time. Everyone knows that the Giants can't keep playing at this high of a level, but the fact that they've been able to do it two games in a row has to mean something, right? In addition, the Niners were able to recover five fumbles in the game against the Saints, which went a long way toward establishing the early lead they needed for victory. That sort of fumble recovery rate isn't likely to happen again. (The Giants, in all fairness, also went 3-for-3 against Green Bay.) But the Niners were the better team during the regular season and outplayed the Giants in this exact matchup! But that was the old Giants! So confused! Fine. New York Giants 17, San Francisco 49ers 13.

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AFC Championship: Still Standing

By: timbersfan, 1:17 AM GMT on January 21, 2012

This one's already settled. If you watched last week's set of AFC playoff games, you saw the Patriots stomp out a Broncos team that left their hearts on the field … in Denver. You also saw the Ravens go up 17-3 while recovering five of the game's six fumbles and still manage to struggle against the Texans and their rookie quarterback. Teams with a single-game turnover margin of plus-four were on a 42-game playoff win streak and had gone 118-3 since 2005 if we include the regular season, but the Ravens had to stop the Texans on two late drives to seal up a narrow victory. Blowout + narrow win = Super Bowl trip for the team that looked great in the divisional round.

As much as that would make this preview very easy to write, we can't abide by that simple logic. It's just not accurate. Since 1990, there have been five times where the Conference Championship game consisted of a team that won by three touchdowns or more playing one that was only able to win by seven points or less. You know what happened? The teams that looked dominant in the divisional round only went 3-2 in the Conference Championship. Take 1999, when the 14-2 Jaguars blew out the Dolphins by 55 points and ended Dan Marino's career in the divisional round. They hosted a 13-3 Titans team that had traveled to Indianapolis and only managed to beat the Colts by three points. Despite having all the momentum in the world, the Jaguars — seven-point favorites at kickoff, as the Patriots are at the time of this writing — turned the ball over six times in a sloppy 10-turnover game and lost, 33-14.

Five games is an awful tiny sample, and it's a good sign when you beat a team by a large margin, regardless of how good the opposition is, but there's no evidence out there suggesting that the Patriots are guaranteed to win on Sunday because of what we saw last week. The Texans kept it close against Baltimore by physically dominating the Ravens on the line of scrimmage (on both sides of the ball); it's unlikely that the Patriots will be able to do the same. Houston also turned Joe Flacco into a quivering mess; if the Patriots do that, they should be able to hold off the Ravens. Or will they?

Ravens on Offense

Remember the last time these two teams met in the playoffs? Joe Flacco set a record, you guys! That record, of course, was for fewest passing yards in a playoff game by a winning quarterback who threw 10 attempts or more. Flacco was 4-for-10 for 34 yards with an interception, but the Ravens still won by 19 because the Patriots essentially imploded. Ray Rice ran for an 83-yard score on the opening play, Tom Brady turned the ball over thrice inside his own territory during the first four possessions, and by the time the first quarter ended, the Ravens led 24-0. The Ravens ran the ball 52 times and Flacco was awful when they needed to throw the ball, but hey, someone out there is going to run a stat that says Joe Flacco is 5-3 in the playoffs, and this is one of those wins.

Flacco has struggled all season, posting his worst completion percentage and lowest yards per attempt as a pro, but he was really bad against the Texans. His 14-of-27 for 176 with two touchdowns and no picks looks okay, but he played worse than the numbers. The Texans accomplished this, mainly, by rushing the hell out of Flacco and taking advantage of his ability to diagnose blitzes and account for rushers in pass protection. They sacked Flacco five times and knocked him down on an additional six throws. That means Flacco was on his ass one out of every three times he dropped back to pass.

Baltimore was just 4-for-16 on third down against the Texans, and four of Houston's five sacks on the day came on those third downs. One of the sacks took Baltimore out of field goal range, which serves as one of the wonderful riposte straw man statistical arguments. You always hear about the player or the type of play that "doesn't show up in the box score," the implication being that some hustle play or subtle performance isn't being measured by the numbers. Well, Flacco's play only shows up in the box score as a sack, but it was incredibly stupid and it cost his team a shot at three points.

Now, can the Patriots follow the Texans' example? We've been inclined to think that the Patriots would struggle to rush the passer after Andre Carter saw his season end during the first Broncos game, but that just hasn't been the case. In the three full games since Carter went down, the Patriots have sacked opposing passers 12 times in 117 dropbacks. That's a sack rate of 10.3 percent, and while they had the benefit of sacking the seemingly magnetic Tim Tebow, they also had to rush Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was one of the hardest quarterbacks in football to take down this season. The sudden burst hasn't come from one player stepping up in Carter's absence; eight players, all of whom play in the front seven, have picked up sacks over the past three games. If there were a sudden burst of sacks from the secondary, it would scream that the Patriots were blitzing a lot more frequently, but it just appears that they've stepped up their game without Carter around.

Then again, this is also a team that ranked 28th against both the pass and the run this season, per DVOA.1 No team gave up more yards per drive than New England, and when teams avoided turnovers, they were able to score freely on them. Their sack rate might have bounced up these past few weeks, but they also trailed by 17 against the Dolphins and 21 against the Bills before launching comebacks. The Ravens were middle of the pack in giveaways, but they were erratic, with three games of three turnovers or more (in which they were 2-1), and four with no giveaways at all (in which they beat the Steelers, 49ers, Bengals, and Texans by a combined 53 points). If the team that protects Joe Flacco (and the football) shows up on Sunday, we're not so sure that the Patriots will be able to stop them.

If their previous games are any indication, expect the Patriots to put a priority on stopping Ray Rice in the passing game. In the 2009 playoff game between these two, Bill Belichick actually went to the extreme of double-teaming Rice as a receiver out of the backfield, something we've rarely ever seen a defensive play caller do for another running back. He had eight catches in the following season's matchup, but those catches were dumpoffs that only went for a total of 38 yards. That should create shots for Torrey Smith up the sideline and lots of opportunities for tight ends Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta to exploit single coverage, but that all depends on whether Flacco stays upright.

Patriots on Offense

Dickson and Pitta, coincidentally, represent one of the few tight end sets in the league who can hold a candle to the combination of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez — or as Bill Simmons calls them, Aarob Gronkandez. The Ravens have had success dealing with the Patriots in the past, but that was before Gronkowski and Hernandez were really in their pomp. When the Ravens last played the Patriots, it was Week 6 of the 2010 season, and Gronkowski was spending most of his time blocking. The two tight ends were four games into their rookie season, and while Hernandez already had 18 catches for 240 yards, Gronkowski only had six for 62, albeit with two touchdowns. In a narrow 23-20 comeback victory for the Patriots, Gronkowski only had a lone 24-yard reception, while Hernandez caught four balls for 61 yards and had an 18-yard run.

The big game instead came from Deion Branch, who marked his return to the Patriots with a nine-catch, 98-yard, one-touchdown performance. Wes Welker only mustered 53 yards on seven catches, which was partly because of his health at the time and partly because the Ravens made stopping him a priority. Since Welker emerged as a star with the Pats, the Ravens have basically treated him like New England's top receiver and assigned him double coverage on most plays. In the past, that's included cornerback Chris Carr in combination with a linebacker or safety, splitting up the coverage responsibilities depending upon the break of Welker's route. Again, though, that knowledge may be for naught because of how important the tight ends have become for New England.

How can the Ravens neutralize Gronkowski and Hernandez? Well, if there's any way to do so, it's by getting a lot of pass pressure on Tom Brady and forcing Gronkowski to stay in and block. The worst game of the year for the two tight ends as a combination (when they both suited up) was probably the Week 5 game against the Jets, when the similarly schemed defense of Rex Ryan held the pair to a combined 87 yards on nine catches without scoring. Not coincidentally, the Jets sacked Tom Brady four times in 37 dropbacks that day. They also held Gronkowski and Hernandez to a combined five catches for 69 yards in the playoff victory over New England last year, a game where Brady was sacked five times in 50 tries.

Will the Ravens get a lot of pass pressure on Brady? Baltimore fans would undoubtedly like to think so, but they're in quite the slump when it comes to taking down the opposing quarterback. In their last four games, including the playoff victory over T.J. Yates and the Texans, the Ravens have just three sacks on 138 dropbacks. That's an anemic sack rate of 2.2 percent. Before that stretch, they had taken down quarterbacks on 9.3 percent of their dropbacks. Remember, this is a team that finished dead last in sack rate last season; it's entirely possible that they've just gone through a fluky-bad four-game stretch, but it's also entirely possible that their ridiculously high sack rate through 12 games was the fluke, too. Key among that group is Terrell Suggs, who has run hot and cold this year. After three sacks in the Week 1 blowout of the Steelers, Suggs had just three sacks in the subsequent nine games before breaking out with three more sacks in that Thanksgiving-night win over the 49ers. That began a stretch with seven sacks in three games, bringing him to 13 sacks in 13 games … and he has just one in the ensuing four games.

A lot of this also depends on whether Ed Reed is able to play; that is to say, not only whether Ed Reed is actually suited up and able to go, but whether Ed Reed can actually play like Ed Reed. Without Reed blurring the availability of the middle of the field, Brady will have a much easier time reading the coverage and finding his open receivers, especially those guys who traffic in the slot and up the seams. With the way cornerback Lardarius Webb is playing, it's hard to imagine that Branch will really have a big game on the outside.

Special Teams

Baltimore got a lucky break last week when Jacoby Jones was suddenly overcome with the urge to field a bouncing punt inside his own 15, but remember that they also gave up a long kick return to start the game and set up the opening field goal. As we covered last week, the Ravens are below-average across the board on special teams, while the Patriots get great work from their specialists, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Zoltan Mesko. Mesko's work pinning the Ravens deep could be a huge part of this game, because the Ravens are far more likely to turn over the ball when they need to travel 85 yards for a touchdown as opposed to 60. The more chances you give Joe Flacco to screw up, the more screwups you get. Right?

The Prediction

It's never much fun to go chalk, but that's the read here. The Patriots have such significant advantages at quarterback and on special teams that it's hard to imagine the Ravens winning in a game where there's any sort of serious point total being put up, and the Patriots have averaged nearly 33 points per game at home this year (against some relatively tough competition). Baltimore's defense will make it tough at times, but the Ravens will have to get something totally unexpected from Flacco to actually pull this one out. New England Patriots 27, Baltimore Ravens 20.

Permalink

Welcome Back, All-Football Mailbag

By: timbersfan, 1:15 AM GMT on January 21, 2012


The gambling gods may have destroyed my annual dream of going 11-0 against the spread in the playoffs, but they couldn't destroy the "All-NFL Playoff Mailbag." As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers.

Q: I'm a Steelers fan. I despise the Patriots and moreso, the Ravens. But I think I found something to like about this game. Bernard Pollard plays for the Ravens. If he were to accidentally roll Brady's knee again, doesn't he become the most celebrated/infamous hitman in NFL history? Ray Lewis has to be staring right at him when he gives his "Lets do what we do!" pre-game speech, right?
— Chris, Pittsburgh

SG: First of all, that's not funny. Second, Pats fans know him by his full name (Bernard Karmell Pollard) because it makes him sound like an assassin, which he is, because … you know, he assassinated the 2008 Patriots' season. Third, if Pollard sacks Brady and does a cutthroat gesture on his knee (instead of his neck), I really think there will be a riot or something close. Fourth, Pollard's comments about Brady this week ("That's the pretty boy. That's the man of the NFL. That's Mr. Do-It-All. So everybody is going to hold that against me but I don't care") almost make me wonder if Bernard Karmell Pollard WILL go after Brady in this game just to prove a point. I don't like anything about this paragraph.

Q: In the TV trailers for "The Grey", Liam Neeson's character seems to know exactly what to do in every situation in the movie. It's like he's the VP of Uncommon Sense. How great would it be to hang out with Liam's character for a day? Faced with wolves? "Don't move, stare right back at em." Hungry for lunch? "Make hot dogs. They're your favorite food and you've been eating well so you can afford the nitrates." Should I start a game of Words With Friends with my boss? "No, you will have trouble remembering to not play his game during work hours, and the benefits of the new kinship will be minimal."
— Ryan, Plainsboro, NJ

SG: I love that commercial and can't wait to overpay for that movie. If it's taking place in the forest (like Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings), I'm out. I don't like being in the forest. But if I'm on a mountain (like Cliffhanger, The Edge or The Grey)? I'm totally in. Can we get Liam to give Alex Smith a pep talk? Alex, keep your eyes down the field when that Giants pass rush is coming at you. Don't look down. Look over them. If you look at them, they'll eat you alive. Also, cram these lima beans underneath your testicles, it will give you extra strength.

Q: I dare you to write an NFL Playoffs column without mentioning the "Nobody Believes in Us" theory at least sixteen times. I don't think you are capable of doing it.
— Ben L., Miami

SG: You're on. Just know that nobody believes I can do this except for the people in this locker room.

Q: You need to suck up your bruised aortic pump enough to introduce the Kate Middleton of the Tyson zone- the Tebow Zone. The main criterion: you subconsciously are willing to believe any story you hear related to this person before the fact, and then when it happens, you're left simultaneously dumbfounded and repentful. Ironically, it's the same way you feel during the first hour of travel after wrapping up a trip to Vegas. What happens in the Tebow Zone, stays in the Tebow Zone!
— David W, Boca Raton

Q: You need to consider creating the Tebow zone — it's the exact opposite of the Tyson Zone. I would believe any positive Tebow story right now whether it's "Tebow bought lunch for an entire homeless shelter" to "Tebow learning Portuguese for his mission trip to Brazil" to "Tebow credited for baking the greatest chocolate chip cookie ever" What do you think?
— Robert, Las Vegas

SG: Tebow is unbelievable — we can't even agree on what the Tebow Zone might look like. I vote for the "positive" Tebow Zone, although Robert didn't go far enough with his fake stories. Robert, you could have absolutely played the "Tebow figured out a way to holistically restore Lindsay Lohan's virginity so they could lose theirs together" card. Don't hold back next time.

Q: I had a dream last week that Tim Tebow proposed to my fiancee. I was just standing there watching. It was in an empty museum and Tebow was wearing a tux with a black bowtie. What ring did he give? A plastic setting with a mini disco ball connected to it. I wish I were kidding. Sports Guy, please interpret this for me.
— Lev, San Francisco

SG: The museum symbolizes a cross between a cathedral (the church of Tebow) and the NFL Hall of Fame (where you subsconsciously believe Tebow may be headed). The mini disco ball symbolizes the free-sex era of the late '70s (the antithesis of everything for which Tebow stands); the plastic setting means the ring isn't real (reassuring for you, since you're subconsciously scared of losing your girlfriend to another man and/or Tebow himself). So you have the safety within the dream of knowing that this is ridiculous, and that it's not actually happening, which is why In-The-Dream You watched the proposal instead of trying to stop it. Deep down, you're threatened by Tebow's handsome looks, winsome personality, and virgin ruggedness, as well as the fact that he might have legitimate religious powers. Regardless, thanks for leaving me the "Did the dream suck for three quarters, then pick up in the last few minutes?" joke. I appreciate it.

Q: Isn't the Jaguars passing on Tim Tebow one of the worst draft decisions in history in any sport? Forget Bowie over Jordan, passing on Tebow will likely kill pro football in Jacksonville. If any team ever needed to draft a guy who could sell tickets, it was the Jags. And if there was ever a guy who could sell tickets IN FLORIDA, it was Tim Tebow. The Jags play in front of 20,000 empty seats per game, will likely move to LA in a couple years and Tim Tebow is the nation's favorite athlete. And to think how the Jags could've run every team into the ground with MJD and Tim Tebow. In fact, if I'm John Elway, I call the Jags up right now and see what they're willing to part with.
— Sean, Washington, D.C.

SG: You're preaching to the choir — it never made sense for Jacksonville to pass on Tebow, they should have just traded down 10 spots and taken him. The upside was too great. Again, they would have owned football in Florida had he panned out. What if the Jags offered Blaine Gabbert, their 2012 no. 1 pick (no. 7 overall) for Tebow? Wouldn't Elway have to take that deal? (Yes.) Wouldn't it be the most unpopular trade in recent sports history? (Yes.) Isn't Elway the only GM who can pull off such a trade, considering his own godlike status in Denver and the Broncos' fans unwillingness to vilify Elway even if he traded Tebow? (Yes.) Would anything be more riveting than Broncos fans quickly scapegoating Gabbert when he nearly self-destructed in Jacksonville with 200 times less attention? (Yes.) I can't think of a more fascinating fake sports trade — it's even juicier (and slightly more logical) than a Dwyane Wade/Joel Anthony for Dwight Howard/J.J. Redick swap.

Q: Clicking CTRL + F and typing "Tebow" reveals that you successfully used his name 55 times in your Round 2 article. If only we could check an episode of First Take with Skip Bayless as easily.
— Ryan, Boston

SG: Only 55 times? You're right, we better get out now. I'm gonna miss Tebow.

Q: Please pick against the Giants against SF. We're getting too confident.
— Greg, New York

SG: No kidding. I asked a buddy of mine (a die-hard Giants fan) whether he was worried about this weekend and he responded, "Worried about Alex Smith against JPP, Tuck and Osi? (Makes a face like he's just been insulted.) Come on. We're going to rip that guy in half. Don't be stupid. Take the points." Hmmmmmm.

Q: I'm a Niners fan and during that roller-coaster of a Saints game, I was texting back and forth with a buddy of mine. When Davis caught the game-winning pass and I finished jumping around like Balki Bartokomous from Perfect Strangers doing the 'Dance of Joy,' I texted my buddy, "I THINK I'VE GOT A HARB-ON!!!" Please tell me no one else thought of this phrase yet. And can we have "Harb-On" replace "Tebowner" for the rest of the playoffs?
— Mark D., Woodbridge, Canada

SG: Happy to make the switch. Good luck with your Harb-on this weekend.1

Q: This August at our annual fantasy football draft, our league came up with a new rule that the owner who comes in last place is forced to wear a jersey of the league's choosing for one day after the season ends and feel that this is something that more leagues should do. For example, the owner who came in last in our league is a big time Pats fan, and as a downtrodden and bitter Dolphins fan and recently converted follower of the book of Tebow, nothing would have pleased me more than watching him walk around for a day in a Tebow jersey had the Broncos beaten the Pats. Thoughts?
— Matt, State College, PA

SG: I'm a big fan of booby prizes for fantasy leagues. In my West Coast league, our last-place team has to pay for our league's postseason pizza banquet. Granted, it's a relatively cheap booby prize because we hold the banquet at Shakey's in West Hollywood — one of those seedy restaurants that has no bathroom mirror (because anyone who's there hates themselves too much to look), waiters and waitresses who don't even attempt to understand customers, and some of the strangest couples you will ever see. At this year's banquet (coinciding with the Steelers-Broncos game), we were treated to a toothless man who dressed like a woman and came with his/her boyfriend (15 years younger, at least), who proceeded to grope him/her throughout the game as we tried to figure out if we could catch cancer or an STD just from watching them. I forgot to mention that the pizza is really, really terrible. Paying for a 12-man Shakey's pizza banquet — now THAT, my friends, is a booby prize.

The more I'm thinking about it, why wouldn't we have a prize for every place in a fantasy draft? Shouldn't every place matter? I don't even know where I finished in my West Coast league, but I would have remembered if fifth place meant, "You're responsible for engraving the winner's name into the next trophy before next year's auction"; seventh place meant, "You have to wear Eli Manning's pink breast cancer awareness Giants jersey to next year's auction"; and ninth place meant, "You have to wear one of those European banana-hammock bathing suits to a crowded beach and take a picture with three strangers."

Q: So Jeff Fisher had an entire year off and he still couldn't fix his mustache?
— Frank, Pittsfield, MA

SG: Nope. He pulled a Wannstedt on us.

Q: After watching Jimmy Graham dominate this season, is there any doubt LeBron would be the most impactful tight end in the NFL? Graham's played football for a year and dominated because of his athletic ability (which pales compared to LeBron).
— Christian, Stamford

SG: Only one problem: LeBron would sign with New England to play with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Somehow he'd think this made sense.

Q: It drives me crazy during every Fox NFL telecast when they cut to the announcers in the pressbox and Joe Buck says: "And now we welcome you inside our broadcast booth..." Does showing a 10-second close-up of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman's stone faces as they unenthusiastically summarize the game really merit a "welcome" message? "Welcome you inside our broadcast booth" should be a new euphemism for some brief, unpleasant event where awkwardness inevitably ensues.

Example:

Guy #1: "So why don't you and so-and-so hang out anymore?"

Guy #2: "She tried to welcome me inside her broadcast booth last Friday night and things got awkward. I'm going to give it some time."
Guy #1: "Joe, you're exactly right."
— Ryan, Harrisburg, PA

SG: Good e-mail. I have some insight having been the third man in the NBA booth for a Heat-Warriors game in 2009. As you know, NBA telecasts feature the equally awkward "Here are the announcers crammed next to each other at midcourt!" shot, which is every bit as uncomfortable as "And now we welcome you inside our broadcast booth … " And here's why: The cameraman squats on the other side of the broadcast table, points the camera maybe four feet from your face, then does a reverse zoom thingie so you seem further away then you actually are. And it's a giant camera. And it's HD. And you're crammed next to two other guys. And you don't know whether to smile, nod, look serious or what to do … and also, you're thinking, "I wonder if they can see that shaving cut on my neck" because the camera is four feet from your face. That's why I looked like I was filming a hostage video during every half-court booth camera shot. So when Fox does it during NFL games, I'm sure the camera guy is reverse zooming Troy and Joe while pretty much straddling them. He can't be more than three feet away. How would you feel?2

The logical compromise: Use a camera from across the field, do a hard zoom-in and have Troy and Joe play to that camera from a distance. But that would make too much sense. In general, TV networks have done a shaky job adapting to the HD/Big TV Era — we see too clearly now, only the TV networks keep chugging along like nothing changed. We have the same problem with sideline interviews during NBA and NFL games: Do we really need to see 65 inches of Michele Tafoya's head? Or Ric Bucher's head? Or Kevin Durant's head? Or anyone's head? I'm glad Ryan from Harrisburg brought this up. You'll think of him as Troy and Joe are staring at you like serial killers on Sunday afternoon.

Q: After submitting one of my more legendary performance (hammered at a company event, smoozed up one of the partners, somehow got massive props from my boss, then went home with a company hottie...) I was watching the press conference after the epic 49ers - Saints game, and I realized...wait...I was really just emailing to tell you about my awesome night. I love being young. Have fun being old.
— Ryan, Los Angeles

SG: Thanks. Appreciate it.

Q: Rick Reilly wrote this week, "I try to keep all my columns under 900 words so people don't have to quit their jobs to read me. It's just sports, not the American Medical Journal." Did you ever think about changing your moniker to the American Medical Journal Guy?
— Murph, Springfield, MA

SG: Just for that, I'm going for 7,500 words this column. Let's just move on before I have to fire myself.

Q: After hating the guy for most of his career, I've had an about-face when it comes to Tom Brady the past 3-4 years. Whether it's the baby mama drama, the long hair, the supermodel wife, the FU attitude, the weak supporting cast, or the return from serious injury, I've gone from thinking he's overrated to agreeing that he's the best QB of his era and an all-timer. One problem: He's never had a decent nickname. Tom Terrific? Seriously?
— Grant, Austin

SG: Tom Brady doesn't need a nickname. Neither did Joe Montana, Dan Marino or John Elway. Neither do Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers or even (Howard Finkel voice: "The neeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwwwwwwww NFC Quarterback Champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrld … ") Eli Manning right now. If you're an elite quarterback with a cool-sounding name, you don't need a nickname. If you're a potential Hall of Famer with a name that sounds like a Hollywood scriptwriter made it up, even better.

OK, now flip this around: Look at some of the QBs who have nicknames. Matty Ice. The Sanchize. T-Jack. Sensing a trend? I'd argue that it's a bad sign when your quarterback has a nickname — there's a little overcompensation involved, right? And it can only end badly if he doesn't live up to his nickname. Here, look.

Q: A few buddies and I were playing poker and talking football when one of the guys referred to Matt Ryan by his nickname, "Matty Ice." Instinctively, me and another guy starting laughing, to the surprise of the rest of the table. After his 3 career playoff performances, no one should be calling him "Matty Ice." Has there been anyone else in sports that once had a great nickname only to make a mockery of it?
— Brian Grayon, Albuquerque

SG: I'm splitting my vote between the XFL's "He Hate Me" guy and two boxers — James "Quick" Tillis (he wasn't quick) and Hector "Macho" Camacho (he wasn't macho). Although you could talk me into Chauncey Billups still being called "Mr. Big Shot" a good four years after he stopped being Mr. Big Shot. You could say he's firmly entrenched in the Donovan McNabb/2010 Redskins stage of his career. After Chauncey made the game-winner in Wednesday's Mavs-Clips game, he acted totally surprised and overly excited, as if he were saying, "Whoa! It went in! I'm still Mr. Big Shot!" Might be a good idea to retire that name, Chauncey.

Q: If by some Tebownian miracle you actually print my last email, don't print my email address. Getting fired sucks.
— Ryan, Los Angeles

SG: You don't know how badly I wanted to post his work e-mail with a "Have fun getting fired" answer.

Q: Incomprehensibly you left Barry Sanders off of your Bo Jackson Freak Hall of Fame team. He's the first player who pops into my head when I think of athletic freaks of nature. That's like making a list of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time and forgetting to put Led Zeppelin on it. Have you visited the tropics lately? Do you have a parasitic worm eating your brain? Is it stress? Lack of sleep? The pressure of trying to go 11-0 against the spread? I enjoy your columns and want to make sure you're healthy, that you're going to stick around. Just checking, maybe you should see a doctor...
— Tom D., San Francisco

Q: Dude, can you please go back and watch some Jim Brown footage, then revise your Freak Hall of Fame?
— Trent Hone, Arlington, VA

SG: Incredible clip. Did Jim Brown invent/patent/retire the move of running across the field at a 90-degree angle — sometimes 20 or 25 yards! — just to eventually turn the corner on the other side of the field, or am I imagining this? Has any offensive player done that since? Anyway, I can't put Brown in the NFL Freaks Hall of Fame because I never watched him live. As for Sanders, that was a total brainfart. He's another one who had no frequal. Just know that I still stand by a "Never bet against Barry Sanders — not ever" rule from one of my original Gambling Manifestos, as well as a "Never take Barry Sanders' advice on abstinence before marriage — not ever" rule from my "Bachelor Manifesto."

Q: I was watching a shortened Mike Francesa show on YES today. Giants fans only wanted to talk about the blown call on Greg Jennings' fumble. Mike went on to use the phrase "under the hood" a ridiculous amount of times over the next hour to describe the action of the ref looking at the replay. I finished watching the show but it was bothering me how many times I heard "under the hood". I was sure it was 40 times at least. I decided to go back and figure it out. Mike used the actual phrase "under the hood" 36 times. Callers used it twice bringing the total to 38. This is where it gets dicey. Mike once said "blew the call under the..." before trailing off. I counted that as 0.75 times . He also used "...before the hood" once. I counted that as 0.25 times bringing the total to 39 and that was it. I missed my theory by one "under the hood". Now I know how you feel after not covering that Texans-Ravens game. So close. Notes from my study: Mike used the phrase "underneath the hood" once which I counted in his total and all but 1 of the "under the hoods were said in a 60 minute time frame. For the entire 2 hour show Mike's UTHPM (Under the Hoods per Minute) was 0.65 narrowly edging out Dog's 0.63 "Unbelieveable"s per minute from 1999 about Darryl Strawberry's recovery from cancer. If Mike had done the full show he would have been at 195 "under the hoods." This may or may not be a cry help.
— Mike Z, Decatur, GA

SG: Wait, we're already in range?

Q: I've got a question I have never heard addressed: what stellar individual decided that the Giants' equipment should [be] so ill-fitting and stupid looking? Seriously, compare any person on the Giants roster to any other player in the NFL. Also, Screw New England, Screw Brady, and Screw you. Keep up the good work.
— Greg, The Bake, CA

SG: Oh God, think baseball, think baseball …

Q: I am flying today from Logan back to San Diego. As I was going through security, the TSA agent was discussing Brady with a coworker. Her conclusion was that Giselle was solely to blame for the lack of Super Bowls in the past couple years. Imagine the thickest Boston accent possible: "All I know hon is 3 championships with Brigette Moynahan and zippo with Giselle." In arguably the dumbest move I could make, I decide to interject, "Yeah, but Moynahan pulled the goalie on him." As soon as I said it I wanted to desperatly pull the words back, grabbing for them like Stallone reached for Hal's girlfriend Sarah in Cliffhanger. Her head swiveled towards me with fire in her eyes and I knew it was going to be bad. I was convinced a full cavity search was in my immediate future and possible rendition to a remote base in Nowherestan. "What? He wasn't there? It's all her fault right?". I went into full third grade class mode, "Yes ma'am, of. Of course ma'am. Right you are ma'am", praying to make it through with my dignity (and sphincter integrity) in tact. After spraying me with venom she lets me go and then stops me later to explain the euphemism 'puling the goalie' which was in no way awkward. The lessons: keep your mouth shut at the airport, and don't mess with chicks from New England.
— Jeff S., San Diego

SG: Yup, there are my readers. (Can't believe I couldn't hold out. Sorry about that.)

Q: When writing a text about the upcoming Ravens game, i realized the iPhone autocorrects "Flacco" to "Flacid." Seemed appropriate.
— Tommy B, New York, NY

SG: See, if I piggyback on this joke and Flacco rips up the Patriots' defense this weekend, I'll get a steady slew of "You jinxed the Pats with those Joe 'Flacid' jokes!" e-mails. Let's move on.

Q: Since you never answer my long thought-out mailbag questions, I'm going to ask you a simple one. What you and your dad gonna do when Patriots vs Giants II runs wild on you? Could a new Level of Losing be created?
— Pat Frappier, Ottawa

SG: Why do people keep sending me (or any other Patriots fan) this e-mail? Here's a newsflash: If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, we ALL want the Giants. Don't you realize that would be the best possible way to extinguish every awful memory from Super Bowl 42? And that we'd have a chance to do it in Indianapolis, the scene of the other Super Bowl that got away, when the Pats blew a 20-point lead to the 2006 Colts and gakked a third-and-3 that could have ended the game (and led to a trouncing over Rex Grossman and the Bears two weeks later)?

A good parallel: Magic and the Lakers totally choked in the 1984 Finals against my Celtics. They blew Game 2 and Game 4 in the worst possible ways, then melted down completely down the stretch in Game 7. Magic spent the summer hearing that he was a choke artist. The Lakers spent the summer hearing that they weren't as tough, they were California pansies, they were intimidated by Kevin McHale's clothesline and everything else. And Boston fans probably broke the superiority complex record that summer; we owned the Lakers and that was that. You know what happened a year later? The Lakers won the 1985 title in Boston Garden. It was like hitting a giant RESET button. Now, anytime that 1984 Finals comes up, it's always mentioned with the caveat, "But remember, the Lakers got their revenge the following year." That's what would happen if the Patriots beat the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. Or so I keep telling myself.

Q: Can all debates please end as to whether or not quarterbacks are "elite?" Who cares? Why is this a discussion? It's not like Eli Manning gets some sort of contract bonus if he is considered elite by the public and media. It's just a word. We all obviously know which quarterbacks are playing well and which are not. What magical properties does the word "elite" have that somehow takes this to another level?
— Jacob, Burlington, VT

SG: I don't mind the "elite" tag — I always took that word to mean, "YoucanwinaSuperBowlwithhim," which is 21 letters longer. I always want to know if my quarterbacks, coaches, closers, goalies, no. 1 starters, play-by-play guys, friends' new girlfriends, pot dealers and Zamboni drivers are elite.

Q: With Tebow and Big Ben hurt, and Brady headed to the Super Bowl, doesn't Peyton have to start at the Pro Bowl? Ordinarily, owners and management are ambivalent at best about having their players in the Pro Bowl-injury concerns-but this is the rare case where EVERYONE wants to see this happen. Colts' management (whoever that is at the moment) will want to see if Peyton's "still got it," and everyone else will want the opportunity to see Peyton in a Colts helmet-possibly for the last time. Isn't this the only way the Pro Bowl's watchable, given the bizarre scheduling of playing it before the Super Bowl, keeping the best players out of it?
— John S., Atlanta

SG: I love this idea. I can't think of a single reason why I'd watch the Pro Bowl other than my buddy Sal saying to me either, "Hey, did you hear Peyton Manning is playing?" or, "I'm parlaying the AFC and the over, you want in?" Speaking of Peyton …

Q: You ever wonder if Eli is secretly behind Peyton's neck issues? Somehow? Now that he is out for a whole year and Eli's got a healthy defense it is time to make his move to no longer be Manning #2. I swear he has been amazing much more often lately and it just seems like the grand evil plot an overshadowed younger brother would carry out.
— JAW, Chicago

SG: That would be the greatest sports scandal of all time — if it came out that Eli paid off the doctor of Peyton's first neck surgery to screw it up so Peyton was never the same. At the very least, you have to admit that they would have done that plot on a nighttime soap in the 1990s.

Anyway, I'm glad JAW brought this up. If Eli won the next two games, this would morph into one of the most bizarre storylines in sports history: Just two years ago, Peyton was one victory away from a second Super Bowl and an excellent chance at being remembered as the best quarterback of all time. You know what happened next. Now, his little brother — the Pippa to his Kate — has a decent chance of doubling Peyton's Super Bowl total, taking down Rodgers and Brady, securing "most clutch QB alive" status and becoming the most famous New York football player since Joe Namath right as his brother's career is heading toward an abrupt ending.3 And he's only halfway through his career! What were the odds that Eli's career would end up being better than Peyton's career in 2006? Maybe 200 to 1? Now it's dropped to … I don't know, maybe 7 to 1? 5 to 1? Stunning.

Q: Not sure if you've seen, but the Ravens have a "nobody believes in us!" video that automatically plays when you go to www.baltimoreravens.com. Do you think the football gods will frown upon this? It feels like they're using "nobody believes in us!" in vain.
— Dan, Columbus, OH

SG: Yeah, that's a total violation of the "Nobody believes in us" covenant. Teams can only point out in private before the game that nobody believes in them — once it's mentioned publicly, the focus of the general public shifts from "Team X can't lose" to "Team Y is mad that nobody believes in them, are we taking them too lightly?," followed by the narrative shifting and people forgetting to keep saying that "Team X can't lose." The Ravens played this so poorly that I'm just going to assume that Cam Cameron called this one.

Q: Let me help you with your plan to move the Super Bowl to the second weekend of February... DON'T. Explanation: Valentine's weekend. In my household, the subject of going on an early December campout with some other dads and sons came up. That was shot down pretty fast by the wives because of the holiday party season. How fast do you think a Super Bowl party will be shot down? Will it even get off the ground? Sure you could use some defense like the Saturday is for the lady and Sunday is for the guy, but Valentine's (and the corresponding weekend) is in no way, shape, or form about the guy.
— BS LeBlanc, Dallas

SG: The lesson, as always: Don't get married.

Q: I live in San Francisco and the post-Saints vibe was comparable to when the Giants won the World Series in 2010. But I digress. I challenge you to find me a better comeback player in any sport EVER than Alex Smith. And I don't mean some superstar who got hurt or had an off year and then came back and returned to form. I mean an honest to goodness down for the count type player that came back and did everything everyone said he couldn't. Since 2005 Alex Smith has had more crap piled on top of him than his midget hands could withstand. He was disowned by not one but TWO different awful coaches (Mike Nolan and Singletary) and has been the most consistently criticized starting QB in the NFL for the better part of six years. And in one game he has sealed his place in 49er, and probably NFL, history. Even if he only performs as a "game manager" for the rest of his career, which is unlikely considering Harbaugh has turned him into a top 15 QB with one year and a shortened offseason, is there any other player in any sport that has gone so drastically from "get this guy off of my team before I fire bomb this stadium" to "4th quarter with under 15 seconds and a shot to go to the NFC championship game on the line? Give it to baby hands and see what he can do."
— Jesse, San Francisco

SG: I certainly can't remember anything like it. Alex Smith's nadir was lower than Trent Dilfer's nadir, Jim Plunkett's nadir, Brad Johnson's nadir … in terms of sheer incredulity, only Mark Rypien's one great season for the '91 Redskins compares,4 but Rypien's previous two seasons weren't as bad as I remembered (16-8 record, 38 TDs, 24 picks, 5,830 yards, 84 QB rating). When I picked San Fran to be 2010's breakout team (as it turned out, one year early) partly because of a "More shaky QBs than you think went 13-3 this decade" theory, the consensus was, "With Alex Smith? Are you crazy????" And that was one whole crappy season ago. So yeah, this is relatively insane.

Then again, the concept of a "late bloomer with a pedigree" isn't as insane — we just watched it happen in basketball with Zach Randolph, who belatedly morphed into the NBA's most unstoppable inside scorer last spring. You never know when the right pedigree can override a series of bad breaks/decisions/situations. When you watched Smith, it wasn't like watching Hasheem Thabeet in person, where you just say to yourself, "My God, there is NO chance." It always seemed like a confidence thing — he ranged from "semi-rattled" to "shattered" for six solid seasons, only now, it's like Jim Harbaugh willed him to matter again. I think it's one of the greatest coaching achievements in recent football history. Rebuilding the right QB is doable if he's getting a fresh start on a new team. But building him in the place where he failed for years and years, with that baggage just sitting everywhere, with fans, media members and teammates doubting him? Much different. I can't even think of a parallel to this Alex Smith saga. It doesn't exist.5 Niners fans actually believe that Alex Smith can handle New York's fearsome pass rush this weekend. And you know what? I might believe it, too.

Q: A couple of years ago I promised my son his first football jersey. The clearance rack was comprised mostly of cheap (really cheap) Alex Smith jerseys. As Alex wasn't technically dead at the time, I wondered what would happen to the clearance rack if he suddenly turned his career around? So now that we finally have our "moment" with him, I'm guessing those jerseys go right back to front of the store. Has this ever happened before?
— Mike, Oakland

SG: We've seen Clearance Rack guys switch teams and become Full-Price guys again (Michael Vick, for instance). But someone doing it for the same team??? I can only remember it happening once: In 2000, the Celtics Pro Shop discounted a slumping Kenny Anderson's authentic game jersey by something like 70 percent. I remember agonizing about whether to buy it — I didn't want to pull full-price for Walker, Pierce or really anyone on that crappy team and didn't have much money to begin with, so I ended up demurring. A year or so later, the 2002 Celtics made a playoff run and Kenny fought his way off the clearance rack like Liam fighting his way off that scary mountain in The Grey. And Mike is right — that's a bigger deal than we realize. It never happens. To land on a clearance rack in 2012, you need to either …

A. Get traded or waived
B. Sign somewhere else
C. Fail a drug test
D. Change your number
E. Commit a crime
F. Date and/or marry a Kardashian, then act reprehensibly toward her on a reality show for weeks on end
G. E + F
H. Claim that you would have stopped 9/11 had you been on one of the planes
I. Play poorly for long enough that the guy running that store says to himself, "This is a disaster; the only way I will sell any of this guy's jerseys is by discounting them heavily and hoping someone buys his jersey either because they're broke, they want to put Scotch tape over the name, or they're saving it for 15 years from now when it becomes ironic."

Anyway, that's a pretty effective way to describe an athlete hitting rock bottom — when he goes clearance rack on us, almost always, you know it's going badly. But here's a dark horse pick for our next rags-to-riches jersey clearance guy … that's right, I still believe in you, Josh Freeman! Bad year. Shake it off. You're not a 50 percent off guy yet.6

Q: What are the odds Bob Kraft has the old timey Patriot guys with the muskets try to take Bernard Pollard out during warm-ups?
— Mark H., Boston

SG: Right now it's +300. Dropped from +350 earlier in the week.

Q: I love how you and Cousin Sal list all of the various potential storylines for the Super Bowl in Indy and you fail to mention how poetic it would be for Baltimore to win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis. I really can't wait till the Ravens beat the Pats again and then beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. Boston and New York right in a row. It will make next baseball season so much more palatable.
— Matt Baetz, Baltimore

Q: How INSANE would it be for the Ravens to win the Super Bowl in INDY!?! Would that be the kill shot of football in Indy? After a Super Bowl loss, first-round playoff loss, 2-14 season in consecutive years, and the possibility of Manning leaving the team after Caldwell getting fired. I think God hates the Colts.
— Fernando, Puerto Rico

SG: My biggest fears of the Patriots-Ravens game, in order:

1. Ray Rice
2. Bernard Karmell Pollard
3. The Patriots selling out to stop Ray Rice and Joe Flaccid Flacco catching fire against New England's weak secondary
4. The poetic justice of Baltimore winning a Super Bowl in Indy during Indy's worst season ever

Q: On a scale of one to ten, what was your disbelief over Joe Flacco claiming that he didn't really care that his star teammate said he folded like a cheap card table against the Texans? And do you think there is any chance that what Ed Reed said will actually motivate Flacco?
— Tim, Anchorage

SG: And here's what makes me feel most confident about the Patriots' chances …

You need to believe in your QB to win a big game on the road. I usually ignore media-driven stories in the days leading up to the game, but watching one of Baltimore's defensive leaders calling out his QB that blatantly was really, really strange. Throw in the problems Flacco had with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over the years, as well as Cameron's horrific playcalling against Houston last week (and a few other times this season), and it just makes me wonder: What happens to Flacco and this particular Ravens team if the first half doesn't go their way? Remember when they totally no-showed for a nationally televised Chargers game in December? Did that mean anything? Or should we remember Flacco's superb performance in their comeback at Pittsburgh and shake the other stuff off?

Hmmm. Let's just make picks for the Conference Championships (home teams in caps).

PATRIOTS (-7) over Ravens
Believe me, I know all the reasons you'd grab the points here. I visited Bristol on Tuesday, ran into Eric Mangini and listened to him break down — for five solid minutes — every hard-core football reason why New England was a better matchup for Baltimore than Houston was. The Mangenious put the fear of God in me. Plus, we know the Ravens will have a ton of confidence going back to New England; we know the Ravens looked worse than they actually are against Houston (and the Patriots looked better than they are); we know the Patriots are going to sell out to stop Rice and let Flacco beat them; we know it's going to be a hard-hitting game; and we know the Ravens think they can beat up Brady and New England's receivers. The recurring theme from any die-hard football follower seems to be, "You know it's gonna be close."

So why pick the Pats? I'll keep it simple: If you can beat a supremely motivated Patriots team in New England — especially this particular Patriots team, which has been lights-out offensively for two solid months and wants nothing more than to end this whole "Baltimore owns you" thing — without a decent pass rush, a shrewd offensive coordinator, fast linebackers, or a genuinely reliable quarterback that your team totally believes in, then Tebow bless you.

The Pick: New England 37, Baltimore 26.

Giants (+2.5) over NINERS
This reminds me of one of those old-school playoff games from the Madden/Summerall era, back when home-field advantage mattered, coaching mattered, old-school rivalries mattered and original Playoff Manifesto rules like "When in doubt, go against the general public," "Don't forget to factor in coaching and special teams" and "Don't go against a great defense at home" actually meant something. We keep hearing that the Giants are a team of destiny, but what about the Niners? People have been dismissing them, overlooking them and expecting them to self-combust all year. They finished 13-3 and were four-point underdogs at home in Round 2. They have weathered every slight, turned them into fuel, kept plugging away. And now they're here.

On paper, the Giants are better — they can throw the ball and rush the passer. Last week, the Packers lost because of drops and bad luck, and because the Giants played splendidly, but also because Aaron Rodgers' vision shifted as that game went along. It's the old Mike Lombardi theory — if you can make the QB look at the line of scrimmage (because he's afraid of what's coming) instead of downfield (where his receivers are), it's over. You won. That's what the Giants did to Rodgers last week. He played scared. You would think that Alex Smith would play scared, too, but here's the difference: Rodgers HAD to play well for Green Bay to win last week's game. Smith only has to be competent. I see one of those sloppy, ugly, muddy, windy, physical games in which field position, trick plays, special teams, play-action passes, pass-catching tight ends, crowd noise and (most important) Jim Harbaugh matter more than anything else. My generation was weaned on playoff games like this one. It's going to be a classic. If only Madden and Summerall could be there.

So that's why I tried to talk myself into the Niners. But what was the dirty little secret of last weekend's Niners-Saints game? San Francisco's defense played like crap down the stretch. Brees finished with 462 yards and four touchdowns; the Niners gave up two big (and seemingly deadly) scores in the final five minutes. Why wouldn't the Giants be able to move the ball on Sunday? When will the Niners have another playoff game when they get FIVE turnovers at home? Shouldn't we worry that, other than Vernon Davis, the next best Niners receiver finished with 25 yards? How will they handle third-and-longs if the Giants double Davis? It's also hard to say nobody believes in the Niners when they're laying two and a half, right?

I'm grabbing the points. I'm grabbing the hot team. I'm grabbing the hot QB. And if Alex Smith comes back to haunt me, so be it.

The Pick: Giants 24, Niners 19.

Last Week: 2-2
Playoffs: 6-2
Season: 126-129-9

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U.S. soccer: 10 to watch under 21

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on January 20, 2012

Hope is the fuel that keeps many soccer fans coming back. No matter how dire a team's immediate prospects may be, youth players on the horizon can keep the flame of optimism alive.
The future of the U.S. men's national team is far from bleak, but the impulse to look to the future is just as strong, especially as the Americans threaten to join the elite and break into the later stages of tournaments. Would one more special player have provided that extra nudge needed to make a massive breakthrough, and say, reach a World Cup semifinal? Without question. But while it's fun to dream, finding and developing those players remains a long, hard slog for the powers that be in this country.

That said, there are some players who -- if the soccer gods are kind enough to smile on them, and reward their dedication -- could end up having a significant impact on the U.S. team for years to come. Here are the top 10 players under the age of 21 whom fans should keep an eye on.

1. Juan Agudelo, forward, New York Red Bulls

It hardly seems possible that just 14 months ago, Agudelo burst on the scene, scoring a late winner in his international debut against South Africa and becoming the youngest U.S. player to score in a senior match. He followed that up four months later with an equalizer in a friendly against Argentina.

Expectations inevitably rose, and while much of the coverage of Agudelo was circumspect, that didn't stop the Colombian-born striker from hitting some potholes. His playing time with the Red Bulls decreased, and New York manager Hans Backe even resorted to using Agudelo in a wide midfield role; that is, when he played him at all. The biggest criticism was that Agudelo lost concentration too easily and couldn't stay tuned in for 90 minutes. More questions were asked when the Red Bulls acquired Kenny Cooper in a draft-day trade on January 12, hinting that Agudelo could be on his way out of New York.

Such struggles have forced Agudelo to take a crash course in navigating the inevitable roller-coaster ride that can characterize a player's career. Of his successes, he said, "All you can do is not think about all of those things that have happened, and just think about the present and what I can do to get better. I'm just trying to always improve and get better, so I just think about those things and let the past go."

His take on the downtimes sounds much the same.

"[The benching] made me have to work for everything, and pushed me to be a better player, and work harder," he said. "Nothing was given to me on a silver platter."

None of this is a surprise to U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who given his World Cup-winning playing pedigree, knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. The key is how Agudelo reacts to such difficulties, and Klinsmann has made it clear he intends to do everything he can to shepherd his protégé through what should prove to be a busy 2012.


Juan has to learn how to manage negative moments, angry moments. But the talent he has is special.

-- U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann on Agudelo
"Don't expect miracles. It's a path that [Agudelo] has to go through the next couple of years," Klinsmann said. "That takes patience, it takes a lot of willingness on their end; the right attitude and hunger. Juan is going through a lot of ups and downs. That's what he has to go through. He has to live these moments and he has to learn how to manage negative moments, angry moments. But the talent he has is special."

The hope is that the steeling of Agudelo will pay off for both the full team and the Olympic team in the form of goals. There is no doubt that the Red Bull forward possesses the size and strength to be an international-class striker, and his game has revealed something else: an ability to create his own shot and improvise, which is rare. If he can refine the less glamorous aspects of his game, he'll become the striker that everyone connected to club and country envisions.

Such a development is critical if the U.S. is to become one of the elite soccer nations in the world. The last time a U.S. striker scored in the World Cup was back in 2002 when Brian McBride scored against Mexico. Agudelo could very well be the one to break that streak, but there's a ways to go.

"My goal is just to get minutes on both [club and national] teams, because minutes mean experience," Agudelo said. "I feel like if I get minutes at such a young age, it gives me a head start for my understanding of the game and my confidence on the field."

2. Josh Gatt, midfielder/forward, Molde FK

The U.S. soccer landscape is littered with players who made the jump to Europe only to sink into obscurity. So far, Gatt has not only managed to avoid those pitfalls, his performances suggests a very promising future. Possessed of blazing speed and acceleration, the Michigan native bypassed college and MLS, spending a year with Austrian side SC Rheindorf Altach before moving to Norway, where he helped Molde win Norway's Tippeligaen for the first time in its 100-year history.

During the just-concluded season, Gatt spent the majority of his time at right back, but also saw minutes at right wing and right midfield in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's 4-3-3. While his pace allowed him to easily get forward, his future with the U.S. would appear to lie closer to goal.

"Not only does he have the athleticism, but he has the technical and tactical ability to be a top player," said former U.S. U-20 head coach Thomas Rongen.

A hamstring injury cut short his club season last fall, depriving him of a call-up to the full national team, but with exposure via the U.S. Olympic squad as well in the UEFA Champions League on the horizon, Gatt could yet make his mark with Klinsmann's side.

3. Joe Gyau, midfielder/forward, Hoffenheim

Gyau has long been one of the jewels of the U.S. system. He's another attacking player with electric pace, although in his case, he's also blessed with incredible close control. The trick now for the 19-year-old is harnessing that ability and using it at the right moments, determining when to take players on and when to pass.

Fortunately for Gyau, his stint with the reserve team of Bundesliga club TSG 1899 Hoffenheim has infused his game with more discipline. He was just an occasional starter with the reserves during the first half of the season, making 14 appearances (including five starts), but the winter break has seen him progress to the point where he could begin to challenge for some minutes with the first team when the season resumes.

"In recent years, he's gained more confidence and uses his pace a little more get behind people and just cause disruption," said FC Dallas and former U.S. U-17 head coach John Ellinger.

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4. Terrence Boyd, forward, Borussia Dortmund

No player's stock has risen more in the past 12 months than that of Boyd, who is playing for Borussia Dortmund's reserve side under the tutelage of former U.S. international David Wagner. Born to a German mother and U.S. serviceman father, Boyd's eligibility to play for the U.S. was dug up by Rongen. Boyd is a classic target forward, with size, power and a finishing touch that has seen him net 10 times in 15 matches this season.

"Boyd can score in various ways," said Rongen. "He can use his speed, or he can hold up the ball and bring other guys into play. In the box, he has good qualities."

Others around U.S. soccer hint that Boyd's progression has been such that he may be poised to surpass Agudelo in the near future. Either way, look for Boyd to play in this summer's Olympics if the U.S. can qualify.

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Andy Marlin/Getty Images
Valentin's composure on the ball, strength and ability to read the game make him an exciting asset at right back and center back.
5. Sebastian Lletget, midfielder, West Ham United

Given his Italian citizenship, there was a time when Lletget seemed poised to follow Giuseppe Rossi right out of the U.S. player pool. But these days, Lletget is firmly dedicated to the American cause and is one of the leading contenders to make the Olympic team.

Good thing, because Lletget is the kind of creative player that the U.S. system has struggled to produce. He joined West Ham United's youth academy as a 16-year-old, and has progressed to the point that he is now part of the club's developmental team.

"He's a guy who needs to play underneath the forward, be an assist guy, and score goals," said Rongen. "He has the silkiest touch, and is one of the most technical guys in that position."

6. Zarek Valentin, defender, Montreal Impact

Valentin's biggest asset is his versatility, and not in a Derek Zoolander kind of way. He spent much of his rookie season with Chivas USA at right back, and when he was exposed in the expansion draft, Montreal snapped him up. But he played center back in college and could feature there again for the Olympic team, where his composure on the ball will come in handy.

"His positioning is very good and he works well with the other backs on the line," said Ellinger. "He's a good one-on-one defender, and he plays that long diagonal ball that a lot of teams like to use these days."

7. Perry Kitchen, defender/midfielder, D.C. United

Kitchen is another player who played out of position at right back during his rookie season. In his case, though, his future appears to lie as a defensive midfielder, and at present he looks like he's going to be given every chance this season to win that position with D.C. United. That said, he drew solid reviews for his play at the back -- with his composure and ability to win balls in the air among his best attributes -- and his leadership skills have been widely praised as well.

"Kitchen has a presence about him, a real, 'This is my territory and you're going to have to deal with me' kind of attitude," said Ellinger. "Playing out wide, that wasn't an easy transition, but he did it well."

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Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
Okugo, 20, is still learning how to anchor the midfield but his tenacity and pace earned him a feature role in seven of the Philadelphia Union's last 10 games in 2011.
8. Amobi Okugo, M, Philadelphia Union

Club success has been somewhat slower to come for Okugo than Kitchen, but the UCLA product is another player with a big upside, and he saw his playing time increase in 2011, garnering 15 appearances for the Union (10 starts). While his ability to play out of tight spots could be improved, he is plenty adept at breaking up plays and he covers plenty of ground.

"Okugo is very competitive, very driven, and a lot better than people give him credit for tactically," said Union assistant John Hackworth. "He finds really good spots, and he's going to make it because he comes to work every single day, humble as can be, willing to go after it, and never thinking that he's arrived."

9. Kelyn Rowe, midfielder, New England Revolution

At first glance, a player who at times didn't start for his college team in 2011 seems an unlikely candidate for this list. But Rowe's superior skill on the ball is clear, as evidenced by the goal he scored for UCLA against North Carolina in the semifinals of last year's NCAA College Cup. On that occasion he worked a quick combination with Chandler Hoffman and, with the deftest of touches, slotted the ball home with the outside of his right foot. That play was by no means a one-off either.

"Rowe is a very good player, very skilled," said U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos. "I think going into the next level there'll be a little adjustment in playing a lot faster but I think he'll be a successful player in MLS. People will say he's not big enough or strong enough, but those things won't matter if he plays and thinks quick enough. If he isn't physically fast, I don't think it will matter if he's thinking fast."

10. Gale Agbossoumonde, defender, Eintracht Frankfurt

There's no question that "Boss" has the talent. At 6-foot-2, Agbossoumonde has all the physical tools. His skill on the ball is considerable as well.

"Agbossoumonde has a soft touch for a defender," said Hackworth. "And he's good about playing out of back. He can be very sharp with his passing."

The only question is whether his skills will become dulled by lack of use. After seemingly going on an endless tour of Europe in search of a club, Agbossoumonde finally landed with the reserve team of Bundesliga second-division side Eintracht Frankfurt. But even at that level, playing time has been hard to come by, with the defender securing just one five-minute stint so far this season. As a consequence, Agbossoumonde could end up back stateside, with published reports hinting at a move to the second-tier Carolina RailHawks. The defender already has one cap for the national team, but he'll need to establish himself with a club -- any club -- for his rise to continue.

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Carles in Charge: Competitive Fandom in the Social Media Age

By: timbersfan, 12:36 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Do I have a realistic chance of becoming the face of a franchise's fan base in my lifetime?

After watching these chill bros 'go viral' for sitting in two courtside seats, I am left trying to reevaluate my goals and expectations as a fan. Part of me feels jealous of their newfound 15,000 pageviews of fame. Los Angeles has Jack Nicholson. New York has Spike Lee. Detroit now has two random dudes who dress like suburban swag tweens.

'Being a fan' can turn into a competitive experience, where we are all eager to showcase our devotion and commitment to our chosen team. The majority of us compensate by reading every possible long tail analysis article about the team. Our opinions are annoyingly informed. However, if you are wealthy, you are able to purchase the holy grail of fandom: season tickets in a seat that you don't have to reach via 'walk of shame.' Without premium seats, you don't have the opportunity to leave your impact on the game, whether it is by heckling an overweight player or making a sign that provides LOL-able commentary. You actually have to pay for the opportunity to have a priceless experience.

And yet, it seems more difficult than ever to get people to pay to be 'just another face in the crowd.' Why would you pay to provide the background landscape on the home viewer's HD television? Upcoming generations no longer value the social currency equated with 'just being there,' because we are allegedly already everywhere with the power of hashtags, 4G wireless networks, and enslaved content publishers. If you're going to show up, everyone just wants to have the opportunity to broadcast their VIP experience via one of those Facebook photo posts where the lucky fan stands that close to the court and smiles in his Lakers jersey. Then, as the thumbs-ups and the 'I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU'RE SO CLOSE. SO JEALOUS' and the 'Say what's up to Kobe'-s start rolling in, the fan is happier to exist as a VIP on social media than to roll as a VIP in the actual stadium.

Attending a live sporting event forces consumers to analyze a monetary and emotional break-even point. Is it really worth it for mass-market suburbanite families to make the trip all the way to the stadium in order to watch some meaningless, a la carte regular-season game from the upper level? After the team jogs through the motions, a bad basketball game can turn into an almost dehumanizing consumer experience. You feel as if you've been 'taken to the cleaners' by the franchise. Both experiences are sad for similar reasons. In the days of leagues that are looking to build 'parity' into collective bargaining agreements and building compressed schedules that ensure lousy play, it is easier to have a relationship from an arm's-length distance to your favorite team.

Sure, I know that when there is an important game, it can be a special feeling to 'be in the building,' but sometimes I find myself feeling more comfortable watching the game on TV, refreshing social networks so I can feel like I am monitoring the conversation as it happens. I can't imagine reading a snarky tweet from a parody Twitter account after the game because it just resonates more while everyone is watching. It seems as if the identifiable community is no longer found in the bleachers, but in the cloud, talking about the game. We find ourselves more able to empathize with text on a glowing laptop screen than with the halfhearted cheers of miserable and/or misled fans.

I remember when I was young and I felt excited thinking about how a fan can impact a game. I thought that maybe one day, I could be one of those people who cared enough to attend every game, sit close, and cheer loud. Then, when you get older, you start to witness the typically inverse relationship between the proximity of your seat to the court versus the level of genuine rooting interest. There's just something sad in thinking about a lower-middle-class 10-year-old boy 'banished' to the upper deck while some rich dude's friend who is in town on business gets to go to the game. Somehow we all turn into post-reverse-classists who assume that basically no one should be allowed to watch live sports from nice seats. We are the other 99 percent of sports fans.

But maybe the Detroit Chill Bros will give us hope that one day we can purchase the right to be an authentic fan. While there are more ways than ever to connect to the game, there are fewer opportunities to immerse yourself in the purest sense of fandom.

Until then, I am stuck in the other 99 percent, agonizing about paying for parking in a distant lot, concession stand prices, and refusing to see myself in the face of the average guy I have to sit next to.

I miss the days when we smeared ice cream on our faces for the love of the game, not to go viral.

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Soccer's Heavy Boredom

By: timbersfan, 12:35 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Soccer is boring. One of the misconceptions non-soccer fans have about soccer fans is that we don't know this. The classic Simpsons parody of a soccer match — "Fast kickin'! Low scorin'! And ties? You bet!" — hangs on the joke that the game puts Americans to sleep while somehow, bafflingly, driving foreigners wild with excitement. Calling the game for Springfield TV, Kent Brockman practically grinds his teeth with frustration: "Halfback passes to the center … back to the wing … back to the center. Center holds it. Holds it. [Huge sigh.] Holds it." One booth over, the Spanish commentator is going nuts: "Halfback passes to the center! Back to the wing! Back to the center! Center holds it! Holds it!! HOLDS IT!!!"1

It's a great comedy bit, but it's not really accurate as a depiction of soccer culture. Soccer fans know soccer is boring. Soccer fans have seen more soccer than anyone. We're aware that it can be a chore. Fire up Twitter during the average Stoke City-Wigan match and you'll find us making jokes about gouging out our own eyes with wire hangers, about the players forgetting where the goals are, about what would happen if we released a pride of lions onto the pitch. (Answer: The game would still finish 0-0.) When Ricky Gervais recorded his "David Brent on Football Management" clip for the BBC during the first run of The Office, he snuck in a similar dig at the tedium of some of Liverpool's greatest teams:

Do you think that Alan Hansen or Mark Lawrenson would have had the careers they had if they'd had the skills but not the discipline? If they didn't have the concentration?

It's not easy passing the ball back to the goalkeeper every single time you get it. For ninety minutes.

Translation: Those guys were good. Now please, God, someone release the lions.

So why do soccer fans do this? Assuming we follow sports for something like entertainment,2 what do we get out of a game for which the potential for tedium is so high that some of its most famous inspirational quotes are simply about not being dull?3

I keep thinking about this question lately, maybe because I've been finding myself drawn to more and more boring games. This past weekend, I sat through the slow cudgeling death of Liverpool-Stoke. The final score was 0-0, but the final emotional score was -5. During Swansea's deliriously fun 3-2 upset of Arsenal on Sunday, I kept switching over to Athletic Bilbao's mundane 3-0 win over Levante. Why am I doing this? I thought, as Fernando Amorebieta whuffed in a gloomy header and Levante pinned themselves into their own half. But I kept checking back.

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole "maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can't use your arms and hands" element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it's a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that's uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team's winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team's fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team's holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team's attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team's right back runs onto the loose ball, only he's being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they're trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can't help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

But — and here's the obvious answer to the "Why are we doing this?" question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. The ball sproings up in the air … and comes down in just such a way that Dennis Bergkamp can pull off a reverse-pirouette flick that spins the ball around the defender and back into his own path … or Thierry Henry can three-touch a 40-yard pass in the air before lining it up and scoring a weak-foot roundhouse … or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can stutter-fake his way through an entire defense. In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport.4 So there's something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.

But I think there's more to the relationship of fans and boredom than just magic moments. I want you to like soccer if you don't already, so I probably shouldn't admit this. But the game gets in your head. Following soccer is like being in love with someone who's (a) gorgeous, (b) fascinating, (c) possibly quite evil, and (d) only occasionally aware of your existence.5 There's a continuous low-grade suffering that becomes a sort of addiction in its own right.6 You spend all your time hoping they'll notice you, and they never do, and that unfulfilled hope feels like your only connection to them. And then one day they look your way, and it's just, pow. And probably they just want help moving, and maybe they call you Josie instead of Julie, but still. It keeps you going. And as irrational as it sounds, you wouldn't trade this state of being for a life of quiet contentment with someone else. All you could gain would be peace of mind, and you'd lose that moment when the object of your fixation looked at you and you couldn't feel your face.

Soccer is, in other words, both romantic and tragic, and the soft agony of a bad game is an inescapable part of this. You spend all your time hoping something will happen, and it never does. You get a surge of adrenaline every time the ball flies anywhere near the goal,7 and you're always disappointed. But then, every once in a while, James McFadden will score from 30 yards at the Parc des Princes to give Scotland an impossible 1-0 lead over France, and a ponderous game will go all kinds of nervous-breakdown crazy. And for fans it's practically an out-of-body experience — not just because it was a great play, but because it was so unlikely that this match could have been graced with a great play to begin with.

So it's not that a boring game is purer than an entertaining game or that there's something moral about enduring tedium (although I know fans who might make that argument). I watch soccer to be amazed. One of my favorite books about fandom is Soccer in Sun and Shadow, by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, whose guiding principle is "a pretty move, for the love of God." But the beauty of the game matters more when you know you can't take it for granted — when it arrives, as Galeano writes, it's a "miracle."8 There was a moment last Sunday when I was flipping between the extremely exciting Swansea-Arsenal match and the generally-not-in-any-way-exciting Athletic-Levante match. Just as I switched over, Athletic's Oscar De Marcos, who had previously failed to score on an easy rebound,9 dribbled straight through two defenders into the area, drawing the goalkeeper out to the right side10 of the six-yard box. Then he lofted a high cross that dropped a foot from the goal line, just inside the left post, just as the lurking Fernando Llorente, who'd sneaked behind the defense, appeared in precisely that spot to head it into the empty net. In its weird, furtive way, the goal was better than the undeniable drama going on in Swansea. It was like a wink from the eye of the abyss. One of those lovely, foolish moments when you think that soccer might love you too.

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NBA Rookie Rankings II

By: timbersfan, 12:34 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

After a week off owing to a trip to Reno, Nevada, for the NBA D-League Showcase, the Rookie Rankings are back. Not too surprisingly, this list has been turned upside down as rookies continue to earn and define their roles in this young NBA season. In fact, only three rookies held their spots, while another three made the list for the first time.

1. Ricky Rubio

Since the start of the season, Rubio has been knocking down shots. As long as he does that, he will stick around at the top of the rankings. Rubio is such a talented playmaker that he becomes almost impossible to defend when his shot is falling. Rubio's true shooting percentage of 55.7 is significantly higher than the point guard average of 52.1 percent, and one reason why is that Rubio takes smart shots. In catch-and-shoot situations, 84.6 percent of Rubio's shots are unguarded, according to Synergy Sports. This isn't because the Minnesota coaching staff is drawing up plays to get him open; Rubio is just an excellent decision maker who finds shots within the flow of the game. In pick-and-roll situations, Rubio is shooting 52 percent on pull-up jumpers. This means defenders have to guard him closely when he comes off ball screens, and this often opens up passing lanes for Rubio. His scoring has also allowed Minnesota to lean on Rubio late in games, just like they did against Memphis earlier this season.


Sebastian Pruiti
Trailing by four points with 20.9 seconds to play, the Timberwolves need quick shots and multiple possessions. They get Rubio the ball about five feet outside the 3-point line and have Anthony Tolliver and Kevin Love set a staggered ball screen at the top of the key.


Sebastian Pruiti
Rubio uses the screens and his defender tries to go under both picks. This gives Rubio plenty of space as he comes off the second screen.


Sebastian Pruiti
Left wide open, Rubio rises for the 3-point shot. He knocks it down and cuts the Grizzlies' lead to one point. This set was so effective that Minnesota came right back and ran it again after Memphis hit two free throws to extend their lead to three.


Sebastian Pruiti
With 12.6 seconds left, the Timberwolves set the same staggered ball screen, with Tolliver setting the first pick and Love setting the second one as Rubio dribbles around both of them.


Sebastian Pruiti
Since Rubio hit a 3 on the last possession, Mike Conley sticks with Rubio this time as he comes off the screens. Despite the ball pressure, Rubio finds Love cutting to the basket.


Sebastian Pruiti
Love misses his first shot in the paint, but gets his own rebound and scores on the second attempt. Rubio doesn't get an assist on this play, but he created this opportunity for Love. Here is a look at those plays in real time:



We know that Rubio can use his playmaking skills to create his own scoring opportunities. Right now, however, his hot shooting also allows him to set up his teammates with assists. The dual threats of Rubio's scoring and passing put an enormous amount of pressure on defenses, who are forced to pick their poison. If they pressure Rubio, he will find an open teammate. If they play off him and try to keep him from creating, he can find his own shot and make it.

2. Kyrie Irving

In the first edition of the rookie rankings, Irving came in fifth because he was turning over the ball at a high rate, especially on pick and rolls. Irving is taking better care of the ball now. Two weeks ago, he was committing turnovers on 14.8 percent of his pick-and-roll plays. That number has dropped to 11.8 percent, and Irving's improvement has really helped his efficiency. Besides taking better care of the ball, Irving has also improved in pick-and-roll situations by attacking the lane more often. At the beginning of the season, Irving had a tendency to pick up his dribble on the perimeter in pick-and-roll plays, but he has corrected that error and Irving now seems determined to penetrate when he comes off ball screens. This aggressive play has made him a better scorer and playmaker.



In past situations, Irving would pick up the basketball outside the 3-point line and look for a teammate. Here, Irving keeps his dribble alive and snakes into the paint, where he can dish to an open teammate or get an easier shot.

Irving has also started to drive away from ball screens more often. According to Synergy Sports, Irving has gone away from the screen in 9.5 percent of his pick-and-roll plays. And he's been successful doing so, posting 1.5 points per possession and shooting 85.7 percent.



Driving away from screens keeps defenders off balance. Dwyane Wade is the master of this. As Irving has become more effective at using screens, he has been getting into the paint more often. Defenses have noticed, and they are starting to anticipate his penetration off screens by cheating an extra half step in that direction to defend him. This gives Irving an opportunity to reject the screen, go away from it, and attack an open lane.

3. MarShon Brooks

When Brooks ranked third two weeks ago, I noted that defenses would begin overplaying his right hand and make Brooks a less efficient isolation scorer. Well, it happened. Brooks' efficiency in isolations has declined from 1.176 to 0.982 points per possession. He fell from the 93rd percentile among NBA players to the 79th percentile. So why is Brooks still ranked third? Because he has added the pick-and-roll to his game. Brooks looks for his own shot when he uses ball screens, and he has been successful so far, posting a PPP of 1.077 in these situations. That puts him in the top 17 percent of NBA players. Brooks' efficiency comes from his ability to get to the free throw line. He draws shooting fouls on 23.1 percent of his pick-and-roll possessions.



Brooks is an interesting pick-and-roll player. He doesn't come off of screens sharply, like most point guards do when their defenders get stuck on screens and they look to penetrate. When Brooks uses a screen, it's as if he's still in isolation mode. He comes off the screen softly, allows his defender to go under the pick, and then uses that space to create his own offense. Since Brooks isn't looking to attack the basket off the screen, defenders would rather go under the screen and stay in front of Brooks, rather than force a defensive rotation. But Brooks loves to create in space, and once his defender gets under those screens, Brooks uses the extra space to attack him off the dribble and get to the lane.

4. Markieff Morris

Markieff Morris rises two spots because of his offensive efficiency. Yes, it is still early in the season and sample sizes are small, but as of Sunday, Morris has the highest PPP (1.625) among all NBA players in spot-up shooting situations. And his post play might be even more impressive, since scouts questioned whether he'd be successful with his back to the basket in the pros. Morris' 1.167 points per possession on post-up plays is in the top 4 percent of all NBA players, and he shoots 65 percent when he receives the ball on the block. Morris gets 69.6 percent of his post touches on the right block, where he has a pet move that has been effective so far in his career. He turns to the middle, but instead of looking for a lefty jump hook, Morris shoots a right-handed turnaround jumper. To get the shot off, he brings the basketball across his body and in front of the defense, which isn't the best fundamental play, but it's been working.



Few post players do this as consistently as Morris. Dirk Nowitzki does it, but his length makes the shot impossible to block. Morris is big, but he doesn't have Dirk's length, and with Morris bringing the ball across his body, this move seems defendable. Right now, the awkwardness of the move may be working to Morris' advantage, but once teams pick up on this quirk, it will be interesting to see if he can develop a countermove. If he doesn't, his development as a post threat may stop dead in its tracks.

5. Jon Leuer

Thanks to his strong and consistent play, Jon Leuer, the 40th pick in last year's NBA draft, has been the fifth-best rookie this season. Leuer's success is largely a result of his spot-up shooting, something that Leuer does on a quarter of his offensive possessions. As of Sunday, Leuer's 1.286 PPP in spot-up situations placed him in the top 10 percent of all NBA players. Leuer has been feasting on opportunities as the third player in pick-and-roll situations. Leuer isn't the big man setting screens; he's the forward spotting up outside of the pick-and-roll, ready to catch and shoot when his man shades over to help. In these situations, Leuer is shooting 71.4 percent, and he's really making the defense pay for leaving him.



It's evident in these clips that Leuer does much more than just stand around and wait for open shots. He moves without the ball, relocating when his man leaves to help on another play, and that movement puts Leuer in even better catch-and-shoot situations.

6. Iman Shumpert

Knicks fans might like to see Iman Shumpert higher than sixth, but playing out of position at point guard has led him to struggle at times this season. Shumpert is being asked to play outside of his comfort zone, and the numbers prove it. According to 82games.com, Shumpert has posted a PER of 2.2 as a point guard and 25.6 as a shooting guard. Right now, Shumpert is playing 25 percent of the Knicks' point guard minutes and 14 percent of their shooting guard minutes. On pick-and-rolls, Shumpert shoots just 24.1 percent from the field and commits turnovers 23.1 percent of the time. His PPP when using ball screens is 0.462, in the bottom 7 percent of NBA players. Those aren't point guard numbers, but Shumpert still deserves a ranking because of the talent he's displayed and the fact that he has performed so well during his short time as a shooting guard. When cutting off the basketball — like a shooting guard would — Shumpert is posting a PPP of 1.200 and shooting 66.7 percent. If the Knicks give him more minutes at shooting guard and Shumpert keeps these numbers up, he could rise into the top three of these rankings. If he continues to play most of his minutes at point guard, he might drop off the list completely.

7. Brandon Knight

Brandon Knight dropped from fourth to seventh in these rankings because he is still developing as an NBA-level decision maker. As of Sunday, Knight was turning the ball over on 22.1 percent of his offensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports. Most of these turnovers have come at the worst possible time. Knight has the ball in transition on 17.1 percent of his offensive possessions, and he has been way too careless on those plays. Knight commits turnovers on 38.7 percent of his transition possessions. He also gives the ball away 13.5 percent of the time in pick-and-roll situations. If Knight can learn to take care of the ball, he should be able to work his way back up the rankings.

8. Norris Cole

Cole's drop from second to eighth in these rankings was the biggest of any rookie. With all the attention defenses pay to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, Cole should get plenty of open looks, but his spot-up shooting numbers have fallen. After shooting 40 percent with a PPP of 0.800 two weeks ago, Cole is now shooting 30.6 percent in spot-up situations and his PPP has declined to 0.694. Cole is supposed to be that fourth man who knocks down shots when the Big Three kick the ball out to him. With Cole shooting poorly, his value, and thus his ranking, drops.

9. Tristan Thompson

It's becoming more and more clear that Tristan Thompson struggles to score on the block. Right now, Thompson doesn't have a go-to move, and that hurts his production in the post. As of Sunday, Thompson has been trying to play a face-up game. On 58.3 percent of his post touches, he turns and faces the basket. But Thompson has only shot 30 percent on those moves. He needs to become more skilled with the basketball to score in face-up situations. Thompson lacks a reliable arsenal of fakes and dribble moves to create separation from his defenders. This forces him to finish in traffic, and he's just not ready to do that yet.

10. Kawhi Leonard

Leonard is performing like the player San Antonio hoped Richard Jefferson would become. He converts 42.4 percent of his spot-up shooting attempts with an above-average PPP of 1. Leonard also posts above-average PPPs in transition and on the offensive glass. The most impressive area of Leonard's play has been his movement without the ball. Leonard shoots 72.7 percent when cutting and his PPP of 1.500 in those situations places him in the top 7 percent of all NBA players. Leonard doesn't have exquisite offensive skills, but if he can remain active and move effectively without the ball, he can be a threat. Combine that with his effort and skill on the defensive end and you have a typical Spur.

The Rest: Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams

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Draw It Up: NFL Playoffs Edition

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Play calling, as a general matter, is overrated. After a loss, most sports radio call-in shows are primarily dedicated to the play calling of the offensive and defensive coordinators. For whatever reason — be it the uniquity of football video games like Madden, or just human nature — to use perfect hindsight to question a decision that was reasonable at the time it was made, the message is clear: Every fan is far superior at calling plays to the people whose job it is to do it every weekend. The reality is that play calling is just one part of the fuller puzzle, and far more important is the amount of preparation that went into the game plan as a whole — i.e., how the plays fit together — and how efficiently they were practiced so that they can be executed correctly. Because a well-organized, coherent, and systematic game plan that the players can execute will practically call itself; and no "great play caller" is worth anything without the countless hours of preparation that go into the few brief moments of actual game time. Indeed, as San Francisco 49ers legend Bill Walsh taught us, the best play callers do their play calling through preparation during the week, not so much on game day as emotions soar. In other words, play calling is rarely the difference between a win and a loss.

But sometimes it is; sometimes a play call is so good — and takes such good advantage of a bad play call on the other side — that one can rightly say, That call might have won the game. So it was during the furious fourth quarter between the 49ers and the Saints last weekend. With two minutes and 11 seconds remaining, and the 49ers down 24-23, on third-and-7, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman made one of the best calls of the season: A crack/pull sweep, not with a running back but with quarterback Alex Smith as the blocker.



The crack/pull sweep has long been a change-up in the NFL, and the 49ers called it against the perfect defense. A specialty of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the overload man-to-man blitz on third down is undoubtedly where Walsh's preparation came into play, as Williams has long had a tendency to go to such aggressive defenses as the goal line nears. The play begins with a crackback block by a receiver — here, it's Kyle Williams — who motions close to the offense's formation and blocks the defensive end from his blind side. The "pull" comes into play as the linemen — freed up by the receiver's "crack" block — can pull and lead around end. The play is really designed for the kind of man-to-man blitz that Williams presented, as the outside defenders are focused on defending the receivers one-on-one and get pulled inside, and aren't looking into the backfield for the linemen pulling to the outside. As a result, those linemen are able to get outside and mow down defenders, which is exactly what happened. Saints defensive back Patrick Robinson, who was defending receiver Kyle Williams man-to-man, got pulled inside and inexplicably continued across the field while the 49ers' linemen were able to get around end and seal the edge, most notably when tackle Joe Staley cut down Saints safety Roman Harper well downfield for the final block to spring Smith.

Which brings us to the biggest wrinkle: Harbaugh and Roman had Smith, not running backs Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter, as the ball carrier. This made the call all the more clever: a "no-back" look made Gregg Williams and the Saints defense think only pass, and also by putting their great tight end, Vernon Davis, to the right, they drew additional defenders that way — away from where the ball would go. At that point, it was up to Smith to show the wheels that made him a dual-threat quarterback at Utah under Urban Meyer, and, in the biggest game of his career, that's exactly what he did. And so we see that it's not at all about play calling. Except when it is.

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Dispatches From the Magic Locker Room: Dwight Howard, Big Baby, and Stan Van Gundy at

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

The Magic have just beaten the Knicks, and Dwight Howard’s in a good mood. Most of the Orlando players in MSG’s petite visitors’ locker room are strategically maneuvering orange towels while silently changing; meanwhile, Dwight’s riffing. The first target is Jameer Nelson, who just polished off a postgame Styrofoam platter of wings and fries and now can’t find his shower shoes. Howard offers a hand, ducking his head up to the top shelf of the 6-foot Nelson’s locker: “Oh, you can’t see 'em? Y'all got an apple box?” The assembled media scrum titters, and Howard moves on to one of the refs: “They need to send him to the D-League. He didn’t know what three seconds was. It’s when you’re in the paint for three seconds!” Then he spots ESPN’s news-breaking specialist Chris Broussard and rattles off an impersonation: “I talked to LeBron James … inside sources tell me … I just talked to Jesus and he said …"

And why wouldn’t Howard be feeling good? That’s what it’s like when you’re rolling. The Magic’s 102-93 win over the Knicks on Monday was their fourth straight, all of which came on the road. In the game before, Thursday night against Golden State, Howard went off for 45 points (tying a career high) and 23 rebounds. (And could have had more: Warriors coach Mark Jackson employed the Hack-a-Howard technique, and Dwight broke Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw attempt record while going a ghastly 21-of-39 at the line.)

Monday’s win brings the Magic to 9-3, good for third place in the Eastern Conference (behind the Bulls and … the Sixers?!). When you consider the cloud of Howard-trade chatter that follows the team, the season has rolled along surprisingly smoothly.

Against the Knicks, Dwight flubbed offensively. A big reason was a pumped-up Tyson Chandler managing to play Howard one-on-one without being trampled underfoot, with the occasional Knicks swarm helping out. But while he wasn’t scoring (3-for-6, good for eight points), Dwight did keep it together. Over and over he kicked the ball to the outside so that Orlando’s Terrifying Trio of Tall White Guys Who Can Pull Up for 3 at Any Time — Hedo Turkoglu, J.J. Reddick, and Ryan Anderson — could do their thing, to the tune of 17 team 3-balls. The strappingly goateed Anderson carried the day, going 7-of-13 from beyond the arc for a team-high 30 points.

The Knicks were actually leading most of the way, even with Amar'e Stoudemire playing limited minutes due to foul trouble, and looked ready to withstand the barrage of Magic outside shooting. The loudest squeals of the night came in the third, when Iman Shumpert stripped Earl Clark, raced down the court, and then dumped the ball behind his back to Carmelo Anthony, who finished with a wobbly layup. The suavely calm Anderson retorted with a 3, and then New York’s bench wunderkind, Josh Harrellson, re-retorted with a 3 of his own. (Things you need to know: Harrellson’s nickname is “Jorts,” because one time he wore jean shorts. Appropriately, whenever he does something good, the MSG JumboTron flashes the word “JORTS.”)

But New York’s defensive walls did not hold. In the fourth quarter, more action from the TTOTWGWCPUFTAAT — a banked-in 3 from Hedo, a four-point play from Anderson — gave Orlando a five-point lead with about four minutes to go. And then things got ugly for the Knicks: Toney Douglas and Carmelo took turns missing long jumpers and making awful passes, before a breakaway layup from Reddick sealed the deal. Ciara, Katrina Bowden, and Mike D, all watching dutifully from “celebrity row,” could do nothing to help.

Full disclosure time! This was my first NBA reporting gig (I’m usually over at the Downton Abbey-ier side of things here at Grantland), and I learned some things. Most importantly: The press boxes are kind of informally chopped up by status groupings, and the first-tier press box has free popcorn and Diet Coke. What was I doing in the first-tier press box, you ask? Good question! I accidentally went to the wrong one, obviously, and was very politely told to leave halfway through the first quarter when the reporter whose chair I was sitting in, and eating popcorn in, showed up. The even more polite old press-box caretaker guy explained to me where I was supposed to be sitting, and then I promptly went wandering in circles around MSG while sweating heavily under my winter coat. When I finally found my place during halftime, I learned something else: The Knicks hook you up with a fat media-notes packet that, among other things, tells you who the halftime performer is going to be. This is extremely helpful because, come on, if it’s not fat guys doing full-court layups, I’m out of there.

Which brings us back to the Orlando locker room, and the aforementioned assembled media scrum. Everyone stands around in the middle for a while, waiting for Dwight to put enough clothes on so that it’s not as awkward to shove a tape recorder in his face. A few other players — mostly Anderson, sporting a sort of woodsman-outdoorsy-chic look — are approached by the press. I talk to Big Baby Davis, thinking I could get some banter going about that time he shoved a young Magic fan in jubilation. He kind of brushes that aside, though, and we talk about regular basketball stuff. At one point he does say, “We got a looooooot more games to play,” comically stretching out the word “looooooot,” though that probably doesn’t translate very well written out. Meanwhile, the rest of the team just goes about their business unperturbed, and while I’m sure Larry Hughes couldn’t give less of a crap, decades of sports-movie watching have trained me to feel sad for the guys no one wants to talk to.

Stan Van Gundy gets chatted up outside the locker room, and flashes some irascible charm. On Anderson having a big night despite dealing with a cold: “I didn’t know he wasn’t feeling well. We’ll try to inject him with a virus [next game].” On Turkoglu picking up his game late: “Guys were just giving him a hard time in the locker room: ‘Hey, next time you don’t want to play in the first half, just let us know.'” On the efficacy of his zone defense: “Well, I’m one of the great zone coaches, and I think that’s been known in this league for a long time … I’ve coached 500-some games, and we’ve played about 18 or 19 minutes of zone? So I would say [the reason it worked was] probably shock value as much as anything.” And he closes with some trademark pessimism: “I’m not trying to put a negative spin on today, but I’m still not happy with our defense. It’s just not good enough, and if it doesn’t improve, we’re not good enough. I just looked: 39 days starting from today until the All-Star break; we play 24 games and we practice five times. So I don’t know how we’re gonna make it a whole lot better.”

Monday night, at least, everything was right for Orlando. The win left them near the top of the East. Their at-times petulant star seemed out-and-out happy. And Jameer Nelson, eventually, found his shower shoes.

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Rock, Chalk, Cakewalk: Kansas' Offense Ends Baylor's Perfect Season

By: timbersfan, 12:28 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Until further notice, the Big 12 belongs to the no. 7 Kansas Jayhawks.

Monday night's win over no. 3 Baylor — before tip-off, one of three undefeated teams in America — was so dominant that it bulldozed the old axiom about over-valuing one win. Because this wasn't just a win; it was a mighty shellacking. A mighty shellacking, you say? Oh yeah. Believe me, I thought long and hard before choosing that phrase. I think it was last used by a dude named Jedediah to describe a lopsided mule race at a county fair in the 1870s. But today, it fits. Baylor got flat-out embarrassed, and by my reckoning, the Jayhawk pyrotechnic display was the single best offensive showing by any team this season, all circumstances considered.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, enjoy the second Kansas basket of the game:


As far as tone-setters go, not too bad, right?

That was Thomas Robinson on the jam, the 6-foot-10 junior who finished with 27 points and 14 boards, and who is now one of the front-runners for national player of the year. He dominated all game long with dunks and spins and ferocious boards, and he did it against one of the best front lines in the country. Baylor is absolutely stacked down low, with three premier bigs (6-foot-9 Quincy Miller, 6-foot-7 Quincy Acy, and 6-foot-11 Perry Jones III) who should (read: should) dominate every game. But it didn't work out that way in Lawrence. Instead, Robinson combined with Jeff Withey to completely outclass the Bears. Withey is a 7-footer, ranked third nationally in block percentage, and he grabbed nine offensive boards over the Baylor trio.

But wherefore this humiliation? How did Kansas put up an offensive efficiency of 129.6 (for the statistically uninitiated, that means the Jayhawks would have scored 129.6 points if given 100 possessions), its second-highest total of the year and the best since a season-opening 100-54 romp over Towson? How was it possible against the 16th-best defense in the country, against a team with a 17-0 record and a Top 5 ranking?

There are quite a few answers, actually. Let's start with the Four Factors from our pals at Stat Sheet.



NCAA Basketball Stats

More stats at StatSheet.com


You notice right away that the biggest discrepancy comes in the offensive rebounding department. Kansas gave itself a second chance on 48.4 percent of all shots, an absurdly high number. Baylor likes to play a 2-3 zone that can morph into a 3-2 and even a 1-3-1, and offensive boards are an occupational hazard of that defensive style. For evidence, you only have to look at one of the other undefeated teams, Syracuse. The Orange employ the zone defense, and despite boasting the 10th-best defense in the country, they are a woeful 319th on the offensive glass. Coaches understand that when you play a zone, you'll give up more rebounds simply because defenders won't always have a specific man to box out. The attacking team has more freedom to maneuver when the shot goes up, and that leads to more second chances.

So being out-rebounded by a fair margin isn't too critical for a zone-based defense. You take the good with the bad. As you see by the records, it wasn't a problem for Syracuse or Baylor. With Robinson and Withey patrolling the glass, though, the problem was exacerbated for Baylor. The Bears normally give up an offensive board on one-third of all shots (33.6 percent), but on Monday night, that went up to nearly half.

Giving up those extra chances to the Jayhawks was especially problematic, because for the bulk of the game they didn't even need the help. Bears coach Scott Drew has a perfect team for the zone — fast, long, and athletic — but Kansas exploited the weakness with unbelievable precision.

Let's look at a quick example from the first half.



Here, you see Baylor is playing a zone defense that looks like a 1-3-1. Each type of zone leaves open space in one part of the court, and already Kansas had exploited the open foul line area in Baylor's 2-3. Drew adjusted to the 1-3-1 so that the foul line is patrolled by the middle man in the second line. In this case, that was Pierre Jackson. It's a smart adjustment, but the 1-3-1 isn't a miracle cure; instead of the foul line, it leaves open space in the corners. Kansas has a plan to exploit that weakness. Notice that Robinson starts off by himself in the right corner — an unlikely spot for a player who makes his bones in the paint. But it's not an accident. Tyshawn Taylor, who had one of the best games of his career, recognizes the 1-3-1.


Taylor passes to Travis Releford on the wing, and Baylor's Quincy Miller rushes up to meet him. The Jayhawks knew that would happen, and Kevin Young is where's he meant to be, open in the corner. Young is 6-foot-8, the second-tallest player on the court after Robinson, and it'll be obvious in a second why Kansas coach Bill Self has his two biggest men in the corner. On the other wing, notice that Teahen is about to slash into the lane, while Robinson is shifting up.



Young receives the pass, and if he had reacted quickly enough, he would have found Teahen for a relatively easy layup. Baylor’s Gary Franklin was the top man in the 1-3-1, and as the ball shifts it is his job to sag down and prevent that cut. He doesn't do it quickly enough, and Teahen is open as Anthony Jones has to pay attention to Robinson behind him. Young doesn't pull the trigger on the pass, but it's not a critical mistake. The Baylor zone has been pulled all the way to the left, and Kansas' best scorer is behind them. One of the main philosophies of zone offense (some credit Bobby Knight on this one) is to always bring players from behind.



Young's hesitation brings on the double team, and you can see why Self wants his tall players in the corner. A smaller player in that situation might be prone to a turnover, but Young, who is also a threat to dribble, finds himself in less danger. It's also becoming clear why they went to Young's side; notice Robinson creeping up to the wing. He's about to become a primary scoring threat from behind the flow of the zone. And one last point: As a result of Teahen's strong cut, Anthony Jones now has to pick him up. Robinson is completely unregarded.



Young beats the double team with a dribble, and ALL FIVE Baylor defenders are on the right side of the court. Three of them, marked above, are stacked in the right corner. The double-team isn't a terrible strategy, but when a player can break it with the ease that Young did, a perceived advantage is quickly turned into a disaster. When he beats his defender, Young is smart enough to attack the middle rather than continuing outside. It doesn't take much to see how this play is ending.



Hey, Baylor, remember Thomas Robinson? He's the player of the year candidate. He's also the man with momentum, cutting into the lane, with a clear path to the basket. In the parlance of the night, y'all screwed.



Hoop, harm.

For Kansas, it was that easy all night. The bad news for Baylor is that this will serve as a blueprint for every future opponent this season. The good news is that Kansas' win was predicated on intelligence and skill. Without Young's ability to beat the double team, that easy basket doesn't happen. Not every team will have the weapons the Jayhawks have, so it's not like this knowledge alone relegates Baylor to a slew of bad losses.

Let's take another quick look at Kansas' combination of planning and ability, this time in video form:


At the start of this play, it looks like Baylor has switched to man-to-man. It wouldn't have been a surprise; they're known to play man on occasion, and Kansas' success against the zone forced them to do it more often last night. On the other hand, Baylor's 3-2 zone can look an awful lot like a man at times. To figure it out, and to waste time with a lead, Kansas runs a weave on the perimeter. Although Baylor switches on every pick, it still seems like a man-to-man underneath. Armed with that information, Taylor and Withey set up a pick-and-roll on the right wing.

What happens next is a small disaster for Baylor. Quincy Acy hedges, like he's supposed to, and Jackson follows Taylor, like he's supposed to. But Acy doesn't retreat to his man, Withey, after the hedge. This seems like a good time to point out that Acy had a truly awful defensive game, looking lost over and over as Kansas exploited his confusion. By forgetting that his team is playing a man-to-man defense, or ignoring the fact that a big man has to retreat to his own guy after a hedge on a pick-and-roll, he leaves Withey wide open. Taylor curls around Acy and feeds the big man for the easy slam.

But despite the error, Taylor's play took more skill than meets the eye. Luckily, ESPN ran a replay from an even better angle a moment later:


As with Young in the play diagrammed above, Taylor gets by Quincy Acy. Here, he has to read Quincy Miller's body language. As the help-side defender, Miller has to choose whether to step in and stop Taylor's penetration, or stay with his man, Releford.

Taylor, with the ball, is taught to attack the help defender's inside shoulder and to read his outside foot. If Miller had shifted over, bringing his right foot into the lane to stop the drive, the ball would have been kicked out to Releford for an open look. But against a player as quick as Taylor, Miller's hesitation is fatal. He can only give a lame step toward the ball, but Taylor is already into the lane and ready to throw the alley-oop.

Was it bad defense? Sure. But it was a highly intelligent and athletic play by Taylor. A player like that can make any defender look hapless. And it shows how a small mistake — in this case, Acy's clueless pick-and-roll defense — can translate to an easy basket against an efficient offense.

Baylor's breakdowns weren't the only reason behind the lopsided final margin. The offensive rebounds played a part, as did the Jayhawks' ability to fast break at will. And, of course, Allen Fieldhouse is a nightmare venue for an opponent. But the fact is, Bill Self went to war with one of his least talented teams in recent memory — and still embarrassed the third-ranked team in the country. It was a coaching job worthy of his reputation, and after a few early losses, it should make us all reconsider the nature of the Jayhawks. Conference play is barely under way, but there's a blooming juggernaut in the Big 12.

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The Fabulous and the Flops of the Divisional Round

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

With the Divisional Round of the playoffs in the books, it's time to take a look at some of the numbers and storylines from this week's games in "The Fabulous and the Flops." And while we could just make this simple and pick guys like Vernon Davis and Eli Manning to be stars and Roman Harper and Tim Tebow as scrubs, it would be a little redundant by now; you already know what they did. Instead, we're going to take a glance at some of the less obvious performances from this past week.


San Francisco 49ers 36, New Orleans Saints 32

Fabulous: Marques Colston. Although Darren Sproles got some attention for setting a playoff reception record, he fumbled a punt away and only produced four first downs. Colston caught nine of the 12 passes thrown to him, producing 136 yards, a touchdown, and seven first downs. Jimmy Graham might have been uncoverable on his fourth-quarter touchdown catch, but Colston was close to uncoverable for most of the game. As an unrestricted free agent-to-be, Colston might have very well played his last game in black and gold. If that's so, he went out on a high note.

Flop: Michael Crabtree. On the other hand, San Francisco's no. 1 wideout spent most of the game looking invisible. He had an early touchdown to give the Niners a 14-0 lead, but Crabtree never got into the rhythm of the game and caught just four passes for 25 yards on ten targets. That included a number of borderline drops. Crabtree is likely to draw the attention of the superb Giants cornerback Corey Webster in the NFC Championship Game, and if Ted Ginn can't play because of his knee injury, Crabtree will need to get open for the Niners to have much of a passing attack. (For those of you saying "What about Vernon Davis?!" remember that Seattle's Marshawn Lynch followed up his now-legendary run against the Saints last year by running for two yards on four carries against the Bears.)

New England Patriots 45, Denver Broncos 10

Fabulous: Rob Ninkovich. One of the many practice squad treasures floating around on the New England defense these days, Ninkovich really struggled against the Broncos during their regular-season game. On Saturday night, though, he was brilliant while drawing comparisons to a former Patriots outside linebacker, Mike Vrabel. Ninkovich finished with 1.5 sacks, including a crucial strip-sack of Tim Tebow in the first half that set the Patriots on their way to a double-digit lead. And while the Broncos took advantage of him in the running game during the first encounter between these two, Ninkovich did a great job of holding the edge and forced Tebow, who isn't a great decision-maker on the read option, into subpar decisions. In addition to the strip-sack, Ninkovich added a tackle for loss and two quarterback hits.

Flop: Elvis Dumervil. Before the game, rumors swirled about this outside linebacker's knee and how it might limit him against the Patriots. If he really was injured, well, it showed on Saturday. Dumervil had just one tackle, failed to come up with even one hurry of Tom Brady, and offered so little that Boston Globe NFL writer Greg Bedard referred to him as a waste of space. Ouch. Dumervil has a whole offseason to heal, but if he was really this injured, the Broncos coaching staff (or Dumervil himself) should have kept him off the field. A runner-up spot goes to Von Miller, whose cheap shot on Tom Brady's punt ended up resulting in teammate Robert Ayers getting his ass kicked on the Patriots sideline.

Baltimore Ravens 20, Houston Texans 13

Fabulous: The Houston offensive line. While Arian Foster made some nice moves downfield to pick up extra yardage, Houston's front five simply dominated one of the league's biggest and baddest front sevens. On many plays, Foster was able to burst up through the line of scrimmage without even making a cut, picking up four yards before anyone even touched him. Eleven of his 28 carries on the day went for four yards or more, and a lot of that was the work done by the offensive line against the likes of Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody. They also held up well in pass protection, as T.J. Yates wasn't sacked even once in 35 dropbacks and was knocked down just two times. The Texans might have lost, but don't blame their offensive line; they didn't turn the ball over.

Flop: Jacoby Jones. What on earth was Jones thinking when he tried to field that first-quarter punt on his own 13-yard line? Sure, it's always nice to avoid being pinned deep in your own territory, but Jones wasn't likely to gain more than a few yards on the return, and the downside — a turnover with two guys in your face — was palpable. It's not like Jones made up for it on his other returns, either, as he fielded five other punts and accrued a total of four yards. Afterwards, Jones' agent had to deny that fans had gone to burn Jones' jersey in front of his house.

New York Giants 37, Green Bay Packers 20

Fabulous: Michael Boley. As the only Giants linebacker with much in the way of speed, Boley often spends his time as the coverage guy by default. With a total of three sacks during his three seasons with the Giants, you would have been forgiven if you didn't expect to see him making big plays in the backfield on Sunday. Instead, Boley delivered the game of his life. He sacked Aaron Rodgers twice, picking up a third-down sack that forced a punt and set up the Hail Mary drive, and then adding to it with a sack on fourth-and-5 early in the fourth quarter. With the Packers inside Giants territory while down by just seven, they might even have been favorites to win the game at that moment. Instead, after Boley's sack, they didn't touch the ball again with a chance to tie the game on one play. Boley also broke up a pass and had three tackles for loss.

Flop: Jake Ballard. With arguably the best one-through-three group of wide receivers in the league alongside him, Ballard needs to be able to beat single coverage and make safeties respect him. If he can do that, big plays should open up beyond his routes for Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Instead, the same guy who caught 15 of the first 17 passes Eli Manning threw to him this year went just 1-for-8 on passes thrown in his direction on Sunday.

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The Reducer: Week 21, And Out Come the Swans

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Sunday saw a wonderfully inventive young team adhering to an aesthetically pleasing football philosophy — one that pays tribute to the great sides of Barcelona and Ajax — preached by their excellent manager. In possession they kept the ball as a form of defense, swapped positions with ease, exquisitely put together short passing movements, and found a multiplicity of angles from which to attack their opponents. Without the ball, they ferociously closed down the other team, making it impossible for them to get settled and forcing them to make silly mistakes. When they were losing they looked steady and dangerous. When they were winning it never looked like the opposition had a chance. They were technically gifted, entertaining, and easy to cheer for.

Oh yeah. And Arsenal played too.

Zing. Sunday's score suggested a hard-fought game of two sides exchanging body blows. And yes, like most matches, if a couple of bounces of the ball (Robin van Persie should have had a second goal early in the first half, but aimed at Michel Vorm instead of the net) and blows of the referee's whistle (dubious call on Aaron Ramsey for the penalty, which led to Swansea's equalizer) had gone the Gunners' way, they may have come out of the Liberty Stadium with a point or three. But based on their performance, Arsenal hardly deserved it. Swansea, on the other hand, deserved everything they got.

When it was all over, a track-suited Arsene Wenger watched another batch of points slip away as his spent midfielder Aaron Ramsey retreated from the bellowing crowd that had ridden him all day (Ramsey is a product of Swansea's Welsh rivals Cardiff City) and the Swansea players celebrated the best result of their inaugural Premier League season. I was surprised by how little surprise I felt, because I'm often sitting around gauging how surprised I am.

Last week Arsenal defeated Leeds in the FA Cup in storybook fashion, with club legend Thierry Henry coming on and scoring a late winner. In what has been, putting it nicely, a trying season for the North London club, they were bound for something of a come-down, if only emotionally.

In seasons past, Arsenal's players would have been salivating at the thought of playing a passing and attacking opponent like Swansea. Typically, the Gunners had the most trouble against teams that set out to nullify them (see Stoke, teams managed by Mark Hughes or Sam Allardyce). If anyone, short of Barcelona, tried to play with them on the ground, on their own terms, Arsenal would (on their day) tear them to pieces.

This is not your barely older brother's Arsenal. Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas have moved on, and Jack Wilshere has spent the season tweeting and watching X Factor … and tweeting about watching X Factor in an air cast. And in their absence (or departures), Arsenal has seemingly lost what made them such a special football team over the last few years. This season the Gunners have been honestly dull. And nobody made that more abundantly clear this season than Swansea did on Sunday.

We can and will talk more about what's wrong with Arsenal, but first a song for the Swans.

Last May, I watched Swansea as they beat Reading at Wembley Stadium to win the nPower Championship's Premier League Playoff match, gaining entry to the top flight of English football. Like Blackpool before them, Swansea were bringing an attractive brand of football to the Premier League. And like Blackpool boss Ian Holloway had, Swansea's Brendan Rodgers insisted he wouldn't sacrifice his principles for results. They would play against Manchester United the same way they had against Leeds United: pass and move, keeping the ball on the ground; defend from the front and play it out from the back.

Those terms have been really hot coach-speak clichés ever since Barcelona began its three-year reign of terror. They probably look good on a dry-erase board in a changing room, but how do they get put into practice? If you're Barcelona it looks like a bunch of tiny Spaniards and Argentinians bending time and space. But in the absence of superhuman individuals like Messi and Xavi, it should look like 11 players moving, thinking, and playing as one.

Swansea's second half against Arsenal, following Rodgers' introduction of Gylfi Sigurdsson into the midfield, was one of the best team performances I've seen all year. Perhaps a lot of it can be chalked up to the passionate support they received from the home crowd, and perhaps that home crowd sensed that, at 1-1, Arsenal were there for the taking. But owing this result to something as nebulous as fan support when so much evidence was on display on the field feels wrong.

Swansea's frontline of Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer, and Danny Graham scored the Swans' three goals, but it was their midfield that won the match. Joe Allen and Leon Britton looked positively Xavi-and-Iniesta-like, hounding Ramsey and Alex Song all day, switching the play from defense to attack in no time. Dyer's goal, Swansea's second, was a result of this kind of aggression and vision; Allen dispossessed Ramsey easily, in the Arsenal half, and quickly found a streaking Dyer, who was dusting Ignasi Miquel, his gassed marker. Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny threw his hands up in disgust, but all the Swansea fans (and I would bet any neutrals who were watching) were elated with what they just saw.

The Xavi-Iniesta bit might sound like hyperbolic hot air, but Leon Britton, now famously, has a higher passing accuracy percentage than old "Chamelon Eyes" (as Ray Hudson calls Xavi) and Swansea are, statistically speaking, one of the best passing sides in Europe.

If Swansea looked at times like the Total Football dream come to life, Arsenal was some kind of waking, walking, occasionally kicking nightmare; players out of position looking tired, cranky, and not up for the challenge.

After their 1-0 loss to Man City in mid-December, Arsenal had a run of five very winnable games against Villa, Wolves, QPR, Fulham, and Swansea. Fifteen points were up for grabs and they came out with seven.

Moving forward, assuming that Arsene Wenger is unwilling or unable to bring in any January reinforcements, the best thing the Arsenal boss can do is shuffle the deck he already has. Aaron Ramsey does not look suited to play at the tip of an attacking three (he also looks like he could use a sandstorm-free Dubai vacation). Why not move Andrei Arshavin, who had some lovely, weighted through balls on Sunday (and is kind of useless covering his fullbacks anyway), into that role? If there's such a striker drought, why not give Theo Walcott a shot at playing in a central role up front? Then bring the promising Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain into the side on the wing. And maybe somebody should tell Alex Song that where he is most needed is screening his slow and shaky back four, not bombing forward and trying Zidane-esque passes.

Most unnerving for Arsenal and its fans will be the lack of steel and grit on display Sunday. Despite captain Robin van Persie scoring another goal and despite past captain Thierry Henry confronting/rallying some Arsenal supporters to be more constructive in their criticism, there was something missing in the middle of the park: a lack of will, a lack of ferocity. That could be found in the Midlands, where Wenger loaned out one of the club's most passionate and enigmatic players …

Frimpong Rises

With all their defections over the last few transfer windows (Nasri, Fabregas, Alexander Hleb (LOL)), Arsenal need some players who truly, honestly love playing for the club. Ramsey and Wilshere seem ready to assume that mantle, but neither play with the kind of wolf-protecting-its-territory abandon that is sometimes needed to take over a game. Emmanuel Frimpong, in the few appearances he made for Arsenal this season, does just that. On Saturday, playing on loan for Wolves against Tottenham, he seemed to be playing for Arsenal by proxy. He busted up Spurs' highly vaunted midfield play (a.k.a. he kicked Scott Parker), intimidating, hassling, tackling, and harassing at every turn. Yes, Spurs should have won, Emmanuel Adebayor looked onside, and Luka Modric missed the goal a few times, each closer than the last, but Wolves took advantage of all the luck they got. As they should: There hasn't been a lot of it to go around this year for Mick McCarthy's team.


Wolves are a really feisty team, especially against decent opposition. Steven Fletcher is a great target man, even if his presence seems to have derailed Kevin Doyle's once promising career. They have a great winger in Matt Jarvis, and if you want to get through the center of the park on them, you better be at peace with your maker. Frimpong partnered well with his brother in ankle abuse, Karl Henry.

The rap on Frimpong is that he lets his heart dictate his head, but Arsenal could have used more heart on Sunday. It's not like they didn't make mistakes anyway. Besides, if you're a Gooner, how could you not want a guy on your team who does this to Rafael van der Vaart:


Earlier in the week, van der Vaart was talking up Spurs' title hopes. I wonder if he even knows how to find White Hart Lane after that incident.

The Hissing of Mid-Winter Fax Machines (a.k.a. Transfer Rumors)

Sir Alex Ferguson was recently asked about the possibility of bringing in players during the January transfer window. He muttered, "The thing is, what can you get in January? I have said this all the time. The players who are available that we would like, we won't get. What do you do? Do you take a second-rate player? No, of course you don't."

That's not going to stop me and every other football fanatic from fantasizing about signing-on bonuses, failed medicals, helicopters leaving Newcastle for Liverpool and changing direction mid-flight, the exact longitude and latitude of Christopher Samba, and all the other hysterical speculation and innuendo that comes with a transfer window:

• Gary Cahill got the ball rolling, as he finally agreed to a contract with Chelsea. This was a protracted negotiation that seemed to take place somewhat in public, much to Cahill's chagrin. Now on a rumored €80,000 per week, you wonder whether his move to Arsenal last summer was really about the low offer the Gunners made Bolton rather than Arsenal's unwillingness to break their wage structure on the defender. By the way, and grab your hand fan for this one, I don't think Cahill is all that. He might have been going at half-speed for some time now, in anticipation of a big move to a top-four club, but he hasn't looked very steady this season.

• Right as they got themselves out of the relegation zone following a victory over Fulham, Blackburn now must deal with a possible January exodus. Defender Samba turned in a transfer request Monday (which essentially made public his desire to leave and will give up any contractually owed bonuses to facilitate a move). This makes Harry Redknapp's incessant tapping up of the longtime Rovers player a little less nauseating ("Samba's a good player. A real good player"). Blackburn won without Samba over the weekend, but if they want to stay in the league, they're going to need to hang on to him, as well as to Mauro Formica and Junior Hoilett, all of whom have been rumored to be on various clubs' January shopping lists.

• U.S. players have been making news in the gossip column and on the field this winter. Landon Donovan has played very well for Everton since joining the club on loan from L.A. Galaxy, and he may have talked up his onetime Galaxy teammate Edson Buddle, at whom the Toffees are currently taking a look on trial. Meanwhile, Red Bull defender Tim Ream looks poised to join Bolton. He'll get a chance to play against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City before Bolton get relegated and he is mucking it up on a cow pasture in Barnsely next season.

• While big names like Wesley Sneijder and Eden Hazard are bandied about (neither are likely to be sold), I'm actually most excited to see Chelsea upstart Josh McEachran go on loan to Swansea. He's a ton of promise wasting away on the Blues bench. It will be great to see what he can do in Brendan Rodgers' pass-happy side.

Step Overs

• Speaking of Chelsea, I'm really pulling for Andre Villas-Boas, but he should avoid saying things like, "There's an obvious stigma around Stamford Bridge which is present for everybody to see." Chelsea got a decent win against Sunderland over the weekend and Fernando Torres was three inches away from one of the goals of the season, but sometimes I wonder if Villas-Boas isn't his own worst enemy with some of the stuff he spits to the press.

• The jury may still be out on Liverpool's rebuilding project, but it's pretty clear how their (now former) kit sponsor adidas feels. When it came time to re-up their deal with the brand, adidas boss Herbert Hainer simply said, "Scoreboard." Okay, here's what he really said: "The gap between their performance on the field and what the number should be is not in balance. Then we said, 'Okay, we will not do it.' That's the end of the story."

• QPR's Shaun Derry put in a nasty tackle on Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye this weekend. The Frenchman's reaction reminded me of the time Jamie Carragher almost took off Nani's leg. Nani got up to protest, then looked at the huge laceration on his leg and fell down. Cabaye, similarly, got up to get in Derry's face before collapsing. He was stretchered off the field, but it looks like he'll be okay.


After the game, Alan Pardew had this to say about new QPR manager Mark Hughes' style of play: "Hughesy's teams always have a bit of steel and a few heavy tackles." I don't have my copy of Hughesy's Teams, but if you ever watched Blackburn last decade, that sounds about right.

Goal of the Week: Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Tottenham


From January 11. Ekotto is a good player. A really good player.

Quote of the Week: Brendan Rodgers, Swansea

"When people start getting the names of our players right we'll really be making progress."

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Learning to Love the Antichrist

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

No great idea in its beginning can ever be within the law.
— Emma Goldman

I don't know if this means anything, but, long about half-past 35-7 the other night in Foxboro, I could've sworn I saw a couple of New England Patriots rolling dice for Tim Tebow's jersey.

(Please forward all my mail to my new business address: CPP, Roasting on Third Spit From the Left, RFD Route 666, Hell.)

Spirited blasphemy of this sort broke out generally long before halftime the other night, as the full measure of the preposterous beating the Patriots were handing the Broncos became ghoulishly apparent. As an alternative to watching what New England was doing to six days of unbearable hype, there was a lot to recommend it. Tim Tebow is a lovely young man, his faith an unquenchable fire. He also throws the ball like Jed Clampett and, facing a defense that did not stupidly line everyone up in the box to stop the vaunted Denver "option offense" — Sell-By Date: November 5, 1951 — he got himself chased out of the pocket on a number of occasions in ever-widening circles until he came dangerously close to standing in a beer line behind the seats in the lower bowl. He is decidedly Not Ready, and that is the sum of him at the moment.

He also unfortunately was facing Bill Belichick on a night when Belichick decided that he would act like Gandalf the Grey beyond simply dressing like him. This was apparent at the 13:50 mark of the first quarter, when the Patriots lined up tight end Aaron Hernandez in the backfield. Along with burly budding teen idol Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez is one of the two gifted tight ends with whom Belichick can make all kinds of monkey mischief on unwitting defensive coordinators. While Gronkowski is a powerful runner with surprising athleticism — his flat-out bobbling touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone was one Andre Johnson would have been proud to claim — Hernandez is a speedy athlete with surprising strength. This gives Belichick a lot of options for creative thinking. So he put Hernandez in the backfield, and the latter cracked one off for 43 yards around the left side of a gobsmacked Denver defense to set up the first New England touchdown.

Then, of course, with three minutes left in the game, at a tense moment with his team leading by a mere 45-10, Belichick boldly had Tom Brady quick-kick from his own 43, pinning Denver back on its own 10, thereby making it more difficult for the Broncos to score the 35-point touchdown it would take to get back in the game. It is entirely possible — nay, likely — that Belichick was just screwing with people here, but isn't that also part of his charm? Shouldn't it be?

For years now, the undeniable fact about the National Football League has been that the whole operation is grimly determined to combine the unpredictability of an Amway seminar with the giddy good humor of the North Korean army. This problem has grown especially acute under the recent stewardship of Commissioner Roger Goodell, who seems to imagine himself on a balcony in Buenos Aires, tossing money to the peasants. There was a time, and not so long ago, when the NFL was full to its gunwales with entertaining miscreants of all varieties. Then the Collective assimilated the American Football League, and the steady march toward corporate sports nirvana — i.e., authoritarian tedium on which you can bet — went to the double-quick. Which is why all those people who spend so much time complaining about the No Fun League should embrace Bill Belichick, because Bill Belichick is the NFL's last real anarchist.

Consider what he's done just recently. He rehired Josh McDaniels as an offensive assistant immediately before the playoffs, and he did so in such a way that (a) the hapless St. Louis Rams have to keep paying McDaniels, and (b) the rest of the league, and a great many football pundits, screamed in outrage, despite the fact that nothing Belichick did was against any rule anyone can find. Taking advantage of a loophole is not cheating. And even his most egregious moment — the so-called Spygate scandal, which we will not relitigate here because we do not want all our readers to lapse into comas — was little more than sharp practice. He won. He got caught. He got fined nearly a million dollars. And he moved on, even though there are football pundits out there who may never rise from their fainting couches over the whole thing.

What was it that Dylan said?

To live outside the law, you must be honest.

On the field, he's even more inclined to let his freak flag fly. When he let Brady punt the other night, the call was a mirror of a moment a few years back when he had Doug Flutie drop-kick an extra point against the Dolphins, probably because he knew Flutie was the last player alive who could still drop-kick. The crowd appreciated it, even if the Dolphins didn't. And, on Saturday night, the Broncos liked what Brady did so much that Von Miller touched off a general brawl by popping Dan Connolly well after the ball had rolled dead. Say what you will about the call, and about the ensuing pleasantries, but at least it kept a ridiculous rout from being ridiculously boring.

And his use of Hernandez as a running back shouldn't surprise anyone who remembers that this is the coach who turned wide receiver Troy Brown into a defensive back, a move he duplicated this season with Julian Edelman, and that this is also the coach who used to employ defensive lineman Richard Seymour as a running back in his goal-line offense, a move that went badly wrong when Seymour suffered a severe leg injury that compromised his effectiveness for the rest of the time he was with New England.

His masterpiece in this regard was probably his use of linebacker Mike Vrabel as a goal-line tight end. This led to Vrabel's uniquely magnificent performance in Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina, in which Vrabel not only had two sacks and a forced fumble, he caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Brady, thereby putting up the best two-way football game the NFL had seen since the days when Chuck Bednarik was still picking bits of Frank Gifford from between his teeth. "Football players," Belichick often says, "play football." This is a man who thinks in one platoon, but with a million different variations. This is something that should be celebrated around a league where the height of creativity elsewhere seems to be finding a better route the bus can take to the stadium.

The problem, of course, is that, while Belichick's anarchy is evident on the field, behind the podium, he still behaves as though he should be planted on a hillside on Easter Island. Asked the other night about his use of Hernandez as a running back, and whether the talents of his two young tight ends constituted evidence of how the position had evolved, he drew on his profound knowledge of the history of the game, and replied, "Well, there have been a lot of great tight ends in the history of the league." The rest of the audio was lost in the clamor of a dozen crests falling.

This filters down to the players — even the young ones, like Gronkowski — until they all become fluent in conversational Belichickian, a weird patois of teamspeak and utter banality that you learn to speak in New England, or you go play somewhere else. Here, for example, is the genuinely irrepressible Gronkowski talking about the interesting night that his teammate Hernandez experienced:

"He did a great job. I mean, whatever role the coaches ask us to do, whoever it is, I mean, we all just work it out and that's what we do. ... Overall, what the coaches ask us to do, executing well, going out there, running the routes like the coaches ask us to do."

Please hit me in the head with a tack hammer now, please. Thank you.

This is what you get — incredibly disciplined players, talking like automatons, but playing in a system in which almost anything is likely to happen on the field, as well as in a system that will gleefully exploit every misplaced comma in the NFL rulebook, which the NFL richly deserves to have happen to it. This has been the great conundrum of the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick — a kind of blessedly refreshing football anarchy explained by its practitioners in stale terms that run the gamut from prosaic to sullen and back again. To concentrate on the latter is to miss the sheer artistry of the former. Bill Belichick, the last NFL anarchist, the Lord of Misrule, gets to tee it up this weekend against Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens. Corporate partners can be found hiding under the bed, where most of them damned well belong.

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Giants Take On Packers' 2010 Persona

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

The comparisons are all wrong. The 2011 New York Giants, the team that blew out the Cowboys and Falcons in consecutive home games before manhandling the 15-1 Packers in Lambeau Field on Sunday? That team isn't like the 2007 Giants at all. There's a really obvious comparison for what they've done through these past few weeks, though, and it strikes closer to the heart of yesterday's matchup than you might realize. The 2011 Giants, right now, look more like the 2010 Green Bay Packers than any other team of recent vintage.

Let's have our little Chazz Palminteri figures out the identity of Keyser Soze moment here together. In our preview of Giants-Packers, we covered why the narratives between the 2007 team and the 2011 version didn't match up, and the Packers game just furthered it. That 2007 Giants team spent virtually the entire postseason in sight of a possible failure; after the wild-card round, they never once had a double-digit lead. They were competitive with some great teams, but they were rarely dominant. This Giants team just beat a 15-1 team on the road by 17 points, putting together what was surely the best single-game performance by any team (considering the context and difficulty level of the opposition) this season.

The 2007-to-2011 similarity has been built upon the incredible coincidence of a late-season 38-35 loss to an undefeated team, but let's try a different jumping-off point for the Giants season that makes a lot more sense: Dominating your closest rival for a playoff spot. The Giants did it in Week 17, of course, by laying waste to the Cowboys at home in a 31-14 shellacking. The 2010 Packers made their statement in Week 16 with a 45-17 waxing of, yes, the Giants. That win moved Green Bay into control of their playoff destiny and started the Packer's 19-game winning streak. The Packers had to overcome the Bears during the final week of the season, but then the wild-card round saw them each play at an extremely high level. The Giants beat the Falcons by 22 and held Atlanta's offense scoreless, while in the 2010 playoffs, the Packers beat the high-flying Eagles by five in a game where the margin of victory failed to capture the chasm in performance between the two teams.

The Giants really meet up with last year's Packers, though, in the divisional round. In each case, the team in question went and dominated the no. 1 seed in what had appeared to be an unassailable home fortress, tipping the tide in their favor right before halftime with a game-changing swing. Last year's Packers beat a 14-2 Falcons team at home by 27 points, back when Matt Ryan was 20-2 inside the Georgia Dome. It all happened at the end of the first half. With 2:30 left, the Falcons were tied with the Packers at 14 while facing a third-and-21 from the Green Bay 26-yard line. Somehow, the otherwise-conservative Ryan threw a pick to Tramon Williams. The Packers promptly marched down the field and scored a touchdown with 48 seconds left, but they weren't done. The Falcons launched a drive downfield that was aided by two defensive pass interference penalties, but with ten seconds left, Ryan threw a second pick in three minutes to Williams, who scored with all zeroes remaining on the clock. Atlanta could have been in a situation where they led 17-14 heading into halftime; instead, they trailed 28-14 and spent the rest of the game trying to catch up.

The Giants were able to pull an extremely similar sort of swing. As Rodgers was driving his team in the no huddle with 3:48 left, it would not have been unreasonable for a concerned Giants fan to wonder if the Packers might score to end the first half and begin the second one, turning a tied game into a 24-10 Packers rout. Instead, the Giants forced and recovered a fumble from John Kuhn, eventually kicking a field goal to go up 13-10. That still left time for Rodgers to drive, but the Giants forced a punt after five plays and then somehow marched 69 yards up the field in 41 seconds, culminating in a Hakeem Nicks touchdown from a Hail Mary — with all zeroes on the clock — that gave the Giants a 20-10 lead heading into halftime. They did to the Packers just about what the Packers had done to the Falcons the previous year. Green Bay, like Atlanta last year, spent the rest of the way trying to get back into the game.

Thank You For Not Tackling

We hope that you enjoyed the ending to that Saints-49ers game as much as we did. In fact, we felt so grateful for getting to enjoy four minutes of sheer insanity on a football field — a stretch where Alex Smith somehow ran a 33-yard sweep around left end for a touchdown and it wasn't even the most unlikely Niners touchdown of the quarter — that we wanted to put together a little thank you note to the players that helped make those big plays and insane probability swings possible.

So thank you, safeties of the Niners and Saints! It was your total aversion to making tackles or taking remotely coherent angles to ball carriers that helped make the end of that game so freaking fun.

Let's start with the Niners, who got a masterclass in how not to hit from Donte Whitner. After a huge helmet-to-helmet hit from Whitner on the opening drive concussed Pierre Thomas and forced the Saints back to fumble the ball away inside the 49ers' five-yard line, every long-suffering Bills fan in America got a taunting text from one of their friends, asking how Buffalo let such a devastating hitter get away. The long-suffering1 Bills fan then probably chuckled to themselves and responded back with, "Just wait." Whitner spent the rest of the first half yapping, but there was too much game to go for him to avoid screwing something up.

Sure enough, Whitner played a disastrous role in each of New Orleans's final two touchdowns. First, the 44-yard touchdown to Darren Sproles saw Drew Brees avoid a big blitz from the Niners by checking down to Sproles, his "hot" receiver. After one missed tackle, Sproles ends up one-on-one in the center of the field with Whitner in front of him. It's a tough play, but Whitner could try to create an angle that would push Sproles onto a side of the field where there are more 49ers to help out. At the very least, Whitner should try and make a tackle attempt. Instead, Whitner runs towards Sproles and then freezes, at which point Sproles just runs right by him. By the time Whitner has turned his hips to try and adjust to Sproles's slight move, the running back is already by him. Sproles ends up walking into the end zone without Whitner even touching him, let alone stopping him.

Then, on Jimmy Graham's 66-yard touchdown catch, Whitner basically does his best job of pushing the Saints into the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers line up with Whitner as a deep safety and Patrick Willis in underneath coverage against Jimmy Graham, who runs a seam pattern past him. Whitner's responsibility here is to close on Graham once the ball is thrown, in the hopes of breaking the pass up or, at the very least, minimizing the impact Graham has after the catch. Time for that fateful word again. Instead of doing that, Whitner decides to go for either the interception or the huge, brain-jarring hit, playing the ball instead of worrying about allowing a touchdown. Sure enough, if you watch the replay that we linked above, Whitner comes flying through the screen like a comet … and speeds right past Graham. The touchdown is basically academic.

Fortunately for Whitner, though, he got to play against Saints safety Roman Harper. Yes, the same Roman Harper that allowed three touchdowns to the Seahawks in the wild-card game last year. Harper had a mostly-miserable game, but we'll just focus on the two big plays to Vernon Davis on the final drive as a summation of what Harper had to offer on Saturday.

First, the 47-yard pass to Vernon Davis with 40 seconds to go. Davis lines up standing upright just outside of his standard spot as a tight end, and the Saints send free safety Malcolm Jenkins to go cover him at the line of scrimmage. Jenkins is a former cornerback, but Davis is going to be a tough matchup for him up at the line. Sure enough, Davis gets a free release and runs past Jenkins immediately, giving him a clear path downfield. Harper's deep as the lone safety in centerfield, and while he has no hope of getting to Davis to stop the completion, he can limit the bleeding by making a tackle on Davis. With Jenkins chasing him and the clock running out, the obvious play is to force Davis to the sideline. As the last line of defense, though, it's Harper's job to make sure that Davis doesn't get by him; if he can just slow Davis down, Jenkins should be able to catch up and help out with tackling the far bigger tight end. So what does Harper do? Well, he stands still and decides to try and grab Davis by the ankles as he runs by the safety. Great idea! Davis skipped right past Harper for 22 additional yards.

Of course, Harper was also in coverage on "Vernon post", the passing play that produced the game-winning touchdown for the Niners. The play is designed to occupy the linebackers long enough for Davis to cut in ahead of the safety, where Smith will hit him with a well-timed pass before the safety can get in to make the play. If Harper recognizes what's coming and sniffs it out early, he intercepts Smith's pass and wins the game. Instead, he was a fraction too late, and the collision of Harper and Davis left Harper lying in a heap on the floor. He was basically just posterized by a tight end in the end zone during the biggest game of the season. It's not quite as egregious as Harper's first mistake, but it sure looked a lot more painful.

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Person of Interest: Kobe Bryant

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on January 19, 2012

Let's start with a couple predictions: Kobe Bryant will win the scoring title this year. The Lakers will finish somewhere in the bottom half of the Western Conference's eight playoff teams.

This is not a statement about selfishness or the need to subsume individual goals or some invective about the proper way to build a team. I don't even mean to imply that leading the league in scoring is something Kobe Bryant really wants to do — at this point in his career, he certainly knows that scoring a ton of points on a losing team doesn't mean all that much. Still, Kobe's 2011-12 has started to look a lot like his 2005-06, when he scored a career high 35.4 points per game and shot a staggering 2,173 field goal attempts.1 That Lakers team, which featured Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, Brian Cook, and Kwame Brown in prominent roles, won 45 games and took a 3-1 lead over Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs. What transpired over the next three games of that series helped cement Kobe's current legacy as a sometimes selfish, sometimes great, always enigmatic, and oft-disliked superstar. In Games 3, 4 and 5, at the behest of Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant tried to take on the role of "Kobe Bryant: Facilitator." In those games, Kobe shot, on average, 10 times less than he had in the regular season. In an overtime loss in Game 6 in the Staples Center, he made 20 of 35 shots on his way to 50 points, but the Lakers lost in overtime to the Suns. In the second half of Game 7, Bryant put on one of the strangest displays in the history of the league — he shot only three times, scored one point, and played with an almost ironic distance, as if to say, Here, Phil. This is what it looks like when Kobe "facilitates." After the game, Kobe, justifiably or not, fully grew into his role as basketball's pariah. Bill Plaschke, the longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, called him "selfish, stupid." Charles Barkley openly accused Kobe of tanking the game. His remarkable season, which included twenty-seven 40-plus-point games, was recast: What could have been a superhuman story about an embattled star who carried his team to victory became a statistical testament to the selfishness of a megalomaniacal ball hog who "just didn't get it."

Over the next four years, Kobe and Phil came to a winning compromise between Kobe Bryant: Offensive Genius and Kobe Bryant: Facilitator. Two championships later, Kobe finds himself in a familiar place. As happened in 2005-06, when the media openly wondered if he could win without Shaq, this season opened to widespread doubt. The Chris Paul-Dwight Howard transfusion that would have made the Lakers the prohibitive favorite to meet the Miami Heat in the Finals was aborted, Lamar Odom was traded, Pau Gasol whined, and Ron Artest finalized his slide into a cuddly sort of obscurity by changing his name to Metta World Peace. After Kobe hurt his wrist in an opening preseason loss to the newly unveiled CP3-Blake machine, the Clipper revolution talk around Los Angeles intensified. These Lakers started the season with two losses to the Bulls and the Kings. Since then, they have gone 9-3. Over that stretch, Kobe has had seven games in which he has shot the ball 28 times or more. The Lakers are 5-2 in those games.

As Kobe has gone on his tear, the rest of the Lake Show has fallen flat. The team boasts the fifth-worst turnover ratio in the league. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have both shown flashes of dominance, but with no firm commitment from management about either of their futures, the Laker big men still feel like placeholders for Dwight Howard. Gasol has very publicly decried the nixed trade that would have brought Chris Paul to the bigger locker room at Staples Center and then very publicly said everything was fine. Strangely, the ongoing drama has deflected attention away from the growing evidence that Pau Gasol is no longer the player who dominated the Celtics in the 2010 Finals. Bynum remains a giant enigma — his numbers are up across the board, but he has developed a tendency to start strong in the first quarter and then play erratically for the rest of the game. The fact that Bynum tends to disappear around the same time Kobe starts jacking up shots should not be lost on Lakers fans, especially those who remain convinced that Dwight Howard will be coming to Los Angeles. Another very public big man once decided he could not coexist with a shoot-all-day Kobe.

What I'm asking is this: Is there any difference between 2012 Kobe Bryant and 2006 Kobe Bryant? Did the two championships change the way he approached basketball? Or were they the product of an exhausting, brutal effort by Phil Jackson to jam Kobe Bryant, offensive genius, into something resembling a team game?

A week after hanging 62 in three quarters against Dallas back in 2006, Kobe ripped off a stretch of 45-, 48-, 50-, 45-, and 41-point games. In three of those five games, he shot under 45 percent from the field. Two weeks later, Bryant dropped 51 in a loss against the Kings, and then took a game off by scoring 37 in a loss to the Suns before putting up 81 against the Raptors at Staples Center. That season would see two other four-game stretches where Bryant went over 40 in each game. In six separate games during that 2005-06 season, he went for 50 or more. He shot 45 percent from the field, put up 27.2 field goal attempts per game, hit 34 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, and logged a usage rate of 38.7 percent, the highest measured rate in NBA history. (Usage rate is the estimate of the percentage of a team's possessions a player will "use" while he is on the court.) Somewhat surprisingly, Kobe has only led the league in usage rate twice in his career. He did it in 2006 and he did it again last year when — coincidentally or not — Pau Gasol had one of his worst seasons, the Lakers lost in the second round of the playoffs, and Phil Jackson rode off into the friscalating dusklight.

Through the first 14 games this season, Bryant's usage rate clocked in at an astronomical 39.9 percent. He's shooting more than he did in 2005-06. Last week, in consecutive games against the Suns and the Jazz, Kobe scored over 40 points. Because Los Angeles is a Kobe town, talk fired up around the usual channels that Kobe might be gunning for another run of 40-plus point games. He had just dropped yet another reference to being voted the "seventh best player in the NBA" by a panel of ESPN experts. The Clippers had just edged out the Heat in overtime, drawing attention away from Kobe's remarkable start to the season. What better way to climb back up on his throne as King of Los Angeles than to hang 40 on the Cavs and then 50 on the Clippers?

And because I have never witnessed a 50-point game in person, I walked out of the Grantland offices, crossed Chick Hearn Court, and went to go watch Kobe putting in work.


Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Day One: Cavs at Lakers

Early on, it looks like the Lakers want to establish Andrew Bynum. After putting up a promising stretch of double-doubles, Bynum has mostly disappeared during the last two games. Outside of their two 7-footers, the Lakers have absolutely no size. Or scoring, for that matter. Because the conventional wisdom states that (a) Kobe can't keep this up, (b) he really shouldn't, and (c) because a trade for Dwight Howard won't be happening in the near future, the Lakers need Bynum to pick up some of the scoring slack.

First Quarter


7:00: Kobe moves a bit like Pernell Whitaker, the great defensive boxer who, like Floyd Mayweather, was never in a hurry until he decided to get in a hurry. When Sweet Pea did get in a hurry, what was going to happen probably had already happened. Like Whitaker, Kobe moves with the illusion of slowness — no great player has ever jogged so nonchalantly up and down the court. When he catches the ball, he quickly runs through a series of evasive movements — head fakes, jab steps, pivots. The ball moves on its own separate axis — first it's up over his head, then at his hip, then pressed up against the floor. As he goes through these motions, Kobe's opponent is always within measure. Whitaker could decipher his opponent's every feint, every flinch. Kobe, who plays most of the quarter with Anthony Parker up in his chest, has that same preternatural gift for reading his defender.

6:13: Kobe slices back across the lane with the ball and buries a fadeaway from 18 feet. The difficulty of the shot that now makes up more than half of his offensive repertoire can't be overstated. He doesn't get the lift he used to get and he's certainly lost his first step. Instead, Kobe now squares up to the hoop with such authority that defenders instinctively take a step back. It's an amazing thing to watch in person — you can almost see the memory of a younger Kobe running through the minds of the defenders.

4:26: Kobe's oversize jersey has been a constant source of confusion for me this year. He's wearing it three sizes too big. What's he hiding under there? Asbestos?

Second Quarter
A shot-by-shot analysis.

6:52: Kobe takes three shots, misses two, and hits the third. Outside of a cherry-picked dunk, every basket he's scored tonight has been on a 15- to 18-foot jumper.

5:12: Kobe catches the ball at the top of the arc, jab-steps twice, moves Parker to his left, and rises up again for what, at first, is called a 3-pointer (later amended). I have no idea what Anthony Parker is thinking — Kobe's driven to the basket exactly once in this game, and that was on a fast break.

4:35: Kobe, from the wing, gives Parker the same exact move and buries a 3-pointer. I consider turning around and starting a "CANDACE ... CANDACE ..." chant. But then I remember that I hate the Lakers.

3:15: With Parker draped all over him in the corner, Kobe, once again with a boxer's slow-quickness, clears away space with his elbows and knocks down a line-drive 3-pointer.

1:16: Kobe knocks down yet another 3-pointer from the wing. He's 9-13 from the floor, 3-4 from beyond the arc. The underbite is starting to peek out and he's hopping around on the balls of his feet.

Kobe ends with 24 in the first half, well on the way to 40. Save the one cherry-picked dunk, every made field goal was more or less the same. Kobe squared up, cleared space, and shot over his defender.

Third Quarter

6:41: Certain things have to be seen up close. Derek Fisher's defense is one of them. Even when he's two steps in front of Kyrie Irving, he's really two steps behind. Kobe hasn't scored yet in this quarter and has only taken one shot. The Cavs are throwing two, three guys at him. A 19-point halftime lead has been shaved down to 10.

5:38: Kobe drives, jump-stops in the lane, and shot-puts a runner with three guys in his face. The double-teams are definitely messing with his timing. He keeps forcing up shots and is clearly getting a bit frustrated. Bynum can't get anything going, either — after a quick start, he's disappeared. Right now, it's Kobe and four guys standing around waiting to get the ball to him.

2:24: Kobe scores on a layup and gets fouled. The team's offense has completely bogged down. The crowd seems to only be cheering on Kobe's point total. Kobe obliges by taking shots on three of the last four Laker possessions. He knocks down two of those three and ends the quarter with 35.

Fourth Quarter

Kobe sits out the start of the fourth. There is a quiet way to score 25 points in an NBA game — Antawn Jamison, who is playing tonight for the Cavs, made a career out of it. But there's no quiet way to score 35. This seems obvious, but there's a remarkable difference between 25 and 35, at least in terms of how much of the offense goes through your hands.

With 8:49 left in the fourth quarter, Ramon Sessions runs past Darius Morris for an easy layup. The Lakers' lead has been cut down to six. Mike Brown calls a timeout. As the Laker Girls dance in black Verizon Wireless T-shirts to Beyoncé, fans start screaming at Kobe to get back in the game.

He complies with the request. Strangely, once Kobe checks back into the game, the crowd starts chanting, "We want World Peace."

7:57: Matt Barnes launches a hideous 3-point shot and the Lakers get beat down the court again. I have three torn ligaments in my knee and have been sitting in an office in downtown L.A. for the past seven months and I think I might be able to get past Fisher. When watching this team, who wouldn't sympathize with Kobe? Dropping 40 or 50 is within his control. Everything else about the Lakers is slow, old, and/or chaotic. Bynum has been outplayed by Semih Erden in the second half. Troy Murphy looks like a hung-over ringer for the Morgan Stanley team in the Urban Professionals League.

During the TV timeout, the PA plays "What I Like About You," and the JumboTron pans over to Adam Sandler sitting next to Jack Nicholson. The crowd so far has cheered wildly for four things — Kiss Cam, every made Kobe basket, Jack Nicholson, and Adam Sandler.

3:19: A well-known sports personality runs over to press row and takes a seat. Kobe has 38 points right now. These two must be related.

2:54: Kobe hits a turnaround to get to 40. The crowd erupts. A handful of media members walk toward the tunnels.

Make no mistake, Kobe tried to get to 40. Once the 3-pointers started falling in the second quarter, the flow of the Lakers offense shifted from the big men to Bryant. The energy in Staples lasered directly in on Kobe's point total. After every made basket, the crowd, in unison, would look up at the JumboTron to check the number next to no. 24. Early in the first quarter, Kobe kept feeding the ball down into the post. Bynum, as a result, started the game 6-6 from the field. He would go 1-3 for the rest of the game. Behind Kobe's second-quarter shooting barrage, the Lakers built an 18-point halftime lead. When Kobe began struggling with double-teams in the third quarter, the Cavs got right back into the game


Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Day Two: Clippers at Lakers

Staples has its daily face-lift. The purple-and-gold floor has made way for red and blue. In previous years, around 70 percent of the crowd would have been dressed in purple and gold. This year, around 60 percent of the crowd wears Clipper red. This will be the first night the Clippers unveil their new laser show. A dry ice haze hovers over the court at tip-off. The fans in red still haven't quite figured out whom to anoint as their team's superstar. For now, Blake Griffin receives the louder reception.

First Quarter

9:33: Blake Griffin still has no idea how to play against a bigger defender. In the first preseason game, he couldn't figure out how to get around Pau Gasol. Blake scores four of the Clippers' first six points, but the baskets come on a difficult baby hook and a 15-foot jump shot. Right now, it seems like the best way to defend him in the half court is to take a big guy and have him play off of him. Blake's post moves are still robotic and predictable, and any decent defender should be able to block off his lanes to the rim.

In the open court, however, you're mostly helpless against Blake Griffin. Just get the hell out of the way.

8:28: Kobe misses a pull-up 3-pointer. He's still in mamba mode, but his opponent tonight, Caron "Tuff Juice" Butler, has played with and against Kobe for years and knows all of his tendencies. Unlike Anthony Parker, who flinched at every jab step, Tuff Juice keeps his feet planted.

7:46: The Lakers dribble the ball around for 20 seconds before hitting Bynum in the low post. He misses a short jumper. The Clips run quickly back up the court and find Chauncey Billups for a wide-open 3-pointer. The difference in team speed is immediately apparent. The Clippers get out and run while the Lakers slog their way through offensive sets, not quite knowing if Kobe's going to pull the trigger or if he's going to jump and wildly pass the ball into the post.

5:54: On a delayed break, Kobe backs down Billups, shakes to his left, and then spins right for an easy bucket. The Clippers have been playing Kobe tight, daring him to drive to the hoop. They're also throwing their entire team at him — four different defenders have guarded Kobe in the opening six minutes.

4:30: Chris Paul dribbles for 10 seconds, goes around Darius Morris, and gets to the rim for a layup. When watching Paul up-close, pay close attention to his hands while he dribbles the ball. Every dribble is a bit different — he palms the ball, he feints left, goes right. All this subtle movement puts the defender in a trance — Paul's not the quickest guy in the league, but he's the most creative dribbler I've ever seen in person.

2:49: Kobe misses yet another open 18-footer. The methodical face-up game that buried the Cavs has been shelved in favor of quick-release jumpers. He's already adjusted to Butler's adjustments. The shots just aren't going down.

2:24: An attempt by the Clippers PA guy to fire up the crowd and claim Staples as a "Clippers arena" falls flat. They need to hire that dude who does Pistons games. Or somehow fire up Kiss Cam a couple quarters early. The crowd has mostly settled down.

1:15: Pau throws an attempted lob to Kobe, who can't get his elbows above the rim. He catches the ball instead, comes down, pump fakes, and lays it in. Down on the other side of the court, Griffin attempts an absurd dunk over three defenders. It clangs off the back of the rim.

0:12.3: After the whistle, Darius Morris goes up for a dunk. While he's in the air, Blake hits him in the ribs with his forearms. Josh McRoberts comes running across the court to confront Blake, but there's no real threat of violence. But Mike Brown goes absolutely apeshit and has to be restrained by his coaching staff. The Lakers contingent in the crowd wakes up. For the rest of the game, they will control Staples.

0:1.7: Chris Paul humiliates Darius Morris and scores a layup with the foul. If I had to pick one basketball player to turn into a boxer, it would be Chris Paul. He might be pound-for-pound the strongest player in the league. After he hits his free throw, though, Darius Morris launches a half-court shot at the buzzer that goes in. Again, the Lakers contingent gets much louder than their Clipper counterparts. They even boo the Clipper trampoline dunk team.

Second Quarter
Kobe and Bynum sit out. Gasol, Jason Kopono, Metta World Peace, Josh McRoberts, and Morris are the Lakers five. Predictably, the Lakers go to Gasol on every possession. He dwarfs Griffin and scores easily. Again, if there's a flaw in Blake's game, it's that he doesn't quite look comfortable in half-court sets. This also applies to the defensive end, where he oftentimes gets pushed too deep into the paint. Gasol could score 20 in the quarter if the Lakers had a point guard who could either run a 5.0 40-yard dash or wasn't just drafted in the second round of one of the worst NBA drafts in recent memory. Del Negro quickly subs in DeAndre Jordan to guard Gasol.

8:22: With Kobe out of the game, the crowd is dead. He checks back into the game with the Lakers down 35-30. Fatigue might be setting in for Kobe, who has played 122 minutes over the past four nights. He just doesn't have the same lift on his jump shot. With 7:20 left in the second, he's a tired 2-for-9 from the floor. Still, he manages to draw a foul with 6:49 left in the quarter. The MVP chant echoes through the Staples Center.

5:51: One of the Clippers girls looks almost exactly like Kirsten Dunst.

4:08: The Clippers have played eight games this year. The Lakers have played 13. The Lakers have been missing layups and easy buckets in the paint. I write in my notes: "Kobe for 35 in the second half only way Lakers can win this game." I wonder if Kobe has written the same thing in his brain.

2:13: Tuff Juice Butler continues his solid defense. He hunches down, spreads his arms, ready to jump up and contest the inevitable jump shot. This seems to be the most logical way to guard Bryant — if, like last night, he torches you for 42, then so be it. But a contested 18-foot jump shot is still one of the worst shots in basketball. Doesn't really matter if one of the greatest ever is the one shooting it.

The half ends with the Clippers up 13 points. There's nothing particularly great they're doing on offense — they're just outhustling the dog-tired Lakers to every loose ball and offensive rebound. Kobe goes into the locker room with 11 points after shooting 3-for-12 from the floor.

Chris Paul is the real difference in this game — he seems less concerned with setting up his teammates, more concerned with creating space for his own 18-footers. This is how I wish he would play — unlike Kobe, Paul is a natural facilitator. The assists and the control of the game will always be there. But he's also the best offensive player on his team and could score 22 a night without upsetting the Clippers' tempo.

Third Quarter

11:45: Kobe hits a jumper to start the second half. At this point, the over/under for his second-half shot attempts should be set at 20. The Clippers quickly double-team him whenever he catches the ball on the wing. The strategy only makes sense if the Clippers assume that Kobe's going to shoot anyway. Through the first two and a half minutes of the third quarter, he does just that. But at 9:45, he catches the ball on the right-hand side of the block and finally goes to the rim, executing a Jordan-esque up-and-under. The Lakers crowd gets loud again. There are several people in the crowd yelling things like, "Hey, Kobe, drop 50 on them."

6:45: If the Lakers are going to struggle this year, it will be because Pau Gasol has lost the ability to create easy shots for himself. Everything the Lakers do on offense requires a high level of difficulty. They desperately need a real point guard who can create easy opportunities for Gasol, Bryant, and Bynum. Unfortunately, that point guard is playing on the other team right now.

The Clippers have been forcing a switch on the pick-and-roll, leaving one of the Lakers bigs to guard Paul one-on-one on the perimeter. They should run a version of this play every time — it would create a half dozen lob opportunities per game and would keep the ball in the hands of the only player on the team who can consistently dominate in the half court. In their first five or six games, it felt like Paul's job was to set up 3-point attempts for Billups and Tuff Juice. This system placed the focus of the offense in the hands of the third and fourth best players on the team. Vinny Del Negro finally seems to be understanding Chris Paul's unique skills — he can set the entire offensive tempo with the ball in his hands. There is no need to run an open-court offense with him. Just give him the ball, run a couple screen-rolls, and let the league's best point guard dictate where the ball goes.

4:15: Kobe knocks down two straight long jump shots. He's finding the right spots on the floor now. Or, perhaps, we should say that the Lakers point guards are finally finding him in the right spots?

3:29: The game gets pretty chippy. On a loose ball in the corner, Darius Morris picks up a technical foul. The animosity on the court stems from Blake Griffin and Josh McRoberts. At some point this year, Josh McRoberts will be involved in a bench-clearing brawl. He's filled with annoying hustle — all elbows, scowls, and fake intensity. He's the anti-Kurt Thomas.

2:12: Kobe's already shot 12 free throws. Passing seems to be out of the question — he's shot the last four times he's touched the ball.

1:18: The Lakers make a mini-run and it becomes clear who runs this town. Staples hasn't been this loud since the opening introductions.

51.5: The chest-puffing and posturing turns into actual violence as Chris Paul decks Kobe on a fast break. As Kobe steps to the line, Staples erupts with MVP chants. At this point, I feel like I should revise my estimate of 60/40 Clippers/Lakers crowd distribution. It's more like 70/30 in favor of the Lakers. The Clippers are still up three, but Kobe's scoring outburst has revitalized the Lakers faithful.

31.9: Kobe hits an impossible 3-pointer with Randy Foye draped all over him. The underbite makes its first appearance of the night. He's at 32 points, the Pernell Whitaker rhythm has returned, and one thing's very clear: Kobe Bryant is not going to pass the ball anymore. On the next possession down the floor, he launches another 3-pointer that clangs off the back of the rim.

Kobe scores 21 points in the third quarter. He doesn't quite catch fire as much as he slightly improves on every aspect of his offensive game. He tries to get to the rim. He gets to the line nine times. He makes seven of eight free throws. He knocks down contested 3-point shots. Everything that was working last night clunks back into order in the third quarter. The Lakers cut a 13-point halftime deficit down to four.

Fourth Quarter
Kobe takes the court to start the fourth. He's already logged 32 minutes. The Clippers commit to doubling him every time down the court. They seem to know that Kobe is going to shoot every time. His teammates must be expecting something similar. They look sluggish on their cuts, and although they never quite just stand around to watch Kobe run around the perimeter with the ball, they also don't seem convinced that he's going to do anything that involves them. On three straight possessions, Bynum and Gasol don't even bother establishing position in the post.

8:55: As far as I can tell from here at courtside, these are the Lakers plays:

1. Kobe on the wing. Shoots contested jump shot.
2. Kobe at the top of the arc. Either runs frantically around the perimeter to shake a double team or just shoots a contested jump shot.
3. Kobe catches the ball on the block. Shoots turnaround jumper.
4. Something involving Andrew Bynum awkwardly trying to dunk, but usually successfully dunking.
5. Something involving Pau in the high post. This play should be run on half of the Lakers possessions. In the second half, it's run maybe twice.
This must be dispiriting for Bryant's competent teammates. The Clippers, specifically Reggie Evans, are battering them on the offensive boards.

8:16: Chris Paul continues to gut the Lakers. He's scored eight points in this quarter alone. With the Lakers down 11 with eight minutes left and Kobe at 32 for the night, does he completely sell out for 40? And is it possible that Kobe going for 40 might be the best bet for a Lakers team that cannot get the ball down low to their bigs? Gasol and Bynum have a combined 26 points, but most of their opportunities have been on put-backs and busted plays. The lack of Lamar Odom really shows up in this respect: Lamar's post passing created three to four opportunities a night for Gasol and Bynum. Darius Morris' passing has created somewhere close to zero. Where the hell is Rafer Alston? Or Jamaal Tinsley? Is there really nobody on a couch somewhere who could come in and play over Darius Morris? He'd only have to learn five plays, and the first four involve standing around and watching Kobe go to work.

5:45: Kobe fights off the double team and buries another jumper. Forty seems like a foregone conclusion at this point. The Lakers crowd, once again, starts staring up at the JumboTron.

4:25: Kobe dribbles his team out of a possession by failing to shake off a double-team. After two laps around the perimeter, he launches himself in the air and throws a wild pass to Pau Gasol, who misses an off-balance jump hook. Forty hangs heavy over the game, and it's hard to not watch Kobe dribbling with his head down and not wonder if he's already opted for his contingency plan. On the other end of the court, Chris Paul keeps humiliating the Lakers defenders and puts the Clippers up by 13.

3:50: Another contested jumper for Kobe goes off the back of the rim. Gasol had a much smaller defender completely sealed off that time. Kobe didn't even look at him.

3:30: If the other Lakers have better ideas, they're sure as hell not proposing them. Bynum dumps the ball in to Kobe in the post. He scores on a turnaround. The next time down the court, he sinks a floater to get to 40 for the game.

1:16: Kobe keeps shooting. He's now 14-for-28 from the field, which, if you look at the box score, is perfectly fine. But unlike last night, when Bryant's shots mostly came from within the flow of the offense, at least 18 of tonight's shots disrupted the Lakers tempo. .

This 40 came much harder than last night's. This, in part, was due to the Clippers' defense. Part of Bryant's struggles came from exhaustion — outside of that short period in the third quarter, Kobe didn't have the same bounce in his step.


After the game, Mike Brown mostly talked about offensive rebounding and how his bigs needed to be more aggressive on the boards. When asked about whether or not he felt the need to rein in Kobe, Brown laughed and said Kobe Bryant didn't need to be told anything. If it becomes apparent that Kobe's shot selection is hurting his team's chances of winning games, will Brown be able to reach a Phil Jackson-like compromise with his superstar? Given Brown's past with LeBron in Cleveland, that's difficult to imagine.

In the locker room, the usual media horde hovered around Kobe's locker. When he finally came out, he looked exhausted and upset. He mumbled his way through some standard answers and said he didn't even think much about the streak of 40 games. Like Mike Brown, Kobe said something about the need to rebound better and get to loose balls. There's an implicit demand in those statements that would trouble any great professional athlete — Kobe and Mike Brown were essentially telling the Lakers bigs to try harder on the boards. Anyone who has played any level of organized basketball understands that big men play harder when they feel involved in the team's offensive flow. Yes, Pau Gasol is a paid professional, but he's also a notoriously touchy superstar who rightfully believes that he is the difference between the 2006 Los Angeles Lakers and the team that won two championships. In a game where there's only one ball to share between five players, inconsistency can be triggered by nearly anything, including the anxiety of never knowing if you're going to get your touches. Kobe's defenders will point out that he shot 50 percent against the Clippers and helped drag his teammates back into the game. But anyone who watched how Kobe got to 42 tonight must have had flashbacks to 2006, when some of the greatest individual excellence ever seen in professional basketball netted 45 wins and a first-round playoff exit.2

The Lakers cannot win with this Kobe Bryant, and this Kobe Bryant isn't going anywhere. But can anyone really blame him for reverting back to the most enthralling one-man show in American sports? This season started with an unwanted coaching hire, a lockout, a nixed trade, and the unceremonial jettison of the team's third-best player. The Lakers fans seem to have already bought into the Kobe show. It's difficult to cheer for Josh McRoberts, much less figure out a reason why Kobe should pass him the ball. But this particular Lakers dynasty dies a little with every possession that ends with Kobe taking a bad shot. If the scoring streak continues in this fashion, the rest of the team will start to check out. Like in 2006, Kobe's teammates don't have the guff to say anything to him. It doesn't appear as if his coach does, either. Even if Dwight Howard comes to town by the trade deadline, can we reasonably expect Kobe to completely change up the way he plays? Pau Gasol is a better offensive player than Howard — if Pau and Bynum are getting frozen out for entire quarters, why, exactly, should Howard expect anything different?

A few minutes into Kobe's postgame talk with the media, Pau Gasol walked out of the trainer's room. The majority of the press didn't acknowledge his presence. I, along with a few other people in the huddle, managed to at least look over at Pau, who, with an incredulous smile on his face, shrugged and sat down in front of his locker.

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Madrid hopes to consolidate its lead

By: timbersfan, 1:08 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

As 2011 becomes 2012, we pick six teams with much to do in the new year, and a few resolutions between them that, for varying reasons, must be fulfilled: from Real's mission to knock Barca off its perch to Zaragoza's desperate battle to avoid slipping into the abyss.

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Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images
The Special One will hope that Barca's dodgy away form continues.
Real Madrid

Top at the new year for the first time under Jose Mourinho and during the Pep Guardiola era. The Portuguese would happily have taken a three-point lead at this stage if offered it in September, but a missed chance to put real daylight between the Catalan champion and the capital challenger will rankle nonetheless. What Mourinho needs in 2012 is for Barcelona's sketchy away form to continue. Real's record is 7-1-1; its rival's 3-3-1. On the road, Barcelona has won 12 points from a possible 21, scoring 11 and conceding eight. Real has reaped 22 from a possible 28, hammering in 27 for five conceded. Of course, the only away result that really mattered in the first half of the season was Barca's 3-1 win in the Bernabeu, and if Mourinho is to bring the title to Madrid, it is another record he will need to reverse; at home Barcelona is unbeaten and has scored 39 times without reply.

Valencia

Third in 2010, third in 2011, third right now. Valencia appears to have established itself as the bronze-medal club in Spain, despite the fiscal necessity of selling players any other side wants each summer. David Silva, David Villa, Juan Mata and Carlos Marchena, World Cup winners all, have been offloaded in recent years to ease Valencia's massive debt, which stood quite recently at more than 500 million euros. However, a convenient deal with Spanish lender Bankia -- to the tune of 250 million euros of debt wiped for the property rights to the old Mestalla, the club's training facilities and a chunk of commercial space at New Mestalla -- opened the way for Valencia to become a challenger again. The team should inaugurate the new stadium "in two years' time," according to the club. It may be too late for this season, with no major arrivals expected in January, but if Los Che have the finances to build rather than pull apart, the 2002 and 2004 Liga winners could soon provide a third horse for an increasingly predictable course. Considering his immediate constraints, manager Unai Emery will settle for third again and look forward to being able to look at what's on the menu, and not the price, for a change this summer.

Osasuna

Also unbeaten at home, Osasuna traditionally relies on its fortress Reyno de Navarra stadium to maintain its Liga status, being generally awful on its travels. But despite a 7-1 thrashing by Real at the beginning of November, Osasuna picked up its first away win of the season at Espanyol two matches later and then beat Betis and Villarreal at home and held Malaga on the south coast to end 2011 in fifth place. With four dogged ties on its travels already this season, it is little wonder that Barcelona considered appealing to switch the order of the Copa del Rey clash between the sides in January to be able to play the second leg at Camp Nou.

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Atletico

"There is always hope," said Diego Simeone upon his arrival in Madrid on Monday to take charge of Atletico. The former Argentina midfielder is probably as famous for getting David Beckham sent off in St Etienne in 1998 as he is for anything, but he was the driving force behind Atletico's league and cup double of 1995-96 and was the popular appointment among long-suffering fans. Whether or not El Cholo can do anything with this Atletico remains to be seen. Gregorio Manzano was sacked after a bumbling King's Cup exit at the hands of Albacete -- of which, incidentally, Andres Iniesta became majority shareholder recently -- but the signs have been pointing backward since an uncharacteristically spectacular performance against Udinese in the Europa League. An institutional basket case that averages 14 new players a season forked out huge sums for Radamel Falcao and Arda Turan in the summer, but has perhaps best been served by bargain-basement Adrian Lopez and free transfer Diego. A graveyard of ambition and a knacker's yard for previously competent defenders, Simeone faces quite a task to lift a deflated squad with little real prospect of reward for the remainder of its season. "I am not frightened by the challenge," he boldly stated. Hardly surprising -- nobody with an interest in Atletico expects very much in the first place.

Villarreal

Much like Atletico with Manzano, Villarreal president Fernando Roig had publicly backed his coach but added the caveat: "patience is not infinite." That patience finally snapped when Villarreal slumped to a miserable King's Cup defeat against third-division Mirandes, which won 2-0 in El Madrigal after a 1-1 tie at home. Juan Carlos Garrido, himself promoted to the first team from Villarreal B in February 2010, was replaced by his successor in the role, Jose Francisco Molina. The former Spain goalkeeper, who won the double with Atletico alongside Simeone in 1996, takes over a team in such free fall as to self-parody its nickname of "Yellow Submarine." Bundled out of the Champions League without a single point and currently outside the drop zone only by dint of having scored one more goal than Sporting, the habitual top-10 club with a frightening record of qualifying for Europe through the Intertoto is in a relegation fight. Players said of Santi Cazorla's departure to Malaga: "The club has lost its soul." If Molina cannot turn things around before season's end -- and the return to action of Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi won't hurt that prospect at all -- Villarreal stands to lose a lot more than that.

Zaragoza

In the Premier League, a Yuletide tradition exists that the club at bottom at Christmas is doomed to the drop. West Brom, under Bryan Robson, became the first side to buck this trend in 2004-05 with a famous final-day reprieve, popularly known as "The Great Escape." Zaragoza, though, has been busily burrowing under the fence ever since returning to the top flight in 2009. Second-bottom during the winter break later that year, Zaragoza finished 14th, five points clear of the drop zone and repeated the trick last season. 20th at Christmas, the Aragonese side was 18th going into the final round of fixtures, and Javier Aguirre emulated Robson by engineering a 2-1 win at Levante to eventually finish a somewhat embellished 13th. The Mexican will not be around to make a fist of it this year, having been sacked during the winter break. The man stepping into the breach, former Sevilla and AEK Athens coach Manolo Jiménez, knows that the stakes have never been higher for his new club. After the frugal stewardship of Alfonso Solans, who preferred to sell David Villa and Cani rather than risk Zaragoza's solvency, Agapito Iglesias had led the club to the brink of oblivion. Zaragoza has debts of over 130 million, filed Spanish soccer's biggest-ever voluntary bankruptcy petition in July, and currently boasts the most expensive squad in its history -- with a wage bill to match. Not a great investment when its one win and ten points are considered. If Zaragoza descends this season, it may well never return.

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Who's better: Donovan or Dempsey?

By: timbersfan, 1:07 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

The friendlies this month against Venezuela in Phoenix (Jan. 21) and at Panama (Jan. 25) offer the first 2012 progress report of the Jurgen Klinsmann era.

But the most interesting match for national team fans this month is likely to be in England on Jan. 28, when Everton plays host to Fulham in an FA Cup fourth-round match, and Landon Donovan faces Clint Dempsey. It marks the first potential club matchup of the two U.S. stars since 2006, and the first knockout match between the two since the 2005 MLS Cup, when Donovan's L.A. Galaxy bested Dempsey's New England Revolution. Off the field, the Donovan-Dempsey contest provides a reason to ponder one of American soccer's best barstool debates: Who is the best U.S. field player of all time?

Three or four years ago, the question would have had you laughed out of the pub. Donovan was clearly recognized as the top Yank for his productivity and longevity. Now? The debate is gaining steam. The Galaxy star is coming off an injury-plagued, subpar year (by his standards) in international play but finished strong, winning yet another MLS title. Dempsey, meanwhile, surpassed Brian McBride this season to become the all-time leading American scorer in the Premier League, and just last week notched a hat trick to bring his goal total for Fulham to a monumental 50 in all competitions.

Tale of the tape
There's no doubt Clint Dempsey has had a much more productive European career, but Landon Donovan's been the centerpiece of the national team for three World Cups.

DONOVAN DEMPSEY
U.S. CAPS 138 82
U.S. GOALS 46 24
2011 U.S. GOALS 1 5
WC/WCQ APPS 47 26
WC/WCQ GOALS 18 8
GOLD/CONFED APPS 33 15
GOLD/CONFED GOALS 14 7
MLS APPS 255 71
MLS GOALS 115 25
EURO APPS 27 211
EURO GOALS 2 50
When we looked at the achievements of the two players, it was remarkable how productive each has been, for both club and country. And when we reviewed their career arcs, it's equally remarkable how they've both been able to succeed, and advance the cause of the sport in this country, by taking radically different paths. First, check out some raw numbers. Donovan is just a year older, but has been on the scene a full World Cup cycle longer than Dempsey. Game for game, their offensive productivity is quite similar, but Donovan clearly leads in total goals (see table). Donovan has scored exactly once every third game he's been in a U.S. uniform. Dempsey nets once every 3.4 games. One advantage for Donovan: He takes more penalty kicks than Dempsey for the U.S.

If you break down those numbers a bit, you see that neither is just getting garbage-time goals. Each has scored in two World Cups, with Donovan (until last year) owning the Gold Cup tournaments, and Dempsey winning the Bronze Ball at the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Donovan scored the biggest goal of the 2010 World Cup against Algeria, but the rebound was set up by Dempsey's run and shot on goal. And Dempsey might have been seen as the hero of that match had his 20th minute tap-in not been controversially waved off.

Donovan has more assists and assists per game, but we didn't include the totals here because he's been called on to be a distributor more frequently than Dempsey has. Still, that needs to be factored into the discussion, as well. Interestingly, Jurgen Klinsmann has put Dempsey in the middle of the field in a No. 10 role, and not coincidentally, in Donovan's old jersey number, so Deuce's assist rate could rise in the next few years.

Both have also had outstanding club careers, but here, Dempsey holds the edge given the level of competition he's playing against. MLS presents its own challenges, with its summer heat, grueling and unglamorous travel and sometimes-outrageous hacking, and Donovan has flat-out dominated the league. But the talent level is obviously nowhere near the Premiership. And through five different coaches in his 5½ seasons and intense competition for playing time, Dempsey just keeps proving himself for Fulham. Donovan hasn't had the same chance -- or as some might argue, desire -- to prove himself in Europe, never gaining favor at Bayer Leverkusen, but his run at Everton two years ago was impressive, and he looks to be off to a good start in his current stint.

If their stats are similar, how they got there couldn't be more different, as you can see in this more prosaic tale of the tape:

Donovan
Age: 29. Turns 30 March 4 (Pisces)
Club salary: $2.3 million
Youth career: A star from his U.S. U-17 national team debut. Turned pro at 16 (with Bayer Leverkusen), forgoing college soccer. Played in the 2000 Olympics.
Expectations: Had trouble at times living up to the billing, particularly at the 2006 World Cup.
Club approach: Left Leverkusen at 18 for first-team action in MLS. Despite three more stints in Europe (Leverkusen again, Bayern Munich, Everton), played every domestic season in its entirety from 2001 to 2011.
Knock he's proven wrong: Not a big-game player.
Ambition: To be face of U.S. Soccer and MLS, build sport at home.

Dempsey
Age: 28. Turns 29 March 9 (Pisces)
Club salary: $3 million (estimated)
Youth career: Never made U.S. U-17 national team, played sparingly at 2003 U-20 World Cup. Has never played in the Olympics. NCAA star at Furman.
Expectations: Didn't generate any until MLS breakout in 2004 (as a defensive midfielder); built on that in 2006 World Cup.
Club approach: Couldn't get out of MLS soon enough.
Knock he's proven wrong Lazy, better for club than country.
Ambition: Regular Champions League play.

Conclusion
So who's the best right now?

Based on his current run of form and stubborn resistance to hitting a ceiling, Dempsey.

Who's the best U.S. field player of all time?

If both careers ended today, we'd go with Donovan because of that 2002 World Cup run. On top of his numbers, he has meant more to people in the U.S. and done a great job as the face of the game for a growing soccer culture. But Dempsey's success in England, week in and week out, steadily increases the respect for American soccer around the world.

The final answer?

Too early to tell. Neither career is over yet, and Dempsey keeps closing the gap. So for now, we'll say it's still an open question, and we'll leave it to the readers to slug it out. Tell us what you think. We'll leave you with one thought that everyone can agree on: The longer these two American idols keep playing well, and the longer this debate remains a contested topic, the better U.S. Soccer's prospects are in 2014 in Brazil.

Notes
• Jurgen Klinsmann is continuing his rigorous physical demands on U.S. players. The second string gathered in Phoenix for the January camp starts each day with a 30-minute run before breakfast, followed by double practice sessions. U.S. Soccer gives a rundown, here.

• When the U.S. faces Italy in Genoa on Feb. 29, one Yank midfielder will be able to explain the taunts from the crowd to his teammates. Michael Bradley is fitting in so well at Serie A's Chievo Verona, on and off the field, that he's doing interviews in Italian.

• When Klinsmann's camp packs up from Phoenix and heads to the Home Depot Center outside L.A. at the end of the week, it will join the men's U-23 campers and the women's Olympic campers at the same facility. There's only a three-day overlap, though, as the women head for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver on Monday.

• Robbie Rogers will join English second-tier club Leeds United if he secures a British work permit, which isn't the roadblock it once was for Americans who don't automatically qualify. In 2003, Bobby Convey was famously denied one after signing with Tottenham. But last year, fringe national teamers Robbie Findley (Nottingham Forest) and Alejandro Bedoya (Rangers) each won permits upon appeal.

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Montreal selects versatile Wenger

By: timbersfan, 1:07 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

KANSAS CITY -- Putting together an expansion team in Major League Soccer, with its many allocations and limitations, is not at all unlike putting together a puzzle. An unwieldy puzzle of disparate pieces with jagged edges and awkward angles that you're expected to somehow coax into a cohesive collective.

With the first pick of the 2012 MLS SuperDraft on Thursday, the league's new franchise -- the Montreal Impact -- wisely selected a piece that can be kneaded into whatever shape it likes.

That piece, Duke junior defender-cum-midfielder-cum-forward Andrew Wenger, loafed up to the podium and into the blue hue of the harsh light confidently after becoming the first MLS draft pick to be called up in French. Stepping off the stage, he tucked his hands into his pockets with a demeanor probably no different from how he'd walk into his kitchen for a snack. The 21-year-old Wenger's comfort with it all seemed to confirm the widely held notion that he was the most sensible pick in a solid but unremarkable draft class.

He took off his jacket and pulled an Impact jersey over his 1960s "Mad Men"-ishly handsome face. "You look good in that jersey, Andrew," the Impact's coach Jesse Marsch told him.

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AP Photo/Duke Photography, Jon Gardiner
Andrew Wenger proved impactful at various positions during his playing career at Duke University.
With Wenger added to the fold, Marsch's entire team looks a little better. The first-year head coach was essentially handed a wild card for his puzzle, allowing him to shift other parts into better-fitting slots -- because Wenger possesses a versatility that is rare.

"He has the potential to be a great defender, a great midfielder and a great forward," said Marsch. In high school, Wenger played a different position in each of his four varsity seasons: left back, holding midfielder, attacking midfielder and forward. He was recruited to Duke University as a midfielder, with coach John Kerr planning to build his team around him there. But with the back line looking shoddy heading into Wenger's freshman year, he was moved back a line to central defender. As a freshman, he was the ACC Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, he was the ACC Defender of the Year. Before his junior and final year in college came another move.

"We were weak up front and I tried him there during a spring game, and I knew within 10 minutes he was going to be our best striker," recalled Kerr. "I turned and said to my assistant coach: 'He's going to an All-American striker next year.'" Actually, he was the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner as the best player in all of college soccer on account of his 17 goals and 8 assists. Oh, and the ACC Offensive Player of the Year, too. He never did play in midfield for the Blue Devils.

The United States' U-23 national team coach Caleb Porter is equally smitten with Wenger, whom he is working out as a potential center back for the U.S. Olympic team for London 2012. "I think Andrew's a lock for whatever team takes him to do very well," said Porter. "I think he's a really complete player, extremely versatile. He's got great feet, technically he's clean, and tactically he's very smart. What people don't realize and I didn't realize until I worked with him for a week is that he's athletic, he's tall, he's strong, he's fast."

Wenger hasn't been his current 6 feet and 185 pounds for very long though. In fact, he attributes his versatility to always being among the smaller players in his childhood groups. The Olympic Development Program teams that Wenger played for go by birth year. Wenger was born Christmas Day 1990. "So I was one of the younger, smaller kids for a long time," he explained. "I gave my mother a hard time when I was younger, saying if I'd been born a few days later I could be [among the bigger players on the team]."

Being a small, late-bloomer meant Wenger was forever being plugged into holes in the team. "ODP teams and club teams each had different needs, and I was athletic enough that even if I wasn't the best player technically at that time, I could figure it out athletically," said Wenger. "So that's why maybe I'm more of an intellectual player, because I had to figure things out mentally to keep up with some of the bigger players."

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AP Photo/Duke Photography, Jon Gardiner
Wenger is among the young U.S. players being considered for defensive positions on the 2012 Olympic team, according to U-23 coach Caleb Porter.
Although it made him an attractive draft choice, there's a downside to Wenger's versatility, too. "Some guys are specific in one position and fantastic at that position," he said. "I've played multiple positions and I haven't always been great at every position I've played in. I'm a jack of all trades, ace of none." Wenger is a little rusty at center back, for example, where he didn't play all last season but is projected on the U-23s and in the pros.

And although he was considered the most MLS-ready and least project-like player in the draft, Marsch warned of labeling him that. "To be honest, they're all projects," he said. "It's not like any guy you get out of the college draft any year can fully be a 90-minute pro from the start. We think Andrew is still going to be a project in where he plays and how he adjusts, but we think he's very mature and can handle the pressure of being the first pick."

The maturity the Impact like is reflected in Wenger's other pursuits. He's a history buff -- "I grew up on the History Channel," he said -- with a fascination for medieval and modern Great Britain and the slave trade era in the Caribbean. He's just four credits away from his degree in history. So rather than ship off to Montreal straight away, Wenger will split his time between Durham, N.C., and Montreal until he graduates in May. He'll take his remaining classes and train with Duke the first half of the week, and practice and play with the Impact the second half.

"It meant a lot to me; I've worked very hard for it," Wenger said of his degree. "And I can't play forever, and afterwards that'll be something I'll lean on for a living."

Wenger is a budding foodie, too. In preparation for the draft, he hungrily boned up on Montreal's culinary scene, watching celebrity television chef Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" TV episode shot there.

And whatever he ends up ordering off a menu or wherever he ends up playing on the field, "I've gotta learn French," it dawned on Wenger.

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All aboard the Spurs bandwagon?

By: timbersfan, 1:06 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

It is a measure of this gloriously demented season that Arsenal fans (OK, me) walked around this past week thinking that everything was now possible: Thierry Henry would continue scoring vintage 2004 goals, win the Ballon d'Or as a write-in candidate, lead Arsenal to the title and even shave off his ridiculous beard.

"I see you're still smiling," said my friend Tom on Wednesday morning when I ran into him on my way to work two days after Henry sweetly sidefooted home the match winner in FA Cup action. "Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, but personally I prefer winning trophies."

Did I mention that Tom is a Tottenham supporter who, even in his team's darkest days -- say, the past 51 years -- has worn his smug Spurs heart on his sleeve, along with their odd-looking crest? Did I mention that Tom sickens me?

And now, with Spurs on a once-every-half-century rampage that has seen them rise from the Prem-ordial muck to lie joint-second in the table with Manchester United, Tom's mug was the last thing I wanted to encounter. It was a cold, harsh reminder that once the Henryesque mist falls from Gooner eyes, Arsenal is left with a team struggling to gain a foothold in the top four while gazing up at the vapors of our justifiably despised North London rivals. The Gunners are nine points behind the goblins of the Lane and, to make it even more terrifying, Tottenham is showing no signs of regressing to its usual Europa League level of play.

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Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Harry Redknapp's Spurs side has lost only one league game since August and sits level on points with Manchester United in second place in the Premiership.
Perhaps most impressively, Spurs have resisted the latest Prem craze of turning to the past to reinvigorate the present. In the past week alone, we've witnessed two club legends and Robbie Keane exhumed from the EPL crypt in the desperate hope that sentiment and nostalgia will trump speed and power. Not to be outdone by Arsene Wenger turning one of Arsenal's bronzed statues into a living, breathing, goal-scoring 34-year-old Frenchman, Sir Alex Ferguson cajoled 37-year-old Paul Scholes out of retirement to bolster United's bedraggled midfield. On top of that, Aston Villa boss Alex McLeish persuaded Keane, the nomadic Irish striker, to do one of his hilarious goal-celebrating somersaults from his boyhood club, L.A. Galaxy, all the way to the locker haunted by the ghost of Emile Heskey.

Who's next? Eric Cantona kung-fu-kicking his way from the French presidency to Old Trafford to forge a molasses-slow attack with Scholes? Andriy Shevchenko limping back to Stamford Bridge to combine with Fernando Torres in what would be Roman Abramovich's nightmarish partnership in profligacy? Or, better yet, Kenny Dalglish calling his own number and finally giving Liverpool a striker who can actually score goals?

Whatever the motivation for these grandly reaching transfer window reunions -- a painfully thin and expensive talent pool? the impending specter of "Financial Fair Play"? EPL hipster irony? -- the one team not looking to add world-class relics is Tottenham. And what makes it all the more shocking is that no one usually enjoys sailing the high seas of January piracy more than the ol' wheeler-dealer himself, Harry Redknapp, who last season pulled off the most cunning transfer haul by bagging Rafael Van der Vaart for a paltry $12 million. But even Redknapp has his limits -- and apparently they preclude acquiring the glamorous dead-ball and merchandising skills of one David Beckham. Redknapp told the British press that while he welcomed Becks to train with Spurs, he had little interest in a short-term loan. Perhaps Redknapp has resisted the lure of "senior citizen" signings because he already has the best 40-year-old in the league in goalkeeper Brad Friedel.

All of these paeans to Tottenham are, of course, revolting and cause me no end of agita because they are a violation of the natural order of life. This is Spurs, for Christ's sake! They simply aren't supposed to be this good. It is not in their DNA to play with the swashbuckling conviction of a team that feels it belongs in the title conversation and -- how can I write these words? -- may well hijack it in the end.

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How did a team that not so long ago boasted Peter Crouch up top, and still wheels out Roman Pavlyuchenko, make these astonishing strides?

Isn't this essentially the same club that delayed its season start due to local riots, right before the two Manchesters tried to turn Spurs into a carbon footprint? What happened to the glorious preseason talk about ripping the Luka Modric-sized heart from their beating chests and transplanting it into Chelsea's midfield? Where was the descent into the pit of gloom that should have accompanied the eight goals conceded in their first two games?

Simply put, White Hart Lane has so far been immune to the kind of internecine dramas that have bedeviled all the teams around them – Roberto Mancini versus Carlos Tevez, Alex Ferguson versus Wayne Rooney, Andre Villas-Boas versus Frank Lampard and Kenny Dalglish versus the world.

In other words, all the things that could have gone wrong haven't. Gareth Bale has not devolved into a one-hit Champions League wonder, Van der Vaart isn't sulking at never playing a full 90 minutes; even Emmanuel Adebayor has abandoned the worst of his puerile me-first ways. Next you'll be telling me that Redknapp has actually displayed some in-game tactical acumen.

With just one measly defeat in the 18 Prem games since the end of August, a largely healthy squad to rotate and no more annoyingly irrelevant Europa League knockout games in Ukrainian gulags, Redknapp's Lilywhites have emerged as Manchester City's scariest rivals. The delicious irony of this competition is that the Billionaire Blues are paying most of Adebayor's stratospheric wages, and the Togolese striker has rewarded Spurs with nine goals and six assists so far. Layer in the inspired addition of midfielder Scott Parker (I thought West Ham only gave away their best players to Chelsea?), the rapid ascendance of right back Kyle Walker and the world-class pace and talents of Bale, and it's clear that Tottenham is no flash in this year's Prem pan.

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Glyn Kirk/Getty Images
Benoit Assou-Ekotto's first goal in two years sealed Tottenham's midweek win over Everton.
And then there's the likes of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, self-proclaimed soccer critic, whose casual, cool-jazz style of play belies the thunderous surface-to-air 30-yard screamer he unleashed against Everton in midweek, his first goal in over two years. Though Aaron Lennon has struggled with injuries and inconsistent form, Assou-Ekotto's elevation to arguably the league's best left back has enabled Spurs to remain dangerous on both flanks.

While Fergie splashed out $27 million on teen-idol goalkeeper David de Calamity, Redknapp shrewdly claimed Friedel on a free transfer from Villa. And though the young Spaniard should eventually come good, Big Brad has eight clean sheets in 20 Prem starts this season and a calm, assured disposition that renders him impervious to the comical flaps of Heurelho Gomes but, more importantly, gives the attack-minded Spurs even greater license to pelt forward. Given the various landslides of "club in crisis" headlines pointed at Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, Tottenham has snuck up on the blind side of its main rivals before they had a chance to take their threat seriously.

Of course, there are still 18 games to go with trips to the Emirates, Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad on the horizon, not to mention the unwanted attention from Redknapp's impending trial on tax-evasion charges -- but the simple fact that Tottenham is this close to the summit is making me queasy.

Now, can someone please pass me the Maalox?

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Ozil is key to Real Madrid's attack

By: timbersfan, 1:05 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

Jose Mourinho's task at Real Madrid is far from simple. Charged with overtaking Barcelona after three seasons of Catalan domination in La Liga, he's also expected to do it in style. Barca has been regarded as the greatest side of the modern era for the method of its success as well as the success itself.

It's odd to have this debate when Real sits top of the league with more goals scored than any other side. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it's fair to say that "beautiful football" is not quite the same as "attacking football." A goals scored column does not reflect how attractive the style of play is. If anything, it indicates the outright quality and relentlessness of the side.

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Denis Doyle/Getty Images
Despite falling behing Malaga early, Mesut Ozil and Real Madrid rebounded to claim a 4-2 aggregate win to reach the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey.
Mourinho has faced accusations of boring football in the past. His Porto and Inter sides that won the European Cup were more proactive and creative over the course of a league season than they suggested in the latter stages of the Champions League. If anything, it was his Chelsea side that played the least inspiring football. In his first season in London, Mourinho based his side around a strong defense; in a stark contrast from the current situation at Real, Chelsea hadn't won the league for 50 years and was happy to take success however it arrived.

Even when it scored goals, Chelsea smashed teams with brute force and pace rather than carving them apart methodically. Didier Drogba was a battering ram, the team's flanks had the speed of Arjen Robben and Damien Duff, and the middle contained a physical trio of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. Nowhere was there a playmaker. Lampard specialized in powerful running and goal scoring, while Robben was a very different player to the one we now know -- he spent much of the time in his own half doing his defensive duties then sped along the line rather than coming inside.

Real Madrid is different. Mourinho's current side has, on a good day, three clear playmakers -- and that's not including Cristiano Ronaldo. Xabi Alonso is the deep-lying creator, quite rightly one of the most widely appreciated players in the modern game. Angel Di Maria plays a hybrid role, coming inside from the flank to take up central positions. Then there is Mesut Ozil, now literally as well as figuratively a "number ten."

Ozil, though, is the only one who will always be a playmaker; he can't do any other job. When Real comes up against a side as strong -- which generally means Barca -- Alonso becomes a midfield scrapper as much as a playmaker and Di Maria becomes a defensive winger more than an attacking threat.

Therefore, Ozil shoulders so much of a burden for making Real an aesthetically pleasing side. In truth, this campaign hasn't been the best for him. His form has been indifferent, he looks even more gloomy than usual, and a few times he's been shoved out to the right. Meanwhile, Kaka is lurking in the background.

Kaka is an immensely talented player but one who doesn't offer anything like the artistry of Ozil. Indeed, Kaka's style over the year has often been misunderstood. Though a Brazilian and an attacking midfielder, in his days at Milan it was Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and often Rui Costa doing the playmaking. Kaka's speciality was a quick turn of pace. He'd get the ball, roar past a defender and finish nicely. He was essentially a striker playing a little deeper.

That was a perfectly stylish way to finish chances, but physically Kaka has changed. He's gone from being a slender player to a much bulkier one. He looks more like a number nine than a number ten, physically more similar to Karim Benzema than Ozil. In the past two years, the change in his body shape is remarkable. He doesn't have that sudden acceleration, and he can't speed past players. It's difficult to say what he really excels at.

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Ozil's constant movement and vision on the pitch make him an integral part of Real Madrid's attack.
With Kaka only a substitute, Ozil played his first league game of 2012 last weekend, Real's 5-1 win over Granada. The postmatch reaction to his performance was muted, yet he assisted three of the four goals scored in his 67 minutes on the pitch -- the first a brilliant improvised flick to help a Ronaldo ball onto Benzema. Kaka got his chance in the cup in midweek but lasted just 45 minutes against Malaga before he was withdrawn by Mourinho, another wasted chance.

It is Ozil that makes the side play, and his appreciation of space is incredible. He has a phenomenal ability to drift between the lines and find himself free. So often you could pause the game and draw a triangle or a square around the three or four players closest to him; Ozil would be precisely in the center. It's a difficult thing to quantify, difficult to outline why being five yards from the midfield and five yards from the defense is significantly better to being, say, seven yards from the midfield and three yards from the defence, but at this level, margins like that matter.

His thinking in such situations doesn't stop there. When one of the opposing players realizes Ozil is free and moves toward him, Ozil recognizes he's now being tracked and replicates his opponent's movement to keep a good distance between himself and his marker. There's two effects of that. First, the other opposition players see he's being tracked by a teammate so don't bother picking him up, despite the fact that the defender is never in control of the situation. Second, the opponent becomes dragged out of position to leave a gap for someone else to exploit. It sounds simple enough on paper, but it's more difficult to combine this constant movement with the actual concept of playing football -- getting the ball, creating chances. He's not just playing tag.

With Ronaldo and Di Maria in a line of three, Ozil is beside two players who love coming inside. Many typical number tens would find this frustrating. Ozil instead helps the side retain fluidity by moving to the outside. In particular, when a lateral ball is played to a Real fullback from one of the central midfielders, Ozil will make an arced run into that same channel. It's an unusual movement, going away from the dangerous central area of the pitch, and neither the opposition holding midfielder nor the relevant fullback knows who should be tracking him. In the confusion, it's often Ronaldo or Di Maria who can then make the opposite run and be the one in a dangerous position, ending up with the glory.

Few other players in football give the impression of always thinking. Ozil is always glancing around him, always looking over his shoulder to see where the space is. He's so concerned with making sure defenders don't track him that he occasionally does something Thierry Henry used to do in his Arsenal days, drifting out wide to the touchline and standing still, as if disinterested from the game, before bursting into life. Does it work? Rarely. Defenders aren't that stupid, but it shows Ozil's mentality, how he's constantly trying to get some space, trying to escape the attention of defenders.

Hopefully, he won't escape the attention of his coach. Mourinho has tried to play two strikers, he is giving chances to Kaka, and he wants to make the most of Di Maria. Those players can help win the league, but only Ozil has the ability to transform Real into a truly exceptional side.

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Why is Di Maria odd man out at Real?

By: timbersfan, 1:04 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

There is an urban myth that Gabriel Milito's proposed deal to move from Independiente to Real Madrid in 2003 was influenced by the Spanish club's president taking a look at the defender's "unconventional" looks and hairstyle and deciding that, in an age of Galactico marketing, this wasn't a guy to sell many Madrid shirts in Tokyo and Beijing.

Irrespective of the fact that Madrid's doctors were quoted as saying they had doubts about Milito's recovery from a knee injury, there has always been scuttlebutt that Florentino Perez ultimately didn't feel that the Argentine was the blue-eyed handsome boy Real Madrid's marketers wanted. The plug was pulled despite a transfer fee, financial terms and length of contact all having been agreed.

That Milito's subsequent successful career included a 2004 Copa del Rey final win over Madrid for Real Zaragoza, plus a 10-trophy spell at FC Barcelona, has only added a huge dash of spice and spite to the rumors. People don't really care whether the Perez-Milito thing is fact or not anymore. It's a good tale made all the sexier for the way Milito appeared to spend the next eight years paying Perez back.

The reason it comes to my mind is the situation of Milito's countryman, Angel Di Maria, at Real Madrid right now.

Born a few kilometers from Lionel Messi's family home in Rosario, and only about eight months after Barca's little Ballon d'Or genius, Di Maria grew up on the mean streets. It was a tough area, his dad and mom worked immensely hard to provide for the family (the elder Di Maria slogged away in a coal yard), and the player knows what it is like to struggle for a living.

For all the copious talent Di Maria has been born with, this isn't a guy who was hit with the handsome stick. His ears are like mine -- like the handles on the European Cup -- and, like Milito, he has unconventional looks. So the fact that we are discovering one of the most skilled, most influential players at the Bernabeu, who is on a far lower wage than he deserves, makes me wonder what the heck it can possibly be that leaves him underappreciated financially.

You see, Di Maria has added judgment, maturity, hard work and an ability to rise to difficult circumstances to his natural ability.

Always capable of a sweet flow of cross balls from either wing (his was the sublime one-two with Marcelo and millimeter-perfect center for Ronaldo to head the winning goal in last April's Copa del Rey final versus Barcelona), this guy is now showing a far greater passing range. The epitome of his development probably came at Sevilla just before Christmas.

Madrid had been humiliatingly thrashed at home by Pep Guardiola's Spanish champions, and Barca were now en route to Japan to win the Club World Cup. So it would have been easy for Los Blancos to arrive in Sevilla not particularly up for the battle.

For his part, the 23-year-old Di Maria had chosen to fly home for the funeral of his father-in-law, then hurry back in time for the crucial away match. It's a 12,500-mile round trip, and he completed it in just over three days.

But Di Maria started in Sevilla, absolutely ran the game, scored once in a 6-2 win, created some of the sweetest goal assists in recent years and looked absolutely imperious. So to find that there is a posse of wealthy English clubs sniffing around him -- no doubt on the advice of a well-informed agent -- and to understand that it's because he feels his salary is vastly behind ordinary players in the Madrid squad, not simply that of Cristiano Ronaldo or Iker Casillas, is a shock.

In Di Maria, Real Madrid has not only a special player but one who can make the difference between Los Blancos and Barcelona on a regular basis. He is now confident and talented enough to move into the center of the pitch and still create goal chances with delicate, measured passes in tight spaces. It's a joy to watch him, and there's a lot more to come. To have him on your playing staff, or as a teammate, should be priceless.

Presumably, Real Madrid will see the light and upgrade his contract. But the strange thing is that he shares an agent, Jorge Mendes, with Real's manager, Jose Mourinho.

Di Maria must be wondering, "Why am I the ugly duckling of the pay scale if my performances put me in the top 1 or 2 percent of players in the squad?" Especially when his manager has been promoted to a dominant position at the club in terms of buying and selling players after general manager Jorge Valdano was removed in the summer. It's a mystery, and if Los Blancos don't solve it, then they haven't a clue.

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Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images
Real Madrid defeated Barcelona in last season's Copa del Rey final. The two archrivals look set to meet each other in the quarterfinals next week.
Here we go again

Meanwhile, the race to get Di Maria fully fit for next midweek will be on. Real Madrid's rather fortuitous 1-0 win at Malaga has put it through to what seems sure to be a Copa del Rey quarterfinal Clasico. (Barcelona leads Osasuna 4-0 after the first leg at Camp Nou last week so, barring a miracle, Spain's archrivals will be pitted against each other yet again.)

We had seven of these bitter, fascinating and sometimes stunning Barca-Madrid contests last season, and I seem to have been in the minority in absolutely loving every last minute of them.

Since Mourinho and Guardiola started going up against each other as coach of Madrid and Barcelona, there have been eight meetings, 25 goals, 59 bookings and nine red cards. It has been football carnage.

This competition is one of only three trophies Pep Guardiola has failed to win of the 16 available to him since he took over in June 2008. Even for Barca and Madrid, the Copa del Rey is the third-most important of the three trophies left this season, along with the league and the Champions League. The fact that -- barring a miracle by Osasuna -- these rivals will face off in the quarterfinals, less than a year since Real defeated Barcelona in the last season's final, all but guarantees that the next two midweek meetings in the Copa del Rey will be red-hot.

Even after Barca's recent run of clinically defeating Madrid when it really matters, I dare to suggest that Mourinho's team would start as a slight favorite.

Unlike the Liga meetings, the dates of which are known for months in advance, this is a random draw, so there's little time to prepare.

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Guardiola's ability to stoke the fires of fitness so as to be roaring hot for meetings with Madrid and for the knockout stage of the Champions League is undermined by the fact that it's just a fluke the two sides have been drawn in the Copa del Rey (in a ceremony by Madrid's director of football, no less).

And the lead that Barcelona let slip last weekend at Espanyol paints the champion as slightly vulnerable. But will Di Maria be fit? How bad was the injury sustained by Sami Khedira at Malaga? How angry is Mourinho with Alvaro Arbeloa for getting himself sent off and banned for the first leg at the Bernabeu next week? Will Ronaldo silence those who now whistle and jeer him (since missing two clear chances in the Clasico defeat in December) with a winning performance across the two meetings with Barca?

With the league well within Madrid's steely grasp, thanks to its five-point lead, would it suddenly paint Spain a very bright shade of white should Los Blancos be able to knock Barcelona out of the Copa del Rey for the second successive season? Personally, I can't wait to find out.

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Morgan likely still not a starter, Dempsey on Twitter, more Mailbag Read more: http

By: timbersfan, 12:59 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- Greetings from Southern California, where I opted to spend some time with the U.S. women's team this week as it prepares for the Olympic qualifying tournament later this month in Vancouver. (We have MLS Draft coverage elsewhere on SI.com, so don't worry.) I decided to open up the mailbag this week for questions on Alex Morgan, Clint Dempsey, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and a number of other topics. Let's dive in:
After being named on 50 ballots for FIFA's women's world player of the year, including nine first-place votes, will Alex Morgan be a starter this summer for the USWNT at the London Olympics?
-- Keith Larson, Forked River, N.J.
That's the question I get more than any other from fans of the U.S. women's team. The 22-year-old Morgan scored in the World Cup final and semifinal off the bench, and she seems like a natural complement up top for Abby Wambach. But Morgan has yet to become a starter for coach Pia Sundhage, and the recent switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation from a 4-4-2 means it's even less likely we'll see Morgan in the lineup. (If there's going to be only one forward, that's Wambach.) I wouldn't mind seeing a 4-3-3 with Morgan as one of the three forwards, but Sundhage doesn't appear to want to go in that direction.
On Wednesday, I asked Sundhage when Morgan might become a starter. "We don't know," the coach said. "As of now she's coming off the bench, and that's the best way to help the team. She's a little bit limited when it comes to reading the game, and she's young. That's obvious. At the same time, the more minutes she gets on the field, the better chance she'll have to make the starting lineup. She's getting closer, that's for sure. I'm a lucky one. I have a really good team, so it's not enough to have one good game or play a couple of minutes of great soccer or practice. You have to do it consistently. Alex is doing better and better. It will be interesting to see how long it will take her to get into the starting lineup, because she will be in the starting lineup sooner or later. I have no doubt in my mind about that."
Moving to a 4-2-3-1 means it's extremely likely that holding midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx will continue to be starters, as will Lauren Cheney and Heather O'Reilly in the attacking midfield and Wambach at forward. The other flank midfield spot is probably up for grabs between (most likely) Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez. Is Morgan a potential candidate here? Not likely. But there will continue to be questions as long as she's not starting, especially if Rodriguez is in the lineup.
Quick aside: I asked Sundhage if she hopes to coach the U.S. beyond 2012 (the next major tournament is World Cup 2015), and this is what she said: "I'm only employed until Dec. 1, 2012, so I don't know what I want to do. So instead of worrying about what the future holds for me, I'm staying in the present and trying to give my best every day. I think this is the best team in the world, even though we didn't win the World Cup. I love the way we're playing right now, and I can see the potential. I think this is the beginning of a great era."
Is it likely that Clint Dempsey eventually moves on to a bigger club? If so, which one(s) would be a likely destination?
-- Sean Abbott
Dempsey is in a zone right now, having scored 12 goals in all competitions this season for Fulham, and so naturally the question has come up over whether he might make a move in the January transfer window. Dempsey has said for years that he'd like to play on a Champions League team, and I'd say he has earned the chance to prove himself on that stage. For me, it comes down to a couple factors. Now that Dempsey is 28, will teams think he's getting too old to make the move? And, especially pertaining to this month, will a Champions League team have a sudden need (through injury) to replace a player?
The two English Champions League possibilities for a January move are Arsenal and Chelsea. Maybe Arsenal might be a bit more in need of a player like Dempsey, but it would be too strong to say the Gunners are crying out for one. Nor do Man City or Man United seem like obvious destinations for him this summer. An intriguing possibility would be a Champions League team outside of England. Dempsey has told me in the past that he'd be open to making a move onto the Continent at some point. And -- Spain take notice --he speaks more Spanish than he lets on.
Does Lionel Messi have to win a World Cup to be considered the greatest ever? If not, is the World Cup even relevant anymore?
-- @FootballArchive
This week Messi won his third straight FIFA Ballon d'Or as the world's best male player. No male player has ever won more than three global player of the year trophies, and keep in mind that Messi is still only 24. (Of course, there was no global player of the year award during the career of Pelé or in the prime years of Diego Maradona.) My opinion as of now is this: Messi needs to win a World Cup with Argentina to be considered the greatest of all time. Having success with your national team is still a big part of how we measure a player's career, and the fact is that Argentina has not won any major senior titles with Messi.
What if Messi wins, say, seven world player of the year awards but doesn't win the World Cup? Then the debate will rage, not least because in the past 10 years European club soccer -- and in particular the UEFA Champions League -- has become more important in relation to the World Cup. At this point, most observers around the world would say that the standard of play in the Champions League is significantly higher than that of the World Cup. Does that mean the World Cup has become irrelevant? Not in my mind. But I would say that the World Cup (and national-team play in general) is a bigger deal outside Europe. That's true in Argentina, where Messi will always be measured against Maradona's World Cup '86 tour de force, and it's true in the U.S., which has embraced the World Cup as a big-time sporting event but has yet to do so with the European club game.
How do you feel about these increased rivalry games in MLS? Good or bad for the league?
-- Pete Wilson
I'm OK with it for now, though I'll reserve judgment until we see what happens this season. MLS has switched to an unbalanced schedule in 2012, which means most geographic rivals will meet each other three times in the regular season compared to twice in 2011. The two biggest concerns are: 1) Will this water down some great rivalries like Portland vs. Seattle? 2) Will the inherent competitive imbalance make rivalry trophies like the Cascadia Cup less important to fans? Consider: In the Cascadia Cup (the season series between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver), Seattle will only get to play two of the six games at home and four on the road. Fair? Not really, though the tables will be turned in 2013.
In the big picture, though, I'm in favor of having more games that really matter during the MLS regular season, and the new schedule makes that happen. I know that some folks think having too many games has watered down great rivalries like Celtic-Rangers (and for that matter, Yankees-Red Sox), but three games a year doesn't seem like too many.
More and more soccer players are on Twitter -- I think Heath Pearce (@HeathBPearce) is one of the funniest. Who do you follow? The banter between Clint Dempsey and teammates once he joined Twitter was fascinating to follow. Is this the way most USMNT teammates interact? Seems like they're all really good buddies.
-- Kurt Witt
I could write a whole column about how Twitter has transformed soccer news consumption, making Planet Fútbol a lot smaller and revealing more about some of the sport's most notable figures. You can see the people I follow here (http://twitter.com/#!/GrantWahl/following). The recent arrival of Dempsey on the Twitter scene (@Clint_Dempsey) was a bit unexpected. He told me that while he'd held off for a long time, not wanting to fuel any tabloid stories that could be taken the wrong way, he finally took the plunge in part because several fake Dempsey pages were popping up. Now you can't get the guy off Twitter. One of the best parts of Dempsey's interactions with U.S. teammates has been the public airing of nicknames inside the team, including Brek Shea (Rembrandt), Landon Donovan (Fivehead) and Dempsey himself (Onion Eyes). As in any workplace, sports teammates aren't always the best of friends, but you do get the sense that the players on the U.S. men's team are closer than teammates on many other teams.
After Thierry Henry's goal against Leeds in the FA Cup, Arsenal fans and the British media are soon going to start asking questions about a longer-term loan or permanent transfer for Henry. Given Arsenal's lack of other options at forward after Robin Van Persie, do you see another Beckham/AC Milan situation happening with Henry and the Red Bulls?
-- Ari Brown
As great a sports moment as it was when Henry scored in his return debut for Arsenal (check out Steve Rushin's first-rate column about it), I don't think it's very likely that Henry's short-term loan would be extended. Unlike the case of Beckham with Milan, Henry can't use the reasoning that he needs to play in Europe to extend his national-team career. (He's retired from the French team.) Also, the Red Bulls need Henry for the entirety of the MLS season. He's their marquee player, and the team needs to show big improvement over last year's expensive flop. That's why there was so much haggling between New York and Arsenal over Henry's February return date. Remember, too, that Arsenal forwards Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh will be back from the Africa Cup of Nations in early February. As for a permanent transfer for Henry back to Arsenal? Just don't see it.
How much does the news about U.S. matches against Venezuela and Panama being pushed to ESPN3 and Galavisión have to do with the bidding wars between ESPN, FOX and NBC?
-- Brian Parsons
If only there were bidding wars to show these games! This month's U.S. men's friendlies (Jan. 21 vs. Venezuela in Phoenix and Jan. 25 at Panama) are being shown only on ESPN3.com (in English) and Galavisión (in Spanish) and not at all on the cable channels of U.S. Soccer's two English-language rights holders, ESPN and NBC Sports. The good news: You should be able to see these games without too much effort, since it's not some kind of obscure PPV-only event. The bad news: It's not exactly a ringing endorsement from U.S. Soccer's two main rights holders.
Granted, these are not A-roster games since they're not taking place on FIFA international dates. And while choosing to play a road game in Panama should be a good experience to toughen up some of the younger U.S. players, it was always unlikely that ESPN or NBC Sports would spend the money required to send a full crew to Central America. But not broadcasting on ESPN2 or the NBC Sports Network from Arizona? That's surprising. ESPN says its schedule is full of Australian Open tennis coverage. Meanwhile, NBC Sports appears to be a bit behind schedule on its hires, having yet to announce a broadcast booth partner for play-by-play man Arlo White. (FOX's Kyle Martino has been offered the gig, but no public announcement has been made yet.)
One gesture that might be good for Galavisión to make: Why not do an English-language broadcast in addition to the Spanish-language call and have it available on the SAP button?
Is there any chance that Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid victory will be overturned?
-- @_MikeHarry_
I guess there's always a chance, but I highly doubt it at this point, judging from what's coming out of FIFA these days.
What are your thoughts on D.C. United moving to Baltimore or another city?
-- @MarkeyTim
Don't like it at all, but I also don't see it happening. In contrast to MLS's smart expansion city choices in recent years (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal), the league made some questionable moves on where to start out in the 1990s, including Columbus, Denver, Tampa Bay and South Florida. (I would have included Kansas City on that list five years ago, but Sporting's new owners have turned that market around.) Yet I never thought that putting a team in D.C. was a bad idea. It's a good soccer city with devoted fans, and the biggest challenge is finding a better stadium situation. I think United will find a home in D.C. eventually, and I don't see Baltimore as a viable alternative. I live in B-more, and there just isn't any real clamoring for an MLS team.
That's all for this week. Enjoy the weekend!

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Galaxy had always been confident of holding onto David Beckham

By: timbersfan, 12:58 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

On Oct. 14, a few weeks before the Los Angeles Galaxy marched to the MLS Cup title, I sat down for a chat with Tim Leiweke, the president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy. Leiweke is the man who brought David Beckham to L.A., and the topic soon turned to whether Beckham would extend his expiring Galaxy contract or move on to a team in Europe. Leiweke is known for being a big talker on occasion -- this is a guy who predicted MLS would be a top-four "and hopefully top-two or -three" U.S. league by 2015 -- but even I was surprised by how confident he sounded that day.
"I think David is loyal to us," Leiweke said. "Despite all the rumors and bulls--- out there about David going to France or the Premier League, David only leaves the Galaxy if David and we decide that. In fact, I believe David will be here again next year. People can make any offer they want. The loyalty he has to this club because of the way we have treated him and stood by him is going to be rewarded if we so choose to continue with David."
But it turns out that Leiweke wasn't blowing smoke. Even as so many respected French media outlets were reporting that Beckham's move to Paris Saint-Germain was a fait accompli, Beckham apparently had other ideas. PSG finally announced this week that Beckham would not be coming to Paris because his family preferred to stay in Southern California. And while Leiweke has cautioned that a new Galaxy contract has yet to be finalized, Beckham appears set to return to L.A. in 2012.
The news, of course, leads to several questions. Let's break it down:
Why would Beckham want to stay in Los Angeles? The thinking in Europe was that Beckham would jump at the chance to make more money in Paris (around $12 million a year for an 18-month deal), play in Champions League again and be closer to England to compete in the London Olympics. Plus Beckham could leave Los Angeles on a high note, having won the championship in 2011.
But give credit to Beckham for putting family first. He has said time and again that his family enjoys living in L.A., where his wife, Victoria, is comfortable and where their kids fit in well in their schools. The Beckhams' oldest son, Brooklyn, is now a part of the Galaxy's U-13 academy team, and it wasn't lost on anyone that Beckham interrupted the Galaxy's post-title celebration to say he was taking the kids to school the next morning at 8. "Family-man" Beckham is not an act, and this decision only reinforces that notion.
For its part, the Galaxy has also gone to great lengths to turn the league's most dysfunctional team (in 2008) into one of the greatest teams in MLS history (in '11). Much of that is due to coach Bruce Arena, who replaced Ruud Gullit in '08. Beckham can feel confident that the Galaxy will challenge for another MLS Cup trophy this year with teammates like Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane and an impressive supporting cast (even if Juninho and Omar González may not be around). What's more, the Galaxy will allow Beckham to leave the team temporarily to take part in the Olympics -- and presumably be in better fitness than if he were with a European club that's off for the summer.
Why would the Galaxy want to extend Beckham's contract? I've read some arguments that L.A. should have let Beckham go and said bon voyage. But think about it: Beckham was one of the league's best players last year and, even at 36, appears capable of doing it again. What are the chances that his replacement would have a bigger impact? Not high. The Galaxy could also use the continuity early in the '12 season if it wants to make a serious run at winning the CONCACAF Champions League. No MLS team has competed in the FIFA Club World Cup, and a Galaxy team with Beckham has a much better chance of making it than one without him.
Then there's the marketing factor. While Beckham doesn't draw the buzz that he got in '07 and '08, he still moves the needle on attendance and can be a drawing card for TV broadcasts. While it's still true that many of the Americans who know Beckham the Celebrity don't know how his soccer team is doing, those are the pitfalls of a celebrity-obsessed culture. Beckham's emphasis is on the soccer these days, and that's a good thing.
How did the French media get the story so wrong? Some really good French media outlets got caught with their culottes down after reporting that Beckham's PSG move was essentially a done deal. One big reason is that it was in Beckham's interest to encourage the speculation and receive as big an offer as possible from PSG so that he would get the best offer possible from the Galaxy. At the same time, Leiweke gave no access to the French media, which underestimated Leiweke's ability to get things done.
Big mistake. Leiweke does billions of dollars in deals a year for AEG and works all the time with entertainers in the music industry who are just as big as Beckham. Leiweke surprised the world by landing Beckham in the first place in '07 and surprised the global media again in '09 by retaining Beckham for the Galaxy when most European observers thought he'd be sold to Milan.
Maybe, after being surprised so many times, they shouldn't be surprised again that Beckham appears to be staying in Los Angeles.

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Playoff Preview: Texans at Ravens

By: timbersfan, 12:56 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

Well, this one should be easy. The Ravens dominated the Texans in Week 6, winning 29-14 in a game that saw one of their touchdowns come on an (offensive) fumble recovery in the end zone. The Texans recovered a fumble of their own, never turned the ball over, and forced Joe Flacco into both an interception and a fumble. Teams with a turnover margin of plus-two, as the Texans had in this game, were 56-9 this season. And yet they still got stomped!

That game was also with Matt Schaub at the helm. On Sunday, the Ravens will get to play a Texans team with rookie T.J. Yates under center, and they'll have the healthiest version of their team on the field since training camp. So just punch in "rookie quarterback on the road versus an elite defense," refer back to the near-blowout from the first game, project a 20-plus point win for the Ravens, and go to lunch, right?

Maybe that's true. On the other hand, the Texans have Andre Johnson after missing him during that Week 6 loss, and based on what we saw from him during the wild-card win over the Bengals, Johnson might be close to 100 percent. It's also not as if Baltimore's starting a clearly superior quarterback; Joe Flacco's completion percentage and yards per attempt were both below Yates' figures during the regular season, and he threw interceptions about as frequently. Flacco will be playing at home, but the Texans have a top-five defense to throw at him, too. If Schaub was playing, the narrative surrounding the possibility of a Ravens loss would revolve around the idea of Bad Flacco showing up; just because we might see Bad Yates doesn't mean we won't also — or alternately — see Bad Flacco.

GRANTLAND NFL PLAYOFFS COVERAGE
• Playoff Preview: Saints at 49ers
• Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots
• Playoff Preview: Texans at Ravens
• Playoff Preview: Giants at Packers
• Cousin Sal's Gambling Blog
• B.S. Report: Mega Playoff Podcast
But if the Ravens really dominated the Texans at home, how did they only come away with a 15-point win?

Ravens on Offense

The Ravens couldn't get it done on Houston's side of the field. Baltimore scored a touchdown on their opening drive of the game, but it took them four plays from the 1-yard line to do so. Fortunately, Texans end Antonio Smith committed two personal foul penalties to give Baltimore the extra chances they needed. He would not be so kind after that, and the Ravens would struggle to even sniff the goal line the rest of the way.

Baltimore was able to get within field goal range after that opening drive, but they failed to pick up much more than that. From their second drive on, the Ravens either picked up a first down or took over the ball after a failed fourth-down conversion on six different occasions inside the Houston 40-yard line. From those six opportunities, the Ravens picked up one touchdown and five field goals. It's good that they always scored, but it's also disheartening for Ravens fans to see how easily they were stopped. Baltimore picked up just one additional first down on those six drives; five of them were stopped after the Ravens ran three plays that gained a total of six yards or less.

The biggest reason they were stalled: The Ravens couldn't keep the pass rush off of Joe Flacco. The Texans, who were playing their first game without Mario Williams, sacked Flacco only two times in 35 dropbacks. Those statements are at odds! They also knocked him down on eight other occasions, and he was forced to scramble to some extent on most of his pass attempts. Connor Barwin almost had a monster game, with four knockdowns of Flacco that could have become four sacks with even a quarter-second more time to work with. The troublesome thing is that the rushers were often coming free; that suggests that Flacco was struggling to identify the rushers before the snap and/or failing to adjust his pass protection properly. Expect Ravens defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to dial up a fair number of exotic blitzes on Sunday in the hopes that he can force Flacco into a few more mistakes.

On the other hand, Phillips is going to have to hope that he gets more out of his secondary, since Flacco absolutely torched the Texans when he got the ball away. Disturbingly, it wasn't Kareem Jackson or Jason Allen getting beat. It was star corner Johnathan Joseph, who had his lunch handed to him by Anquan Boldin. Joseph followed Boldin around the field all day, so the vast majority of Boldin's work came against the Pro Bowler. Despite Joseph's presence, Boldin caught eight of the nine passes thrown to him, producing 132 yards and seven first downs. Six of those plays, including a 56-yarder, clearly came with Joseph as the primary cover man on Boldin. Flacco also found Torrey Smith on a 51-yard deep post when safety Danieal Manning was induced to jump the wrong route, clearing out a huge swath of space over the middle of the field for the rookie-burner. If the secondary can't hold up, Phillips will have to stop the blitzes and keep more players back in coverage. Was it a fluke of a bad game for Joseph, or did he get worked by a superior wideout? We'll find out on Sunday.

Baltimore was able to hold on to the lead in the second half by running the ball effectively. In the first half, Ray Rice picked up just 16 rushing yards on eight carries. The lone Baltimore first down during that half from the ground game came from fullback Vonta Leach. Suitably chastened, Rice came back in the second half and ran for 85 yards on 13 carries, including three for 10 yards or more. He struggled in short yardage, but some of that likely has to do with the absence of guard Ben Grubbs, who missed the game with a turf toe. Grubbs missed six games during the first half of the season with the injury, and in those six games, the Ravens averaged just 3.8 yards per carry. In the other 10 games, with Grubbs active at left guard, the Ravens averaged 4.6 yards a pop. Rice failed to score a rushing touchdown in four of the six games Grubbs missed, but he scored at least once in six of the ten games Grubbs started. He'll be a huge upgrade on the presence of Andre Gurode from the first game.

Texans on Offense

The first game between these two ranked among the least effective offense performances of the year for the Texans. Scoring 14 points against the Ravens on the road without their best offensive player doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world, but let's take a closer look. Houston scored on one drive after a Flacco fumble gave them the ball on the Ravens' 17-yard line. Their other score came on their one truly effective drive of the game, which went 80 yards in six plays to give them a one-point lead in the third quarter.

Otherwise? The Houston offense was close to putrid. The biggest problem, notably, is that they couldn't stay on the field. On their first two drives, Houston moved the ball 38 and 35 yards, respectively, before punting. They accomplished that by converting five of six attempts on third down, including a 16-yard run on a draw by Arian Foster on third-and-15 in the Texans' opening drive. After that, Houston went 1-for-13 on third down. Their only other third-down conversion of the day was on that isolated touchdown drive in the third quarter. That's unreal, and we have to imagine that the Texans will do a little better on third down with Andre Johnson around, even if Yates is under center. In addition to his 40-yard touchdown catch against the Bengals, Johnson picked up two key conversions on third down this past Sunday.

The Ravens also had a fair amount of firepower on the bench during that first game. While they certainly didn't have anyone quite as important as Johnson out, they probably wouldn't have allowed Jacoby Jones to pick up 76 yards and a touchdown if cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Chris Carr weren't inactive. They'll both be back for Sunday's game, as will utility safety Tom Zbikowski, who appeared to be a question mark after a late-season concussion. The Ravens don't have a no. 1 cornerback like the Texans do, but they might be deeper in the defensive backfield than any other team in football. The Texans can stretch teams when receivers the likes of Jones, Kevin Walter, and Owen Daniels go up against nickel-and-dime defensive backs, but Baltimore has the ability to keep up with the Houston personnel if the Texans choose to go pass-happy.

Of course, it's more likely that the Texans will try to rely on a heavy dose of Arian Foster and Ben Tate to ease the responsibilities heaped upon Yates' shoulders. That didn't go all that well during the first game, even with Schaub under center. The Texans averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on first down and a flat 3.0 yards per carry on second down, with seven of their 21 carries in those situations going for one yard or less. Outside of Foster's 16-yard run on third-and-15, the Texans produced just two other carries for 10 yards or more (none going longer than 12 yards), and their running game accounted for a total of just four first downs on the day. Part of that was Baltimore's ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage with the massive bodies of Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, but it also has something to do with how effective and disciplined the Ravens linebackers are. Foster picked up several big plays against the Bengals last week when the player responsible for backside1 contain abandoned his responsibilities in an attempt to make a big play. With great blocks from tackles Duane Brown and Eric Winston, Foster was frequently able to cut back and pick up extra yardage by going against the grain of the play. The Ravens are far savvier and much more disciplined; it's hard to imagine that Foster will be able to get away with more than one or two big cutbacks on Sunday. Houston was also stopped twice on fourth down, including a key fourth-and-1 on the Ravens' 20-yard line in the second quarter. It will be interesting to see if they go for it in a similar situation this time around.

Special Teams

The Ravens got five field goals in the first game from kicker Billy Cundiff, who otherwise went just 23-of-32 on the season. After a career season in 2010 that saw him pick up touchbacks at a record pace, Cundiff has barely gained anything from the new kickoff rules this year. His touchback percentage has gone from 50 percent to 57 percent, but because the rest of the league has shot up, he's gone from leading the league by a wide margin in touchback percentage to finishing sixth in the league this year.

Cundiff was just one problem on a Ravens unit that ranks out as below-average across the board. As disappointing as Cundiff's been on kickoffs, Sam Koch has been even worse on punts, as his work has cost the Ravens 7.7 points of field position this season. Of course, when a respected kicker-and-punter combination struggles, it's probably worth assigning some of the blame to their coverage units. Opposing teams have scored on two punt returns and one kickoff return against the Ravens this year. The Texans, naturally, will hope for a big play out of Jacoby Jones in the punt game.

The Prediction

As much as we enjoy poking holes in popular perception, there's not a lot to like about the Texans' chances here. If these two teams hadn't already played, we would say that the Texans needed a game where the Ravens turned it over a bunch and gave Houston a few short fields to work with, but that already happened with a superior Texans quarterback, and Houston lost by 15 points. Barring a total meltdown from Flacco, Houston's run ends here. Baltimore 27, Houston 13.

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Playoff Preview: Giants at Packers

By: timbersfan, 12:55 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

Is it 2007 all over again for the Giants? The easy comparison everybody's making for this year's Giants team is to the same team that won Super Bowl XLII, thanks to a hot streak that began with a 38-35 loss to an undefeated team with the league's best quarterback and likely MVP. Those Giants went on to win four consecutive road games en route to a stunning Super Bowl upset. So why not these guys?

Well, the Giants may have that kind of run in them yet, but the narrative comparing these Giants to that team is pretty thin. Those Giants played out their 38-35 loss to the Patriots in the final week of the regular season. The idea that they might have gathered momentum from the loss is pretty tenuous, but you can at least make a case for it by virtue of Big Blue then winning four consecutive games. These Giants followed their 38-35 loss against the Packers with a pretty ugly stretch of football. They beat the Cowboys in the game where Tony Romo failed to hit an open Miles Austin for the game-sealing third-down conversion, lost by 13 points at home to the 5-11 Redskins, and then beat the Jets despite enduring a 9-of-27 performance from Eli Manning. Manning and his Giants have looked great in home victories over the Cowboys and Falcons over the past two weeks, but the idea that they somehow got some sense of self-belief from the Packers loss is a little silly. What, was it a spell they were storing in their bag of holding for Week 17 and beyond? Come on.

GRANTLAND NFL PLAYOFFS COVERAGE
• Playoff Preview: Saints at 49ers
• Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots
• Playoff Preview: Texans at Ravens
• Playoff Preview: Giants at Packers
• Cousin Sal's Gambling Blog
• B.S. Report: Mega Playoff Podcast
What the Giants did show against the Packers in Week 13 is that they can hang with the best team in football. We've harped on how important it is to avoid turnovers against Green Bay in the past, and the difference between the Giants winning and losing that Sunday might very well have been the 39-yard pick-six that Manning served up to Clay Matthews in the second quarter. Teams were 79-26 this year when they avoided even a single turnover, and the Giants were 4-0 in such games. We noted in our article from earlier this year that the Packers had forced a turnover in every game of their lengthy winning streak and had bookended that streak with takeaway-free losses, but let's go a step further. The Packers haven't won a single game in which they didn't force a takeaway since December of 2005. 2005! They have played 10 games since without forcing a turnover and lost all ten of them. Perhaps the Giants need to operate the Kneel to Win offense.

OK. So playing a game without any turnovers is easier said than done. What can the Giants do, then, to compete with the Packers in Lambeau Field?

Giants on Offense

In that blueprint we linked to above, one of our suggestions was to attack the middle of the Packers defense, where they're relatively weak. The Giants did so in the first game between these two teams, and they'll use matchups to do so again on Sunday.

The first big play of the game, a 67-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Travis Beckum, was an example of how the Giants will try to stretch the weak links of the Packers defense. Although Beckum isn't known as a dominating receiver, the Giants split him out into the slot in an attempt to get the Packers to declare how they might try to defend him. In this case, it worked, as Green Bay moved safety Charlie Peprah into the slot to handle him while leaving a single high safety in centerfield for support. That's a Cover-1 look. With single coverage on Hakeem Nicks on the left side of the field, Nicks runs a deep post that is designed to attract the deep safety's attention. It does. Meanwhile, matched up one-on-one versus the extremely limited Peprah, Beckum runs a double move, feigning an out pattern before heading upfield on a go route. Peprah's easily beaten, Manning puts the ball right in stride, and a couple of spun-around defensive backs later, the Giants have a 7-0 lead.

What does it take for a double move from your backup tight end to develop? Why, that would be pass protection. Manning has struggled this year against teams with consistently effective pass rushes (the Redskins serving as a bizarre example), but the Giants really shouldn't be too concerned about that against Green Bay. Manning dropped back 41 times during the first Giants-Packers tilt and was sacked just once, losing zero yards. That game was also played without the presence of starting center David Baas,1 who would presumably be an upgrade as an interior pass defender.

And honestly, it's less about what the Giants can do to stop the pass rush and more about what the Packers can do to try to generate one. Despite the presence of Clay Matthews, the Packers have sacked opposing quarterbacks on just 4.4 percent of dropbacks, the lowest sack rate in all of football. Last year, they sacked quarterbacks 8.2 percent of the time, which was third-best in football. Part of the decline is from Matthews — who saw his sack total across 15 games go from 13.5 to a mere six — but part of it is also from the players around him. The team's defensive linemen combined for 19 sacks last season, with defensive end Cullen Jenkins pacing the group with seven. Jenkins left for Philadelphia this offseason, and the Packers haven't gotten the same sort of pressure. The front three and their backups have combined for just six sacks this year. If the Packers can't find at least a smidgen of pressure to apply to Manning, he'll sit around in the pocket and eventually find a mismatch to exploit.

Matthews' pick-six came on a play, though, where Manning couldn't find that mismatch. After two consecutive runs for first downs by Brandon Jacobs (who had eight carries for 59 yards on the day), the Giants went with play-action and Manning attempted to find yet another open receiver downfield. When nobody was there and linebacker D.J. Smith got in his face with a green dog blitz, he scrambled in an attempt to make the angle for his checkdown a little easier, but that was an easy tell for Matthews, playing zone out by the sideline, to go ahead and jump the attempted pass to Bradshaw. Bradshaw could have helped by attempting to come back toward the ball or run his route farther downfield when Manning began to scramble, but he stayed flat-footed, and it was an easy pick-six for Matthews.

At this point, the Giants are probably better off using Brandon Jacobs as their featured back while turning to Bradshaw as a change of pace. Bradshaw returned from a four-game absence with a broken foot during the first Giants-Packers game, and he was far less effective than Jacobs, running 11 times for 38 yards. In the six games since his return, Bradshaw has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and has served as a bare-bones safety valve in the passing game, with just 79 yards on his 15 receptions. Over that same stretch, Jacobs has averaged 5.4 yards per carry with a roughly similar workload (although he has a total of just three catches for 21 yards). The Giants would prefer to have Bradshaw in the backfield because of his relative versatility, but Jacobs has been the far more effective back.

On the other hand, if you watched the broadcast of last week's Giants-Falcons game, you might have heard the announcers refer to Jacobs as a player who "loosens up the defense." It's one of those old football storylines; see big running back, watch him hit defensive linemen over and over again, then enjoy success in the fourth quarter. Jacobs promptly proved the commentary right by breaking off consecutive runs for 14 and 15 yards to start the fourth quarter.

Is it actually true? Well, yes and no. Jacobs averaged just 2.8 yards per carry during the fourth quarter this season, by far his lowest average of any of the four. That's not an outlying trend, either, if we look back at his cumulative performance over the past three years. It's not giving an enormous boost to Bradshaw, either:

GIANTS' RUNNING GAME — BY THE NUMBERS
YPC by Quarter Brandon Jacobs, 2011 Brandon Jacobs, 2009-11 Ahmad Bradshaw, 2009-11
First 4.1 4.3 4.1
Second 3.2 4.4 5.0
Third 4.5 4.6 3.7
Fourth 2.8 3.7 4.7
That leaves the Giants in a conundrum. They need to take shots down the field to rack up the kind of points that will be needed to beat the Packers, but that leaves them susceptible to turnovers. It's almost like the Packers planned it this way, huh?

One benefit for the Packers: They will be healthier on defense. During the first Giants game, the Packers were without three key players at linebacker: A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, and Frank Zombo. Hawk and Bishop should both be in the starting lineup on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Giants will get Baas back into the lineup and should enjoy a full game from Mario Manningham, who also missed that Week 13 contest.

Packers on Offense

The Packers may also be healthier on offense, depending on the effectiveness of their corps of returning players. In that first game, they were missing left tackle Chad Clifton and right guard Josh Sitton. Both of them returned by the end of the regular season, and the week off should have given them a little extra rest. On the other hand, right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed the final two games of the year with a knee injury, and while he's expected to play on Sunday, he might not be quite 100 percent. Obviously, having a pair of healthy, effective offensive tackles versus a frequently devastating Giants pass rush is a prerequisite for the Packers winning this game.

Equally important is the return of Greg Jennings, who sliced up the Giants in Week 13. Jennings missed the final three games of the year with an MCL injury, but said that he could have played in Week 17 if it had been a meaningful contest. It's better for the Packers that he got to rest. Jennings was huge against the Giants during the first game, catching seven passes for 94 yards with a touchdown to go along with a 20-yard defensive pass interference penalty. It was interesting to see how the Giants chose to handle Jennings during the first game. Against most teams, the Giants will have top cornerback Corey Webster follow the opposing team's top wideout around the field, providing easier assignments to the likes of Aaron Ross and Prince Amukamara. That didn't happen against the Packers, as the Giants kept Webster, Ross, and Amukamara on specific sides of the field for most of the day. As a result, Jennings circled through different roles within the offense, often switching from play-to-play, and Aaron Rodgers used him as a mismatch worth targeting when Jennings got away from Webster.

In addition to keeping their cornerbacks in one spot, the Giants' strategy in the first game was to play a fair amount of two-deep coverage, hoping that they could eliminate the big plays and occupy Rodgers' receivers long enough for the pass rush to get home. It did pressure Rodgers a fair amount, but the Packers quarterback has the economical footwork and pocket presence to make even the best pass rushes disappear. The Giants only sacked him twice in 48 dropbacks, and when they weren't able to contain Rodgers, he scrambled for 32 yards and three first downs on four "carries."

That plan left one player the Giants would struggle to cover, tight end Jermichael Finley. Finley helped them out with a number of drops on the day, but he still finished with six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Giants tried to get a variety of players on and over Finley, including safeties (Deon Grant) and linebackers (Michael Boley) alike, but the guy who saw too much of Finley was rookie sixth-round pick Jacquian Williams. On the 24-yard catch-and-run that started the lethal final drive for the Packers, it was Williams in coverage on Finley. A veteran linebacker might have accepted that Finley was going to catch a quick out and get out of bounds for a small gain, but Williams decided to dive for the football and got neither the football nor Finley. Rodgers repeatedly went after Williams when Finley could get lined up against him, and if the Giants go the same route on Sunday, expect more of the same. Rodgers' one interception in the game did come at the hands of Chase Blackburn on a crossing pattern gone wrong, so the Giants might try to use a little more of Blackburn as a robber. The idea of Finley versus Blackburn in man coverage, though, should give Giants fans nightmares.

The Packers will also want to hope that a healthy offensive line produces a more effective running game than the dismal performance put up by their backs in Week 13. The combination of Ryan Grant, John Kuhn, Brandon Saine, and James Starks gained just 57 yards on 24 carries. That's 2.4 yards per carry; nobody with a passing game as good as the Packers should ever see their running backs average 2.4 yards per carry in a game. Last year, the Packers turned their running game over to Starks in the playoffs after giving him just 29 carries during the regular season, so there's no predicting what they might do with the carry splits this year. They should be better than 2.4 yards per carry again, but if they can run the ball in the second half, the Packers might have a much better shot at closing out the Giants.

Special Teams

Green Bay's special teams were above average in every category besides punting, but they don't have one dominant facet of their game that seems likely to have an obvious impact against the Giants. Rookie returner Randall Cobb returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns this year, but he also fumbled away a kickoff and two punts over the course of the season.

Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, of course, will have mixed memories of Green Bay. In the playoff game between these two teams in 2007, Tynes missed a 43-yarder with seven minutes to go and a 36-yarder at the buzzer, the latter of which would have put the Giants into the Super Bowl. When Brett Favre threw an interception on the second play of overtime, the Giants predictably played ultra-conservative football and forced Tynes to try a 47-yarder. For those of you who watched the Falcons last week and think that two failures should eliminate the possibility of trying something for a third time, well, Tynes promptly lined up and hit the most difficult kick of the three.

The Prediction

The Giants are certainly capable of upsetting the Packers. If the Green Bay offensive line isn't healthy, the Giants can dominate them at the line of scrimmage and force Aaron Rodgers into a series of undercooked throws.2 If they avoid turnovers, Eli Manning's offense should have no trouble marching up and down the field on the Packers defense. If the Giants do both of those things, they can get a lead and hold on to it all day. The problem, though, is that doing both those things at the same time against a superior team on the road is exceedingly difficult. The Giants are far from hopeless, but this is far from 2007. Packers 34, Giants 24.

Permalink

The Return of the All-Football Mailbag!

By: timbersfan, 12:20 AM GMT on January 14, 2012

I wasn't planning on writing another all-NFL playoff mailbag until Nate in Phoenix sent me the following e-mail:

"Congrats on your great start in your eternal quest to go 11-0 against the spread in the playoffs. Of course, last weekend's success now means that you'll have to do a second straight all-NFL mailbag. Don't upset the applecart. You have been repeatedly warned."

Done, done and done! Here's a promise, Nate: If I finish 11-0 against the spread in this year's playoffs, these Friday mailbags will keep going for the rest of my life, and yours, and your kids' lives, and your grandkids' lives, and for the rest of eternity, so help me Tebow. As always, these are actual e-mails from readers.

Q: Congrats on going 4-0!!! Nobody believed in you!!!!!!
— David, Boston

SG: It took me 20 seconds to realize this wasn't a compliment.

Q: I didn't give a second thought to the whole end of the world 2012 Mayan thing … but with you starting out 4-0 on playoff picks with well reasoned opinions on each game, I'm a little bit afraid.
— Dave, San Jose, CA

SG: Don't be afraid, Dave. Read these next two e-mails, it will all make sense.

Q: The opening kickoff for Pittsburgh-Denver hitting the CROSSbar and coming to rest exactly on the 20 yard line sure seemed like an Omen, right? I'm sure everyone who bet big on Pittsburgh had that sinking feeling that God was about to teach them a life lesson about gambling through his modern day prophet Tebow. A Tebow title coupled with a Clippers championship and you going 11-0 in the NFL playoffs … yeah, those things would make me quit my job and live off my 401k for the next six months until the world ends.
— Mike Desko, Chicago

SG: You don't have to worry about a Clippers championship, Mike — that's not happening on Vinny Del Negro's watch. You'd have a better chance of seeing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin French-kiss after an alley-oop.

(Of course, if they fire Del Negro within the next few weeks and rent Phil Jackson for a four-month, $10 million playoff run … )

Q: A thousand years from now, will people build scenes of the 2010 NFL-Draft in front of their houses just like they do with the nativity play now? In the Pittsburgh game, they played in the stadium that's closest to heaven (Mile High). Tebow threw for 316 yards. Rothlisberger's interception came on 3rd and 16. Pittsburgh's time of possession was 31 minutes and 6 seconds. Tebow's average yards per completion was 31.6. Someone named John told Tebow to pull trigger on the final TD. And Demaryius Thomas, the target for Tebow's game winner, was born on Christmas.
— Matthias Lahn, Germany

SG: You just described why I have never been more frightened for a Patriots game. It's the first-ever Boston sporting event with zero upside. Name one result that would make Patriots fans feel fantastic afterwards. For example, let's say the Patriots win by 35, with Brady finishing 34-for-35 for 450 yards and 6 TDs. What does that mean? So the no. 1 seed Patriots took care of business at home, after a bye week, by blowing out a .500 team featuring a QB who can't throw a 10-yard out, an overworked running back who's running on fumes and three above-average defensive players (and they're six days removed from one of the most emotional victories in recent football history, no less)? Can you really celebrate that?

Meanwhile, any other result is a potential heart attack … or worse. That's why most Patriots fans are a nervous wreck heading into a game in which their team is favored by 13½ points and playing a team it already crushed. Has that ever happened before? Even if Super Bowl XLII will always be the worst defeat in the history of the franchise, this particular loss would be more excruciating because we can see it coming … even though, again, losing this game makes absolutely no sense. Here are four actual e-mails I received from gainfully employed, successful, rational people who root for the Patriots.

E-mail no. 1: "Every Patriots fan I talk to is on the same page — I don't expect to win the Super Bowl, or even the AFC Championship game. But we absolutely cannot lose this one."

E-mail no. 2: "I am more nervous for this football game than any I can remember. Right now, on Wednesday, I have the same feeling in my stomach that I had in the fourth quarter of the Giants Super Bowl. One of you: please tell me something that will make me feel better."

E-mail no. 3 (a response to E-mail no. 2): "I have spent more time considering where to watch this game than what to feed my child this week. Home seems like a bad call — I really might break something and it might lead to divorce. I'm a mess about this game too. I really have nothing soothing to say."

E-mail no. 4: "My cousin Kristin's wedding reception is at the exact same time as this game. No TV's at the reception — my Dad already checked. We are going to have 40 people grimly huddled around my iPhone watching what promises to be one of the biggest upsets in sports history as we're watching some stolen internet stream that cuts off right as Tebow's potential game-winning pass is soaring in the air, followed by me giving my father CPR for the next 20 minutes. I have never felt more pessimistic about a sporting event in which my team would have to be beaten by a 7-to-1 underdog to lose — not ever."

(By the way, that last e-mail was written by me. And it's all true. Cousin Kristin — you're lucky I like you.)

Q: Did you see NBC's pregame show on Saturday? They had Barkley on because he was hosting SNL later that night. Barkley picked the exact opposite of what Rodney Harrison picked for the two games. They argued and Barkley said, "Bet you dinner." Seated between Harrison and Barkley was Tony Dungy, who suddenly got very serious and looked at Barkley and said in a soft voice, "Oh, we can't bet on the show." Barkley just kept going, "We are talking about dinner!" Very funny moment between two guys who probably never would speak to each other any other way.
— Patrick, Boston

SG: Saw it, loved it. I'm going out on a limb and saying that Tony Dungy and Charles Barkley don't have a ton in common. That exchange would have been the highlight of Round One if not for the new playoff OT rule losing its virginity with Tim Tebow, and then, Tebow only lasting 11 seconds.

Q: The Saints/Lions game is happening as I'm writing this — in fact the Lions are up 14-7 with just under four minutes to play. Game over, Saints win. Why? The camera just showed Stafford with his hat on backwards. Brim-to-the-Back Guy cannot win a Super Bowl, and I don't think there's any way Brim-to-the-Back Guy out-duels Drew Brees in the Superdome. Has any Brim-to-the-Back Guy won the big game? Some'll claim Big Ben, you can't exactly say he was the leader of those Super Bowl teams. You've got your finger on the pulse; you've the mighty combined forces of Grantland and ESPN's crack research teams.What say you?
— Michael Keeney, Madison, WI

SG: This was such a brilliant observation that, for about nine seconds, I thought about stealing the point entirely and pretending I never heard of Michael Keeney of Madison, Wisconsin. We don't need a crack research team for a verdict here: The only elite QB with less of a chance in a big game than Brim-to-the-Back Guy is Brim-to-the-Side Guy. In fact, the secret of Tom Brady's maturation into a franchise QB wasn't dropping to the sixth round; it was when he decided to stop being Brim-to-the-Back Guy. Your move, Matthew Stafford.

Q: Please stop referring to defensive backs as "d-backs." It's "db's" or "Defensive Backs." I'm sick and tired of listening to podcasts where you ramble on about how bad the "d-backs" are in the Patriots' secondary. On second thought … nevermind. Keep up the good work.
— Chris B., Sacramento

SG: Thanks, d-bag.

Q: Did Marvin Lewis pull out the best Brad Childress performance of the season in Round One? It was just AWESOME!! I think he took pity on Bill Barnwell and decided to give him material until the end of the season.
— Pierre, Paris, France

SG: You know how ESPN tried to turn 2011 into The Year of the Quarterback? I wish we tried to turn 2012 into The Year of the Coach, if only so we could have created a 16-coach game show formatted somewhat like Chopped, with the contestants making impromptu coaching decisions instead of impromptu cooking challenges. Imagine Andy Reid, Marvin Lewis, Brad Childress and Norv Turner battling in the season finale of Botched.

Andy the Host: "Gentlemen, it's the second quarter of a playoff game, you're playing on the road and trailing by three, you're at midfield, the two-minute warning is coming up, and you only have one challenge remaining. We're going to ask you to make strategic decisions for the next eight plays of this sequence. Here's the first one: Your running back just ran very close to a first down on second and two, only it seems like the ref may have given you a bad spot. Again, you only have one challenge remaining. What do you do?"

Marvin: "I'm going to challenge that spot, Andy. Even if it's nearly impossible to get a spot reversed, and I could easily run for a first down on the next play, I'd rather lose my last challenge flag right now. This way I can just take it out of my pocket — I hate that thing, it's cumbersome."

Andy: "I'm not going to challenge the spot, Andy — I love third-and-short, that allows me to run a terrible play-action pass that will almost definitely result in a tipped pass at the line of scrimmage. I'd also rather blow that challenge later in the game, during a much bigger moment, when it will really crush my fans."

Norv: "Andy, I'm going to stare straight ahead, look as confused as possible, wait too long to react, and then only throw my challenge flag after the ball has already been snapped on the next play."

Brad: "I'm going to call timeout, Andy, and then, after the timeout ends, that's when I'm going to decide to challenge that spot. This way, I could potentially lose two timeouts on the same play if I'm wrong."

Host: "And our loser for that question is … Brad Childress. Brad, you're only a couple more ill-advised decisions away from being our Botched champion. Good luck."

Q: I re-read your 2011 NFL Preview column and counted up your "Relatively Bold Predictions". You had at least one per game, and some with multiple parts, which I counted separately. By my math, you're currently 6 of 24. I'm naming you my "NFL Preseason Preview MVP."
— Alex, Centreville

SG: (Searching for a comeback.)

Q: I understand why football coaches cover their mouth with their hand, clipboard, play chart, etc. during the game, but wouldn't it just make more sense for the headset manufacturers make the mouth pieces larger so that the full mouth is covered? Wait, did I just give away an amazing business idea??
— Doug, Oakland

SG: Yup. You're going to be kicking yourself when you're watching Herm Edwards' infomercial for the "Mega-Mouth Guard" headset in 18 months.

Q: Can we say that a top running back is no longer needed to win a Super Bowl? Here are the last 10 Super Bowl winners and their running backs: 2001- Pats (Antowain Smith); 2002- Bucs (Michael Pittman); 2003- Pats (Kevin Faulk); 2004- Pats (Corey Dillon); 2005- Steelers (Willie Parker); 2006- Colts (Joseph Addai); 2007- Giants (Brandon Jacobs); 2008- Steelers (Willie Parker); 2009- Saints (Pierre Thomas); 2010- Packers (Brandon Jackson). Do any of those guys strike fear into your heart? Corey Dillon would be the closest (although he was past his prime when he joined the Pats). Also, the Colts, Giants, Saints, and Packers all won the Super Bowl AFTER losing Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, Deuce McAllister, and Ryan Grant. Does this make the case that having a top running back, if you are a contender for the Super Bowl, actually hurts your chances?
— Brian R, Dubai

SG: In the Salary Cap/Touch Football era, I would say yes — you're better off having multiple cost-effective backs who can do different things (like how New Orleans uses Chris Ivory, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles) over one expensive back (say, Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson). Our three best 2011 offenses (New Orleans, Green Bay and New England) certainly embraced that philosophy.1 For a 20-game season (including playoffs), would you rather have a quality running back by committee (say, Thomas, Sproles, Ivory and Mark Ingram) or a super-back like Ray Rice for twice the price? For one game, you might take Rice — he can do everything that committee can do. But for five solid months with the injury factor included? You might take the committee, right?

Q: Watching Tim Tebow throw the game winning touchdown to beat the Steelers was the most excitement I have ever felt watching the NFL Playoffs. As a Browns fan, I can't imagine what a playoff win will feel like.
— Ulysses

SG: The lesson, as always: Tebow hates Cleveland.

Q: Has there ever been a more physically gifted WR than Calvin Johnson? Is it even close? He's clearly on the Bo Jackson All Stars (athletes we'll never see clones of.) I'm sure you have time to fill out the rest of that roster, which is way tougher than the NBA version, the Allen Iverson All Stars.
— Brock E., Denver

SG: It's not an All-Star team, more of a Hall of Fame, with the entry being determined by two questions: "When you watched this person play football, did it seem like he had a genuine physical advantage over everyone else on the field, and did you find yourself saying over and over again, 'That guy is an absolute freak?'"

My list is short and sweet: Bo, Deion, Calvin Johnson, Randy Moss, Michael Vick, Steve Young, Lawrence Taylor, Walter Payton, Randall Cunningham … and we're done, unless you want to include Jerry Rice (for being a freak just for being so technically perfect/precise) or Rob Gronkowski (who probably would have made the list if not for Jimmy Graham, who's equally superfreakish, which somehow nullifies the superfreakishness of both guys because part of being a freak is having no frequal).

Q: Just had this epiphany while watching the Broncos Steelers game. Tim Tebow will be a right wing conservative GOP heavyweight by 2035, priming up for a White House run. It's inevitable. Look at Ronald Reagan … And he only played "the Gipper". Tim Tebow is a modern legend, one whose dominance of college football has given him legendary status in society. Once Fourth-and-God is made he'll be immortal. Given his religious and conservative views he'll be the perfect corporate puppet under the guise of a god fearing conservative. He'll win in a landslide. Remember this e-mail when the Tebow/Bristol Palin team takes power. Tebow 2036.
— Kyle, Omaha

SG: Uh-oh, we just entered the "Readers send insane predictions for Tim Tebow's future that aren't totally insane because you can't rule any of them out from happening" portion of the mailbag. Please put on your seat belts and stay in your seats.

Q: How far does Tebow have to advance in the playoffs before everyone accepts that Jesus exists? I'm fairly certain that if he wins the Super Bowl, I'm accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
— John, Santa Barbara

SG: No moving around the cabin. Thank you.

Q: So at what point does Tebow just announce that he is, in fact,the 2nd coming of Jesus Christ? Like what are your legitimate odds on that happening in the next 12 months to save us from a 2012 apocalypse? My brother and I always read your columns and he's going with 9:1 odds, and frankly I'm considering throwing a hundo down on that after that Steelers game. You wrote that rooting against Tebow is rooting against every single sports movie ever made, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Is there any possible explanation for what he's doing other than he is here to win the Super Bowl and then fight the Anti-Christ for our souls?
— Jason D., Inver Grove Heights

SG: You thought that e-mail was over-the-top? Hold on.

Q: After watching the Denver Tebows defeat Pittsburgh, I can only see one realistic ending to the NFL season. Tim Tebow in the Superbowl press conference with the Lombardi trophy on one side, the Superbowl MVP trophy on the other, and a halo suddenly appearing over his head. Merrill Hodge, little Timmy's biggest doubter, will be in the room and ask the first question: "Are you Jesus?" To which Tebow will respond "What do you think?" The halo will glow brighter as he rises up and ascends to the heavens, leaving Merrill and everyone else's jaws hitting the ground. So seeing as how this ending is inevitable and it will be clear that Tim Tebow is in fact Jesus would you like to support my proposal to change the time system of the world to the Tebow Time System? This of course would consist of Before Tebow (B.T.), Tebow Time (T.T.), and After Tebow (A.T.).
— Bryan, Half Moon Bay, CA

SG: And you're telling me I shouldn't be nervous about Saturday night's Patriots game? Let's hope this is my hairiest moment of 1 T.T.

Q: I just read your newest mailbag. I was disappointed because I spent most of it reading the bold text. You are an excellent and intelligent writer. Your readers, typically, are not. I would like to hear more from you and less from them. Please consider my concerns.
Sincerely, Finney.
— Finney, Clemson

SG: I'm guessing Finney didn't enjoy the last few e-mails. And for the record — the mailbag is my favorite column to write and has been since 1997. So there.

Q: An idea for the 18-game schedule: each team plays 18 games, but (except for kickers and punters), no player can play in more than 16 games during the regular season. And this should be strongly enforced — if a player plays in even one play in a game, that counts as one of the 16. Imagine the endless debates over what games you decide to rest your best players — do you rest your starting QB against the weakest team you play, or maybe the best if you figure you're not beating that team anyway? Do you rest all your best players in two games, or mix and match? NFL Countdown would have to expand to 5 hours!!
— Mark Wooster, L.A.

SG: I'm still partial to an 18-week season with two bye weeks, but Mark's idea is pretty intriguing, even if it would ruin fantasy football and gambling and possibly cause an overwhelmed Matthew Berry to start using heroin. A possible wrinkle: If every team plays 18 games, that's 72 quarters in all … so why not tweak it so every player (except kickers and punters) can only play 62 quarters total? That allows for the following situations:

1. New England could rest Gronkowski in Week 8, then bring him into the second half if two of their tight ends got hurt (with that only counting as two quarters, not a whole game).

2. Sean Payton could sit Drew Brees for the first three quarters of a potential blowout at home against Tampa, then have the flexibility to bring him in as his fourth-quarter "closer" (with that only counting as one quarter) if the game ended up being closer than he thought.

3. Leading by 14 against Miami heading into the fourth, Belichick could pull Tom Brady to save a Brady quarter, opening the door for a "What a gamble by Belichick here!" debate.

The downside: How the hell would we keep track of all this stuff?

CRUISE CONTROL
Four e-mails playing off the "Is Tom Cruise a good athlete?" debate from last week's mailbag.
You totally dropped the ball on the "Was Tom Cruise a good athlete?" question. The definitive answer comes in Top Gun when Cruise is tearfully tossing Goose's dog tags into the ocean. Cruise winds up and tosses them with possibly the worst form of all time. It's laughable. And if he can't throw there's no way he's any type of athlete.
— Doug, Muttontown, NY
C'mon Simmons, you forgot the biggest Anti-Athlete argument yet: In War of the Worlds, when he's playing catch in the backyard with his son, he throws like a broad.
— Mark, Melrose
Your mailbag entry about Tom Cruise's on-screen running prowess would not be complete without including his antithesis: Steven Seagal.
— Patrick, Tokyo, Japan
You stated, "you can teach anyone to look like they're running fast (especially in a movie)." His running form is like Cruise's shooting form. When Crazy Nic is working himself up to full speed in one of his movies, it looks like he suffers from a combination of hip diphtheria, tremors and tetinus. Any time I watch a Nic Cage movie with my sons, we constantly replay his running scenes. They are some of the best unintended comedy out there. When see any person doing anything that looks physically awkward or uncoordinated, we always joke, "Hey, that's like Nic Cage running."
— Mark, Baltic, SD
The upside: How much fun would it be to watch coaches who can't handle time management in the last two minutes of a half now being forced to successfully monitor the quarter-by-quarter usage of their best players? I'm starting to talk myself into this.

Q: The 2011 Saints were held to under 4 rushing yards per carry five times — all five times, they either lost the game or won by 3. The 2011 Niners allow 3.5 yards-per-carry this season and are getting 4 points against the Saints. Happy Gambling.
— John Castellano, Windsor, Ontario

SG: (Nodding.)

Q: Every mailbag I find myself hoping I can make it through without you incorporating the term "nodding" in some way, shape, or form into your response. I have yet to come across someone who overuses "nodding" as much as you. Perhaps for the new year you can find a new phrase to express yourself with (you used "nodding" in the the first mailbag of 2012 — i was holding out out hope it would be "nodding" free, but it's never too late to change, heck, just put it to bed for a month even!). If you do this, I will "nod approvingly." Thanks.
— Edward R., Washington DC

SG: (Waving two middle fingers toward my laptop screen.)

Q: Did you know that papillary thyroid carcinoma is said to be the "best" cancer you can get? Apparently it is relatively easy to treat with an excellent prognosis. That being said, it's still cancer. Did I mention that, as I type this email, I'm down on knees literally praying that my Tampa Bay Buccaneers hire 68 year old Marty "One and Done" Schottenheimer instead of Wade Phillips, Brad Childress or Mike Sherman? Not that those two thoughts are related or anything.
— Brandon, Vancouver

SG: Here's why I think the Bucs should hire Marty — you know how old people reach that stage when they just don't give a crap anymore and it's awesome? They'll say whatever, do whatever, they just don't care. They're old. Whatever. (It's like Seinfeld's joke about old people backing out of a driveway — they're just going to back out, they're not looking to see if anyone's coming, and if somebody crashes into them, so be it.) Well, wouldn't that be a PERFECT thing to happen to Marty Schottenheimer? His teams lost in the playoffs for decades and decades because he'd tighten up, become super-conservative and play not to lose. But now? He's old! He's in that "I'm backing out of the driveway, get out of my way!" stage. If I'm running the Bucs, I'd rather gamble that the aging process killed Marty's fatal flaw as a coach over hiring a proven failure like Phillips or Sherman, or even worse, Brad Childress.

That reminds me, here's a good rule of thumb for trades and coaching hirings: Float the guy's name out as a possibility, then check out the reaction from fans of his old team (bloggers, message boards, sports radio, etc.). If the consensus can be described as "incredulously, deliriously and overwhelmingly sarcastic," you shouldn't trade for that player or hire that coach. It's that simple.2

Q: After that incredible Broncos win added another chapter to the amazing Tebow story, it's now certain that Fourth-and-God will be made within a year and gross over $100 million its opening weekend (not $85 million as you predicted last week). Can we now seriously discuss the potential cast for the movie? Here are my predictions:

— Tebow = Zac Efron (you already suggested this).
— Elway = Val Kilmer (would have to get back into Batman Forever shape.)
— John Fox = Alec Baldwin (comic relief with his press conferences plus his reactions to errant Tebow passes).
— Champ Bailey = Anthony Mackie (could steal the movie in a supporting role).
— God = Morgan Freeman (of course).
— Tebow's love interest = Julianne Hough (just innocent enough to be someone Tebow would actually date in real life).
— The Media Villain (a composite of every talking head who brutally ripped Tebow) = Tom Cruise (doesn't "Real Cruise" need to be in a movie about "Netflix Placebo Cruise?").
— Ben Roethlisberger = Ben Affleck (after putting on 45 lbs).
— Kyle Orton = Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka "McLovin" from Superbad).

Who am I missing?
— Greg T., New York

SG: Great start. I particularly liked the Kilmer/Elway casting — that could be a huge comeback role from Kilmer and we'd need to come up with one Elway/Villain scene so Kilmer and Cruise could finally work together again. You missed Omar Epps (as Mike Tomlin), Bryan Cranston (as Skip Bayless), Kevin Bacon (as Bill Belichick), John Krasinski (as Josh McDaniels), Keanu Reeves (as Eric Decker — sorry, I needed Keanu in this movie, you're just gonna have to live with it), B.o.B. as Demaryius Thomas (you can't make this movie without one rapper-turned-actor), Mel Gibson (as Satan), and Kat Dennings (as a buxom Broncos cheerleader who tries to take Tebow's virginity and turn him to the dark side).

Q: I am a huge non-believer in the McNair/Kubiak train and just pulled a great stat from Kubiak's tenure: since 2005, he's 2-20 on the road against that season's playoff teams. Those two wins only happened in Cincinnati (2009 and 2011).
— Foster, Houston

SG: Throw in the fact that the Ravens are 15-1 at home the past two seasons and … yeah.

Q: How lucky are Brady and the Patriots? Tebow and his disciples just knocked out the team that every Pats fan was petrified to play. The Pats have an atrocious pass defense that gave up 400 yards to Vince Young and 357 yards to Dan Orlovsky, and yet, they could win the Super Bowl by beating Tebow, T.J. Yates and Alex Smith. Brady already finished off Peyton Manning; now he's looking at the possibility of Brees choking in San Francisco, Rodgers choking against the Giants or Niners, then Brady reclaiming his QB throne against his old favorite team (the 49ers) or the team that ruined his 19-0 season (the Giants). Are the stars aligning or am I crazy?
— Bill, Los Angeles

SG: Fine, I wrote that one myself. It's the rarely seen reverse reverse jinx.

Q: That Denver-Pitt game was scripted for Jim Nantz like no other sporting event ever. You and your mailbag reader even handed him the script! How could Nantz turn in perhaps the weakest major performance of his career in a game he was (perhaps literally) born to announce? It was like bizarro Nantz. For one night only, we were actually EXCITED to hear his signature melodramatizing … and he ran away from it! Not once did he make note of the extraordinary circumstances/intangibles in the air on Sunday. And then, at what may prove to be the single most memorable moment of this NFL season, he described the Thomas TD as "Denver is going to New England!" and then, "The new overtime rules!" The two things absolutely no one on Earth was thinking about at that moment were 1) where Tebow was playing next week, and 2) the new overtime rules. TEBOW! TEEEEEEEEEEEEBOOOOOOOOOOOOOW! Nantz missed.
— Ragnar, Honolulu

SG: Such a great point — the difference in quality between Nantz's call and someone from that Gus Johnson/Kevin Harlan phylum is almost incalculable. He made the criminal mistake of (A) talking too much during the play (instead of letting us hear the crowd), and (B) not having a ready-made Nantzian pun ready for that moment. I mean, Nantz had 10 minutes between the end of regulation and the first play from scrimmage in OT to come up with a clearly-written-ahead-of-time line just in case Tebow threw a game-winning pass in overtime! As Ragnar said, he was literally put on earth to have some sort of sappy/corny explosion for this specific moment, something like …

"Eighty yards, no flags, one miracle!"

"This is the dawning of the age of Demaryius!"

"Sudden death, sudden life, Tebow rises again!"

"Look out, New England — the white Bronco is still on the loose!"

Q: If Tebow beats the Patriots on a "Hail Mary," would every NFL commentator's head simultaneously spin around, Exorcist-style, and then explode? And would Skip Bayless start making out with Stephen A. Smith? Back to alcohol …
— Nick Mehta, Sunnyvale, CA

SG: "Hail Mary, hail Tebow, hail Cinderella! Denver wins!"

Q: Is it just me or do the Packers have the "Nobody Believed In Us" Theory going for them going into this game against the Giants? The line is already moving down which means the public is in favor of the Giants, and all I am hearing from radio talk and ESPN is that the Giants have the formula to upset the Packers. Everyone is overlooking the Packers that went 15-1!!! One loss!
— Shane, Philly

SG: Nah, I'd say it's more of a "This Is Stupid, Why Did You Stop Believing in Us Again?" game (for the Packers) crossed with a "Why Do So Many People Suddenly Believe in Us?" game (for the Giants).

Q: Imagine if a Tim Tebow sex tape came out. It would have to be the biggest sex scandal fallout since Bill Clinton right? I asked several of my friends if they would rather see that or their football team win the Super Bowl and we all went with the sex tape.
— Ben Kendrick, West Hartford

SG: Whoa, we're already in range?

Q: I've been sucked into the Tebow magic but the porn industry seems to be dragging its feet. My buddy Marc and I were trying to come up with a proper name for the inevitable XXX Tebow movie and the best I could come up with was Bible Banger. Marc had the better one: A Third That's Long.
— Mike, Chicago

SG: All that work and neither of you could come up with Raging Tebowner? Yup, this is your sports columnist. Let's get to the Round 2 picks (home teams in CAPS) …

NINERS (+4) over Saints
This line is more than a little perplexing. The 2011 Saints averaged 36.5 points indoors and 23.8 points outdoors (where they were 1-3 against the spread). The Saints played last week; the Niners are coming off a bye and have to be the healthiest playoff team in recent memory. The Saints struggle to score if they can't run the ball (as covered above); the Niners swallow up the run as well as anyone. These Saints want to avoid those ugly, hard-hitting, field goal-laden, "22-19"-type outdoor games in which their offense never totally gets going, their opponent shortens the game and special teams (and turnovers) play a giant factor; the Niners specialize in those ugly games, especially at home. The Saints have a built-in coaching advantage in nearly every game because of Sean Payton; the Niners have Jim Harbaugh, who did the best coaching job of anyone this season. And if that's not enough …

• It's the biggest Niners playoff game in nine solid years and the most appreciated/beloved Niners team locally since Steve Young's last good season (1998). Think of all the crap this franchise went through recently: Dennis Erickson and Mike Nolan; the Garcia/Owens fallout; the laughable Mike Singletary Era; six excruciating Alex Smith seasons; 46 wins total from 2003 to 2010; even being part of the embarrassingly bad NFC West. This has all the makings of one of those classic old-school, hungry, thankful-for-meaningful-football-again playoff crowds.

• With the Niners eligible for "Nobody believes in us!!!!!" status, I can't imagine a coach better equipped to bang that home than Jim Harbaugh. I'm tired of hearing how great this Saints offense is! What about OUR defense? What about OUR team? Do you realize we're four-point underdogs at home? NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's going to be a pissed-off Niners team. Especially on defense.

• If you don't think the Niners are growing out Candlestick's grass, watering the field for a little too long, leaving it a little more muddy than usual, or doing whatever else it takes to slow this game down, think again. There WILL be chicanery. Oh, yes.

You know what I love most about this game? It's not a slam-dunk. See, there's still that little issue of Alex Smith throwing to a pretty motley crew of receivers (Ted Ginn, Michael Crabtree, etc.). The first time we watch a wide-open Ginn drop a third-down pass — and by the way, it's going to happen — any Niners bettor is going to think to himself, "What the hell was I thinking? This team can't score with the Saints. I'm an idiot." That's why I'm playing that moment out now and getting it over with. The Niners will leave points on the board in this game. They will blow third downs. They will rely a little too heavily on David Akers and Andy Lee. They will make you wonder if you made the right call at least 30 times. But that's the thing … you did.

The Pick: San Francisco 22, New Orleans 20.

PATRIOTS (-13.5) over Broncos
Trying to remain objective while breaking down what would unquestionably be the most horrifying loss in Patriots history — not the worst, not the most bitter, but the most horrifying — was tougher than I thought. But here's the key point: You can't call the Broncos a "Nobody Believes in Us" team anymore. If anything, that sentiment swung the other way and led to people giving them too much credit.

Remove the entertainment/religious/dramatic value from last Sunday's Steelers game for a second and look at it objectively: Tebow played the best game of his pro career against a Pittsburgh defensive line that slowly fell apart (because of injuries, altitude and general age) … Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau submitted one of the strangest game plans in recent playoff history, selling out to stop Tebow and a banged-up Willis McGahee and repeatedly allowing Tebow to do the one thing he can do (throw deep) … a hobbling Ben Roethlisberger looked like Dan Marino circa 1998, allowing Denver's speed guys to tee off on him again and again … after a dreamy second quarter in which just about everything went right, Denver took a 14-point lead into the second half AND were playing at home … and if that's not enough, Maurkice Pouncey's replacement and Ryan Clark's replacement made multiple critical mistakes.

So what happened? Denver still came within one first down of losing the game.

That's not a good omen for Saturday night — if Denver barely won an "everything went right for us and wrong for them" playoff game at home, what does that mean on the road against a superior team? Do the Broncos have the firepower to hang with Brady & Co., especially after Belichick takes away Tebow's deep passing game and dares the occasionally accurate Tebow to throw eight yards a pop to beat him? Denver's defense couldn't stop Isaac Redman last weekend; are they really stopping Steben-Jardan Greenrid-EllisWoodley on six days' rest? Why should we expect them to contain Aarob Gronkandez when they couldn't do it in Denver four weeks ago? Why shouldn't we think that a pissed-off Tom Brady isn't going to come out with a pissed-off "Enough of this Tebow guy" demeanor and shred Denver's defense? And what about the old Playoff Manifesto rules that "you can't get too carried away by the previous week" and "you should only pick an underdog or road team if you're convinced it has a chance to win the game outright?"3

"But what about Tebow?" you ask. "You know, the guy whom multiple mailbag readers just compared to a religious figure? That guy?"

My answer: We already filmed the ending to Fourth-and-God last Sunday. Most memorable sports movies feature a climactic game that happens before the championship, whether it's Major League, Any Given Sunday, Blue Chips, For Love of the Game, Fast Break, The Natural, The Rookie, Jerry Maguire, All the Right Moves, Rudy, Vision Quest … you only want to crest on a "pivotal moment" in a "big game" when "nobody believed" and "the hero came through in the most dramatic way possible." Um … didn't that just happen? Consider Round 2 the closing credits for Fourth-and-God, a scroll that reads, "Although Tebow and the Broncos lost to New England the following week, the memory of their magical season still lives on."

(Besides, we need to leave room for a Fourth-and-God sequel, right?)

The Pick: New England 41, Denver 174

RAVENS (-7.5) over Texans
My only worry about this game: It looks too easy. You know the Ravens will sell out to stop the run and dare rookie QB T.J. Yates to beat them; you know Houston will do everything it can to avoid putting Yates in that spot (which means we'll get to watch Arian Foster and Ben Tate stubbornly running into eight Ravens for the entire first half); you know Baltimore does the "front-runner piling it on at home" routine better than just about anyone; and you know Ray Rice will be heard from in this game.

All right, so let's say the Ravens go up by double digits on Sunday … what then? We're supposed to think T.J. Yates is going to rally the Texans back? It's fun to think the Texans can hang around with their defense, turn this into a low-scoring slugfest, then hope Joe Flacco can give them a late turnover and steal the game late. And yes, we're riding a six-year streak of home playoff teams submitting a stinkbomb in Round 2 — as fans of the 2010 Patriots, 2009 Chargers, 2008 Panthers, 2007 Colts, 2006 Chargers/Ravens and 2005 Colts/Bears would tell you — and really, there's no better candidate than the 2011 Ravens (a pretty flawed team). But backing T.J. Yates on the road? I can't. I just can't.

The Pick: Baltimore 30, Houston 3.

PACKERS (-7.5) over Giants
The case against the Giants: Already lost to Green Bay (at home, and when the Packers were more banged up) … their "late hot streak" consisted of Dallas choking away their Week 14 game, a 5-11 Redskins team beating them in Week 15, an ugly win over the fraudulent Jets (Week 16), Dallas no-showing their win-or-go-home Week 17 battle, then a decisive home win against the possibly fraudulent Falcons (Round 1) … too many people think there's a case for the Giants.

The case for the Giants: They already know how to make that Super Bowl XLII recipe … they can do two things extremely well (rush the passer, throw the ball) … their QB knows he can win on the road … their much-maligned secondary has played well for four straight weeks (most notably against the Falcons, when they throttled Roddy White and Julio Jones) … the fact that the Giants always play 25 percent better when cold weather turns Tom Coughlin's face blood-red.

The case against the Packers: You can beat them with the Super Bowl 42 recipe … they won't be able to run the ball (unless it's with Rodgers' scrambling) … we've seen high-octane passing offenses peter out in January too many times … the "one home team almost always lays an egg in Round 2" theory … everyone and their brother will be throwing the Packers and Ravens into a two-team, six-point tease on Sunday (and you know what that means).

The case for the Packers: They scored 560 points and came within a dopey everything-went-wrong game in Kansas City of going 16-0 … they're healthier than they've been all season … they love picking off passes (31 this year) and Eli loves throwing picks and near-picks … this line should be a point and a half higher (at least) … they have to be a little pissed that everyone is talking about a Giants upset (especially Rodgers, who seems to thrive off those little slights), and how they've been overlooked this season in general.

That last point is crucial: At the very least, let's agree that the Packers won't be caught napping on Sunday. I see it playing out like the Giants' Week 14 game in Dallas, which was a back-and-forth battle highlighted by a splendid performance by the home QB (Tony Romo: 4 TD's, 0 picks). Leading by five with about 2:20 to play, the Cowboys called the perfect third-and-2 play to ice the game: a play-action pass that broke a wide-open Miles Austin running down the right sideline … only Romo overthrew him. His only mistake of the game. You know the rest.

Now you tell me: Same situation, bigger stakes … does Aaron Rodgers complete that pass? I'm certainly not betting against him. Not this week, anyway.

The Pick: Green Bay 30, New York 20

Last Week: 4-0
Regular Season: 120-127-9

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Playoff Preview: Saints at 49ers

By: timbersfan, 1:23 AM GMT on January 13, 2012

Remember the one from 2011 where the Saints were favored to go on the road and take out the clearly inferior NFC West champions? You know, the one where the dominant passing offense flew out to take on the team that just didn't have the weaponry to compete with Drew Brees's killer passing attack? The one where all the home team had to fight back with was home field advantage, a sound running game, and excellent special teams? Where the grinders with the inflated record couldn't hide behind their schedule anymore?

If you don't, well, just wait until Saturday. You might get a chance to relive it.

Saints on Offense

It wasn't the Saints offense that disappointed in Seattle last year. Facing one of the league's worst defenses in a hostile atmosphere, the Saints put up 36 points, with Brees throwing for 404 yards and two touchdowns. It's not their fault that the defense couldn't hold up. But that was last year. This year, they play the 49ers, who allowed fewer points per possession than any other team in football this year while creating turnovers on 18.9 percent of drives. Even more distressing for New Orleans, the 49ers are a healthy defense that will have virtually every contributor from this season active and close to 100 percent for Saturday, thanks to the combination of serendipity and a second bye week.

Perhaps most disturbingly for Saints fans is that Brees's offense has established a trend of turning into something far less predatory when it moves away from home. In fact, among the league's top ten offenses, no team loses a greater percentage of their scoring on the road than New Orleans:

ROAD TRIP BY THE NUMBERS
Team Home Away Change
Packers 40.1 29.9 -25.4%
Saints 41.6 27.3 -34.4%
Patriots 30.8 33.4 8.4%
Lions 30.4 28.9 -4.9%
Panthers 24.3 26.1 7.4%
Chargers 26.1 24.7 -5.4%
Falcons 29.5 20.8 -29.5%
Eagles 26.6 22.9 -13.9%
Giants 23.3 26.0 11.6%
Texans 22.1 25.5 15.4%
49ers 27.6 19.9 -27.9%
You may note that the chart actually includes 11 teams, which is no accident. Did you know that the 49ers score more points per game at home than the Saints do on the road? We didn't, that's for sure. A disgruntled Saints fan might now point to the 48 points that the 49ers dropped on Tampa Bay and call it an outlier, sure, but let's also remember that the Buccaneers followed that disastrous game against the 49ers by returning home and beating these very Saints, 28-20, for their final victory of the year. You might think about the New Orleans offense and think about their majestic performances against the Lions and Giants, but that was in the Superdome. Away from home, in addition to that Bucs loss, the Saints scored 21 points against the Rams (with only eight first downs!), 22 against the Titans, and 23 against the Jags. Those are some ugly totals.

What causes this decline? Well, for one, the Saints turn the ball over more frequently. In their eight regular-season home games, New Orleans recorded just seven turnovers on offense. In their eight games away from home, they had 12 turnovers. They get fewer short fields, since their defense forced 11 takeaways in eight home games and just five in eight road tilts. They also find themselves occasionally stuck on grass as opposed to the wondrous turf that springs so many big plays in New Orleans. The grass depresses Brees's numbers across the board. Guess what type of field the Saints are playing on this Saturday?

DREW BREES FIELD CONDITION
Turf Grass
Completion % 72.1% 69.6%
Yards/Attempt 8.5 8.0
Interception Rate 1.9% 2.6%
Sack Rate 3.2% 4.2%
In addition, the 49ers could be a particularly tough matchup for the Saints because of how well they matchup versus New Orleans's strengths. After years of building their offense around Marques Colston and a variety of deep threats, the Saints have recalibrated their offense around tight end Jimmy Graham and halfback Darren Sproles. Graham and Sproles each led the league in targets at their respective positions with, 149 and 111 respectively, and they each were thrown more passes than any of the New Orleans wide receivers. For most teams, it's a matter of picking your poison: Graham stretches you vertically, and if you go after him, Sproles stretches you horizontally. If only there was a team that had two elite linebackers who were capable of going stride-for-stride (or as close as possible) with those weapons and tackling them when they do get the football!

Well, welcome Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman into the mix. You've heard of Willis by now, of course, but Bowman's had a stunning season in his first year as a starter, culminating in his placement on the Associated Press All-Pro team last week. Any thoughts that Bowman was simply benefiting from the presence of Willis alongside him seemed to disappear when Willis missed the better part of four games1 with a hamstring injury. The Niners did allow their first rushing touchdown of the season during Willis's absence, but opposing teams actually saw their rushing average decline, as they went from averaging 3.6 yards per carry with Willis in the lineup to just 3.2 yards a pop with Willis on the bench. While Sproles and Pierre Thomas were able to extend drives for the Saints last week by creating missed tackles and getting extra yardage at the end of their touches, it seems less likely that the 49ers will allow such frivolities on Saturday.

In this instance, it might behoove the Saints to use different personnel sets and take some of the focus off of Graham and Sproles. Don't be surprised to see the Saints use an "11" personnel package as their base set, with one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. That removes the fullback from the equation and makes running between the tackles more difficult, but the 49ers have the best run defense in football. Outside of a few plays to keep the defense relatively honest, the Saints should have no interest in running the ball, anyway.

Employing three wide receivers should force the Niners to use the nickel as their base set on defense, which isn't exactly where they want to be. It takes star rookie pass rusher Aldon Smith and places him right on the line of scrimmage, where he might not be quite as effective.2 Meanwhile, it also moves rookie cornerback Chris Culliver into the lineup as the slot cornerback, where the 6'0" South Carolina product would see plenty of 6'4" Marques Colston, a tough matchup for even the biggest and baddest cornerbacks.

While the Niners might be able to slow down Graham and Sproles, the Saints should still get a big play or two deep down the field. Obviously, players like Robert Meachem and Devery Henderson are always threats to get behind the last defender and catch a bomb, but the Niners can be susceptible to the big play. Despite their stout defense up front, San Francisco allowed 12 pass plays of 40 or more yards this year. It's hard to imagine that Brees won't be able to find a little bit of time to make it 13 or more.

49ers on Offense

A year after they were embarrassed on national television by the tremor-inducing power of Beast Mode, the Saints produced a defense whose best feature involved staying on the field long enough for their offense to catch their breath. A top-ten defense in 2010, the Saints fell all the way to 28th in defensive DVOA3 this season, including a dismal 26th against the pass. And after finishing second in the league in takeaways during their Super Bowl season of 2009, the Saints had the second-fewest takeaways in football this past regular season. Yuck.

So how can the Saints stop the 49ers? Well, they can start by hoping that the Frank Gore from the second half of the season shows up, because after he sprained his ankle during the Week 9 game against the Giants, he wasn't the same player. The oft-injured Gore entered that game with the Giants on a hot streak, as he had run for 100 yards in five consecutive games. Up to that point in the season, he had averaged 4.9 yards per carry and just under 98 yards per contest. His six carries against the Giants produced a total of zero yards before the ankle sprain, and he didn't rush for 100 yards in a single game the rest of the season. His average carry load went from just under 20 to just over 15, but his efficiency numbers went into hiding. In the final eight games of the year, Gore averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, and he could only muster 53.6 yards per game. It's worth noting that DVOA sees the decline as essentially nonexistent, since the 49ers ranked 23rd in rushing offense during both the first half of the season and the second half, but there are certainly unanswered questions about Gore's health and his ability to contribute to a contending team right now.

Gore is also a fine pass blocker, but there may not be much work to go around in pass protection on Saturday. As we mentioned in this week's The Fabulous and the Flops, the enigmatic Saints pass rush couldn't even muster a single sack of Matthew Stafford last week. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is supposed to possess a bevy of exotic schemes designed to overwhelm the league's more dreadful quarterbacks, but the Saints haven't sacked an opposing quarterback since before Christmas. On the other hand, only five teams in the league had a sack rate higher than San Francisco's 8.9 percent. Who will win this battle of mediocrity?

The Saints will have to really focus on stopping Michael Crabtree, since allowing big games to number-one wideouts has been a specialty of theirs this season. Opposing top guys have averaged 9.2 targets and 78.8 receiving yards per game against them this season, figures topped only by the Packers and Cardinals.

Special Teams

And here is where the Niners enjoy their hugest advantage. San Francisco's special teams might have been topped by Chicago because of Devin Hester's incredible heroics, but nobody is as effective across the board as Brad Seely's unit in the Bay Area. Punter Andy Lee is the star, creating 13.3 points of field position value with his boots this year while giving his defense the league's best average starting field position. Lee averaged a full 44 net yards per punt, and the only player within 2.5 yards of his performance was Saints young gun Thomas Morstead, who averaged 43.1 yards per boot.

The Niners also have a huge advantage on punt returns, where Ted Ginn has averaged better than 12 yards per attempt and scored a touchdown. The Seahawks didn't break open the game with a long touchdown run on special teams in last season's victory over the Saints, but they were able to gain consistent yardage and produce excellent field position. If the 49ers can do the same, they'll be in good shape.

The Prediction

The Saints have a huge advantage at quarterback and wide receiver, but the 49ers have them beat at every other spot on the field. The league's two best in-game coaches will square off, but expect Harbaugh to earn his team an extra possession with some sort of fake or trick play. (An unexpected onside kick against the master of the trade, perhaps?) New Orleans will get a big play or two, but their inability to force takeaways and score big totals on the road will come back to bite them. San Francisco 24, New Orleans 21

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Playoff Preview: Broncos at Patriots

By: timbersfan, 1:22 AM GMT on January 13, 2012

To try to break down what to watch for in Brady-Tebow II, we naturally went back to Week 15 and took a long look at Brady-Tebow I. The Patriots traveled to Denver and won that day, 41-23, but the game itself was a lot closer than the final scoreline. A few key mistakes from the Broncos and lucky bounces for the Patriots were enough to swing an early Denver lead into a three-score victory, but the Broncos were competitive for the vast majority of the game and actually outplayed the Patriots for most of the first half.

It's easy to watch Tom Brady or Tim Tebow and note their respective strengths and weaknesses, but this game is going to be about more than their innate abilities. It's going to be as much about the threat of what Brady and Tebow can do, because these two defenses are going to have to scheme ways to take away their respective strengths before a single ball is snapped. In particular, these quarterbacks are going to manipulate the opposing team's safeties so severely that success or failure in that task could be enough to determine the game. Sure, Brady vs. Tebow is a great storyline. Just make sure you're ready for Chung vs. Bruton, too.

Denver on Offense

If you watched the Broncos-Steelers game closely this past Sunday, you'll remember that the Steelers made a very deliberate scheme choice. Despite the absence of starting free safety Ryan Clark, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was willing to risk the possibility that Tebow would hit one of his receivers for a big play if it meant that he could keep strong safety Troy Polamalu in the box. Polamalu often run blitzes, swooping into the backfield in the hopes that he can make a big play, but the Steelers used it to excess on Sunday. It slowed down the Denver running game, which averaged fewer than four yards per carry after hitting for 4.8 yards a pop during the regular season, but it exposed the rest of the secondary and allowed Tebow and offensive coordinator Mike McCoy to open up possibilities down the field.

That stood out most, of course, on the 80-yard touchdown that sealed the game on the opening play of overtime. Before the first-and-10 play, the Broncos lined up with a lone running back and two tight ends. They motioned wideout Eddie Royal into the slot. Innocuous, sure, but the Broncos had run the ball 23 of 26 times on first down, often preceded by similar pre-snap motion out of the same personnel grouping. They had used this exact personnel group with the same motion nine times before in the game. On seven of those nine times, the Steelers had responded by pushing backup safety Ryan Mundy (Clark's replacement) into the box, anticipating a run. This time, of course, it was not. Mundy got caught in no man's land after Tebow play faked, and with Demaryius Thomas running a deep post versus one-on-one outside coverage from cornerback Ike Taylor, who was expecting help from Mundy, the result was a game-winning touchdown pass.

The formula here isn't anything new. Run the ball, run the ball, go play-action at an opportune moment and see if you can get a big play. It places a constant strain on the opposing team's safeties because it forces them to guess right, over and over again, until they exhibit clear tendencies. That's when a sound offensive coordinator can exploit the safeties. Once his team lost starting defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to first-half injuries, LeBeau didn't believe that his front seven could stop the Denver running game. He had to bring extra help into the box, and that extra help was Polamalu and Mundy. He hoped that Taylor could handle Thomas one-on-one, but 204 yards later, it was clear that LeBeau's hopes were in vain.

What makes scheming even more difficult is Denver's adherence to the run, particularly in unlikely situations. When defensive coordinators are playing teams that rely heavily upon play-action, they love third-and-a-lot because it takes the play-action out of the game. Who cares about a run fake on third-and-10? Nobody's ever going to run the ball in that situation! Well, the Broncos do. Tebow's ability to scramble means that the other team has to at least entertain the possibility of an improvised run, but the Broncos will also call designed running plays on third-and-medium. They did that several times against the Patriots, including a Tebow counter on third-and-9 that went for 19 yards. If you're not safe from the threat of a running play on third-and-9, when can you be safe?

When you have a big lead in the second half, that's when, and the Broncos have mostly avoided that situation this season. Against the Patriots, they were actually dominant on offense before three second-quarter turnovers killed their momentum. Unlike the Steelers, the Patriots mostly chose to keep their safeties deep and allow them to react to the play call once they saw a handoff or a dropback. That's partly because Bill Belichick (rightly) has far less faith in his cornerbacks than LeBeau does in his, but also because the Patriots were playing a wide receiver at safety. During their first game against the Broncos, New England started backup wideout Matthew Slater at safety because their regular starter, Patrick Chung, was injured.1 Chung is one of the few above-average players on the New England defense when he's healthy, so his presence should be a huge upgrade for Belichick & Co.

The team was also without middle linebacker Brandon Spikes for that game, and Spikes could also play a huge role in improving the defense's performance. He wasn't replaced by a punter or anything, but in his absence against the Broncos, the New England run defense was abysmal. The Broncos averaged better than eight yards per carry against the Patriots, and it wasn't a figure inflated by one long run or some meaningless late yardage. In the first half, Denver carried the ball 20 times for 182 yards, and 13 of those runs produced four yards or more. They scored on a brilliant nine-yard run from Tebow and a breezy 32-yarder from Lance Ball, who took over for most of the first half when Willis McGahee suffered a leg injury. One thing to note on the Ball touchdown is the blocking, notably the trap from right guard Chris Kuper. Most of Denver's successful carries in this game came to Kuper's side of the field, and after breaking his leg in Week 17, he'll miss this game.

Denver will also be without a true fullback, as starter Spencer Larsen missed the Steelers game before being placed on IR. We theorized that Denver would start rookie Austin Sylvester at fullback in what would have been his first NFL game, but Sylvester was a healthy scratch and the Broncos went mostly without a fullback. They did throw third-string tight end Virgil Green back there on a number of plays, one of which resulted in a blown block and a nasty sack of Tebow. Finally, the Broncos will be without wide receiver Eric Decker, who suffered a knee injury at the hands of James Harrison last week; his replacement will be former Patriots special-teamer Matt Willis, a significant downgrade.2 It seems natural to think that the Patriots would find it easier to stop Thomas without Decker, but all of Tebow's big plays this past Sunday came after Decker left the game. The Broncos had a lot of success against the Patriots on play action throwing the skinny post to Thomas, and after his exhibition last week, the Patriots might be willing to sacrifice a few completions for first downs if it means avoiding the big play.

One final injury note for those of you who remember Week 15: New England will be without Andre Carter, who suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury in that game. The Patriots really struggled to get pressure on Tebow during that first game, and it won't be much easier without Carter around.

The Broncos didn't punt once during the first 29 minutes of the game, and the only way the Patriots were able to stop them during the first half was through a series of unfortunate turnovers. With a 16-14 lead halfway through the second quarter, the Broncos promptly fumbled the ball away inside their own territory on back-to-back drives, spotting the Patriots offense the ball with a short field. Then, after the teams traded punts inside of two minutes, New England punted the ball to Quan Cosby with 14 seconds left. All Cosby needed to do was get out of the way for the game to go to halftime, but instead, he tried to field the ball inside his own 20-yard line and fumbled. The Patriots recovered all three of the fumbles and turned them into 13 points, giving them a 27-16 lead. Brady also recovered a bad snap on his own 11-yard line on the first drive of the third quarter, so the Patriots recovered four of what would eventually be five fumbles on the day, each of which had a dramatic impact on the game. That the Patriots were able to recover each of those four amounts to randomness, and there's no reason to think it's likely to happen again.

Patriots on Offense

You're probably a little more familiar with how the Patriots put pressure on opposing safeties. During the first game between these two teams, they got some help, as the Broncos started a pair of backup rookies at safety, second-rounder Rahim Moore and seventh-rounder Quinton Carter. Slot cornerback Chris Harris made it a trio of rookies in prominent roles against the Patriots, and Brady took advantage of them all. Strangely, Moore has the best pedigree of the three, but this past Sunday, Harris remained in the nickel and Carter started for an injured Brian Dawkins and Moore was active without seeing a single snap.

While the Broncos dull the senses of opposing safeties with run after run, the Patriots do it with short passes to their receivers before taking shots down the field. The Broncos spent a fair amount of the first game in two-deep coverage with their safeties, hoping that it would limit Brady's opportunities down the field and allow them to double-star tight end Rob Gronkowski. Naturally, Brady adapted and took advantage of what the defense allowed him, and he did so by manipulating his young charges deep in the defensive backfield.

You know that someone has to have been confused if Chad Ochocinco ends up scoring a touchdown, but that's exactly what happened for the opening New England score of the game. With Wes Welker in the slot and Ochocinco split outside of him, the Patriots went with an empty backfield and ran a classic two-man route combination. Welker ran a quick out, and Ochocinco faked running a slant before releasing outside for a go pattern. The announcer blames cornerback Andre Goodman and suggests that the veteran got beat, but it's pretty clear that he wasn't alone on the play. Welker beats the slot cornerback with his out route, and for some reason, Carter chooses to try to jump Welker's out pattern, even as Ochocinco's running right by him. If Carter stays at home and gets over toward Ochocinco, the Patriots might get an eight-yard gain on a pass to Welker, but there wouldn't be much more. Instead, Carter guesses wrong and goes for the pattern he's seen a million times on film, and Ochocinco has an easy score.

The Patriots are so difficult because they force the opposition into impossible choices like that on virtually every play. The Broncos made it a clear priority to try to eliminate Gronkowski from the game, and they were able to limit him to four catches on five targets for a total of 38 yards, but that meant that Aaron Hernandez got to run free versus Harris and other overmatched members of the Denver secondary. He finished with a team-high nine catches, 11 targets, and 129 yards. Denver will have to make a difficult choice this weekend: Do they let Hernandez do that to them again? Or do they try to eliminate him from the game and do their best with Gronkowski instead?

Their best way to take out Gronkowski will be to get an excellent pass rush. Denver only sacked Tom Brady twice in 36 dropbacks in Week 15, and one of those sacks was on the aforementioned bad snap.3 We talked a bit last week about how Denver's pass rush had slowed down after Von Miller's injury, but the Broncos showed some signs of life this past Sunday by sacking Ben Roethlisberger five times in 45 dropbacks. That's a sack rate of 11.1 percent, nearly double the 6.5 percent rate Denver had exhibited since Miller's injured thumb went into a cast before Week 13. It's worth noting that in two of Brady's three notable recent playoff losses, the defeats by the Giants in 2007 and the Jets in 2011, the opposing team was able to sack Brady five times. Those are the only two games over the past seven seasons, playoff or regular season, in which Brady was sacked five times.4

The Broncos will get back safety David Bruton for this game, but veteran Brian Dawkins is out with a neck injury that could be career-ending. The Patriots were without tackle Sebastian Vollmer and wide receiver Deion Branch in Week 15. Branch will be healthy, but Vollmer is a likely game-time decision.

Special Teams

The Broncos are in a different world when they leave Denver, as Matt Prater goes from being a dominant weapon to serving as an adequate kicker. The Broncos cut Cosby nine days after his boneheaded mistake and have gotten superior returns out of Decker since, but Decker's unavailability means that Eddie Royal will handle the punt returns on Saturday night.

New England has the league's fifth-best special teams, thanks to great work from their specialists. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski and rookie punter Zoltan Mesko have two of the league's strongest legs at their respective positions, and a group led by Slater provides effective coverage downfield.

The Prediction

A lot of the factors that led us to lean toward a possible upset last week for Denver are gone. This week, they're the team with more injuries. They're the ones on the road in a hostile environment. They're at the special teams disadvantage. Remember last year, when the Seahawks beat the Saints at home and then traveled to Chicago with their chests puffed out and got stomped? The Broncos might very well be about to emulate that. They should be able to score some, but it's going to be very difficult for them to really stop the Patriots. New England 34, Denver 20.

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Letter From New Orleans

By: timbersfan, 12:51 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

One of the many pleasures of New Orleans is waking up, pouring a cup of strong, rich coffee, and opening the morning paper. As befits a city that exists outside the usual laws of time and physics, it still has a great paper. Not what it once was in the glory days of ink, no, but the Times-Picayune manages to reflect the community.

It's full of stories of political corruption, police shenanigans, high school, college, and pro football, and just the right amount of whimsy. There will be an award-winning investigation next to a tongue-in-cheek crime story about a would-be robber who got his ass kicked by an ex-Marine Lucky Dog vendor. You know you're in New Orleans when you pick it up.

So my first morning in town for this much-hyped game, I quickly arrived on A-2. There, in one short story, was the alpha and omega of this strange place, complete with the Ed Anderson byline, the old-school statehouse reporter who's dealt with more liars and crooks than Mike Slive. The story was a Louisiana triple threat, thick with politics, football, and partying. Plus it had the secret ingredient to classic New Orleans political journalism, long absent and no longer taken for granted: former governor and convicted felon Edwin Edwards, who had been locked away in the federal pen for racketeering. He's been missed. "State politics has been a lot duller and lacking in the flash and panache since the rogue governor has been on his sabbatical," Anderson told me.

His story reported that Governor Bobby Jindal is being inaugurated Monday, which is, of course, today, competing for attention with the national championship game. Predictably, in this LSU-mad state, nobody cares much about the occasion. This story goes on to say that Jindal is shrinking the celebration and, near the end, a paragraph explains that Edwards, out of the slammer in July after eight years, will not attend. It's not that he wasn't invited. As Ed wrote: "... he has plans to be in New Orleans for the game."

This is a classic Louisiana story, and the political cartoonists are losing their damn minds. One drew Jindal, distraught over his sudden irrelevance, talking to an aide, who suggests inviting Edwin.

"He always attracts a crowd," Cartoon Aide says.

Cartoon Aide makes a call, then reports the sad news.

"He's too busy."

Edwin is everywhere. He is out there like a politician, appearing at events, grand marshaling parades. Shaking hands and kissing babies. When he arrives, he's greeted as governor. He is beloved. "It's the only state where a felon could achieve that level of affection," Louisiana politico James Carville says.

The tour looks a lot like a campaign. Edwin is clearly running for something, though he can't hold elected office. It's the oddest thing, and on the day of this game and his much-discussed attendance, it demands a question:

What exactly is Edwin Edwards up to?

The governor lives in a subdivision of cookie-cutter McMansions, surrounding a pasture of a golf course, southeast of Baton Rouge in a town named Gonzales. I drove there in October, before the first LSU-Alabama game; I'd set up a meeting with Edwards to talk about Les Miles. And, to be honest, I wanted to meet him. His daughter greeted me at the door and immediately put me to work. In one of the weirder moments of my life, I found myself carrying an enormous oil painting of Edwards from an SUV into his house, leaning it up against the wall, his rise and fall brought into immediate relief. As I walked back to the kitchen, I heard them talking about money issues. This is not the life he left. Earlier this year, via Facebook, he looked around for LSU tickets. Two decades ago, he would have tossed the pregame coin.

Edwards graduated from LSU, and helped it grow while governor. He loves the Tigers, and has followed every twist and turn this season, from the preseason parking lot fights to the SEC championship. "One could not describe the enthusiasm of this team and Les Miles," he says. "When he won the championship, people were saying, 'That's Saban's team. He picked 'em. He recruited 'em. He deserves the credit.' There's some merit in that. But they can't say that now. It's his team."

Edwin stood in his kitchen, with copies of his new memoir nearby, talking in his Cajun drawl. The word "mother," for example, is pronounced, "mutha." He's 84 years old — some worried he'd die in prison — and has one act left. He's making the most of it.

"The thing that I remind myself in politics and in sporting events," he says, "there are valleys and mountains. Sometimes things are going well, as they are now, and sometimes you have a high mountain to climb."

My favorite novel is Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. In the book, Louisiana governor Willie Stark is a fictional rendering of Huey P. Long, the corrupt, benevolent populist governor of Louisiana. The best line in the book is Stark talking about the broken nature of humanity, and how the most dishonest people in politics are those who pretend that anyone can outrun their worst impulses: "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

This quote lives at the heart of Louisiana politics. When I began reciting it to Carville last week, he finished it with me. The state has always elected folk heroes who did naughty things: hookers, affairs with Bourbon Street strippers, freezers of money, and an endless rap sheet of boring felony charges. The two biggest folk heroes are Long and Edwards.

E.W.E. (as he's known both to people who adore and fear him) did a lot of good as governor. He put $549 million of a $600 million oil-revenue settlement into an education fund, which has now more than doubled. He also, according to the jury that convicted him, extorted money from casino operators. Before that conviction, the feds had tried and failed to get him. The system itself was corrupt, and Edwin knew how to make the system work, for supporters and for himself. Edwards, like Long and Stark, appeared bulletproof, in a way that some people in Louisiana found endearing, and that even more found at least refreshingly transparent.

People heard the stories: about gambling, about the women, and about how his demeanor suggested he didn't consider himself governor so much as king. The heir to the Kingfish himself. He seemed roguish in a wonderfully Louisiana way. During his famous campaign against former Klansman David Duke (who also later went to prison), he hopped around the state in a private plane, surrounded by his advisors. Everywhere they went, said a magazine reporter who spent time on the plane, a briefcase followed. Finally, the writer told me, she got a glimpse inside: guns, a bulky cell phone, breath mints, dental floss, and a bunch of college football point spread sheets. The crew made a ton of bets and later, riding in a campaign parade, the advisors updated the governor on scores, so that the narration went something like this:

(To waving supporters): How's your mama and dem?

(Under his breath to the crouched advisors reporting bad news in the game): Goddamn! Son of a bitch!

He might have been shady, but he was fun. Famously, when he beat Duke, one of his bumper stickers said, "Vote for the Crook: It's Important." He also authored the two greatest quotes in the history of American politics:

1. (On an opponent) "The only way I'm losing is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

2. (On David Duke) "We're both wizards in the sheets."

Even when he walked out of the courtroom after being found guilty, he smiled and offered a one-liner to reporters. "The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river," he said. "I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, and here comes my body."

Then he crossed Main Street in Baton Rouge. Traffic came to a halt. Horns blared. And one woman leaned out the window and yelled in support, "You go, Governor!"

Floating around the kitchen as Edwin and I talk LSU football is his new wife.

"I'm Trina Edwards," she says with a smile.

I'm gonna be as respectful as I can here. She's a 32-year-old bombshell. She's hot. Not hot for someone married to an old guy. Not trashy hot, or country hot. Just plain hot. She wrote him a letter in prison after reading his book, and they began visiting. He likes to joke about the other inmates jockeying at the window to see her walk across the parking lot. Since this is Edwin, he's got a killer line for their courtship, too, which he's trotted out for New Orleans reporters: "I thought she was coming to visit me, but I think she thought she was entertaining the troops."

They got married in New Orleans, and when the pictures ran in the paper, old friends and foes alike nudged each other, as if to say: Ol' boy's still got it. In that picture, and a lot of them since, he looks giddy.

"He's out of jail," Carville says. "He's got a young wife, and he's having fun."

Trina's Facebook status updates about the circus of their daily life, from RV trips to Edwin watching Chris Rock, are a captivating read. Much better than a reality television show, which this seems destined to be.1 What's astonishing, though, are the comments people leave. Friends ask if he can get pardoned so he can run against Jindal. There are "Edwin for President" T-shirts for sale. Just out of prison, he's functioning as if it never happened. There is this deep reservoir of love and nostalgia, even from people whose politics differ from Edwards. They miss having a character as governor.

"Huey Long populism never died," says Anderson, the Times-Picayune political reporter, "it found a late 20th-century hero in E.W.E. ... He has a hard-core following, and based on the cuts the state has undergone in recent years, Jindal's ideologue approach to conservative values, and Blanco getting killed by the inept response following the 2005 hurricanes, a lot of folks look at E.W.E. as emblematic of 'the good ol' days.'"

Even some Louisiana Republicans pushed for Bush to pardon Edwards before leaving office, and there is a sense here that he was too harshly punished. "The school of thought is that he probably spent three years too long in prison," Carville says.

The economy in the state remains rough, and the partisan divide grows worse. Jindal seems to have national aspirations in a way that Edwin never did. Edwards' dream was to be governor of Louisiana. He loved his job and now, traveling around the state, seeing old friends, making new ones, he is loving that embrace. There's nothing to fear from him anymore, so even his enemies seem ready to let the past fade away. He's doing this to make money, yes, but he's also doing it because he likes it.

"He might be older," Anderson says, "but his ego is still the same."

There are no more elections for Edwin Edwards, but there is a final campaign, and he seems to be running for the thing every politician craves: the way a crowd makes you feel, how it can polish achievements and push failures into the shadows. Many get into the game for that feeling, and then they convince themselves — and everyone around them, if they're good — that there are other reasons to want such power.

That's what's wonderful about watching this journey. There's no artifice, no hollow stump speeches and hot orations about people's pain. There is only the naked, earnest search for love, and that makes this the most honest campaign ever run in the state of Louisiana.

There was another cartoon in the Times-Picayune recently. It showed Edwin and Trina, and the governor had two fingers raised on his hand.

"V for Victory?" one character asked.

"Viagra," another replied.

Edwin saw the cartoon and laughed. Trina laughed, too, and Edwin said, "I don't need Viagra ...Viagra needs me. Doesn't the Times-Picayune know they use my blood to make that stuff?"

He is an 84-year-old felon, a former congressman, and four-time governor of Louisiana. He is a new husband, and he has a book to hawk. He's done time and managed to put more than a billion dollars in the bank for Louisiana's children. In this final act, there is joy in the house of Edwards, and he feels it everywhere he goes, from small-town parades to the BCS National Championship Game, where his Tigers will play and where he, no longer inmate 03128-095, will get to see it live. Listen to the crowd if E.W.E. finds his way onto the Superdome Jumbotron. Look at the expression on his face when he hears it.

In his kitchen, Edwards and I finished our conversation about football and I began my good-byes. I mentioned that I'd be in touch with Trina. Edwin wheeled around, and I'm almost certain he was kidding.

"I don't want you talking to my wife by phone, by smoke signal, or by Facebook," he said in that Cajun drawl. "Get out."

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The Reducer: Cup Runneth Over

By: timbersfan, 12:50 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

When the whistle blew late on Sunday afternoon at the Barcelona derby, with Espanyol drawing 1-1 with the league/world/universe/galaxy champions, I was emotionally exhausted and wearing a cowl-neck sweater. Not unlike this guy …


What an incredible, exhausting football weekend: Barca vs. Espanyol in Spain, Sporting vs. Porto in Portugal, and Palermo vs. Napoli in Italy. And that was just on the Continent.

In England the leagues took a break for the third round of the FA Cup. Over the years, since Manchester United elected to skip the 1999-2000 tournament so as to focus on the World Club Cup, the FA Cup has been treated by many top-flight teams as a distraction; nice if you win it, but no big deal (and perhaps even advantageous) if you go out early.

Tournaments are only as good as their draws, though, and this weekend served up a match that demanded the commitment of the two clubs involved and the attention of the football-watching world. It was a Manchester derby that mints new fans of the game, reinvigorates old ones, and keeps all of us talking, second-guessing, and arguing for the weeks to come. And the excitement seemed to permeate Cup clashes all over the country.

We needed it. English football needed it. Because no matter how brilliant it was to see Macclesfield Town's Arnaud Mendy score the goal of a lifetime against Bolton, or Swindon Town manager Paolo Di Canio experience, by his own admission, the greatest day of his own by beating Wigan, there was no escaping the terrible scene that began the weekend. That's because, as wonderful as some of the action was, the image of the tear-streaked face of Oldham player Tom Adeyemi, trying to pull himself together — with the help of teammates and Liverpool players alike — after being racially abused by someone in the Anfield crowd, made the rest of the football, to put it mildly, bittersweet.

Let's review the good, the bad, and the ugly from this FA Cup weekend.

Game of the Week: Manchester United, 3, Manchester City, 2



The score says Manchester United won, but in every other way, Manchester City was victorious. They may not retain the FA Cup, but this loss might have meant more to them than any of their victories this season, save their 6-1 victory over United back in October.

What's so great about going out of the Cup, at home, to your most bitter rivals? Because somehow during Sunday's cold, wet brawl, Manchester City once again became the plucky underdogs; losing, in the fashion that they did, gave them their identity back.

For decades, as they rose and fell through the leagues, City was the kid with a back brace with the locker next to the quarterback/prom king. The transition from runts of the litter to, at least economically, top dogs seemed to happen in the blink of an eye. Imagine if all of a sudden the Kansas City Royals started spending money like the Yankees. It would be difficult for anyone outside of lifelong fans to get behind them. That's what happened to City: They went from afterthoughts to objects of hate in a matter of months.

Sunday's match in no way recast City as the Bad News Bears of European football, but it went a long way toward building some internal character.

After 12 minutes, the big-spending boys in blue were down a goal and down to ten men, with their captain Vincent Kompany sent off for a two-footed tackle (which on repeat viewing looked a lot like a slip). As Kompany brooded and stormed off the pitch, no doubt a little miffed that Wayne Rooney went so out of his way to alert referee Chris Foy about the severity of the tackle, he walked by his manager, Roberto Mancini, who was ... smirking.

Roberto Mancini hasn't smiled since he saw Old School in a Milanese multiplex in 2003. But there he was, the ball-breaking Italian who Siberia-izes players that don't fit into his plans, complains about not having enough bodies when most managers would raze their stadiums for his reserves, and who generally seems to be a hard-ass, smiling.

City were getting pissed on, and I'm not talking about the weather. Big, bad United and their time-manipulating, ref-intimidating boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, were having their way with them. Except this time it would be different. This time they wouldn't know their place. And Mancini seemed to know that. Despite being short a Balotelli, a Dzeko, a Yaya Toure, and despite David Silva wearing a facial expression that read, "I'd Rather Be In Mallorca," Mancini knew the caliber of his team and he knew they had some fight in them. After the match he declared that City were the "moral winners." It's hard to argue with him.

Here are some quick-hitter thoughts on the match, moral and otherwise:

• Given that we just spent several hundred words talking about the scrappy, can-do spirit of the richest club in the world, it's only fair to point out just how unlikely this win was for United. It's easy to look at the Red Devils and only see the shirts, not the names on the back. Ferguson was without his captain and best defender (Nemanja Vidic), played Phil Jones at right back, had midfield made up of a 37-year-old converted winger and a player whose United career looked over earlier in the season. He's coming off a now seemingly annual relationship breakdown with his team's star player, quite obviously doesn't have any money to spend, and has somehow, with spit and guile, stitched together a title-challenging team.

• That being said, you have to wonder about the sustainability of the Ferguson-Rooney partnership, not only off the field, but on. Rooney is a streaky player. He can rack up nine goals in three games and then disappear for half a dozen matches after that. But it can't help his form to be moved around constantly, from creative midfield, to the wing, to behind the striker, to leading the line. With everything that has happened over the last week, with the latest rumors swirling that Rooney has fallen out with his manager and will look to move on, it's worth noting that no United player other than Phil Jones has been as flexible, position-wise, as Rooney.

• Also, that dude should be ashamed of himself for demanding that Kompany get carded. I know all's fair in love and football, but given Rooney's history with situations like that, you'd think he'd have some sympathy for Kompany.


• Favorite blink-and-you-miss-it moment in the game came when Rio Ferdinand lazily tried to clear a ball, under pressure, to Phil Jones, who was streaking upfield. Rio started tearing strips off the young defender/midfielder, insisting Jones was supposed to come back for the ball, but Jones, who had a tough game against Newcastle but has been outstanding for the most part this season, was having none of it. My lipreading is a little rusty, but it looked like Jones was saying, "You're Rio Ferdinand, so I can't tell you to go fuck yourself — but go fuck yourself."

• The most meaningful touch Samir Nasri took all game was when the ball deflected off his face to Danny Welbeck's foot for United's second. Nasri looked brilliant when he arrived at City, racking up assists left and right. But he's been cutting an increasingly ineffectual figure at the club. He didn't look much happier on Monday, sitting in the stands at the Emirates watching Arsenal and Leeds and rocking a Monica Bellucci T-shirt. You can't go home again, I guess.

• Speaking of going home (and touching again on United not having any money), Paul Scholes made a shock return for the Red Devils. "Everyone knows what a fantastic player he is and I thought he showed his quality when he came on," said Wayne Rooney. I thought for a second that Scholes looked a little nervous when he came on, but then I remembered that Paul Scholes doesn't have facial expressions. He was partially responsible for City's second goal, but even a past-it Scholes should help the thin United central midfield.

FA Cup Step Overs

• The Reducer was written this week lit by the warming glow of Arsenal vs. Leeds on the television, Monday. Really hope nothing cool or interesting happened —


• Oh come on. What do you say about that? I feel the same way about Henry's return as I do about Scholes': It papers over the cracks. But Christ, it must feel good for Arsenal fans. This is a different Gunners than the one Henry left for Barcelona years ago. They don't need him to fill the Emirates or carry the club on his back. They just need him to finish chances. Looks like he can still do that. (Also, probably goal celebration of the season, right?)

• I don't know which planet is in which house and what it means for Bolton goalkeepers this month, but Adam Bogdan is having a nightmare of a January. Beaten by two wonder strikes in three days, the first being Tim Howard's end-to-end act of goalie-on-goalie violence, and then Saturday's miracle volley from Arnaud Mendy.



• Liverpool will be satisfied with their 5-1 dismantling of Oldham. With no chance at the title and no place in Europe this season, domestic cup competitions can be a great source of pride for the storied club. Unfortunately, the cup tie with Oldham left the club with a black eye as well. The man who racially abused Adeyemi was arrested by Merseyside police and Liverpool denounced the act thoroughly after the match. But coming on the heels of the Luis Suarez controversy, it's not what the club needed. The head of European football's anti-discrimination body, Fare, accused the club and its manager, Kenny Dalglish, of whipping up a "tribal fervor" among the fan base. And while I think that's unfair, and while it's clear that the Suarez and Adeyemi cases are separate events with separate circumstances, Liverpool's conduct, as a club, on the whole, has left a lot to be desired.

Bonus Non–FA Cup Step Overs

• For any of you who haven't had a chance to watch the pilot episode of the new HBO series Luck, I can't recommend it highly enough. The fact that David Milch and Michael Mann managed to make an awesome hour of television with actors like Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina is not very surprising. What was surprising was the throwaway shot early on in the episode. A few gamblers are discussing the chances of a particular horse, and we briefly see the Racing Form listing, which reads, "Redknapp Ranch LLC." Figures. Harry Redknapp is basically a David Milch character anyway.

• I for one cannot wait 'til Mark Hughes quits QPR five months from now because he believes he's about to be hired, via time machine, to manage the 1990 AC Milan team. Hughes looks like he's on the verge of replacing Neil Warnock at QPR, but I wouldn't get too attached. Hughes might very well keep Queens Park up, but he, and his "adviser" Kia Joorabchian (who also "advises" Carlos Tevez), will soon be looking for a more high-profile gig.

Goal of the Week: Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle


Mendy's was a miracle, Wellbeck's was pretty decent, and Henry's was like watching the home run scene from The Natural. But Ben Arfa's was my favorite.

Quote of the Week: Paolo Di Canio, Swindon Town

"It is the best moment of my life." That might be the only time in human history that someone says that about beating Wigan.

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BCS National Championship Game: What the Hell?

By: timbersfan, 12:49 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

“I will say this: I bet you there'll be a lot of people wish they'd given us a shot to see a different kind of game. We'd have thrown it 50 times. You like to think Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon could have put together some touchdowns. Get the ball thrown down the field and open some things up. Try to make it exciting, and see what happens.” — Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy

It got so bad that when the Crimson Tide dumped the Gatorade on Alabama coach Nick Saban, I half expected the Gatorade to be tackled for a loss. It got so bad that the 50-yard line died of sadness after the third quarter, and nobody noticed. It got so bad that the bespectacled marine biologist Allstate trotted out to try a 40-yard field goal at halftime had a legitimate shot to outscore the entire LSU offense. In the end, his zero-field goal performance only tied the entire LSU offense. He will be ranked no. 4 in the preseason coaches’ poll.

It got so bad that I spent about 15 minutes trying to plot what would happen if the bespectacled marine biologist were a team in the SEC West. Assume he’d lose in, say, six overtimes at Baton Rouge. That would make him the favorite against Auburn and the Mississippis, right? Even playing every position on both sides of the ball simultaneously and not being in shape or having a helmet or pads, he couldn’t produce a worse game plan than Les Miles and Greg Studrawa did Monday night in Alabama's 21-0 win over LSU. Honestly, I think he’d have a shot at the conference title game if he could squeak out the win over Arkansas.

So yeah, it got bad. Somewhere, on one of those winding forest roads that are always showing up in Michelin commercials, a deer frozen in the headlights of an onrushing Subaru Outback devoted the final second of its short life on earth to the thought: You know what, I’m still running the speed option better than Jordan Jefferson is right now.

And so, as an Oklahoma State fan, I say to you: What in the hell, people? I bring you many earnest what in the hells. That was it? That was the immovable wall of Technicolor fearsome that Oklahoma State and Stanford had no chance of competing against? That was your big reveal? We are now in the position of crowning a national champion that couldn’t convert the extra point after its solitary touchdown of the game. You’re seriously telling me that our poor little old Big 12/Pac-12 selves didn’t deserve a glance at this business?

Alabama’s defense was amazing. Every great college football defense makes me think it’s the best I’ve ever seen, but that one really might be the best I’ve ever seen. LSU’s fanatic determination to keep running plays that had been proven to not work did not, admittedly, make it difficult for the Tide. (Seriously, the image of Jefferson sweeping right on the 537th busted option of the night with his eyes the size of Christmas wreaths and Alabama’s entire linebacker corps bearing down on him will be with me for at least another 27 seconds.) And yes, Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden have spent all year drinking hot marrow from the bones of the kind of token coverage Bama threw at the LSU wideouts. Still, credit where it’s due. That was a scary, scary group of student-athletes. LSU didn’t see the sunny side of the midfield line until the fourth quarter. The Tigers ran for 39 yards and passed for 53 on the night. They were 2-of-12 on third down. It’s totally possible that Alabama would overrun the Oklahoma State line, break Andrew Luck down into his component parts, and show the Boise State Broncos a blue so vivid they’d weep when they saw their own uniforms. My point is this: Wouldn’t it be great to find out?

The “we need a playoff” argument in college football has been rehearsed so many times, so patiently, and by so many people that you don’t need me to take you through it again. Here’s the short version: Last night happened. If there’s a reasonable counterargument, the old men of the bowls — you know, the powdered doughnuts in pastel jackets who give off the strong vibe of riding to work on golf carts every morning — have yet to offer it, in my hearing. I enjoy the silliness and chaos of the BCS season as much as anyone, but then, last I checked, March Madness is not lacking for silliness and chaos. The “vaunted history of the bowl tradition” argument seems useful mainly as a test to determine whether someone is a marble statue or not. (Do you care about the vaunted history of the bowl tradition so much that you want to press on with the BCS? Get back to the Louvre, sculpture.)

Now that the season is over, the powers that be will convene, shake hands like upright burghers, and determine what minor tweaks and adjustments will gain them the maximum positive press at the minimum cost to their self-interest. (“I think there will be some change,” Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, recently said. “Now will it be seismic? No one knows.” Me, I have a guess.) Five hundred columns, not unlike this one, will be written about how the BCS' corporate inertia is wrecking the game for the rest of us. I promise, it will be tedious.

Here’s the thing. For a sports league to work, it has to fulfill two purposes. It has to be fair, and it has to be fun. Most of the time, when we talk about this stuff — especially, for whatever reason, in football — we emphasize fairness over everything. As in: Who cares if the first LSU-Bama game was a grim swamp-trek through mass collective boredom? They’re the two most deserving teams! But isn’t fun why we watch sports in the first place? One of the reasons I thought Oklahoma State should have played in the title game was that it just would have been 5,000 times more awesome as a matchup. Offense vs. defense! Big 12 insurrectionists vs. SEC riot police! Major questions of the season actually answered! We’re never supposed to decide this stuff based on irresponsible considerations like awesomeness. But this is a spectator entertainment, not the Potsdam Conference. Why shouldn’t “In your heart of hearts, which game would you rather watch?” be a relevant question?

Anyway, as things stand, that’s a moot point, because — and here’s the heart of the problem with the BCS — the current system is neither fun nor fair. It coughs up games like Monday night’s, which managed to be painful to watch and also not settle anything. Had the voting gone differently, and Oklahoma State been picked to play LSU, it would have been horribly unfair to Alabama, which clearly deserved to play for the national championship. (I’m basing that on the fact that it just won the national championship.) As things happened, it was horribly unfair to Oklahoma State and Stanford. Right now, the day after the title game, there’s still a legitimate chance that Oregon is the best team in the country. Does anyone even remember Oregon exists?

Again, it’s not new to point out that the system is 16 kinds of wrecked. But it’s worth spending an angry minute mourning the completely delightful slate of games we might now be watching if it weren’t. (You wouldn’t drop everything to watch OSU-Alabama next weekend? Really?) I think my team would have as good a shot at winning the title as any. Instead, Blackmon spent Monday night retweeting people who speculated about what he’d do to the Alabama secondary. The retweets were more exciting than the game.

Mike Gundy said it hurt him to watch. “I just think we could score,” he said. A lot of teams probably felt that way Tuesday morning, amid the ruins of the season and the swarm of alternate realities that the BCS always seems to produce. But a doughnut needs a golf cart, so we’ll never know.

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The Ugliest Year in College Football History

By: timbersfan, 12:48 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

An image I cannot shake: On Sunday morning in New Orleans, the cabal that pulls the Bowl Championship Series strings held one of those day-before press conferences where the opposing coaches are forced to pose together in front of the championship trophy. It was awkward as hell, and if you listened real close, you could almost hear Nick Saban's teeth grinding in sync with the camera shutters. But then came a revelation. During the Q&A session, Saban informed the media that he and his wife set their alarm for 6:15 every morning, and then lie in bed and watch the Weather Channel for 30 minutes before rising to greet the day.

This is what I will think about when I think about Nick Saban from here on out; this is the sort of punctilious anecdote that will define his mythology. Who watches the Weather Channel for 30 consecutive minutes other than retirees, storm-chasers, and control freaks? Saban is the best coach in college football precisely because he is an unapologetically maniacal perfectionist; he is, as he said after winning his third national championship, entirely "process-oriented," a "day-to-day guy" — and a day-to-day guy doesn't leave the house without knowing whether there is a warm front pushing across the southern plains. Saban joked that sometimes his wife spends that half-hour lecturing him precisely on what he's doing wrong, both as a football coach and a human being, but I keep imagining him tuning her out and daydreaming of Oklahoma drills while the "Local on the 8s" music tinkles in the background.

Late Monday night, after Alabama's 21-0 mauling of LSU in the BCS Championship game, Saban sat at another press conference in the bowels of the Superdome and nearly managed to suck the joy from the moment. Someone asked him if this was the greatest defense he'd ever coached, and rather than slipping into the emotional … well, tide … of the moment, the coach said, "I don't like to make comparisons." Someone asked about the Crimson Tide's kicker, Jeremy Shelley, whose five field goals comprised all of the scoring until the final five minutes of the game, and Saban said, "He does a pretty good job, for the most part." Someone asked about his quarterback, AJ McCarron, who had been utterly ordinary all season and suddenly looked like Bart Starr, and Saban said, "It wasn't about AJ. It was about what we needed to do to win the game."

Even at the pinnacle, Saban does not concede anything. (The closest he came was when he referred to this team as "enjoyable to coach," largely because he found his defense to have a vicious mean streak, even though he'd sometimes become frustrated during practice when they'd "get a little hurt.") He is above gushing, and he often appears to be above good cheer, and this is why he is adored by his own fan base and despised by all others. There are three categories of game film in the Saban library — Good, Bad, and Ugly — and even though his defense may have turned in one of the greatest performances in modern college football history, the coach said he'd sure find a few defensive plays for the Ugly files.

"I can always find something Ugly to talk about," he said.

This is part of Saban's day-to-day. There is always a storm front pushing behind the sunshine.

Saban walked off, escorted by three police officers. A couple of miles away, on Bourbon Street, the party raged, an army of drunken fans from Muscle Shoals and Dothan and Birmingham no doubt crooning along to ill-advised Skynyrd covers. Meanwhile, the coach did a neat bunny hop onto the back of a golf cart, hair slicked back in a Gatorade pompadour, and his wife sat next to him, and off he went, no doubt thinking fastidious thoughts.

On Sunday, during his own Q&A, Les Miles apologized for answering a simple question poorly, and then he waxed philosophical on the nightclub brawl that caused the early season suspension of Jordan Jefferson and threatened to derail what had been LSU's greatest regular-season run in decades. It was actually quite insightful, even as Les groped for the words, even as it devolved into a series of non sequiturs about how we all think we're impervious and then "you're at the decision-making of others"; and how his players sometimes "break the rules of normal people" because they don't feel like normal people; and how he takes contact poorly but his players take contact well.

And then someone asked Miles what he thought of Nick Saban. This question comes up all the time, and is a source of endless fascination for both fan bases, since Les succeeded Saban at LSU when Saban bolted for the NFL, and now they have become the Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison of the SEC.

Les didn't answer the question, because no coach ever honestly answers a question about another coach. Just as Saban is probably not quite as fussy as we make him out to be, Les is probably not as unhinged as we would like him to be. He deflected, but he did so in a way only Les Miles could. He said this game transcends personality or style. He actually said — and I am not paraphrasing here — this game transcends stuff. And with that, the Tigers coach, all gussied up in suit and tie like a seventh-grader on his way to a Bar Mitzvah, thanked the assemblage and walked out of the room.

Out on Bourbon Street, many of the LSU faithful politely (or not-so-politely) disagreed with their coach's assertion. Monday afternoon, a man held aloft a sign with Saban's face morphed onto a photograph of Osama bin Laden. That may seem harsh, but this is how they roll in the SEC; Harvey Updyke, the unhinged Bama fan who poisoned the iconic trees on the Auburn campus, showed up in the French Quarter on Sunday night and was hailed as a celebrity. All's fair in southern football, and no game transcends stuff, and New Orleans was at its chaotic peak in the days and nights leading up to this one, the fan bases intermingling with both southern gentility and a simmering undercurrent of real hatred. One local hotel owner said he hadn't seen demand like this since the last Super Bowl came to town. It was, essentially, a regional Super Bowl. ("You know what's harder than beating Alabama twice?" I heard an LSU fan say to an Alabama fan. "Y'all beating us once." I still can't figure out if this makes any sense.)

Still, this was LSU's home turf, and it seemed like this was LSU's game to lose. They'd plodded through that 9-6 victory in the teams' first meeting on November 5, and it sure seemed like Les had wormed his way into Saban's cranium, forcing Saban to run a trick play, a wide receiver pass that backfired. "I look at that first game as more of an opportunity for us to learn," Saban had said on Sunday, and so on his first two offensive plays of the game the coach rolled out McCarron and threw to the tight end, challenging the LSU secondary — most notably cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who had so inspired with his As-Seen-On-YouTube nickname that some misguided soul actually dressed up in a Honey Badger costume and sweated his way through the French Quarter on Monday afternoon.

Here was the team that wasn't supposed to give a damn, playing in the city that doesn't give a damn, bottled up by their ex-coach's finicky game plan. It was a listless evening for Les. He didn't pull out any tricks, and he didn't even feel bold enough to shake things up at quarterback, asserting that he needed a scrambler like Jordan Jefferson rather than a pocket passer like Jarrett Lee against Alabama's relentless pass rush. Afterward, he even had to endure a lecture from (of all people) Bobby Hebert, the former Saints quarterback turned impolitic local radio host, who opened the press conference with a question that morphed into a harangue about Miles' coaching failures.

I will admit: I was in the room when Hebert asked this question, and I had no idea who he was. If it was just an anonymous fan who slipped into the room unnoticed, I have to imagine the Honey Badger (who was also at the podium with his coach) would have taken him down like an errant skunk. I cite the transcript, which I think encapsulates the disarray of LSU's evening (the question marks, I'm assuming, are where Hebert got so angry that he lapsed into Cajun):

Q. Coach, did you ever consider bringing in Jarrett Lee, considering that you weren't taking any chances on the field? Now, I know Alabama's defense is dominant. But, come on, that's ridiculous, five first downs. I mean, so it's almost an approach, I'll tell from you the fans' standpoint, that how can you not maybe push the ball down the field and bring in Jarrett Lee? So what if you get a pick six. It seems like the game plan that ?? not pushing the ball down the field, considering it's like a Rueben Randle or Odell Beckham, Jr. I know the pass rush of Alabama, but there's no reason why in five first downs ?? you have a great defense, LSU is a great defense, but that's ridiculous.

THE MODERATOR: Do you have a question?

It is not a stretch to say that this was the darkest and most unpalatable season in college football history, and it is not a stretch to say that we are in the midst of an era of transition, what with the possibility of a plus-one game on the horizon and the notion of euthanizing the BCS actually gaining momentum. Of course, perhaps that's all wishful thinking on my part, and perhaps college football is hopelessly screwed. Perhaps this hopey-changey optimism makes me more Les Miles than Nick Saban, more dreamer than pragmatist. But then, this is Saban's gift: He drags us all back down to earth. Amid the chaos of this fall, the questions about the system and the rematch and the urge to mythologize coaches and the fundamental premise of college sports, Alabama's coach remained imperturbable. Other teams rang up so many points against each other that it veered on pornography. Saban adhered to his own process, measured and cautious; he lost when it didn't matter, and won when it did, and he did so with five field goals and one garbage-time touchdown. You may not like him, but you have to respect that, in a sport driven by misplaced emotion, the man always knows when to carry an umbrella. He will be remembered as the greatest coach of this era because he won a number of big games in the sort of methodical fashion that makes them very easy to forget. And maybe, when you think about it, the only way to end this season was with a frustrating anticlimax.

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Rankonia: The Triangle Power Rankings 1/11

By: timbersfan, 12:47 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

1. Lionel Messi, Best Athlete in the World
We dole out a lot of false praise in Rankonia. So understand that I'm saying this with the intensity of 1,000 Daniel Day-Lewises: Lionel Messi is the best athlete alive right now. Last season, he scored 51 goals for Barcelona and Argentina in the 2010-11 season. He's already got 33 this season, taking his club tally to 211. Maybe you need a refresher course:


He's helped Barcelona win La Liga the last three seasons, and the UEFA Champions League trophy twice in the last three years. Oh, and he just won his third straight Ballon d'Or award. Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-best player in the world, didn't even bother going to the ceremony. That's what kind of no-brainer it was. He can confidently be discussed in the same breath as Pele and Maradona. Many believe he might already be better.

2. Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Maybe not enough is being said about this guy? That was some textbook "catch and 80-yard-afterburner sprint past wheezing Steelers." Just like they drew it up. Can you imagine if he had dropped that?!

3. Tim Tebow, "8 Mile"/"Amazing Grace" Mash-Up
Stay tuned for 60 Minutes, immediately following Do You Believe in Miracles?! Part 8.

4. Brandon Paul, Forger of Illini Loyalty
Sarah Larimer nominates this one-man Buckeyebuster: "43 points! 4-3. MY DAD IS PROBABLY SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW." Check the technique:


5. Dustin Penner, Sippin' on Some Syrup
Katie Baker is almost finished with her thesis, Scrapple on the Ice: A History of Breakfast-Related Hockey Injuries. So until that hits stores, savor the flavor of this tidbit about the Los Angeles Kings left winger, who Katie nominated for "THROWING OUT HIS BACK WHILE, IN HIS OWN WORDS, 'LEAN[ING] OVER TO DIP INTO SOME DELICIOUS PANCAKES THAT MY WIFE MADE.' "

6. Wayne Rooney, Portrait in Resilience
Brian Phillips gives the Manchester United hitman the hair-dryer treatment: "For proving that he can pull off his by-now-trademark metamorphosis from wheezing, nicotine-stained, granny-shagging club pariah to multi-goal-scoring big-game superhero and back (and back ... and back ... and back!) in less time than it takes Sam Allardyce to digest a crate of Cheez-Its."

7. Delonte West, Dallas Mavericks
As Rembert Browne and Amos Barshad point out, the White House is a Delonte-Free Zone for what is now 77,137 days, as the Mavericks guard did not accompany his (new) teammates to meet President Obama on Monday. West initially claimed this was due to his failing a background check. In his typically candid way, West addressed the matter: "That’s what happens when you make bad decisions in your life. You can’t go to the White House. ... I’ve been there [the White House] 100 times in my lifetime. I live right around the corner. I live in D.C. It’s going to be a shame the president isn’t going to get a chance to meet me. I’m the president of my house." In somewhat mysterious, kind of sad West-ian fashion, the Secret Service then disputed the suggestion that he was banned.

West has been a personal favorite of mine ever since he, along with Jameer Nelson, led a really fun St. Joe's team to the Elite Eight back in the 2004 NCAA tournament (losing to a Tony Allen-led Oklahoma State). His battle with bipolar disorder has occasionally been a harrowing kind of public theater, but he's someone I pull for, in part because of his sometimes abrasive, sometimes funny honesty.

8. Vincent Swope, Thousand-aire
A second nom from halftime entertainment scholar Sarah Larimer: "Loses points for being a Kentucky fan, but still defeated Evil Corporate Overlord Kroger. (With the help of the Internet, obvs.) The 99 percent rejoices!"


9. Jarrett Lee, Your Favorite Backup's Favorite Backup
Was that the most passive-aggressive wearing of a helmet by a guy on the sideline in the history of organized football? I loved how, every time the camera cut to Lee, HE WAS STRETCHING. JUST IN CASE.

10. Josh Chapman, Leatherhead
You may not remember the name, but you surely saw him looking for his Tide helmet after many, many plays during Monday's BCS National Championship Game. Seriously, did this Bama defensive lineman have a prop bet on how many times that thing would fly off? The chinstrap is not an ornament, dog!

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A Fate Worse Than Death: Wizards-Raptors

By: timbersfan, 12:46 AM GMT on January 12, 2012

Almost two decades ago, on one of The Simpsons' early Halloween specials, Homer was sent to Hell, where a blue demon in the "Ironic Punishments Division" forced him to eat all the doughnuts in the world. The joke was that Homer happily finished them, but the concept has always frightened me. To have whatever is dearest to you — a food, a pastime, or, presumably, your loved ones — turned sour and used to torment you would be a fate worse than death.

Well, NBA fans in certain cities face this soul-crushing fate a few times a week. If you live in Milwaukee or New Orleans or Sacramento or any of a dozen other North American cities, you live in one rung or another of NBA hell. It's not so bad on nights when you can flip to a nationally televised game and catch a glimpse of Derrick Rose darting through the middle of a double team or James Harden leading the break. But on nights when it's just you, trying to make it through the third quarter of Bucks/Pistons, that's when the despair creeps in.

At Grantland, we decided to watch some of these games along with you. It's not because we want to mock bad teams and their fan bases. It's about sharing the pain and finding slivers of joy in otherwise ugly basketball. Of course, we're going to make fun of Nate Robinson's shot selection, Boris Diaw's postpartum weight gain, and Hasheem Thabeet's everything. In hoops as in life, laughter is a release valve — how else to deal with a player like Andray Blatche? And we won't just parachute in for the bloopers. We'll still be watching when Nate rises for a momentum-swinging tip dunk, when Boris drops 30 on the Knicks, and when Hasheem figures out which side of the court is offense and which is defense. And we'll feel the same iota of satisfaction that you will; we'll see the same light at the end of the tunnel.

For someone looking for a bad basketball game, Tuesday's NBA calendar offered an embarrassment of riches. The Charlotte Bobcats were hosting the Houston Rockets in a matchup of teams that were fewer than 10 games into their respective seasons but already planning for the draft lottery. The Sacramento Kings were facing a likely rout on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers. And the Dallas Mavericks brought their championship rings and weary legs to Detroit to play the Pistons, who are beginning to make more sense as performance art or as a practical joke than as an attempt to create a winning basketball team. But even amid this wasteland, there was never any question which game would be chosen to christen the "Fate Worse Than Death" series: the Washington Wizards versus the Toronto Raptors in our nation's capital.

As you may have heard, the Wizards were winless coming into Tuesday's game. The incredible part was that the Wizards had somehow managed to seem worse than their 0-8 record. Their personnel contained such a toxic mix of me-first chuckers, defense-averse louts, and plain-old knuckleheads that Washington actually felt worse than winless. Tuesday morning the Washington Post published a front-page column by Mike Wise that quoted Blatche saying, "Damn, Kevin Love shoots 42 percent from three-point range?"1 an hour before the Wizards' 21-point home loss on Sunday to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Between Rashard Lewis' rumored refusal to play, John Wall's dismal start, and JaVale McGee's Twitter campaign for All-Star votes, the 2012 Wizards gave off vibes so bad that they created good buzz. Like the pre-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers squad with Darius Miles and Ricky Davis,2 this was a train wreck you had to witness to believe.

The Raptors were 4-5 before Tuesday's game, their second in a back-to-back-to-back stretch, and they hoped to build on a win Monday over the Timberwolves. Andrea Bargnani was a top-10 scorer and Jose Calderon's season had gotten off to a fine start, but it takes more than that to convince NBA fans that the Raptors aren't just another jump-shooting Toronto team destined for a late lottery pick in the next NBA draft.

The stage was set: Wizards versus Raptors. Winless versus hopeless. After the tip, both teams missed jump shots on their opening possessions. I fought the urge to raid a tiny stash of prescription painkillers I glommed from my father's refrigerator over the holidays. A few minutes into the game, John Wall drove right, pulled up for a mid-range jumper, and watched the ball sail over and past the rim. Two minutes later, as if to give Wall a do-over, the Raptors' DeMar DeRozan toed the 3-point line, caught a pass, and shot the ball a few feet over the basket. Dueling air balls.

Near the end of the first quarter, Washington rookie Chris Singleton made a move to the elbow, picked up his dribble, and got stuck. First, he looked to shoot, but he reconsidered when it became clear that the only way to get the shot off would be to launch a turnaround fadeaway. Unfortunately, while Singleton held the ball and looked for an open teammate, none of the other four Wizards on the floor moved to get open. Maybe they were thinking, Take the shot! That's what I'd do! It was only their ninth game of the season, but the Wizards seemed to have already internalized the lesson that once a teammate started attacking the basket, moving without the ball was not worth the effort. Singleton eventually passed to Wall, who had about two seconds left on the shot clock to launch a contested 3. The ball bounced off the top of the backboard, followed by a close-up of Flip Saunders' aneurysm face.

Before the second quarter began, the Toronto broadcast team discussed a graphic depicting the Raptors' injury problems. Jerryd Bayless would return in a week, Aaron Gray was two weeks out, and Linas Kleiza would see action in the "near future." In other words, help is not on the way.

In the second quarter, Raptors analyst Jack Armstrong went in on Blatche. It started late in the first, actually, when Blatche threw the ball to Nick Young. "He passed the ball," Armstrong said. "Wow." I don't think I'd ever made myself watch a full Blatche game before Tuesday night. If you're like me, you probably wondered if all the things people wrote about his shot selection and near-total refusal to pass were exaggerated. Well, they weren't. Within minutes, I had scribbled "Blatche hole?" in my notebook, and not once in the game did I feel the need to revise or amend that description.

But why single him out? When Armstrong told viewers, "I have a hard time watching Blatche play," he could have said the same thing about almost any other Wizards player. I'll see your Blatche and raise you Nick Young and Jordan Crawford, two unconscionable gunners who shoot as badly and pass as reluctantly as Blatche does. Who would want to watch any of them? It turns out that Young, who spent Monday visiting Wizards season-ticket holders, is the favorite player of some young Washington fans, who love his turnaround jumper. He's poisoning kids' minds! The Wizards are an NC-17 team, not suitable for impressionable children who might try to play like them.

You know what, I'll also throw John Wall onto the list of hard-to-watch players. He runs very fast and finishes a few-jaw dropping drives every game. He makes some astounding defensive plays, too, like when he got caught on a high screen against Calderon in the third quarter. Calderon rose for what looked like a wide-open jumper, only to have Wall recover and fly into the play in time to block Calderon's shot. The rest of the time, however, Wall mostly commits turnovers and badly misses pull-up jumpers. His teammates aren't much help, but I don't believe they deserve as much of the blame as they've been getting for Wall's 34 percent shooting and an efficiency ranking that puts him 178th in the NBA.

The Wizard to watch, of course, is Czech "Dunking Ninja" Jan Vesely, the lottery pick who had an eventful week even before Tuesday's game. In his NBA debut Sunday, Vesely air-balled his first career free-throw attempt — the shot went 14 feet high, but traveled only about 13 feet long, two feet short of the hoop. After the game, he was interviewed for a Czech sports website and fielded the question, "Will you have your body tattooed, in order to fit in among teammates?" The answer is no,3 but Vesely played well enough against the Raptors to steer the subject of his interviews back to basketball. He didn't attempt any shots that weren't dunks, and I remember him stealing the ball more times than dribbling it, which is actually plausible because Dunking Ninja was credited with a whopping five steals in 16 minutes of play. He also played better defense against Bargnani than any of his teammates and sparked a second-quarter run that basically won the game for Washington.

At the beginning of the third quarter, the Wizards led 46-34, DeRozan was shooting 10 percent from the field, and Wall wasn't doing much better. I started stress eating a two-pack of YoGo Tuxedo Cakes I bought at Walgreen's before the game. My notes became vague and occasionally illegible. The second half was a blur of Toronto turnovers — some created by Washington's length and activity — and easy transition baskets for the Wizards.

I calculated the number of calories in one Tuxedo Cake — 340, in a three-ounce pastry — and vowed not to eat more than one. It took a JaVale McGee moment to rouse me from my corn syrup-and-Raptors-induced torpor. On offense, McGee — who is nothing if not adventurous — attempted to slash in from the wing and swing the ball past a reaching help defender. There aren't a lot of NBA centers who can pull off a move like this, and although McGee is extremely agile and quick for his size, he still isn't one of them. But he comes close, and McGee seems to gain some satisfaction from almost executing euro-steps and dunks from the free throw line, even though his near-misses typically cost his team buckets at the other end. So after a Raptors defender stripped McGee of the ball and passed it ahead to start the break, McGee didn't give up on the play. He had coughed up the ball, and he decided to get it back. McGee dashed after Rasual Butler and caught him just in time to goaltend a layup attempt after Butler drew a foul, giving Butler an unearned opportunity for a 3-point play.

Over the years, several players have been called "coach killers" for feuding with and eventually getting their coaches fired. McGee, with his talent, his boundless but frequently wanton enthusiasm, and his apparent disconnect with reality, may literally kill a coach someday by attempting some foolish play at the worst possible moment that leads to a sideline stroke or heart attack.

In the fourth quarter, Shelvin Mack connected with Vesely on an almost alley-oop that gave Washington a 27-point lead. There were still nine minutes to play, but it was clear that the Wizards wouldn't be winless any longer. Leandro Barbosa got some garbage-time minutes for the Raptors and handled the ball like he'd lost three fingers to frostbite in the Canadian winter. I buckled and ate the second Tuxedo Cake. When Barbosa hit a 3 that cut the Wizards' lead to 15 with five and a half minutes left, play-by-play man Matt Devlin said, "I'm not ready to give up on this, to be honest with you."

I hate to say it, Matt, but I gave up an hour ago.

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It's an All-Football Mailbag!

By: timbersfan, 12:32 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

Ahhhhhh, Round 1 of the playoffs. My annual dream to finish 11-0 against the spread. My beloved Patriots getting a much-needed week off. Four games in 28 hours. What's better than this? To celebrate, should we bang out an all-football mailbag before diving into the Week 1 playoff picks? I'm on the fence. Let's take one or two e-mails from readers and see how it goes.

Q: I was in a meeting this week where the head hancho wanted to chew some people out and burn them. What did he say? He said, "Sit down fellas, it's about to get crispy!" can we turn "It's about to get crispy" into an everyday saying?
— Michael S., Chicago

SG: Great start. Really strong. Just need a little more prodding and we should be good.

Q: STOP WRITING ABOUT BASKETBALL. No one gave a flying poop about the lockout, and people give even less of a flying poop now that it's back. If you want to write an entire book about something no one cares about, try environmentalism or something. Please go back to doing mailbags. It's one of the few things you're still good at.
— Sam, Edison

SG: Fine, Sam — you win. Just know that, as far as motivational speeches go, that wasn't exactly Al Pacino's locker room speech in Any Given Sunday, more like every Santonio Holmes speech during the 2011 Jets season. As always, these are actual e-mails from actual readers. And please, you better hold on to something — it's about to get crispy.

Q: Heard you talking on your podcast about adding a second bye week in the NFL (instead of going to an 18-game schedule). Here's my twist: for both bye weeks, EVERY team would be off. Not only would it eliminate the advantage of some teams having better bye weeks than others, but we could call them "Save the Marriage" weekends. Or, we could make a mandatory rule that all weddings would have to be scheduled for those 2 weekends only.
— Mike T., Danville

SG: As much as I love the idea of "Save the Marriage" weekend … I mean … no football on Sunday? Come on. That's a little overboard. Allow me to tweak your idea: 18-week schedule, two bye weeks per team … but we'd have to pick one Sunday in October, November and December with a shortened schedule (maybe 12 teams get a bye), then everyone else plays in games starting at 4 p.m. EST or later. Couldn't that work as three pseudo-"Save the Marriage" days? Hey honey, you have me until 3:45 today! What are we doing?

One other note: If the NFL extends its regular-season schedule to 18 games while pretending to care more about violent hits, concussions and player safety, we can all agree it would be one of the five or six dumbest decisions in the history of mankind. It's like going through chemo for treatable lung cancer while also upping your cigarette intake by an extra pack per day. If they want more TV money, they should chop two preseason games, extend the season by an extra bye week (making it 18 weeks in all), and add two more playoff teams. You know who wins in that scenario? Us!!!! The players get a little more rest. We get an extra week of fantasy/gambling/television during the regular season, then a Round 1 weekend football marathon with SIX playoff games in 34 hours. Everybody wins. Shouldn't we try that idea for one year before we add two more games to the schedule and double the chance of playoff teams being Caleb Hanie'd?

Q: Watching all of those offensive records fall in Week 17 made me think we need a new designation for NFL records. Just like we have the Dead Ball era and the Steroids era in baseball, we should have the Dead Receiver and Live Receiver era in football. The defining line being that small wideouts who used to go over the middle back in the old days were more likely to end up dead. You agree?
— Andy, Austin

SG: So we could say things like, "I know it doesn't seem like Stanley Morgan was a Hall of Famer, but trust me, if it wasn't for the Dead Receiver era, his stats would have been so much better"? Absolutely. I'd argue that it's actually three different eras, though — the Dead Receiver era (everything up until the early '90s), the Wide Receiver boom (when Cris Carter, Andre Rison, Andre Reed and everyone else caught up to Jerry Rice), and then, of course, the Touch Football era.

Q: Doesn't Tim Tebow remind you of Tom Cruise? There's a hyper, uber-personality to both. They're both devoted to small, intense religions (Scientology and the Church of Bob Tebow), yet we know very little about what goes on in both religions. Neither person seems quite "normal." It's almost like both are acting and saying things that they expect real humans would do and say. Their careers don't really make any sense anymore, yet they're still considered successful. Their fans are cult-like in their devotion and their inability to question either. Oh, and they're probably both repress—
— Adam, Tampa

SG: I'm stopping you right there. Great call with Tebow and Cruise, although you could have added that (a) they both have names that sound like they were made up in a Hollywood pitch meeting; (b) they make the same face when they're running; (c) Cruise's euphorically over-the-top performance as the cornerback in All the Right Moves was a dead ringer for Tebow's euphorically over-the-top performance for the 2011 Broncos;1 (d) Tebow grew up wanting to be a missionary and Cruise wanted to be a priest (true story); (e) and (f) Cruise's infamous jumping-off-Oprah's-sofa video is undeniably Tebow-esque (right down to him practically Tebow-ing with the on-one-knee-fist-pump move).

Q: Nickname for Tebow: "Tim Placebo." Spirits are up. Players are blocking and making plays. They have started winning. In spite of all that, he's not actually doing anything!!!
— Eric Distad, San Rafael

Q: Is it time to note that Tebow's career arc is tracking Netflix' career arc? Hot internet start-up with severely flawed business model takes the world by storm, because no one has ever seen anything like it. With each passing week, more and more people jump on the bandwagon. As the stock contines to perform, even former critics are convinced otherwise and the stock begins to appreciate hyperbolically. Soon, people begin to forget the fatal flaws and even the biggest short (Elway) changes his tune. Yet, in the back of our minds, we all know this story is doomed to fail and it's just a matter of time. So, is this Sunday's game the first crack in the facade? I don't know, but I'll definitely be watching …
— Carl Chious, Mountain View, CA

SG: So if you're keeping score, three readers just successfully compared Tebow to Tom Cruise, Netflix and a placebo drug in back-to-back-to-back mailbag e-mails. Really, I'm supposed to take Pittsburgh laying 9 against Netflix Placebo Tom Cruise???? Speaking of Cruise …

Q: We all know that Tom Cruise runs in all his movies. He runs aggressively and earnestly. There are countless youtube montages of him running. In MI4:GP (Imax) he outran an exploding Kremlin. But, how fast is Tom Cruise? He's obviously in great shape and does his own stunts, so he can't be slow … but he's also 5'6", so he has short legs. Still, I argue that he's actually really fast. Like a former DI defensive back who's now 50 fast. Not necessarily NFL fast, but still fast. Is there an answer to this? How disappointing would it be to find out he was actually just average speed?
— Max, NYC

SG: You can't answer this question without stumbling into a larger debate that has vexed Cruise fans for decades …

Is Tom Cruise a good athlete?

For instance, I know that Jason Priestley was a good athlete — during his epic reign as Brandon Walsh on the original 90210, I watched that guy win flag football games and track meets, play ice hockey pretty competitively, dominate in backyard H-O-R-S-E and nearly win California University's 3-on-3 tournament before his friend Dick overdosed at the Peach Pit. Priestley left no doubt: If not for acting, he would have played sports in college and possibly won us a few golds in the Olympics. But Cruise? It's a little murkier. I have seen the case made for both sides of this debate.

Argument of the Pro-Cruisers: Cruise always stayed in great shape (he's pretty ripped in the football movie) … when Cruise runs in movies, it LOOKS like he's running fast … he played an extremely convincing cornerback (in Moves) … in The Outsiders, he does a crazy Bart Conner-like flip off a railing as they're leaving somebody's house … he pulled off the volleyball scene in Top Gun, the boxing scenes in Far and Away and the pool scenes in Color of Money … and he cranks a few softball line drives in A Few Good Men.

Argument of the Anti-Cruisers: He may have used a stunt double for some of the football scenes in Moves, and when he runs back that one interception TD, they have to throw the ball right at him for him to catch it … the Top Gun volleyball scene was edited pretty carefully (and there's no way Cruise was spiking balls over a regulation net) … during the basketball scene in Cocktail (with Koglan), his shooting form is undeniably horrific (and even worse, he seems to think it's fine) … you can teach anyone to look like they're running fast (especially in a movie).

Here's my take: You know those short guys in high school who stayed in great shape, played D-back in football, served as a co-captain for the wrestling team, tried really hard with everything they did … and yet, if you played hoops with them, they were all over the place? That's Cruise. That means he probably topped out at a 4.9 in high school, maybe a 4.85 in college, a 5.0 in his 30s, and now, probably something in the 5.3 range, only every time he finishes the 40, it seems like he did it faster than that (only he didn't).

Q: I have a theory for why the 49ers won't make it to the Super Bowl. Basically, Jim Harbaugh is like a father who failed at something and is now going to take it out on his kids by being overly aggressive in his tutelage. Think about what he used to do in the playoffs as a Colt — getting a beat down from the Steelers, for instance, until he was falling all over the field with blood running down his face and jersey. He never made it to the big game. Now Harbaugh is an overbearing, overly aggressive and excitable coach who will freak out if his "charges" slip up. Just sayin' — watch what happens when the 49ers need to come from behind against the likes of Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. The disgruntled "I never made it, so you have to do it for me or I'll make you feel like crap" father figure will show his teeth and not be able to motivate.
— Adam Perry, Boulder, CO

SG: That's a pretty good theory. Mine is a little simpler: Their quarterback is Alex Smith.

Q: Is Tommy Boy more or less funny now because he was trying to save the town of Sandusky, OH? If find it less funny now, in light of the sullying of the name of Sandusky?
— Jeff H., Mableton, GA

SG: Here's how I know it's less funny — i am typing so fast tht i don't even care aobut misspellings b/c I wnt to get away from this qeustion so badly.

Q: I enjoyed your tribute to San Diego (in your Week 17 column). In my sophomore year at San Diego State, I lived in an apartment complex near school; my next door neighbors were three guys who left Bates College (in Maine) to spend one year at SDSU. It was October and we had an Indian summer heat wave. We were hanging out at the apartment's pool (yes) with about 50 other students including a good number of hot coeds, when one of them turned to me and said "When I was back at Bates, I would have never imagined that you could live this way and go to college. I just didn't know it was possible." He turned away, looked around, took a hit from his bottle and said, "I'm never leaving." Those three guys still live in San Diego.
— Matt H., Petaluma, CA

SG: I still can't believe the NBA failed in San Diego. If I were an evil kajillionaire, I'd build a state-of-the-art NBA arena downtown — only 10,000 seats, suited specifically for basketball — almost like a killer college hoops arena but with a few more suites — and steal someone else's NBA team and rename it "The San Diego Zoo." What marquee free agent wouldn't want to play for the San Diego Zoo? Who has a better chance of getting Dwight Howard next summer — the Milwaukee Bucks or the San Diego Zoo?

Q: Egregious Oversight Alert: In listing off all of the atrocities to befall the Vikings over the past 24 months (in your Week 17 column), you somehow forgot to mention that THE ROOF OF OUR STADIUM COLLAPSED LAST DECEMBER. If there was ever a real-life analogy for a team's precipitous decline, it has to be that.
— Alex, Minneapolis

SG: That's an excellent point. I also forgot to mention Randy Moss' cameo that cost them a third-round pick and led to a two-week long debate about the quality of the chicken and ribs from Tinucci's Restaurant.

Q: Do you realize you wrote this in your Black Friday Half-Mailbag?

"I can see it now … after the Giants get slaughtered on Monday night in New Orleans, everyone writes them off and starts saying, 'It's finally over for Tom Coughlin' … only just when we're almost done shoveling dirt on them, they make Mercury Morris' year by ending Green Bay's undefeated streak at home in Week 13, then they upset Dallas in Dallas on Sunday night, followed by everyone saying, 'You can never count out the Giants, when will we learn?' … only they promptly blow their Week 15 home game against the Redskins as 10-point favorites, everyone jumps off their bandwagon again … and of course, they upset the Jets in a 'road' game in Week 16, and suddenly, they're heading into the final week only needing to beat Dallas at home to (improbably) win the NFC East. The Giants are like Rowdy Roddy Piper: Every time you think you know the answers, they change the questions, right?"

You got everything right except for the Giants upsetting Green Bay — and they almost did! I can't even decide if this is amazing or not because the Giants do this every year.
— Tim, Hoboken, NJ

SG: It wasn't amazing. The Giants do this every year.

Q: A few years ago you wrote about overused and/or annoying phrases such as "literally" or when broadcasters answer their own questions ("You don't think so-and-so cares about winning?"). I'd like to add to the list and welcome others to chime in on what is annoying lately: "I get it" - i.e. "I get it. Tim Tebow is not a great QB but something magical is happening with him this year."
— Deli Man, NY

SG: Thanks for bringing up our 2011 winner of the prestigious Dan Dierdorf Award for "Most Annoying Broadcasting Crutch That Somehow Took On A Life Of Its Own." Why is the award named after Dierdorf? Because of his career-long habit of halfheartedly giving opinions that start with the disclaimer "I'm not so sure," as in, "I'm not so sure that Eli Manning isn't the best quarterback in football right now." I'm not so sure that even makes sense. Oh wait, I'm totally sure. It makes no sense. Anyway, I get it — when you start a sentence with "I get it," that means you're acknowledging somebody else's side before you disagree with it. And I get it, sometimes annoying vocal patterns can spread like the virus in Contagion, which, ohbytheway,2 definitely happened in Bristol these past few years. But it's been an "I get it" frenzy these past few months. I blame Phil Simms — I'm not so sure that he wasn't the first one who started it.

Q: Glad the Pats got the #1 seed, but do you realize that the Patriots did not beat a single team with a winning record this season?
— Jonathan, San Francisco

SG: You think I don't know this? You think there's a single Patriots fan strutting around this week with his chest puffed out? You think there's one Pats fan out there saying, "I don't care if we only have one pass-rusher, or that we play wide receivers in our secondary, or that we spotted teams gigantic leads in our past two games … this is gonna be totally fine"? The Pats might be the first no. 1 seed eligible for "Nobody Believes In Us" status.

(For the record, here's how I make myself feel better about this: Potentially, the Pats could play Andy Dalton in Round 2, Joe Flacco in Round 3, and if they make it past those two games, the next stop would be an indoor Super Bowl against Green Bay or New Orleans that will end up being a defense-doesn't-matter shootout no matter who's representing the AFC. And the other teams don't have Rob Gronkowski. So there.)

Q: Is it just me or does it seem like a rain cloud and eerie piano music follow Tom Rinaldi everywhere he goes?
— David Sparks, Scranton

SG: It's not just you — that's in his contract and everything.

Q: After watching my Broncos somehow (painfully) back into the playoffs, I had a thought: What if teams could trade their playoff spot? Here's how it would work: any team that makes it to the playoffs with a .500 record or worse would be eligible to trade their playoff spot to any team in their own conference in exchange for that team's first round pick. The cost of the spot goes up by a set amount as the team that traded into the playoffs advances. Make it to the conference title game? That's a first this year and a second rounder two years later. Make it to the Super Bowl? That's 2 first round picks — one now, one two years from now. Take this year for instance: Wouldn't the Broncos trade their spot in a heartbeat? Wouldn't the peaking Chargers (who have a coach and GM on the hot seat) make that trade in half-a-heartbeat? Wouldn't it make the playoffs better? Wouldn't it cause 45 different ESPN talking heads to explode over the last week of the season? TELL ME THE DOWNSIDE!?
— Brett, Bentonville, Ar

SG: I can't. I really love this idea, and not just because it would lead to someone on ESPN or the NFL Network popping a blood vessel in his or her eyeball on live TV as he or she screamed about Denver giving up a playoff spot. Wouldn't Houston at least consider that trade as well? And also, wouldn't Philly make that trade with either Denver or Houston, if only so its fans could be even more tortured by Andy Reid? I don't think it should be limited to conferences. If the Eagles want Denver's Round 1 AFC home game, they can trade for it. Anyway, I threw this idea at my buddy Gus — a lifelong Broncos fan — who texted me back in 1.993 seconds, "Yes. I make that trade. We have no chance this year but good pieces. Draft picks would help us build." And I'm still thinking about taking the Broncos +8½ on Sunday? What the hell is wrong with me?

Q: Is there any way that we, as a society, can agree to stop pretending that a quarterback throwing a block for a teammate is the most remarkable thing that has ever happened on a football field?
— Danny, Ithaca

SG: (Nodding sadly.)

Q: SI this week ran a feature about how Brady's Michigan experience helped Brady become the great QB he is now. I think I have read this story or seen a TV feature about it maybe 300 times in my life. But in the last 3 years alone someone has written a story or done a feature about how dropping to 24 made Rodgers the great QB he is now at least 150 times. Of course Rodgers is younger than Brady and has a longer career ahead. My question is this Sports Man — in 2030, when we finish counting these stories up after their careers, which story will have been beaten into the ground more? Would you go Rodgers or Brady?
— Frank, Lansing, MI

SG: What a great question. My gut reaction for an answer? Rodgers. Longer career, more media outlets now, and he's on a phenomenal pace — the beaten-into-the-ground Rodgers story from 2008 to 2011 crushes Brady from 2001 to 2004. I am making the beaten-into-the-ground Rodgers story a 37.5-point favorite over the beaten-into-the-ground Brady story. Let's revisit this in 2030 when — wait, if I'm still writing this column in 2030, you have permission to shoot me in the head like Tom Walker.

Q: Can we incorporate the NFL's "physically unable to perform" list as a euphemism for impotence? Think about it, your buddies ask you how it went with the girl you brought home the other night. You just kind of shake your head and say, "Little too much to drink that night … had to go on the PUP list." Way more clever than "Whiskey Dick," right?
— Scott, Austin

SG: Settle down. We're not getting rid of "Whiskey Dick," although I do like the concept of the PUP list trickling into real life. Wouldn't it work better for a non-whipped friend who's missing from a night out or a guy's weekend because he had to put in overdue family time or girlfriend time? For instance, let's say your married buddy Cliff just came back from a weeklong golfing trip in North Carolina. The following weekend, there's a birthday party and someone asks where Cliff is. If someone answered, "Cliff just came back from that crazy golf trip, he's on the PUP list this weekend," everyone would get what that meant.

Q: It is kinda hard taking you seriously in your playoff podcasts when you did so poorly in Week 17 and fell below .500 in your column for the season. Next year, rather than playing against your wife, how about playing against at dartboard? When Chad Millman told you that no one gets 60% correct and noted that if you get 55% you make money, you should have jumped in to say you were lucky to break 45%.
— David, Long Island

SG: Before answering this very fair question, I spent about two hours consulting with Norv Turner, Andy Reid and Mike Tannenbaum . Here's what we came up with …

"David, thanks for your e-mail and we appreciate your concern. Just know that I was more unhappy about 2011 than anyone — my goal every year is to finish 30 games over .500 in the regular season and 11-0 in the playoffs. When that doesn't happen, I'm as ticked as anyone. Sure, I finished 47-36-2 (11 games over .500) in the Las Vegas Hilton's SuperContest; had you followed those picks, you would have won about 58 percent of your 2011 wagers. But the real problems were my Grantland responsibilities and the NBA's abrupt return in early December. Looking back, I took on more than I could chew with the "12 Days of NBA Christmas" gimmick — heading into Day 1 (which coincided with my Week 13 picks), I was 88-82-6, coming off a 10-6 week and ready to make a run. I finished 32-45-3 those last five weeks. Not to make excuses, but it's pretty clear what happened. Just know that I'm shaking things up for the playoffs — I fired the USA Today Sports Weekly, I'm no longer consulting my gardener for his picks, and I'm going to start watching Inside the NFL again. Please, give me the courtesy of appreciating the past and not the present. I need you to believe in my picks again, even if there's no real reason to do so. Thanks for writing in and thanks for the support."

Q: It's too late for a Christmas mailbag, but I figured I'd ask anyway. What type of gift says "I have liked having sex with you for the past ten months, but I don't love you and there is no chance of us getting married?"
— James, Philadelphia

SG: What about what appears to be edible cancer? Would that work?

Q: In your half-baked ideas podcast, you and Wildes missed the easiest pick for a new holiday: what about the Monday after the Super Bowl? What's worse than going to work or class ten hours after a Super Bowl party? Think how much more drunk everyone would get if they didn't have to work the next day. Also weren't you the guy who once came up with the idea that the day "Madden" comes out should be a holiday? Old Simmons would have remembered that, now you're just old. That's all right it happens.
— MD, Scottsdale

SG: Thanks for the support, MD. Here's how we could pull off the Super Bowl holiday: Lincoln's birthday of February 12 is already a holiday in certain states (California, Connecticut, New York, etc.), while George Washington's birthday (February 22) is a federal holiday in every state and celebrated on the third Monday of February as Presidents Day. What if we just moved Presidents Day to the second Monday of every February, celebrated both Washington's birthday and Lincoln's birthday on that day, then extended the NFL season by an extra week (with the aforementioned second "bye") so that the Super Bowl always landed on the second Sunday in February? Then, to replace the void of Lincoln's birthday, we make Cinco de Mayo a federal holiday — an even bigger victory because that's a better month to celebrate a holiday, anyway. Everyone wins.

Q: Why don't we have a Saturday morning cartoon in which Tebow and his sidekick Jimmer team up to constantly foil the sexcapades of Tiger Woods?
— Jared Robinson, Terre Haute

SG: You just gave someone the best idea for a four-minute Internet cartoon ever. Actually, I probably shouldn't be the arbiter for this topic. Let's just move on.

Q: I just had an epiphany while watching the clock tick closer to quitting time today at work. The easiest pick of the Round One weekend is the Denver Broncos. This whole thing is playing out just like any sports movie ever made. You've got a QB in Tim Tebow that overcame all kinds of obstacles to get the starting job on a crappy team. Then he leads them to unbelievable win after win. He has the team playing hard for him and everyone is starting to love him, even those in the media who were so against him. Then just when everything is going great things start to fall apart. Key players get injured, none of his tricks work anymore, and they go on a horrible losing streak. Now, just when there is no hope and everyone has counted them out the "Nobody Believes in Us" speech is delivered by Timmy Tebow. The team rallies behind him and they pull off a miracle comeback to beat the Steelers. I'm telling you … it's the easiest pick of the weekend. If Disney's already making the Tim Tebow movie there is no way the Broncos lose.
— Jason H, Dayton, OH

SG: Remember the 2008 playoffs, after Kurt Warner had told his kids he'd buy them a puppy if the Cardinals won the Super Bowl, then I had a Pakistani reader send me an e-mail urging me to bet on Warner's team because "you never bet against God and puppies"? I kind of feel the same way about Jason's Tebow/Disney e-mail. He's right … this is a sports-movie script. And we all know how sports movies play out.

The best point of Jason's e-mail: "Then just when everything is going great things start to fall apart. Key players get injured, none of his tricks work anymore, and they go on a horrible losing streak. Now, just when there is no hope and everyone has counted them out the 'Nobody Believes in Us' speech is delivered by Timmy Tebow."

Seriously, how many times have we seen that sequence in a sports movie? Fifty? Seventy-five? One hundred? It always happens around the 1:15 mark of the movie; even better, you KNOW it's coming and somehow still enjoy it. I don't know whether the inevitable Tebow/Broncos sports movie would be called God's Will, Faith Healer, Divine Intervention, And A Tebow Shall Lead Them, White Bronco, or my personal favorite, Fourth-and-God, but it's definitely been a sports movie — you have a polarizing/mesmerizing lead character, the mandatory "this team's coming together!" and "this team's falling apart!" sequences, crazy amounts of media scrutiny, and the whole damned thing is just implausible enough that you find yourself saying, "I wish this movie was about 18 percent more realistic." If you pick against Denver this weekend, you're picking against every sports movie ever made, as well as the $86 million opening weekend Disney is about to have for Fourth-and-God in 15 months. As always, tread carefully.

Q: The best part of reading your mailbags was scrolling to the bottom to see what nutjob earned the last place spot and was granted the infamous, "Yup, these are my readers!" tagline. Why did it randomly disappear? Has your new fancy website changed you that much already? How am I supposed to know when the mailbag is over now?
— Amy, Jacksonville

SG: Fine, fine. We'll make it happen this time, if only because you're the first Jacksonville reader who ever wrote in without calling me an obscenity.

Q: Have you noticed the "Thank you for watching the NFL on CBS" clip that runs after the late game? As the NFL shield comes down, it looks like a pair of white boobs in a black cocktail dress.
— Morgan C., Portland, OR

SG: And just like that, we're in range.

Q: I don't like the comparison of Alex Smith to Meg White (in your Week 17 column). If you're going to compare Alex to a drummer, I think it's got to be Rick Allen (the guy from Def Leppard with one arm). Came in with a lot of talent. Didn't do a whole lot. Suffered through some bad experiences (multiple bad coaches and coordinators, lost an arm). Then, despite all odds, gained success with the same supporting cast. Not saying I want the Niners to be the Def Leppard of football (I'd prefer Van Halen if we're going hair metal), but the parallels are undeniable. By the way, it's 4:19 a.m. right now, and I'm drunk on Johnnie Walker Black Label (official sponsor of the ESPN Happy Hour, where PTI lets you appear when they're hard-up for subs), which explains why I'm suddenly full of sports knowledge.
— Josh Bartz, Missoula

SG: Getting closer.

Q: Nobody has ever come up with a satisfactory answer to this question for me. If a Siamese twin committed murder, and the other twin did everything in its power to stop the murder, what should be the punishment be? (Presuming that they can't be split).
— Sean, London

SG: Closer …

Q: Had morning sex with the girlfriend while she was wearing her original Dream Team t-shirt with the cartoon drawings of each playeron the front. I looked down, and saw Larry Legend with an ear to ear grin and his fist in the air. I kept looking down, seeing Larry giving me the victory fist pump and thought: life is good.
— Mark, Madison, WI

SG: Yup, these are my readers. Let's get to my Round 1 playoff picks.

(Home teams in caps.)

TEXANS (-3) over Bengals
Jake Delhomme's shadow is lurking. I am well aware. Every time they show Jake wearing his headset and a "I really hope I don't come in" look on his hangdog face, I will mutter to myself, "I really hope I didn't make a tragic mistake here." There's also the nagging problem of Houston being unable to crack 23 points since Week 10 — if Andre Johnson isn't 100 percent (or close), that Texans offense can't stretch the field and goes into "we're just going to run the ball, and if you stack the line on us, we have to go into dink-and-dunk mode and we're kind of screwed" mode.

And yet, the Texans are my favorite Round 1 pick. A legitimately good defense playing at home against a rookie QB running a fairly limited offense … and the line is only three? Delightful! The 2011 Bengals played five "big" games (both Pittsburgh games, both Baltimore games and their Week 14 Houston game) and lost all five.3 Maybe that's why the Bengals went into playing-not-to-lose mode against Baltimore in last weekend's exceptionally uninspiring performance. If one thing stood out last week, other than Marvin Lewis playing not to lose for the umpteenth time of his career, it was that Andy Dalton actually had time to throw against Baltimore (all game, by the way) and just couldn't make plays. Why should we trust him in a big game? Check out his game log for Week 3 (San Francisco), Week 10 (Pittsburgh), Week 13 (Pittsburgh) and Week 17 (Baltimore) — suddenly he's going to turn it on in Week 18 with MORE pressure?

Think of it this way: Dalton needs to play well for the Bengals to prevail; his rookie counterpart (T.J. Yates) needs only to avoid driving Houston's boat into an iceberg. I just don't see the Bengals bringing enough to the table, especially in Houston against a rabid crowd that hasn't even seen a Texans playoff game before (much less hosted one). We also know that Houston's running game can protect and extend any lead; nobody else in the playoffs has anything remotely approaching that Arian Foster/Ben Tate combination. Please, Lord, keep Delhomme on the sideline.

The pick: Houston 23, Cincy 10.

SAINTS (-10.5) over Lions
You've heard the case for Detroit: It's going to be a shootout, the Lions are going to throw on New Orleans, they're used to playing indoors, and even if they're getting mildly blown out, that extra half-point is a biggie (they can always pull off a backdoor touchdown (a Calvin Johnson specialty over the years). My counter in three parts …

1. You shouldn't pick any playoff team unless you think it can win. You're telling me this same shaky Lions team that just made Matt Flynn rich is beating a juggernaut that's been ripping through everyone in football for two solid months AND has a scorching-hot QB? We just watched Flynn shred that depleted Lions secondary for 16 touchdowns and 987 yards (all numbers approximate). Brees' past eight games: 2,430 yards, 22 TD', 3 picks, 5 sacks, 8-0 record. Brees at home this year: 2,864 yards, 29 TDs, 6 picks, 8 sacks, 8-0 record. What am I missing?

2. You beat the 2011 Saints (and the 2011 Packers, and maybe even the 2011 Pats) with the old Super Bowl XLII game plan that the Giants used to break my sports heart: Shorten the game, run the ball, move the chains, keep their offense off the field, and when they're out there, hit the crap out of the QB. The Lions don't have that type of team. To say the least. All the Lions have going for them is that extra half-point and the "Weird things usually happen in Round 1 on Saturday night" thing going.

3. New Orleans won nine of its 13 victories by 11 points or more. Every time the Saints went up by double digits in the fourth, they eventually won by 11 or more. By contrast, in 11 of Detroit's 16 games, the Lions trailed at some point in the second half (seven times by 10 points or more). We know all about their penchant for comebacks, but that's the thing about the 2011 Saints: You don't come back against Brees. Not this year. Given the recent history of these two teams, there's an excellent chance the Saints will be leading in the fourth quarter by double digits — let's say, 30-17 — and will have the ball with a chance to go for the kill. You really want to bank on a backdoor cover at that point? Come on. Don't try to be a hero. It's the playoffs.

The pick: New Orleans 37, Detroit 17.

GIANTS (-3) over Falcons
On Tuesday's B.S. Report, Aaron Schatz revealed that the Falcons were the most consistent team from week to week that Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings had ever measured. That made sense: After all, the 2011 Falcons beat up bad teams, played mediocre-to-solid teams close and lost to good teams. By contrast, the 2011 Giants zigged every time you thought they would zag and zagged every time you thought they would zig. Add everything up and the Giants need only to play well to win; their best is better than Atlanta's best. Or so it would seem.

Well … I'm not even sure the Giants need to play that well. The Falcons were predictable mainly because their environment was predictable: They played a whopping 12 games indoors (eight home games plus games in Indy, New Orleans, Detroit and Houston), and three of their four outdoor games happened in the first four weeks in warm weather in Chicago (loss), Tampa (loss) and Seattle (barely won), with a comeback December win in Carolina being the other. Sorry, I'm not impressed. They also played four playoff teams (New Orleans twice, Green Bay, Houston and Detroit) and finished 1-4, failing to crack 17 points in three of the games. Picking them outdoors against a Giants team that can do two things really well (throw the ball and rush the passer) and has the best three players on the field (Eli Manning, Jason Pierre-Paul and the electric Victor Cruz) seems like a stretch, especially when they're getting only a field goal.

There's also something happening with the Giants, which is a different story altogether: My buddy Hirschy (a lifelong Giants fan) attended Sunday's Dallas game and came away raving about a Giants crowd that everyone had secretly feared (because of the design of the new stadium, the PSL's and the departure of many "old-school" fans) was gone forever. "I'm telling you," Hirschy said, "when Cruz was breaking away on that long touchdown, the roar was like the old roar from the old place. We still have it." And they'll have it again this week.

The pick: Giants 31, Falcons 20.

Broncos (+8.5) over STEELERS
The case against Pittsburgh: 5-3 on the road this year, beat only one home team by double digits (Arizona by 12), ridiculously banged-up, no Ryan Clark, no Rashard Mendenhall, a painfully hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, a hobbled LaMarr Woodley, a hobbled Maurice Pouncey, a little too much Isaac Redman, more than a smidge 2010 Colts "Why is everyone giving us so much credit? We're not the same team anymore" potential … and they just love playing these ugly 13-9-type games and letting inferior teams hang around, only now, they're playing against an inferior team that loves winning ugly.

The case for Pittsburgh: They'll turn it on when it matters, they'll be fine, it's Pittsburgh, Denver sucks, just stop it.

The case against Denver: Every gawd-awful football moment from the past three weeks, everything we already covered in the mailbag, the fact that they're being led by Netflix Placebo Cruise.

The case for Denver: Pittsburgh isn't Pittsburgh right now. And also, we're entering the last 20 minutes of Fourth-and-God, starring a bulked-up Zac Efron as Tim Tebow.

(I can't resist … )

The pick: Denver 19, Pittsburgh 17.

Last Week: 4-10-2
Season: 120-127-9

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Playoff Preview: Steelers at Broncos

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

Don't believe anyone who tells you that the Broncos don't have a prayer when they host the the Steelers on Sunday. There have been two instances since the merger in 1970 of a .500 or worse division champion hosting a far superior wild-card team in the first round. In both cases, the team that was written off won. The 7-9 Seahawks beat an 11-5 Saints team last year, and the 8-8 Chargers defeated the 12-4 Colts in 2008. A Broncos victory would be unlikely, but it's hardly unprecedented.

As Simmons pointed out on Monday's B.S. Report, it's not as if the Steelers are some destroyer of worlds when they leave home. They're 5-3 on their travels away from Heinz Field, with losses to the Ravens, Texans, and 49ers, but their wins haven't been very impressive. They beat the Browns, Chiefs, and Colts by four points or less. Their biggest road win, depending on whether you prefer margin of victory or strength of schedule, was either a seven-point win over the Bengals or a 12-point defeat of the Cardinals. The Steelers might not have beaten a tougher team on the road this year than the one they'll face this Sunday.

In addition, Pittsburgh is banged up. Ben Roethlisberger's still suffering from a high ankle sprain that flared up on him again last Sunday against Cleveland. Center Maurkice Pouncey has his own high ankle sprain and had his own setback this week, forcing him to miss practice on Thursday. His likely replacement, Doug Legursky, missed Week 17 himself with an injury. Halfback Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL on Sunday, turning the running game over to the inexperienced (if similarly effective) Isaac Redman. Star pass-rusher LaMarr Woodley has been hugely limited by a hamstring injury during the second half of the season, having played in just parts of two games since Halloween. And safety Ryan Clark will be unable to play in Denver, owing to a sickle cell trait that caused him to lose his spleen and gallbladder the last time he played in Colorado's thin air. Denver's injury complaints, by comparison, are relatively mild.

GRANTLAND NFL PLAYOFFS COVERAGE
• Playoff Preview: Bengals at Texans
• Playoff Preview: Lions at Saints
• Playoff Preview: Steelers at Broncos
• Playoff Preview: Falcons at Giants
• Cousin Sal's Gambling Blog
• B.S. Report: Mega Playoff Podcast
• B.S. Report: Cousin Sal
You often hear about a team's strengths matching up with the opposition's weakness. In this case, the opposite may be true, as well as a key reason why Denver has a shot at winning this thing. The Steelers' biggest asset is their pass defense, which ranks third in the league in DVOA. They're only 15th against the run. That's the wrong mixture for this matchup.

None of that suggests anything about Denver being a great or even good football team, of course. They were 8-8 and outscored by 58 points; since the merger, only seven 8-8 teams have been outscored by more points than the Broncos. They're about as good as the 2010 Jaguars, who went 8-8 and were outscored by 66 points. Denver's here, of course, because it went 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less and got plenty of help during Weeks 16 and 17. If the Steelers get out to a double-digit lead early, the Broncos basically have no hopes of coming back. But there are reasons to believe that this will be a close game.

Steelers on Offense

The familiar Pittsburgh Steelers offense under coordinator Bruce Arians revolves around the trips bunch alignment, with two wide receivers and tight end Heath Miller lined up together in a "V" shape on one side of the formation. On passing plays, the Steelers use it to set picks on man coverage and overload zones, and on running plays, it gives them a cavalry to clear out lanes. (Our colleague Chris Brown has some images and details on Indiana using the trips bunch at his Smart Football site.) You might not see the trips bunch quite as much on Sunday, though, because of Miller's responsibilities as a pass-blocker. Denver has sacked opponents on 7.1 percent of dropbacks, while the Steelers have taken sacks on 7.2 percent of their dropbacks. In both cases, either side is 10th in the league in those categories.

And those sack numbers may not have much relevance because of how late-season injuries are affecting both the Pittsburgh passing game and the Denver pass rush. With the Steelers, the high ankle sprain suffered by Roethlisberger has greatly limited his ability to scramble and extend plays. When Roethlisberger played against the 49ers in his first game after the ankle sprain, Pittsburgh went to a lot of short drops and quick throws to prevent the pass rush from getting to Roethlisberger. When Roethlisberger did try to throw downfield, he couldn't plant on his ankle and sailed many of his passes, resulting in some wild incompletions and a three-interception day. Roethlisberger took Week 16 off and returned in Week 17, but his numbers were unimpressive, as he went just 23-of-40 while throwing for 221 yards. A guy who was previously averaging eight yards per attempt could only get to 5.5 against the Browns. And if Pouncey doesn't play on Sunday, just one of the five opening-day starters for the Steelers on the offensive line (left guard Chris Kemoeatu) will be in the same spot for the team's first playoff game. With Mendenhall unavailable to block on passing downs, this could be a nightmare for pass protection.

That depends, though, on which Broncos pass rush shows up. Remember when that big winning streak came on the backs of rookie sensation Von Miller and a dominant pass rush? Well, it's gone missing. Miller tore ligaments in his thumb against the Chargers and missed the Week 13 shootout with the Vikings; since then, he's played with a huge cast on his hand. In the ensuing four games, Miller has just one sack, and he was benched during the Week 17 loss to the Chiefs after failing to stop Dexter McCluster from scoring the game's lone touchdown. During the six-week stretch after Denver's bye when both Von Miller and fellow pass rusher Elvis Dumervil were healthy, the Broncos went 5-1, held opposing pass offenses to 6.6 yards per attempt, and sacked them on 7.9 percent of dropbacks. In the five subsequent games after Miller's injury, the Broncos allowed opposing passing attacks to average more than 7.6 yards per attempt and only sacked quarterbacks on 6.5 percent of their dropbacks.1

Expect Arians to build his offense around quick throws for Roethlisberger in an attempt to mitigate the pass rush, but the Steelers will need to hit on a big play or two downfield to score points. Mike Wallace is certainly up to the task, but if Roethlisberger is inaccurate and the Broncos pass rush comes to play, we might see a lot of punts.

Broncos on Offense

You really like talking about injuries, right? Great! Let's do that some more. The Broncos' five starting offensive linemen didn't miss a single game all year, but right guard Chris Kuper suffered a gruesome leg injury during the Chiefs game on Sunday, fracturing his tibia. He's obviously done for the year. This week, the Broncos signed former starting right tackle Ryan Harris, who was supposed to play for the Eagles this year before undergoing back surgery in August. Harris hasn't played all season, but he could figure into the game plan in a limited role on Sunday. Fullback Spencer Larsen also suffered a knee injury, and he looks doubtful to play on Sunday. He'll be replaced by Austin Sylvester, who was signed off the practice squad this week and will be making his NFL debut as the team's starting fullback.

That should really hurt the occasionally dominant Broncos running game, especially when running up the gut. Denver runs the ball up the middle or at either guard slot 67 percent of the time, which is tied with the Steelers and Browns for the highest rate in football. Now, they'll be doing that with two replacements in the middle of the field. Meanwhile, the Steelers run defense has been at its best against running plays in the middle of the field. We hope you like punts!

The biggest story surrounding the Broncos offense these days is the idea that the league has figured out Tim Tebow. His numbers are down a bit during the team's current three-game losing streak, but it's not that the defenses of the league are playing Tebow in a dramatically different way. Instead, the biggest change between the Tebow from November and the guy who has scuffled in recent weeks is his spirit of giving. During his first six starts, Tebow threw one interception and fumbled five times, losing one of them. That was unsustainable. In his final five starts of the regular season, Tebow's thrown five interceptions and fumbled eight times. The opposition has recovered five of those fumbles, one in each game. In short, Tebow went from offering up two turnovers in five weeks to two turnovers per week. If he arrests that trend, the Broncos might be able to turn this game into a field-position war.

And that brings us full circle to the point that we've been discussing all year with the Steelers defense: their weird inability to force takeaways. At the season's midway point, we noted that the Steelers had just three takeaways through eight games, the lowest total in league history. During the final eight games of the year, Pittsburgh actually forced the other team to cough up the ball 12 times, a roughly league-average takeaway rate.2 Of course, a historically low first half and an average second half produced just 15 turnovers on defense, the fewest of any team in football. A year ago, Pittsburgh forced 35 turnovers, which was good for third in the league. There's no reason to think the Steelers will be totally unable to create turnovers because of what happened in the first half, but there's also not any strong evidence suggesting they're the ballhawks from 2010, either.

Special Teams

These are two roughly similar units, but again, the context will remove Pittsburgh's biggest advantage. The Steelers are excellent on kickoffs, with Shaun Suisham averaging 66.5 yards per kickoff and converting 38.9 percent of his kicks into touchbacks. That's not bad, but this is happening in Denver, where the touchback is essentially de rigueur. Consider Denver kicker Matt Prater. On the road, he's produced touchbacks on 18 of his 36 kickoffs, for a touchback percentage of an even 50 percent. Not bad. In Denver? Just three of Prater's 33 kicks have resulted in a return. That's a 91 percent touchback percentage. Suisham's touchbacks are more meaningful in a context where they're less likely to happen; even a terrible kicker is likely to boot the ball out of the end zone in Denver.

Both kickers have been below-average on scoring plays; Prater had a few notable kicks from long distance during the Denver winning streak, but he's also just 3-of-7 from 40 to 49 yards. Denver's real source of strength has been on punt returns. The team dumped leading returner Quan Cosby, who averaged just 10 yards per return, two weeks ago. Eddie Royal and Eric Decker have combined to average 18.2 yards per return on their 18 attempts, so expect them to handle the duties during the postseason.

The Prediction

If the Steelers get a couple of gifts from Tebow and pick up two short fields, Denver's chances of winning are essentially nil. Otherwise, this should be a very competitive game, thanks to the injuries on Pittsburgh's side. This game feels like it will either be a Pittsburgh blowout or a close Denver victory. In the interest of keeping things interesting, let's try the latter. Denver 13, Pittsburgh 10

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Playoff Preview: Falcons at Giants

By: timbersfan, 12:29 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

Falcons-Giants is a matchup between consistency and wild peaks and valleys, a contest between sober achievement and dramatic attainment, a battle between the comfort of balance and the glee of sudden strikes. Deciding it will come down to one simple question: Which Giants team is going to show up on Sunday?

The Falcons, of course, are our slow but always steady team. As Aaron Schatz noted on Tuesday's B.S. Report, the Falcons are the most consistent team in football. They have just one bad loss all year, a 16-13 defeat at the hands of the Buccaneers in Week 3 that saw the Falcons lose both of the game's fumbles and run for a total of just 30 yards. Their other losses have been to the Saints (twice), Texans, Packers, and a healthy Bears team. They've known that they were making the playoffs since about Thanksgiving, as they had a 6-4 record with games against the Vikings, Panthers, Jaguars, and Bucs still to come. None of their veterans have had a career year, but everybody who would have been expected to produce has put up solid numbers while staying relatively healthy. Perhaps slow-and-steady is the wrong word; this is a magazine-preview team, since everything you might have read about them in July basically turned out to be true.

GRANTLAND NFL PLAYOFFS COVERAGE
• Playoff Preview: Bengals at Texans
• Playoff Preview: Lions at Saints
• Playoff Preview: Steelers at Broncos
• Playoff Preview: Falcons at Giants
• Cousin Sal's Gambling Blog
• B.S. Report: Mega Playoff Podcast
• B.S. Report: Cousin Sal
The Giants? Well, not so much. They were a lock to make the playoffs in Week 9 after beating the Patriots, raising their record to 6-2, but their traditional second-half collapse set in with a four-game losing streak, at which point it was totally clear that they would miss the playoffs and fire head coach Tom Coughlin. Instead, the Giants won 3 of 4, sweeping the Cowboys and essentially eliminating the Jets from playoff contention while somehow losing handily to the Redskins for the second time this season. They've gotten mammoth seasons out of unlikely contributors and experienced disappointing production from dependable stars while being ravaged by injury. They seem capable of alternating between brilliance and utterly bewildering mistakes on a play-by-play basis.1 They are so routinely the Giants, football's least routine team.

Giants on Offense

With a home crowd that occasionally seems more excited to boo their team off the field than cheer them onto it, the Giants really have one of the worst home-field advantages in all of football. Historically, they get very little out of playing in New Jersey. The change between their average score differential at home as opposed to on the road from 2002 to 2010 was just 1.2 points, which was the second-worst rate in football.2 This year, the Giants were 4-4 at home while outscoring their opposition by a total of one point, and they were 5-3 on the road, with a total score differential of -7 points.

That malaise at home extends to the quarterback. For the third year in five, Eli Manning's passer rating was better on the road than it was at home, albeit by an ever-so-slight margin: 92.5 at home, 93.3 on the road. His completion percentage and yards per attempt were higher at home, but he also threw more interceptions in the unfriendly confines of MetLife Stadium. You might attribute the lack of home improvement to the often-uncomfortable weather conditions Manning faces in North Jersey, but Manning's predecessors as Giants quarterback (notably Phil Simms) were better at home than they were on the road, as are most quarterbacks. The split doesn't imply anything specific about Manning's style of play or suggest a failing, but it's certainly weird.

Unfortunately for Giants fans, those home issues extend to the playoffs. Despite the fact that Manning's already won a Super Bowl, he has yet to win a home playoff game. It's an extremely small sample size, but Manning has been far worse at home during the postseason than he has been outside of Jersey:

A TALE OF TWO ELIS
Playoffs Record Cmp Att Cmp% Yds YPA TD Int
Home 0-2 25 47 53.2% 282 6.0 0 5
Road/Neutral 4-1 88 146 60.3% 1015 7.0 8 2
Of course, Manning has also never had an offense quite like this one to work with. After his receivers tipped enough passes to the opposition last year for Manning to lead the league in interceptions, he's gotten great work from Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz after the catch this year. Cruz, of course, pushed the Giants into the playoffs with touchdowns of 74 and 99 yards over the past two weeks, and virtually all of the yardage on those plays came after the catch. Then again, Cruz did nearly fumble away a win over the Cardinals and tipped a pass inside the 5-yard line to the Seahawks for a game-sealing pick-six, so he had some work to do. Well, he also had an incredible one-handed catch against Seattle for a long touchdown. OK. See! He's the embodiment of this year's Giants.

Depending on who is actually healthy on either side of the ball, the Falcons could match up well with the Giants' receivers. Nicks was at less than 100 percent heading into the Week 17 win over the Cowboys thanks to a hamstring injury, and he ended up serving primarily as a decoy. His touchdown catch came on a play in which the Cowboys were lost in coverage and ended up with Orlando Scandrick sprinting out to the edge just before the snap. Because of Nicks' size, it seems likely that the Falcons would match up their larger corner, Dunta Robinson,3 on him. The smaller, speedier Cruz is likely to draw the attention of Brent Grimes, who sat out four of the final five games of the season after having his knee scoped.

The real advantage for the Giants could come in the slot, though, where Mario Manningham should be nearing 100 percent after some knee issues. He should be able to routinely beat Falcons slot corner Chris Owens. The Giants will also hope to get starting tight end Jake Ballard back from a knee injury, and that may end up being a compelling matchup to watch. Opposing teams throw 8.9 passes per game to their starting tight end against the Falcons, more than the average against any other defense in football. What do they get for it? Not very much. The Falcons have the best defensive DVOA on passes to those tight ends.

While they should have some success in the passing game, don't expect the Giants to enjoy consistent success running the football. The Falcons have the third-best run defense DVOA in the league, stopping opposing backs for no gain or a loss on 23 percent of carries. That's the second-best rate in football. After failing to learn their lesson following the Brandon Jacobs contract, the Giants gave Ahmad Bradshaw a contract extension this year and promptly got a season with his lowest rushing average as a pro. Neither back is a receiving threat out of the backfield, so it's hard to imagine them having a real impact on the game this Sunday.

Falcons on Offense

As is their custom under Tom Coughlin, the Giants' pass defense fell off dramatically during the second half of the 2011 season. After ranking 12th in the league in pass defense DVOA during Weeks 1-9, Big Blue fell off to 26th during Weeks 10-17.4 That drop coincided pretty closely with a decline in the sacks produced by their star pass-rushers. During the first eight games of the year, the Giants sacked opposing quarterbacks on 9.3 percent of dropbacks, which was the third-highest rate in the league. Over the final eight games, though, the Giants only sacked the quarterback 6.6 percent of the time. That was right at league average, 17th.5

The Giants simply need to get pass pressure to compete on defense; thanks to injuries, their secondary can't keep up with talented passing attacks. Good pass pressure will take away Atlanta's favorite pass play, the deep curl with Roddy White. Star cornerback Corey Webster has held down the fort and played at a Pro Bowl level on one side of the field, but he injured his hamstring in practice this week and might be limited on Sunday. If he isn't able to play, it would be disastrous for the Giants.

Opposite him is Aaron Ross, who often serves as the primary target for most opposing quarterbacks. The Giants move Webster around with the opposing no. 1 receiver to try to hide Ross against the lesser options in the league, but this weekend, that just means Ross will end up shadowing Julio Jones for most of the day. As a player whose lack of speed and top-end athleticism limits him from being an effective cornerback, Ross is a bad matchup for Jones. Unfortunately, the Giants don't really have much of a choice. Prince Amukamara, the 2011 first-rounder, is still learning on the job, and he'll have to stay in the slot while marking the speedy Harry Douglas.

The worst matchup for the Giants, though, will be at tight end. If they want to give their cornerbacks safety help and prevent against the big play, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to end up being covered by a linebacker, either Michael Boley or Chase Blackburn. Boley would be the better option, since Blackburn is a special teams wizard who was out of the league for most of this season before being brought back and stretched into a starting role. The Falcons should have a lot of success on third down by throwing to Gonzalez and running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons are the sixth-best team in the NFL at picking up third downs, converting 44.4 percent of the time.

So, we've harped on how important it is for the Giants to get pass pressure. Will they? We have absolutely no idea. Jason Pierre-Paul has rightly attracted attention for his breakout season, but it's unclear who will be getting the bulk of the snaps across from him. Osi Umenyiora came back from the dreaded high ankle sprain and had two sacks of Tony Romo last week, but he apparently reinjured the ankle during practice this week. Justin Tuck has struggled through an injury-marred season and has just five sacks, but he's picked one up in each of the final two games. That sounds great, but the Falcons have managed to piece together some incredible pass protection despite benching left tackle Sam Baker and turning over the right side of their line. Over the final five games of the season, Matt Ryan dropped back 176 times and was sacked on just four plays.

The Giants might turn to their Four Aces package on defense — where Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Tuck, and a fourth player (perhaps linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka) all play at the same time on the defensive line to try to prevent double-teams while creating havoc — but that could create opportunities for an otherwise mundane Falcons running game. A big game against the disinterested Buccaneers in Week 17 helped make Michael Turner's final numbers look good (301 carries, 1,340 yards, 11 touchdowns, 4.5 yards per carry), but Turner's spent most of the year looking like a shell of the player who broke out in 2008. Atlanta's rushing attack is just 25th in DVOA, and Turner himself ranks 39th among qualifying backs in the same stat.

Special Teams

The fantastic work done by Eric Weems for the Falcons last year has disappeared. Weems returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown before being selected to the Pro Bowl last season, but his yardage on both sorts of returns is down dramatically this season.

New York's enjoyed a great season from punter Steve Weatherford, who has been worth 10.9 points of field position this season. Unfortunately, the Giants have given back most of that performance on punt returns, where five different return men have combined to average just 6.1 yards per return. It's safe to say that neither team wants this game to come down to special teams.

The Prediction

Although Detroit and New Orleans are getting all the "shootout" attention, this game has just as much potential to turn into a scoring spree. The Falcons should be able to dial up some big plays on Ross and Amukamara, but the Giants may very well be able to do the same on an injured Grimes or an overmatched Owens. The final outcome all depends, as we said earlier, upon which Giants team shows up. After two emotional wins to get in, we suspect that it will be a worn-out one. Falcons 30, Giants 21.

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LSU-Alabama: National Championship Game Preview

By: timbersfan, 12:27 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

I may hail from SEC country, but I count myself among the fans who felt disgruntled at the announcement of this national championship rematch. I didn't want it. I wanted to see college football's best receiver, Justin Blackmon, compete with the Tiger secondary. I wanted a matchup of conference champions. Plus, my discomfort with this game had a moral component. In 2004, Auburn was locked out of the big game after going undefeated, and boy were we mad down South. The Pac-10 and Big 12 were chosen over the poor old SEC. We were brushed aside, and we shook our fists against the heartless, cold universe.

That was seven years ago. It was five years ago that Florida begged and begged and finally received its chance to beat the hell out of Ohio State, and boy did it feel good to be included, to be treated with respect, to not be frozen out. So leap forward, over several years of BCS champions from the SEC, and now it's the other conferences begging. What do we say? "Let them eat cake."1 Once the villagers have stormed the castle, it sure doesn't take long to get comfy in those canopy beds, grow a belly from all the turkey legs and ale, and start throwing rocks out the windows at the noisy, insolent peasants down there. Quickly, a royal decree comes down to widen the moat. Raise taxes. I'll leave this analogy alone. You get my point.

I know, the SEC didn't decide to close the door on Oklahoma State. The voters did. But let's be classy, SEC fans. Let's acknowledge that this isn't right. It isn't morally right, and that makes it football-wrong, too, because morals you can be sure of, and football games you can't. Florida wasn't supposed to be able to play with Ohio State in 2006. Everybody was sure of it. Everybody. Ohio State and Michigan were the two best teams. Fans, TV analysts, real coaches — they all were absolutely sure. Until they weren't.

All right, John, off the soapbox. This is the game we've got, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama, and it's a great game. Time to get onboard. We said we didn't want a rematch, not that we wouldn't enjoy it. Of course we'll enjoy it.

Here's one thing you can say on behalf of the BCS system: It doesn't give up. It has given us championship game participants who only twice before haven't won at least a share of their respective conferences, and both times those teams lost. Both were from the Big 12, not that it means anything. Nebraska and Oklahoma.2 The BCS is taking another stab at surrealism, in this case the surreal befuddlement that will envelop LSU fans if they see old Nick walking away with the crystal after everything the Tigers have done this year. This sort of thing happens all the time in sports that have playoffs, but in college football it's highly irregular for a team that doesn't accomplish any of its goals (division title, conference title, defending home field) to walk off with the ultimate prize. It just doesn't happen. That is, until it does.

In recent years, it's been easy to figure out the championship game. SEC versus Other, and SEC has a couple more horses and a few more scars. This year, there's no under-steeded, under-scarred Other. There's a big-play juggernaut and a steady, strong team bent on revenge. A lot of days sit between the end of the season and the title game, and one team has been polishing a trophy while the other has been stewing. There's pressure on Nick Saban, and that pressure will flow downhill. Yes, I said there's pressure on the Sabatron 4.0. He doesn't have a heart, of course, but he can feel it in his circuitry. He's supposed to be the best coach in the world at the greatest college football program in the nation, and if some bayou trash in yellow and purple can invade Tuscaloosa and pound the Tide until they flinch and then invite them down to New Orleans and beat them again … well, that ain't good. Saban is supposed to be an assassin and Les Miles a buffoon, but the thing about assassins is they're not accustomed to being shot back at, and the thing about buffoons is they're too dumb to be scared.

So it stands to reason that Alabama has an edge in the intensity of its preparation, but how much of an edge? Who knows? This LSU team loves, loves, loves hitting, and I'm sure the LSU coaches haven't needed to point out that the season has been a series of battles and January 9 will be the war. The game is in New Orleans, so being too hyped may be more of a worry for LSU than coming out flat (which they've done in their past two games, before clearing their throats and straightening their ties and getting down to the business of whipping Arkansas and Georgia). Note: I saw a segment on TV with the Alabama players reflecting on the 9-6 loss and looking forward to the rematch. Lots of what you'd expect — the defeat hurt; LSU had taken something and Alabama needed to get it back; it was a bitter pill. The Tide seemed to be safely navigating the iceberg-laden seas of media attention, until right before the commercial break, when star lineman Barrett Jones comes on-screen and, like a ray of bayou sunlight finding its way through swamp cypresses, says the rematch isn't about revenge but about "restoring order."

Restoring Order. Marooned for months without bulletin board material, a gentle rain begins to fall on Les Miles. The remark may seem innocuous, but that's only if you're unaccustomed to Alabama arrogance. The Tide faithful believe in their hearts that they're entitled to beat you. You're not as good as they are. You're just not. If you happen to beat them, it's an irritating fluke. If Bill Belichick can peek over an embankment of Lombardi trophies and convince his teams they have something to prove, Les Miles can fling the SEC trophy in Lake Pontchartrain and get some mileage out of "restoring order."

How about on the field? A question pops to mind: How will the kicking troubles of November 5 influence Alabama on January 9? Positively, I say, because on Monday night Alabama's four-down territory will be broad. Saban won't want to venture a field goal of more than 35 yards, which makes fourth-and-3 from the 26-yard line, for example, a go-for-it down. A missed field goal is one of the more disheartening miscues in football, while converting a fourth down is one of the most heartening accomplishments. Saban and Jim McElwain have had ample time to assemble a package of plays specifically for these situations, and they won't hesitate to call them. Instead of missing a bunch of field goals and reacting to those misses with an ill-advised trick play,3 they'll attack the real estate between midfield and the red zone with conviction.

And what lesson did LSU learn? I assume it'll do something to prevent Jarrett Lee, who's not a non-quarterback, from closing his eyes and rainbowing passes into the teeth of the Bama secondary ... like keep him over near the Gatorade. Jordan Jefferson's ability to scramble was about the only thing that could keep the LSU offense on the field in the Tuscaloosa game, and when your quarterback's busy running the ball that means he's not busy throwing picks.

The quarterback play for both these teams has been maligned, and there's not much reason to think the signal-callers will fare much better this time around than in the first game. They're average college quarterbacks facing fierce pass rushes and tight coverage. This is more a shame for LSU than for Alabama, because the lack of an air attack renders the Tigers' only significant position group advantage (other than kicker) moot. The LSU receiving corps is better than Alabama's, but it makes no difference if Jefferson and his O-line are overmatched. Two catches each for Rueben Randle, Russell Shepard, and Odell Beckham probably won't get the job done this time around. As for Bama, Marquis Maze needs to come up huge. And then there's old Michael Williams. If he has a couple of big catches and Alabama wins, no one's going to care anymore that Eric Reid ripped the ball away from him on the pivotal play of the Tuscaloosa defeat. Reid may make another big play. Morris Claiborne may. Tyrann Mathieu will.

To lose this game would be tragic for LSU because it's been making iconic plays all year. It's beaten more good teams than most national champions have to. It's got one of those squads with off-the-charts chemistry and a feeling of destiny. But if the Tigers lose in New Orleans, it will only seem like the end of the world until the Bengal faithful have some coffee, shower, down a couple of oysters, and take a peek at next year's roster. LSU will have to break in a new quarterback, but not a wet-behind-the-ears guy — a 250-pounder a few years out of high school named Zach Mettenberger. (It's no secret that the LSU quarterbacks haven't exactly been carrying the team anyway.) The whole stable of running backs will return. Shepard and Beckham. Most of those havoc-making DBs. The defensive line might be even better.

On the Bama side, a loss would besmirch the program. No one is supposed to get the best of Nick twice in one season. The Tide aren't supposed to be the second-best outfit in their division. And to further deflate Tide fans, next year they play these guys in Baton Rouge. And to even further deflate them, with the losses of both starting receivers and tight end Brad Smelley and big Josh Chapman on the D-line and three out of the four top corners and Mark Barron and, most crucial, Trent Richardson, some of next year's pleasant road trips could turn into vacations that attack: at Arkansas, at Missouri, at Tennessee. Some of the Crimson staunch may laugh at the idea of losing to those teams, but the savvy ones know how important it is to have backs like Mark Ingram and Richardson, who make everything easier for every other player in a Tide uniform. Eddie Lacy is good, but he's not Richardson. It's easy to see that Alabama needs to seize the opportunity it'll have on Monday.4

Before I leave you alone, I'll throw out one highly unlikely scenario, just so I know someone has thrown it out. Alabama wins by a narrow margin, a field goal or less, and the AP voters decide that LSU's win in Tuscaloosa and Bama's win in New Orleans equate to a wash, and because LSU did so much more during the regular season, the voters put LSU at the top of the poll. OK, someone said it.

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The Mediocre Quarterback and You

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

Before I started writing things on the Internet, I had a traditional office job. Every day, I would show up at work, pretend to do tasks that required gazing into the computer screen. Whenever there were important meetings, I would construct a conflict that I was trying to resolve. As long as I was willing to demonstrate that I had 'shown progress' and formulated a narrative that justified myself as a resource, I could brand myself as a valuable asset to the company.

I understood that what I was doing ultimately didn't matter, had no reflection on 'who I actually was as a person,' but by making a quiet, eternal truce with professional mediocrity, I could live comfortably while my employer matched my contribution to my 401(k). Ultimately, not a bad deal, particularly in the context of the current recession, but it is interesting to think about how spending eight hours per day in an office environment can impact our social interpretation of sports.

It seems as if we evaluate athletes based on our only personal experience with high-stakes, life-or-death competition: our existences within the workplace.

As 'great' as we all might think we are, we probably have more in common with a mediocre NFL quarterback than with any other athlete. We usually watch them struggle and laugh, but the humor in watching a quarterback struggle seems like a dark, subconscious coping mechanism to process our own identity in the workplace. Most career paths don't even provide a context to achieve 'professional greatness.' The obsessiveness by which we question the efforts and capabilities of mediocre quarterbacks often replaces the critical introspection that could actually improve our own lives.

We can easily deconstruct most athletes into 'resources' who have to justify their salaries, basically using every game as an in-depth performance review where we can look into their statistics, body language, and attempt to quantify their unquantifiable contribution to the team. Owing to the 'modern media landscape,' there is nowhere for most players to hide from stat gurus or casual fans. We are able to marginalize many professional athletes into 'the mediocre' more easily than ever before, and it is infinitely more entertaining than just celebrating the greatness of Aaron Rodgers.

Mediocre performers are criticized and 'exposed' as a liability before they are benched, cut, or hidden on the field. Eventually, an athlete's perpetual display of ineptitude is mocked, turning his athletic existence into a highly anticipated blooper reel. The mediocre NFL quarterback is the most prevalent athlete we watch as a comical entity because he has the greatest ability to impact not just a game, but a team's entire season.

Why do we laugh at the guy who constantly underthrows his receivers? What's so funny about an offensive coordinator who has built a game plan to minimize the involvement of the quarterback that the team doesn't believe in? Why does his name automatically start to sound like the punchline of a joke? His only job is to be a quarterback. Why isn't he good at it?

The 2011 NFL season has treated us to no shortage of mediocre quarterbacks whose names are synonymous with ineptitude. Tyler Palko, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, Tarvaris Jackson, Colt McCoy, Curtis Painter, and A.J. Feeley are a few of the most prevalent funny-named humans who happen to be bad quarterbacks. Oh wait, there's also Blaine Gabbert, T.J. Yates, Caleb Hanie, John Beck, Dan Orlovsky, and Matt Moore. I guess you might as well even throw in Matt Ryan, Kevin Kolb, Michael Vick, Vince Young, and Mark Sanchez. I guess we can't all be 'the best' at what we do, but quarterbacking as a job has no place to hide behind accepted mediocrity.

The position of 'quarterback' has morphed into being 'more than just a job,' it has become a metaphor for greatness, leadership, and other antiquated concepts of sporting achievement that used to guide fan interest. Tim Tebow would not have the opportunity to be the Ultimate Human Metaphor if he played tight end.

In any field, watching an individual struggle to find the right career path is a pretty vulnerable process, even when it is the typical Generation Y struggle to relate your identity to your profession. It requires self-reflection and the ability to accept your strengths and weaknesses. 'Accepting your strengths and weaknesses' is basically just a nice way of saying that you have accepted your own mediocrity, and you are working to minimize the chance of enabling a complete disaster. This describes the expectations of any crappy quarterback from his coach, his teammates, and his city's fans.

I wonder if individual quarterbacks even know how to accept their mediocrity in order to maximize their ceiling after years of being the constant alpha dog. When it comes to most careers, there are defined skill sets and common personality traits that can be trained and mastered in order to be successful. NFL quarterbacking is no different, but why can't talent be directed at specific outcomes?

For the mediocre class, life is a process of accepting that we won't be the greatest at any one task, job, or specialty field.

The most intense forms of competition, stress, conflict, and insecurity that most of us will ever feel take place at work. We embrace mediocrity as a safety net to alleviate our minds from these uncomfortable thoughts, and hide from the idea of heightened accountability and expectations. Instead, we choose to live vicariously through other people we don't know who are actually 'special.' Athletes, technological entrepreneurs, and other people who are recognized for being legitimately 'gifted and talented' serve as our daily inspirations and escapes. While society tends to praise greatness and unique achievement, the public ceremony of 'exposing' mediocrity provides us with the opportunity for humor and hyperbole that inspires a dark breed of empathy and fan interest.

The concept of mediocrity is something that we all struggle to accept, and in ways it can actually liberate us to maximize personal and team-based achievements. Yes, we are able to cultivate meaning through friends, family, and rich experiences, but our personal contribution to the world will always be open to interpretation and deconstruction. Unfortunately for mediocre NFL quarterbacks, their contributions will be scrutinized no matter how rich their personal experience. While you might never experience the mid-level fame and riches associated with being a marginal NFL quarterback, at least your name will never inspire a chuckle quite like Bubby Brister, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Danny Wuerffel, and Joey Harrington.

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Can the Houston Texans Make a Playoff Run Without a (Good) Quarterback?

By: timbersfan, 12:24 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

The good news: You're Gary Kubiak, coach of the Houston Texans, and you will be hosting your first playoff game Saturday. Your opponents are the very beatable 9-7 Cincinnati Bengals. Now, the bad news: Your quarterback will likely be T.J. Yates (oh, no!), unless he's hurt, in which case it will be Jake Delhomme (holy crap!), and if both of them are injured, it will be Jeff Garcia ("Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me." — Psalm 55:5). This is Kubiak's dilemma, as he and the Texans have backed into the playoffs after season-ending injuries to starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart.

Fortunately, unlike most NFL coaches, Kubiak did not build the Texans offense solely around his quarterback. Kubiak, a former assistant under Mike Shanahan in San Francisco and Denver, employs the same West Coast offense passing game that Shanahan used in San Francisco. The foundation of the Texans offense, however, is a running game that has roots in a later iteration of the Kubiak/Shanahan collaboration — the late-1990s Denver Broncos.

When Shanahan went to Denver in 1995, he brought his West Coast passing plays with him and enlisted Kubiak to help teach them to quarterback John Elway. But he introduced a different run offense from Bill Walsh's traditional West Coast playbook. Shanahan cast his fortunes with the blocking scheme that had begun taking over the NFL, and made his most important hire to do it. He brought on offensive line coach Alex Gibbs to install a zone-blocking running game.

When Shanahan hired him, Gibbs already had the reputation of a guru. He had spent 15 years coaching college before another 10 or so in the NFL, including a brief stint with Shanahan at the Los Angeles Raiders. What they accomplished in Denver, however, became the stuff of legend: two Super Bowls, several incredible rushing seasons by the out-of-nowhere Terrell Davis, and then many more years when it seemed like the Broncos could take a guy off the street and turn him into a 1,000-yard rusher.

After something of a falling-out with Shanahan in 2003, Gibbs took over as the offensive line and running game coach for the Michael Vick-led Atlanta Falcons, where he was similarly successful. During Gibbs' three seasons in Atlanta, the Falcons led the NFL in rushing with more than 8,100 yards. Most impressive, the Falcons were the only team over that three-year period to average more than five yards per rushing attempt.

In his first two seasons in Houston, Kubiak's Texans went 14-18. For his third year, Kubiak brought on Gibbs to orchestrate the running game. Gibbs is gone now — he left Houston after a couple of seasons, then briefly joined Pete Carroll's staff in Seattle before retiring — but the Texans still use the Gibbs formula, which has been good enough to give them the second-best rushing attack in the league this season. What was Gibbs' magic and how can the Texans use it to make a playoff run, even with the NFL equivalent of John Q. Public at quarterback?

The key to Gibbs' zone running game is that the foundational play is the outside zone (the "wide zone," in Gibbs' terminology), not the more common inside zone. The inside zone is a "vertical push" play that aims to move the defense backward and have a running back carry the ball forward with a full head of steam to get yards. The outside zone is more about lateral movement. Each blocker first steps to the side rather than forward (and many coaches teach their linemen to take their first step backward, a technique referred to as "losing ground to gain ground"). The blockers then try to pin defenders to the inside — or if they can't do that, drive them to the sideline. Sometimes on these plays, the running back runs around the edge on a traditional-looking sweep. More often, the defense is stretched to its limit and the runner hits a crease and then sprints straight toward the end zone. When executed correctly, it's extremely taxing on the defense, as all of their instincts — aggressiveness to the ball carrier and fast pursuit — work against them, and linemen without great size or talent can open huge holes through excellent technique and discipline.

But if it's so good, why doesn't every NFL team use it? The answer is the same reason that, despite his legendary status, Gibbs has never lasted too long in one job. Gibbs' style of zone blocking requires total commitment by every offensive player — linemen must be perfect technicians, not just fat guys who push others around; runners must make reads and make "one-cut-and-go" plays rather than juke and tap dance like the next Barry Sanders; and quarterbacks and receivers can't treat runs as mini-breaks because they're expected to execute assignments and make blocks. The offense is also taxing on coaches. Gibbs will tell anyone willing to listen that if you want to be good at the wide zone and the tight zone, throw out all of your other run plays. All those wonderful Power O plays, Counter Trey plays, and whatever other fancy stuff you think you need — get rid of it. Instead, run two — yes, two — run plays, and run them against every defensive front you face until you get really good at them. To Gibbs, anything else is hubris.1

The Texans run a few other run plays, but the wide zone remains the foundation of their offense. Those big Arian Foster and Ben Tate runs that have powered Houston to the playoffs came on the same plays that helped Davis rush 2,008 yards for the Broncos in 1998 and helped Warrick Dunn thrive in Atlanta. So why is it so successful?

Like Gibbs, one can spend a lifetime on the finer details of the outside zone, but we can cover the highlights here.2 On the play, each offensive lineman asks himself: Am I covered? Is there a defender lined up directly across from me? Or am I uncovered? If he's covered, there's really not much "zone" to it at all. The lineman fires out and blocks the guy in front of him. If he's uncovered, he steps to the play side to help his covered teammate; together, they double-team a defensive lineman until one of them slides off to block a second-level defender like a linebacker.

Those assignments apply to both the inside zone and wide zone. The differences concern technique. On the wide zone, blockers try to reach the defenders and seal them to the inside. If they can't be reached because the defender pushes out to the sideline, then the blocker's task is to push the defenders as far as possible toward the sideline. On the backside, Gibbs likes to "cut" defenders to the ground — this is sometimes controversial, but it remains legal and is an important key to sealing off the backside pursuit.


The key then becomes the running back and whether he can find those fluid zones that might open up anywhere across the defensive front. Running backs are often undercoached, however, even at the NFL level. On the wide zone, the running back isn't simply handed the ball and told, "Run like hell." He needs to make reads. He looks, in sequence, to the defensive end and then the defensive tackle. His job is to make one cut and get yards depending on their movements. If they stay inside, he runs outside; if they fly outside he'll cut back, although on the wide zone what looks like a "cutback" is typically not a cutback at all. Instead, the runner goes straight up the field against a fast-pursuing defense.

This is often a point of contention: NFL running backs reach their position by being the best player on the field their entire lives. As kids and high school stars and often college stars, too, they really were given the ball and told to run like hell. If they miss their reads on a wide zone, the offense won't work. The running creases may be there, but it won't matter if the runner isn't hitting them properly.

In Denver, Gibbs came up with an elegant solution to this problem. On most teams, each position is coached by direction position coaches. So on the wide zone, the running back was coached only by the running backs coach, and if a player made the wrong read, his teammates didn't know. Instead, Gibbs taught the play to the entire team, so that even the linemen knew the running back's reads. This way, if the runner made a bad read, the coach didn't need to step in, because as soon as a play ended the linemen would turn around and yell at the running back. On football teams, as in most places, your peers are often more persuasive — or easier to listen to — than authority figures.

And that's really about it: It's a simple play. It gets more complicated as defenses get more varied and complex. But even after Gibbs, Kubiak remains committed to the wide zone, and Foster and Tate are adept at making the correct reads and hitting the holes at full speed. And all that good running sets up something else — once the defense has overcommitted to the run, there are lots of opportunities for effective bootlegs and play-action schemes, stuff that Schaub did very well. To win some playoff games, Yates, Delhomme, or whoever starts for Houston will have to take advantage of those opportunities.

When Kubiak earned his two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos, it was an aging but still wily John Elway who served as the counterpunch to the Broncos' base rushing attack. Teams that win Super Bowls typically have great quarterback play, and that's simply not something the Texans possess now that Schaub is injured. But, fortunately for Yates and Kubiak, there is a little history on their side: In 1990, and with just four prior NFL starts to his name, Jeff Hostetler filled in for an injured Phil Simms and led the New York Giants to a win in Super Bowl XXV. It's a long shot, but if the Texans can make a run, there's a good chance it'll be because of the wide zone and all the opportunities it provides. And with all the attention this season on quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees, it'd be nice to see a team like the Texans make a run and claim some of the spotlight for the offensive line.

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Titus' Top 12 NCAA Power Rankings

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on January 08, 2012

A season ago, all the talk in college basketball seemed to revolve around the idea that there were a bunch of good teams, but no great teams. Even though Ohio State curb-stomped everyone on its schedule (only two losses at Wisconsin and at Purdue, and it beat those teams at home by more than 20 points) and Kansas was a clear second-best, parity was the prevailing theme for TV analysts. I guess these analysts ended up being right when the Buckeyes and Jayhawks both choked during the craziest NCAA tournament in the history of March Madness. I still contend that Ohio State was head-and-shoulders better than everyone else, and it took a perfect storm of a Buckeye off night combined with Kentucky bringing its A-game for OSU to lose by two. But whatever — that's not important right now.

What is important is that heading into this season those same analysts claimed that this year would be different. They said there were at least two great teams this time around: North Carolina and Kentucky. But so far this season, parity seems like an even more powerful trend than it was last year. Sure, there are still four undefeated teams, and one of those teams is the no. 1 team in the country, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks those four are dominant or might someday be considered one of college basketball's all-time great teams. Meanwhile, the two teams that everyone assumed would be playing for the national title both suffered upsets before Christmas. They're still probably the two favorites, but the air of inevitability they carried into the season is long gone. The amount of this year's perceived parity that can be attributed to home-court advantages remains unclear,1 but what's clear to me is that right now there are as many as 14 legitimate national title contenders (some more than others, obviously). I know it's far-fetched, but I think we just might see some exciting games during March Madness this season.

1. Syracuse
2. Kentucky

Syracuse basically had three weeks off between its mid-December game at North Carolina State and its upcoming game against Marquette on Saturday, so I'm skipping over the Orange and going straight to Kentucky. More specifically, I'm going straight to two questions that come to mind whenever I watch Kentucky play:

Who is Kentucky's best player?

Most teams that can't identify a best player can't do so because they don't have good players to begin with, but for Kentucky it's the exact opposite scenario. If you discussed this with another college basketball fan, it would be impossible to pick out one guy for Kentucky without the other person saying, "Yeah, but what about [insert another Wildcat player's name here]." Anthony Davis is the best pro prospect and the likely no. 1 pick in this year's draft, Doron Lamb is the leading scorer, Terrence Jones is the preseason All-American, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist consistently steps up to lead Kentucky in big games (such as his 24-point, 19-rebound performance against Louisville on Saturday). If I had to power rank those four guys right now, I'd say Jones is probably the worst of the four just because he's been battling a slump and an injury lately. As for the other three, it's tough to argue against any order they're put in. I guess I'd go with Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and then Lamb, but I could easily be talked into a different order. The fact that it's so difficult to identify Kentucky's best player is why, more than anything else, I'd be terrified to play the Wildcats in March.

Has Kyle Wiltjer's existence off the court been acknowledged by any of his NBA-bound teammates?

Let me preface this by saying that there's a good chance that the only reason I think Wiltjer looks out of place is because he's the only white guy who gets burn for Kentucky. But the same is true for Ohio State's Aaron Craft, Baylor's Brady Heslip, and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller, and yet I don't feel like any of those three look out of place. Hell, Craft has rosy red cheeks that make him look like he's constantly blushing, and Heslip parts his hair. If there were a perfect example of someone who doesn't fit in on a team of 21st-century college basketball players, it would surely be one of those two. And yet, I can't help but think that if you made NBA fans who don't follow college basketball watch an Ohio State, Baylor, and Kentucky game, the Kentucky game would definitely prompt the most "Who the hell is that white guy?" comments.

Since Craft, Heslip, and Zeller are starters, maybe I just assume Kentucky' stars don't respect Wiltjer's skills or something.2 I don't know. What I do know is that nothing in the world of college basketball would shock me more than somehow finding out that Wiltjer regularly goes to Jones' apartment to play Xbox and watch Friday with the rest of the team. Other than watching Kentucky play, I have no hard evidence to support this thought, but I'd bet Wiltjer hangs out with Kentucky's walk-ons off the court and has been asked to be on the Kentucky managers' intramural team so many times he's starting to give it some serious thought.3

3. North Carolina
4. Baylor

Like Syracuse, North Carolina hasn't played any meaningful games in the past two weeks, so I'll just move on to Baylor.4

Now that conference play has started, I feel obligated to mention that if you weren't counting on following the Big 12 this year, you should seriously reconsider your plans, and just go ahead and reevaluate your entire life while you're at it. That's because the race for the Big 12 title will be the most intriguing of all the power conferences. The Big East is as top-heavy as it usually is, but the conference title is Syracuse's to lose. The Big Ten is the deepest conference, but I'm convinced there's no way Ohio State will lose more than three conference games, and there's no way any other Big Ten team will lose fewer than three games. The ACC is the same boring two-horse race it always is, and while I think Florida, Mississippi State, and even Vanderbilt are all good enough to beat Kentucky, they aren't good enough to challenge the Wildcats for the SEC throne. As for the Pac-12, well, I'm refusing to acknowledge the Pac-12's existence this year until one of their teams gives me a reason to do otherwise.

The Big 12 has three legitimate contenders in Baylor, Missouri, and Kansas. The Jayhawks, unlike the Bears and Tigers, have actually lost a game this year (three, to be exact), but they've also done something else the other two haven't — Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 titles. The Jayhawks aren't as good as they've been in recent years, but they have beaten two current top-10 teams (Georgetown and Ohio State), which is yet another thing that Baylor and Missouri haven't done.

Missouri is the most experienced team and has looked like the most unstoppable of the three. But Baylor has the conference's best player (Perry Jones III), the best shooter in the country (Brady Heslip), and — with respect to Will Sheehey, Darius Miller, Michael Dixon, Dion Waiters, Russ Smith, and Ryan Boatright — the best sixth man in the country (Pierre Jackson) to go along with a dunking machine (Quincy Acy) and a defensive-minded, pass-first point guard (A.J. Walton). This is why I'm sold on the Bears being the best team in the Big 12. Their inability to pull away from West Virginia and Mississippi State in recent games worries me, but the experience they gain from closing out tight games now will surely be useful later in the year. Plus, those nail-biters against West Virginia and Mississippi State came during a mini-slump from Perry Jones. Now that he looks like he's getting back on track (14 points and 12 rebounds against a decent Texas A&M team), Baylor should be just fine moving forward.

5. Ohio State

Other than the guy who orders tacos at Chipotle and the guy who carries around a gallon jug of water because he apparently wants me to feel like a dick for not hydrating well enough, there isn't a type of person I try to avoid more than the guy who complains about the refs when his team loses. It's the lowest form of fandom and the single lamest thing any sports fan can do, which is why I've watched the Ohio State-Indiana game three times now in an effort to find a theme other than Ohio State getting the raw end of the officiating. But the refs dominated the game so much that I just couldn't do it. So I have no choice but to go against everything I believe and try to walk the "we got screwed by the refs" tightrope, which will inevitably result in me slipping up and saying something douchey, and all of my readers ripping me to shreds for it. Here goes nothing.

Instead of bitching about 50/50 calls that went against the Buckeyes or complaining about no-calls that didn't affect the game,5 I'll just list two calls that had a huge impact on the game and were inexcusably horrendous. There were other terrible calls — such as Jared Sullinger's third foul and all of Will Buford's fouls away from the ball — but these were the two that no sane Indiana fan can dispute, and these were the two that made me wonder what exactly it takes to be a college basketball referee.

Jared Sullinger's second foul

On a semi-fast break with 10:40 left in the first half, Buford threw a pass ahead to Sullinger, who was running down the middle of the court toward the rim. As Sullinger jumped to catch the pass, Indiana's Matt Roth slid underneath him and took a charge. Roth was never even remotely close to having his feet set, and even if he had set his feet, the fact that he slid underneath Sullinger while Sullinger was in the air is enough to make it an obvious block. This wasn't a typical 50/50 block/charge call. It was a 100-0 call that was so obvious that even Dan Dakich, who called the game for ESPN and whose name is synonymous with Indiana basketball after playing for and coaching the Hoosiers for years, agreed that the wrong call had been inexplicably made. With Ohio State up 19-9 at the time, Sullinger was forced to the bench, the Ohio State offense stagnated because of this (and because Deshaun Thomas was already on the bench with two fouls), and Indiana went on a 24-13 run to take a one-point halftime lead.

The shot clock violation/timeout fiasco

With 2:20 left in the first half and five seconds left on the shot clock, Indiana's Verdell Jones III shot a 3 that hit off the backboard but didn't hit the rim. During the scramble for the loose ball, the shot clock expired, which prompted Thad Matta to notify the officials of the shot clock violation. Apparently, one official misunderstood what Matta was trying to say, because he granted the Buckeyes a timeout that they didn't want to use. This was especially confusing because even if the official thought Matta wanted a timeout, the replay showed that Matta didn't make his move until after the shot clock ran down, so the 35-second violation should've superseded the nonexistent timeout call anyway. Instead, Ohio State wasted a timeout (Matta spent the entire break trying to convince the refs he never called a timeout) in a game in which they had already burned a couple of timeouts because they couldn't inbound the ball, and had to play the entire second half with only one timeout.

Just so I do my best to be unbiased,6 I should mention that I agree bad calls are a part of the game (especially on the road), and some bad calls definitely went against Indiana in that game. I'd also be the first to admit that Sullinger happens to be the toughest player to officiate in college basketball. Often, refs just blow their whistle and make something up, since they could call a foul every time he touches the ball or never call a foul when he has possession. And I have no problem admitting that Ohio State had plenty of chances to make plays down the stretch and win, and that it didn't make those plays. But I also should mention that after the game I received texts from three of my friends who are die-hard Indiana fans, and while one of those texts predictably read, "Suck it! Go Hoosiers!", the other two mentioned that it felt like a cheap win because the officiating was so bad. That tells me all I really need to know.

I'm not suggesting the NCAA should step in and give Ohio State the win or that the refs for that game were on the take. My point is that whether you think Ohio State was screwed or not, there's no denying that the referees were the stars of the game, which is something that should never occur. Because of the impact the refs had, I never got the feeling that Indiana was better than Ohio State, but rather that Indiana was better when Ohio State's three best players were in foul trouble the entire game. For that reason, I still consider the Buckeyes one of the five best teams in the country. I think this will become obvious when the Buckeyes do to Indiana this year what they did to Wisconsin last year, which is to say they will exact revenge in the form of a complete blowout when Indiana plays in Columbus next weekend.

6. Missouri

I know I already picked Baylor as the eventual Big 12 champion, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Missouri won the thing. When the Tigers are hitting shots — which they usually are — their fast-paced attack is pretty much unstoppable and incredibly fun to watch. They are second in the country in scoring and first in field goal percentage, predominately because they have at least six guys who can score 20 points on any given night. On top of that, they start four seniors, which isn't the end-all be-all, since talent trumps experience, but it's certainly a nice plus since the Tigers already have talent.

The bad news is that Missouri's biggest strength — its fast-paced offense — could also be its biggest weakness. Against Illinois two weeks ago, the Tigers built a 15-point lead in the second half, but they let the Illini back in the game by neglecting any sort of ball movement on offense and forcing quick shots. The Tigers seem incapable of playing slow, grind-it-out basketball, which they'll eventually need to do in the NCAA tournament. Thanks to Laurence Bowers' ACL tear in the offseason (a huge college basketball injury that nobody is talking about7), Missouri's frontcourt depth is another cause for concern. Even so, it's undoubtedly one of the country's best teams. If I were the type to use reckless hyperbole, I'd say that the epic Baylor-Missouri showdown on January 21 can't get here soon enough, and then I'd probably throw in some exclamation points to drive the point home.

Halftime

Dick's Degrees of Separation was so much fun last time that I'm bringing it back this week. In case you missed the column two weeks ago when I introduced Dick's Degrees of Separation, or in case you forgot, here's how it works: I give you the ending point of a Dick Vitale tangent, and you guess which of the three paths listed is the path he actually took to get there. I was called out for shamelessly trying to gain Twitter followers two weeks ago by revealing the answer exclusively on my Twitter account (which, by the way, was definitely what I was trying to do then and what I'm trying to do now by mentioning @clubtrillion), so this and every week moving forward I'll just put the answer at the end of the column. Anyway, here's this week's Dick's Degrees of Separation question:
In a game between Louisville and Georgetown played in Louisville on December 28, how did Dick Vitale end up talking about Charles Barkley?

A. During the broadcast, Vitale mentions the big game coming up between Louisville and Kentucky on New Year's Eve. He talks about how good Kentucky is, and, specifically, how Anthony Davis is definitely his freshman of the year in college basketball thus far. The thought of naming a newcomer of the year prompts Vitale to discuss how he thinks Cam Newton is the only viable choice for NFL rookie of the year. Vitale then briefly talks about Newton's performance this season, before mentioning that not only is he a good player, but he also has a ton of charisma. Newton's charisma, Vitale says, reminds him of another former Auburn athlete by the name of Charles Barkley.

B. Vitale mentions that Georgetown was picked to finish 10th in the Big East in the preseason, which prompts Jon Sciambi, who was calling the game with Vitale, to mention the potential similarity between this year's Georgetown team and last year's national champion UConn team. This reminds Vitale that last season UConn went 9-9 in the Big East and still won the national championship, which he believes is proof that the Big East wasn't overrated even though some critics claimed it was. One of these critics, Vitale points out, was Charles Barkley.

C. While discussing how good of a job Rick Pitino is doing, considering that Louisville is undefeated despite injuries to several key players, ESPN puts Pitino on camera. In the frame, to Pitino's immediate left, is his son, Louisville assistant coach Richard Pitino. This prompts Vitale to mention that the man is in fact Rick Pitino's son. Vitale then mentions how the coach on the other bench, Georgetown's John Thompson III, was once an assistant for his father, too. This leads to Dickie V taking a second to celebrate John Thompson's legendary career by listing a few of his accomplishments and some of the all-time great players he coached. Included in the list of players is Patrick Ewing, who Vitale says is one of the best big men to never win an NBA title. Also included in Vitale's list are Karl Malone, Walt Bellamy, and Charles Barkley.

I trust some of you followed my suggestion and took notes during Vitale's broadcast, in which case this one might be too easy. If for some reason you didn't take notes (I can't imagine why you wouldn't), make your best guess and check the end of the column for the answer. Good luck.

7. Indiana

See, Indiana fans? You can put the gun down because I'm not trying to take your second monumental win of the season away from you. I'm just saying that I still think Ohio State is better than Indiana, and if the refs hadn't dominated the game that would've been made clear on New Year's Eve. As it stands, Indiana came away with its second win over a top-two team this season, and it did so with Will Sheehey, a virtual lock for the Big Ten's sixth man of the year award, out with a bum ankle. In the end, that's all that matters. Questionable officiating doesn't show up on tournament résumés, which is why Indiana has one of the best résumés in the country right now.

What keeps the Hoosiers from having the single best résumé in the country is a 15-point loss at Michigan State. With the exception of the huge run Indiana went on at the end of the first half and the start of the second when they knocked down shots and got easy buckets in transition, Michigan State dominated the Hoosiers. The first time I watched the game, the Indiana fan in me was frustrated at the Hoosiers' refusal to get the ball to Cody Zeller on the block. When I watched again, however, I saw that this had less to do with Indiana's failure to realize that Zeller is its best player and more to do with Zeller getting manhandled by the Spartan frontcourt. Zeller wasn't strong enough to establish post position, and this made it difficult for Indiana's guards to get him the ball.

The bad news for Indiana is that Zeller won't have time to bulk up throughout the season. Moving forward, the challenge will be finding ways to get the ball to Zeller against physical frontcourts. Just hoping that Zeller can seal off his defender is not going to be enough. Once the Hoosiers figure this out, and once they get Sheehey back, I expect them to be neck-and-neck with Michigan State in February for the second spot in the Big Ten standings.

8. Michigan State

For most of the game, Michigan State dominated Indiana last Wednesday night and solidified their spot among the nation's best teams, a spot they lost in November, when they dropped their first two games to North Carolina and Duke. The Spartans scored at will and confused and outmuscled Indiana on defense for most of the first half, and only when shots stopped falling and they let their brief offensive woes affect their defense did Michigan State let Indiana back in the game. After falling behind by nine points, the Spartans rediscovered their rhythm halfway through the second half and turned up their defensive intensity, and pulled away from Indiana for a lopsided win.8 Less than a week later, they followed that up with an overtime win at Wisconsin, which was impressive because the Buzzcuts9 were picked to finish second in the Big Ten, and it's impossible to win in the Kohl Center. But it was also not that impressive, because a pretty lousy Iowa team proved three days earlier that it's not that impossible to win in the Kohl Center.

Anyway, along with the fact that I'm trying to play nice with Indiana fans after insinuating that the Hoosiers didn't earn their win against Ohio State, the fact that Michigan State let Indiana go on a 38-11 run on its home court and take a nine-point lead after the Hoosiers looked like they were going to get blown out is the big reason why I'm hesitant to power rank the Spartans any higher. Plus, Indiana didn't have a healthy Will Sheehey, which is a good enough excuse for my Indiana-bias to latch on to and justify ranking the Hoosiers above the Spartans.

9. Georgetown

By knocking off Louisville on the road and beating a good Marquette team at home in the same week, Georgetown has staked its claim to a spot in college basketball's most powerful power rankings. Even though a majority of you probably can't even name a single player on their roster, the Hoyas are just a four-point loss to Kansas in November away from an unblemished record, which is why I'm now officially on the Georgetown bandwagon. Although I will say that I'm sitting on the edge of said bandwagon and I'm ready to jump off at a moment's notice, because the lack of any identifiable superstar on Georgetown makes me wonder if its early-season success stems from its quirky and difficult-to-defend Princeton offense. My fear is that Georgetown is a system team, and as the season progresses and other teams become more fundamentally sound on defense, the Hoyas will implode.

10. Louisville

If I were completely sure that "enigmatic" is a real word, I'd say that Louisville is the most enigmatic team in the country. Every game the Cardinals play in is close, which is fine when they're playing the third-ranked team in the country on the road, but it's kind of strange when they're playing Western Kentucky and the College of Charleston. Outside of Ohio State and Indiana, I've watched more of the Cardinals' games than any other team, yet I'm still not sure how good they are.

Against Kentucky, I never once felt like Louisville was going to win, even when it tied the game at 40 early in the second half. Kentucky was clearly the better team, and I always felt like the Wildcats would pull away. That never really happened. Louisville kept it close and somehow ended up losing by just seven (although, to be fair, it would've been a 13-point Kentucky win if Russ Smith hadn't channeled his inner Reggie Miller and scored six points in the final five seconds). By the time the final horn sounded, part of me wondered if Louisville would've won if it had been playing at home.

Then I remembered that Louisville had laid an egg at home against Georgetown three days earlier, and I thought that maybe the Cardinals aren't that good after all. Seeing as how they're power ranked ninth in college basketball's most powerful rankings, Georgetown is certainly no slouch. But if Louisville is to be considered a top-five team, that was a game it had to win. As it stands, Louisville's best win right now is either a road win at Butler or an overtime win at home against a disappointing Vanderbilt team. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' only losses are to two of the 10 best teams in college basketball, so it's unfair to punish them too much. Hence, they're enigmatic and I can't figure them out.

11. Connecticut
12. Duke

I know they just got manhandled at Seton Hall, but I'm keeping the Huskies in my top 12 because the Pirates are actually pretty good and UConn was playing without Jim Calhoun, which probably wasn't the only reason the Huskies lost, but it was a big enough reason for me to cut them some slack. Meanwhile, Duke's loss to Temple last night was bad enough for me to move them down to 12th, but I don't believe that there are more than 11 teams in America better than the Blue Devils, so I'm keeping them in the power rankings. If you have a problem with this, well, in the words of Bo Ryan, "deal with it."

The Walk-on Bench Celebration of the Week

In Seton Hall's game against Connecticut on Tuesday, walk-on Peter Dill proved yet again that walk-ons are always the coolest guys on the team. Always.

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Playoff Preview: Lions at Saints

By: timbersfan, 9:37 AM GMT on January 06, 2012

If you have any memories of the Saints laying a 31-17 beatdown on the Lions in Week 13, they're probably of Drew Brees marching his team down the field at will against a Lions team that seemed to have its finger on the self-destruct button for the second consecutive week, taking personal foul penalties on the opposing 2-yard line as part of some misguided "nasty" attitude.

Well, let's tap the brakes on both those storylines. First, the attitude issues. Yes, the Lions looked awfully undisciplined on national television against one of the best teams in the NFC. But the idea that they're a group of thugs banded together by coach Jim Schwartz to commit personal fouls as he shouts "Kill!" at the field? Downright silly. In their 16 games this year, the Lions committed less than one penalty more per game than their opponents while averaging fewer than six yards more in penalty yards. Not ideal, but far from their reputation. And those penalties are generally of the holding and pass interference variety, as opposing teams committed nearly three times the total of unnecessary roughness fouls that Detroit did:

In the first matchup, the Saints did an excellent job of riling the Lions up. There were a half-dozen plays on which they got an extra shove in or a borderline late hit that came after the whistle. The difference in penalties and yardage was massive —the Lions committed eight more penalties and racked up 77 more penalty yards. It's also totally inconsistent with Detroit's season. When the Lions played the Niners in the famous handshake-fight game, the Niners committed nine more penalties than the Lions and accrued 66 more penalty yards. Was that because their coach is a hothead? Do they have the reputation of being a bunch of thugs? Of course not, since the game wasn't on national television.

As for the actual play in that Week 13 game, well, the margin of victory was bigger than the gulf in performance between the two teams. The Lions actually had the ball inside Saints territory during the fourth quarter with a chance to tie the game. They had a field goal blocked just before halftime, a player fall down after a long catch who would have likely scored a touchdown if he had stayed upright, and … OK, maybe that personal foul penalty they took on the Saints 2-yard line wasn't exactly bad luck.

But the Lions were unquestionably in that game, and that's a scary thought because they didn't have the proper personnel with them. Ndamukong Suh was suspended. Both top cornerback Chris Houston and his backup, Brandon McDonald, were out. Perhaps most important, safety Louis Delmas was on the sideline. He was replaced by Chris Harris, who appeared to go on a friendly stroll to the sideline for some unknown reason while Robert Meachem ran by cornerback Eric Wright for a long touchdown pass. Or maybe it was Wright's fault. Either way, they had a secondary that was in shambles and a defense that was missing arguably its two best players. Delmas and Suh are enormously valuable and allow Schwartz far more leeway in crafting a defensive scheme to slow down Drew Brees.

Can they carry it out?

Saints on Offense

Brees' average day this year saw him go 29-of-41 for 342 yards with three touchdowns and a pick. With all those injuries and the Suh suspension, the Lions managed to hold him to a relatively average day: 26-of-36, 342 yards, three touchdowns, no picks. The idea of a 342-yard, no-interception day being mundane seems alien, but this is 2011 and it's Drew Brees.

The seam route is where the Saints really make their money. It's where Marques Colston first became a star, but now the Saints have no qualms about sending Jimmy Graham on the same route, and Lance Moore even caught a 20-yard touchdown pass on one during the first Lions-Saints game. It's the sort of route that gets most quarterbacks flustered, since it's a throw into a tight window that has to travel through the middle of the defense and, occasionally, can get your receiver killed by a safety breaking him into tiny bits. Brees gets it to work with believable play-action and eye movement; watch him look right to free up space against the Cover 2 before he launches the pass to Moore up the middle. It's an extremely tight window, but if Brees can hit it, the play is basically indefensible. And Brees hits that window more often than not.

What the Lions did to keep their heads above water with Brees is play a mostly conservative defense. They didn't blitz all that frequently, and when they did, they used zone blitzes to try to get pressure with their scheme as opposed to the sheer numbers a typical Gregg Williams blitz might bring. New Orleans' group of terrifying athletes at receiver create mismatches down the field, and the hopes of Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham appear to be pinned to the idea that extra help can mitigate mismatches. They tried to take away the big play, and outside of the blown coverage on the long Meachem touchdown and a 38-yard pass to Meachem up the sideline, they were able to do so.

With that in mind, the Lions undoubtedly had some faith in their ability to get off the field on third down, which has been a colossal problem for Saints opponents. At the time of the first game, the Saints were the best team in the league at picking up third-down conversions, while the Lions were the best defense in the league at preventing teams from doing so. Detroit slowed them down, but Brees and company still went 6-for-12. And after the injuries to Houston and Delmas, the Lions' efficiency has slipped some. They're now fourth-best in the league, allowing teams to convert on only 32.8 percent of their third-down attempts. The Saints, meanwhile, are still the best offense in football on third down, and it's not by a small margin. New Orleans picks up its third downs 56.7 percent of the time, and nobody else is even above 50 percent. (Second-place San Diego is closer to ninth place than it is to first.) As big as the penalties were in the first game, the difference in third-down conversions (Detroit picked up just two of the 11 third downs it faced) was probably the biggest reason why the Saints won the game. If that difference holds up again the second time around, Detroit is probably hopeless.

Lions on Offense

First goal for the Lions: No stupid penalties on offense. Nate Burleson had five catches for 93 yards, but he also had three offensive pass interference calls that took 29 yards away from the team. An illegal formation wiped away a 15-yard reception for Calvin Johnson. A silly hold on Kevin Smith took away a rare third-down conversion. And yes, that killer personal foul penalty after a play on Titus Young turned third-and-goal from the 2-yard line into third-and-goal from the Saints 17. As stated earlier, these aren't crimes of attitude; they're crimes of sloppiness. Many of those penalties came during the first half, when the Saints were able to take a 24-7 lead. Had the Lions avoided penalties, chances are they could have stayed in the game and, perhaps, even snuck out a victory.

It was very clear that the Lions were worried about their offensive line's ability to hold up against a complex Saints pass rush, especially when they had fresh legs during that first half. As a result, their playbook looked a lot like an Eagles fan's nightmare. If there was a screen or quick throw that the Lions knew, they ran it against the Saints. The quick hitch. The traditional halfback screen. The bubble screen to a wide receiver. The fake-handoff-fake-reverse screen that the Patriots tried to run against the Giants on the opening play of Super Bowl XLII. When they did run the ball, it was almost always on a delay as part of a draw. Everything the offense did was designed to manipulate the pass rush and slow it down. It worked to some extent, as the Saints sacked Matthew Stafford only three times and knocked him down twice in 47 dropbacks, but it also limits their ability to get into bigger plays. They eventually got Johnson open downfield on a double move —so open that Cris Collinsworth actually said "Uh oh" out loud as Stafford released the pass —but Stafford's throw was late and nearly intercepted.

Megatron didn't have his biggest day, as he caught six of the eight passes thrown to him for a total of just 69 yards, and he had just two receptions for 19 yards during the first half. The Saints clearly built their scheme around stopping Johnson, actually lining up two defensive backs on him at the line of scrimmage as if he were a gunner on a punt return. Plenty of teams will put bracket coverage on Johnson, but that's extraordinary. The Lions used tight end Brandon Pettigrew as a pass-blocker for most of the day, so they'll have to hope that Burleson, Young, and receiving tight end Tony Scheffler will be able to beat one-on-one coverage for big plays. In last year's shocking loss to the Seahawks, Saints safety Roman Harper got burned on three different touchdown passes. He's not quite that bad, but he's a liability in coverage that the Lions will try to exploit by isolating him versus Scheffler. It's incumbent that Stafford identify that matchup at the line of scrimmage and take advantage of it.

The Lions enjoyed some success running the ball against the Saints when Kevin Smith was in the game. Since he announced his return with a 140-yard game against the Panthers in Week 11, he's averaged 4.9 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns. The rest of the team is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and has scored just once on the ground. Smith is perpetually an injury risk, and a collision with Scheffler at practice briefly forced him to the sideline, but he should be healthy for Saturday night.

Special Teams

Do you like old kickers? You will love this matchup. Forty-one-year-old Jason Hanson will battle 42-year-old John Kasay in a battle of guys whose Pro Set cards you were bummed to get when you bought a pack. According to Football Outsiders, though, both kickers have been below average on scoring plays this year. With these offenses, they're not likely to be an enormous factor.

The only facet of the game where either team is really effective is on punts, where Thomas Morstead of the Saints has been worth more than 10 points of field position, which is good for sixth-best in the league. It's a safe bet to say that Morstead won't be affected by the high-pressure environment of the playoffs; remember, he's the guy who booted the surprise onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV as a rookie.

The Prediction

Detroit didn't outplay New Orleans in the first game, but it was a lot closer than people realize, and that was without two stars on defense. A healthy Lions pass defense is probably the best unit Brees has faced all season. Expect them to slow New Orleans down and produce a lower-scoring game than Vegas expects (as the total now stands at 59 points), but the Saints should still be able to pull out a victory. New Orleans 28, Detroit 20.

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Playoff Preview: Bengals at Texans

By: timbersfan, 9:35 AM GMT on January 06, 2012

On Saturday, when the Bengals visit the Texans, two rookie quarterbacks will square off against one another for the first time in the NFL playoffs. The history books are not particularly kind to first-year quarterbacks under the bright lights of January; the average performance in the postseason sees them go just 13-of-26 for 161 yards with a touchdown and two picks.

Only one of these teams, of course, is starting a rookie quarterback by choice. The Bengals have led an impressive turnaround to 9-7 upon a mostly new passing offense. Last year, Carson Palmer was throwing to Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco; this year, it's Andy Dalton tossing to the sensational A.J. Green and Jerome Simpson. The common thread between those two sets of skill position players is criminally underrated tight end Jermaine Gresham, who makes the whole thing work.

Houston, meanwhile, was sitting pretty at 7-3 before Matt Schaub suffered a season-ending foot injury. They briefly turned the ball over to Matt Leinart before his collarbone gave way to fifth-rounder T.J. Yates, who has looked erratic at the helm of a hyper-conservative offense. The Texans were able to go .500 the rest of the way, but they're now a team on its third-string quarterback that has endured a season-ending injury to its best defender (Mario Williams) and a series of injuries that have sapped the effectiveness and availability of its best player, wideout Andre Johnson. One common mistake in evaluating a team's playoff chances is to consider its body of work from the regular season without actually evaluating the team that's likely to step on the field; that question has to be called into play with Houston.

It was Yates who scrambled for 17 yards on third-and-15 on the final drive against the Bengals in Week 14, picking up a first down that would set up a game-winning touchdown on the final play from scrimmage. That 20-19 Texans win was a sloppy game that saw Houston come back from a 16-3 halftime deficit, thanks to some incredible bounces on fumbles. Each team recovered three of the six fumbles on the day, and Texans running back Ben Tate lost a fumble inside the Bengals 5-yard line to kill a crucial drive, but Houston rode its breaks to the win. The Texans recovered one of their own fumbles on a kickoff at the 20-yard line, and forced a Dalton fumble on a stripsack deep in Bengals territory to start the third quarter. Their real miracle, though, came later on a bizarre fumble that saw Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins recover the initial Arian Foster fumble before Atkins fumbled himself inside the 10-yard line, and when two Bengals with a clear path to the end zone couldn't fall on the ball, star Texans right tackle Eric Winston recovered the ball on his own 2-yard line. And that's without including the awful spot on a third-and-15 Bengals conversion that could have sealed the game, or the baffling false-start call on the ensuing fourth-and-1 that forced Cincinnati to punt.

Cincinnati outplayed Houston in that game, but the Texans have a right to believe that things will be different. They're at home this time. Andre Johnson will be back in the lineup, and the team rested most of its stars during last week's loss to Tennessee. Right guard Mike Brisiel is likely to return after suffering a fractured fibula, which should increase the effectiveness of an already impressive Houston running game. The Bengals have their own shifting injury situation, though. Right guard Bobbie Williams was injured against the Texans and is on injured reserve, as is slot receiver Andre Caldwell, but the Bengals will have top pass-rusher Carlos Dunlap and mammoth right tackle Andre Smith back after they missed the Houston game four weeks ago. This game could end up coming down to which group of returning players can contribute more.

Texans on Offense

Historically, when a starting quarterback goes down, the efficiency and effectiveness of the running game also declines. The numbers bear it out, but the logic behind it is also sound. With less of a passing game to worry about, defenses get more aggressive and start bringing extra defenders into the box. That should have gone double with Johnson, injured for most of Yates' tenure, but the Texans running game hasn't lost a beat without Schaub at quarterback. In fact, the only time their running game was below average was during the first three weeks of the year, when Arian Foster was alternately injured and far from 100 percent:

The foundation of Houston's offense is the zone-stretch play, the classic running play that embodies the zone-blocking scheme that Gary Kubiak took with him from Mike Shanahan and the "You, too, can run for 1,000 yards with the Broncos" days in Denver. The mechanics are complex, but the design is simple: The running back flows to a side behind his blockers without making any moves before bursting forward with his sudden cut uphill. That's the "one-cut" running scheme that has created superstars out of relatively unknown backs for years, most recently Arian Foster and Ben Tate in Houston.

Houston had some success with the stretch play against the Bengals the first time out, notably on a 44-yard run by Tate that saw him basically run unmolested the entire way. It was a perfect example of how the zone-blocking scheme should ideally work, and if the Texans can execute that well up front, it could be a very long day for Cincinnati. Brisiel's ability to pull outside can be key here, so it will be very interesting to see if his cracked ankle really allows him to play at anything resembling 100 percent.

The other reason why that stretch play is so important is that it plays an essential role in the Houston passing game, particularly with Schaub and Johnson absent. Play-action freezes the safeties and linebackers and allows tight ends Owen Daniels and Joel Dreessen to drag over the middle of the field, creating safe throws with comfortable passing lanes for Yates. Daniels is finally all the way back from his ACL tear in 2009, and he's one of the few tight ends in the league who can run a deep crossing pattern off of play-action without needing more time than his quarterback will ever have.

Virtually all of Yates' success in the Week 14 game came off of play-action, so it's essential for the Bengals to get their pass rush going and prevent Yates from picking up time to throw before making big plays. In their first meeting, the Bengals sacked Yates five times and knocked him down an additional five times on his 49 dropbacks, but the numbers don't tell the real story. Four of those five sacks were very clear coverage sacks, and the pass rush rarely won a one-on-one matchup up front. Dunlap is Cincinnati's best pure pass-rusher on the outside, but he's been struggling with a hamstring injury and has just 1.5 sacks since November 20. When Cincinnati forced Yates to stay in the pocket and go through his reads, he struggled to find open receivers and shipped a terrible interception on a sailed seam route. If the pass rush is good enough to neutralize play action, all the zone stretch in the world might not matter.

Of course, the total X-factor here is Andre Johnson. Since that ugly-looking knee/hamstring injury in Week 4 against the Steelers, Johnson has more injury reoccurrences (one) than touchdowns (zero). He's managed to make it into only three games, and has just eight catches for 140 yards in those games. Johnson played limited snaps against Tennessee last week, but there's been no indication that he's anything resembling the real Andre Johnson heading into these playoffs. If he is, obviously, everything changes for Houston. Just don't expect that to be the case.

Bengals on Offense

Why does an offense that features wideouts who can do front flips into the end zone rely on its tight end? Well, because Jermaine Gresham is really more than a standard tight end. Cincinnati's offense relies on a wide variety of formations and alignments, especially for a rookie quarterback, and their ability to get into all those formations depends on Gresham's ability to hold things together in the middle.

Like Daniels, Gresham can line up anywhere in the formation and beat anyone on the other side of the field. The Bengals like to split Gresham out against overmatched linebackers and undersized safeties and let him use his 6-foot-5 frame to create easy catches. He caught 61 percent of his targets this year in an offense where the two top wideouts caught 57 percent (Green) and 48 percent (Simpson) of throws from Andy Dalton. On Saturday, they'll try to isolate Gresham over the middle of the field with slants (against safety Danieal Manning) and drag routes (vs. linebacker DeMeco Ryans).

Cincinnati's biggest running play in the first game came out of an uncommon formation, the Full House. Commonly used by the Packers, the Full House is a two-tight-end set that features three players in the backfield, with two fullbacks blocking for a deep set back. Gresham doesn't do much on the play, as he's positioned away from the direction of the run, but the 42-yard run by Cedric Benson exhibits how effective the Bengals running game can be with good blocking, even against a Texans run defense that ranks sixth in the league in DVOA. Cincinnati was 4-of-4 when it ran in short-yardage situations (two yards to go or less) in Week 14.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden can keep things exotic. This guy right here got a first down deep in his own territory by calling for an end-around on third-and-short, and then the Bengals gained a total of 38 yards on two shovel passes, one of which set up a field goal at the end of the first half. Part of that is to mask inferior personnel and inexperience, so the Bengals will really benefit from the return of Andre Smith, who has had a stunning year at right tackle after two years of injury issues. Smith, as you might remember, was the sixth overall pick in the 2009 draft after making the ill-advised decision to run without his shirt on. With left tackle Andrew Whitworth holding his own on the other side, Cincinnati may very well have the best pair of offensive tackles in football.

On the other hand, when all else fails, Dalton has no qualms about chucking the ball to Green and hoping that he comes up with a reception or a pass-interference penalty. Despite being shadowed by star Texans cornerback Jonathan Joseph for the entirety of the Week 14 game, Green managed to get both. He caught five of the seven passes thrown to him, gaining 59 yards, and also drew a 25-yard pass interference penalty on Joseph. When the Bengals went for it on a fourth-and-3 inside Texans territory, they naturally ran a crossing pattern with Green (versus Joseph) to get a first down. Joseph's a great cornerback, but the best he can probably do is slow Green down, not stop him.

Special Teams

Houston is at a significant disadvantage on kicking plays, as it employs two of the worst specialists in the league. Matt Turk was so bad in Jacksonville that the team turfed him just weeks into a season for which he was getting paid $2 million. He's been better in Houston, but for a guy who started his pro career during the glory days of Bush (the band), you would expect a lot more consistency. Turk came in because starter Brett Hartmann went on injured reserve, which created two problems for the Texans. Turk had to replace Hartmann's punts, but it also meant that Neil Rackers needed to return to kickoff duties, where he's struggled. Hartmann was averaging 66.1 yards per kickoff before going on IR, but Rackers is down to 62.8 yards. Cincinnati, meanwhile, is enjoying an excellent year from former Jets draft pick Mike Nugent, who is averaging 66.5 yards per kickoff.

The Prediction

If we could be sure that Andre Johnson was going to show up and play like the real Andre Johnson, it would probably be enough to swing this game toward the Texans. After their bye week, though, the Texans faced a group of six teams that finished with a record of 41-55 and went 3-3 while being outscored by four points. Too much is often made about the idea that teams need to be "hot" and have momentum heading into the playoffs, but there's little indication that this Texans team much resembles the unit that beat up on the Steelers in Week 4. Cincinnati 13, Houston 10.

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Timbers Schedule

By: timbersfan, 6:10 AM GMT on January 06, 2012

February, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

2/27 5:00PM PST Chivas USA AIK JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

2/27 7:30PM PST Portland San Jose JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

March, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

3/01 5:00PM PST AIK San Jose JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

3/01 7:30PM PST Portland Chivas USA JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

3/04 2:30PM PST San Jose Chivas USA JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

3/04 5:00PM PST Portland AIK JELD-WEN Field

Preseason

Tournament

PREVIEW

3/12 6:30PM PDT ESPN2 Portland Philadelphia JELD-WEN Field

First Kick 2012 GET TICKETS

3/17 5:30PM PDT ROOT SPORTS FC Dallas Portland FC Dallas Stadium

3/24 1:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS New England Portland Gillette Stadium

3/31 7:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland Real Salt Lake JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

April, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

4/07 7:30PM PDT KPTV Portland Chivas USA JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

4/14 7:30PM PDT KPDX TV Los Angeles Portland Home Depot

Center

4/21 7:30PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland Sporting KC JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

4/28 11:00AM PDT KPDX TV Montreal Portland Stade olympique

May, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

5/05 7:30PM PDT KPTV Portland Columbus JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

5/15 5:30PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Houston Portland BBVA Compass

Stadium

5/20 4:00PM PDT Galavision ROOT SPORTS

Portland Chicago JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

5/26 7:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland Vancouver JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

June, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

6/17 4:00PM PDT KPTV Los Angeles Portland Home Depot

Center

6/24 2:00PM PDT ESPN Portland Seattle JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

6/30 6:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Colorado Portland Dick's Sporting

Goods Park

July, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

7/03 7:30PM PDT KPTV Portland San Jose JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

7/07 6:00PM PDT KPDX TV Real Salt Lake Portland Rio Tinto Stadium

7/14 8:00PM PDT NBC Sports Portland Los Angeles JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

7/18 1:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Chivas USA Portland Home Depot

Center

7/21 6:00PM PDT KPTV FC Dallas Portland FC Dallas Stadium

7/28 8:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland Chivas USA JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

August, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

8/05 4:00PM PDT NBC Sports Portland FC Dallas JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

8/15 4:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Toronto FC Portland BMO Stadium

8/19 4:00PM PDT Galavision KPTV

New York Portland Red Bull Arena

8/25 7:30PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland Vancouver JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

8/31 7:30PM PDT NBC Sports Portland Colorado JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

September, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

9/05 6:00PM PDT NBC Sports Colorado Portland Dick's Sporting

Goods Park

9/15 12:30PM PDT NBC Portland Seattle JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

9/19 7:30PM PDT KPDX TV San Jose Portland Buck Shaw

Stadium

9/22 5:00PM PDT NBC Sports Real Salt Lake Portland Rio Tinto Stadium

9/29 7:30PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Portland D.C. United JELD-WEN Field GET TICKETS

October, 2012 Date Status Home Team Away Team Venue

10/07 6:00PM PDT ESPN Seattle Portland CenturyLink Field

10/20 1:00PM PDT ROOT SPORTS Vancouver Portland BC Place

10/27 3:30PM PDT NBC Sports Portland San Jose

Permalink

Chasing the game through 2011

By: timbersfan, 1:23 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

If journalism is the first rough draft of history, then I'm trying to figure out what to call my "3 Thoughts" reaction piece that I file to SI.com at the final whistle of every important U.S. national team game. How about tempting fate? I start writing around the 75th minute, and inevitably something happens that turns my lead note into a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN artifact. Sometimes that's good for U.S. soccer fans: You should see what I wrote about the U.S. men failing to get out of their World Cup 2010 group -- at least until Landon Donovan scored in injury time against Algeria and the Yanks won the group ahead of England.
But sometimes getting rewrite isn't a good sign for U.S. fans. On July 17, 2011, in a sold-out soccer stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, I had already written my "3 Thoughts" on the U.S. women's impending victory in the World Cup final. They were three minutes away from a 2-1 victory over Japan, three minutes away from providing the ultimate follow-up to Abby Wambach's miraculous quarterfinal goal against Brazil, one of the greatest sports finishes of this or any year.
Three minutes away.
I'll remember two soccer events more than any other from 2011. One is Wambach's Brazil goal, as pure an adrenaline rush as you'll ever get in sports. So much about it was unlikely: the U.S. playing short-handed against one of the world's top teams; the final seconds ticking away; the booming, inch-perfect cross from Megan Rapinoe, who hit the ball with her weaker left foot; and, of course, Wambach's dead solid perfect header. Then all the U.S. did was convert all five penalties to win. (Wouldn't you know I had written a U.S. epitaph on that game too?)
That night in Dresden I wrote one story, and then another, and then one more for Sports Illustrated. There was no way to sleep after a game like that anyway. (Nor was I alone. I e-mailed U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati at 4 a.m. and got an instant reply. He couldn't sleep either.) Only two days earlier there had been just three U.S. print reporters covering the team. By the final there would be dozens of U.S. media.
And a few days later, we would all be witnesses to my other indelible soccer memory of 2011. Three minutes from World Cup glory, the U.S. allowed a corner kick. Homare Sawa got to it first. Her delicate little punch didn't seem like much, but it was like one of those sneaky body blows that can drop a boxer in an instant. Tie game. The U.S. blew its penalties (get me rewrite!) and the World Cup was gone, just like that, a few minutes of career-altering madness, not just for the Americans but for the Japanese and their own inspiring run to victory.
There are other soccer moments that stand out from the year now ending. Here are some of my memories of chasing the game in 2011:
PASADENA, Calif., June 25 -- Finals of international tournaments rarely live up to the hype. There's too much pressure, the kind that makes a free-wheeling game nearly impossible. But as painful as the U.S.'s 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final may be for Yanks fans, you have to admit: This is one of the most open finals you'll ever encounter. The U.S. goes up 2-0 early on goals by Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan, but Mexico roars back to tie the game by halftime. El Tri earns this trophy, sealing the 4-2 win on Giovanni Dos Santos's mind-bending second-half strike. The win, combined with Mexico's Under-17 World Cup triumph and runner-up U-20 finish, may be the start of a new Mexican era in soccer. Can the U.S. close the gap?
RAMALLAH, West Bank, July 28 -- How global is soccer? One minute I'm interviewing Omar Jarun, a Polish-based Palestinian-American defender from Atlanta with a southern drawl who's just played in a World Cup qualifier for the Palestine national team. The next minute I'm in an informal van taxi with a half-dozen Palestinian strangers when my Twitter feed tells me that U.S. coach Bob Bradley has been fired. Usually my biggest challenge with far-flung taxi vans is convincing my SI expense overlords that it's a legit charge. ("It's not like they give receipts, you know.")
This is different. Now I'm on the phone to sources in Los Angeles, Seattle and Rio de Janeiro (where the World Cup preliminary draw is taking place), learning that Bradley was blindsided (his staff had been contacting players for the next U.S. game) and that "you're not going to be surprised" by the identity of the new coach. All signs point to Jurgen Klinsmann, and the next day U.S. Soccer makes it official. It may well be the start of a new era in U.S. soccer.
SEATTLE and PORTLAND, Ore., May 10-14 -- Are you sure this is the United States? 2011 is the year of Cascadia and the Pacific Northwest in MLS, and over five glorious days I learn why. In advance of the first MLS showdown between decades-old rivals Portland and Seattle, I spend time with the hardcore fans of the Timbers and Sounders, pleasant folks who love the game but can't stand each other. Over craft beers with the Timbers Army and Golazoritas (a cocktail with El Jimador blanco tequila, triple sec and Golazo energy drink) with the Emerald City Supporters, they give me the lowdown on America's greatest club soccer rivalry for a Sports Illustrated story. Then they show how committed they are, braving a driving rainstorm to turn Seattle's stadium into Glasgow or Buenos Aires for a few hours in a memorable 1-1 tie.
PARIS, March 21 -- Three people have announced their candidacy for the FIFA presidency: Switzerland's Sepp Blatter (the incumbent), Qatar's Mohammed bin Hammam and, in a bit of a longshot campaign, me. The idea was to get out my message that FIFA has to clean up its reputation for corruption, and that has already happened, but now I'm at the UEFA Congress in Paris trying to convince an FA to nominate me by the April 1 deadline. One leader of a World Cup-winning FA tells me he'd consider voting for me in the election (a secret ballot) but can't nominate me (a public act). Meanwhile, I try to convince Bin Hammam that it's in his interest to have one of his supporting countries nominate me, if only because my proposals (a Wikileaks for FIFA!) can make him look like more of a moderate. Bin Hammam smiles but passes, and in the end I get no nominations but at least a useful bit of journalism, including a clichéd meeting with a shadowy operative on a Champs-Élysées park bench.
FOXBORO, Mass., April 7 -- This wouldn't be the place you'd expect to sit down for two days of interviews with Real Salt Lake, which has just qualified for the CONCACAF Champions League final, but the team has some time to kill before a league game against New England. MLS is on the cusp of having its first qualifier for the FIFA Club World Cup, and I learn firsthand just how intense coach Jason Kreis really is; how RSL has put this team together on a small budget; and how important players like Kyle Beckerman, Javier Morales and Nick Rimando are to the team. Ultimately, Salt Lake comes up just short to Monterrey, yet another excruciating near-miss in U.S. soccer.
VENTURA BEACH, Calif., Feb. 23 -- More than a year after the auto accident that killed one person and seriously injured him, Charlie Davies sits at a table overlooking the Pacific and tells his remarkable comeback story. He's not the player he was before the accident, and yet his return with D.C. United has a storybook start when Davies scores twice in the season opener against Columbus. He'll tail off as the season progresses and earn some criticism with his diving, but Davies still finishes tied for ninth in MLS goals (11) and gets his career going again after an inspiring road back.
KANSAS CITY, Kan., June 14 -- Who could have predicted that the soccer dead zone of Kansas City would build a $200 million fútbol stadium that would turn into one of the best atmospheres in U.S. soccer? Not me. Which is why I have to pick my jaw up off the ground as I get a tour of Livestrong Sporting Park from Robb Heineman, the K.C. boss who's one of an exciting new breed of young and ambitious MLS owners. On this night there's a raucous pro-U.S. crowd even though the Gold Cup opponent is lowly Guadeloupe -- a sign that this stadium will be landing important U.S. Soccer events from now on.
CARSON, Calif., Nov. 20 -- Beckham to Keane to Donovan. It's the most expensive threesome in MLS history, and it's also the passing sequence that created the decisive goal in the Los Angeles Galaxy's MLS Cup final victory over Houston. More and more, parts of MLS have a major league feel to them, and this occasion was no different, not least in the game itself (where scalpers were getting well into triple-digits) but also in the events around the game. (Questlove deejayed one big Galaxy-hosted party, for example.) If this was David Beckham's last game in MLS, he went out in style -- and even let loose with his teammates in the postgame celebration.
THOSE WE LOST IN 2011
• Bobby Rhine -- The former 10-year Dallas vet and rising broadcast star died from a heart attack at 35.
• Sócrates -- The Brazilian great, who was also a doctor and political writer, died from septic shock at 57.
• Gary Speed -- The Wales coach who starred as a Premier League player and Welsh national-teamer, committed suicide at 42.
• Catê -- The Brazilian forward, who led New England in scoring in 2001, died at 38 in an auto accident.
• Dennis Marshall -- A car accident claimed the life of Marshall, 25, who had scored a Gold Cup goal for Costa Rica just a few days earlier.
• Uche Okafor -- The former Kansas City defender and member of two Nigerian World Cup teams died at 43 near Dallas from what police ruled a suicide.
• Nat Lofthouse -- The former Bolton Wanderers and England star died at 85 in a nursing home.
THE BEST IN 2011 SOCCER: BOOKS, MOVIES, ETC.
One of the continuing stories in soccer media consumption is taking place on Twitter, which has affected all sports but especially soccer. No tool provides a better way to make the giant world of soccer seem smaller. Here are some other recs from 2011:
BOOKS
• A Life Too Short, by Ronald Reng -- A close look at the life and suicide death of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, a former teammates of U.S. defender Steve Cherundolo at Hanover.
• Soccer Men, by Simon Kuper -- An entertaining collection from one of the best.
• Distant Corners, by David Wangerin -- An engaging chronicle of the fits and starts of soccer in America.
• Soccer Made in St. Louis, By Dave Lange -- The city that has produced so much U.S. soccer talent gets its due.
• The Very Best of Pitch Invasion -- A collection from one of the finest U.S. soccer blogs.
• An Illustrated Guide to Soccer and Spanish, by Elliott Turner -- A useful e-book from the man known on Twitter as @Futfanatico.
PODCASTS
I regularly listen to nine soccer podcasts on my daily runs. Here they are:
• SI Soccer Podcast -- Gotta stump for our own, right? Weekly pods discussing U.S. soccer and the Premier League with me, Steve Davis, Jen Chang, Ben Lyttleton, Richard Deitsch and others.
• ExtraTime Radio -- MLS's in-house show brings the quality twice weekly.
• The Game -- My favorite Euro-based podcast featuring host Gabriele Marcotti and ace writers from The Times of London. (Plus, it's the only content from The Times that doesn't have a paywall.)
• Beyond the Pitch -- Star guests and the best global breadth of any pod out there.
• The Shot With Alexi Lalas -- A two-minute daily jolt of soccer and music from the grand showman of U.S. soccer.
• The Best Soccer Show -- Solid U.S. soccer talk from hosts Jason Davis and Jared DuBois.
• Soccer Today -- Enjoyable Dallas-based show featuring Marc Stein, Steve Davis and Luis Pérez.
• Grantland Network's Men In Blazers -- The funniest podcast I listen to, MIB is hosted by Michael Davies and Roger Bennett.
• Football Weekly -- Quality stuff from our friends at the Guardian.
MOVIES
• Rise and Shine -- Jay DeMerit's journey from MLS reject to playing in the World Cup is as inspiring as it is unlikely.
• Cuando Fuimos Campeones -- A well-done tale of Spain's World Cup 2010 title run.
Thanks for reading in 2011, and best wishes for 2012!

Permalink

Spain's fringe players key to success

By: timbersfan, 1:21 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

As 2012 dawns and you seek a fresh injection of La Liga on ESPN, I suspect that tick-borne encephalitis was not the first thing that came to mind.

Wind back to the last European championship in 2008, however, and it was a major point of concern for the Spanish national team at its base in Austrian Stubai, forest country at the foot of some splendid mountains and within sight of a year-round glacier. Ticks, we were told, were prevalent in the Stubai summer, and a nasty encounter with them could lead anywhere from headaches through myalgia and aseptic meningitis to, by definition, encephalitis. The majority of Luis Aragones' squad had been vaccinated the requisite number of weeks in advance but the coach vacillated so long over his last two or three picks that Santi Cazorla, Ruben de la Red and Sergio Garcia went to Austria without being inoculated (just like me).

Cazorla and Garcia, particularly, were "joker" cards in the squad -- both talented but significantly unproven and unexpected by many in Spain. Yet Aragones went with form and momentum, not tradition.

Did the joker cards strengthen the hand of the Wise Man of Hortaleza? Yes.

De la Red played once and scored. Garcia played once and set up the winning goal. Cazorla -- who was so utterly overwhelmed with joy to be involved that he blushed every time the media talked to him -- actually played five times, consistently appearing when games were stretched or the opponents were tired to add width and verticality, and he was hugely valuable to Spain in terms of seeing out games or maintaining winning scorelines.

In short: a triumph.

Another joker, Cesc Fabregas, contributed an enormous amount to Spain's Euro victory. While he had briefly featured in the 2006 World Cup, Fabregas was largely a bench player in 2008 -- but what an impact. Six matches, one goal, three goal assists. And as I've commented previously, he also started the final as second striker behind Fernando Torres in place of the injured David Villa.

Looking ahead, there are parallels to this summer's tournament. The world champions have a squad that has aged and been flogged hard, physically, over the past four years, leaving several key players either injured or out of form.

[+] Enlarge
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
Cesc Fabregas was mostly a bench player at Euro 2008, but what an impact: six matches, one goal and three assists.
Irrespective of whether Torres and Villa rescue themselves in time, there will be other players who get injured, lose form and, you can be sure, there will be one or perhaps two "joker" picks from Vicente del Bosque. He's more conservative than Aragones, but his use of Fabregas -- and how he integrates Jose Enrique, Jordi Alba, Roberto Soldado, Isaac Cuenca and, perhaps most interestingly, Jose Callejon -- will go some way toward answering whether Spain can become the first country ever to win three straight majors.

To some degree, Callejon (with eight goals in 14 appearances for Real Madrid in all competitions this season) reminds me of Cazorla and Garcia. Not an identical player, but capable of playing wide or cutting in and using space down the middle with intelligence, pacy, full of bravura and with a goal in him.

Think about the career of this emerging Madrid starlet to date. Just before Spain won Euro 2008, he received the standard rejection, having starred in Real Madrid's cantera (youth system) -- sold for peanuts to Espanyol.

But Callejon thrived in Catalonia, matured in a football sense and was bought back in the summer for just over 5 million euros. Yet despite being consigned to an impact sub role, the 24-year-old has been convinced by Jose Mourinho's promises of "jam tomorrow" (the idea that he'll be rewarded with game time if his training is first-rate and his impact is high when he's given the chance). Having to be a squad player, after having been a first pick at Espanyol, could have brought on a fit of the sulks. Nothing like it though. And you can credit Mourinho -- who talked over the Christmas break about how "football is human science" and the "most important thing is man-management" -- for keeping Callejon motivated.

With six goals in his past four games, Callejon is beginning to contest for a regular starting place, and his ability to show good technique at pace is like finding a cold beer in the desert for both Madrid and Spain.

Last season for Espanyol, around this time of year, what I liked was how he adapted from an out-and-out winger to become the No. 9 -- in a 4-5-1 formation at that -- when Pablo Osvaldo (a big bear of a striker) was injured. Despite the difficulty normally associated with such a positional shift, Callejon showed lots of smarts and bravery, and thrived with responsibility on his shoulders.

Graham Hunter
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
• Yellow Submarine on verge of sinking
• Ronaldo's rant, Atletico's despair
• Barca beats Madrid again
• Spain's three kings
• Ibra's book of nonsense
• Spain's balance of power
• Rossi's injury huge blow
• La Liga's ultimate late bloomer
• Messi chasing Barca record
• Laporta's fall from grace
• Barca's off-the-pitch battle
• Real Madrid's game plan
• Spain's cause for concern
• Can Messi stay motivated?
• Real closing gap on Barca
• The magic of Malaga
• Positives from Clasico
• The mind of Mourinho
• Barca's net asset

OK, so it's a long, long way between today and spending June in Poland and Ukraine for Callejon. But there is a scenario in which Spain might be crying out for just his type in May, when del Bosque will be putting the finishing touches to his squad. And the news on Soldado, a favorite in this column in recent months, is good -- giving Callejon at least incentive, if not actual hope.

Del Bosque has confirmed that "perhaps" the Valencia striker should already have been given a chance to impress during the games against England and in Costa Rica (although Soldado might, if he's shrewd, be thanking his lucky stars that he wasn't), and that "soon" he'll be invited to train and play with La Roja -- partly because his goal-scoring form is irresistible, and partly because that of his competitors isn't.

The Spain coach, loyal though he is, also hinted that unless Torres is playing regularly and begins to score, it will be "difficult" for him to make it to the summer tournament. That situation would be drastic, and I still don't see it happening. But the warning is on the table.

Meanwhile, if there is something to sustain del Bosque, it is Fabregas. There is no getting round the fact that, among his many talents, major tournaments make him come alive. On signing for Arsenal, he'd just led Spain all the way to the final of the FIFA U-17 World Championship, finishing as the top scorer and best player. When he came on during World Cup 2006, I recall Diego Maradona raving about his skills and maturity. I've laid down his fundamental role while winning Euro 2008, and while his use was sparing in the last World Cup, he did assist on the winning goal because, as ever, he was mentally and physically ready.

Above anyone else, Fabregas embodies Spain's trophy era. Others have taken center stage, but his mix of technique, aggression, power, goals, team spirit, positional adaptability and, above all, robust mentality, represents the difference between Spain, the perpetual pretty boy, and Spain, the guy who gets the girl.

Since joining Barcelona, Fabregas' tendency to provide important service has increased. He has eight goals in 12 La Liga starts (including a crucial one in a victory at Real Madrid), plus goals in the Champions League, the European Supercup final and the Club World Cup final. All told, in barely half a year at Camp Nou, the ex-Gunner has three trophies, major contributions in two of those finals and a vital goal at the Bernabeu. I imagine that del Bosque sighs with pleasure every time he thinks of Francesc Fabregas -- a man for all seasons.

Seeing which of the jokers in the pack can help Spain, Fabregas and del Bosque rake in the chips on the green baize this summer will be an interesting study over the coming months.

Lionel Messi -- Goldenball

When Lionel Messi raises the Ballon D'Or trophy to an adoring crowd in the Kongresshaus Zurich on Monday he will become the only man, other than Michel Platini, to win the award three consecutive times. Not only that, but Leo will become the only man ever to win three consecutive FIFA World Player awards (it's combined with the Ballon D'Or now), and his margin will be all the more comprehensive given that votes come not just from selected football journalists but also from all the national team captains and coaches of the FIFA football family. I think his continued excellence, his personal comportment, his ability to rise to the trophy moment, the speed at which he demonstrates his skills and how many games he racks up are all pushing him toward the top of the all-time list. But that's as far as I'll go, given that he's only 24 and there is much more to come.

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But just a thought about how much we need to value where he is given who he is subjugating. Xavi is, in my view, the greatest Spanish footballer ever. He is a serial trophy winner and has matured into a fantastic leader for club and country. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored some utterly unbelievable figure like 111 goals in 112 games for Real Madrid, produces feats of athleticism and power that have rarely been seen and, were it not for Messi, would probably stand unchallenged as the most remarkable footballer of our times. Yet they and everyone else are significantly, and I mean significantly, behind Messi in terms of his utter, divine brilliance. We live in extraordinary football times. Cherish them.

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Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola is expected to announce within the coming few weeks that he's renewing his Barca contract for another year.
Barcelona in January

Every club has its share of anniversaries and birthdays each month but January is a particularly significant one, especially this year, for FC Barcelona. Pep Guardiola, who is expected to announce within the coming few weeks that he's renewing his Barca contract for another year, turns 41 on Jan. 18. Xavi, the man making Barca tick, turns an ominous 32 seven days later. Guardiola is young for a coach at such a pressurized club, but he's making the task look easier than it should.

Xavi is still vital, fit and fast-thinking, but how will the encroaching years affect him? One birthday is not make-or-break, but it's just a nudge that Father Time is on his way.

And Jan. 5 is the ninth anniversary of Andres Iniesta's home debut (a 3-0 win over Recre). This little maestro -- whom I'd wager is actually Guardiola's favorite footballer, and whom Xavi consistently claims is, pound-for-pound, a more complete player than himself -- is still only 27. But for him, compared to the other two, excellence remains a struggle -- simply because he is plagued by a mixture of serious and niggling injuries. He starts 2012 seeking fitness. How Barcelona and Spain progress in this testing year will very much hinge on how many games they can squeeze out of the unreliable frame of this superb midfielder.

Permalink

Sugar Bowl Revisited: Basking in the Big Ten's Faux Success

By: timbersfan, 12:34 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

At the end of the Best-Worst Sugar Bowl since Fordham's 2-0 drubbing of Missouri in 1942, those of us who made it that far witnessed one last inexplicable act: Michigan trotted out a kicker who resembled Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty, and said kicker stutter-stepped like a bad dancer before the ball was snapped. It was, technically, a false start, but who the hell knew what was real and what was illusory by then? No penalty was called, the kick split the uprights, the Wolverines completed one of the emptiest 11-win seasons in college football history, and the Big Ten somehow found reason to crow about a 4-6 bowl record whose successes were drawn largely from the utter ineptitude of their opponents.


We love this sport for its imperfections, for the fact that it is messy and unpredictable and guided by the whims of college students, but every so often those imperfections can get on your nerves — especially when watching a BCS contest between two teams that probably don't deserve to play in the BCS in the first place. When a 301-pound long snapper catches a deflected pass off a fake field goal that developed like an OK Go video, something is off-kilter. When Virginia Tech — whose coach, Frank Beamer, is known as the Garry Kasparov of special teams — unveils a flaccid fake punt attempt late in a tie game against a team that had moved the ball only through divine providence, then you start to wonder if someone powerful is trying to send us a message.

And when a potential game-winning catch, by Virginia Tech's Danny Coale, is overruled by video evidence so not-indisputable that it took about 45 seconds before Coale was trending on Twitter and had his name co-opted by the purveyors of adult websites … well, that's when you start to wonder if that someone powerful is Bo Schembechler. Because without getting into sinister Las Vegas-based theories, there's really no other explanation for Michigan winning that game.

Don't get me wrong: I love watching Denard Robinson. I hope he is a Heisman contender next season. He is the quintessence of a college quarterback with no future as a professional quarterback, and I admire his audacity; when he tucks the ball and jitterbugs downfield in his pumped-up Velcro kicks, it is performance art. But Tech contained Robinson last night. He was forced to throw the ball, and when our man Shoelace tosses the rock downfield, it is downright infuriating. On Michigan's first pass, Robinson dodged a tackler, rolled to his right, and hurled a water balloon into double coverage. It hung up so long that the Virginia Tech defender lunged for an interception and missed, and Michigan's Junior Hemingway caught the ball and walked in to the end zone. The Hokies fumbled the ensuing snap, Michigan ordered up that Rube Goldberg fake field goal attempt from the heavens, kicked one more time, and went up 10-6 at halftime.

And here are my notes on the third quarter: "Denard throws slant for INT. Call reversed on replay."

"Robinson terrible throw into coverage, pass interference on Virginia Tech."

"Robinson throws to receiver who isn't open at all in back of end zone. Touchdown. 17-6 Michigan."

Virginia Tech eventually shook off the shock, and tied the game behind the efforts of rangy quarterback Logan Thomas, who appears to be on his way to being really, really good. But then, facing a fourth down in their own territory, Beamer said he left it up to his punter to run the fake or punt the ball, and his punter compounded the coach's terrible decision by making one of his own, and Michigan took over. Once again, the Wolverines barely had to move the ball, then kicked a field goal to go ahead. The Hokies tied it at the end of regulation, and on the first possession of overtime, Coale made an astonishing catch that was overturned on flimsy evidence, which goes against all we've been taught about the basic premise of instant replay. The Hokies' kicker, who had nailed his first four kicks and whom I believe they found a few weeks ago during a Creed show at the state fairgrounds, was off-line. Michigan took advantage of the college overtime loophole and won the game without really having to move the ball, once again, on their final possession.

Of course, none of this means the Big Ten is "back," and none of this means that Michigan is back, either; the Wolverines didn't even win their own division within the conference. Yet nobody carries the flag for misguided Big Ten pretension quite like Michigan does, so let us permit the Wolverines their moment of glory before Urban Meyer squashes their dreams for the next decade. And let us ignore that in a just and fair universe, this game might have been a rematch between Boise State and TCU, a game in which plays were choreographed with Baryshnikovian precision rather than manipulated by forces beyond our ken. But hey, what fun would that have been?

Permalink

Amar'e Stoudemire's Early-Season Struggles

By: timbersfan, 12:33 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

If the first three games of the NBA season are any indication, Amar'e Stoudemire is on his way to one of his worst seasons in a very long time. He's averaging just 17.3 points per game with a PER of 15.48, according to John Hollinger, and his true shooting percentage of just 51.2, down from 56.5 percent last season. Most teams would be pleased with that production from their power forward, but the Knicks rely on Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony to score most of the team's points, and right now Stoudemire's production hasn't been enough to make the Knicks a real threat to Miami and Chicago in the Eastern Conference.

That said, Stoudemire's numbers aren't half as troublesome as the fact that he seems to be floating further and further from the rim this season. Through three games, let's look at Stoudemire's shot distribution by distance so far this year compared to last year:


Courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti
Stoudemire is taking fewer shots at the rim, fewer shots from three to nine feet, and fewer shots from 10 to 15 feet this season. Instead, he's attempting a large number of "long 2s" — shots between 16 and 23 feet. He's shooting 63.6 percent at the rim through his first three games, and 26 percent on long 2s.

It's easy to look at these numbers and shrug them off. It's a small sample size. Wait until he gets a real point guard to play with. But the tape shows a trend that's difficult to ignore. The first observation that jumped out at me is how moving to power forward has hurt Stoudemire on offense, especially on isolation plays. Stoudemire went from playing 49 percent of the Knicks' center minutes last year to playing 16 percent of them this season, according to 82games.com. With another big — newly acquired Tyson Chandler, most of the time — on the floor, the lane is more crowded than before. This has caused Stoudemire to drive less and settle for jumpers more often when he isolates against his defender. Last season, he shot jumpers on 32.8 percent of his isolations; this year, he's shooting them 38.1 percent of time. The reason, once again, is spacing.


Courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti
Here's one recent possession with Stoudemire at power forward and Chandler at center. Chandler plays like a true center in that he doesn't camp on the perimeter and take jumpers. He plays around the rim, looking for drop-off and lob passes, as well as putback opportunities. Since Chandler sticks around the lane on offense, his defender will be there, too. In this case, Josh McRoberts is guarding Chandler, and he has both feet in the paint, ready to help if Stoudemire drives. Stoudemire sees that he has no lane and settles for a jumper. The result ain't pretty.


Courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti
Things were different last year. With Stoudemire at center, there was no other big man who needed to be in or around the paint. This opened up the middle for Stoudemire. On this possession, the Knicks' power forward and his defender are at the top of the key, which means there is no help defender in the paint. Stoudemire reads this, attacks the lane, and finishes at the rim.

Video from this season also shows that the Knicks could be using him better. In the three games Stoudemire has played, he has been involved in just one pick and roll as the screener. It's almost impossible to comprehend why a player who made a living as Steve Nash's pick-and-roll partner in Phoenix and who found similar ball-screen chemistry with Raymond Felton last year would be involved in just one pick and roll so far this season. For Stoudemire, the play is particularly effective because slipping and rolling after ball screens gets him moving to the rim, where he's all but unstoppable.



Along with David Lee and David West, Stoudemire is one of the NBA's quickest rollers to the rim. When Stoudemire sets screens, he gets to the paint and beats help defenders to the basket more times than not. Stoudemire rolls so well after screens that the play should be effective despite the Knicks' current lackluster point guard trio of Toney Douglas, Jeremy Lin, and Iman Shumpert. In fact, more ball screens with Stoudemire should help those guards by forcing defenders to focus on stopping the roll and allowing the ball handlers to come off screens in space.

If the Knicks want Stoudemire to play closer to the basket, they need to make some changes. For starters, they should give Stoudemire the backup center minutes while Chandler is on the bench. One reason why Stoudemire posted a PER of 22.79 and scored 25.3 points per game last season is that he often matched up against centers who were slower and less athletic than him. Last year, many analysts focused on how the Knicks' lack of a true center made them a weak defensive team. Stoudemire's struggles so far this season are a reminder that the Knicks also benefited by playing small ball.

That said, the Knicks needed to get better on defense, and Stoudemire and Chandler will be playing together for a majority of their minutes. So far, the Knicks offense has looked disorganized and random, with players just floating around. Under these circumstances, Chandler naturally gravitates toward the rim, which clogs the lane and forces Stoudemire to rely on jumpers. To clear some space, the Knicks need to get more strategic about where Chandler and Stoudemire position themselves on offense. For example, when they want to isolate or post Stoudemire, they could position Chandler in the opposite corner, far enough away that his defender will have a long way to travel to help against Stoudemire's move. If that defender decides to help, Stoudemire will have a simple dump-off to a cutting Chandler. If he sticks with Chandler, Stoudemire has the space to take his man.

Another strategy the Knicks could use is to run a pick and roll with Chandler and ball handler on the strong side, then quickly reverse the ball to Stoudemire in the weak-side post. This would get Stoudemire the ball close to the basket while keeping the other defenders occupied with the ball screen.

One final offensive scheme that might help the Knicks would be to run pick and rolls with Anthony and Stoudemire. Other teams with pairs of dynamic scorers, like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, have tried using their stars together in ball-screen situations, and have been very successful.


Courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti
Here, Stoudemire sets a screen for Anthony on the wing.


Courtesy of Sebastian Pruiti
No defense would allow Anthony to come off a screen untouched, so Kris Humphries, Stoudemire's defender, hedges hard at Anthony and traps him before he starts his dribble. This is a perfect opportunity to slip the screen, and Stoudemire, being the fantastic roll man that he is, reads it perfectly and slips to the rim with space. The result is an easy finish.



The fact that the Knicks haven't been running this play at least five times a game is mind-blowing. Anthony isn't the most willing passer, but putting him in situations that create wide-open passing lanes and easy scoring opportunities will invite him to share the ball. If teams focus on stopping Stoudemire's roll, Anthony can look for his shot off the screen.

In all likelihood, Stoudemire won't be shooting almost half his shoots from 16 to 23 feet for the entire season. At least Knicks fans should hope he won't. Mike D'Antoni and the Knicks' coaching staff, however, would be wise to tweak their offense in ways that will make it easier for Stoudemire to get into the lane, where he's most effective. Even with Chandler guarding the rim, the Knicks can't rely on defense to win games this season. That means they need Stoudemire's offense as much as ever, and if they don't find ways to get him going, the Knicks won't make their much-hyped jump into the league's elite.

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Person of Interest: Kwame Brown

By: timbersfan, 12:32 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

The truth was, I immediately saw myself cast in the role of the bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual trying to form a "heavy" thesis about a gift of grace and magical flair the black athlete possesses that can never be reduced to anything but poetry. I have always envied this gift and have often said that if I could live life over as someone else it would be wonderful to be Sugar Ray Robinson or Willie Mays. With my luck, however, I would undoubtedly wind up John Maynard Keynes.

— Woody Allen, "A Fan's Notes on Earl Monroe"

There is a moment in the life of every sports fan when you must come to terms with the mathematically irrefutable, yet somehow still surreal fact that the athletes on the court or field or ice are younger than you.1 It's a particularly brutal landmark — youth shifts out from under your feet and the future doesn't seem as limitless as it once did. Some kid is doing something you'll never do and making money you'll never make. For me, that moment came in the spring of 2001, when the chatter around basketball was about a phenomenon named Kwame Brown.

I remember watching a video interview with him around the time of the McDonald's All-American game. Brown, for whatever absurd reason, was seated on a sidewalk in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga. He spoke quietly and under his breath, and rarely looked into the camera. When he was asked how he felt about being possibly selected as the no. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Brown said, "I mean, it's cool, I guess."

There was something about his indifference in that interview — a calcified, defensive indifference — that instantly made me feel connected to him. At the time, I was 21 and trying to figure out whether or not it made sense to graduate from a college that had kicked me out twice in the span of 18 months. When reports started to surface that maybe Kwame didn't really want to be in the NBA, I thought, stupidly, about myself. It doesn't need to be said here that the vast majority of sentiments we feel toward athletes are probably false or, at least, imperfect. But we keep having those moments anyway, and I've never heard a particularly convincing reason why this is a bad thing. Admittedly, back then, my fascination with basketball was a lot like what Woody Allen describes in the quote above — there was some magical otherness in the game, some grace that promised of better possibilities than my own mediocre youth. (One promising development since Allen's piece ran in Sport is that the "bespectacled, white, pseudo-intellectual" no longer has to be white. As the ad says, we are all witnesses, and, as college teaches us, we can all write our own heavy theses.)

It was a bad transference, sure, but I've never understood why the loudest sports fans identify so exclusively with excellence and achievement — why, in real life, Shooter McGavin has won out over Happy Gilmore. You can pound your abacus on the altar of winning games or drag your impressionable son into the discussion and wonder how you can raise him in a world where Kwame Brown averages fewer than five points a game — I'm certain, in some ways, you are right, but being right, whatever that might mean, doesn't change the fact that most people do not experience sports as either a moral referendum or a logic puzzle in which the only deciding factor is whether a bunch of strangers hoist a trophy or do not hoist a trophy.

Kwame's rookie season was, as Sally Jenkins described, a series of humiliations. But before anyone could possibly arrive at a fair assessment of a 19-year-old, the public opinion, perhaps goaded on by statements made by Doug Collins, had already turned against Kwame Brown. Jenkins' profile, made famous for its French dressing anecdote, shed quite a bit of light on what had gone wrong during that rookie season in Washington — a demanding coach, a desperate Michael Jordan, and little to no institutional support for a giant, shy kid who in no way was ready to play at the NBA level. For the most part, the critics seemed most frustrated at Brown's apparent lack of work ethic. He had shown up at training camp out of shape, he complained about fouls in practices, he did not have the drive to capitalize on his God-given gifts. During those early years, the prevailing opinion about Kwame Brown went something like, "If I had Kwame Brown's talent and athleticism, I certainly wouldn't be wasting it. He's a fucking bum."2

The politics of most people who write about such politics preclude anyone from saying something like, "In the seventh and again in the ninth grade, I received a report card on which every teacher had punched in the same computer-generated comment: 'Not working up to potential.' Ergo, I understand what Kwame Brown went through." There's too much clumsiness in that statement — too much racial math distances me from Kwame Brown. Recently, Gene Marks incited a maelstrom of indignation by imagining himself as a "poor black kid," and I suppose, in most ways, comparing myself to Kwame Brown falls somewhere close to that objectionable space. But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his stirring response, understanding race in this country means shedding easy, tweetable indignation and/or empathy in favor of a "muscular empathy rooted in curiosity." I don't mean to say that my thoughts on Kwame Brown embody some sort of new connection between the writer and the athlete. But I do wonder why so much potential discussion about sports has been washed out by the easy polarity of "sports talk" and the rabidity with which everyone hawks over their corner.

Two mantras have overwhelmed the way we talk about troubled or failed athletes. The first is the mantra of Kwame Brown: Anyone who has the "gifts" to play a game for millions of dollars has no right to do anything but play that game with all his effort and a smile on his face. The second mantra asks us to shut our eyes, plead the Liberal Education Fifth, and pledge that no one should ever try to understand any black professional athlete. And, if someone does, those musings must be thoroughly cleansed in either blind indignation or what Coates calls "a hand-holding empathy."

When we leave athletes in the hands of the two mantras, they are quickly converted into symbols, and no league churns out symbols faster than the NBA. Before he could set foot into a bar, Kwame Brown became the flag under which an ugly entitlement marched. This, of course, came mostly from the fact that Kwame Brown, despite showing flashes of brilliance, never turned into much of a basketball player. But his career, to date, has not been significantly worse than, say, Pervis Ellison's. And given his defensive skills, he has been better than Michael Olowokandi, who was taken before Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison, Dirk Nowitzki, and Paul Pierce in the loaded 1998 draft.3 But it's Kwame Brown who mostly carries the weight for being a bust. Again, there are several reasons why this is true — Jordan's fame, the scrutiny of being the first high school player picked no. 1 overall, Kwame's affect on the court — but more than anything else, it's because nobody can really figure out why Kwame Brown didn't become a great basketball player. The only answers lie somewhere in Kwame's "intangibles." And no struggling athlete, at least in the modern sports era, has ever let the public interpret his intangibles and come out unharmed.

Kwame is now two public things. He is Kwame Brown, symbol of self-imposed failure, the punch line to every draft-day joke. But he is also Kwame Brown, employed professional basketball player, who plays with the knowledge that nothing he does on the court can really change his legacy. He could play another five years in the league, improve every season, win a championship, sign a multiyear contract, and retire at the age of 35 with a completely adequate, acceptable second career in the books, but his name will always be synonymous with youth, petulance, and waste.

It's not entirely uncommon for a player to exist mostly as a symbol while still hacking out the last years of his playing career. Michael Jordan was in that position when he drafted Kwame. In his year in Baltimore, Sammy Sosa represented both the so-called revitalization of baseball and its worst scandal. But these sorts of conflations usually come with old age and a firm divorce from the past. (Part of the reason why Barry Bonds never really reached this point was because he never left San Francisco.) It's rare that an athlete will play 10 years in a sport and already have cemented his legacy by the time he turned 20 years old. Ryan Leaf, football player, went away quickly. Unless things take a drastic turn for the better, it looks like Greg Oden, basketball player, will slip from the public's consciousness in a couple of years.

By contrast, this will be the ninth straight season in which Kwame Brown, draft bust and pariah to every D.C. hoops fan, will suit up and play basketball in front of thousands of people who only know him as a disappointment.


The basketball player Kwame Brown signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Golden State Warriors in December. The Warriors, in the first fully dedicated year of their new regime under Joe Lacob, Larry Riley, and Mark Jackson, went after free agents Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan, only to lose out on both. For a fan base that had heard all offseason about a new focus on defense and a higher bottom line when it came to acquiring top-level talent, the indignity of ending up with Kwame was too much to bear. Twitter and the usual sports talk radio channels blew up with what people usually say when they talk about Kwame Brown. A team official told me, "It wasn't a good scene on the blogs and on Twitter. But that's one of the things that's different between this new regime and the old — if we want to do something because it'll help the team, even if it's unpopular, we'll do it. Before, there might have been more focus on how things look."4

A week before the season started, I went to a Warriors practice. The team's facility sits atop a large, mostly vacant parking structure in downtown Oakland. When I walked into the gym, the team was running a split-squad scrimmage. Kwame was standing off to the side, his hands caught up in the net of one of the auxiliary hoops. There are certain big men in the league whose value can't be properly gauged until you see them up close. (Andrew Bynum, first and foremost, fits this category.) Kwame, who was listed at 6-foot-11 when he was drafted, stood a half-head taller than Andris Biedrins, who has always been listed at 7-0.


Kwame is now two public things. He is Kwame Brown, symbol of self-imposed failure, the punch line to every draft-day joke. But he is also Kwame Brown, employed professional basketball player, who plays with the knowledge that nothing he does on the court can really change his legacy.

As his teammates ran up and down the court, Kwame stood by himself and watched. My years as a high school teacher have anesthetized me to almost every manner of disinterested stare, but I couldn't help but notice Kwame's indifference. When Mark Jackson ended the scrimmage and huddled up his new team, Kwame joined the circle but stood a bit off from the crowd. This was his first day of practice. I caught myself thinking, "Man, if this were my first day with a new team, I'd be right in the middle." As the players broke into groups of three to shoot free throws, Kwame went to a far corner with two teammates. Again, his body language was impossible to ignore — he doesn't so much walk as much as he slinks around like the Pink Panther, slouched with arms swinging.

When the team headed to the locker room, Kwame came over to talk for a few minutes. We shook hands and he took a seat in a high chair usually reserved for TV interviews. The muscle he had put on during his stints in Detroit and Los Angeles was mostly gone. Later, two different team officials would tell me that Kwame had once again reported to camp out of basketball shape. That night, in the preseason opener, Kwame would not get on the court. As we went over the usual pre-interview chatter, I found myself growing increasingly annoyed. Why was Kwame so out of shape? The Warriors had just given him $7 million. If he washed out here, he would never see that sort of payday again. Why didn't he care enough to commit himself to the gym during the lockout? Why wasn't he invested in reclaiming his career and proving all the haters wrong?

I was aware, somewhat at least, that I was throwing Kwame into the same old mantras — all my silly, megalomaniacal compassion had guttered out. Face to face and within the context of a basketball gym and other athletes who were fighting for roster spots, my personal Kwame Brown devolved back into a much more generic sort of self-aggrandizement. I think this happened because sports provide us with only a plumb line down into itself — perhaps, more than anything, this self-containment is what explains the power of the mantras, because people who are not invested in creating metaphors just want to see themselves in the context of athletes and the game. Despite all our projections and however many books are written about how certain sports help explain the succeeding world, in the end, what rises to the surface is the actuality of the game and its mind-bending economy.

I asked if he had any expectations for this season. Kwame said he didn't think much about expectations. He just wanted to help the team win. I asked if he saw this season as a chance for redemption. He said he didn't think in terms of redemption because he didn't see what needed to be redeemed. I asked if he thought being the no. 1 pick in the draft had put an undue burden on him, if he ever thought back and wished he had been taken fourth or fifth. He looked off in the direction of the locker room and grimaced. I asked if he was excited about having a fresh start with the Warriors. He said he didn't think of it as a fresh start because he had already been fairly successful in the league and played some great games. Finally, I asked if he felt like his critics were being unfair when they labeled him a disappointment. To which Kwame Brown, of course, replied, I just don't pay attention to what anyone has to say about me. Then, as so often happens in these scripted moments when a writer meets an athlete only to find out that said athlete doesn't match up at all with said writer's projections, Kwame Brown got off the chair, extended one of his notoriously small hands, shook mine, and walked away.

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The Myth of the Small-Market Window

By: timbersfan, 12:31 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

"What you'll find is that the window for a small-market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely."
— AUGUST 2, 2011

Billy Beane loves to talk about Windows. The Window is the short period of time in which small-revenue clubs supposedly have to compete. Right now, the Window is closed in Oakland. The Window was open once, and the A's general manager did everything he could to keep it that way just a little bit longer. But changes in the game, we're told, have made it harder and harder to prop open the Window even a crack … much less wide open, allowing years of fresh air and pennants to waft in.

There is a nugget of truth behind this Window obsession. Smaller-revenue teams have a tougher time signing premium free agents, or retaining their own top players past their initial six years of team control. That puts extra pressure on these poorer teams to bring up a bunch of great prospects all at once, then hope they get good at the same time before they get expensive.

But far more often it's a bullshit excuse. It's a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It's a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It's a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference.

Or in the case of the Oakland A's, their recent fire sale and justification for said fire sale, it's a bold-faced ploy by one opportunistic owner to win territory from another opportunistic owner so that another city can hand out another $500 million check for another boondoggle stadium.

Real estate developer and A's owner Lew Wolff is champing at the bit to build a new ballpark in San Jose. It's a move that's supposed to boost interest in the A's and attendance for their games. The Giants' owners are holding up the deal, claiming territorial rights in San Jose. The Giants won those rights two decades ago, when then-A's owner Walter Haas Jr. ostensibly did them a favor. Whether or not the Giants owe them repayment of that favor and whether or not the commissioner's office should step in to broker a deal, the way it did when the Expos moved to D.C. in relation to the Orioles' territorial rights, is an open question.

While all this gets debated, A's fans will get treated to some lousy baseball. And some sad talk about Windows.

"[Beane] said he's eager for his young players to grow up and 'take advantage of that brief window you have in this market.'"
— APRIL 3, 2010

Proclaiming Moneyball to be dead has been a favorite pastime of curmudgeonly writers since the book came out. Which is to say, 2½ years before Jonah Hill jonesed for sparkly boots in his second-ever feature film role, and 8½ years before he played Paul DePodesta-but-not-actually-Paul DePodesta. The arguments range from get-off-my-lawn rants that baseball lasted a century without any statistical advances and doesn't need them now, to crediting Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder (and Jason Giambi, and Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez) with the A's success, not the relatively minor contributions of Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. To the first, couldn't agree more, which is why the American Medical Association still recommends leeches to cure any and all ailments. To the second, Moneyball was a well-told story by a gifted writer who's great at distilling complex concepts into enjoyable works of nonfiction, even if it means omitting some key facts. Take it up with him and his giant stack of money.

Starting in 2000, the A's made the playoffs four years in a row, part of a sustained stretch of success in which they finished first or second eight years in a row, averaging 94 wins a season. The following is a list of teams that did one or both of those things during that time frame, or since: Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, Braves.1 Five years of losing don't nullify eight years of excellence, much less on perennially puny payrolls.

But 10 years might. Oakland's trades of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey last month signaled a rebuilding process within a rebuilding process. All three pitchers come with flaws. Cahill doesn't strike out enough batters to be a front-line starter. Gio Gonzalez walks too many to be a front-line starter. And Andrew Bailey is a reliever, which limits a pitcher's value, unless that pitcher is Mariano Rivera, Blessed Be His Name. Still, Cahill is 23, Gonzalez is 26, and Bailey is 27, all three had multiple years of controllable service time left, and they were three of the best players a thin A's team had. Along with 2011 breakout star Brandon McCarthy and rehabbing lefty Brett Anderson, these are the kind of players you're supposed to collect when trying to squeeze into that elusive Window.

Problem is, those five pitchers weren't enough to challenge the very rich, very talented Angels and Rangers. Fueled by monster TV contracts slated to kick in over the next couple of years, both teams have aggressively pursued big-name players. The Angels nabbed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in their quest to reclaim AL West supremacy. The Rangers hope to add Yu Darvish, the Japanese sensation for whom they'll likely spend more than $100 million in combined posting fees and salary, in their drive for a third straight AL pennant. Mariners fans can lobby for Prince Fielder and A's fans can wish for … pretty much anyone who can hit, but neither team looks likely to catch the big two at the top, not this year, and in Oakland's case, maybe not for a long time.

You can excuse the A's for falling back after their great eight-year run. You can even understand them taking a step back in the face of fierce intradivisional competition. But let's not kid ourselves about what's going on here. Years of iffy personnel decisions have turned the A's into a bad team with little hope for the foreseeable future. Yet they're spinning this as something else.

"I don't think there was a move we could have made that would have put us in position to compete with Anaheim and Texas and what they have," Beane said after the Gonzalez trade.

OK, sure.

"For us to compete, we're going to have to have a new stadium."

Uh, hold on a second there, doctor.

"It used to be you could be strong for three, four, five winning seasons in a row, but the window of opportunity is much smaller now. The Rays have done a great job — in fact, I think their greatest achievement wasn't getting to the World Series, but winning their division. But they'll be the first to tell you how hard it'll be to sustain that."
— MARCH 2, 2009

That Beane quote came after the Rays won the AL pennant, their first playoff berth in franchise history. They've since made it back to the playoffs twice more in three years, while competing in the toughest division in baseball. There's no "used to be" about being strong three, four, or five years in a row now. The Rays are living proof.

If there's one team that can feel Oakland's pain when it comes to a stadium quagmire, it's the Rays. They have 16 more seasons left on an oppressive lease in the worst-located ballpark in the league. Only 16 more years to convince a scattered fan base to come to games, when the greatest four years in team history and the greatest comeback in the history of the sport couldn't do it.2 But the Rays keep winning. And thanks to the deepest stable of young pitching in the game, a roster full of team-friendly contracts, and shrewd decision-making throughout the organization, there's hope for more.

Before Target Field opened and bestowed its taxpayer-funded gold on the Pohlad family, the Twins were another small-revenue success story, bagging four AL Central crowns in five years on a shoestring budget. The first of those four division titles came in 2002, a year that seemed so futile for the Twins' quest to escape the Metrodome that baseball threatened to contract the team. Yes, Target Field opened the door for much greater spending and a chance to retain the team's best players.3 But the Twins found success in the new park for the same reasons they succeeded in the old one, and the same reasons the Rays and A's made it work in their lifeless buildings: They did a better job of finding great players than most everyone else.

"I think Billy saw a window of opportunity, as far as the West is concerned."
— FEBRUARY 17, 2009

Beane even inspired his players to contemplate the Window. When Eric Chavez spoke of his boss' plans three years ago, he was discussing the move Beane made that offseason, one of the most shocking transactions of the past decade. The tiny-revenue A's, champions of Dumpster-diving, had traded three young players for Matt Holliday. The very good, very expensive, very one-year-away-from-agency Matt Holliday.

For years, Beane had prided himself and his staff on their ability to sniff out young talent and acquire it cheap. But other teams' increased recognition of said talent and its value put a major dent in Oakland's plans. "Is it a more challenging environment? Absolutely," Beane told SI's Tom Verducci. "Ten years ago teams didn't value young players, other than as chips or assets to get the players they needed. Now, even the large-market teams with great resources, everybody values their young players. You have large-market teams valuing young players exactly the same as Tampa Bay, Kansas City or any small-market team."

Though those comments came last summer, the Holliday trade illustrated Beane's early recognition of the industry's shift. If everyone was going to go nuts hoarding A-ball pitchers and rookie-league second basemen, then screw it. He'd zig while everyone else zagged, and spend prospects to get a legitimate star.

The problem wasn't in the general thought process so much as in the circumstances behind it. The A's were coming off a 75-win season. Even with Holliday in tow and an intriguing young core of players, vaulting to the top of the division was going to be a long shot. Sure enough, by July, the A's were out of contention, leaving a flip-job on Holliday as Beane's best bet to get back decent value, in lieu of simply collecting compensation draft picks at year's end. To date, Shane Peterson, Clay Mortensen, and once-touted minor league slugger Brett Wallace — the three players Oakland got in its midseason Holliday trade — haven't amounted to much. You might recognize a couple of the players the A's gave up to get Holliday eight months earlier, though. One, Huston Street, has become an effective closer. The other, Carlos Gonzalez, is now one of the game's best outfielders.4

For as much pitching success as the A's have had in recent years, they've been terrible about developing good hitters, with Gonzalez's departure exacerbating the problem. No A's position player yielded more than 2.2 Wins Above Replacement last season (an average full-time position player is typically worth about 2 WAR). Oakland's best offensive players over the past few years have typically been not-young sluggers like Jack Cust and Josh Willingham, useful complementary players, but not the kind to shove you through your Window. Whatever Oakland magic fueled the last big run — scouting and player development in the case of Giambi, Tejada, and Chavez, smart shopping in the case of bargains like Hatteberg and, let's say, John Jaha — it hasn't shown up at the Coliseum in years.

The A's aimed to address that lack of position player strength when they reached a two-year, $14 million deal Tuesday with Coco Crisp. There's nothing wrong with Crisp per se: He's a capable defender in center field who runs very well and hits enough to be respectable, a combination that netted 5.5 WAR for the A's over the past two seasons. It's just a curiously large investment for a 32-year-old outfielder on a team that's thrown up a big, white flag for all the world to see.5

Greater emphasis on young talent by rival teams and a lousy stadium situation might be partly responsible for the A's Window being slammed shut. But the far bigger reason is the same one that has left Pirates fans without fresh air for 20 Bonds-less years, the same one that's got Royals fans only now starting to get a little optimistic after a 26-year playoff drought: The A's have a bunch of cruddy players because management didn't do a good enough job of getting non-cruddy ones.

So stop telling us about your damn Window. It's an excuse to field terrible baseball teams and pocket tens of millions of dollars in revenue-sharing cash. Just once, it'd be great to hear the GM of a bad team drop the euphemisms. "I fucked up, and my boss wants a new stadium so he can make lots of free money. These things are not related."

There. Much better.

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12 Quick Thoughts on the Winter Classic

By: timbersfan, 12:30 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

As Craig Custance and I discussed on our podcast Tuesday, The NHL Winter Classic feels like nothing so much as a wedding. There's almost a full year of build-up and planning, of finding vendors and making the most minute of arrangements. Check in at the hotel and you're given a room key card festooned with the Classic's logo, not unlike when the concierge hands over one of those welcome goody bags stamped with the bride and groom's names. There are days of activity-filled buildup, and just as we've all been to rehearsal dinners that are just as (or more!) fun than the actual wedding, some of these preludes, like this year's Alumni Game, are truly memorable even on their own.

And then, of course, it's the Big Day and everything happens so fast and suddenly it's all over and where did all that time go? And you feel a combination of relieved, wistful, energized, a little empty inside, and also really hungover as you rush to make it to that early morning train the next day. With all that in mind, here are 12 quick thoughts from the 2012 Winter Classic extravaganza, in roughly chronological order. I'll have more to say in my column in a few days, but consider this the equivalent of the recap over (a really really late) brunch.

The Alumni Game

As I mentioned, this year's Alumni Game was one of the biggest highlights of the whole weekend. More than 40,000 fans packed Citizens Bank Park and the atmosphere was legitimately electric, with one of the goose-bumpsiest moments being when Eric Lindros, who left Philadelphia in 2001 in a vortex of animosity, returned to a deafening they're-on-their-feet roar -- the loudest given to any Flyer alum. The support only grew more frenzied when he set up his once-Legion of Doom linemate John LeClair for the game's first goal that made you forget for a moment that it wasn't 1995. (The third member of that line, Mikael Renberg, was busy working and sadly unable to attend.)
During these player introductions, which were quite the spectacle -- pyrotechnics and a marching band were involved -- the Philly-heavy crowd mostly booed the Rangers, Darius Kasparaitis in particular. But when the Blueshirts' Ron Duguay skated out with his Bon Jovi visage, the crowd, clearly impressed, couldn't decide how to react. It settled on whistling for him, which was totally perfect. (Duguay later returned the favor when he went in on a breakaway against 66-year-old Bernie Parent and flipped him a savable softie, much to the delight of the fans.)
The game also included an inspiring performance by goalie Dan Blackburn, who at only 28 years old isn't your typical "alum." Once a tenth overall first-round draft pick, Blackburn was forced to retire early after suffering nerve damage to his shoulder while lifting weights. Seeing him back in a Rangers jersey was bittersweet. "There's a lot of far bigger names in this dressing room than I," he said in the locker room after the game, as those very names walked around holding their jerseys for everyone to sign like a high school yearbook. (I really hope someone wrote "Stay cool!") "For me to get the call and be able to come play with these great guys and a lot of legends was a great honor and a lot of fun. Probably one of the highlights of my career, actually."
Other Alumni Game observations: Mark Messier was asked if he'd trade the Rangers' alumni loss for a win in the big game on Monday. "I'll never trade a loss for anything," he said … Shjon Podein spoke about how much he loved Philadelphia's fans. "They're unbelievable," he said. "Passionate, harsh, unforgiving, but really nice … If you give them everything you've got, they respect you."…Stephane Matteau told me that he had been incredibly nervous for the game. Why? He hadn't practiced or trained a lick. Neither had Mark Howe … Jeremy Roenick agreed that the game could include some All-Broadcaster lines. The Flyers team featured him and Ron Hextall, among others, while the Rangers squad had Dave Maloney, Nick Kypreos, Brian Leetch, and Duguay … Most players spoke about how much it meant for them that their children, many of whom had once been too young to ever really understand that daddy was a good hockey player, to see them out on the ice.
The Teams Practice

The next day was dominated by Ilya Bryzgalov, who sauntered around the locker room shirtless after the Flyers' practice (at a very Dry Island-y 9 a.m. on New Years' Day) while a scrum of reporters and news crews eagerly gathered around him to hear what bon mots he had this time. After pulling on a Flyers shirt so he could go in front of the cameras -- "NHL rules," he explained -- he gave the crowd what it wanted and then some. I'll have much more to say on this later this week, but you can read the whole crazy exchange with reporters here. Suffice to say, we've now got a goaltender issue in Philadelphia, and also, today the sun rose in the east.
The Rangers' practice was far less eventful, consisting mostly of idle speculation over whether Marc Staal would be playing in his first game of the season. (He'd been out all year with a concussion.) Reporters squinted every time he skated by, searching for clues. When he zipped by smoothly: "I think he's definitely going tomorrow." A slight grimace, or a puck bouncing over his stick: "No way does he play." While John Tortorella said on Sunday that "nothing has changed" with Staal's condition, the next morning he announced that he'd be making his return to the lineup, just as his brother Jordan did last year when Pittsburgh hosted the outdoor game. (This caused a medley of halfhearted jokes about the Carolina Hurricanes playing in the next Classic, because Staal brother jokes are like catnip to hockey writers.)
The Big Day

The most striking image as I walked around the parking lot tailgates and the NHL's official "Spectator Plaza" on the day of the Winter Classic was not the throngs of drunken fans who had arrived at 9 a.m., nor the kids playing street hockey and wearing little Jagr jerseys, nor the heavily-sponsored food stands and game booths. It was the hundred-plus people waiting just to get into an official merchandise tent. They snaked back and forth like an amusement park line, already wearing NHL gear but preparing to get more. I heard that they sold completely out of Giroux jerseys. Cha-ching, NHL!
Hockey has no halftime, but it sure felt like the game was split into two. No goals were scored for all of the first period and the first twelve minutes of the second — and then five goals were knocked in after that. The Flyers' Brayden Schenn, a highly-touted 20-year-old who arrived to the team as part of the Mike Richards trade but has battled one injury after another thus far this season, scored his first NHL goal in one of the more memorable ways possible: in front of a sellout crowd of 46,967 looking for any excuse to explode. Also exploding: every synapse inside Schenn's head. "When it went in I kind of almost blacked out I got so excited," he said.
Philly's other goal was a beauty by Claude Giroux, who showed why he is one of the league's fastest-rising stars. A day before the game Flyers coach Peter Laviolette had this to say about Giroux and his usual linemate, Jaromir Jagr: "Everyone thinks about the game the same way. And a select few think about the game a different way … I think Jagr and Giroux think on the same level." Jagr began the game with one of his patented split-the-D moves, but barely returned after that with an injury. (He is now said to be out 7 to 10 days.)
While Jagr sat on the bench, the Rangers' Mike Rupp gave him a mocking tribute, mimicking his trademark post-goal salute when he scored to narrow the game to 2-1. He said afterward that the move was not planned: "I was just kind of excited in the moment." Asked about it, Jagr drolly remarked that maybe that's how Rupp always celebrates. "He doesn't score many goals," he added. Rupp scored again early in the third period to tie the game, a rare offensive outing for a grinder whom Tortorella repeatedly described as a locker room "glue guy" throughout the weekend. Torts' expression when talking about Rupp took on a visibly dreamy haze, by the way. He's kind of in love.
The end of the game was a wacky sequence of events that left conspiracy theorists wondering if the fix was in. Tortorella called the officiating "disgusting" and wondered whether NBC had a secret meeting with the officials. I prefer the theory that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had some sort of batphone. A series of penalties (and penalties not called) culminated in a ruling that the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh had covered the puck in the crease, necessitating a penalty shot with 20 seconds left in the game that would give the Flyers a chance to send things to overtime. Laviolette opted to send out Danny Briere instead of Giroux, explaining later that he sees Briere as more of a pure scorer in that situation. (Incidentally, it was Briere and Giroux who both scored shootout goals on Henrik Lundqvist in the winner-take-all last game of the 2010 season that sent the Flyers to the playoffs -- and ultimately the Stanley Cup Finals -- and the Rangers home.) This time Lundqvist stopped Briere, who wrote about the experience on NHL.com.
Brad Richards scored his sixth game-winning goal this season (and his second in a game against the Flyers) when he sniped a rebound from the right side of the slot. One of his other game winners, which came with 0.1 seconds left in a game against Phoenix, was featured in the second episode of HBO's 24/7. In the show, 10-year-old Liam Traynor, who is confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy but has become a close friend of Tortorella and many of the players, is shown celebrating the goal (way past his bedtime.) Liam was given tickets to the Winter Classic -- "We could barely make it through the parking lot!" said his delighted mother, referring to her son's newfound celebrity -- and came into the Rangers locker room after the game, where he and his family chatted it up with a number of players, including Richards. "You're a movie star now!" Richards said to the beaming boy. "You watched that goal, eh? You stayed up late for that one. But hey, we made sure it was worth it."

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Return of T-Mac: How McGrady Cooled the Heat

By: timbersfan, 12:28 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

If you've never had the experience of finding out that Tracy McGrady is on your team, you haven't lived.


I remember reading the awkward news that my team, The Atlanta Hawks, responded to the lockout ending by signing Tracy McGrady to a 1-year contract, but it didn't really register (Blagojevich had been sentenced earlier in the day and I can only handle so much heartbreaking news at a time). Anyway, it wasn't until three of my friends and I (referred to as the "Quadpod" from here on out) were at the first Hawks home game last week and heard the announcer say "Now entering the game, in his Atlanta Hawks home debut, #1 TRACY MCGRADY" did it fully sink in. The expressions on the faces of the Quadpod:

Bradley: "No! Yes? Why? Huh? I need a drink."
Jimmy: "OMG, it's a ghost. A tall, black ghost. Wait, I never thought about ghosts being black. There must be black ghosts, right? Note to self: look into this further when I get home."
Josie: "I mean, he's still kind of cute, right? Right?"

As for me, I clearly heard what the announcer said, but all that registered was: "Now entering the game, The Sultan of Suck. Your favorite parasite's favorite parasite. Mr. 'My Team Will Excel Once I Get Injured' himself, Tracy McGrady..."

These four reactions sum up the career and legacy of Tracy McGrady, easily one of the most puzzling and difficult characters to describe in NBA history.

Some things I never would have guessed were true about T-Mac:

32-years-old (easily had him only a few footsteps behind Juwan Howard at 56).
An All-NBA selection 7 times last decade (thought maybe four times, max).
Leads all active players in postseason Points Per Game, 28.5 (Kobe is so mad).
5th all time in post-season Points Per Game (KOBE IS SO MAD).
On the other hand, what I will never forget about TMac:

Never lead team out of the first round of playoffs.
When put on Injured Reserve, team finally made it past the first round of playoffs.
While it's going to take a while for Tracy to kick his "me first, team second" reputation that has unfairly haunted his above-average career, this season could be the start of this process with last night serving as the launch party.

Last night, on the same court as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Joe Johnson McGrady stood out as the game's most impressive player. He put up 13 of his 16 points in the 4th quarter and threw a late game alley-oop from behind the arc to the freak that is Josh Smith. Oh, and the Hawks beat the Heat, in Dade County, giving them their first loss of the season.

Atlanta might finally be the perfect fit for Tracy to shake his demons and simply be what he is: one of the most prolific scorers of his generation. He might also be the piece of the puzzle that the ever-average Hawks have been looking for. For years, they've been attempting to bring in that person that can help Joe Johnson get the Hawks past the other beasts of the East. For years, they've tried and failed in getting that premier point guard or a big man some semblance of hand-eye coordination. Instead, they got Tracy McGrady, and that might have been the most accidentally genius move the team has made in years.

Yes, I know the season is in its early stages and there's no telling what type of long-term impact Tracy will have. But with no pressure on him and coming off the bench for a team who's fans will always expect the worst, this could finally be Tracy's moment to shine.

Parasite no more, Tracy. Welcome to the world of symbiotic relationships. The water's warm.

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Did Oregon Just Join The Establishment?

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

Dear Oregon,

Whether you realize it or not, the gimmick’s dead. Oh sure, you’ll keep it up. You’ll run onto the field in your oblong stadium clad in some new, flashy fabric. You’ll keep building up facilities that make your athletic department look like a wooded Dubai. You’ll keep touting your corporate-funded, anti-tradition philosophy. But c’mon. It’s been 95 years since you’ve won the oldest, most patriarchal bowl of them all. It’s time to embrace your status. You might all be anarchists up in Eugene, but after knocking off a resilient Wisconsin team for the biggest victory in your school's history, you are now among the elite and powerful.

Of course, this is exactly what Oregon has been gunning for all along; they would have gladly taken all of the Tostitos had Michael Dyer’s knee scraped the ground in Tempe last January. For all of their anti-establishment posturing, Oregon has always wanted the same things that every program wants: huge recruits, huge wins, huge dividends. But Oregon got to the mountaintop by insisting that another route was possible, one cleared of the intangible things on upon whose importance college football has always insisted. Now that they’ve won the Granddaddy, how are they going to tell their recruits that the way things have been done in the past aren’t good enough?

In the weeks leading up to their match-up with Wisconsin, the narrative practically wrote itself. Wisconsin was the old guard, a power-running team coached by a buzz-cut Midwesterner and supported by a fanbase that still gets jacked up by “Jump Around” and the Motion W. It almost seemed like Adidas begged the Badgers to let them design a new uniform for the Rose Bowl. That the rose-shadowed numbers they wore last night looked like they were designed by Russell Stover seemed depressingly appropriate.

But on the field, Wisconsin and Oregon played nearly identical games. For all of the conservative/progressive binaries that were touted pregame, the two teams’ offensive schemes were nearly identical. Both were centered around their Heisman-finalist feature back, both quarterbacks rolled out effectively and tossed impossible deep-balls off of their back feet. Neither team felt like playing defense until late in the second half.

Montee Ball finished with 164 yards on the ground, only five more than LaMichael James, while Russell Wilson and Darron Thomas finished with nearly identical stats. De'Anthony Thomas was able to do pretty much whatever he wanted against a hard-working Wisconsin defense, while Oregon couldn’t do anything to stop Jared Abbrederis from stringing together 320 all-purpose yards on the night. When Wilson spiked the ball on the Oregon 25-yard-line with no time remaining, it might just as well have been Thomas out there, throwing his arms out in frustration while the field exploded into red and white around him.

For their part, Wisconsin played like champions all year, and tonight was no exception. Throughout 2011, an air of quiet confidence hung around the Badgers. They were like a movie team, banded together and ready to overcome adversity. Wilson was the last-minute blue-chipper, the transfer student who was game to being hazed with the freshman after arriving in Madison earlier this year. Ball was the returning all-star, poised to finally get his big break. Even the two losses they took seemed scripted — hail marys on consecutive weeks? Anyone who didn’t think they’d win the B1G Championship Game in thrilling fashion needs to crack the cellophane on their DVD of Friday Night Lights.

And yet, the story ended in heartbreak for Wisconsin at the Rose Bowl. In any other year, in any other movie, just getting to Pasadena would have been a major accomplishment in itself; though its importance has been slightly reduced by the travelling National Championship Game format, the Rose Bowl is still the Rose Bowl. For Wisconsin, though, it must have been nearly impossible to see it as anything but a consolation, and in the end, even consolation kept its 25-yard distance.

One presumes that Oregon fans have, by this time, grown accustomed to superficial changes in their program’s identity. And while it’s been equal-parts thrilling and philosophically confusing to watch the Ducks rise to prominence over the past decade, the wait for any real, tangible change — the kind of change you can print on a T-shirt and see in a trophy case — has to have been excruciating. It’s tempting to think of the Oregon image as a mirage, but it’s always been more of a promise: if you wait long enough, the way things are will finally match the way they look. In other words, and despite what they’ve tried to tell us, Oregon has been a normal football team all along. They have linebackers and punting formations. They have American flag stickers on their helmets. And now they have the kind of hardware that comes with getting something they’ve always wanted.

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Gang Green Lacked Leaders

By: timbersfan, 12:25 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

We're back! Despite our protests, the NFL carried on with action even while Grantland was on a much-needed holiday break. As a result, we have so much catching up to do. There's no time to make fun of coaches! We're just going to have to touch on as many subjects from Week 17 and Black Monday as possible.

Good Riddance, Captain?

Weeks 16 and 17 seemed like games that the Rex Ryan-era Jets would typically win. After getting blown out in Week 15 by the Eagles, the Jets were supposed to back-door their way into the playoffs with dramatic wins over the Giants and Dolphins before launching on an improbable run to the AFC Championship Game and inspiring millions of words about how Mark Sanchez simply wins football games.

Instead, well, you saw what happened. The Jets saw their chances fall to "slim" after losing 29-14 to the Giants in the Meadowlands Derby, and they hit "none" after a 19-17 defeat at the hands of a Dolphins team with nothing to play for. Neither performance was pretty. They managed to lose to the Giants despite holding Eli Manning to a 9-of-27 day, thanks to some awful tackling downfield and a game plan that somehow called for 59 passes by Sanchez. The Dolphins game came against a team that was without its best player (left tackle Jake Long) and ended with star wide receiver — and Week 17 team captain — Santonio Holmes sulking on the bench, removed from the lineup by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer amid attacks by his teammates. What are the Jets to do?

Ryan's got a way to solve the problems: Get rid of the captaincy! Of course, it's Ryan who turned the captain's role on the team into a cartoon by selecting a weekly captain or group of captains upon bizarrely thin criteria. Ryan memorably named emergency quarterback Kevin O'Connell as a team captain against the Patriots because New England had previously cut O'Connell. Plaxico Burress was team captain against the Giants during both the Giants-Jets preseason game in August and the Week 16 tilt in December. In Week 17, the team turned to Holmes as their sole captain and got his first game without a catch as a pro.

Part of the blame does belong on Ryan. For all of his abilities to scheme up his defense and deflect criticism from his frequently embattled team, Ryan's way to pump up his players is almost always to raise the emotional stakes even further. He's like the boyfriend or girlfriend who tries to get his or her way in every fight by threatening to break up. That might work once or twice, but eventually, it's going to become an empty threat. He's been bailed out in the past by those long playoff runs, but after the loss to the Giants in Week 16, the Jets were always drawing very slim to their playoff hopes. And even if they had gotten there, the postseason was going to hold a group of mostly superior teams.

The "collapse" is getting chalked up to a lack of leadership and fractious team chemistry, but there are more tangible reasons why the Jets failed to meet their expectations this year. After recovering a higher percentage of fumbles than any other team in football over the past two seasons, the Jets fell on just 21 of the 50 fumbles in their games this year. After dominating opposing defenses for years, the offensive line struggled with injuries (Nick Mangold) and poor play (Wayne Hunter). Teams looking for a way off of Revis Island were granted safe haven by Antonio Cromartie and overmatched safety Eric Smith.

One positive for 2011, though, is that the defense was a lot better than it looked. The Jets were 20th in points allowed, but that's exclusively because the team played at a bizarrely fast pace and alongside an offense that reveled in three-and-outs. The Jets faced 201 possessions in 2011, which was tied with the Bears and Lions for the most of any team in football. They were second in yards allowed per drive and sixth in points. Even if they do cut Bart Scott as rumored this offseason, the defense isn't the problem.

That leaves the question of what to do with Holmes, whom the New York Daily News is already trying to release. The reality is that the Jets are essentially stuck with Holmes for salary cap purposes, as he's already guaranteed nearly $8 million for the 2012 season and will be guaranteed another $8 million for 2013 if he's on the roster on February 8. Cutting him would create too much dead cap space for a veteran team that doesn't have the salary flexibility to eat Holmes' salary and find another top wideout. The Jets need to rehabilitate Holmes, not scapegoat him. They don't have much of a choice.

Narrative Death Match

In the battle of storylines between "The Cowboys can't win in December" and "The Giants quitting on Tom Coughlin," Dallas' tried-and-true formula prevailed by capitulating on Sunday night, consigning them to an 8-8 season and a second consecutive season without the playoffs.

The Giants were a little lucky. Tony Romo's hand clearly wasn't healthy enough to take snaps from under center, forcing the Cowboys into a pistol depth at quarterback for most of the game and limiting the effectiveness of their running game. New York also managed to recover three of the four fumbles in the game, while a fifth fumble, recovered by the Cowboys, was wiped off the board because of a penalty. The real story, though, was how the Giants managed to make an expensively assembled defense look like something the Rams would frown upon.

The obvious lightning rod coming out of the game was Terence Newman, the 33-year-old cornerback who was nearly cut during the offseason after an injury-plagued 2010. The team reportedly wanted Nnamdi Asomugha, but ended up sticking with Newman after Asomugha signed with the Eagles.1 Asomugha didn't have a great year, and Newman made a number of big plays during the campaign, but he seemed to be at the helm for a disproportionate number of their collapses, too. That was certainly the case on Sunday night, as Newman was targeted on virtually every one of Eli Manning's big plays. It had to be the last straw for Newman, whose tenure in Dallas surely ended with their loss in New Jersey. The Cowboys locked slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick into a contract extension this season, but Scandrick is overmatched on an island outside. After Newman went down with an injury on the final drive, the Giants promptly threw an easy lob to Hakeem Nicks over the head of the 5-foot-10 Scandrick for a touchdown. Unless Alan Ball suddenly takes a leap forward over the summer, the Cowboys will need a veteran cornerback to play across from Mike Jenkins.

Spare some criticism, though, for safety Gerald Sensabaugh. The 28-year-old struggled to find a long-term contract when he entered free agency after finishing up his rookie contract with the Jaguars, but after consecutive short-term deals with the Cowboys, Dallas chose to lock him up in November with a six-year, $25 million contract that guaranteed him $8 million. On Sunday, Sensabaugh showed what he can do by taking one of the most embarrassing routes you'll ever see a safety take to a football on Victor Cruz's long pattern. With Newman in coverage on an out pattern and a pick rapidly developing, the deep-lying Sensabaugh apparently found himself solely capable of moving upon two axes. Instead of taking a conservative route and ensuring that Cruz would be limited to a first down, Sensabaugh acted like he was one of the ghosts in Pac-Man and blindly followed Newman, who was following Cruz, into the lane being created by the pick. The result was an easy touchdown for Cruz.

And as we mentioned when we chased scapegoats after the first Cowboys loss to the Giants, the inability of that Dallas pass rush to get to Eli Manning is awful damning. Manning dropped back 33 times on Sunday and was sacked just two times. In their two games against the Giants, the Cowboys sacked Manning on just 2.4 percent of his dropbacks. During his other 14 games, the opposition sacked Manning twice as frequently as the Cowboys did, taking him down on 4.8 percent of dropbacks. DeMarcus Ware had 1.5 sacks on Sunday, but opposite number Anthony Spencer failed to sack Manning and finished with just six on the year. Playing across from arguably the best pass-rusher in football, Spencer now has a total of 17 sacks in 47 starts over the past three seasons. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and during his time with the Cowboys, Spencer has shown little indication that he is worth keeping around.

The team will likely make other moves. Middle linebackers Bradie James and Keith Brooking are each in the final year of their contracts, and with declining skills, are unlikely to return. Perpetually disappointing defensive end Marcus Spears, a former first-round pick, somehow got a $19.2 million extension from the Cowboys over the summer before losing his job during the season, and he's likely to part ways with the organization as well. The offense will always attract the attention in Big D, but it's the D that needs big repairs if the Cowboys are to contend in 2012.

Flynn and Out

How selfish is Matt Flynn? With Aaron Rodgers' MVP candidacy sitting on the sidelines, Flynn could have boosted Rodgers' hopes by putting up awful numbers against the Lions, thereby signifying that Rodgers was uniquely special in producing fantastic performances with one of the league's best groups of receivers. Instead, Flynn had to go out and throw for six touchdowns and make himself into the offseason's most intriguing free agent.

OK, fine, maybe Flynn was just playing to the peak of his seemingly considerable ability. The numbers speak for themselves: 31-of-44, 480 yards, six touchdowns, one pick. That's against the Lions and without his team's top wideout, Greg Jennings. Not bad.

It goes without saying that you probably need to be good at your job to throw six touchdown passes in one game, but it's a little remarkable to consider the company Flynn just joined. The list of quarterbacks who have thrown for six scores or more in a regular-season game since the merger is basically a good cheat sheet for Elite Quarterbacks 101. It includes a bunch of guys who don't need two names to be identified, including Brady, Brees, Favre, Fouts, Kelly, Peyton, Marino, Montana, Namath, and Rypien. Only the most notable-and-simultaneously-delusional Jesse Palmer fans would suspect that he threw six touchdowns in an NFL game, but we'll note for history's sake that Carson was the Palmer who pulled it off, as did Bob Griese and Tommy Kramer. Kramer is unquestionably the worst quarterback on that list, and he started 110 games as a pro. Flynn could be onto something here.

Assuming that Rodgers makes it healthy through whatever postseason run the Packers embark on, we have likely seen the last of Flynn in a Packers uniform. He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and while the Packers might like to franchise him and then trade him to a team in search of a young quarterback, it's going to be difficult for them to fit the $20 million Flynn would make as the franchise quarterback underneath the cap.

So as an unrestricted free agent, where does Flynn end up? One obvious landing point is Seattle, which employs former Packers staffer John Schneider as general manager, but the Seahawks have Tarvaris Jackson signed for 2012 and are unlikely to have much cap space after their free agent spending spree last season. Our hunch is that Flynn gets about $10-12 million in guaranteed money on a multiyear deal, which leaves him with a limited list of suitors. One more plausible situation is Cleveland, where team president Mike Holmgren is likely a fan of Flynn's work in the West Coast offense.

The Packers, meanwhile, will likely turn to former Texas Tech star Graham Harrell as their primary backup for Rodgers. If Flynn succeeding in this system suggests that Rodgers isn't all he's cracked up to be, what would a big game from Harrell say? And after that, who else will the Packers bring in? An XFL practice squad guy? A particularly well-prepared high school backup? Somebody in Green Bay is either clearly committed to making Aaron Rodgers look bad or really, really good at scouting and developing quarterbacks.

Mendenhall for Naught

On the final play of the first quarter during Pittsburgh's 13-9 win over Cleveland on Sunday, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL. The Illinois product will obviously miss the entire postseason, and he'll enter into the final year of his rookie contract with a knee that will likely still be healing for most of the season. It's a huge disappointment for Mendenhall and the Steelers.

Will it really affect the Steelers heading into the playoffs, though? It's debatable. Mendenhall certainly has the biggest name of any Steelers running back, but his production is positively ordinary. He's only averaged 4.1 yards per carry on his 228 rushing attempts this year. Meanwhile, primary backup Isaac Redman has averaged 4.4 yards a pop on 110 attempts, while third-stringers Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer have combined for 280 yards on just 38 carries, for a rushing average in excess of seven yards.

It's not totally uncommon for a backup to produce a rushing average superior to the starter, but that usually happens because the starter is accruing a large quantity of touches, including many in less-than-ideal situations for gaining consistent yardage. It's hard to fathom that Mendenhall is such a back, since he's only carried the ball about 15 times a game and had just one game this season with more than 19 carries. The DVOA statistic, which adjusts for quality of opposition and game situation, says that Redman and Mendenhall are virtually identical; Mendenhall's DVOA is at 3.8 percent, while Redman's is at 3.5 percent.

It would be one thing if Mendenhall had a history of success, but he now has 813 NFL attempts and a rushing average at those same 4.1 yards per carry. His case for being a star basically amounts to his status as a first-rounder and two big games in 2009 against the Chargers and Broncos, in which he combined for 320 yards against two below-average run defenses. He's never developed into a reliable receiver, catching just 68 passes in four seasons. We hoped and expected that he would take a step forward this season after a somewhat disappointing 2010, but if anything, he had taken a step backward before the torn ACL.

If the Steelers can get Moore back from a sprained MCL to serve in his customary role as the third-down back, chances are that they won't miss Mendenhall whatsoever.

Black Monday Singles

The firings of Bill and Chris Polian in Indianapolis were unexpected, if not necessarily unwarranted. We just wrote about the Colts' failure to find players in the first round a few weeks ago, but it seemed likely that owner Jim Irsay would give Bill Polian a chance to rebuild the franchise, even if he insisted that the elder Polian fire his son and take over as the primary general manager. (It's entirely possible that this happened and Bill Polian refused.) Surprisingly, Irsay chose to pardon head coach Jim Caldwell, who had been a much more obvious candidate for the chopping block over the previous few weeks.

This could very well mean the end of the Polian Era in the NFL. Bill Polian has a reputation around the league as a rebuilding specialist after his work with the expansion Panthers and pre-Manning Colts, but he turned 69 in December; it's hard to imagine any team looking to do a comprehensive rebuild will turn to a general manager quite that old, although the 1-15 Dolphins went begging to a 67-year-old Bill Parcells after the 2007 season. Son Chris, meanwhile, has spent his entire career working underneath his father, starting as a scout with the Panthers in 1994 before being appointed Director of Pro Personnel with the Colts as a 27-year-old in 1998. He was named general manager in 2009, but it's hard to imagine that any other organization will give him a significant role in the immediate future without his father attached.

Raheem Morris oversaw one of the worst second halves put up by any team in recent memory. His Buccaneers went winless during their final eight games and were outscored by 158 points, the worst second-half point differential from a team since the 1990 Browns were outscored by 169 points during a 1-7 collapse to finish the year. It seemed like Morris was the last one to realize that his team wasn't any good, as the friendly schedule that his team rode to ten wins in 2010 gave way to what pro-football-reference.com called the league's second-toughest schedule in 2011. (Only the Rams faced a harder slate.)

At least some of the blame for the Buccaneers' problems must fall beyond Morris' shoulders. While Morris reportedly fought to keep troubled cornerback Aqib Talib after a felony arrest this offseason, general manager Mark Dominik filled the locker room with miscreants and gripers, even before he added Albert Haynesworth off of waivers from the Patriots. Meanwhile, the members of the Glazer family that own and operate the team appear more dedicated to their other sports franchise, soccer powerhouse Manchester United. The Buccaneers rank among the league leaders in available cap room, fewest real dollars spent, and blackouts. Whoever inherits Morris' job will have to deal with those same problems amid a division with three of the more promising teams in football.

Finally, while Steve Spagnuolo and Billy Devaney had the right plan in St. Louis, they failed to execute it when given the opportunity. Like many great teams, the Rams wanted to build through the lines out, so they focused on developing Chris Long at defensive end, used the second overall pick on mammoth Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith in 2009, and signed former Ravens center Jason Brown to a record-setting deal before drafting franchise quarterback Sam Bradford in 2010. With all the young guys likely to take a leap forward in 2011, the Rams were a trendy playoff team with a healthy bandwagon, led by yours truly at the helm.

Instead, everything beyond Long collapsed. It was a bad sign when the team moved Smith from the more important left tackle position to right tackle for rookie Rodger Saffold last season, and before he suffered a second season-ending concussion in two seasons, Smith was playing subpar football. Because of injuries, Brown was benched before returning to the lineup and when Bradford wasn't struggling with a high ankle sprain, he was watching his receivers drop passes and losing his confidence.

Unfortunately, the Rams never got to the point where they could build all the way out. They tried to get by with a group of journeymen and young talent at wide receiver, but the best guy of their group might have been Laurent Robinson, who ended up going to Dallas for free. Veteran Brandon Lloyd was imported in mid-season, but he failed to make an impact and is likely to leave alongside offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this offseason. Meanwhile, injuries to the secondary flattened the defense, which failed to hold up on the plays where Long wasn't able to pressure the quarterback. St. Louis' first-stringers aren't great, and by the end of the year, they were basically down to a group of practice squad guys at cornerback. Their cornerbacks should be healthier in 2012, but the offensive line remains a total question mark. If Smith can develop and Brown stays in the lineup, the Rams can be competitive. If not, it doesn't really matter who takes the job.

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The Reducer: Week 19, Do the Collapse

By: timbersfan, 12:23 AM GMT on January 05, 2012

Sebastian Larsson, whom even the most partisan Sunderland supporter would never describe as "industrious," had just run the length of the Stadium of Light pitch twice: once on a counter attack, and then back to his own penalty area to help in defense. It was the 92nd minute of Sunderland's game against Premier League leader Manchester City on New Year's Day, and the match was tied at 0-0.

The third time up the field, Larsson finally cried farbror. After picking up a deflected Sergio Aguero shot deep in his own half, the Swede galumphed back up the field with the ball at his feet. After passing the halfway line, Larsson dumped a pass off to fellow Black Cats midfielder James McClean and, perfectly mirroring the kind of hernia-baiting exhaustion most people feel after making a post-turkey-dinner turkey sandwich, doubled over.

While Larsson was watching his life flash before his eyes, the Stadium of Light came to life. McClean passed to winger Ji Dong-Won, who played a one-two with Stephane Sessegnon, rounded City keeper Joe Hart, and nudged a shot into the goal. Right out of the Barcelona playbook (except imagine Barcelona getting most of its goals in a state of delirious fatigue and from an offside position).


Sunderland's home fans went hammer, Dong-Won letting one of the supporters go as far as to plant a big, sloppy, Northeast kiss on his face. But despite seeing the stadium in hysterics, the table-toppers defeated, and new Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill jumping up and down like a 14-year-old listening to Blink-182 alone in his room, I felt more like Larsson. I was crying farbror.

While most of the big European leagues go on break for the holidays, allowing their players and managers to mentally and physically recuperate, the English Premier League doubles down, offering matches nearly every day, from just before Christmas through the first week of the new year, with clubs sometimes playing two matches in three days.

With so many points up for grabs in so few days, and with players possibly distracted by the season's merriment (holiday parties are a fairly regular occurrence for English sides, and are often breathlessly documented by the tabloids), there was a possibility that we could enter 2012 with a league in a state of upheaval. Tottenham could be in first! Villa could be in the relegation zone! Dogs and cats living together! Instead, perhaps unsurprisingly, we are faced with a league in desperate need of a nap.

Whenever one club opened a door, another seemed to slam shut a window. As of this writing, United and City are tied on points at the top of the table, but neither can feel particularly great about their form or some of the murmurs coming out of their locker rooms. Lucky for them, the rest of the league went out of their way to not take advantage of opportunities.

With the campaign more or less officially halfway done, let's take a look at the table and try to make sense of all these nonsensical results, especially those impacting the title race and the four Champions League positions.

Hungover in Manchester With the Blackburn Blues Again

Sir Alex Ferguson got what he wanted for his 70th birthday: To be top of the table (or joint top) at New Year's. Sidebar: I'm not shy about calling someone I only just met "dude," but for some reason am religiously compelled to include the "Sir" in Alex Ferguson's name almost every time I write it. Something for my therapist, for sure.

Anyway! Yes, Fergie (take that!) celebrated his 70th year not only hauling back his Manchester neighbors, but also miraculously trimming the goal difference between the two sides, which at one point saw City with a 17-goal advantage in the beginning of December. However, like most birthdays, it was a mixed bag for the indomitable Glaswegian, who saw his side lose in a thrilling and bizarre match against Premier League punch line/punching bag Blackburn. It did so without the services of Wayne Rooney, who was benched and fined 200,000 pounds for "training issues" (a.k.a. buying out the bar with his wife and few friends … allegedly) .

Rooney had been an integral part of United's five-game win streak, scoring once in the Red Devils' 5-0 defeat of Fulham and chuckling heartily from the bench as Dimitar Berbatov burned Wigan to the ground, scoring three in another 5-0 thumping a few days later. He was, presumably, going to play against Blackburn, but was left out of the side by Ferguson, a man who is never shy about putting players in their place.

It's not the first time Rooney and Ferguson have rattled sabers at one another (see: Rooney's transfer request from October 2010). But the timing couldn't be worse. By necessity, Ferguson's lineups have had something of a collage-like feel, with fullback Patrice Evra deputizing at center back and players like Michael Carrick and Darron Gibson coming in from the cold. Rooney was the heartbeat of the team, playing an increasingly steady, creative role in the attacking midfield. And, had Rooney played against Blackburn, United might be three points clear at the top of the table.

That's because Manchester City had a bit of an end-of-the-year stumble. What became abundantly obvious over the past week or so is just how much City relies on David Silva. The Spaniard has played in all 19 of City's Premier League games this season, and his creative brilliance and safe-cracker ability to unlock defenses have made him a Player of the Year candidate. He could be hitting something of a wall, though, looking a bit sluggish in a draw against West Brom and making little difference as a sub against Sunderland. With disappointing seasons (so far) from Samir Nasri and Adam Johnson, manager Roberto Mancini has relied on Silva (who has eight assists this campaign) to get the ball in to Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, and Mario Balotelli. They'll need him to regain his form or for someone else to pick up the slack in 2012; it sounds like there will be no January reinforcements, as Sheikh Mansour's wallet is closed for business for the time being.

Neither club is playing its best football, but Manchester — what with Rooney getting bombed with his missus, Balotelli smoking cigarettes, Rio Ferdinand live-tweeting darts (#darts!), and the triumphant return of Dimitar Berbatov's slacker goal celebrations — is still the most interesting place in English football.

We're No. 4!

Is there any other professional sports league in the world in which the battle for fourth place is the most compelling and entertaining storyline? This would have been a perfect time for Tottenham to pull away from the pack, and after its Gareth Bale-fueled victory over Norwich on December 27, it looked like Spurs had made some kind of jump, proving themselves to be the kind of club that dismantles lesser opposition without a lot of fuss. Then Scott Sinclair happened.


Despite Spurs playing with the kind of lethargy all too common in the end-of-year games, I thought Swansea and Spurs was kind of a barn-burner. Up-and-down action with the ball being kept on the grass. Where Norwich allowed Bale way too much runway to get his jets going, Swansea pressed Spurs high and never let them get too much momentum, even after Rafael van der Vaart scored a very "van der Vaarty" goal (in the sense that it seemed to cause the most possible emotional devastation to the opposing support) to put Tottenham up, 1-0.

It will be very interesting to see whether Harry Redknapp comes up with a "Plan B" for Spurs over the next few weeks. Everyone (besides Arsenal fans) has been impressed with Tottenham's swashbuckling, attacking style, but Brendan Rodgers might have shown how you beat North Londoners: Press, cut off the supply from Luka Modric, and pray you get a late leveler or winner.

I've generally been impressed with the style (if not always the level) of play in the league this year; it seems like more teams than ever are at least making an effort to play good football. But something occurred to me both during this match and during West Brom's wild, boring draw with Manchester City: As relegation fears swallow up more than half of the league, expect things to get really practical out there.

Some quick-hit thoughts on the other Champions League contenders:

• Given the (albeit constant) injury crisis he's facing in defense, Arsene Wenger bringing in club legend Thierry Henry on loan for the next month or so is kind of like finding out your house is sinking into the earth and immediately going out to buy a flat-screen television. Or better yet, rebuying the television you had in 2004 on eBay. Perhaps no side seemed more fried by the end of the year than the Gunners.

• I would be remiss if I didn't mention Luis Suarez's eight-game ban for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, but all I'm going to do is mention it. There's a 115-page report the FA published to support their ban, and Suarez certainly doesn't come out looking good in it. The Reds' New Year's Eve day victory over Newcastle was the kind of comprehensive and competent win over lesser opposition they've been unable to produce all season. And while players like Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll have shouldered the brunt of the blame for Liverpool's inconsistent performances, it was interesting to see how well the Reds played without Suarez in the side. Perhaps he had become too much of a focus, both on and off the field.

• Chelsea: I haven't seen more tension between old and new guards since William Holden's cowboys got mowed down by machine guns at the end of The Wild Bunch. Also, I really hope this rumor about John Terry playing in China is true, and I hope Werner Herzog makes like three documentaries about it if it happens. For what it's worth, Chelsea's home loss to Aston Villa isn't unprecedented in recent memory; sometimes these guys just don't show up to work. In fact, that match was very reminiscent of the Blues' home loss to Sunderland last season, and Chelsea recovered just fine from that result.

Step Overs

• Some people find Neil Warnock to be an entertaining character, but I'm getting a little tired of his Yorkshire-man-screams-at-the-bus-schedule routine. "You feel at times that you're not getting the rub of the green, that you've run over a dozen black cats," moaned the QPR manager following a controversial loss to Norwich. Hey, maybe Warnock takes his Aston Martin out cat hunting every weekend, I don't know; but it could also have something to do with the fact that every time he opens his mouth, it's to start, continue, or sum up some folksy jeremiad against referees. These guys do have televisions, Neil.

• Credit to Newcastle, which is having a defensive medical crisis that makes Arsenal look like a group of immortals; it remains competitive and feisty. If it can withstand bids for its key players in January (Cheick Tiote seems a little less world-beating ever since he was linked with Chelsea and Man United), it should finish in the top 10.

• If Wigan had any fans, would they have any hair left? Draw with Liverpool and Chelsea and then lose to Manchester United and Stoke? Roberto Martinez might have pulled off something of a midseason great escape right when it was being rumored that his job was in jeopardy. And Victor Moses is starting to show some of the same flashes of brilliance that he displayed at Crystal Palace.

Goal of the Week:
Cameron Jerome, Stoke City


(0:40 into the video) My New Year's resolution is to be nicer about Stoke City.

Quote of the Week:
Roberto Mancini, Manchester City

On Mario "Marlboro Man" Balotelli: "For me it is not OK, but I am not his father. If he were my son, I would give him a kick up the arse, but he is not my son." Happy New Year, Bobby.

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