timbersfan's WunderBlog

la liga

By: timbersfan, 9:49 AM GMT on January 24, 2014

Who will win La Liga this season?

By Sid Lowe | January 24, 2014 4:50:39 AM PST
As the minutes ticked away on Sunday night's late game between Atlético Madrid and Sevilla, the visiting bench crept closer and closer to the pitch. Every Sevilla substitute was standing; the manager and coaches too, excited, tense, pleading for the final whistle to go, waiting for that explosion of joy.

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Each time Atlético attacked they paused, nervous; each time the ball was sent up the other end, they could feel it getting nearer. Soon, they were practically on the pitch. And when at last the final whistle went, they really were. Leaping up, they embraced, punched the air and ran toward their exhausted club mates.

You would think they had won the World Cup, not a league game against Atlético Madrid. But the reaction said much; there could be few greater compliments for Atlético and few greater results for Sevilla.

"Teams celebrate drawing against us now," Atlético fullback Filipe Luis said, saying it all. "I congratulated [Atlético manager Diego] Simeone out of humility and admiration," Sevilla's coach Unai Emery beamed. This was a big result for Sevilla; it would have been a big result for anyone. In 11 games at the Calderón this season, only one team had managed to secure a draw, still less a victory. And that was Barcelona.

In 20 league matches, Atlético have won 16, drawn three and lost just one. With twenty minutes to go, Atlético were one up and provisional leaders of the league, out on their own at the top for the first time in 17 years -- back when they won the league and cup double. Won 17, drawn two and lost one. But then a penalty, committed by Juanfran and scored by Ivan Rakitic, made it 1-1.

Just as it was a compliment that Barcelona adapted their game to protect themselves against Atlético the week before, there must have been something strangely satisfying in seeing Sevilla so happy. Above all, though, there must have been something frustrating. Just before Atlético's game had started, Barcelona's had ended. Down on the east coast, they had drawn 1-1 to Levante. Their year-long run at the top of the table could have come to an end; so too had Atlético's 17-year wait to lead the league alone.

And so at the news conference, the questions came in. Did you get it wrong? Why did you sit back and not look for the second goal? How will this affect the team? How costly could those points be? How disappointed are you? What have you said to pick the players up?

All the inquisitors headed in the same direction: disappointment, lost opportunity, sadness. Simeone headed in the other direction: satisfaction, security. He was smiling. A brave face perhaps, but a smiling face. This was Sevilla. Why should this affect our morale? We're happy. Fifty-one points after 20 games is an extraordinary record and a draw against Sevilla is a good result, one that allows us to remain in a privileged position.

Of course, he was right.

Atlético's position is a privileged one. Few seriously anticipated this at the start of the season. Simeone least of all: he has described winning the league as "impossible" and insisted repeatedly on the inequality in Spain. After the Barcelona game he noted with a grin that the two teams were similar -- except for the small matter of "400 million euros extra a year" in the budget. Now, they stand level at the top of the table as the second half of the season begins.

But now there are three. Atlético are not the only team whose position is a privileged one. First, Atlético and Barcelona drew with each other. Then, they drew with Sevilla and Levante respectively. Meanwhile, Real Madrid beat Espanyol 1-0 and Betis 5-0. Suddenly, everything has changed. In seven days, Real Madrid have clawed back four points the pair. There is just one point in it. Barcelona have 51 points, Atlético have 51 and Madrid, 50.

With 18 games to go, there is little margin for error; every point dropped will appear a disaster, every advantage conceded potentially fatal. The three teams are more or less on course for another record-breaking season. Not least because if they are to win the league, they have to be.

"One hundred points might not be enough," Tata Martino said.

One hundred points is the record, reached in each of the past two seasons, first by Madrid and then by Barcelona. In each of the past four seasons, the champions have been able to lose a maximum of two games. This season, Atlético and Barcelona have lost one each, Madrid two. In the past four seasons, the champions could drop points just six, six, eight and seven times: four draws and two defeats over the past two seasons, six draws and two defeats the season before, and six draws and one defeat the season before that. So far, the three contenders have dropped points four times a piece.

Simeone says that the second half of the season will be harder for Atlético. In part, he is trying to prevent the euphoria from infecting his team, but he also has a point: as he suggested, now that teams have watched them, there is less surprise. Sevilla's success -- and their reaction to it -- suggested that more teams may be satisfied to seek a draw, defending Atlético and denying them the chance to play directly and on the counter-attack. Atlético are relentless, hard to live with and supremely competitive but of the three, they are the side with the least attacking variety.

Atlético also do not have a squad as big as Madrid's or Barcelona's, and while Simeone insists that they are not tired at all, there have been fewer rotations and fatigue could yet be an issue. They are still in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. Injuries will be harder to assimilate too, should they arrive. And Diego Costa is yet to score in 2014.

Barcelona overcame the absence of Leo Messi and had been playing extremely well of late but the Levante game revealed some familiar weaknesses: 50 percent of the goals they have conceded have come from set plays while in the absence of Andres Iniesta and Neymar, injured against Getafe and likely to be out for three weeks, they lacked a touch of incisiveness to undo tight, deep-lying defences.

Meanwhile, among Real fans, the euphoria is growing. They are unbeaten since Xabi Alonso returned, Cristiano Ronaldo has finally won the Ballon d'Or, youth teamer Jesé is pushing for a place in the side with talent and temperament while Luka Modric is emerging as arguably the outstanding midfielder in the league. They have now gone six games without conceding, too, and Raphael Varane is nearing full fitness. The 5-0 victory over Betis was also a glimpse of their depth of talent: five goals, five different scorers.

The performances have not always been as good as the stats suggests and that run of clean sheets needs to be contextualised: Betis, Espanyol and Celta in the league, Espanyol and Osasuna in the Copa del Rey. Celta, in particular, departed the Bernabéu wondering how they didn’t score. But there is a security and a confidence about Madrid now that is partly born of getting a second opportunity. From five points behind and virtually out of it to just one and maybe even favourites in barely a week.

There are 18 games left and it could barely be more balanced. Barcelona must go to Madrid, Madrid must go to Atlético and Atlético must go to Barcelona. When it comes to the final few weeks, Madrid's run-in looks the easiest but what position will they be in when those games come around?

Predicting where points will be won and lost is fraught with risk but some games really stick out, with Sevilla, Real Sociedad and Athletic Bilbao likely to play a big part:

Week 22: Madrid at Athletic Bilbao. Week 23: Barcelona at Sevilla, Villarreal at Madrid. Week 25: Atlético at Real Sociedad. And week 26: Atlético Madrid versus Real Madrid.

Then there's the small matter of Real Madrid vs. Barcelona in Week 29, followed by more intrigue. Week 30: Madrid at Sevilla. Week 31: Atlético at Athletic. Week 32: Atlético vs. Villarreal and Madrid at Sevilla. Week 34: Barcelona vs. Athletic. Week 35: Villarreal-Barcelona and Valencia-Atlético.

And then, on the final day of the season: Barcelona against Atlético.

First, a mischievous question: What if those two, Madrid's great rivals, go into the final minutes of the final match of the season drawing and knowing that a draw between them gives Real Madrid the title? More to the point, what if the prize is still shining before both of them? It is possible. And that is the most extraordinary thing of all.

It has been a decade since a team not named Real or Barcelona won the league. Valencia were the last "other" winners. You have to go back seven years to the most recent time anyone else was a genuine candidate, when Sevilla were agonisingly close in 2006-07.

Since then, the gap has gotten only wider. For the past five years the distance between the team in third and the title winners has been 24, 29, 25, 28 and 17 points. Atlético have done something astonishing in an era defined by huge economic inequality, something that their manager insisted was impossible: They have made themselves contenders and given us the most exciting, tense and demanding title race in years.

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10 ft

By: timbersfan, 6:35 AM GMT on January 24, 2014

Top Tenner examines the joy and pain associated with the 10 greatest free transfers in football.

10. Robert Lewandowski to Bayern Munich

This is cheating slightly, because the transfer hasn't technically happened yet. Lewandowski might turn out to be a disaster at Bayern Munich. He might flop in a spectacular fashion as Pep Guardiola finds he has no need for a big centre-forward when he has Thomas Muller, Mario Goetze, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thiago flitting around. However, if you wish to try something unlikely and pick holes in this Bayern side, the one place you might find a weakness is right up top. Mario Mandzukic is good, for sure, and he will likely find himself a good home should he decide not to compete with Lewandowski, but he is not in the Pole's class. Bayern are already the best club side in Europe, probably the world, and now they have a man who has scored 57 goals in 82 games over the past three seasons. It hardly seems fair.

9. Denis Law to Manchester City

“He's going through the motions.” That was Tommy Docherty's assessment of Denis Law in 1973, around 18 months after he had taken over as Manchester United manager. In some ways it was remarkable that Law had lasted that long at Old Trafford, with injury concerns and assorted losses of form leading him to be transfer-listed as early as 1970, but there were no takers, a formerly great footballer left as the last, unwanted toy on the shelf. Docherty allowed Law to leave on a free transfer, and he was snapped up by Manchester City, where he scored a relatively modest 12 goals over the season, which nevertheless bettered his return in 1967/68, when he won the European Cup with Manchester United. Of course, it wasn't the quantity of goals that stuck in the memory, but the last one, his back-heel that he thought had relegated United at Old Trafford, his final touch in professional club football.

8. Ruud Gullit to Chelsea

It's pretty easy to be blasé about brilliant foreign players with world class reputations playing in the Premier League these days, because obviously it's so commonplace. It was anything but that in 1994, with players like Gullit retaining a mystique among English fans who were more used to seeing honest, hard-working types and treated skill with a degree of suspicion. In truth, Gullit was well past his best when he joined Chelsea from Sampdoria, but to English eyes relatively unused to such skill, watching him glide around the pitch, clearly five feet more talented than anyone else, was a pleasure.

7. Kevin Davies to Bolton

Davies looks a little incongruous on a list that contains some of the finest talent to have played the game, but his time at Bolton was a lesson in a player making the most of what (relatively little) talent he had. Davies was rescued from the unwanted bin like one of the Raggy Dolls by Bolton, after both Blackburn and Southampton had spent big money on him only for him to, shall we say, not exactly live up to expectations. Sam Allardyce then turned him into the sort of bruising, old-fashioned centre-forward who emotional and nostalgic old sorts go misty-eyed for, and who would have been right at home in an era when it was OK to barge the goalkeeper out of the way if he had the temerity to try catching the ball. And, lest we forget, he even managed to get himself an England cap. Remarkable, really.

6. Esteban Cambiasso to Inter Milan

In 2003, Claude Makelele, the man described as the "engine" in the Real Madrid team by Zinedine Zidane no less (Zizou called the arriving David Beckham "another coat of gold paint"), left for Chelsea after a rather undignified transfer saga. You would think, therefore, Real would do as much as they could to keep hold of any other similar, quality players they had on their books. Not so, it seems -- after all, they had to squeeze Zidane, Beckham and Luis Figo in their side, so keeping a balding, tenacious but unspectacular defensive midfielder wasn't at the top of their list of priorities. Cambiasso was thus allowed to leave on a free, and was gratefully snapped up by Inter Milan, where he still is, nearly a decade later, having played more than 400 games and won five Serie A titles and the 2010 Champions League.

5. Miroslav Klose to Lazio

How many times has it been assumed that Klose is done for, that he is finished, washed up and no longer a relevant player at the highest level? When his contract at Bayern Munich expired in 2011, he was 33 and Serie A may have seemed an odd choice, but Lazio gave him a three-year contract and boy has he repaid their faith. Klose has 36 goals in 87 games for the Rome club so far, and is aiming toward Ronaldo's World Cup goals record in the summer, having already equaled Gerd Muller's Germany record. "I am still counting on Klose in the next two years,” Jogi Loew said at the start of the qualification campaign. “When he is in his stride, he still ranks among the best attackers in the world."

4. Steve McManaman to Real Madrid

The first high-profile English player to take advantage of the Bosman ruling, McManaman nearly signed with Real's mortal enemies, Barcelona, a couple of years before. With Liverpool aware that McManaman could leave for nothing, they accepted a 12.5 million pound bid from Barca, and the player even flew out to Spain, only to discover that Barca decided to sign a chap called Rivaldo instead. A couple of years later he did move to Spain, signing for Real on a free, and the strange thing for English fans who regarded McManaman as something of a flighty, fancy sort is that he was Real's workhorse, the man who did Zidane and Figo's running for them. Indeed, it was impressive that he survived the myriad Galactico signings of Florentino Perez's first spell, playing a key role in two Champions League and two La Liga titles while in Spain.

3. Henrik Larsson to Barcelona

"My time at the club was fantastic and the connection with the fans was spectacular." Henrik Larsson spent seven seasons at Celtic, scoring an astonishing 242 goals in 313 games, so he could well have been referring to them. However, he was talking about Barcelona, whom he joined after his Celtic contract expired in 2004, and where he spent two seasons in the first great Barca side of the modern era under Frank Rijkaard. Larsson was about to turn 33 when he signed a one-year contract at the Nou Camp, and damaged his cruciate ligaments in November of his first season, but so impressed were Barca with the Swede they gave him a second year anyway.

Barca won the league both years he was in Cataluyna, and his final game for the club was the Champions League final, in which he came on and set up both goals as they beat Arsenal 2-1. "People always talk about Ronaldinho and everything, but I didn't see him today -- I saw Henrik Larsson," said Thierry Henry, about to move to Barca himself, after the game. "He changed the game, that is what killed the game -- sometimes you talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o and people like that, you need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference and that was Henrik Larsson tonight, because I didn't see Ronaldinho or Eto'o."

2. Sol Campbell to Arsenal

It wasn't just that Sol Campbell left Spurs for their arch rivals, but that he left for nothing, a few months after promising he'd stay, and after further promising that he would never play for Arsenal. But play for Arsenal he did, turning down large piles of cash from the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan to do so. It was a crucial signing for Arsene Wenger in a number of ways, not least that in the summer of 2001 when Campbell signed, he was struggling to keep hold of Patrick Vieira, who had announced he was leaving with Manchester United and Juventus both lurking, and Tony Adams' career was winding down. Campbell replaced Adams superbly, and would win two league titles with Arsenal before leaving in 2006, apparently due to a desire to play abroad. He signed for Portsmouth.

1. Andrea Pirlo to Juventus

You might not know the name Dick Rowe, but you will have heard of him. He's the Decca A&R man who, upon hearing a one-hour audition by the Beatles, decided against signing them, claiming that “guitar groups are on their way out.” While whoever decided at AC Milan that Andrea Pirlo was "on his way out" perhaps wasn't quite as bad as Rowe (Pirlo was only fit enough to play 17 games in his final season with the Rossoneri), they will presumably have poured themselves many a mournful glass of wine as Pirlo's sublime passing led Juventus to a couple of Scudettos, and is well on its way to doing so for a third year running. "I think Pirlo has been the best signing of my career," Juventus general director Giuseppe Marotta said in 2012. For nothing, he'd probably be the best signing of anyone's career.

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browns coach

By: timbersfan, 1:11 AM GMT on January 24, 2014

You may have heard the Browns needed a new head coach. They fired Rob Chudzinski on December 30, and we’re now approaching February. They’ve finally settled on Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator for the Bills, and now that the search is over, we’ve gotta remember the journey in all its glory. Take last night.

In the span of about two hours, we found out the Browns were interviewing a mystery candidate in Florida, everyone made jokes, we found out that candidate was GREG SCHIANO, and the news breaker had to clarify that he wasn’t joking. Then we heard that the Browns were talking to Josh McDaniels again, a few weeks after McDaniels told them he wasn’t interested.

Finally, the night ended with another tweet saying McDaniels wasn’t back in the mix, and they’d probably hire Pettine. Today that became official.

If all that is hard to follow, don’t worry, it was even weirder in real time — checking Twitter during the Thunder game, finding some new Browns rumor every 15 minutes that was somehow even more depressing than the last. From start to finish, it’s been quite a ride.

Big picture now. Let’s answer some questions.

Should the Browns have fired Rob Chudzinski?

Probably not. This is a great example of a situation where firing a coach seems like an easy way to fix things, but then you start looking around for replacements and realize the market isn’t exactly full of guys who inspire confidence. Plus, the Browns weren’t really that awful this year. They’re headed in the right direction, especially considering they were playing with Brandon Weeden as their quarterback for half their games, and seemed to concede the season when they traded Trent Richardson. Finding a new quarterback might have been a better move than finding a new coach.

As former Browns player Scott Fujita said, “I talked to some of the players right after they fired Chud and they sounded deflated, confused and frankly embarrassed by what happened. It’s hard to watch what is going on there. I really feel bad for the fans and players like D’Qwell (Jackson) and Joe Thomas who have been there for so long.”

D’Qwell Jackson sorta spoke for everyone here.


On the other hand, when you hire the offensive coordinator from a 6-10 Panthers team and he’s named “Rob Chudzinski,” you’re basically counting the days until he’s fired as soon as you hire him. I want the Browns to do well (because Cleveland is the best), so I’m pretty much onboard with getting rid of a coach who was always going to be seen as a weak link. Maybe the Browns just ripped off the Band-Aid instead of slowly peeling it for the next two seasons.

But it’s everything that’s happened since Chud was fired that’s been a disaster.

When was it clear that the process was doomed?

Probably when we found out the Browns’ first choice to replace Chud was boy tyrant Josh McDaniels. For a good window into how things went with his first head coaching job, www.joshmcdanielssucks.com is a good start. Aside from alienating most of the Broncos players who were actually good along with the entire Denver media, the most memorable moment of his tenure was probably the pre-draft interview with Tim Tebow.

As Tebow describes it: “I was jacked leaving that room. I didn’t even want to visit another room. We were excited, we were enthusiastic. There was passion. It was just intense, and it was ball, and it was juice. The juice level in that room was high, and it was awesome.”

It was ball and it was juice and it’s still kinda horrifying to think about.

But back to the Browns. Don’t fire the coach unless you have some idea of who you want, and who you want should never be Josh McDaniels. Cleveland broke one or both of those rules this year.

Who did they want after that?

Adam Gase, the Broncos’ offensive coordinator. He turned them down. Todd Bowles, the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator. He took himself out of the running. Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. He was busy coaching the Seahawks. Packers QB coach Ben McAdoo was in the mix for a minute, but he took a job with the Giants instead. The Cowboys’ special teams coach, Rich Bisaccia, got an interview. He’s pictured here destroying a blood vessel in his neck. Ex-Jaguars and current Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was the name floated earlier this week.

Those names are depressing.

Yeah, this got DARK.

Who is running things in Cleveland?

Some combination of team president Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi, and it’s unclear who exactly makes all these decisions. There’s also the owner, Jimmy Haslam, who’s under investigation by the IRS and FBI for possibly breaking all kinds of rich people laws.

God only knows what went down in the front office during the past month, but it definitely would’ve been more entertaining than whatever this movie is.



Could this have been avoided?

Man. If only they’d hired Chip Kelly. But Cleveland.

Instead, the last three Browns coaches were CHUD, Pat Shurmur (still not sure this was a real person), and Eric Mangini (a full-on nightmare of a human being). This is all so unfair.

OK, so Mike Pettine is the choice. He was the Bills defensive coordinator?

Yep, and he’s gone from being a high school coach 12 years ago to being an NFL head coach now. Either he’s very smart, or the Browns are very stupid. Maybe both.

Does he look like a football coach?

God yes. This is a man who will stand on the tackling sled all day long. Until the team GETS IT RIGHT.



Wait, was the Bills defense even that good?

Not really. Kinda? They were the Bills. (UPDATE: OK so they were 4th in defensive DVOA this year. Not bad!)

So how should Cleveland feel?

OK, aside from all the obvious jokes, think about the broader process here. The Browns spent this week interviewing Greg Schiano, for God’s sake. Greg Schiano and Dirk Koetter and Josh McDaniels. In the grand scheme of things, Browns fans probably dodged a bullet with Pettine.

More importantly: None of this actually matters. All the Browns have shown us is that (a) hiring a coach gets complicated once you miss on your top choice, and (b) the power structure in Cleveland is probably pretty screwed up (hence all the contradictory rumors). That second part probably contributed to the first problem, since nobody wants to work for Joe Banner. But mostly, none of this matters.

Remember that anytime there’s a coaching search. Once you get beyond the big names and start picking through retreads and obscure coordinators, it’s all a complete crapshoot, and having a good quarterback is probably just as important as having any real skill. Ask Chud or just look at all the coaches who got fired this year. Aside from maybe Jim Schwartz, they all had terrible quarterbacks. What I’m saying is, forget the coach and just LET JOHNNY SAVE CLEVELAND.

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sb vegas

By: timbersfan, 1:09 AM GMT on January 24, 2014

This was the biggest-bet conference championship weekend ever — that’s the report from the majority of sportsbooks interviewed. Some of the robust handle can be attributed to the overall increases in sports betting action, and some to both of Sunday’s games being marquee matchups. The outcomes could hardly have been worse for bettors — whose lopsided support of both underdogs resulted in big losses.

Bovada.lv noted how much of a factor Super Bowl future bet exposure is when bookmakers root for results in the playoffs. Denver was the no. 1 favorite entering the season (6/1 odds), and Seattle was the fourth favorite (11/1). As could be expected with chalk, the public bet both of these teams heavy to win the title. Even so, the modest preseason odds on both Super Bowl participants mean Bovada will book a big futures profit no matter which team wins the game.

When the Super Bowl line opened soon after Seattle’s game-clinching interception, most sportsbooks hung Seattle as a small favorite. Without delay, the early money came in strong on Peyton Manning and the Broncos. Within a half hour, Denver was favored everywhere. During the regular season, professionals are the source of a vast majority of early action. The average recreational bettor is not even thinking about next week’s games seven days ahead (and they find the idea of tying up their money for that long unappealing). But early betting on the Super Bowl is different. It’s the only game that matters for the next two weeks — and an early bet, especially at an attractive number, is a compelling conversation topic. In this case, the public was the primary driver of the early move toward Denver being favored — with sharps, for the most part, sitting on the sidelines.

What will happen once the sharps do get involved? LVH’s Jay Kornegay told me he expects heavy Seattle action from the wiseguys eventually — and he predicts the spread will drop by game time to pick’em. So, the lines have been drawn: The public is supporting Peyton Manning (75 percent of the bets made so far have backed Denver, according to the bet-tracking tool at Pregame.com), while the wiseguys wait for an opportune time to grab the biggest number on the lesser-known underdog.

It’s important to understand that the makeup of the “public” for Super Bowl betting is different from any other American sporting event. Wynn bookmaker Johnny Avello estimates that 90 percent of the Super Bowl betting handle will come from recreational bettors. This is the smallest share for the pros of any event. Many novice bettors make only one sports bet each year, and it’s on the Super Bowl. Yet, on the occasions that the biggest bankrolled pros do identify value on the Super Bowl spread, they tend to make their largest wager of the year — since the massive amount of overall action allows these whales to get down nearly any amount they desire. Super Bowl XLVIII should be no different: Five out of six sportsbooks polled projected that this will be the biggest-bet Super Bowl ever.

RJ Bell (@RJinVegas) is the founder of Pregame.com. His ESPN radio show in Las Vegas can be heard weekdays at 10 a.m. PT.

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sherman

By: timbersfan, 9:46 AM GMT on January 23, 2014


Every now and then, we will attempt to write the worst sports column on earth. Today: Let’s talk about the shameful display from Seattle on Sunday, and what happens next.

DENVER — Stop it.

Just stop.

I’ve seen so many people falling all over themselves to defend Richard Sherman in the past 48 hours, the Internet excuse machine is almost worse than the crime.

Almost.

I was a mile high in the Denver press box when it happened Sunday night. Busy working up a column on Peyton’s perseverance, remembering what it’s all about, I looked up to watch the end of the Seahawks-49ers game, saw that thrilling ending, and it happened.

You know.

The no. 1 cornerback in football may be Rich, but he seems like more of a Dick.

“I’M THE BEST CORNER IN THE GAME,” Sherman screamed into millions of living rooms across America. “WHEN YOU TRY ME WITH A SORRY RECEIVER LIKE CRABTREE, THAT’S THE RESULT YOU GON’ GET. DON’T YOU EVER TALK ABOUT ME. DON’T YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH ABOUT THE BEST.”

That wasn’t an interview, that was a rant.

That was Kanye Pacific Northwest.

It was so beyond bush league, we all got lost in the shrubs. Could you imagine Peyton Manning grabbing the microphone Sunday and shouting about Tom Brady?

Brady certainly can’t. “I have respect for my opponents,” he said when asked about this mess. “That’s the way our team always plays. We win with graciousness.”

Then Sunday night, graciousness was gone.

Instead of handshakes and humility we all got buried under a mountain of bunk from somebody who saw his chance to become a trending topic and found a whole bunch of followers along the way. Blog sites everywhere picked up the story, and nearly all of them celebrated it.

It made me sad. And worried, too.

The guy who turns sportsmanship into a punch line is bad, but the culture that laughs along with him is far scarier.

So many different cowboys around the web have popped up to tell you it’s great! It’s entertainment. It’s part of the emotion of the game, and we all need to lighten up and be more understanding of football players. “If you criticize Sherman,” they all say, “maybe you don’t understand what football’s all about.”

Maybe.

But Sunday in the press box, I couldn’t help but think back to a legendary cornerback who never needed to scream to make his point. Tony Dungy spoke softly on the 1978 Super Bowl champion Steelers, but he also led the team in interceptions. His actions spoke for him. They always have.

Still do.

Would Coach D ever be caught dead unleashing a rant like that after he won his Super Bowl with Indianapolis a few years ago?

You tell me.


Sunday made me sad for a lot of reasons. For the culture that cheered Sherman, for the Seahawks who trusted him, and even for Sherman himself.

He wins the biggest game of his life and that interview is his reaction. That’s happiness for this guy. It’s disturbing, when you really think about it.

But more than sad, Sunday made me mad. Because playing in the National Football League is a privilege, not a right, and Sherman abused that privilege. He made the whole league look bad. Even athletes from other sports were disgusted.

“Russell [Wilson] is a class act!” Justin Verlander tweeted. “Sherman on the other hand…. If he played baseball would get a high and tight fastball.”

And you know what? Roger Goodell has drawn a hard line on behavior like this his whole life. It’s time for football’s closer to step onto the mound and deliver a little chin music.



Sherman needs a lesson after all this — we all do — and it’s Goodell’s job to be the teacher here. When you ditch class, you get detention.

Sit him down, Roger. The NFL’s reputation took a hit Sunday night, and it’s time to hit back. Suspend Richard Sherman for the Super Bowl.

Not because Sherman’s a bad guy, but because he’s a smart guy (he went to Stanford), and if you teach him a lesson here, he might just learn something.

Sit him down. For the Seahawks more than anyone. Sherman’s become a distraction for 52 other guys about to play the biggest game of their lives, engulfing a great team in a hurricane of nonsense and a narrative that wastes everyone’s time.

In a perfect world, Sherman would do the right thing.

He’d hear all this and bow out on his own. But the world ain’t perfect, and if that headphones commercial is any indication, Dick Sherman ain’t listening.

So do the right thing, Roger.

When cowboys lose control, it takes a sheriff with integrity to set ’em straight. A sheriff who’s not afraid to stick to his guns.

Sit him down, Roger.

Maybe even send him to watch the game up in a Meadowlands skybox with a guy like Dungy, a man who’s never worried about going “viral” in his whole life.

It’s Dungy’s dignity that’s contagious.

We could all use some after this weekend.

Football looked bad on a national stage Sunday, but there’s no better, bigger stage in America than Super Bowl Sunday. In between the fireworks and end zone dances and the halftime shows and ads, maybe this year the Super Bowl can cut through the commercials and send a message that actually matters.

Just my two cents in a dollar-driven world. Roger Goodell’s National Football League used to stand for something bigger than football.

Maybe it still can.

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nfc losers

By: timbersfan, 9:44 AM GMT on January 23, 2014

With the Super Bowl set, that means 10 of our original 12 playoff teams are off on a beach somewhere. Before all the Seahawks-Broncos madness begins, we wanted to do a quick rundown of what the rest of this year’s contenders might have to do this offseason to make sure they’re the ones playing in early February next year. Today, it’s the NFC.

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners’ most significant worry is one they didn’t have until Sunday. NaVorro Bowman has been among the handful of the league’s best linebackers for a couple of years now, but by the end of this season, he was outplaying teammate Patrick Willis and everyone else in the league. Bowman was the best player on the 49ers by the end of their campaign, and now it’s unclear just how long it will take for him to be back to full strength.

Both Bowman and Willis have been signed long-term, but the back end of San Francisco’s defense is likely to see some turnover. Carlos Rogers is 32, the most unreliable member of the secondary, and scheduled to make more than $8 million next year. San Francisco would save more than $5 million on the cap if he gets cut, which is likely. Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown are also free agents. The Niners don’t have many other immediate contracts to worry about, but there are some looming. Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick will need extensions sooner rather than later, and that’s something to keep in mind when deciding if Whitner and Brown are worth it.

Joining Brown and Whitner in free agency is Anquan Boldin, who followed up his surprising year with another great stretch in the playoffs. Even with his impressive year, Boldin is 33, and he may have a tough time getting a multiyear deal from the 49ers or anyone else. With how many other obligations San Francisco has (and its pretty tight cap situation), the only real way to imagine Boldin back with the Niners is on a relatively cheap one-year contract. If he does leave, wide receiver instantly becomes one of Jim Harbaugh’s most significant needs. There’s a chance Quinton Patton — or Mario Manningham — can step into that role, but this is when the ghost of A.J. Jenkins starts to hover over the Niners.



The 2012 draft — in which San Francisco took Jenkins in the first round and LaMichael James in the second — is really the only blemish on general manager Trent Baalke’s record since taking over in 2010. It doesn’t seem too early to call James a misstep, too, one that may come into play as early as this year. Frank Gore is set to make $6.45 million next year — at age 31 — and was clearly slowing down by the end of the season. But if Marcus Lattimore isn’t healthy by the start of the season, San Francisco really doesn’t have an alternative, and even if Lattimore were ready, relying heavily on a running back with a sordid injury history would be a massive risk. What Eric Reid did in his rookie season is promising, but for the first time in a couple of seasons, the Niners are in a position this spring where they’ll need immediate, cheap help in a few spots.

Carolina Panthers

This exercise is particularly sobering for anyone who fell in love with Carolina this year. Making their first postseason in five years behind a team with plenty of young talent would seemingly make what happened in 2013 just the start for the Panthers, but no playoff team has more issues to deal with in the next few months.

It all starts with keeping that suddenly terrifying defense intact. Greg Hardy, who made $1.3 million this year, is a free agent in line for a massive payday. The man they call the Kraken really was a monster for the Panthers this year. His 15 sacks were the third-most in the league, but what makes Hardy possibly the best free agent in this class (Jimmy Graham barely counts; the Saints aren’t letting him leave) is how many things he does well. At close to 300 pounds, he holds up against the run and can easily bump inside on clear pass-rush downs. He’s also 25, and a team with money wouldn’t be misguided in making him the highest-paid defensive end in the league.

Last week, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was honest about the difficulty in bringing Hardy back. Carolina’s cap situation is tight for at least the next two seasons thanks to a series of shortsighted moves made by the previous regime, and with 21 free agents and a Cam Newton extension on the horizon, there’s a lot to think about. A traditionally structured big contract for Hardy would be tough to pull off, but yesterday, Bill Barnwell laid out an interesting plan for how the Panthers might keep Hardy anyway. You should go read the whole thing, but the gist is that a big signing bonus and low base salary in the first two years might make it all work. Losing Hardy would be potentially crippling for a Panthers defense so reliant on its ability to rush the passer with only four players.

Moving on without Hardy would put even more pressure on a secondary that’s still the weakest part of the Carolina defense. Captain Munnerlyn was the best player among them last year, and he’s also set to become a free agent. The 25-year-old had his best season after signing a one-year deal, and he should command a reasonable price on the open market. Suddenly, that young defensive core that won Carolina a first-round bye looks a little less impressive.

The offense isn’t immune, either. Left tackle Jordan Gross is a free agent, and although his trip to the Pro Bowl was more than earned, giving a 33-year-old a long-term deal probably isn’t an option. Gross has said he doesn’t have much interest in playing elsewhere, so a series of one-year arrangements similar to ones given to other late-career players might be an option. The same goes for Steve Smith. Even as a fraction of the player he was, Smith was still the Panthers’ best receiver, which speaks to the top priority Carolina should have entering the draft. It may have to search for pass rush or secondary help if it loses out on Hardy or Munnerlyn, but Newton needs more weapons no matter who the Panthers re-sign.

Green Bay Packers

The main improvement the Packers can make this offseason is the same one that seems to come up year after year: They have to get healthy. On offense, Green Bay has all the talent it needs on the current roster to be one of the top four units in the league. Not only is a full season from Aaron Rodgers likely next year, but the Packers get back Bryan Bulaga, who will likely move to the right side after David Bakhtiari’s very good rookie season in relief of him. With Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and an offensive line mostly intact (Green Bay has to figure out if Evan Dietrich-Smith is worth keeping or replacing in-house), the Packers will be just fine on offense.



If there is a concern, it’s at tight end, where Jermichael Finley is a free agent. After the scary incident that ended Finley’s season last year, his future is uncertain with the Packers or anyone else, and there’s a good chance Green Bay has to look elsewhere to bolster that spot. Finley is just one of the team’s several free agents who will probably take precedence for Ted Thompson this offseason.

Because the team spends next to no money in free agency, Green Bay’s cap situation is unsurprisingly strong even after giving massive extensions to Rodgers and Clay Matthews. The area that needs the most attention is the interior of the Packers’ defense, which was a real problem by the end of last season. B.J. Raji is a free agent, and although the Packers could probably afford to re-sign him, he reportedly turned down Green Bay’s most recent extension offer.

The concern is reportedly that Raji doesn’t feel like Dom Capers’s system fits his skill set (going to the bench on passing downs has caused his sack totals to plummet), which brings up the offseason topic Packers fans have been most eager to yell about for the past two years. Capers has been their scapegoat since Colin Kaepernick ran all over them a year ago, and the failings of his defense — no matter how injured — is the topic of conversation again this year.

There’s a chance that what Capers really needs is a group that can stay even relatively healthy for a full season. Casey Hayward, who was brilliant as the slot cornerback as a rookie, missed almost the entire 2013 season with a hamstring injury. Matthews also missed his normal share of time. Whether it’s how they’re treated or it’s a problem in Green Bay’s scouting, this is becoming a problem that’s hard to ignore. It’s hard to discern the potential of the Packers’ defense with everyone healthy, but they should have a chance to bring back a majority of it again next season. Sam Shields is set to join Raji in free agency, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back.

New Orleans Saints



Jimmy Graham probably isn’t even worth mentioning. One way or another, he’ll be on the Saints next year. New Orleans could use the franchise tag on him in perpetuity, and even with the escalators built in each year, he’d be worth it.

Overall, New Orleans is in a pretty rough situation cap-wise. Right now, the Saints are set to be upward of $9.3 million over the cap even before considering an extension for Graham and what they plan to do with other free agents like Brian de la Puente and Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints will save more than $11 million in letting Will Smith go this offseason, which seems inevitable. Roman Harper might suffer the same fate, as New Orleans would save an additional $2 million without him. Still, the massive contracts given to Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, and others have the Saints strapped.

Along with de la Puente, right tackle Zach Strief is also a free agent, and offensive line may be an area the Saints look to upgrade early in the draft. Most of their other needs are on defense, where a cornerback to pair with Keenan Lewis or a pass-rusher to go with Junior Galette are also options in the first few rounds.

Philadelphia Eagles

The beginning and the end couldn’t have gone more differently for the Eagles’ offense, but somewhere in the middle, it became clear that this Chip Kelly experiment was probably going to work. Philly finished third in offensive DVOA, and it’ll have more or less the same group back to try it again. Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are free agents, and the only real question the Eagles have to answer on offense is what they’ll do across from DeSean Jackson.

It’s not quite that easy on defense. Call it the Curse of Brian Dawkins, because since he left town, safety play has plagued the Eagles. Part of it is their own fault. Relying on Patrick Chung was probably a mistake, and by the end of the year, he went to the bench even as injuries mounted in the secondary. His counterpart, Nate Allen, is a free agent. Whether it’s in free agency or the draft, safety is the Eagles’ no. 1 need, and it’s not particularly close. Their cornerbacks aren’t stellar either, but Brandon Boykin is a promising player in the slot, and Cary Williams was good enough that the Eagles are probably willing to see through the investment they made on him last year.



The difficult decision may be at inside linebacker, where DeMeco Ryans is set to make $6.9 million, none of which is guaranteed. First-year coordinator Bill Davis commented as recently as Christmas that Ryans was the “quarterback” of his defense, but leadership only goes so far when a player is getting paid as a top-10 guy at his position. Mychal Kendricks remains a question mark next to Ryans, but he’s still cheap enough that the Eagles might be inclined to wait it out.

Even with the questions at linebacker, Philly’s run defense was middle of the road thanks to the talent it has up front. Cedric Thornton, Fletcher Cox, and Vinny Curry are a talented, young trio of interior defensive linemen that should be even better next year. Curry is still a pass-rush specialist, and the Eagles could probably use another run stuffer to go along with Cox and Thornton on early downs. Isaac Sopoaga was a flop in free agency a year ago, but a big nose tackle could be an option either later in the draft or in free agency.

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sb weather

By: timbersfan, 9:41 AM GMT on January 23, 2014

FiveThirtyEight Guest Post: Let It Snow?
And sleet. And rain. So, uh, how bad WILL the weather be for the Super Bowl?

BY HARRY ENTEN ON JANUARY 21, 2014
OK, so you’ve laid out a few grand for a ticket to Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2. What are the chances you’ll be suffering through frozen temperatures or a blizzard?

Farmers’ Almanac has called for “a messy, stormy Super Bowl.” But the limited independent studies on the Farmers’ Almanac prove that it’s often wrong. No one can, with any sort of regularity, predict the weather precisely more than 10 days out.

Here’s the truth: History tells us it could be windy on Super Bowl Sunday, but snow and freezing cold are less likely.

As Nate Silver illustrated in The Signal and the Noise, climatology — the study of past weather patterns averaged over a long period of time — generally beats commercial weather forecasts when you’re predicting more than 10 days out. So here’s a little Super Bowl–related climatology for you.

I collected weather data from the last 30 years from an official weather station in Newark, New Jersey, 10 miles from MetLife Stadium. Thirty years is the normal climatological baseline, according to the National Weather Service. I limited myself to data from the hours of 6 to 10 p.m., when the shoulder pads will be crunching. To make the data set more robust, I collected information from the first eight days in February instead of just February 2. It adds up to 1,200 hours and 240 forecast periods, or days, of weather data.

I evaluated the data for conditions that could affect players’ ability to perform. The sabermetric football site NFL Advanced Stats says temperatures 25 degrees and below affect play calling. The same goes for a wind of 15 miles an hour or greater. Torin K. Clark, Aaron W. Johnson, and Alexander J. Stimpson of MIT have demonstrated that any type of precipitation [PDF] hurts the chance of making a field goal.

So, what are the chances for disruptive weather? Here are four weather events that could make ticket buyers regret their investments, along with the likelihood that they’ll happen.

The Snow Bowl

Fourteen percent of the 6-10 p.m. time slots in early February in the last 30 years had at least one hourly observation of frozen precipitation (snow, sleet, or freezing rain). That’s a higher percentage chance than any previous Super Bowl [PDF] had, though it still is not particularly high. The Farmers’ Almanac isn’t likely to be correct.

The chance of a Super Bowl that combines extreme cold and snow is even lower. Only 5 percent of our 240 time periods saw frozen precipitation and at least one hourly observation of 25 degrees or colder.

Snow combined with low temperatures and windy conditions is even less likely. Only 3 percent of the time periods had snow, a temperature of 25 degrees or colder, and a wind measurement of 15 miles an hour or greater.

The Water Bowl

Call it the Misera-Bowl. Some might argue that 33 degrees and rain is worse than 32 degrees and snow. Indeed, those playing up the snow angle might be underestimating the chance of rain. It’s certainly higher at MetLife than it is at Super Bowls that take place in a dome.

Seven percent of the studied periods saw rain without frozen precipitation in the area around MetLife. Combined with the periods that saw snow (with rain potentially mixed in), 21 percent of the studied blocks had precipitation of any type.

Forty-one percent of the time, when it rained, the wind was also swirling at 15 miles per hour or more. Perfect weather conditions — for watching on TV.

The Ice Bowl

Northern New Jersey is not Green Bay. The median MetLife Stadium temperature for game time in early February is around freezing, which means the temperature could very well affect the game.

Twenty-one percent of the time the temperature has been 25 degrees or below for at least one observation during the hours examined. That’s not small, yet it’s not sending me for the coat rack just yet.

Combine the cold air with wind and you start to make things uncomfortable. Twelve percent of the times I studied had both temperatures of 25 degrees or below and a wind speed above 15 miles an hour.

The Whirling Wind Bowl

In the final seconds, the kicker trots out to attempt a game-winning field goal. The kick looks good, but the wind pulls a Scott Norwood.

While I wouldn’t try to predict the game coming down to a field goal, history tells us that wind has a decent chance of playing a role in the Super Bowl.

Thirty percent of the time there has been one hour or more when an early February evening had a 15 mile per hour wind or greater in Newark.

Lessons From the Past

The climatology of Northeastern New Jersey over the past 30 years tells us that 50 percent of the time precipitation, low temperature, or moderate wind occurred during the hours when the Super Bowl will be played.

As this Venn diagram illustrates, most bad-weather days included only one type of disruptive weather.


Click to enlarge

Only 20 percent of the time did two types of weather conditions develop that could have affected the game. A windy, cold, snow-swept early evening happened only 3 percent of the time over the past 30 years. In most instances, precipitation and low temperatures did not happen. The best chance for a poor condition was wind.

Now, it’s important to keep in mind that climatology is not a forecast. Just because something has happened only a few times doesn’t mean it won’t happen this year. We’ve seen somewhat reliable indications that this year will be colder than usual, but even these forecast tools are far from perfect.

Still, there’s only about a 3 percent probability of blizzardlike conditions involving snow, wind, and severe temperatures all at once — about the same chance of hitting a double-zero on a roulette wheel in Atlantic City. Bet on the wind on being the big story.

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tello

By: timbersfan, 12:46 PM GMT on January 19, 2014

What once seemed like a lost cause for Liverpool has been given a breath of new life after Cristian Tello admitted his mind is open regarding a move away from Barcelona.

However, any transfer, temporary or otherwise, won't come to fruition until this summer at the earliest, following comments from the Spaniard that he's committed until June.

Lalo R. Villar/Associated Press
The Metro's Hannah Duncan quotes Tello as saying that his situation will be reevaluated at the end of the season: "I will definitely stay at Barcelona until June, then we will see in the summer."

It's not necessarily the news that Brendan Rodgers was hoping for but even a summer deal holds some promise for the Merseysiders, who must persevere in their pursuit of one of La Blaugrana's fastest rising stars.

Jon Super/Associated Press
One of La Masia's more promising graduates in recent years, Tello still holds a great deal of potential despite his development tailing off slightly in the last year or so.

That plateau has come partly for good reason, however, with the youngster breaching Barca's first team, receiving less playing time merely as a result of the high standard within Gerardo Martino's ranks.

Should Liverpool chase a summer deal for Tello?
Yes, he's worth the long haul.
No, they need to look at higher quality in the summer.
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That being said, Tello has still managed to make 11 La Liga appearances this term, per Transfermarkt, albeit with most of those coming only by way of cameo.

Only twice this term has the 22-year-old been given a half or more in a league match but it was on one of those occasions—a 4-1 thrashing of Real Valladolid—that Tello pitched in with two assists.

Liverpool's lack of pedigree on the wings has been one existing issue this term. Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling have featured most prominently out wide for Rodgers' side, with Victor Moses' loan from Chelsea not proving quite as successful as some would have hoped.

Jordan Henderson has also filled in on the flanks when needed, but both he and arguably Coutinho, too, are of more use in more central positions.

The fact that Tello has the ability to provide cover up front as well only solidifies the case for why the Reds would be smart to stay resolute in this particular chase.


As of yet, Tello hasn't spent time away from the Camp Nou on loan, and he has instead been stuck in a form of limbo between Barca's bench and the stars in front of him.

With a fully fit squad, there's no way the youngster is going to depose the likes of Neymar, Pedro or Alexis Sanchez, and his comments would appear to suggest he's looking for more minutes.

The New York Times' Graham Ruthven is of the opinion that Tello is far from the Barca standard, however:


With that doubt evidently creeping in, Liverpool's next goal should be a long term one, where a summer acquisition of the player—though not necessarily as a permanent transfer—would work to benefit all parties involved.

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zouma

By: timbersfan, 12:44 PM GMT on January 19, 2014

Chelsea must be considered favourites to land St. Etienne defender Kurt Zouma this year after the centre-back lifted the lid on recent talks with Jose Mourinho.

Per Gary Jones of the Daily Star, Zouma has had "advanced contact" with the Portuguese manager, and if a winter move doesn't come to pass, this summer would seem a likely juncture:

Well, it's true. There has been an advanced contact. At first I thought it was a joke. But I quickly took his call seriously. A great man like Jose Mourinho phoning a small player like Kurt Zouma, it's nice.

It does not happen to you every day and it is a great sign of respect and trust. I will always take Chelsea. I loved this club since childhood and blue is my favourite colour.

In my head, it is clear: I want a change. When going abroad, it's make or break. But it is a risk worth taking.

The 19-year-old doesn't mince his words regarding a potential Ligue 1 departure, with Stamford Bridge seemingly one of his preferred destinations, of not at the very peak of the list.

Chelsea's current centre-back situation is strong, with John Terry and Gary Cahill providing stability in the centre of defence this season, relegating David Luiz largely to the bench, even when the Brazilian's been free from injury.

Claude Paris/Associated Press
However, an air of uncertainty sits around this part of the pitch, too. Terry's deal with the Blues expires at the end of this season and it's currently uncertain as to what Mourinho means to do with the 33-year-old.

Luiz, meanwhile, continues to be linked with the Chelsea exit, the Independent's Jack De Menezes reporting that Barcelona are once again raising interest in his services.


Should either of the West London stalwarts leave the club, it would make Zouma's acquisition all the more plausible, although the Frenchman could still provide cover behind those names and with Luiz filling in at defensive midfield.

The teenager is edging closer to the French national team and is know for his physical assets, although his technical ability, or lack thereof, has been cited as potential weakness.

BT Sport's Julien Laurens gives a brief rundown of the starlet's current situation:


It's that physical edge that recently landed Zouma in hot water, too. A dangerous tackle on Sochaux' Thomas Guerbert led to a 10-match ban for the youngster, his over-exuberance getting the best of him on that occasion.

That being said, at just 19 years of age, there remains plenty of time for such rough edges to be rounded out, and Mourinho hoping to be the man tasked with such a job.

St. Etienne may be able to cope with the loss, as well, given OptaJean's recent statistical breakdown:


For now, Zouma remains committed to his French surroundings, and recently made his league return in the 2-0 win over Lille.

That being said, it may not be long until the player finds his talents lending themselves to the English top flight, as Chelsea hope to strengthen their bid for the Premier League title.

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klinsi

By: timbersfan, 6:01 AM GMT on January 19, 2014

Klinsmann the optimist looks forward to 2014

By Roger Bennett | January 17, 2014 9:00:11 AM PST
SANTA MONICA, CA -- Jurgen Klinsmann is typically a high-energy kind of guy. So when we meet last week at the beginning of the U.S. team's January training camp, it is no surprise to find him in crackling form with the World Cup five months away.

"I'm excited [2014] has started, a World Cup year is the most special kind you can have in professional soccer," he declares as we sit down. Yet one month after being drawn alongside Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the Hammergruppe of Group G, the coach's natural optimism has become tinged with a detectable touch of realism. Spirited and focused one minute, he becomes relaxed and almost laissez-faire the next.

As Klinsmann talks about the emotions he will experience singing both the American and German national anthems ahead of the two nations' final group game in Recife on June 26, the reason for this fluctuating approach becomes evident. The coach has tapped into the two sides of his identity, fusing the rigorous planning of a German with a Californian's "go with the flow" spirit.

The approach makes perfect strategic sense. Having been dealt a trifecta of cruel challenges by the Gods of the World Cup Draw -- brutal opponents, a soul-grinding travel schedule, and unforgiving climates ranging from "hot" and "swampy hot" to "searing" -- Klinsmann knows success as an international manager revolves around his awareness of exactly what can, and cannot, be controlled.

More Klinsmann
- 'I'd love to beat Germany'
- No Euro demand for U.S. players?

"I call this tournament the 'World Cup of Patience,'" he reveals. "Because of the Brazilian style of life, there will be a lot of surprises waiting. ... It's not going to be a perfect World Cup for anybody."

Klinsmann has determined that being ready to roll with the punches is what Brazil 2014 will be all about, but the good news is that the U.S. coach remains confident.

"I'm pretty sure we are going to make it through to the [knockout] round," he says. "Nothing will be laid out perfectly. Nothing [in Brazil] will be kind of the German way of 2006 where everything was on time and ironed out. There will be delays and logistical challenges with the hotels, fields, stadiums or whatever."

A competitive advantage will exist for the U.S. because of this chaos, not despite it. "We have an outsider role in our group because Portugal and Germany are the big favorites," Klinsmann admits before adding, with a beaming smile:

"I think it is still possible for us to go eye-to-eye with the big nations and give them real games even if it is difficult climate zones or circumstances. The more we are able to adjust quicker than the other ones to those circumstances... to prepare ourselves on a higher level physically and mentally, the more we have a chance to beat them."

The Mindset: "Cristiano Ronaldo will have to deal with it too"

As Klinsmann discusses logistics in Sao Paulo, the task of monitoring players across the U.S., Mexico and Europe while also lining up tactically appropriate African and European opponents for three pre-tournament friendlies, the meticulousness of his approach becomes clear: what is being established is a complex, multi-continent operation.

"The real challenge is how to put the pieces together and build this parcel," Klinsmann explains enthusiastically. "We are already working on logistical solutions. Maybe we won't be going back to our base camp and going straight from one game to the next to cut down travel. Any big sport coach will tell you 50 percent of everything is to be prepared."

I wonder how one goes about preparing to play an unprecedented game of World Cup football in Manaus' rainforest conditions -- as the U.S. will against Portugal -- causing Klinsmann to smile.

"I asked my friend [former Brazil coach] Carlos Parreira right after the draw," he admits. "He told me 'you can't prepare for the Amazon. You just have to live it and know ... Cristiano Ronaldo will have to deal with it too.'"

Klinsmann laughs at the surreal nature of this predicament before revealing his rainforest gambit. "We’re going to prepare the best way possible but know at certain moments we will just have to take in all the humidity and heat and say [to our opponents] eye-to-eye, 'We're going to beat you now.'"

The Opponents: "On a God-given day we can beat big nations"

Klinsmann talks enthusiastically about the opposition research in which his coaching team has become immersed, and allows himself a chuckle when asked how he plans to analyze the Germans.

"The staff I'm going to face now in the group stage is basically the staff I built," he says, referring to the coaches and squad he led to the 2006 semifinals. Why then, I wondered, has Germany failed to build on that success and win some silverware?

"Once you reach the final four of a big tournament, it’s a mental game about who is more hungry ... and who has a player who wants to make a difference and put his stamp on the tournament -- [Zinedine] Zidane in 1998 or Ronaldo in 2002," he says. "So far Germany did not have that one player or collectively the real hunger."

As a player, Klinsmann scored 11 World Cup goals in 17 games, and he taps into that experience when asked to comment on the 39.9 percent chance that ESPN's Soccer Power Index calculates his team has to reach the elimination round in Brazil.

"In the World Cup, you need to be ready to go through two months of extreme stress, problem-solving and high tension, to be a team that is ready to go through thick and thin," he explains.

"It does not matter if your odds are 40 percent or 10 percent. We know on a God-given day we can beat big nations. We just have to time it extremely well so it happens in June 2014, and that’s why I am not scared about Ghana, Portugal or Germany."

"I am focused on how do I get these players really primed, mentally and physically, so the odds turn towards our favor."

The Squad Selection: "A puzzle that must be pieced together"

With his players scattered across the globe with their domestic clubs, I wonder exactly how much preparation Klinsmann is able to do day-to-day.

"Based on the FIFA calendar there is not much we can do, especially with the European players," he acknowledges. "We get them once for three days (in March) so regular communication is key."

The coach does not hesitate when asked what his message is, responding almost by rote: "Whatever you do today already has a little, tiny influence on what happens five and six months down the road. That includes your life off the field, not just on it."

I enquire whether the coach has yet told any of the players they are going to Brazil? "Nope," Klinsmann replies, tight-lipped, pausing for a beat before repeating the word again with a giggle.

"There are 14, 15, or 16 players [I] have a clear picture of [up from the 10 he revealed in Panama City three months ago] but there is a lot of movement, and we have until May to decide."

The coach consistently refers to the selection task as an evaluative "puzzle that must be pieced together." Players starting in the Norwegian or Belgian Leagues must be compared with those who are Bundesliga squad players or returning from injury in Mexico.

"You have to balance it out and ask yourself: What does he bring to our team right now?" The German draws out the possessive pronoun to reinforce the sense of collective.

"It is very tricky. Someone who is not playing in his Bundesliga team may have a lack of fitness coming into our team, but he will have qualities in another front that we really miss here."

The "puzzle" is further complicated as it takes place at a time of reverse migration when many of the United States' most experienced players have chosen to leave Europe and rejoin MLS.

In the past, Klinsmann has repeatedly stressed how important it is for American players to test themselves in the crucible of Europe’s elite leagues, yet Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have recently returned and Jermaine Jones is rumored to be eager to follow them.

The net effect of exilic return en masse is a concern. "You want your players to be standouts in their club teams. You want them to be clearly defined as international players in their club teams," he says before hinting at his central preoccupation: to get his players challenged on the highest level possible over the next five months.

Jozy Altidore is one of the few who is living this experience, and despite the striker's lack of goals, Klinsmann talks positively about a recent visit he made to Sunderland.

"[Jozy] knew the jump from the Dutch league to the Premier League is huge, especially because the way [Sunderland] play their games, he does not get many chances to score. He will fight his way through ... his goals will come in the Premier League, and I feel very positive we’ll have such a hungry Jozy Altidore going into the World Cup."

Clint Dempsey is another player to receive praise. The National Team captain may have only scored once in five months for Seattle and Fulham, yet Klinsmann claims to harbor no concerns:

"I am not worried about Clint at all. I am happy he is not at January camp. He made the right decision to challenge himself, go back on two months' loan to Fulham and get a Premier League schedule in for the next two months to get a rhythm, come back with match fitness, and start on the right foot with MLS and lead into the World Cup."

The Opportunity: "Show the world how good you are"

Klinsmann had previously made a point of urging his MLS players to follow Dempsey's example and seek a loan experience in Europe, and the coach is candid when asked why none did.

"There is no demand," he says curtly. "Players like Graham Zusi, Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez, they have to work harder to get the opportunity to be in that picture with teams in Europe for a short period of time and maybe later on for a long period of time. It is just a sign of reality. The demand is not there."

Such honesty stings, yet the coach quickly recovers his upbeat tone. "I also see how working in camp with MLS players is a great positive,” he explains.

"To have them be fresh going into the World Cup [when] other nations will have players who have a 10- or 11-month season behind them and have to pump themselves up again."

The coach appears to lose himself momentarily as he finishes his point, switching pronouns as if suddenly in the locker room addressing the players about an opportunity he calls "the biggest of their lifetimes."

"Show the world how good you are ... surprise a lot of people, make a name for yourself during a World Cup in Brazil, the five-time champion. It does not get better! Take that opportunity!"

They do not have long to wait. I ask the Goppingen-born Klinsmann how he expects to feel when the Americans take on Germany?

"It will be a special day," he smiles. "We will be playing my old team. Hopefully by then we will have a couple of points already and looking really good. I will sing both national anthems but for me it is about competition. I love to compete."

As if reveling in the moment, Jurgen Klinsmann drags out the words "I would love to beat Germany." The width of his smile suggests few in America want that more.

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swansea

By: timbersfan, 6:00 AM GMT on January 19, 2014

Swansea are flattering to deceive
James Dall

January 17, 2014
Premier League Spotlight previews the weekend's top-flight fixtures, highlighting the key points to keep an eye on as the action unfolds.

Laudrup's Swansea are on a dismal run

#INSERT

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caption:Michael Laudrup's Swansea have won one of their last nine Premier League matches.

END#

What if Michael Laudrup wasn't that handsome? If his hair wasn't so confident and his jaw not like that of a ship's hull? Perhaps he'd come in for more criticism because, let's be honest, humans by their media-influenced nurture are shallow. When dating a man or woman you might overlook a missing sense of humour if instead they are pretty to look at.

Take Laudrup's side Swansea, who are renowned for playing itty-bitty passes. That style of play nods the heads of purists and stirs the loins of those whose smut is pass completion statistics. However, from their last six Premier League fixtures, Swansea have won none, managing two points -- putting them bottom of the division's form table. Yet not a great deal has been made of this. Just three points separate them from the recently relegation-zoned West Ham, whose manager Sam Allardyce, conversely, had recently and rightly come under intense pressure before they arrested their atrocious run with a win at Cardiff City last weekend.

In Laudrup's defence, lifting a first major trophy in Swansea's 101-year history earns him a Get Out of Jail Free card, while it is noteworthy that over the last weeks in the league they have faced the likes of the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Everton. That, though, should not mean he escapes criticism entirely, for against Hull, Aston Villa and Norwich, better than three 1-1 draws are expected. Indeed, such results will suck you into an ugly scrap at the bottom with the unfashionables.

The Dane has not been helped by Michu's lack of form and fitness -- last season's bargain buy has managed just two goals in 12 league starts this term, compared to the 13 strikes he'd managed by the same point in 2012-13. There has also been the traditional bedding-in period for the summer recruits, while the extra games on a Thursday night in the Europa League notoriously do not aid a club's freshness domestically. And while they have not featured in Europe since Dec. 12, it could be argued the 10 matches played in that competition have already taken their toll on the players' legs.

Regardless, whether by means of style or grit, the onus is on Laudrup, whose side finished ninth last season, to stem the tension before it spills over the back pages of the national newspapers. "I still have a lot of confidence in the players and the quality they have, the capacity and characteristics they have," he told the South Wales Evening Post. On Sunday, they host a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur, before a vital run of Premier League matches against Fulham, West Ham, Cardiff and Stoke.

Chelsea are overwhelming favourites against United

It would be remiss of a column previewing the weekend's top flight matches not to acknowledge the biggest match of the round. And thus follows words on Chelsea against Manchester United: as mentioned last week, the Chelsea juggernaut is clicking through the gears with the experienced Jose Mourinho at the wheel, as demonstrated by their dispatching of Hull City with relative comfort. Their form will be of concern to United boss David Moyes, who has not eked out a convincing display from his players since, maybe, the 3-1 win over West Ham before Christmas.

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caption:In Eden Hazard, Jose Mourinho has a genuinely world-class player, who, frighteningly, has the potential to get even better.

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There's an apparent lack of confidence to United's attacking play, with the variation limited to balls into the channels and then crosses into the box. Compare that mind-set to Chelsea, who boast the swagger of Oscar, Willian and, last but not least, Eden Hazard, whose performances in particular have been otherworldly.

Mourinho even has the luxury of a benched Juan Mata, whom United would fans would surely welcome at Old Trafford, as the ridiculous onus on the shoulders of 18-year-old Adnan Januzaj continues. If United win at Stamford Bridge then the gap between them and the Blues becomes a not insurmountable six points. Lose a fourth game in five, though, and watch the pitchforks go up.

Man City are set to make it seven wins in a row

Breaking news: Manchester City are looking really good. They've won four out of their last five matches away from home, curing the homesickness which had troubled them during the first half of the season, while goalkeeper Joe Hart has returned to the side, played well and not thrown the ball into his own net. Their form of six wins from as many fixtures is not good news for their title rivals, nor is it for Cardiff, who visit the venue of many a-mauling this season, the Etihad Stadium, on Saturday.

Pardew must keep his head against West Ham

Alan Pardew was Alan Pardew last weekend as he got a bit sweary on the touchline, aggrieved at a goal which probably should have stood but ultimately you can excuse the referee for getting it wrong -- having to make a split decision while considering several different factors as a bullet of a shot nestles home made human error a possibility. Perhaps "Pards" was that bit spikier because he knew a defeat would make it three on the spin, truly halting what had been a positive run. He faces his former club West Ham this weekend when much will be at stake, for Allardyce desperately needs the points.

Nerves will be abound at Carrow Road

Steve Bruce has so far overseen an impressive return to the Premier League for Hull, in spite of owner Assem Allam's best/worst efforts to detract from their achievement of being 10th in the table and five points from safety. Goals have, though, been an issue for the club this season, with 22 mustered from 21 fixtures, hence moves for Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long -- though the pair have three league goals between them this term. As for Hull's opponents, Norwich, the alarm bells are sounding louder, after an FA Cup exit during midweek made it eight matches without a win. Their manager Chris Hughton is under scrutiny, all right.

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mls notes

By: timbersfan, 5:59 AM GMT on January 19, 2014

MLS notebook: Beckham latest, Xavi rumors and Edu's future

By Jeff Carlisle | January 17, 2014 10:36:27 AM PST
PHILADELPHIA -- There was more than just draft news to digest on Thursday as events at the Philadelphia Convention Center unfolded.

We had information about pending transfers, as well as news about David Beckham's attempt to secure an expansion franchise in Miami. There was clever maneuvering, even beyond D.C. United's trading of the No. 1 overall pick to the Philadelphia Union.

Here's a summary of some of the storylines that developed throughout the day of the MLS SuperDraft.

Beckham announcement set for February

News on this had gone quiet during the holiday period, even as the Dec. 31 deadline to hammer out a stadium deal with various municipalities in the Miami area came and went. But MLS commissioner Don Garber brought the expansion attempt back into focus when he revealed that the league expects to make an announcement about Beckham’s plans in early February.

"We have been spending a lot of time -- I was down [in Miami] last weekend, I've been down there a lot -- working with them, working with potential ownership groups, trying to finalize a stadium a stadium plan," Garber told reporters Thursday. "Right now, we've got a lot of work to do.”

Beckham has teamed with longtime business partner Simon Fuller as well as Marcelo Claure -- the billionaire owner of Brightstar Corp. -- to try to bring an MLS team to Miami. The stadium plan that has gained the most attention is a bid to lease a parcel of county-owned land in the Port of Miami.
Red Bulls coy over Xavi

Published reports on Thursday had Spain and Barcelona midfielder Xavi denying he had agreed to move to MLS, either with the New York Red Bulls or with 2015 expansion side New York City FC. But one source told ESPNFC.com's Doug McIntyre that an inquiry had been made by the Red Bulls, and when asked about his club being linked with the player, coach Mike Petke didn't dismiss the idea out of hand.

"You never know with Red Bull," he said. "If we feel it's the right fit in the field, if we feel it's a right fit from a marketing sense, then anything can happen. As of now, I don't think in the next week we'll be announcing Xavi or anybody. But obviously he's a player that is coming up on a contract soon, and you never know. That's all I can say."

Full SuperDraft coverage
- Carlisle: Draft winners, losers
- Profile: No. 1 pick Blake ready for Philly
- Twellman: Revs' successful picks
- FC TV: Goalie picked first
- Lalas: MLS return like 'giving up?'

Xavi's contract expires in 2016, but Red Bulls sporting director Andy Roxburgh confessed he would love to bring one of his favorite players to New York. "If [Xavi] had been in the draft we would have been trading all over the place," he quipped.

He later added: "If you asked me, would I like to have Xavi? Of course. It isn't even a discussion. He'd be phenomenal for the league, and phenomenal for us. But in the short term I can't imagine such a thing happening."

Camilo saga closing in on resolution

The deal to transfer reigning Golden Boot winner Camilo to Liga MX side Queretaro looks close to being completed at last, with a league source telling ESPNFC.com that the Brazilian can expect to command a transfer fee of about $2 million. Of course, "close" has characterized the proposed deal for much of this week, but Garber made the clearest statement yet that the deal would get done.

"There's been a transfer that is going to happen," he said. "Ultimately, we're very disappointed. [Camilo] had a contract. That contract -- in the world we live in, whether it's here or around the world or under FIFA rules -- needs to be honored.

"But we all deal in a world where players are not happy with where they are and the mathematics do that. Ultimately, there was a good result: a high transfer fee, they get allocation money and Vancouver will rebuild their team with a new coach."

Perhaps mindful of how long this episode has dragged on, both Vancouver president Bob Lenarduzzi and new manager Carl Robinson were more circumspect in their comments, but essentially echoed Garber's statement.

"I've said all along, we're unwilling participants in this exercise," Lenarduzzi said. "Our best scenario was Camilo was going to be with the Whitecaps. But obviously that will be determined hopefully in the next 24 hours and we'll be able to move on."

As to whether this episode will result in other players testing the validity of MLS contracts in this manner, Garber said he was confident it wouldn't. He also was not worried about FIFA challenging the way MLS contracts are written.

"FIFA honors and recognizes Major League Soccer's system," he said. "We are able to be protected. FIFA would have supported us in this situation. But you deal with players. How many times have we seen players in the Premier League who decide they want to get sold? They have a contract and they are just unhappy. Next thing you know, the player is moving from one club to another."

"I'm a soccer guy for the last 15 years, but I'm also an American sports guy. If you sign a contract, if I sign a contract, you honor it. FIFA will honor contracts in our system. We just have to manage it."

Edu negotiations continue

The other transfer generating buzz around MLS is the proposed move of Stoke City's U.S. international, Maurice Edu, to Philadelphia. Sources told ESPNFC.com earlier in the week that MLS was balking over a transfer fee that is at minimum $1.2 million. But with Garber receiving plenty of boos from the Union fans in attendance, all parties sought to defuse the situation.

On Wednesday night, a source close to Edu would say only that the talks were "at a delicate stage." Union general manager Nick Sackiewicz told ESPNFC.com via email that "these negotiations are always very fluid and can turn on a dime. I know everyone is anxious and excited, but should take a deep breath and step back while we work through all the options."

As for Garber, he insisted the back-and-forth was nothing out of the ordinary.

"The league office is going to review and is going to be very engaged in what players get paid and what the contract length is, etc., etc.," he said. "In this particular case, we're going to continue to negotiate a deal that makes sense. If it makes sense for Maurice, he will come back. If it doesn't make sense for Maurice, then he won't."

That said, if the latter scenario is the one that plays out, you can bet that Garber's next visit to Philadelphia will be even chillier than the one he experienced Thursday.

If he looks like a coach...

As the Colorado Rapids are still without a manager, it was left to assistant technical director Pablo Mastroeni to discuss the club's draft picks with the media.

Mastroeni certainly looked the part of a head coach -- and with team president Tim Hinchey telling ESPNFC.com earlier this week that personally speaking, he'd like to see Mastroeni step into the role, it appears as though the former Rapids midfielder has the inside track.

"I'm going to meet with the club when I get back, and go into a bit more detail about what my role will be with the team moving forward," Mastroeni told reporters. "But all I know right now is just learning the ropes on this side of the fence."

"Being on the field for all those years it's definitely a different perspective, and one I feel I've acclimated quickly to with the group I have at the [team's] table. I'm excited about the future."

One steal or two?

Prior to Thursday's festivities, Portland Timbers manager Caleb Porter compiled his list of top prospects, and checking in at No. 4 was Maryland forward Schillo Tshuma. So imagine his surprise when the Generation adidas prospect was still on the board when it was time for Portland to make its selection at No. 17.

"It's rare to get a player of that caliber with the 17th pick," he said. "We're really excited about his future and he'll fit in with the way we play and fit into our locker room."

But Porter's delight didn't end with Tshuma's acquisition. He added that he was also surprised to find speedy Washington defender Taylor Peay available at No. 26. "We feel like we got two steals," he said.

Toronto sees both sides of combine effect

A solid performance by a player at the MLS player combine can elicit some conflicting emotions for a team's technical staff. On the one hand, strong play can confirm a team's assessment of a player it's interested in drafting. On the other, it can create almost too much interest, making it more difficult to acquire a preferred target.

So it proved for Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko, who saw Xavier defender Nick Hagglund perform so well down in Fort Lauderdale that it forced TFC to trade up five spots to land him.

"I don't think [Hagglund] lost a ball at the combine, and we had seen him at our other combine we hosted in Seattle back in December," Bezbatchenko said.

"So he's been on our target list, and when we looked at the other teams ahead of us, we knew there was a good chance they were going to pick him based on some knowledge that we had. You want to come here and capture the players that you want. You don't want to be left in a position where you're getting your second choice."

The selection of Elon midfielder Daniel Lovitz came about in a completely different fashion. Toronto knew all about Lovitz's ability to deliver service from out wide, but the player didn't participate in the combine due to an injury, allowing him to fly a bit more under the radar.

"It's a balancing act," Bezbatchenko said. "You want them to do well at the combine, but not too well."

Permalink

bs ccw mb

By: timbersfan, 12:36 AM GMT on January 18, 2014


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That Championship Mailbag
Bill Simmons empties his inbox as the NFL gets ready to crown the conference winners

BY BILL SIMMONS ON JANUARY 17, 2014
Can you think of an NFL Championship Sunday more worthy of a mega-mailbag? Me neither. Screw the foreplay, let’s get right to it. As always, these are actual emails from actual readers.

Q: You know what this weekend is right? It’s the G.O.A.T. Bowl between Brady and Manning. If Brady beats Manning and plays spoiler to Evil Manning’s sensational season, can the Brady v. Manning debate finally be over? Manning can’t be the best ever if he is 1-3 against Brady in AFC championship games and 4-11 overall. It’s the final nail in the coffin of Manning’s playoff legacy. Isn’t beating Brady crucial for his career credentials?
—Peter, Saratoga Springs

SG: Well, we know Manning already pulled a Wilt and clinched the “greatest regular-season QB ever” title. We know he shed any and all legacy baggage after the Colts rallied from 18 to beat the 2006 Pats, and that — short of totally self-destructing on Sunday, throwing six picks, having a nervous breakdown and being carted off the field while deliriously screaming “Omaha!” over and over again — nothing could change what you would write about Manning 30 years from now. After that 2006 comeback, I wrote that he only needed a Super Bowl victory “to enter the John Elway Zone — loosely translated to mean, ‘All right, here’s my ring, now you guys can all shut the hell up and leave me alone.’” And that’s how it played out. You win the ring, everyone shuts their trap. Meanwhile, Brady could lose on Sunday, retire to become a full-time Uggs spokesman and own this legacy: three rings, five Super Bowls, eight AFC title games in 12 years, one of the most memorable QB seasons ever (2007). And that’s not changing, either.

OK, so let’s say one of them shines and wins the next two games. Could you really say that earns him GOAT status? Manning’s career has been marred by a steady slew of playoff collapses; Brady hasn’t won the title for nearly a decade. That has to mean something, right?  I don’t see us ever solving the Quarterback GOAT question — it’s not like basketball, where the best player in the Finals almost always wins. Football has too many variables: defense, coaching, special teams, home-field advantage, weather, lucky bounces, unexpected fumbles … too much happens that a quarterback can’t control. Brady came within two plays of winning five Super Bowls and one first down in Indy of battling the immortal Rex Grossman in a sixth … but any fan of the 2001 Raiders, 2001 Rams, 2003 Panthers and 2011 Ravens would stomp their feet in disbelief if you played the “If only Brady had better luck!” card. Shit happens in football — for you and against you.

So my vote for QB GOAT goes to nobody, regardless of what happens these next two rounds. It’s more like, “Did that dude crack the conversation or not?” And you can’t have the “Best QB” conversation without these five guys being involved: Brady, Manning, Montana, Elway and Unitas. (Every other candidate comes with a “But … ,” whether it’s Marino, Favre, Young, Bradshaw, Luckman, Graham, Baugh or whomever.) Year after year, those five guys gave you the best chance to contend — of anyone — as long as you surrounded them with a half-decent team. I don’t think someone like Aaron Rodgers cares about being remembered as the GOAT; he just wants to win some titles, make some money, stay healthy and turn that list from five to six.

One other thing to remember: I’m 99 percent sure that Manning and Brady don’t care about this head-to-head stuff (and wrote as much in 2011). There’s a weird kinship between quarterbacks; they’re almost like famous brain surgeons or something. Only THEY know how hard that job is. They get along off the field, work out together, support each other and pick each other’s brains. When Manning and Brady suffered major injuries, each called the other to lend their support. And they both assumed that I just keep plowing along, I just care about the next game mentality years and years ago. There’s no other way.

When I called Brady about his “rivalry” with Manning in 2011, I gotta admit, it was mildly disappointing to find out that he didn’t care. Only one thing mattered to him: that playing Manning was always a challenge, something you couldn’t take lightly. That’s it. We want these guys to care about legacies and rivalries and all of that 24/7 talking head/sports fan/message board bullshit, but at least in football, you can’t think that way. They’re concentrating on staying healthy, outsmarting opponents, remembering playbooks, competing, working out, brainstorming … there’s just too much to do. That’s the reality.

The best thing about Sunday’s AFC title game? That we’re running this thing back. Bird and Magic clashed in three out of four NBA Finals, at the peak of their powers … and then it never happened again. Brady and Manning battled in three AFC playoff games in four years, right as they were hitting their primes … and then it never happened again. So this is cool. Everyone wins, I say.

Q: We need to be prepared for the very real possibility that the two teams playing in the Super Bowl will be representing the only two states that legalized marijuana. I think before we go any further, don’t we need to come up with a name ASAP? The best I could do is the Smoke-A-Bowl. I know you and your readers can do better.
—Scott M, Chicago, IL

SG: I narrowed it down to five choices that would definitely be sponsored by Taco Bell, Sour Patch Kids and Cheetos: The Weed Bowl, the 420 Bowl, the Pot Bowl, the Smoke-A-Bowl, or the Doobie Bowl. (Thinking.) Wait a second, why am I narrowing this down? What could possibly be better than the Doobie Bowl?! Could somebody make sure Michael McDonald and Patrick Simmons are on call minute by minute just in case?



Wait, I don’t think you’re excited enough about this yet! Lemme tell you something … only one thing could soften the blow for me if the Pats didn’t make it to the Meadowlands: listening to the reunited, freezing-cold and stoned-out-of-their-mind Doobie Brothers performing at the Doobie Bowl in 8-degree weather. Who needs Bruno Mars????



Q: So, let me see if I’ve got this right. Someone sacks Colin Kaepernick, gets up and kisses his bicep in mocking celebration, and it’s fine. NaVorro Bowman sacks Cam Newton, breaks out Cam’s trademark Superman celebration, and we talk about him as a class act and defensive player of the year candidate. Kaepernick runs into the end zone, does the aforementioned Superman celebration, and we have a full blown “Kaepernick is too immature and a total d-bag” controversy. FOR MOCKING A GUY WHO CALLS HIMSELF SUPERMAN.
—Jesse McGrath, San Francisco

SG: Yup … you nailed it. And you almost turned into Talking Head Guy! That reminds me …

Q: I’m a bit worried Talking Head Guy is going to explode with how excited he gets when he realizes how little love has been lost between the 49ers and Seahawks. In fact — it’s none. It’s zero love lost between these two teams Bill. (if I take a shot every time that phrase is uttered this week I’ll be full of bullet holes or really drunk — depending on what types of shots it motivates me to take).
—Adam Roberts, Chicago

SG: “Guys, I wanna tell you something right now — there is no love lost between the 49ers and Seahawks. THESE TWO TEAMS DO NOT LIKE EACH OTHER! And I wanna tell you something else, guys — I like it! You don’t see this stuff enough in the National Football League! Gimme a break with all the buddy-buddy crap, fellas — it’s football! When I played, either you were my teammate, or you were IN MY WAY. That’s what we have with this game — THERE IS NO LOVE LOST HERE, FELLAS. You will NOT see these two teams grabbing dessert after the game!”

Q: I’ve been amused by your “Aaron Hernandez coming in last place for Sportsman of the Year joke” and got to wondering what that list would actually look like. Here’s what I came up with before getting bored: 2013: Aaron Hernandez; 2012: Lance Armstrong; 2011: Jerry Sandusky; 2010: Ben Roethlisberger; 2009: Tiger Woods; 2008: Marvin Harrison; 2007: Michael Vick; 2006: Albert Haynesworth; 2005: ???; 2004: Ron “Melee” Artest. Also, nothing will ever top 1994 (OJ beating out Tanya Harding), but don’t sleep on 2007 when Vick’s runners-up included Tim Donaghy, Todd Bertuzzi, Pacman “Strip Clubs” Jones and Barry Bonds for breaking (Hank Aaron’s record). Finally, Ben Roethlisberger seems a little weak in 2010.  Is it possible Tiger Woods won back to back awards?  We found out about like 300 additional floozies that year!
—Jason, Harrison, NJ

SG: First — incredible email. Second — I’m all for Tiger winning back-to-back. That was a two-year scandal and should be treated appropriately. Third — congratulations to Kellen Winslow for being our 2014 rabbit. Fourth — I need more time to marinate on this concept and/or travel down a 20-hour Google rabbit hole. There’s no reason we can’t rip through history and come up with the last 40 Anti–Sportsman of the Year winners.

Q: If I had told you our best players in the most important win of the Pats season would be LeGarrette Blount and Jamie Collins, would you have actually believed it? And now we get Brady and Manning again??? This is easily the most extraordinary NFL season since Saving Private Ryan.
—Trent Chabot

SG: Even more amazing: All four Round 2 favorites advanced for the first time since January 2005, and only a few days after I warned everyone, Whatever you do, don’t throw the favorites in a three-team tease BECAUSE YOU WILL GET BURNED. I’d like to meet the one guy who went against every piece of gambling advice I dispensed these past four months. Wait, check that — I’d like to fly to Kahua or St. Barts and check out that guy’s new beach house. Could I stay there twice a year? That seems fair.

Q: If the Patriots make the Super Bowl, wouldn’t you say Bill Belichick has done the most extraordinary coaching job since Saving Private Ryan?
—Jake, Boston

SG: I’d rank it third behind 2001 (prevailing as double-digit underdogs in back-to-back playoff games to win the Super Bowl with a first-year starting QB, plus sticking with the ballsy Brady-over-Bledsoe decision) and 2006 (coming within one first down of playing Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl with a banged-up defense and Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Jabar Gaffney, Reche Caldwell, Ben Watson and a just-about-washed-up Troy Brown as the skill position guys). But it’s been a great exclamation point season for him and any Belichick defender has to brag about the following things:

• Three titles, five Super Bowls, eight AFC title games, 11 straight 10-win seasons.

• Only coach to go 16-0, 17-0 and 18-0.

• Gave us Spygate, the best coach-related NFL scandal (at least until Bountygate happened).

• Only coach to finish at least 100 games over .500 (163-61), over 10 playoff games over .500 (18-7) and over .700 as a winning percentage (.728 and .720) with the same team.

• Most successful NFL coach ever who dressed for games like a hobo.

• One of nine guys in the 200-Win Club (at least 200 regular-season and playoff wins combined).

• Career record for most boring press conferences, as well as the career record for most jokes about how boring the press conferences were.

• Most polarizing NFL coach ever, and the guy most likely to provoke the response, “Wait, you like him? (Incredulous pause.) I HATE THAT GUY.”

• Extracted the best possible football out of everyone ranging from talented head cases (LeGarrette Blount, Corey Dillon, Randy Moss) to low-talent overachievers (Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi) to lovable goofballs (Rob Gronkowski) to future alleged double murderers (Aaron Hernandez).

• If we narrowed the list of “most successful football coaches ever” by two variables — had to coach at least 10 years, and had to win at least two titles — then the final list would feature Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells, Curly Lambeau, Don Shula, Paul Brown, Joe Gibbs, George Halas, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Belichick and Rob Chudzinski in some order. Of those 12 coaches, only the pre-1960 guys (Halas and Lambeau) won titles at least 13 years apart. Of the “modern” guys, only Gibbs won titles 10 years apart (1982 and 1991), and only Parcells (1986, 1998) and Landry (1966, 1982) played in conference championship games at least 13 years apart.

Of course, if Belichick somehow wins two more games? With THIS team? Then it’s probably his greatest coaching job. And not just because of the ongoing Hernandez distraction, all the injuries, or the sheer ridiculousness of re-inventing an offense built around two do-everything tight ends and a defense built around an all-world run-stopper into two totally different entities. Doing it after all these years — in his early sixties, carrying all those coaching miles already, when he’s the longest-tenured NFL coach by six solid years, with the history of what’s happened to the other great football coaches at that same point — that’s what would push it to another level. But again, he’d have to win two more. Either way, I look forward to him finishing fifth or lower in the Coach of the Year balloting.

Q: Simmons — can you rank the four possible Super Bowl matchups from “I’D DEFINITELY WATCH THIS” TO “THIS WILL BE THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY SUPER BOWL SINCE SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”?
—DT, Hamden, CT

SG: Absolutely! I’ll even include the actual Vegas odds …

4. Seattle vs. New England (+350)
Pete Carroll’s Revenge! The Brady-to-Wilson Heady QB Who Just Wins Football Games torch pass! Spygate vs. Adderall! Richard Sherman’s “U MAD BRO?” clip getting played 2 million times! The Pats going for history (their fourth) vs. the Seahawks going for history (their first, as well as Seattle’s first title in 35 years since the R-I-FUCKING-P SuperSonics That Eventually Got Hijacked And Relocated To Oklahoma City). That’s a fantastic Super Bowl. And it couldn’t crack the top three.

3. Denver vs. San Francisco (+275)
Manning tries to complete his storybook season (and finish off a pretty unassailable football résumé), while Jim Harbaugh’s Niners try to become the best team of this decade (at least so far). Really good football game — it would be fascinating to see if the Niners could pull a 2003 Pats and just throw Manning around like a rag doll. My fear would be that, for two weeks, we’d only be hearing about (a) Peyton Manning!, (b) how both teams have a healthy respect for one another, and (c) PEYTON MANNING IN COLD WEATHER?!?!?!?? Then again, what’s more compelling right now than Peyton Manning playing a big football game in freezing-cold weather?

2. San Francisco vs. New England (+625)
Belichick trying to pass Walsh’s Super Bowl total; Brady trying to catch his idol Montana (and beat his favorite boyhood team); the 1981-95 Niners/2001-13 Pats parallels; Belichick going against The Next Belichick; Old-School QB Brady vs. New-School QB Kaepernick; East Coast vs. West Coast; Beacon Hill vs. Pacific Heights; some really fun football-related subplots (the best one: San Francisco’s brutally physical defense going against a New England team that keeps falling short in the playoffs against brutally physical defenses). Love the history with this one. It FEELS slightly bigger than Seahawks-Pats.1

1. Denver vs. Seattle (+125)
Either Seattle gets over the hump (with titles) or Manning becomes immortal. (Also at stake, as reader Pepper in Missoula points out: Pete Carroll and John Fox battling for the “Gnarliest Gum Chewer In Sports” title.) But wait — you know how everyone treats Manning with respect these days and says nice things about him? I don’t think this Seahawks team would do that. I think they’d spend two weeks insinuating that he’s an old man, repeatedly bringing up the cold weather and vowing to pound the crap out of him; they’d happily throw on the black hat and allow Manning (and Denver) to wear the white hat. Throw in Wilson, Sherman, Beast Mode, the Wes Welker/concussion subplot, and Von Miller’s incredible comeback from a torn ACL in one month, and this has a real chance to become our most extraordinary Super Bowl since Saving Private Ryan. I shall name you … THE DOOBIE BOWL!



Q: Is it time to just update “God hates Cleveland” to “God hates Ohio?”
—Loftur Kristjansson, Reykjavik, Iceland

SG: We’re a year away. On the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Reds winning the World Series, I’m ready to make the move. In the meantime …

Q: As I sit here and listen to CBS gush over the Patriots in the last two minutes of the game, I can’t help but wonder if Patriot fans are bored with divisional round games. Being a Cleveland fan I can’t imagine this idea. But at some point, Patriot fans must realize there’s a 90% chance they’re going to win? Does it get boring or less exciting? I’d like to know, because I know I will never experience anything like it.
—Jim — Disgruntled Cleveland Fan

SG: OK, so maybe we’re another 10 years away …

Q: Gun to your head, is Johnny Football going to be great, average, or a bust if he goes #1 overall? I have a very strong ‘bust’ vibe, but I don’t know anything. Of course I’d argue that nobody really knows anything.
—Ian, New York

SG: I believe Johnny Football’s NFL destiny depends on where he gets selected. Not the team, but the actual draft spot. Our worst-case scenario: He goes first to Houston, immediately becomes the savior/local hero/Texas Football Jesus, gets a steady stream of smoke blown up his butt, and invariably feels like he’s become a roaring success before ever playing a down. We need Johnny Football to succeed. We need fun NFL players. Turning him into an everything-came-too-fast-too-soon possible cautionary tale — like the Shia LaBeouf of football or something — isn’t helping anybody.2 And having that unfold in Texas is even more frightening. Within five years, he’s out of the league and doing interviews for a 2020 30 for 30 called Dazed and Confused: The Legend of Johnny Football, directed by Matthew McConaughey.

Your best-case scenario: Starting at the combine in April, the experts start picking apart Johnny Football for being too short/too immature/too big of an injury risk. The league cools off on him. Just a little. But there’s no way he’s getting past the Vikings on draft night, right? Well, Houston (no. 1), Cleveland (no. 4) and Minnesota (no. 8) all pass on him for other QBs, an especially stinging sequence because one of those other QBs had the how-can-anyone-ever-become-a-famous-QB-with-this name of “Blake Bortles.” So Johnny unexpectedly falls out of the top 10, launching a Rodgers-like tailspin because nobody from no. 11 through no. 19 needs a QB. Arizona grabs him at no. 20, followed by a chastened Johnny Football dedicating himself to haunting every team that passed on him — à la Brady, Rodgers, Brees and Wilson before him. Oh, and Larry Fitzgerald is prominently involved! Manziel shifts into Eff You Mode and unleashes a big rookie season, followed by a slew of “How did all of these teams stupidly pass on Johnny Football?” stories and Johnny admitting that it motivated him and made him a better football player.

We’ve seen this movie before, we’ll see it again. I am rooting for Arizona at no. 20. It’s our best chance for 15 years of Johnny Football.

Q: During pregame of Broncos/Chargers announcers pointed out Welker’s special helmet and according to the brief comments made on tv it is supposed to be safer and reduce his risk of being reconcussed … uhh if that’s the case why doesn’t the NFL make everyone wear these helmets before they get concussed?
—Ryan, Virginia Beach

SG: This is the new version of the “Why don’t they just make the entire airplane out of the black box?” email.

Q: I just saw the twitter pic of Kim Kardashian and Blac Chyna showing their butts and stretching their yoga pants to within a few fibers of exploding. Seriously, Bill, has there EVER been a better example of how money cannot buy class?
—J Taylor, Los Angeles

SG: I showed that picture to my wife just to get her unedited reaction. Here it was …

“What’s that? (Looking.) What IS that? What’s the deal? That’s disgusting. (Short pause.) I HATE HER.”

Q: The NFL’s version of Jose Canseco. That sentence should scare Roger Goodell to death. The discussion of concussions and life impacting injuries in the NFL is growing louder and will continue to do so as players continually become bigger, stronger, and faster. The NFL will love it as long as their game stays on top and rakes in money. More games? A team in London? Football on every Thursday? Whatever it takes. A former player so desperate for the limelight (and money) is going to burst this bubble. My bet for who that player is and when it will happen? Chad Johnson within the next five years. Who would you predict?
—Josh Hanson, Eau Claire

SG: If we’re using the Canseco model, it needs to be a troubled attention hog who can’t be taken seriously and has no problem making outlandish accusations, only he’s so troubled that nobody takes him seriously right away. It also needs to be someone shameless enough NOT to be afraid to break “The Code.” It has to be a big enough name. And it has to be someone who probably needs money, and may have even been imbalanced enough to (a) change his name to honor his uniform number, (b) change it back, and (c) propose to Evelyn the Gold Digger from Basketball Wives. So Chad Johnson checks every box here. Great pick. My runner-up choices: Tiki Barber, Terrell Owens, Aaron Hernandez.

(Speaking of Evelyn: She was engaged to Antoine Walker and Chad Johnson, now she’s engaged to Carl Crawford. She’s America’s first-ever three-sport professional fiancée!)

Q: How did you miss this great quote from Andy Reid following the loss to Indianapolis? “They had their hearts ripped out. I can work with that.” Is that the new “We can build on this”? I think so. Andy Reid, Manager of Clocks and Doctor of Ripped-Out Hearts.
—Eric, Indianapolis

SG: You missed the closer: “They should hurt. That’ll make us better.” Yeah, because things got so much better for the 1987 Browns, 1992 Oilers and 1998 Vikings. The good news: Andy’s quote just laid the groundwork for a new TNT football drama called The Heart Repairerer.

Q: Do you realize Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles on May 22nd 2013, and played a major role in an NFL playoff game on Jan 12 2014? That’s less than eight months! This yet again confirms my theory that the NFL runs sports, and produced the A-Rod suspension announcement and 60 Minutes piece strategically so people wouldn’t bring up Crabtree’s miraculous recovery.
—Matt Brady, Louisville

SG: This should be a daily ESPN2 afternoon show: Conspiracy Talk! Look, I wrote approximately 20,000 words about it last February: I don’t trust the words “miraculous recovery” with professional sports. Not after everything we witnessed these last 20 years. In 2012, Terrell Suggs returned within FIVE MONTHS of tearing his Achilles, chopping the expected recovery time in more than half. Did you think that was miraculous? Ridiculous? Hilarious? Specious? Pick a word that ends with “ous” — it probably fits.

It’s just funny that the NFL makes such a big deal about head-hunting and concussion safety, yet their players continue to bend all reasonable expectations of recovery time from major injuries as bystanders use words like “amazing” and “baffling.” You know what was amazing? Jim Abbott pitching with one fucking hand. That was amazing. Someone chopping the time of a torn Achilles recovery in half — that’s not amazing. That’s something else.

But let’s keep sticking our heads in the sand with the current guys, then spending our outrage on retired baseball players trying to get into Cooperstown — while moaning How could we not have known? and all the other baloney from last week. You know, because God forbid some enterprising creatine guzzler affected the most broken institution in sports. Instead of caring about whether Mike Piazza’s back pimples should prevent him from getting a bronze plaque, shouldn’t we care about our current athletes (a) bending all realistic expectations of how a human body recovers from a traumatic injury, and (b) how they happen to be doing said bending?; and (c) in the case of football, bulking up to impossible sizes/speeds to cause even more of these injuries (that lead to more miraculous comebacks). Just so we know for sure that it’s happening on the level? Why don’t we care more? Why doesn’t every sport use biological passports? Why don’t they test more? Why do the Olympics seem to care more than every professional league combined?

True story: When Lindsey Vonn wrecked her knee in a ski accident last February, just a few days after I wrote that PEDs column, a sports industry friend emailed me (I’m paraphrasing), Here you go … you wanted to see how a normal athlete could recover from a severe injury while being monitored under strict Olympic drug-testing rules. You got your wish. Vonn returned to the slopes in September even though her recovering knee never felt right. She thought it felt unstable. A little wobbly, even. She kept pushing it … and in November, she crashed and tore her ACL. So long, Olympics. My friend emailed me shortly after: “Lindsey had the best resources in the world and couldn’t come back within a year. Turns our your theory was spot-on. At least in this case.” I don’t know if that’s right or wrong — we’re talking about a one-person sample size. But had that February knee injury happened to any player on any of this weekend’s football teams, would they be “recovered” and playing this weekend? You tell me.

Q: To add more suspense to Sunday night’s game, what would make for a better halftime than the NFL announcing the results of every player’s drug test in the game? Couldn’t you see multiple Seahawks suspended for the second half, only to have their lawyers convince the NFL to overturn the rulings midway through the 4th quarter, allowing the players to return to the game. Even though your dream of seeing players pee in a cup won’t come true, this is the next best thing.
—Eddie Rein, Columbus

SG: Or, you could go this way — during every NFL playoff game, both teams nominate one player from the other team to pee in a cup. That way, they could discuss it in the pregame show — “Terry, which Niner would you pick to pee in the cup if you were Pete Carroll?” — then the halftime show would pretty much revolve around the two drug tests. Tonight’s Urine Test Challenge is brought to you by State Farm … let’s go to Erin Andrews with our results!

Q: I’m really looking forward to a Simmons article on the AFC championship game. I hope it contains the following: 1. How awesome Tom Brady is while not mentioning that his superbowl wins have all come while stealing the opposing team’s defensive calls. 2. that Manning who holds most signifigant passing records and has done it without stealing the opposing defenses signals can be caught with strange expressions on his face sometimes. 3. Completely ignoring the fact that the Patriots are Duke in the ’90′s and Brady is widely detested, just like Christian Laettner. 4. focusing on the “manning face” while ignoring Tom Brady’s long hair phase, and his teammate’s leaving him hanging for fives on the sidelines. It should be a great instance of twisitng reality to fit your fantasies ever! Can’t wait!
—Mat, OKC

SG: How am I doing so far? I’m right on pace, right?

Q: You’re a horrible homer but honesty answer this question: How many Super Bowls does each win if they have to play for each other’s teams? If Manning is the starting quarterback of THAT Patriots team from 2001 until present with Belichick as his coach, how many does he win? Four? Five? At least three and you know. And Brady, on those Colts teams, playing for Jim Caldwell at some point? You need to take a good hard look in the mirror if you think he wins one.
—Thomas, L.A.

SG: Is it just me, or is this mailbag starting to get a little chilly?

Q: You on the cold: “Take it from a lifetime New Englander who spent the last 12 years in Southern California … ” Why didn’t you just say, “Take it from a SoCal sellout pussy”?
—Jack, Cleveland

SG: OK, I’m gonna put on a jacket.

Q: Doesn’t it drive you crazy that everyone thinks Manning only won fewer titles than Brady because of the difference in quality of their defenses? I looked up the data: if you compare Manning’s defenses to Brady’s defenses since 2001 (the year Brady took over), they are almost EXACTLY the same. The average DVOA league rank for the Pats defense over that time frame is 15.769. The average DVOA for the Colts/Broncos (starting when Peyton went there) is 15.923. So people can take the “Manning’s better, he’s just had a worse defense” argument, put it in their pipes and smoke it.
—Josh, Chicago

SG: YEAH! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

(Uh-oh, I feel a run of homer emails coming up … I’m starting to get fired up for this game.)

Q: Koji Uehara has morphed into LeGarrette Blount. Think about it.
—Chet, Atlanta

SG: Well, nobody has seen Koji since the World Series parade (one day after Halloween); all we know is that he celebrated pretty heartily, and that there’s a decent chance he passed out that night, then woke up in someone’s basement in the Bronx two days later dressed like the Gimp. But if Koji DID morph into LeGarrette Blount, these stats would certainly help the cause:

Blount pre-parade: 8 games, 265 rushing yards, 1 TD
Blount post-parade: 9 games, 673 yards, 10 TDs

Q: 2004: Red Sox win the World Series; Pats earn the 2nd seed; beat the Colts at home in the divisional round; travel to the #1 seed and beat them on the road to a Super Bowl title.

2013: Red Sox win the World Series; Pats earn the 2nd seed; beat the Colts at home in the divisional round; travel to the #1 seed and … ???
—Evan, Washington, DC

SG: Keep ’em coming! The more analogies to this year’s Pats with successful Red Sox teams and players, the better I feel about Sunday. Let’s do this!

Q: Interesting new look for Grantland, and you even got your own tab! But instead of “Simmons” shouldn’t it just say “Homer”?
—S.K. O’Hare, Sorta Houston, sorta Chapel Hill

SG: I probably deserved that.

Q: I’m a die-hard 49er fan and my office mate likes to give me a hard time about my 49ers … especially Jim Harbaugh. He mentioned the Seahawks should have someone raise the 12th man flag that would really piss off the 49ers. This lead to a half-hour discussion on who would piss off the 49ers/Jim Harbaugh more to raise the 12th man flag. This is the list we came up with:

1. John Harbaugh
2. The police officer who arrested Aldon Smith
3. Colin Kaepernick’s real mother who he doesn’t talk to
4. Jim Harbaugh’s ex-wife
5. Jerry Rice

As a 49er fan I wouldn’t put it past Seattle to actually pull this off.
—Shaun McDonald, Fredericksburg, VA

SG: I vote for Kyle Williams sauntering out flanked by Harbaugh’s ex-wife and Joe Montana’s ex-wife on each arm, and being trailed by everyone who worked in the MV massage parlor on February 26, 1998 (the night police were shutting it down for being a suspected brothel and found Jerry Rice coming out of the bathroom).

Q: I opened up your latest write-up on the NFL playoffs to see what you had to say. As a Lions fan I started to read the Chiefs fan tale of woe and in my head was saying, “OH BOOOO-HOOOO” until I got to a certain line: ‘(Of the 32 NFL fan bases, only Vikings fans, Bills fans and Browns fans could fully identify with that email.)’

I was about to throw my laptop across the room until a wave of confusion hit me. Are the Lions seriously SO bad that Bill friggin Simmons forgot to even mention us? OR … Are the Lions so bad they have not had enough playoff heart-break to “identify” with the Chiefs fan? I will take it as a slight against the Lions. Sorry Vikings, Bills, and Chiefs fans. You guys suck too, but when it comes to Gary Busey bottom-of-the-barrel bad … Cleveland is the only team that can compete with Detroit. Silver linings though … the Lions are the BEST at sucking.
—Parker, Royal Oak

SG: You should absolutely take it as a slight. I apologize. My honest explanation: I forgot to include the Lions, realized it after the column went up, then made the in-the-moment decision, “Well, it doesn’t matter, they haven’t had enough playoff heartbreak to identify with what happened to the Chiefs, anyway.” So you actually should have thrown your laptop across the room twice. There’s only one way things could get worse for Lions fans after the Jim Caldwell hiring: if the Lions hired Joe Dumars as their new GM. That reminds me …

Q: The Lions just went outside the box and hired a guy who makes you wonder whether he’s dead on the sidelines, who commanded an offense that finished 29th in total yards and 25th in scoring in his first full season as coordinator — an offense mostly identical in personnel to last year’s Super Bowl winning unit (which someone else called the plays for for 90 percent of the season).

Could the Browns, Redskins, Bills, and Vikings fans kindly step aside? 0-16, zero Super Bowls, and our last playoff win happened in 1992. We write the book on ineptitude in Detroit.
—Noah, Washington, DC

SG: (Shaking my head sadly.)

Q: Jim Caldwell’s coaching resume.

2013 Ravens Offense: 29th in yards, 25th in scoring.

Record as college head coach: 26-63.

NFL Head Coaching Record without Peyton Manning: 2-14.

Pulse: questionable.

Ladies and Gentlemen, your 2014 Detroit Lions!!!
—Noah Kaufman, Kalamazoo, Michigan

SG: I mean … you could always gamble against Jim Caldwell, right?

Q: Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse for the Lions.

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Detroit Lions!
—Michael S., San Francisco

SG: OK, I have some silver linings for you. First, we only introduced the concept of the Jim Caldwell All-Stars in this column four weeks ago — to cover all the head coaches with a historically lifeless sideline demeanor — then we lost Leslie Frazier just two weeks later, leaving us without a single All-Star. What happens? Jim Caldwell himself returns! I feel blessed.  Second, I watched Caldwell’s introductory press conference and thought he seemed borderline vivacious. Maybe he’s one of those guys who seems unemotional/flat-lining/decomposing on the sidelines, only he’s not actually like that behind the scenes? Third, he can’t be worse than Rod Marinelli or more unlikable than Jim Schwartz. So that’s an upgrade. And fourth, 80 percent of the NFL’s coaches range from “mediocre” to “awful” — year after year after year — only we’ve had fewer than 20 African American NFL head coaches. Which is embarrassing. So even if we’re importing a more diverse group of mediocre-to-awful coaches, that’s a start, right? In the words of Herm Edwards, WE CAN BUILD ON THIS!

Q: I read every word you every write — including your NFL picks. I just couldn’t help but laugh when I got to the end of your Division Playoffs column this week right after you picked the Broncos to win by 20 — and saw your season record for this year. OMG, what a great country!  You totally sucked all season at picking games and yet I just read about 5,000 words from you on this weekend’s four games and hung on every frickin word.
—Pete Nellius, Philadelphia

SG: That was the “Backhanded Compliment of the Month” for January.

Q: Holy hell. So Manning misses a year, comes back to Broncos, and gets Ray Lewised in the playoffs, morphs in Evil Manning, breaks every record ever probably including the record for most records, and hows it going to end? BY WINNING A SUPER BOWL IN HIS BROTHER’S STADIUM! Finally, we get to the root of why Peyton turned evil. His master plan, retribution against Eli to reclaim and end any doubts of which Manning is better. He may lose the more rings argument to Brady, but Evil Manning be damned if he loses it to Eli Effing Manning!
—Seth Hester, Indianapolis

SG: Here’s the Evil Manning section of the mailbag that you knew was coming. It’s really just a convoluted excuse to run the Evil Manning picture again. Hold on.

Q: Was there any doubt in your mind after Chargers-Broncos that Evil Manning made a deal with the devil? That game was taylor made for him to lose, just like all the years past — orchestrate a wonderful three and out with 3 minutes left, make the Manning face, then watch Rivers march down for a game-tying touchdown, followed by the eventual Chargers win in overtime after Peyton throws a pick. That’s his history. Nobody can deny it.  Honestly, I think the deal went down like this:

Satan: Peyton, what can I do for you?

Peyton: I will do anything for one more Super Bowl victory … last year about killed me.

Satan: Well I could arrange that. Anything else you desire?

Peyton: Well … um … Mr. Devil sir, I would really like to stick it to Tom Brady. Say maybe I take his touchdown record but even better, beat him for the AFC championship.

Satan: What about Brees’s most yards in a season? I can throw that in.

Peyton: Yah, that sounds good. Bastard …. oops I mean jerk beat me in the Super Bowl.

Satan:  All of this will be arranged.

Peyton: Thank you Mr. Devil … (cut to Evil Manning face).

Manning’s entrance for Sunday’s game should feature him busting through the gates of hell wearing a Bernard Karmell Pollard jersey. Be scared Simmons, very scared.
—Mike Ferguson, Indianapolis



SG: My only consolation from an admittedly frightening email: Didn’t Brett Favre have our last clearly-sold-his-soul-to-the-devil quarterback season? And look how that turned out! Regardless, let’s just remember what we’re dealing with here.

Q: Like everyone else, I was hoping that Dierdorf wouldn’t leave us by not going out in a double-negative blaze of glory. He didn’t disappoint. In case you missed this gem from after Ridley’s 2nd TD in the 4th quarter: ‘You can’t be around these Patriots where they don’t say, we are a running football team.’ With Dierdorf (and Greg Schiano) now gone, who will carry the torch of grammatically incorrect soundbites in the NFL?
—Chris, Birch Hills, SK Canada

SG: I vote for Troy Aikman — he needs to add another wrinkle to his arsenal after a solid decade of saying, “You’re exactly right, Joe.” Could we send him to Dierdorf Camp? Maybe a three-day seminar called “I’m Not So Sure You Shouldn’t Take This Class”? Could Aikman eventually learn to tweak his arsenal so it includes staples like, “I’m not sure you’re not exactly right, Joe” and “You’re not not right, Joe”? Where can I purchase “TEAM BURKHARDT AND LYNCH” T-shirts?

Q: Roger Goodell said in an interview he’s in a fantasy league with his daughter. What do you think they named their team? I was thinking “18 Weeks” or “The Road to Hell is Paved With Goodell Intentions”?
—Dan, Endicott, NY

SG: Personally, I think he picked something super-vanilla and non-controversial like “Roger That” or “Roger’s Dodgers.” But that’s no fun. I loved this question so much that I opened it up to everyone who follows me on Facebook. Just when you thought this column couldn’t get lazier — that’s right, I’m answering reader emails with Facebook replies! Could I reach a point where I don’t even write this column myself? I say yes! Anyway, the best non-mean suggestion was “Commiss&her.” Great play on words. Feel free to use that one next season, Rog. You might not want to check your inbox or use these other ones (my favorite suggestions based on a convoluted formula of cleverness, actual usability, genuine venom and line-crossing): Roger & Me; The Father/Daughter Slaughter; Team of Denial; Jacked Up; Ozymandias; The Acceptable Racial Slurs; Tabootleg II; Beauty and the Ass Hat; Concussion Junction; and my personal favorite, “I Settled For $750 Million And All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.”

Q: In baseball, specifically Moneyball, they learned that a walk is as good as a hit. ”He gets on Base!” We have not learned that in football. I am admittedly a Peyton Manning fan, and I get sick of hearing about his miserable playoff record. So I thought — why is not making the playoffs at all almost better for a QBs legacy than losing in Round 2 after going 13-3? Earning a first round bye should be considered just as good as winning a wild-card game — the result is the same. And not making the playoffs should be just considered just as bad as losing a wild-card or any other playoff game. Better to have loved and lost right? Ok, so when you figure missed playoffs and first round byes as losses and wins respectively, you get a TRUE PLAYOFF WIN percentage.3

Quarterback Playoff Record Byes (W’s)/No Playoffs (L’s) True Playoff W-L True Playoff W%
Tom Brady 18-7 7-1 25-8 0.758
Joe Montana 16-7 8-2 24-9 0.727
Joe Flacco 9-4 1-0 10-4 0.714
Troy Aikman 11-4 4-4 15-8 0.652
Ben Roethlisberger 10-4 3-3 13-7 0.650
Steve Young 8-6 5-2 13-8 0.619
Eli Manning 8-3 1-3 9-6 0.600
John Elway 14-7 7-6 21-13 0.618
Jim Kelly 9-8 5-3 14-11 0.560
Aaron Rodgers 5-4 1-1 6-5 0.545
Peyton Manning 10-11 6-2 16-13 0.552
Donovan McNabb 9-7 3-4 12-11 0.522
Brett Favre 13-11 4-7 17-18 0.486
Drew Brees 6-5 2-6 8-11 0.421
Dan Marino 8-10 4-6 12-16 0.429
Phil Simms 6-4 2-5 8-9 0.471
Warren Moon 3-7 1-7 4-14 0.222
It is interesting what happens when you tell the whole story! Why don’t we use this stat?
—Micah Kormylo, Dallas

SG: That’s an early contender for Mailbag Email of the Year. You’re right — why don’t playoff byes ever get factored into playoff record? Even if we just said, “Brady is 18-7 in the playoffs with seven byes,” that information is so much more enlightening than “18-7.” But the concept of “true playoff percentage” is really good. And simple. Good work, Micah. I’m dedicating this next email in your honor.

Q: I will bet every cent I have ever made and will ever make that you can’t make it through this video without laughing your ass off. When you are running “The Ocho” one day, can you bring this show back?



—Pat, Watertown, Wisconsin

SG: The bigger question: How does that clip (as of this posting) only have 329,000 views? That’s impossible! This Justin Bieber video has ONE THOUSAND TIMES as many views as the 1987 Crystal Light Aerobic Championships? What’s wrong with you, America?

Q: I can’t think of anyone more appropriate than you to answer this question.
—Eric, New Orleans

SG: I’m excited!

Q: At what age does a man: 1) Realize he can’t drink like he used to, 2) Realize he can’t eat like he used to, 3) Realize he is more attracted to younger women than older, 4) Realize an athlete he has long hated is an all-time great and begins to respect the hell out of him? I just turned 26, and with Tom Brady on the verge of a sixth Super Bowl I think I have finally reached all four stages. Thanks bud!
—Eric, New Orleans

SG: My answers: 33, 38, 31, 17. I say “17” for the last one because that’s the year (1987) when I began to begrudgingly respect how great Magic Johnson was. And that’s someone who, before the 1987 Finals, I probably would have tried to run over in my car if nobody was looking. Also, you left out the following realization tipping points: (5) the age when you’re peeing in a urinal at a game next to a little kid and get jealous of the velocity of his pee stream (42); (6) the age when you fall asleep before midnight as you’re watching TV even if you’re not drunk or tired (40); (7) the age when farts stop being funny (never). Regardless, I think we might be in range.

Q: Good news: I totally aced your Patriots’ Defensive Starters vs. Porn Star mix up (in Round 2′s column).

Bad news: I am not a Patriots fan.

Worse news: I follow James Deen on Twitter.
—Tim, Rochester, NY

SG: Yup, we’re in range.

Q: With Tiffani Thiessen turning 40 next week, do you think it hurts her chances of being inducted into the Diane Lane All-Stars4 because she came into prominance during the “Plastic Surgery Era”? It’s true her breasts mysteriously became larger between her Saved By the Bell and 90210 years, but she was destined to be a future Diane Lane All-Star with or without it. I mean, anytime you can get a horny teenage kid glued to the tv during scenes with Dustin Diamond you know you have that “it” factor. I gotta figure she’s gonna get the Maddux treatment here, however if 16 people do not vote her in then they shouldn’t have their ballots revoked.
—Eric H, Brooklyn.

SG: Getting closer …

Q: Every afternoon when I roll out of bed, there are two things I need to do: Check out Grantland and poop. I always read Grantland on my phone while pooping, and my leg always ends up falling asleep. A couple of days ago, I’m reading your column, I get up, and I fall down immediately because my leg is fast asleep. I limp into the living room, fall down again, and then my girlfriend says “What the hell is the matter with you?” I tell her “I just read Bill Simmons’ column, and now I can’t walk.” She says “He must be one hell of a writer.”
—Bryan M, Brockport, NY

SG: Yup, these are my readers. Let’s hit the Championship Weekend picks …

(Home teams in caps.)

Niners (+3.5) over SEAHAWKS

We’re making this one quick …

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Niners: Because you bet against Russell Wilson at home. Because the Seahawks were overdue to play an A-list game, and a super-physical, frightening violent game was more in their wheelhouse than anything. Because the Seahawks wiped out Vernon Davis just like they wiped out Jimmy Graham last week. Because if anyone is running the ball against this Niners team, it’s Marshawn Lynch at home. Because the Niners looked better than they were last Sunday thanks to Mike Shula more than anything. Because you took Kaepernick on the road — the same guy who started out super slow in Super Bowl XLVII and Carolina last week, only in Seattle, he couldn’t recover. Because you assumed Kaepernick couldn’t be rattled after winning in Lambeau and Charlotte (and you were wrong). Because night + loud + road + scary defense + young QB = two dumb turnovers and four wasted timeouts. Because home-field advantage matters sometimes … and this was one of those times.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Seahawks: You forgot that the 49ers were the best and most complete team in football right now, and if there was one team that could win a Sunday nighter in Seattle, it’d be them … You forgot they’d already played two other times … and the Niners hadn’t really played their A-game against Seattle yet. You forgot that it’s so much harder for Seattle to throw the ball without Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. You forgot that it would be a hellaciously violent game, and that if there’s ever going to be a bruising playoff game decided by three points or fewer one way or the other, it was this one. You forgot that you were taking Pete Carroll over Jim Harbaugh. You forgot that Seattle’s trash-talking/woofing/intimidation routine straddled the line all year between “boisterous” and “reckless,” and that it was bound to haunt them one of these days. You forgot that you should have just grabbed the points. That’s what you’re supposed to do with games like this. But since we came this far …

The Pick: San Francisco 20, Seattle 19

Patriots (+5.5) over BRONCOS

Key Player: This isn’t a typical Manning-Brady game. Both offenses will have more success running the ball than anything. Stop it. The key player in the 2014 AFC title game plays quarterback. We just don’t know his name yet. (I hope and pray it’s not “Ryan Mallett.”)

X Factor: “Warm and breezy weather is in store for this weekend, according to a Colorado weather forecast.” So much for Manning struggling in cold weather. Meanwhile, it’s going to be 32 degrees with wind and a chance of rain in Boston on Sunday. If the Broncos win the Super Bowl, they should make two extra rings for the officials who called the “illegal shove at the line” in Pats-Jets and never threw a pass interference flag at the end of Pats-Panthers. It would be the right thing to do. Hold on, I have to take two more anti-homer pills.

“Nobody Believes In Us” Edge: It’s been 12 solid years since Belichick and Brady were getting more than five points from Vegas in a playoff game. Then again, the Broncos cracked 600 points this season, they’re home, they’re getting good weather, they’re going against a defense filled with no-names, overachievers and unproven backups, and they’re not even laying two field goals??? That’s a draw.

Possible Tragic Figure: Could Wes Welker wear the goat horns in both Pats-Broncos games? Could he secretly be “The Mole”? Is he going to pull a Hollywood Hogan swerve if Denver loses, rip off his Broncos jersey and start tugging on the Pats jersey underneath it? Throw in the unfunny concussion subplot and there’s no other answer.

Generic Talking Head Point That You’ll Definitely Hear: “I don’t think you can take away anything from their first meeting, guys — these are two very different teams! These are two VERY DIFFERENT TEAMS! Gronkowski and Miller and Chris Harris played in that one! The weather was terrible! The Patriots weren’t running the ball like they are now! These are very different teams. VERY DIFFERENT TEAMS. And guys, when you’re out there, you’re not thinkin’ about what happened eight weeks ago, you’re thinking of right now — that’s the only way to survive in the National Football League!”

Possible Omen That Can’t Be Discounted (But Isn’t Peyton Manning Possibly Selling His Soul To The Devil): Maybe the “Pats at Denver” playoff history isn’t extensive (Denver prevailed both times), but it includes two emotionally scarring moments: Rulon Jones’s game-altering sack/safety of Tony Eason, and the Champ Bailey/Ben Watson fumble/non-touchback play that was replayed Zapruder-style roughly 390 straight times before the refs decided that they didn’t know what the hell happened. For the past 27 years, I heard the words “Pats at Denver” and thought of Eason turtling in the end zone like a traumatized rescue dog. So there’s that.



Relevant WWE Entrance Song: I always thought the New Age Outlaws had the second-greatest WWE entrance ever. (Why second-greatest? Because I actually wrote an entire column about this once and they came in second.) And then … they broke up. And seemed destined to live on only on YouTube. But then something crazy happened recently … the WWE brought them back! As far as improbable reunions go, I think I’d rank it slightly ahead of Manning and Brady meeting in another playoff game. Oh, you didn’t know? Your ass better callllllll some-boddddddyyyyyyy!!!!!



Possible Playoff Manifesto 5.0 Theories In Play: Amazingly, none. Not a single one. Can’t remember that ever happening before. Maybe that’s how this line ended up in “The Vegas Zone.”

Relevant Email: Matt in Providence writes, “Is it just me, or are there shades of the 2001 season all over this Pats playoff race? Everyone counted us out, we had veterans go down and rookies step up, we nabbed a first round bye, yet STILL everyone keeps saying the same thing: ‘They won’t win the next one.’ In 2001, we pulled off the stunner in the Snow Bowl and all anyone could say is, ‘They won’t win on the road in Pittsburgh.’ We beat Pittsburgh as double-digit underdogs, then Vegas set the line at -14 in the Rams’ favor in the Super Bowl. MINUS 14! This weekend we’re getting 5½ in Denver, and we’ll be getting around the same against Seattle or San Francisco if we make the Super Bowl. I’m tellin ya, there’s something magical about this season. I can feel it.”

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Patriots: Because it turns out that the Colts were worse than you thought, and the Chargers were better than you thought. Because you took a patchwork defense against the greatest regular-season offense of all time. Because you thought history didn’t matter. Because the weather was a bigger factor than you thought. Because you didn’t think it mattered that the Pats have no receiver depth in the high altitude after Amendola and Edelman, or that Denver’s rush defense looked pretty terrific against San Diego last week, or that any decent running attack has been able to rip through the post-Wilfork Pats. Because just getting to this game was an incredible achievement by New England. Because it’s been Denver’s year from start to finish.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Broncos: You really thought Brady wasn’t going to be able to move the ball against a Denver defense that just lost Chris Harris and Von Miller? You really weren’t scared of the Manning Face, or the Belichick–John Fox matchup, or the Brady-Belichick playoff record whenever they’re getting more than four points (3-0 before Sunday)? You really thought the last Manning-Brady playoff battle was getting decided by any margin more than four points? Come on.

The Pick: New England 33, Denver 30

Last week: 2-2
Playoffs: 3-3-2
Season: 111-143-10

No offense, 206 — in the words of Jalen Rose mangling the lyrics of Heavy D, “I got nothin’ but love for you baby!” ^
Don’t come after me on Twitter, Shia! Don’t do it! ^
I had Patricia Lee, a.k.a. the Queen of Grantland, tweak Micah’s numbers just a little — we only included seasons with eight starts or more. ^
That’s an All-Star team I made up back in 2006 for women who still look amazing after they turn 40. ^
FILED UNDER: NFL


BILL SIMMONS is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

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Seattle defense

By: timbersfan, 9:54 AM GMT on January 17, 2014


You can hate Richard Sherman, you can hate the 12th Man and the stupid noise meter that shows up on every Seahawks broadcast, you can say they’re all on PEDs, and you can say they get away with more pass interference than anyone in football.

If you’ve rooted against the Seahawks the past two years, chances are you’ve made all these arguments. But nobody can really argue with what’s happened on the field.

And as dominant as the Seahawks have been, we’ve never taken the time to explain exactly how outrageous this defense really is. So I spent Wednesday afternoon getting lost in a YouTube wormhole of Seahawks interviews and highlight videos from this year. To help get you ready for this weekend, and to explain why anyone complaining about this defense is missing the point. There’s nothing from the NFL this year that’s been more awesome than the defense in Seattle.

Let’s explain.


Superstars from Nowhere

In a sports world obsessed with overachieving underdogs like Russell Wilson, it seems like the Seahawks D is weirdly undercelebrated. Look at the biggest names on the roster. Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick who had teams trying to switch him to receiver at the NFL combine. Kam Chancellor went in the fifth round, too, and then turned into the most feared strong safety in the league. Red Bryant was a failed defensive tackle out of the fourth round until Pete Carroll switched him to defensive end and he turned into a monster. Michael Bennett was undrafted out of college before he started ruining quarterbacks’ lives every week.

The whole defense follows this pattern. The secondary lost Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner to injury and suspension midway through the year, and they replaced them with Byron Maxwell (fifth-round pick) and Jeremy Lane (sixth-round pick), both of whom have been fantastic. Even Earl Thomas, one of the only first-round picks on the defense, has dealt with people questioning his size (5-foot-10) since college.

Nobody thinks of these guys as underdogs, obviously. We don’t talk about them the way we talk about Danny Woodhead. It’s hard to call anyone an underdog when they’re bigger and faster and all they do is whup people’s asses. But everything that makes it hard to call them underdogs — the highlights, the trash talk, the dominance — makes it twice as cool that most of these guys were never supposed to be here.

“I look at the write-ups people wrote,” Sherman said at his press conference Wednesday. “They say ‘He’s stiff, he has no ball skills, he has no explosion, he doesn’t have the instincts to play corner.’ Everything negative, I find it. I use it as fuel. To make the chip [on my shoulder] a little bit bigger, so that things like All-Pros, and Pro Bowls, and all these awards don’t mean as much. You’re focused on a chip, you’re staying hungry.”

Awesome is Contagious

Nothing gets a grumpy old sports fan more excited than a team’s whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I have no idea if that’s what’s happened in Seattle over the past few years, but the players clearly think that’s part of it.

“A dominant force,” is how Thomas described the secondary to Fox earlier this year. “A group that feeds off each other, a group that’s connected, a group that communicates well. Number one thing I want everybody to see is how much we enjoy each other out there.”

“I wasn’t really a big hitter,” Sherman adds. “But when you’re in a room with these guys who lay their helmet every time, you can’t be the odd man who don’t hit.”

In the next breath, Chancellor: “My game from college, I’ve always been a guy that just wanna hit you. Hit, hit, hit and that’s it. Now, just watching these guys, the way they go after the ball, the way they play the ball, it makes me wanna go after the ball and get interceptions.”

Especially in the secondary, the best parts of every individual’s game become contagious, and the finished product is a group without any clear weaknesses.



“F–k You” Football

This week a reporter at Seattle’s press conference congratulated Thomas on bullying the Saints receivers into irrelevance last Saturday, and wondered how they’d adjust to bigger, more physical 49ers receivers. “We can bully whoever we want to bully,” he said. “It’s about us. It’s about a mind-set.”

The Seahawks play fuck you football and they play it better than anyone. That’s the mind-set. They talk about bullying people, and then go bully people.

A former player tweeted a story about Chancellor back in September: “[One tight end] ran this crossing route and started to drift, and on the other side of that drift lived a young man. A 6 foot 5 230 pound young man. This young man hates visitors. He has a sign on his yard that says… ‘Trespassers will be Hugged & THUGGED’. This young man hit this Tight End SO HARD, I swear I saw that TE’s soul leave Qwest Field right on that 35 yard line. He hit him so hard the entire stadium went mute. They didn’t want to cheer someone being killed on the field.”

As Rams QB Kellen Clemens said earlier this year, “Kam Chancellor, have mercy, do not be standing on the tracks when that freight train comes down the tunnel.”

Chancellor keeps it diplomatic. “I’m the type that never calls guys scared because you have to have guts to play this game,” he says. “I just say they make smart decisions.”

The whole defense is like this. Even as it’s become harder for me to love football in all its psychotic glory, it’s impossible not to love the Seahawks D, because they do psychotic glory so much better than anyone else. They’re ruthless regardless of the score, they talk trash after pretty much every play, and they back it up. Sherman on Wednesday: “Everybody has a switch that they turn on on game day. You can’t be these intense, super aggressive, super physical guys off the field, or you’d go to jail.”

Smarter Than You Realize

“Our preparation separates us more than anything,” Sherman told Fox this fall. “Giving teams the utmost respect. Watching film from the first time we played, watching the six games before, the third down copies. Doing our due diligence to make sure we’re prepared for any look they give us.”

Whenever Peyton Manning retires, fans will spend the rest of his life celebrating his preparation and obsessive film study. People rarely say this about the Seahawks defense, but it’s all there.


Most of that video is the standard film breakdown segment we see about a lot of great players. But the best part is toward the end, when he’s breaking down a tipped ball. “Earl was close,” he says. “I tried to tip it to Earl, but I overshot him. We talk about this all the time, if you’re close enough, don’t hit me. I’ll tip it right to you.”

Fast-forward to Week 15 against the Giants this year, and there’s Sherman tipping an Eli Manning pass right to Thomas for the pick in the end zone. (Video here.) Two years of dominance is not a coincidence.

“We might be celebrating,” Thomas explained to Fox. “But it’s just our preparation. We suffer hard during the week, and it pays off every time we step on the football field.”

Defense is Offense

“You gotta have a playmaker’s mentality,” Thomas said at his press conference when asked what it takes to be part of this defense. “You gotta have certain confidence about yourself. That’s what we all bring to the table.”

“On any given drive,” Sherman says, “seeing us step on the field on defense is like an offense going out there. We expect to make a play.”

Sherman had the most interceptions in the league despite being targeted less often than any corner in football, and the Seahawks had the no. 1 scoring defense in football. People call them dirty — the Wall Street Journal said last week they rely on “rampant interference” every week — and Seattle apologizes for nothing. “DBs playing physical is the way football should be,” Sherman said when asked about it this week. “A lot of people want to see great offense, well you see great offense all the time. We stand up there and have a dogfight every play.”

“There’s gonna be some pushing off,” he adds. “Some grabbin’ here and there, that’s the game of football. That’s how it is. That’s how it’s always been. Ask the Michael Irvins of the world, the Jerry Rices, who had to deal with those before these [new interference] rules.”

That’s probably what’s most fun about watching this team. Everywhere else in football defenses have been rendered more and more impotent — a combination of rule changes and parity has meant “bend but don’t break” becomes the goal. But the Seahawks want to break you in half.

You get to just sit back and watch them attack. Destroy running backs and helpless quarterbacks, bully receivers, make plays, score touchdowns, scream at Tom Brady, and dance the dance of kings.



My favorite Seahawks story this year is actually from when Sherman was at Stanford. After a Valentine’s Day tradition woke people up early in the morning, whiny college students started email chain complaining about it. By the grace of the Internet God, someone shared the emails with Deadspin a few months ago.

Samples from around the dorm: “Some of us have midterms this morning. If you really wanted people to have a happy Valentine’s Day, why the Fuck would wake us up at 6 in the goddamn morning? What the hell is wrong with you?” … ”The tradition of having men give women flowers is totally heteronormative and it sends a clear message to residents that Valentine’s Day is a day of celebration of heterosexual love. This tradition also enforces gender roles in which the woman is passive and the man is active.”

After a bunch of these emails, Sherman speaks up (sic‘d throughout): “To all You assholes complaining … If you dint like it live in another dorm next year then because tradition is tradition and If your Homosexual don’t celebrate the holidayy if its that big of a deal but im tired of yall complaining about a couple of hours of sleep yall are some assholes. Stop bitching and f**kin adapt I wake up that early everyday and I aint complaining so you guys really need to just shut the f**k up. Everyone else had fun so f**k the people who are complaining.”

It’s glorious. Not even for the message, but for its general middle-finger tone. “Stop bitching and adapt” could be this defense’s message to the whole world. To Jim Harbaugh whining about PEDs, to offensive coordinators complaining about interference, or to anyone who thinks they don’t respect the game.



All the most fun teams throughout history have pissed people off for one reason or another — teams that will infuriate you, but play so well you can’t say a word. That’s this defense.

There’s never any shortage of coverage for the NFL — from scorching hot takes to X’s and O’s nerdery — but sometimes we miss the bigger picture. What’s happening in Seattle doesn’t happen very often. It’s too hard for teams to keep all their best players, parity makes it harder on the best teams, and the game grinds stars down faster than ever. Guys like Richard Sherman get humbled by reality, Earl Thomas gets hurt, that murderous defensive line gets broken up by free agency. All this could end Sunday, or next year, or whenever. It’s all even more reason to appreciate them in the meantime.

They could totally lose to the 49ers this weekend, because San Francisco’s hitting on all cylinders and has a team that’s almost as ridiculous as the Seahawks. And yes, Seattle’s had PEDs scandals over and over again the past few years, they talk trash constantly, they get away with penalties, and everything else anyone complains about is probably true.

Also true: Win or lose, the Seahawks defense is everything anyone could ever want football to be. Hitting and trash talk and freak athletes and film geeks and obnoxious celebrations and teammates who make each other better.

Now it’s time for the NFC title game, so this is just a reminder: Don’t be the one bitching about trash talk or PEDs or pass interference. The Seahawks are easy to hate sometimes, but you’ll have so much more fun loving them.

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Carroll

By: timbersfan, 9:49 AM GMT on January 17, 2014

Who’s Laughing Now?
Pete Carroll used to be a joke; now he's on the brink of a Super Bowl berth thanks to his defensive mastery

BY CHRIS B. BROWN ON JANUARY 16, 2014
Twenty years ago, Pete Carroll’s name was a punch line. Following the 1994 season, the New York Jets fired Carroll after one year as head coach. It wasn’t simply that Carroll’s team lost; it was how it lost. The ’94 Jets started 6-5, then crashed, losing their final five games amid a series of lifeless performances. The collapse began with a last-second loss on one of the most famous plays in NFL history: After leading the Dolphins back from a 24-6 third-quarter deficit, Miami’s Dan Marino brought his team to the line with just less than 30 seconds remaining. Marino signaled that he was going to spike the ball to stop the clock ­ ­— then didn’t. Instead, he rifled a touchdown pass to Mark Ingram, pushing the Dolphins to a 28-24 win. The lasting image from the Jets’ 1994 season was of a motionless Carroll gazing blankly at the field as the Dolphins celebrated Marino’s ruse.

Carroll got another shot at being a head coach after two seasons as a defensive coordinator, this time in New England. He lasted three years before the Patriots fired him. He spent most of 2000 essentially out of football, doing some consulting, some media, and even writing a few online sports columns. USC hired Carroll as head coach in December 2000, a decision that sparked a combination of derision and apathy; Carroll, who was the Trojans’ fourth choice following a frantic coaching search, is lucky the Internet commentariat wasn’t as robust then as it is now.

Then something unexpected happened: Carroll started winning, and kept winning. Since 2001, Carroll’s college and NFL teams have posted a 121-45 record,1 including the Seattle Seahawks’ 24-8 mark over the last two seasons.

Coaching is a hard profession. It certainly has its rewards, as skyrocketing salaries for NFL and college head coaches illustrate, but failure is the norm. Being a coach means eventually getting fired, and making a career out of coaching at all is an accomplishment. Carroll, however, has done something especially rare, pushing through wrenching public failure to succeed beyond all expectations. A coach can’t do that without learning from past mistakes, and Carroll has certainly changed for the better.

Much of the credit goes to Carroll’s defense, which has been the foundation of his success and remains closely tied to the first lessons he learned as a very young coach. “To be successful on defense, you need to develop a philosophy,” Carroll said at a coaching clinic while still at USC. “If you don’t have a clear view of your philosophy, you will be floundering all over the place. If you win, it will be pure luck.”

Carroll’s Seahawks, who face the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, don’t win with luck. They win by physically dominating opponents and playing championship-level defense. They also win thanks to Carroll’s new spin on an old scheme.

♦♦♦

After spending a year selling roofing materials in the Bay Area, Carroll got his start in coaching in the 1974 season as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific. His big break came in 1977, when he secured a GA job at the University of Arkansas under new head coach Lou Holtz and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Carroll later called that job “the best thing that ever happened” to him.

Most graduate assistants simply want to break into coaching; Carroll got that, but he also got something else: an ideology. “I am an example of a person who got zeroed into a philosophy early,” said Carroll. “Monte ran what is known in coaching circles as the 4-3 Under defense … That was the first time I started to get hold of something that had a philosophy to it. I started to grow with the defense.”

Taken literally, “4-3 Under” refers to a particular personnel grouping — four defensive linemen and three linebackers (hence “4-3”), and by extension four defensive backs — where the defensive linemen align away from the offense’s strong side (hence “Under”) while the strongside linebacker positions himself on the line, usually right across from the tight end. This is the same structure Kiffin ran while working for Tony Dungy and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the “Under” front remains popular in the NFL today.

Carroll has never exclusively relied on this scheme;2 instead, he viewed Kiffin’s 4-3 Under less as a particular alignment and more as a belief system about football. “I have been running that same base defense since 1977 when I learned it from [Kiffin],” Carroll said at a coaching clinic. “I have used variations of this defense my entire career. I have stayed with its principles through all my years of coaching.” And the overarching principle is simple: Be aggressive.

The key to being aggressive is something called “one-gapping.” “There are really two [defensive] philosophies in pro football,” former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis head coach (and 4-3 Under guru) Dungy said at a lecture for coaches. “Do you want to be a one-gap team or a two-gap team?” Used this way, “gap” simply refers to the space between offensive linemen, and “run fits” is coach-speak for how a team handles those gaps.

The need to choose between one-gapping and two-gapping arises, according to Dungy, “because of simple math: You have eight gaps to fill and you only have seven front players.” A one-gap technique is much like it sounds: Each defender is responsible for attacking and controlling his assigned gap. By contrast, a two-gapping defender is responsible for the gaps on either side of the lineman across from him. How? He controls both gaps by controlling the blocker in between. A one-gapper attacks gaps, while a two-gapper attacks people.

Carroll, like Dungy, prefers not to two-gap. The problem isn’t the theory — a potential two-for-one where a single defender can clog up two running lanes is a great deal for the defense — but rather that two-gapping too often results in hesitant defensive linemen who try to read and react and thus fail to disrupt the offense.

“When you put a defensive lineman in a gap and tell him he has to control the gap, he can play very aggressively,” Carroll said at a coaching clinic.

“We want to be an attacking, aggressive football team,” he said at another clinic. “We don’t want to sit and read the play like you often have to with two-gap principles of play.”


Click to expand

Of course, that doesn’t address Dungy’s math problem: the unaccounted-for eighth gap. The one-gap answer is to use a safety to fill the void. “We assign everyone a gap and use an eighth man out of the secondary to cover the eighth gap,” Dungy explained at the lecture. “Our system has not changed in about 20 years.”

If you watch Carroll’s Seattle team, you’ll see all of this at work: aggressive one-gap techniques, safeties rocking down to help against the run, and that classic 4-3 Under front. But that’s not all you’ll see.

♦♦♦

Sandwiched between his failed stints with the Jets and Patriots, Carroll served a successful two-year run from 1995 to 1996 coordinating a talented San Francisco 49ers defense. He coached some great players, including safeties Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald as well as linebacker (and current Seahawks assistant coach) Ken Norton Jr. Those players, coupled with defensive line coach Bill McPherson’s experience, allowed Carroll to experiment with new wrinkles and put together a comprehensive defense that had answers for almost anything an offense tried.3 Carroll told the Seattle Times that the defense he ran in San Francisco represented “the ultimate package.”

Although Carroll used bits of that system with New England, he never got it fully up and running, and it was simply too much for college players, even the very talented ones at USC. “I was the defensive coordinator and putting the whole thing together [at USC], but our guys just couldn’t handle it,” said Carroll. “It was just too much stuff, and it was too much for the coaches.”

Carroll’s Seahawks are a different story. In Carroll’s first season with Seattle, his team ranked a dreadful 25th in scoring defense and 27th in total defense. The Seahawks jumped to seventh and ninth, respectively, the next year, though, and haven’t looked back since, finishing first in both categories this season. The biggest reason is the job Carroll and general manager John Schneider have done in revamping the roster. Not far behind, however, is the implementation of new wrinkles to Carroll’s base defensive system, with many pulled from his days in San Francisco.

Specifically, Carroll often calls for at least one defensive lineman to two-gap in an effort to get the best of both worlds: With one or two linemen two-gapping to clog additional running lanes, the remaining defenders are free to attack their gaps or drop into pass coverage.4 Hybrid defenses that can steal back a gap have become increasingly necessary as modern offenses tilt the arithmetic in their favor by using the quarterback as a running threat in the read-option.


Click to expand

In addition to Carroll’s tactics, the Seahawks’ personnel dictate changes. Seattle’s defense is talented, but it’s also rather eclectic: Tall and skinny, short and stout, Seattle’s defenders come in all shapes and sizes. As just one example, the Seahawks start 254-pound Chris Clemons at one defensive end spot and 323-pound Red Bryant at the other.5 But Bryant is a perfect two-gapper, and Carroll often places him directly across from an offensive guard or tackle to blow up running plays to the offense’s strong side.

While these wrinkles trace back to Carroll’s previous NFL stints, he refined the art of adapting them to his talent while coaching college. “That really came out of my time at SC,” Carroll told Seahawks.com. “We forced [young players] to play, in essence. And then we discovered if we asked them to do things they could do uniquely well, that they could elevate faster and find their confidence sooner.”

♦♦♦

Nowhere have Carroll’s adaptations been more successful than with Seattle’s pass defense, led by the so-called Legion of Boom. The unit led the NFL in every conceivable metric this season, which is only surprising given how often the Seahawks use one of the oldest, most basic pass coverages in all of football: Cover Three. And they don’t simply use it; they use it to shut opponents down.

Also known as Three-Deep zone coverage, Cover Three is a fundamental defensive building block; almost every high school team in the country runs some version. As the name implies, three defenders drop and divide the field into three deep zones — typically the two cornerbacks on the outsides and the free safety in the middle — while four other defenders drop to defend underneath passes as the remainder rush the QB. This coverage is sound against the pass and allows an extra defender to come up to stop the run, but it’s also conservative, which is why veteran NFL quarterbacks tend to carve it up and thus why it’s not commonly used in the NFL on passing downs.6

All of the basic elements are there when Seattle runs Cover Three, but the subtle tweaks make it deadly. Carroll often brings strong safety Kam Chancellor near the line as essentially another linebacker, while all-everything free safety Earl Thomas roams deep center field, instinctively breaking on passes or flying up to stuff the run. (Carroll is not afraid to reverse those roles, however.) While at USC, Carroll described his ideal free safety as “a natural player” that “you don’t have to coach” much. Thomas is all that and more, but the real key is that Carroll keeps things simple for his star. “If you have a million reads for your secondary, you are crazy,” Carroll said at a coaching clinic. “At the highest level in the NFL, the pass game is as complex as you can imagine. However, if [the free safety] can play the post and the seam route, then they can learn to play at that level.” Thomas, it’s safe to say, can play the post and the seam.

As good as Seattle’s safeties are, however, its cornerbacks are even more crucial, particularly former fifth-round pick and converted wide receiver Richard Sherman. Now the best cover corner in the NFL, Sherman was an afterthought on every NFL team’s draft board, including Seattle’s.



“[Sherman]’s a guy I watched on film that we weren’t even thinking about much,” Carroll said. “But then I saw him playing press and tackling, and knew him as a receiver coming out of high school, and thought, ‘Oh boy.’”7

Sherman’s skills allow Carroll to put his spin on old, conservative Cover Three: While this is zone coverage, Seattle’s cornerbacks play tight press coverage on the outside wide receivers as long as a receiver’s initial steps are straight downfield. Notice the coverage drops from the underneath defenders in the GIF below: This is a zone defense all the way, except for those press corners.



Carroll’s defense provides all of the benefits of traditional Cover Three — namely a deep middle safety and excellent run support — without conceding easy throws. Cover Three is as old as the forward pass, but Carroll’s Seahawks have made it modern by making it their own. And the result has been the best pass defense in the NFL in more than a decade.

♦♦♦

The Carroll who coached the Jets and Patriots wouldn’t have been able to build and maintain the kind of team he now has in Seattle. He had the schemes, but he hadn’t yet mastered their application. Carroll has evolved over time by turning earlier failures into lessons.

Interestingly, Carroll’s own description of this evolution is somewhat paradoxical: “There is no offensive play calling or defensive scheme that is going to win championships for you. It is how you can adapt and adjust to making the schemes work. The only way you can do that is to have a strong belief system [emphasis mine].”

That explanation might only make sense to Carroll, a man who counts both John Wooden and Jerry Garcia among his primary influences. Carroll thinks his unshakable belief in those early lessons from Holtz and Kiffin have enabled him to evolve those ideas and adapt them to the present, and, most importantly, to improve as a coach. In the spirit of that seeming paradox, here’s one of my own: Pete Carroll, the coach who succeeded through failing.

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By: timbersfan, 9:38 AM GMT on January 16, 2014

When it comes down to it, we’re lucky in the world of soccer: The sport is so widespread?and so interconnected with culture and society?that it can’t help but produce the kind of stories that highlight the human condition and, occasionally, represent the best in us. In 2013, two American soccer figures did exactly that, inspiring us with their courage and grace when others would have withdrawn in fear.
JENKINS: Peyton Manning is SI’s 2013 Sportsman of the Year
And so I nominate Bob Bradley and Robbie Rogers as my Sportsmen of the Year.
You want courage? Bradley stayed. As the Egyptian national team coach, Bradley could have left Cairo after the security situation crumbled there. Most foreign coaches would have done so in a heartbeat. More than 70 soccer fans died at a stadium massacre, leading to the suspension of the Egyptian league, but Bradley stayed. A state of emergency was declared in Cairo as the military toppled an elected government and killed more than 800 protestors, but Bradley stayed.
He did more than stay, too. Bradley and his wife, Lindsay, became part of the Cairo community, raising money for the Cairo Children’s Hospital and visiting the stricken kids there regularly. And on the field, against all odds and without a functioning domestic league, Bradley somehow took Egypt to within a hair’s breadth of qualifying for its first World Cup since 1990. He talked about his Egyptian team as a band of brothers, rallying a fractured nation behind a team that succeeded despite having different opinions and beliefs. He built a bond of mutual respect with Egyptian star Mohamed Aboutreika, the driven coach from New Jersey and the devout philosophy major from the Arab world.
STRAUS: Bradley’s Egypt legacy about bigger picture, not just results
In the end, Bradley and Egypt won seven of their eight World Cup qualifiers. Their one loss, to Ghana, was enough to end Egypt’s dream of Brazil. Some Egyptian media called it a failure. They were as wrong as you could be.
******
You want courage? Rogers came out. In a male team sports world that had never embraced gay athletes, Rogers announced his orientation and stepped away from the sport in the same blog post in February. At first, the reaction was two-fold: Rogers, a former national-team player, got a tidal wave of support from the U.S. soccer community, but there was also a sense of deep regret that Rogers felt he needed to leave soccer at age 25 upon making his announcement.
Then a remarkable thing happened. After hiding from public view initially, thinking the response would be almost wholly negative, Rogers did a 180. He returned to the U.S. from England, started training again and eventually joined the Los Angeles Galaxy, becoming the first openly gay male athlete to play in a prominent North American team sport. (Basketball player Jason Collins had come out in early May but has yet to latch on with an NBA team.) By the end of 2013, Rogers had gone from fleeing public view to calling himself an “activist” and launching an organization called “Beyond It” to support initiatives for moving past easy labels of people.
So quickly did Rogers become just another player?the way it should be, after all?that it was easy to forget how much fortitude it took for him to come back to the sport. Rogers didn’t have a great year on the field: He didn’t score any goals for the Galaxy, and the player he was traded for, Mike Magee, won the MLS MVP award. But while Rogers would have preferred a different scenario, the questioning of the trade was another reminder that he was just like any other player. Not “the gay player.”
Off the field, Rogers’ transformation over a period of months from hiding into courageous public leadership is nothing short of remarkable. Rogers is a gifted writer with a strong voice, and he has used it to call out Russia’s anti-gay laws ahead of the Winter Olympics while encouraging Olympians there to wear a green bar on their clothing to make a statement in support of gay athletes.
Before we leave 2013, let’s remember just how remarkable a year it was that Rogers and Bradley, two men who could easily have won SI magazine’s Sportsman of the Year award, both hail from the growing but still relatively small pond of U.S. soccer. There are some special people in our little corner of the sports world, and this year they showed that in the best possible way.

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By: timbersfan, 5:55 AM GMT on January 11, 2014

• CLICK HERE for Part 1.

(Home teams in caps.)

Saints (+7.5) over SEAHAWKS

Key Player: I remember Russell Wilson shredding New Orleans's defense in Week 13 when stud safety Kenny Vaccaro was still playing.12 I also remember him taking his undefeated home winning streak into Week 16 … and Arizona throttling him. Wilson's numbers: 108 passing yards, one TD, one pick, 4 sacks, 11-for-27, 10 points produced, 24 moments when Seattle fans mumbled to themselves, "Shit, are we sure this offense is good enough?" Bad day? Something more? Did Wilson lose his "invincible at home" mystique?

X Factor: Get ready for either "25 plays with Percy Harvin!" or "three plays with Percy Harvin followed by a shot of Percy walking off the field accompanied by two trainers!" Imagine if Seattle hadn't traded its first-rounder for Harvin, kept the pick and drafted Cordarrelle Patterson.

"Nobody Believes In Us" Edge: The Saints are riding the whole "Nobody thinks we can win a Super Bowl without playing in the Superdome" thing, but what about this email from Seattle fan Jebidiah?

I don't really think you understand the Seahawks. This is a team that truly plays with a chip on its shoulder, a team built with players who were drafted late or not at all. Look at that roster — it's loaded with players that nobody believed in. Sherman and Baldwin are both 5th round picks. Wilson had a punter picked ahead of him. Buffalo gave up on Lynch. They are hearing all of this noise about how #1 seeds aren't a lock any more. This team takes its bulletin-board material very seriously.
And its Adderall supply. Sorry, I had to.

Possible Tragic Figure: Rob Ryan. There's a version of this game in which I can totally see Ryan agonizing on the sideline and looking more confused than Michael Bay giving a three-hour Samsung presentation.

Generic Talking Head Point That You'll Definitely Hear: "Guys, everyone is talking about Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III … when are we gonna start talkin' about Russell Wilson???? NOBODY HAS HAD MORE SUCCESS THIS EARLY IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE!"

Possible Omen That Can't Be Discounted: According to our friends at Field Gulls, Wilson's three biggest home games all featured a frightening weather subplot. Seattle won those three by a combined score of 105-23. The forecast for Saturday afternoon? A 100 percent chance of rain! That's a worst-case scenario for Saints fans. (Thinking.) You're right, this is actually the worst-case scenario.


Relevant Email (from Chris in Seattle): "Peyton Manning threw 46 passes of 25+ yards. Drew Brees threw 41. Russell Wilson threw 36. The Seahawks' WR's can make big plays ... this weekend vs. the Saints, you'll see it." If you say so.

Applicable Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 Theories: "Beware Of The Nobody Believes In Us Team" … "Don't Take A Dome Team In Bad Weather" … "Beware Of The Blatantly Obvious 2-Team Teaser on the Same Day" … "Don't Pick The Underdog Unless You Genuinely Think It Has A Chance To Win."13 Edge to the Saints: 3-1.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: Randy Orton's "Voices." In other words, I know I shouldn't go against Seattle at home … but I hear voices in my head, they talk to me, they understand, they talk to me.


Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Saints: Because the Saints barely got by a Philly team that gave up 48 points and 382 passing yards to Matt Cassel in Week 15, then 358 passing yards to Kyle Orton in Week 17. Because Seattle killed them last time, and you should have known better. Because Percy Harvin will make one big play. Because we're destined for Seattle vs. San Francisco III: The Thrilla in Qwestilla. Because nobody throws on the Seahawks — they finished with one of the best pass defenses of the decade.14 Because you never want to go against the 12th Man AND crappy weather. Because you forgot how frightening Russell Wilson is, how he'll turn four sacks into first downs every game. Because Brees missed a few throws (and short-armed a couple others) in cold weather in Philly last weekend, so why wouldn't it happen again?

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Seahawks: You forgot that everyone on the planet is teasing the Hawks and Pats on Saturday. You forgot that we've had a second-round upset every year since 2005. You totally discounted the "Nobody Believes In Us" factor. You forgot that it's really hard to defeat a good team twice in six weeks. You forgot that New Orleans is still in Eff You Mode from Bountygate. You forgot that these aren't the stereotypical Saints — they can play defense, run the ball and shorten games now, which is exactly how you win in Seattle (particularly in the driving rain). You didn't pay enough attention when Arizona ripped through the 12th Man, ran the ball down Seattle's throats, slowed the game down and ground out a Week 16 win even though Carson Palmer got picked four times. You thought Arizona caught Seattle napping that day. You didn't take any larger meaning from that game. You made a mistake.

The Pick: New Orleans 20, Seattle 16

Niners (-1) over PANTHERS

Key Player: Hey, Cam Newton, here are Carolina's point totals against 2013 teams that won 10 or more games and had a top-12 DVOA defense: 7 points (Seattle), 6 points (Arizona), 10 points (San Francisco), 13 points (New Orleans), 17 points (New Orleans). How many tackles are you asking for from Luke Kuechly in this game to keep you in it? 30? 35? Or do you plan on carrying the load a little?

X Factor: You're telling me that Carolina's offense (see above) is outscoring the Niners in a playoff game when Newton's third-down security blanket, Steve Smith, has a sprained knee that's getting worse (not better)? That's it, we're zooming through this section. I know my pick.

"Nobody Believes In Us" Edge: Yeah, I know … the Panthers are home dogs. And they have an EXCELLENT defense. Really, really good. But can you really play the "Nobody Believes In Us" card when you already beat the team you're playing (on the road, no less)?

Possible Tragic Figure: Riverboat Ron Rivera … after such a thrilling transformation this season, couldn't you see him taking it too far on Sunday and being too reckless? Something like an ill-fated fourth-and-5 from his own 40 or something? Wait, don't go for it here, Riverboat Ron … NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!


Generic Talking Head Point That You'll Definitely Hear: "Guys, I'll tell ya who Luke Kuechly reminds me of … he's a young Ray Lewis! That's who Luke Kuechly is! You just don't see linebackers cover this much ground this consistently in the National Football League! I'll tell you what, fellas — HE COULD'VE PLAYED IN MY DAY, I'LL TELL YOU THAT MUCH! [Lots of forced laughter.]"

Possible Omen That Can't Be Discounted: Remember when we said good-bye to Candlestick Park for a solid week, highlighted by an emotional Chris Berman showing the footage of himself right after "The Catch" for the 977th and final time? Well, if New Orleans defeats Seattle (as predicted earlier), then a Niners victory would mean San Francisco reopens Candlestick for one more Niners game! It's so ridiculous that it almost has to happen. Candlestick Park is such a hellhole that, literally, we can't get rid of it.

Relevant Email: Ben in Portland writes, "Don't you think San Francisco is turning into the biggest 'Everybody Believes In Us' team? They barely get by that not-particularly-good Packers team, but now they are favored to win IN Carolina and half the Talking Heads are proclaiming them the most dangerous team left. Am I missing something here? How do you not feel insulted if you're Carolina right now?" Noted.

Theories in Play: Just "Beware Of The Home Dog" and "Beware Of The 'Everybody Believes In Us'" team. Edge: Carolina, 2-0.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: I'm dedicating the Miz's "I Came to Play" to the Niners, who seem to be peaking at the right time with Michael Crabtree back and Aldon Smith looking like Aldon Smith again (and not a TMZ Sports staple). They're certainly the most talented all-around football team left … right? By the way, The Miz's ascension from Real World to the WWE heavyweight title should be a 30 for 30. When will we ever see anything remotely approaching that again? Did you see the first episode of the new Real World Ex-plosion season? That show has become such a debauched train wreck, we'll never see another Real World cast member hold a job, much less the WWE championship belt.


Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Niners: Because it looked too easy. All of it. And gambling is never, ever, EVER easy.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Panthers: Because the previous paragraph is basically your only case for Carolina other than its defense single-handedly winning the game. Because the Panthers offense won't be able to produce 20 points unless they're allowed to use cheat codes. Because San Francisco's zero-degree victory in Lambeau over an on-his-game Rodgers was pretty damned impressive. Because it would be far-fetched for Carolina to beat San Francisco twice in six weeks. Because the Niners have been the best football team of the last three years (as a whole), and they're not going down because they couldn't slow down Brandon LaFell, Greg Olsen and a hobbled Steve Smith. Because I trust Kaepernick more than I trust Newton. Because we're destined for either "Niners-Seahawks III" or "Say Good-bye to Candlestick Again!" Because I believe in the Niners. Let's hope I didn't spray them with too much Billy Zima stink.

The Pick: San Francisco 19, Carolina 13

PATRIOTS (-7) over Colts

Key Player: Either Luck will be trying to pull off a shocking upset or a backdoor cover, but you know he'll be involved in the final two minutes. The Patriots played 11 games that were decided by seven points or fewer; the Colts are 12-5 but trailed in nine of those fourth quarters and came from behind to beat Tennessee in two others. You saw it last week: The 2013 Colts fall behind, then Andrew the Giant starts cleaning house like it's a Battle Royal. I'm frightened.


X Factor: Look, I don't know what's going on with LeGarrette Blount lately. Either he went gluten-free, threw away all the vapes in his house, stopped eating five pounds of candy per day, got hypnotized into thinking he's 2004 Corey Dillon, started doing hot yoga and Pilates, hired Angel Heredia and Anthony Bosch as his personal trainers, got motivated with Belichick's version of Elmo's "6 Minutes" speech from Vision Quest … I mean, who the hell knows? I just hope it doesn't stop. He's plowing over everyone right now. In general, it's Tom Brady's best running back situation since Dillon and Kevin Faulk in 2004 — Blount as a battering ram, Stevan "I Swear, I Won't Fumble Again!" Ridley as a shifty change-of-pace guy, and Shane Vereen as Brady's best third-down back ever (sorry, Faulk and Danny Woodhead, it's true). In general, the Patriots quietly finished second in offensive DVOA and averaged 33.1 points during the last eight games. Now they're playing a defense that almost gave up 50 points last weekend to Alex Smith, Knile Davis, Dwayne Bowe, Donnie Avery, Dexter McCluster and Anthony Fasano?

"Nobody Believes In Us" Edge: The Colts … but not by nearly as much as you'd think. They're getting only seven on the road after miraculously outlasting a Chiefs team that was down to its third-string running back, Justin Houston's backup, Brandon Flowers's backup and Eric Fisher's backup by the end of that game? Seems fishy.

Possible Tragic Figure: You can't say Trent 3.0 (a.k.a. Trent Richardson), since Chuck Pagano isn't letting him anywhere near this game after last week's fumble. So let's go with former Patriots busts Darius Butler and Sergio Brown, both of whom might be starting in Indy's banged-up secondary this week. Wait, I shouldn't talk about this; I don't want the line to move.

Generic Talking Head Point You'll Definitely Hear: "Here's what Bill Belichick does, guys — he sees the one thing you love to do, and he TAKES IT AWAY FROM YOU. You're not gonna advance in the National Football League playoffs against Bill Belichick doing just one thing, guys. Andrew Luck loves throwing to T.Y. Hilton? Guess what, Andrew — BILL BELICHICK IS TAKING T.Y. HILTON AWAY FROM YOU! That's how Bill Belichick made his mark on the National Football League!"

Possible Omen That Can't Be Discounted: As Chicago reader Adam Roberts writes, "Don't think for a second it doesn't not matter that Dan Dierdorf is calling this Pats game. I'm not so sure it isn't a curse on the Pats, that shouldn't not be considered if not for your lack of acknowledgement that this isn't a big deal seeing he's not calling another game after this one."

I'm not so sure Adam isn't 100 percent right, and that CBS doesn't not want a Luck-Manning AFC title game and wasn't not trying to put the stink on the Pats here. I couldn't find the exact numbers, but Dierdorf was involved in approximately 92.75789 percent of the excruciating Brady/Belichick-era losses, including one of the most devastating Patriots games ever. Like every other Pats fan, I hear his voice and just think of Dierdorf babbling, This does not look good … this does NOT look good … I think Tom Brady hurt his knee … THIS DOES NOT LOOK GOOD. Let's see the replay for the 935th time … THIS DOES NOT LOOK GOOD. Now he's saying his farewell with a Pats playoff game? As my farewell, here's something I wrote in 2008 — my impression of Dierdorf if he were a veterinarian giving an update to a distraught family whose dog was hit by a car.

Dr. Dierdorf: "Guys, this is bad. This is really bad. He's in a coma."

Wife: "Oh no!"

Dr. Dierdorf: "He is not waking up. He is NOT waking up."

Husband: "When will we know more?"

Dr. Dierdorf: "In case you missed it earlier, your dog was struck by a car and he's in a coma."

(The couple is sobbing. Two seconds of silence pass.)

Dr. Dierdorf: "Witnesses said your dog flew about 20 feet. … Guys, he is NOT waking up. He's in a coma."

Wife: "Well … I guess we'll just wait here in the waiting room until we get another update."

Dr. Dierdorf: "And right now, here's that update — your dog was struck by a car and he's in a coma. HE IS NOT WAKING UP! NO SIGNS OF LIFE!"

Relevant Emails: Jeffrey in Chattanooga writes, "Andrew Luck is the anti-Romo. He can be both awful and unstoppable in the same game but actually pull a win out of his ass in the end." Pretty much. And L.A. reader Bryan Cullison wonders, "Does it make you nervous at all that your Pats will be facing a team this weekend that 1) has the league's lowest turnovers this season, 2) has the league's fewest penalties this season, 3) has a QB whose freakin' last name is "luck", 4) has a horseshoe on its helmet, 5) is now the darling of the playoffs after their miraculous comeback this last weekend, and 6) is the only team to be able to claim having beaten the Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos, AND Chiefs (twice) THIS SEASON?!?!?" Yes! It makes me super nervous. That's why I keep muttering the words "Sergio Brown and Darius Butler" to myself.

Possible Manifesto 5.0 Theories in Play: "Beware Of This Year's 'Nobody Believes In Us' Team"; "Beware Of The Blatantly Obvious 2-Team Teaser In The Same Day"; and "Beware Of The 'Shocking'" Round 2 Underdog Upset." Hopefully we won't end up adding these two rules: "Don't Bet Against Andrew The Giant" and "Don't Bet On The Pats During Dan Dierdorf's Last Game Ever." Edge to Colts: 3-0.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: The Wyatt Family's "Live in Fear." For obvious reasons. Hey, does it mean your 6-year-old son is a sociopath if he loves the Wyatts and wants his father to get him a fake beard and a flashlight? I'm asking for a friend.


Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Patriots: Because the 2013 seasons of Indy and New England pretty much mandated that Luck would have the football in the final three minutes trailing by somewhere between three and 11 points. Because you realized in the first quarter that, if you had a friend mix up the names of five of New England's defensive starters with five porn stars — Sealver Siliga, James Deen, Dane Fletcher, Nacho Vidal, Mike Adriano, Logan Ryan, Erik Everhard, Jamie Collins, Evan Stone, Chris Jones15 — you couldn't have picked the five Patriots. Because "Luck vs. Manning" in Denver for the AFC title is the game that will make Jim Nantz spontaneously self-combust. Because you totally forgot that Adam Vinatieri was involved.

(Thinking.)

(Good Lord, Adam Vinatieri is involved??????)

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Colts: Because you overthought it. Indy won its Super Bowl last weekend — one of the greatest playoff comebacks ever in a game in which it secretly almost gave up 50-plus points and won because (a) there was an epic run of injuries for the other team, (b) a crucial goal-line fumble bounced off a lineman's helmet and right into their QB's hands, (c) Dwayne Bowe caught a season-saving pass six inches out of bounds, (d) Andy Reid was being Andy Reid and (e) Kansas City abjectly refused to double T.Y. Hilton when he's the only above-average Indy skill guy. Oh, and you went against Brady and Belichick at home against a shaky defense. Come on.

The Pick: Patriots 44, Colts 34

BRONCOS (-9.5) over Chargers

Key Player: Gee, I wonder if Peyton Manning will be motivated by the following story lines: "You're the greatest regular-season QB ever, but when the playoffs start, it's a different story" … "Phil Rivers beat you as a huge road underdog in the 2007 playoffs and he's ready to do it again" … "Do you realize you've blown three home games in Round 2 as a prohibitive home favorite?" … "You can't play in cold weather" … "San Diego won in Denver in Week 15 and could absolutely do it again" … "The Chargers might be a team of destiny!!!"

X Factor: The Philip Rivers Thing. What's the Philip Rivers Thing? Well, just when it looked like he was going full Delhomme on us, he hooked himself to the Juvenation Machine in 2013 with a new coach and new offense. Last summer, he brought his young son to the Vatican and got him BLESSED BY THE POPE. He has beaten Denver, Kansas City and Cincy on the road this season. He has given so many lively interviews that Jason Whitlock predicted he's eventually going to be the NFL's version of Barkley on TV. He's even wearing a lucky bolo tie given to him by a Chargers fan. There's just a lot going on with Phil Rivers right now. I mean, a lot. A whole lot. Lots and lots and lots.

"Nobody Believes In Us" Edge: After falling to 5-7 and looking deader than dead, San Diego's subsequent five-game winning streak included a variety of breaks ranging from small (Week 15's Denver game being a Thursday nighter and sneaking up on the Broncos), the medium (Miami's collapse and Baltimore's collapse, the Bernard/Dalton fumbles last Sunday, maybe even the Incognito/Martin scandal), the large (they don't make the playoffs unless Geno Smith plays well) and the extra-large (Ryan Succop missing a 41-yard field goal). Wait, I'm still not convinced. Is there video of Chargers coach Mike McCoy screaming, "It's us against the world and that's all we need!" after last week's win? Wait, there is?


Possible Tragic Figure: You mean other than Peyton Manning? Imagine if he lost THIS one and dropped to 9-12 in the playoffs … with nine of those losses coming when he was favored, including four Round 2 stunners as heavy home favorites.

Generic Talking Head Point That You'll Definitely Hear: "Guys, we can't say enough about what Wes Welker's return does for this Broncos offense — that's Peyton Manning's security blanket, that's his little binkie, guys! [Lots of forced laughter.] And lemme tell you what — Wes Welker allows Peyton Manning to use EVERY PART OF THE FIELD, guys. There's a reason he broke all these records this season!!!!"

Possible Omen That Can't Be Discounted: You've seen the stat a million times this week — our last four Super Bowl winners won Philly's home opener … and San Diego won Philly's home opener this season. (Thinking.) I don't know, I still don't think that's as threatening as Evil Manning, who might be the real-life Damien Thorn from The Omen.



Relevant Email: Tate in Greenwich writes, "Isn't a key rule of yours is 'never bet against God and puppies.' Guess what? Phil Rivers's SON WAS BLESSED BY THE POPE!!!! If that's not a recipe for a playoff run, I don't know what is." And if you want to dig a little deeper, this playoff road would lead them through AFC West rival Kansas City (Week 17), the team that kept the Fouts/Coryell gang from the Super Bowl (at Cincy), their most hated rival (at Denver), their AFC rival who kept them from potentially beating Rex Grossman in a Super Bowl (at New England), and potentially, the team that crushed them in their only Super Bowl (San Francisco). Now that's a run that seems preordained. It's almost like Phil Rivers had his son blessed by the Pope or something.

Theories in Play: "Beware Of The Nobody Believes In Us Team"; "Beware Of The 3-Team Teaser In Round 2 (If The Other Two Big Favorites Come Through)"; and "Don't Be A Hero, Just Try To Win Money" as the definites; "Beware Of Aging QBs In Cold Weather" (Just In Case The Weather Guys Are Wrong And It Ends Up Being Cold) and "Don't Bet Against God, Puppies, Gambling Theories From Pakistan And QBs Who Had Babies Blessed By The Pope" as the possibles. We'll see. Edge: San Diego, 20-1.

This Game As a WWE Entrance Song: I mentioned that Evil Manning is going against someone who just had a baby blessed by the Pope, right? Well …


Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Broncos: You didn't pay enough attention to Manning's playoff legacy. You ignored how good San Diego's defense looked these past few weeks, and how secretly mediocre Denver's defense has looked without Von Miller. You didn't pay enough attention to that Week 15 game. You forgot how frightening Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead were. You didn't remember that San Diego can run the ball and use the Giants' Super Bowl XLII strategy of "Chew up clock, keep the other team's offense off the field." You went against the "Nobody Believes In Us" theory AND the "Don't Bet Against God, Puppies, Gambling Theories From Pakistan And QBs Who Had Babies Blessed By The Pope" theory, and you got burned by Peyton Manning on a big teaser yet again. You hate yourself right now. Go to your room.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Chargers: So the Chargers beat Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton in a playoff game. Wow! Congratulations, fellas! What an impossible task! Now they're going into Denver and beating a fired-up juggernaut that just scored more than 600 points, and they're going to be doing that for the second time in four weeks? And that's happening because of the Pope and a general lack of belief in a team that, by the way, was 5-7 after 12 games????? Are you on drugs? No wonder you lost money all season.

The Pick: Denver 48, San Diego 28

Last Week: 1-1-2
Season: 109-141-10

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bs dc

By: timbersfan, 5:54 AM GMT on January 11, 2014

NFL Lessons Learned
Before he makes his playoff picks, the Sports Guy lists 10 things that added to his ongoing NFL education
By Bill Simmons on January 10, 2014
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You learn new life lessons every week. I learned last weekend that, when your young son becomes a huge wrestling fan, you shouldn't ask him, "Hey, did you ever hear Billy Gunn's entrance song when he wrestled as 'Mr. Ass'?" Now we have a 6-year-old kid stomping around my house yelling "I'M AN ASS MAN!" and belting out lyrics like, "So many asses, so little time … only a tight one can stop me on a dime." He's definitely getting kicked out of school soon. Do you even need schooling when you're an Ass Man? I guess we'll find out.

Something else we found out last weekend: The abject wonkiness of the previous eight NFL postseasons (covered here last Friday) extended into 2014, yielding 14 relatively phenomenal hours of tackle football. We learned 10 lessons from these four games, some of which can even be used for wagering purposes. In no particular order …

Lesson No. 1: Colin Kaepernick is a man's man.

Like everyone else with an IQ over 70, I watched that Niners-Packers game wondering, Why in God's name would Kaepernick NOT wear sleeves in zero-degree weather? It was like watching one of those drunken maniacs in the stands who goes shirtless just to impress a bunch of strangers. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the five coldest-weather playoff games of the last 10 years, Kaepernick was the only QB reckless enough to go sleeveless. You know who did opt for sleeves? Bart Starr and Don Meredith during the Ice Bowl! Exactly who were you trying to impress, Colin Kaepernick? But after seeing Kaep generate some monster plays down the stretch, avoid a double amputation and officially apply for "Packer Killer" status, I came to appreciate the no-sleeves idea. How could any Niners teammate let the windchill affect him when his lunatic QB wasn't wearing sleeves???

In general, Kaepernick has to be considered our 2014 playoff wild card. He's not as famous as Manning and Brady, as familiar as Brees and Rivers, as respected as Wilson and Luck, or even as hyped as Newton. In 23 regular-season starts, he's thrown for 300-plus yards only two times, landed under 210 yards 13 times and rushed for more than 70 yards only twice. But he's been better in his four playoff games — 256.3 passing YPG, 90.5 rushing YPG, three different come-from-behind fourth-quarter drives (none at home) — and along with Wilson and Rodgers, Kaepernick has to be considered a cocaptain of the "We're Gonna Sack — Wait, How Did He Just Pull Off That 3rd-And-12?????" Club.

What makes him stand out other than the no-sleeves move? No QB vacillates between "Holy shit, that was amazing!" and "Oh god no, that's getting picked!" quite like Kaep. You're terrified when you wager against him … only you never feel comfortable if you wager ON him, either. That makes him this year's winner of the Brett Favre Award for "Playoff QB Who Makes You Uneasy At All Times No Matter How You Wagered," a trophy that has been hoisted by the likes of Jake Delhomme, Jim Kelly, Jake Plummer, Ken Stabler, Eli Manning, Aging Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason. I don't know if I am taking Carolina or San Francisco in Round 2 yet; just know that I'm scared of Kaepernick either way.

Speaking of scared …

Lesson No. 2: Don Denkinger single-handedly prevented Kansas City from hijacking the "God Hates Cleveland" joke.

If Denkinger makes this call correctly …


… then the Cardinals win the '85 World Series in six games, and Kansas City suddenly has this professional sports résumé: no championships since 1970 (Super Bowl IV); no Super Bowl appearances since 1970; 42 of 44 NFL seasons without a playoff victory (1993 excepted), as well as eight straight playoff losses (an NFL record); 28 Royals seasons without a playoff appearance; 24 straight Royals seasons in which they couldn't win 87 games (including 18 of the last 20 when they couldn't reach 78 wins); no NBA franchise because the Kings ditched them for Sacramento in 1984; the lifelong knowledge that their NBA team ditched them for Sacramento; a recent blog post on Arrowhead Pride called "Ranking The Kansas City Chiefs playoff losses by how much they sucked"; everything that happens daily on Rany Jazayerli's tormented Twitter feed; the 453 much-ballyhooed Royals who never panned out; and, just last weekend, the second-biggest NFL playoff collapse of all time.

Could Kansas City be slowly mounting a serious challenge to the Lennon and McCartney of tortured fan bases, Cleveland and Buffalo? I'd say the '85 World Series and two Jayhawks hoop titles (1988 and 2008) knock them out in the Tortured Final Four, along with Minnesota (which won the World Series in '87 and '91). But the Denkinger call clearly chewed up nearly three decades of professional sports karma for Kansas City. How many cities could have been leading 38-10 in an NFL playoff game and made you say, "I'm absolutely gonna keep watching this — there's no way this lead is safe"?

Yeah, I know Andy Reid was involved. And I know Jamaal Charles got shelved midway through the first quarter. And I know other important Chiefs kept getting hurt. But when you're up 38-10 and your entire fan base isn't even remotely celebrating, you've accomplished something truly spectacular. Check out this email from Chris K. in Lawrence:

Me and my buddy Yonsey have lived and mostly died with the Chiefs since grade school. When we scored to go up 38-10, there was no celebrating, no planning for next week, just nervous silence. Yonsey's wife — who knows next to nothing about sports — walks by, sees the score and says, 'Why aren't you guys happy? Isn't this good?' Neither of us looked up. I remember exactly what happened next. I looked straight at the TV and said "If you say you're not thinking about the Bills/Oilers wild card game, you're a f*cking liar." Yonsey was quiet. I looked over at him, and he didn't speak, didn't flinch, didn't do anything. He just looked at the TV with no expression. Indy scored shortly thereafter, and aside from the occasional cheer, we watched the rest of the game in dismal silence. We weren't even tormented or pissed, just … I don't even know how to sum up the emotion. Maybe an annoyed half-eye roll describes it best? I just checked my Google search history, and "Frank Reich Comeback" is right there at 5:28 pm Central time. THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A KANSAS CITY SPORTS FAN.1
(Of the 32 NFL fan bases, only Vikings fans, Bills fans and Browns fans could fully identify with that email.)

(Actually, you know what?)

Lesson No. 3: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, "Don't Bet On Cleveland, Buffalo, Minnesota Or Kansas City For Any Reason" definitely has to be included.

I mean … why did that realization take THIS long?

Lesson No. 4: If I ever write another Playoff Gambling Manifesto, I need to convert last week's Suggestion No. 6, "Before You Pick A Team, Just Make Sure Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid's Pupil And Anyone With The Last Name Mora Isn't Coaching Them," into an actual rule.

And Reid's name might have to be converted to 18-point font. Of all the soul-crushing playoff losses that involved Andy over the years, Saturday's colon-reamer in Indy was probably his most defensible performance; it featured two hours of brilliant play calling (much of it without Charles, no less) coupled with Alex Smith's out-of-body experience, and if their wide-open 19th-string running back had hauled in Smith's slightly overthrown, Charles-definitely-woulda-caught-it fourth-quarter pass down the right sideline, KC's offense could have dropped 50-plus in a road playoff game.

(Hold on, big "but" coming … )

BUT …

They also gave up five second-half touchdowns, blew their first two timeouts for indefensible reasons, and unleashed the incredible fourth-down sequence of "no timeout, run 20 seconds off for no reason to the two-minute warning, last timeout, receiver catches the season-saving catch out of bounds." They also couldn't score a game-clinching touchdown against a ravaged Indy secondary that included The Artist Formerly Known As LaRon Landry, a Hobbled Vontae Davis, The Guy Who Limped After Donnie Avery On That 79-Yard Touchdown Like He'd Just Been Shot From Behind, and a Playing-Out-Of-Position Patriots castoff Darius Butler.

And as their world collapsed over that last hour, Andy stood there staring down at some mysterious sheet of paper like he was trying to read a takeout menu. Jesus, even Art Shell and Jim Caldwell thought Andy needed to show a little more life.2 What a bizarre game in general. At some point during that fourth quarter, every Pats fan ran through an enticing "Which Opponent Do I Want To See Most In Round 2?" checklist that included …

A. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis
B. The aforementioned Colts secondary
C. Andy Reid and the injury-ravaged Chiefs

… then realized, "I'll take any of these teams! This is the greatest! We're going to another AFC title game!"

And then Andrew Luck completed that go-ahead bomb to T.Y. Hilton for the greatest gambling push of my lifetime … 3

And … well …

Lesson No. 5: There's a chance that "Don't Bet Against Andrew Luck" could end up in Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 soon.

Like, very soon. Maybe even next week. You know what I loved about Luck's performance last Saturday? He didn't play well for two solid hours, only it never felt like his confidence wavered. He always seemed like HE thought they were coming back. As I've written a million times, for me, the NFL quarterback position is 25 percent talent and 75 percent attitude/charisma/personality/intelligence/confide nce. You have to be the coolest guy on your team, basically. You have to own the room. You have to be a leader of men. Both Luck and Wilson nail that 75 percent; that's what makes them special. Say what you want about Phil Rivers, but he's had three games this season — at Kansas City, at Denver, Cincy at home — that displayed that 75 percent. He believed, and he played like it … and eventually, his teammates followed him. Even Kaepernick playing without sleeves — maybe that was partly about earning the 75 percent. I'm as tough as you guys. I'm not afraid of cold weather — you shouldn't be, either.

On a personal note, my single favorite thing about watching football over the past four decades — well, other than rooting for the Patriots, gambling, Madden & Summerall, and gambling on Patriots games that were announced by Madden & Summerall — has probably been watching certain QBs "own the room." It's the reason every Manning-Brady battle mattered, it's the reason I have Elway and Montana ranked over everyone else, it's the reason I still have flashbacks to Dan Marino terrorizing the Pats, and it's the reason I love watching Paul Crewe upend the Citrus State Prison guards so much. There isn't a more difficult job in sports than playing quarterback, so if someone thrives while also capturing that 75 percent to its fullest, as a sports fan, I marvel at that more than anything else. Knowing that we're almost definitely getting 12 to 15 more years of those moments from Luck, and maybe Wilson, too, is pretty thrilling.4 Shit, that's taking me into my late fifties.

Anyway, Luck made two insane plays that made Pats Fan Bill say to himself, "Let's hope Kansas City wins because I'd love to avoid Andrew the Giant in Round 2." I already mentioned the first one — Luck's game-winning laser to Hilton (60-plus yards in the air!) was ridiculously clutch and even included a bonus underlying Eff You for Phil Simms.5 But the other play was better — that crazy fumble-recovery touchdown, which stood out immediately because of how quickly Luck decided "I'm plowing into the end zone." He didn't pause for a nanosecond. He just went for it. Like one of those old-school heady Derek Jeter moments when he finished off some unorthodox defensive play before you could even process it.

An Atlanta reader named Andrew wondered later, "How would the other playoff quarterbacks have handled that exact moment?," eventually deciding that only Wilson would have plowed ahead that quickly and that fearlessly. I think Elway and Young Favre could have made that play. Rodgers and Much Younger Brady might have done it. That's about it. I am absolutely frightened of you in Round 2, Andrew Luck.

Lesson No. 6: Lone Survivor is the most extraordinary war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

I know, I know. Even worse, my buddy JackO was bitterly disappointed that I didn't fulfill our old dream of becoming the real-life versions of Spy Magazine's mock movie critic Walter Monheit. Back in college, we loved Monheit's carefully crafted, over-the-top blurbs that were specifically intended to land on movie posters. Anyway, JackO was incensed that I didn't go with, "You know who's the real Lone Survivor? OSCAR!" I have a lot of regrets.

Lesson No. 7: When you're picking games on Friday morning, make sure you're factoring in the late-week possibility of a "Nobody Believes In Us" team emerging.

Last week, I picked the Chargers to cover and barely lose while carrying the "Nobody Believes In Us!" torch.6 But I also knew the whole "New Orleans has to win four in a row outside the Superdome, no way that's happening!" story line coupled with "Dome teams are 3-22 in playoff games in 35-degree-or-less weather" stat propelled the Saints into "Nobody Believes In Us!" status. I even wrote about it. So how did I blow that Saints-Eagles pick? Because I suck at gambling! I thought you knew! I watched Saturday's pregame shows thinking, Uh-oh, they're really playing up this Saints-on-the-road thing. I may have shanked this one. And I did. What else is new?

The big question: Since the Saints pulled off a road win in cold weather, can you still say nobody believes in them? Hold that thought. Speaking of Cajun heroes, let's take a break for this commercial from our new sponsor, Bojangles'. That's right, biscuit justice is served … Delhomme-style!


Lesson No. 8: Picking Round 1 games might be as simple as (a) making sure one team's strength of schedule wasn't significantly harder than the other team's strength of schedule, and (b) just grabbing any home dog.

With the Colts becoming a game-day home dog, then covering, playoff home dogs are a jaw-dropping 23-12-1 since 1990. Guess what else? If you ranked every playoff team just by Jeff Sagarin's strength-of-schedule rankings, the team that played a harder schedule is 36-12 straight-up and 36-12 against the spread since 2002. When you narrow those numbers to teams that finished at least 10 SOS spots higher than their opponent, they improve to a staggering 23-3 straight-up and 22-3-1 against the spread (including New Orleans, Indy and San Francisco last weekend). FILE THIS SHIT AWAY FOR 2015, FELLOW GAMBLING JUNKIES!!!7

And now, let's break for another one of our new sponsors, JTM's Beef Taco Filling. Mmmmmm … muy deliciosa! Buenos tacos, amigos!


Lesson No. 9: Anytime a playoff team is laying more than a touchdown when (a) it hasn't won a playoff game in 23 years,8 (b) its QB generated just 23 points in his previous two playoff games (both losses) and just had a four-interception game, and (c) its coach could tie Jim Mora's record for "Most consecutive seasons with the same team without ever winning a playoff game," it's probably the right idea to grab the points.

And it was! Thank you, Cincinnati! You saved me from a winless weekend. So what should you do moving forward if you're the Bengals? Check out the numbers of the last three quarterbacks who started 0-3 in the playoffs. One of the three is Andy Dalton.

QB 1: 558 yards, 50-for-105 completed, 2 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.
QB 2: 584 yards, 70-for-110 completed, 4 INTs, 3 pass TDs, 47 points scored.
QB 3: 718 yards, 70-for-123 completed, 6 INTs, 1 pass TD, 33 points scored.

Who were they?

Let's see …

QB 1: Peyton Manning.
QB 2: Matt Ryan.
QB 3: Andy Dalton.

Translation: As much as I want to do it, I'm fighting off the urge to add "Don't bet on a ginger QB for any reason, but especially if he's laying points" to the Playoff Gambling Manifesto.

As for Dalton's long-term future, even if Bengals fans can't be blamed for quitting on Dalton or being wildly intrigued by Dalton-related trade possibilities (Mays alert!!!), it seems reckless to dump a 26-year-old QB with a 30-18 regular-season record just because of 180 minutes of football. Could Dalton lose his confidence completely and go full-scale Ginger Matt Schaub on us?9 Of course! It's a pulsatingly realistic possibility. (As I wrote in Week 6, once QBs lose it, they LOSE IT.) But what are Cincy's other options? Kirk Cousins? A soon-to-be 35-year-old Josh McCown? Christian Ponder? Josh "Two-Time Coach Killer Even If There Were Mitigating Circumstances But Still" Freeman? They're better off drafting another QB, challenging Dalton and seeing if those three playoff losses hardened him, and/or convincing him to shave his head bald. And if he keeps regressing, you cut bait.

For me, the Lewis conundrum is much more simple — an 11-year playoff drought extends well beyond a sample size. Again, it has happened only one other time in NFL history: Jim Mora … the guy who left us this magical legacy:


Counting every head coach who took over an NFL team after the first Super Bowl (1967), every eventual Super Bowl–winning coach did it within six years of taking over, with two exceptions: John Madden (Year 8)10 and Bill Cowher (Year 14). So if the Bengals keep Lewis, they're hoping he becomes Cowher 2.0. Here's the problem — Cowher took Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in Year 4, won five playoff games in his first six years, landed no. 1 seeds in 2001 (Year 10) and 2004 (Year 13), finally won the title (Year 14), and finished his career with a 149-90-1 record, giving him the 12th-highest winning percentage of anyone who coached 10 seasons or more (.623). Lewis had an 79-80 record heading into this season. He's never won a playoff game or clinched a playoff bye. He's not Cowher 2.0 — not even close.

So what is he? He's Jim Mora 2.0.

Lewis in Cincinnati: 11 years, 90-85-1 regular season, 0-5 playoffs.

Mora in New Orleans: 11 years, 93-74-0 regular season, 0-4 playoffs.

And no, Mora never did win a playoff game.11 Any Bengals fan should be exceedingly more pessimistic about Year 12 of the Lewis era than Year 4 of the Dalton era. And actually, maybe they should just be pessimistic in general. Keep your heads up, Bengals fans. And enjoy this commercial from another one of our new sponsors, the National Coffee Association. Mmmmmm … coffee …


LESSON No. 10: In the Concussion Awareness era, every playoff game is now a Michael Conrad Memorial "Let's Be Careful Out There" Game.

Once upon a time, well before NYPD Blue's groundbreaking influence on modern television dramas and Grantland's game recaps, Hill Street Blues was considered the GOAT of police dramas. For the first three seasons, every episode started the same way: a likable police veteran (played by Michael Conrad) addressing the troops, then ending his morning report by urging everyone, "Hey, let's be careful out there."


You could play that clip before every NFL playoff game in 2014. And even if everyone will remember last weekend's spectacular slew of games for what they were — 14 hours of high-powered drama — for me, that Chiefs-Colts game signified something bigger. Like the day we drew a clear demarcation line between Old Football and New Football.

A quick recap: Jamaal Charles gets dinged on Kansas City's first drive, lands face-down and doesn't move for an extra few seconds. Injury timeout. Every Chiefs fan immediately thinks, Oh God … I hope he doesn't have a concussion … please God …  as we head into commercial. When we come back, NBC shows the replay — turns out one of the Colts inadvertently clipped Charles in the head. Now we see Charles sitting on the bench as Kansas City's medical staff examines him. He has the semi–Troy Aikman Face going. Everyone watching knows right there that the league's best runner isn't coming back. A few minutes later, they show him heading for the locker room and that's that.

Now — think of how different that sequence was compared to the old days. First, any Old Football playoff player who got his bell rung would have returned to the game unless he got knocked out. And even then, he might have returned and wobbled around for a few downs. In New Football, you're wiped out instantaneously — it's like the light getting turned off next to every injured player's number in Rollerball (the 1975 version, not the indefensible 2002 remake). Second, the fan reaction to those moments has been irrevocably altered. Whenever anyone was injured in an Old Football playoff game, you thought to yourself, As long as we don't see that guy sitting on the cart, he might come back. With New Football, you know he's not coming back. Almost instantly.

And third, unexpected feelings of guilt pop up from both ends — for the opposing fans (trying not to anger the Karma Gods by celebrating that Jamaal Charles can't play anymore because, you know, his head just got effed up) and the player's fans (who fight off the urge to say, "Come on, Jamaal, you're fine, shake it off!" when they know it's probably worse than that). As my Chiefs buddy Connor texted me after Charles's injury, "I am the most pro-concussion-safety football fan in the world. Until our star running back gets his bell rung in the playoffs."

It's the black cloud that hangs over every game now, as well as one of our biggest ongoing gambling wrinkles — you just never know when your fortunes might flip because somebody's knee mistakenly grazed someone else's helmet, or someone landed the wrong way on a play they've pulled off correctly thousands of other times. Injury luck has become the fourth-biggest Super Bowl X factor, trailing only quarterbacks, coaches and Janet Jackson's partially exposed nipples. Anyone can disappear at any time. Even if that used to be the case to some degree, now it's REALLY the case. This is our American pastime in 2014. As a Sacramento reader named Patrick says, "While watching the third Chiefs player get pulled off the field for a possible concussion and listening to Bon Jovi's It's My Life play in Indy's stadium, I realized that song is the NFL's concussion policy — or at least the one they would like to have."


All right, let's tackle the Round 2 playoff games. Don't forget — for eight Round 2s in a row, at least one road underdog getting at least 4.5 points has won outright. You're not allowed to make a three-team tease with Seattle, New England and Denver this weekend. If I find out you did, you're grounded for a month. I'm not kidding. Don't test me.

• CLICK HERE for Part 2.

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By: timbersfan, 5:49 AM GMT on January 11, 2014

NFL Divisional Preview, Part 2
Everything you need to know (and more) about 49ers-Panthers and Chargers-Broncos
By Bill Barnwell on January 10, 2014
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On Sunday, the NFL brings us two divisional-round rematches of games played earlier this season. Perhaps strangely, the teams that won each of those most recent matchups are underdogs this week. Carolina beat San Francisco in a 10-9 slobberknocker at Candlestick in Week 10, but despite playing this week's matchup at home, the Panthers are currently listed as one-point underdogs. And while it would be unrealistic to expect that the Chargers might be favored over the Broncos in Denver, even after San Diego comfortably handled Denver to start its still-ongoing winning streak in December, the Chargers will go into Sunday's rematch at Mile High as 9.5-point underdogs. The theme for Sunday is pretty obvious: "Oh yeah? Prove it."

• CLICK HERE for Part 1.

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers

Here's my question: How many times do the Carolina Panthers have to prove that they're for real before people start believing? The Vegas line is one indicator, but just in reading Twitter, doing radio appearances, and listening to assorted forms of media throughout the week, there's a definite perception that the Panthers need to win this game to legitimize their status as a serious contender to win the Super Bowl this year. As if going 12-4 weren't enough!

This is now, by my count, Carolina's fifth game in which the national onus has been on the Panthers to exhibit some sort of legitimacy against a playoff-caliber opponent. You know what? The Panthers won three of their first four "prove it" games. They beat these very 49ers in San Francisco, 10-9, in one of the most brutally physical games of 2013. The next week, they went home and beat the Patriots on Monday Night Football, 24-20, by coming up with that infamous stop on Rob Gronkowski. They would get blown out by the Saints in New Orleans in Week 14, 31-13, but came back two weeks later in a monsoon to pull out a 17-13 victory over the Saints, staking their claim to the second seed in the NFC in the process. A win over Atlanta in Week 17 confirmed their placement.

Ironically, the last team that had to really go through this national wringer was Carolina's upcoming opponent. Few were skeptical of that dominant 49ers defense when they came out of the Mike Singletary era and went 13-3 in 2011, but even with Jim Harbaugh at the helm, perhaps even fewer believed that Alex Smith and that offense could keep up with the elite teams they would see in the playoffs, even after big victories over the Giants and Steelers during the second half of the season. The 49ers were 3.5-point underdogs when they lined up at home against the Saints in the divisional round, but after winning one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history, 36-32, people took the Niners seriously.1 A couple of Kyle Williams fumbles kept them from the Super Bowl that year, but the Niners would make the big game a year later.

And like those 49ers, I don't think whoever is out there doubting the Panthers believes that their defense isn't for real. Most of the doubt, as it has been all season, is being projected onto Cam Newton. And I don't really know what else Newton can do to overcome that. Normally, this conversation revolves around a young quarterback who hasn't come up with a big drive to win a game, but Newton led a 13-play, 83-yard drive in the fourth quarter to come up with the game-winning touchdown against the Patriots, and then followed that up with a five-play, 65-yard drive with less than a minute to go to beat the Saints in Week 16. Does he smile too much? Would it help if he made fake frowny faces to prove how committed he is?

The weird thing about the whole Cam Newton narrative this year is that he's being twisted in two directions and doesn't belong to either of them. As I wrote about before the Panthers went on their 11-1 run to end the season, Newton wasn't the guy holding the Panthers back. And while Carolina has gone on an incredible run, with Newton coming up with a number of key drives along that path, he also really hasn't taken some enormous step forward this year. He's still Cam:

Year Cmp% Yds/Att INT% QBR
2011 60.0% 7.8 3.3% 55.0
2012 57.7% 8.0 2.5% 54.2
2013 61.7% 7.1 2.7% 56.2
It's as simple as looking at the scoring offense and defense ranks. Carolina's offense scored the fifth-most points during Cam's rookie season, then fell off to 18th last year, finishing in the same spot in 2013. In points allowed, the defense finished 27th in 2011, 18th a year ago, and second in the league this year. Who do you think took the step forward to push this team into the playoffs this year?

That story — defense takes an enormous leap forward while offense stays the same — is harder to parse out than the more traditional story of a quarterback suddenly getting great before dragging the rest of the team to the playoffs. That the Panthers were instead sprung by their defense isn't and shouldn't be an indictment of Newton. He has been and continues to be an above-average quarterback, albeit one with an uncommon set of skills. His weapons, Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams aside, are a bunch of castoffs. Newton was already good enough for the Panthers to win. The rest of the team has just caught up.

That also includes a good amount of regression past the mean, of course. Ron Rivera was a staggering 2-14 in one-touchdown games after the Week 2 loss to the Bills, at which point he flipped a switch and suddenly became Analytical Ron, destroyer of worlds. The 10-9 win over the 49ers was Carolina's first victory in a one-touchdown game this year and its first close win over a .500-or-better team during Rivera's run as head coach; it promptly won its next four one-touchdown games to finish 5-0 in one-score contests. And in that win over the 49ers, ironically enough, it was TYFNC pinup Jim Harbaugh who took the conservative track and ended up losing because of it; Harbaugh kicked a field goal with a 6-0 lead on fourth-and-a-foot from the 2-yard line late in the second quarter to go up 9-0, only for the Panthers to score a touchdown before halftime to make it a 9-7 contest. The 49ers never sniffed the end zone again, while Carolina would miss a field goal before Graham Gano hit from 53 yards out to give the Panthers their one-point margin of victory.

The performance of Carolina's defense that day was the best game I saw from any defense all year.2 While Frank Gore ran for 81 yards on 16 carries, those numbers also took one of the most impressive efforts I've seen from a running back all season, with Gore getting the maximum on every single attempt while working his way through tackles on several of his carries. San Francisco's eight other carries went for a total of 23 yards, though, and the Panthers rendered Colin Kaepernick basically useless as a passer. The Panthers held Kaepernick to a sickly line, as he went 11-for-22 for just 91 yards, throwing an interception while posting a passer rating of just 42.0. Carolina's front four lived in the backfield during that first contest, and it sacked Kaepernick six times on just 28 dropbacks. That's a 21.4 percent sack rate, the second-highest sack rate posted by a team in one game all season.3

There are reasons to think the 49ers will be better throwing the ball in this rematch. For one, they lost Vernon Davis before halftime to a concussion (on a play when he probably fumbled), with replacement Vance McDonald dropping a perfect 35-yard pass up the seam from Kaepernick later in the contest. That's not to suggest that Davis has never dropped a pass, but you have to figure he might have done a better job on the play than McDonald. The other reason, of course, is that Kaepernick didn't have his favorite receiver. The availability of that guy — and the possible absence of Cam's favorite weapon — might be enough to swing Sunday's game to the 49ers.


STEPHEN LAM/GETTY IMAGES
Playmakers in Space Mountain

Michael Crabtree made his return to 49ers practice five days before that loss to the Panthers, but he wasn't in the necessary game shape to suit up for another couple of weeks. He returned against the Rams in Week 13, and while it's tempting to tie San Francisco's 6-0 record since then to Crabtree's presence on the offensive side of the football, the truth is that his comeback has been in fits and starts. Crabtree was relatively quiet for three weeks before breaking out with a 100-yard game against the dismal Atlanta pass defense in Week 16, only to finish up with a three-catch, 29-yard day against Arizona's elite pass defense in Week 17. The always-opinionated Bruce Arians commented before that game that Crabtree wasn't the same guy, and given how comfortably Patrick Peterson shut him down, you had to wonder whether Crabtree would be an impact performer in the playoffs.

And then Crabtree caught four passes for 70 yards on the first drive of the win over the Packers last Sunday, including a 31-yard catch on fourth down that saw Crabtree run straight through two distracted Packers defenders before making a difficult catch thrown to the wrong side of his body in 20-below weather. He finished with eight catches for 125 yards in the win, racking up six first downs while also drawing a defensive holding penalty.

What's even more notable than those statistics is that Crabtree drew 13 targets. That tells you how frequently he was getting open for possible throws from Kaepernick and/or how confident the 49ers were that he could come up with receptions when they needed some. Crabtree didn't quite play a full complement of snaps, but he did play on 66 percent of San Francisco's offensive plays, which is a promising figure given the weather and the frequency with which the Niners went with two tight ends and/or a fullback.

Against the Panthers the first time out, Kaepernick was both hurried for time and desperate for a receiver to get open. Mario Manningham was active then and started across from Anquan Boldin, which left the Panthers with a pretty obvious coverage plan. 5-foot-8 cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was an obvious matchup for the smaller, speedier Manningham, while 6-foot-1 rookie Melvin White, a 205-pound undrafted free agent out of Louisiana-Lafayette, was a logical choice for the more physical Boldin. That plan basically worked to perfection, as Boldin and Manningham combined for six catches and just 53 yards on 11 targets. Munnerlyn dropped a dead-to-rights interception on San Francisco's opening drive, which was the only 49ers drive of the day that traveled farther than 20 yards. And after Davis went out with his concussion just before halftime,4 Kaepernick went just 5-of-13 for 48 yards the rest of the way.

Crabtree's presence in the lineup at the expense of the now-injured Manningham provides the 49ers with a potentially lethal advantage. For one, the Panthers will now be presented with a physical mismatch on every snap featuring Boldin and Crabtree on the field at the same time. Munnerlyn is a game corner who has had an impressive season, but he's giving up about five inches and 35 pounds to both Boldin and Crabtree. You can't teach size, and the 49ers have it. That's going to matter against a heavy Carolina pass rush, since Kaepernick is often going to have a tight window to throw and the difference between a completion and an incompletion might very well be how effective the 49ers are at getting off the line of scrimmage. Every football game is full of sub-battles and self-contained skirmishes, and the game-long fight between the underappreciated Carolina cornerbacks and the renowned San Francisco wideouts is going to be one of the more important matchups of the day. While Crabtree's performance a week ago seemed to indicate that he was back, Arians is no dummy; Crabtree might very well go missing again this week, just as he did against Arizona in Week 17. He certainly represents the biggest X factor for the 49ers in this game.

Steve Smith, meanwhile, might not be around to extract his revenge for Ric Flair's dastardly heel turn.5 Smith sprained his PCL during the Week 16 win over the Saints and missed most of that contest before sitting out against the Falcons in Week 17. He had a setback with the knee during practice this week and publicly admitted as much, which is never a good sign for a player's availability.

Would a missing Smith represent a catastrophic absence for Carolina's offense? I'd certainly feel better as a Panthers fan with Smith in the lineup than I would with him injured on the sideline, but Smith hasn't exactly been a superstar for Carolina this season. Even before the injury, his numbers were way down from the work he did during Newton's first two seasons in the league. In 2011-12, Smith averaged 80.3 receiving yards per game; this year, that figure fell all the way down to 49.7 yards per contest.

Smith was still a weapon on third down, as his 17 conversions on third down were seven more than anybody else had on the Panthers, but where he really fell off was in terms of big plays. Smith's longest catch of the year went for just 44 yards, and after averaging 16.9 yards per catch over the previous two seasons, Smith fell to 11.6 yards per catch this season. That's a telling drop: It's pretty clear Smith lost a step this season. He was able to get by on veteran guile and the passing lanes created by the Carolina running game, but Smith's not the no. 1 receiver he used to be anymore. Heck, he didn't even lead the Panthers in receptions or receiving yards; Greg Olsen took the title for both those categories.

At the same time, though, you could see in that 49ers game that Newton looked to Smith in key situations. The Panthers actually fumbled twice on their final meaningful series before punting, but they took key time off the clock by converting a pair of third downs, finishing up with a quick out to Smith for a first down on what amounted to Newton's most important pass of the day. Smith might not be the same player he was a couple of years ago, but he might still mean as much to the Panthers as he did then.

It All Comes Down To …

Passing. Both these teams have solid running games, even if they're not necessarily always dominant. They each have excellent defenses; Carolina ranked third in defensive DVOA this year, and while the 49ers finished 13th, the return of Aldon Smith turned them into a scarier unit as the season went along, and Smith had one of his best games of the year against Green Bay last week. They each have above-average special teams, with San Francisco trading superior performances from their kickers and punters for inferior return work by their return men.

The big question mark, then, is whether either of these teams will be able to throw the football. San Francisco's passing game was functionally useless in Week 10, and a few key conversions in the second half were enough for Carolina to come through with an enormous victory. The Niners suit up for this contest as the dreaded West Coast team playing a 1:05 p.m. ET game, but if they can get last week's Crabtree onto the field and keep Steve Smith off it, the difference in each team's passing attack might be enough to swing the pendulum toward San Francisco.


DUSTIN BRADFORD/GETTY IMAGES
San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

The Chargers won that game against the Broncos in December by seven points, but the 27-20 final score really undersold how well the Chargers played and how far the Broncos were from victory. Denver had a 77 percent chance of victory 12 minutes into the game, but after that, its win expectancy steadily fell with just minor corrections back in its favor along the way. The Chargers had a 73 percent shot at winning around halftime, were up in the 90s in the third quarter, and never fell below 85 percent in the fourth quarter. Denver took over after a questionable San Diego punt down seven points with 5:50 to go and lasted just two plays before Peyton Manning threw an interception that basically sealed the game.

I'm always hesitant to look back at a game and pick an arbitrary turning point, but it's pretty clear this game swung on a series of San Diego stops in the middle of the contest. Denver produced typical Broncos drives on its two first-quarter possessions, with its 16 plays totaling 122 yards while leading to 10 points. It got the ball back with the game tied and 9:46 to go in the second quarter and … froze in its tracks. The Broncos would get just five possessions total during the second and third quarters, and those four drives netted a combined 13 yards and one first down. The Chargers won this game by virtue of those four stops. So what did they do to stop the Broncos?

Four-Leaf Clover

As the king of unsatisfying answers, allow me to tell you that the Chargers turned around that game with a combination of things; there is no smoking gun that tells us they figured out one of the best offenses in league history. For four drives, things went their way. Manny Ramirez whiffed on a block that blew up a run play. A miscommunication on a protection scheme saw Zane Beadles pull right on a pass play and Corey Liuget create a Manning scramble that led to a sack. The Chargers batted down two of Manning's eight passes at the line of scrimmage. Three of the passes were catchable balls that ranged from borderline drops to straight-up drops. One of the passes was a long duck down the sideline that probably should have been picked off. The Broncos spent most of that time in their typical 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end) and the Chargers responded with two down linemen as part of their nickel package. On one third down, San Diego actually lined up without a single defender's knuckles in the dirt. John Pagano threw a couple of tricky stunts at Manning, but at this point, I'm guessing Peyton has seen it all. It was a good performance from the Chargers and a bad set of showings from the Broncos.

What compounded those poor possessions, though, is that the Broncos got only four chances across two quarters to try to score. Sometimes, the best defense can be a good offense, and the Chargers did an incredible job of keeping Manning & Co. off the field by producing long, successful drives when their offense was between the hashmarks. To contrast, after each of those four failed possessions for the Broncos, the Chargers ran four meaningful possessions6 that produced a three-and-out, two touchdowns, and a bizarre eight-minute, 44-yard ode to chaos in football that included a neutral zone infraction on a punt, extending the possession, and a successful challenge for 12 men on the field. Those drives accounted for 30 plays, 173 yards, 14 points, and more than 16 minutes of possession. The spell wore off — Manning was 8-of-9 for 86 yards on Denver's next drive, which brought it within a touchdown — but that stretch was enough to put San Diego sufficiently far enough in the lead to win.

Government Work

San Diego's defense wasn't good throughout the entirety of the game, but it did enough to give its offense a chance to win. Given that the Chargers have the league's third-best offense per DVOA, that's not a bad plan. For most of the season, though, that was too much for the Chargers. San Diego's recent success has, in fact, been almost directly driven by a sudden improvement in its defense.

It would have been hard for the defense to get much worse. Almost impossible, actually. As Aaron Schatz noted on Twitter, the Chargers had a 25.2 percent defensive DVOA between Week 1 and Week 12. To put that in context, Football Outsiders has run DVOA figures for every defense between 1989 and 2013. No defense in football over that 25-year span has posted a defensive DVOA worse than that 25.2 percent figure. The Chargers were not merely bad; they might have been the worst defense since the Cold War. From that point forward, though, the Chargers have been much, much better. From Week 13 (their loss to the Bengals on December 1) through Week 17, the Chargers posted a minus-0.3 percent DVOA, which is almost exactly a league-average performance. And then they were the league's third-best defense during the opening round of the playoffs, trailing only the Saints and Packers. That's a pretty ridiculous turnaround, huh?

What made the Chargers turn around? For one, their personnel improved. Cornerback Derek Cox, who started the first 11 games of the year and served mostly as a lighthouse beckoning opposing teams to the end zone, was benched for the third time in four weeks during the 41-38 win over the Chiefs in Week 12 and taken off defensive duties afterward. He has played just nine defensive snaps since, while replacement Richard Marshall has at least offered an ambulatory defender in his stead at corner. The Chargers also got back two key outside linebackers in Week 14, as veteran Jarret Johnson returned after missing five of the previous seven games with hamstring and hand injuries, while 2012 first-rounder Melvin Ingram came off the Physically Unable to Perform List just seven months after tearing his ACL in practice. Johnson has helped shore up a leaky run defense, and while Ingram hasn't been a dominant pass-rusher since returning, he's managed to become part of the rotation at linebacker and made his presence known last week, when he became one of the millions who have intercepted Andy Dalton in the playoffs.

Speaking of that pass rush, it's really quite impressive to think about what defensive coordinator John Pagano has done with the few players San Diego had with any sort of history of taking down quarterbacks. Ingram was expected to be the team's primary pass-rusher after accruing just one sack as a rookie, but he tore his ACL in May. The Chargers then signed Dwight Freeney, but Freeney played only four games before tearing a tendon in his quad. Instead, the Chargers have had a pass rush by committee, with no player producing more than Liuget's 5.5 sacks. You would assume that the Chargers' pass rush got better right when they got those outside linebackers back and that DVOA surge occurred … and you would be incorrect. San Diego sacked opposing quarterbacks on just less than 7 percent of their dropbacks from Week 1 through Week 12, which was the 15th-best rate in the league. From Week 13 on, their sack rate dropped by half, and only the Texans and Ravens took down opposing passers less frequently than the Chargers. Football is confusing.

Where the Chargers improved, instead, is on first down. Through the end of November, San Diego allowed opposing offenses an average of 7.2 yards per play on first down. That's terrifying: The league average is just 5.4 yards per first-down play. They were more than a half-yard worse than the league's second-worst defense over that time frame (Dallas). A league-high 29.7 percent of plays on first down against the Chargers gained 10 yards or more. But from Week 13 on, the Chargers basically retreated to league average, allowing 5.3 yards per play on first down.7 It was a December miracle.

Their success against the Broncos was more notable, though, for what happened on third down. With Denver missing Wes Welker thanks to the first of his two late-season concussions, the Chargers held the Broncos to just two third-down conversions on nine attempts, a 22 percent clip that didn't match Denver's season-long output. The Broncos converted 46.8 percent of their third downs this year, the second-best rate in the league. The only team that picked up a higher percentage of its third downs? The San Diego Chargers, with Philip Rivers & Co. moving the chains on 49.0 percent of their third-down tries.


DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES
Bailey's Walk

The Broncos are also going to get a player back who might help them stop the Chargers on third down. While they won't have Von Miller, who played in the Week 15 game before suffering a season-ending ACL tear the following week, the Broncos will have Champ Bailey for this Sunday's game. Bailey returned in Week 16 after missing 11 of the first 14 games of the season with a nagging foot injury, but the Broncos have brought him on slowly since his return, using him as a nickel cornerback off the bench and playing him on less than half of the team's defensive snaps. The extra week of rest might be enough to push him into the starting lineup, but it remains to be seen whether the future Hall of Famer can suit up at anything resembling his typical level of play.

Bailey is not the only player or spot to worry about for Denver on defense. Miller missed the first six games of the year because of suspension before returning and eventually suffering the torn ACL.8 Shaun Phillips is now the team's primary pass-rusher, but he had just 3.5 sacks over the final eight games of the year. Derek Wolfe, the team's best defensive lineman, had a "seizure-like episode" on the team bus before Week 13 and hasn't played since. He returned to practice before Week 17, but hasn't been practicing this week and appears unlikely to play. 2012 fifth-rounder Malik Jackson has taken most of his reps. Safety Rahim Moore is dealing with compartment syndrome in his leg and won't be eligible to come off short-term injured reserve until the AFC Championship Game. That leaves safeties Duke Ihenacho and Omar Bolden rotating in and out of the lineup in his place. Jack Del Rio has done a lot to mask as many of the problems on this defense as he can, but there's just not a lot of talent up and down that side of the roster. In a way, the Broncos are not much different from the Chargers these days: If the Denver defense can do enough to give its offense a chance to win the game, it has done its job.

It All Comes Down To …

That Chargers defense. If it continues to play at its league-average level, this would essentially be a fair fight, with two league-average defenses and two great offenses. Of course, that undersells Denver's offense, which has the sixth-best offensive DVOA of the past 25 years, but you get the idea. If the Chargers' defense is back to its old ways, then it's a shootout with the best quarterback in the history of football against one of the worst defenses in recent memory. When that matchup happened in Week 10, Manning went 25-of-36 for 330 yards with four touchdowns and no picks. I suspect that the Chargers will try to run the ball to keep Manning on the sideline and hope that they get pressure with exotic pressures, like they did against Dalton and the Bengals a week ago, but I don't think it will work out quite as well for them this time around.

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By: timbersfan, 6:12 AM GMT on January 10, 2014

NFL Divisional Preview, Part 1
Everything you need to know (and more) about Saints-Seahawks and Colts-Patriots
By Bill Barnwell on January 9, 2014
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Today we take on Saturday's NFL divisional playoff games. Part 2 comes on Friday, when we'll tackle (no pun intended) 49ers-Panthers and Chargers-Broncos.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

By Week 16, the NFC playoff bracket was basically being presented as Seattle's coronation to the Super Bowl, by virtue of its status atop the conference and its unspeakably terrifying performances at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks were 6-0 at home, having won their average home encounter by an average of nearly 19 points per contest, and they had saved their best showings for the conference's toughest teams and the national eye. The Seahawks had blown out the 49ers in September on Sunday Night Football, 29-3, before dismantling the Saints in December on Monday Night Football, 34-7. It wasn't enough to say that they looked good at home. They looked untouchable.

Then, the Cardinals rolled into town. Arizona put together one of the most impressive performances of the season in Week 16, beating the Seahawks and overcoming its own quarterback, Carson Palmer, in a 17-10 upset. Seattle still claimed the top seed in the NFC by beating the Rams at home the following week, and it has still exhibited the best home-field advantage in football since opening its stadium, but the possibility of Seattle losing a home playoff game seems slightly more plausible than it did before that loss to the Cardinals.

After (unnecessarily) proving they can win on the road in the playoffs last week by beating the Eagles, the Saints will now need to show they can overcome their Week 13 blowout road loss to the Seahawks. That 34-7 game fell apart quickly for New Orleans; its win expectancy fell below 10 percent just 11 minutes into the game and never rose above 17 percent the rest of the way.

It was a beatdown, but in rewatching the game, I was surprised at how much came down to Seattle catching several key breaks early. Seattle was the better team on the day and deserved to win, and the Saints had no hope of catching up once the Seahawks got out to a 27-7 halftime lead, but New Orleans showed a lot more during the first half than I remembered. It made me believe that the Saints might have a better shot of making Saturday's game a contest than my memory — and the final score of that encounter in Week 13 — suggested.

The Saints had a number of big plays that were ruined by a last-ditch Seattle effort or a momentary lapse of concentration. A bomb to Robert Meachem was broken up at the last second by a trailing Richard Sherman. A surefire Russell Wilson interception was dropped by cornerback Corey White, who even injured himself on the play. On a play-action pass down the field, a wide-open Jimmy Graham had to stretch for an overthrown pass and exposed his ribs in the process, and the resulting hit to those ribs knocked the pass out of his hands. A later play-action pass found an open Josh Hill, but the Saints tight end couldn't hang on to a borderline-catchable pass.

In addition, the Saints were waylaid by a number of wildly blown coverages. A third-and-1 play-action pass by the Seahawks saw tight end Zach Miller sneak out of the backfield entirely uncovered for a 60-yard completion that set up a Miller touchdown catch. On a later touchdown pass, White would simply stop covering Doug Baldwin in mid-route for an easy score.

Where I really felt like the Saints were unlucky was in dealing with the game's two early fumbles, which had a tremendously important role in putting them behind in this contest. They both popped up in high-leverage spots, too. The first saw Marshawn Lynch catch a checkdown on third down inside the red zone, only to fumble after making the catch. Seattle's Max Unger recovered the fumble, and the Seahawks kicked a field goal on the next play. Then, on the subsequent series, Seahawks end Cliff Avril hit Drew Brees in the pocket, with the ball flying out of Brees's hands and into those of end Michael Bennett, who ran through the pocket and into space to score a return touchdown. That's a 10-point swing right there. There's no reason that the Saints should have recovered both fumbles, but Seattle was lucky to recover both. Chase Stuart's historical fumble model suggests that the Seahawks had just a 37.9 percent shot at recovering the Lynch fumble and a 50.1 percent chance at picking up the fumble forced by Avril, meaning that they would only be expected to recover both fumbles about 19 percent of the time. That they managed to do so got them off to a dream start from which the Saints really never recovered.

That doesn't mean the Seahawks didn't play well; it's no accident that Sherman was able to get his fingertips on that bomb to Meachem or that Avril managed to blow past Saints right tackle Zach Strief. But the first half of that game was a stretch when just about everything that could have gone wrong for the Saints did go wrong. The Seahawks will still be good, but the Saints probably won't drop as many passes or blow coverages on what basically amounted to two touchdown passes or fail to come up with all the key fumbles in the red zone. The Saints might still be vanquished, but they'll probably make it to halftime with a win expectancy greater than 6 percent.


JONATHAN FERREY/GETTY IMAGES
The Seattle Stomp

Everybody knows that the Seahawks are a great football team, especially at home. But what, specifically, are they truly great at? What are those tools by which they beat opposing teams into submission? And are the Saints particularly equipped to fight back against those weapons? Well, let's run through what makes Seattle best:

Pass defense: Seattle's biggest strength is its secondary, and as you might expect, that translates into a dominant defense against the pass. Seattle has the best pass defense DVOA in all of football by a comfortable margin. At minus-34.3 percent, the Seahawks have the best pass defense DVOA since the 2009 Jets. Chase Stuart goes even further and suggests that the numbers peg Seattle as the second-best pass defense since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.1 The discussion about how good they are is academic; the point is that this is a transcendent, otherworldly pass defense.

Are the Saints particularly well equipped to deal with that strength? I'm not sure; I guess it depends on what you consider to be the best way of combating that pass defense. New Orleans, obviously, is a team that's built around its passing attack, as the Saints ranked third in pass offense DVOA and are perennially among the most frequent and efficient passers in football. If you think the best way to weaken a great passing defense is a great passing offense, then that's not a huge hindrance for the Saints. On the other hand, you can also argue that teams aren't going to be able to pass on the Seahawks regardless, and that the best opponent for the Seahawks might be a team that can run the ball effectively and doesn't need to pass very frequently. That's not the Saints, despite what they did against the Eagles last weekend. New Orleans was 19th in rushing offense DVOA this year, and the only reason they ever rate high in rushing DVOA is because their passing attack sets up rushing opportunities, often against outnumbered fronts or on teams in pass-leaning alignments.

In looking over how the Seahawks have played this season, the quarterbacks who have had the most success against them are … well, weird. It's mostly passers who have been capable of creating big plays over the top of the defense. Mike Glennon had a 123.1 passer rating in a near-win in Seattle. Andrew Luck posted a 104.0 rating in Indy's comeback win over the Seahawks. Cam Newton was at 97.2 when his Panthers lost a defensive battle to Seattle in Week 1. Oh, and nobody's thrown for more than 258 yards against Seattle this season except for, um, Matt Schaub, who threw for 355 yards on 49 attempts in Houston's season-shifting loss to Seattle in Week 4. Brees can certainly throw a deep ball when he needs to, but New Orleans's best work seems to come when it is completing short and intermediate routes for endless first downs. It's possible that the Saints might have more success trying to go with deeper routes downfield. Of course, that also requires time, which leads us to Seattle's next huge strength …

Pass rush: Seattle's the deepest team in the league in terms of pass-rushers, as it can roll out any combination of Avril, Bennett, Chris Clemons, and Bruce Irvin on the edges in passing situations. It'll often even get three of them on the field by kicking Bennett inside, similar to how the Giants would turn Justin Tuck into a defensive tackle during his glory days. (See: Logan Mankins's nightmares.) With Clemons returning from a torn ACL and Irvin coming off of both a suspension and a conversion to linebacker, you would have expected Seattle's pass rush to get better as the season went along, but that wasn't the case. It had the fifth-best pass rush in the league during the first half of the season, but over the second half, that figure fell to 12th. If you want to beat the Seahawks, it really, really helps if you can keep your quarterback clean.

The good news is that the Saints have been pretty good at that; Brees was sacked on just 5.4 percent of his dropbacks this year, the seventh-best rate in the league. Like the Seahawks, the Saints have had trouble keeping Brees upright recently. Their issues against the Rams led Sean Payton to bench left tackle Charles Brown for rookie third-round pick Terron Armstead, a raw project who has had to face the Panthers and Eagles in two of his first three starts. Expect the Seahawks to do whatever they can to unsettle Armstead, both in terms of putting their best pass-rusher on the field against him on every snap and by designing blitzes (or feigned blitzes) that attack his lack of experience. Armstead already has a holding call and two false starts against him in three weeks; don't be surprised if his penalty count rises this weekend.

Turnovers: Seattle would be a great defense if it forced a league-average rate of turnovers, but it goes well beyond that mark. The figure I'm about to share with you is downright terrifying: Seattle's defense creates takeaways on 20.1 percent of opposing possessions. That's ridiculous. One drive out of five, the Seattle defense is coming off the field celebrating with the football in its hands. Nobody else is above 16.9 percent.

Just by avoiding turnovers, a team can avoid giving Seattle's offense excellent field position and force the Seattle D to stay on the field for longer stretches of time. The Saints, fortunately for New Orleans fans, are particularly great at avoiding giveaways. They turned the ball over on just 8.7 percent of possessions this year, the second-best rate in football behind the Colts. Seattle forced that fumble in the first contest, but New Orleans otherwise went the rest of the way without turning the football over. There aren't many positives to take away from that first game, but if the Saints can make it out of Seattle this weekend with just one giveaway, that would be a solid performance.

Arizona also proved that you don't necessarily need to avoid turnovers to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, although it certainly can't hurt. Palmer threw four interceptions in that game — including two interceptions in the end zone — and Arizona's defense was so stifling that the Cardinals were able to pull out a W. That came about after a late touchdown, which leads to another Seattle strength the Saints will try to overcome …

Red zone defense: Seattle had the league's best defense inside its own 20 this year, and again, it wasn't all that close. The Seahawks allowed teams to score an average of 3.7 points per red zone trip this year. The only other team under four points per red zone opportunity was Detroit.

This is an area in which the Seahawks will have a definite advantage, as the Saints were 18th in red zone offense, producing 4.8 points per trip. New Orleans's red zone offense is built around having bigger, faster players than the opposition, but the Seahawks are one of the few teams that have athletes capable of matching up with Graham and Marques Colston. The Saints have had success in the past employing Darren Sproles on option routes in the red zone; that's one way they might try to attack Seattle if they get near the goal line, especially if Seattle is brave enough to challenge the Saints with one-on-one man coverage.

The overall defensive game plan for Seattle will be interesting; at the very least, we know it will look different from how the Seahawks tried to stop the Saints the first time out. That defense was without Walter Thurmond, who was serving a four-game suspension. Thurmond came back for Week 17, but the team chose to leave Byron Maxwell in as the starter, with Thurmond playing just 18 defensive snaps. I'm not sure how the Seahawks will split things up on Saturday. This week's key absentee is linebacker K.J. Wright, who probably won't make it back in time from his broken foot to suit up this weekend. Wright's a key part of Seattle's pass defense when healthy, especially on the interior, where the Saints love to attack with Graham up the seam. Graham's success last time out mostly came on the outside, where he could attack Seattle's defensive backs and beat zone coverage. I don't think Seattle will go back to its 49ers playbook and stick Sherman on Graham full-time, but I do wonder how it'll handle Graham during those times when he's used as a traditional tight end.


STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES
Calculating Infinity

Seattle also hopes to get a versatile weapon of its own back for good against the Saints. Percy Harvin is expected to play for just the second time since arriving in Seattle, with his regular season having amounted to 19 offensive snaps. Harvin's an incredible player when healthy, and it appears he'll be at his healthiest all season on Saturday, but it's difficult to imagine that Harvin will be at his typical level of performance. He hasn't had the reps to develop any sort of chemistry with Wilson, he's not in game shape, and it's unlikely that the Seahawks have spent much practice time running through the assorted plays where Harvin might show off his versatility, since Harvin has barely been healthy enough to practice this year. He should have a limited role, but he still represents a mismatch as a traditional wideout for 15 to 20 snaps against New Orleans's cornerbacks. The Seahawks undoubtedly hoped that New Orleans would be without no. 1 corner Keenan Lewis, who suffered a concussion while hitting Jason Avant during the win over Philadelphia, but Lewis practiced this week and is likely to go.

In my opinion, Wilson's game against the Saints was the best performance he put on all season. If football was like the Emmy Awards and you had to submit one game for consideration, this is the game the Seahawks would have sent. Wilson was brilliant. When the Saints dropped back into coverage, Wilson cycled through his reads and made the smart, accurate throw to an open receiver. When they blitzed him, Wilson eluded the pressure and made the right pass at the right time. When he knew he wouldn't be able to get past the pressure, Wilson read his options appropriately and made the right pass immediately.

Take this eight-man blitz by the Saints, a rare Rob Ryan look where he's in Cover 0, without any safety help across the field. Most quarterbacks — even good ones — would freak out about this blitz and get the ball out as quickly as possible, or try to scramble outside the blitz to make a play on the run. Wilson doesn't do either of those things. He calmly takes a three-step drop and gets the ball out as his back foot hits the dirt, identifying correctly that his best matchup is Doug Baldwin up the seam against a safety, Malcolm Jenkins. All that's for naught if Wilson's throw is off, but it's right on the money. If you blitzed and the opposing quarterback did that, would you ever blitz again?

The Saints aren't going to be able to stop Wilson. What they need to do to win is contain him. Wilson's at his most dangerous when he scrambles out of the pocket and creates new passing lanes on the fly. The Saints' secondary, to be frank, can't hold up long enough in coverage to shut down the opposing receivers when Wilson is free on the edge. That means the New Orleans pass rush needs to do a better job both of containing Wilson within the pocket and then chasing him down once he's beginning to exit said pocket. They did an awful job of this in the first matchup. Arizona, to the contrary, did an incredible job of hampering Wilson's desire to create space for himself. It was disciplined in its rush lanes, and when Wilson did escape its clutches, its front seven had the athleticism to hunt him down and get Wilson before he could set and make a play. That's going to come down to Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette, who each finished with double-digit sacks this season. Even if they don't sack Wilson on Saturday, squeezing his scrambling space will be key.

Galette figures to be a key player in this game for the Saints. He was a situational pass-rusher in the 4-3 who wasn't expected to start this year as New Orleans transitioned to the 3-4, but injuries pushed him into a starting role, where he showed surprising ability as an every-down linebacker. At the same time, because of his inexperience, teams will do their best to exploit his aggressiveness with passes and runs in his direction. In the first matchup, while the Seahawks only got 79 rushing yards on the 27 carries by halfbacks Lynch and Robert Turbin, Wilson ate the Saints up on the read-option. Seattle repeatedly went after Galette early with the zone-read, and with Galette crashing down the line to try to take out Lynch, Wilson ran right by him for easy gains. Whether it was a lack of discipline or specific instructions from Ryan to attack Lynch and worry about the consequences later, the Seahawks took advantage of an inexperienced defender.

You know what? The Saints are getting better against the read-option. They did a sound job against Philadelphia's league-best rushing attack last week, holding them to 80 rushing yards across 22 carries, and that's facing the team that uses the zone-read more than anybody else in the league. I noticed that the Saints were significantly more disciplined against Philly's zone-read than they were against Seattle's, perhaps to the point of detriment; the Eagles' touchdown run on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line came on a read-option play in which linebacker Will Herring stood his ground on the edge and didn't allow anybody to loop around him, with Shady McCoy instead taking the handoff and running into an open gap for the easy touchdown. With Parys Haralson suffering a season-ending injury in the Eagles game, Herring's role should expand; I wonder if the Seahawks will move away from Galette and run at the career special-teamer, himself formerly a Seattle player, on Saturday.

It All Comes Down To …

Star power. For the Seahawks to lose in Seattle, I really think it requires a Herculean effort from the best unit on the opposing team to win and win and win on just about every possession. That's what the Arizona defense did in Week 16, and while their offense scuffled, the Cardinals did an incredible enough job against Wilson on defense that they were able to win the game with one long pass play to Michael Floyd. I don't think the New Orleans defense is capable of doing that, so this one comes down to Brees. With the weather report calling for 100 percent precipitation and winds of up to 21 miles per hour, the Saints probably need to get an MVP-caliber day from Brees to win a shootout. Anything is possible, but it's difficult to see them winning any sort of low-scoring contest, given Seattle's advantages on defense and special teams.


ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES
Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

Seemingly the only marquee matchup the Colts didn't get to this season was against the Patriots, courtesy of Indy's second-place finish in the AFC South last year. This is a rivalry that — thanks to the scheduling gods, these two quarterbacks, and their awful divisions — we'll see a lot more of in the coming years. These two teams played last year, with a 59-24 Patriots blowout featuring a dozen players who will watch this game on crutches or in slings. It feels about as relevant to Saturday's Colts-Pats game as the first half of the Chiefs-Colts game was to its second half. Same teams, same location, different universe.

Most analysis of this game will rightly pay heed to the two quarterbacks, and while I don't want to obsess over them, it's interesting to think about the different myths being built around these quarterbacks at disparate points in their careers. Tom Brady was so good in the playoffs at the beginning of his career that he established an unflappable reputation as a clutch king of the playoffs, even after he stopped winning all of his playoff games. The collective football discourse hasn't decided what Andrew Luck's myth is going to be yet. He's got a relatively quiet loss against the Ravens and an incredible comeback victory over the Chiefs on his playoff résumé; Saturday's game, even as a massive underdog, will go a long way in determining how he'll (perhaps unfairly) be perceived for years to come. I'm not sure whether it's exciting or depressing to see that narrative forming, but I am excited to see if Luck can carry five stars and a whole bunch of misfits through New England on the way to the AFC Championship Game. The truth, quietly, is that Brady has to do the same thing.


WINSLOW TOWNSON/GETTY IMAGES
Oh, There Is Pain Inside

It's fair to say the Patriots aren't exactly fielding the lineup that Patriots fans might have counted on as they looked at their roster in June. When you hear about those absences, you're often hearing about the offense — Stevan Ridley has been benched, Danny Amendola has been alternately injured and disappointing, Sebastian Vollmer is done for the year, Rob Gronkowski has torn up his knee, and Aaron Hernandez is in jail — but it's the defense that's been harder-hit by injuries. Those woes went to a new level this past week when the Patriots surprisingly announced that middle linebacker Brandon Spikes had been placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. Spikes was known to be dealing with a knee problem, but it was expected that he would be able to make it through the playoffs before having the knee operated on after the season.

His injury leaves the Patriots without their best linebackers against the run (Spikes) and the pass (Jerod Mayo). It's the latest in a series of injuries to the defense, and when you put New England's losses into perspective, it's truly staggering. Look at the enormous gap in career games started (through the end of the 2013 season) for the players whom the Patriots expected in training camp to start this season as compared to my best guess for the 11 guys who will start Saturday:

Pos Preseason 11 Career GS Postseason 11 Career GS
DE Rob Ninkovich 57 Rob Ninkovich 57
DT Tommy Kelly 122 Sealver Siliga 4
DT Vince Wilfork 132 Chris Jones 11
DE Chandler Jones 29 Chandler Jones 29
SLB Dont'a Hightower 27 Jamie Collins 8
MLB Brandon Spikes 39 Dane Fletcher 6
WLB Jerod Mayo 79 Dont'a Hightower 27
CB Aqib Talib 63 Aqib Talib 63
CB Alfonzo Dennard 15 Logan Ryan 7
S Adrian Wilson 162 Steve Gregory 54
S Devin McCourty 61 Devin McCourty 61
Career GS 786 Career GS 327
That's staggering. Kelly, Wilfork, Spikes, Mayo, and Wilson are all on injured reserve. Hightower's playing woefully out of position as the weakside linebacker, having absorbed Mayo's role. Dennard has been in and out of the lineup with injuries; he might start ahead of Ryan on Saturday, but he's not exactly a grizzled veteran. Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are the only two defenders in the Patriots lineup to start all 16 games this year.

Even scarier, very few of these replacements have the sort of pedigree that makes you think they could be viable subs. Siliga is a former Broncos practice squad member who had played four career snaps before joining the Patriots practice squad on October 23; six weeks later, he was starting at defensive tackle. Chris Jones was released by the Buccaneers in early September; the Patriots picked him up before their game against the Bucs, likely to snag any information2 they could on Tampa's defensive game plan, but they kept him on the roster afterward and moved him into the starting lineup in early October. He's started 11 games and finished second among rookies this year in sacks with six, trailing only first-round pick Ezekiel Ansah. Fletcher, the most likely fill-in for Spikes, is an undrafted free agent who normally does his work on special teams. Collins (second-rounder) and Ryan (third-rounder) are rookies. All hands are on deck.

Of course, this is what Bill Belichick does; he can beat you with his, or he can take yours, convince them that the world is out to get them and that nobody respects them, and then beat you with yours. Nobody gets more out of journeymen and rookie free agents than Belichick, who nearly won a Super Bowl two years ago with a bunch of guys who are either out of football or on their way out starting alongside Wilfork, Mayo, Spikes, and McCourty.3

Doing that stuff without your stars is another story altogether. Belichick might be the greatest defensive mind of his generation, but even he needs a few players to piece together some sort of competent defense. New England's defense has fallen apart as the season has gone along, and there's little reason to think it will get better. The Patriots ranked 10th in defensive DVOA during the first half of the season, but after their Week 10 bye, they had the league's fifth-worst defensive DVOA. Their run defense was already bad and stayed that way, but their pass defense really fell off, dropping from eighth in the first half to 24th in the second half.

The reasons why are staring you in the face within that table above, but one of the manifestations of this subpar defense was a lack of turnovers. The Patriots forced a takeaway in each of their games before the bye, eventually accruing 19 in nine games, an average of 2.1 per contest. After the bye, they struggled to force turnovers at the same rate. Although they finished with 10 in seven contests, that included two games with four takeaways each against the Broncos and Ravens. They had three games without forcing a single turnover, games that resulted in a loss to Carolina, a miraculous comeback victory over Cleveland, and a Week 17 win over Buffalo. The Patriots finished 13th in takeaway rate after finishing in the top three each of the last three seasons. The Patriots were 24th in forcing three-and-outs and were a league-average defense in the red zone; if they don't force takeaways, they struggle to get off the field.

It's going to be a little odd saying this about the Colts given what happened to them last week, but Indianapolis isn't a team prone to giving the football away. As I mentioned in my preview of the Chiefs-Colts game last week, the Colts turned the ball over just 14 times during the 2013 campaign, the lowest total in football. After giving the ball away on 14.2 percent of their offensive possessions in 2012, they cut that figure in half this season, with giveaways occurring on just 7.3 percent of their meaningful drives in 2013.

Now, you saw what happened to them against the Chiefs last week. Luck threw three picks and Donald Brown, apparently suffering from some unholy jinx, fumbled for the first time since his rookie season on the goal line. The Colts managed to overcome it, of course, by having a half-dozen players on the opposing team suffer injuries while Indianapolis launched the second-largest comeback in playoff history. You can decide yourself whether the 16 regular-season games in which they were safe with the football mean more than the playoff game in which the Colts coughed up the ball four times, in terms of predicting how they'll do against the Patriots this weekend. If they continue to give the ball away, it seems unlikely they'll be able to launch a once-in-a-lifetime comeback for the second consecutive week. I mean, who are they, Auburn?

If the Patriots have something to hang their hat on defensively, it's that they'll match up well with the Colts in terms of weaponry. Indy is a team built around one very good receiver (T.Y. Hilton), one competent possession receiver (Coby Fleener), and a bunch of flotsam. The Patriots are a team with one very good cornerback (Talib), one very good safety (McCourty), and a bunch of flotsam. Talib has spent most of the season covering the opposing team's top receiver, but he did much better work before suffering a hip injury in Week 6. He wasn't the same player when he came back, with a string of no. 1 receivers having big games against the Patriots. Steve Smith, Andre Johnson, Josh Gordon, and Mike Wallace all had above-average games against New England before the star wideout spigot was closed over the final two weeks of the year. Only Demaryius Thomas and Torrey Smith failed to reach their seasonal averages, and they each came close. Having the bye week off to rest could make a huge difference for Talib, who will be playing in the national spotlight during the final weeks of his one-year contract. He's probably New England's only hope of stopping Hilton, who absolutely torched a better secondary than this last week. Given how intently Belichick tries to take away the opposing team's biggest weapon, expect the Patriots to do everything in their power to force the Colts to go away from Hilton on Saturday night.


ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES
Cannon Fodder

On offense, meanwhile, the Patriots will need to concern themselves with Robert Mathis, who was having a quiet game against the Chiefs … until he strip-sacked Alex Smith and helped change the complexion of the contest. Because Mathis is so good at creating takeaways in the blink of an eye, the Patriots can't afford to lose their focus and let Mathis slink away for a single moment. And given that the left side of the New England line will feature an excellent duo in tackle Nate Solder and guard Logan Mankins, my suspicion is that Mathis will spend a good amount of time on Saturday lining up on the opposite side of the line, where he'll go up against tackle Marcus Cannon. Cannon, in for the injured Vollmer, is a work in progress. He had been playing guard for the Patriots as a utility lineman, but was restored to his college position of right tackle after the Vollmer injury. At 6-foot-5 and nearly 360 pounds, Cannon is a mammoth run-blocker who can simply engulf smaller ends/linebackers like Mathis if he gets his leverage and footwork right. Cannon's scouting report from before the 2011 draft notes his susceptibility to faster edge rushes and his inability to diagnose stunts and blitzes. Just as the Seahawks will go after Terron Armstead with blitzes to try to get him to guess wrong, the Colts will go after Cannon with twists and blitz packages. They each get the help of having a great quarterback behind them, but Cannon at least has the advantage of playing at home, where he's far more likely to hear Brady change the protection than Armstead is in Seattle.

Stylistically, the Patriots will have a good matchup with the Colts' defense. New England is very strong rushing between the tackles, which is where the Colts really struggle. The Colts are thin at cornerback, especially after Greg Toler left the Chiefs game with a season-ending reoccurrence of his groin injury, and the Patriots' receiving group is more about quantity than quality. It'll be interesting to see how the Patriots attack Darius Butler, a former New England second-round pick who left the team as a laughingstock before revitalizing his career in Indy. If they line up Butler in the slot on Amendola, the Colts will likely try to stick Vontae Davis on Julian Edelman, regardless of where Edelman lines up. Given that Smith gave this pass defense fits a week ago, you would expect Brady to do OK.

It All Comes Down To …

Turnovers. This time, for real. The Colts and Patriots each thrive on winning the turnover battle, and these are two quarterbacks to whom you don't want to hand a short field. If the Patriots blow out the Colts, people will say it's because Indy was emotionally spent from its win last week and didn't have anything left in the tank. If the Colts win, people will say it's because they were riding their wave of emotion from last week and just had too much momentum for the Patriots to handle. You try figuring out Indy's true emotional state before the game starts. I'm going to stick with the turnover thing.

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By: timbersfan, 6:19 AM GMT on January 04, 2014

NFL Weekend Preview, Part 2
Here's everything you need to know about the Chargers-Bengals and 49ers-Packers games on Sunday
By Bill Barnwell on January 3, 2014
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On Thursday we looked at what could happen in Saturday's slate of NFL playoff games. Today, we move on to Sunday …

San Diego Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, 1:05 p.m.

The last time the Chargers lost was to these very Bengals, all the way back on December 1, in a 17-10 game that was more lopsided than the score might suggest. The Bengals knelt twice to end that game inside the San Diego 10-yard line in a contest where, honestly, they beat the Chargers up. Cincinnati is very capable of manhandling most teams on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and the likes of Andrew Whitworth and Brandon Thompson overwhelmed their beefy counterparts in the trenches. It's not uncommon to see an offensive line seal off a running lane at the point of attack from both sides, but it is weird to see that happen six yards past the line of scrimmage. It was a brilliant, brutal performance.

Yesterday, in writing about why the Chiefs might be able to flip the script from their previous loss to the Colts, it was easy to find tangible reasons why Kansas City's ugly performance was unlikely to occur a second time. Not only is it likely to get Branden Albert and Justin Houston back from injuries, but it was really the only game all season in which the Chiefs played sloppy football. For the Chargers, while they've got King Dunlap back on the offensive line after missing him in that Bengals game, there's just not much of a track record for them winning at the line of scrimmage. For the Chargers to win this game, they're going to have to get a great team effort up front and hope their talented young players on the outside can win one-on-one battles. It's going to be a tall order.

Chargers' Path to Victory I: Win a Shootout

San Diego's strength as a team is with its skill-position players on offense, an underrated group that produced at an elite level all season long. San Diego's passing offense ranked second in DVOA during the first half of the season, and its rushing attack jumped from 18th to fifth in the second half.

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That came about thanks to a heavier dose of Ryan Mathews, who was a monster during San Diego's season-ending four-game winning streak. Over the final quarter of the season, Mathews carried the ball 107 times for 473 yards and three touchdowns. Nobody else in the NFL had more than 90 carries, and only LeSean McCoy produced more rushing yards over that time frame. It's wrong to infer that the Chargers won solely because they decided to hand Mathews the rock, and he almost certainly got the ball that frequently because the Chargers were winning, but it's also true that you're pushing your team toward a W when you're averaging nearly four and a half yards over that many carries without coughing up the ball.

I'd be worried about Mathews doing that in the wild-card game just because the Chargers really didn't give him any running lanes to get through; it took plenty of extra contortions and cuts from Mathews to get the most out of his traditional carries. His best play of the day back in December was actually on a draw when two Cincinnati linemen had pushed the guards blocking them three yards deep into the backfield. It was that kind of day.

Where the Chargers should have more success, obviously, is in the passing game. Cincinnati's pass defense is better than its rushing defense — it was fourth against the pass and 13th against the run — but injuries may have begun to weaken it there. The Bengals lost star defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall for the season without skipping a beat, but they're now also down fellow starting corner Terence Newman, who suited up for the first Chargers game but remains a question mark for Sunday's tilt. That leaves the Bengals starting Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback, and while Kirkpatrick has a solid pedigree as a first-round pick out of Alabama, he has failed to live up to his professional expectations. He has looked competent since coming into the lineup for Newman three weeks ago, and he did have two picks against the Ravens (and a hobbled Joe Flacco) last week, but doing the same against Philip Rivers is a different story.

The Bengals don't normally move their cornerbacks around to account for the opposing team's star receiver, so I'm willing to believe that the Chargers will spend much of the day with Keenan Allen on Kirkpatrick's side of the field. Allen, the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, is a critical part of the Chargers' offense in so many ways. When the Chargers need a third-down conversion, they turn to Allen on a variety of slants and crossing routes; he had 22 third-down conversions this year, seventh in the league behind a bunch of players with tons more targets than him. When teams big-blitz Rivers, one of San Diego's favorite hot routes is for Rivers to throw a jump ball up to Allen, who outmuscles opposing defensive backs for big catches. In that first matchup, the Chargers picked up a couple of third downs against the Bengals with that very tactic, forcing Cincinnati off those blitzes as the game went along. Cincinnati doesn't have anybody who can cover Allen one-on-one, but then again, neither do about 25 other NFL teams. It's critical that he has a big game for the Chargers.

Their second weapon is Antonio Gates, who had a brutal time in Week 13. Gates fumbled away one catch to end an early Chargers drive, and later, he would have the ball ripped out of his hands by Kirkpatrick while attempting to complete a catch, resulting in an interception that was really more like a fumble. At this point, teams aren't afraid of Gates; he's still a talented receiver, but it's fair to say that a decade of ankle and foot injuries has cost him a step or two.

Instead, the guy who the Chargers will hope can produce a moment of magic is the team's second tight end, Ladarius Green. Green is basically a lottery ticket at this point, a freak athlete in his second season out of Louisiana-Lafayette who ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at 240 pounds during the 2012 NFL combine. He's going to be a terrorizing mismatch once the game slows down for him, and there are signs he might be figuring things out. After catching four passes as a rookie and seven more through the first nine games of the season, he had a three-game stretch with nine catches for 206 yards and two touchdowns, including a 30-yard touchdown pass up the seam against these very Bengals that exhibits how dangerous he can be. Playing in Cover 2, the Bengals know this sort of pass up the seam is coming, and they try to position their gifted, rangy linebackers in lanes to prevent the completion. It just isn't enough. Green is too fast off the line for the Bengals to properly account for his depth, and after a play-action fake, Rivers is able to rocket in a pass that Rey Maualuga had no prayer of touching. That's what Green can do for San Diego. Then again, he has just one catch during this four-game winning streak, which is why he's a lottery ticket.

The Bengals are well positioned to fight off that run of tight ends; they'll likely spend most of their time in the nickel, with linebackers Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict and safety Reggie Nelson matching up against Gates and Green. They'll try to jam Green at the line of scrimmage to prevent him from getting into his routes, and their defenders are fast enough to stick with Gates stride-for-stride. And if their front four keeps winning against San Diego's offensive line, the back seven won't be particularly concerned about getting up at the line of scrimmage to defend against the run, which will help limit the damage done by San Diego with play-action. It's not impossible to imagine the San Diego receivers piecing together a great game and winning these matchups, but if the Bengals can beat the Chargers at the line of scrimmage, the odds will favor the Cincinnati defenders.


STEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES
Chargers' Path to Victory II: Catch a Dalton Stinker

It's fair to say that Andy Dalton's postseason career hasn't exactly been covered in glory. In two starts, both in Houston against the Texans, Dalton completed 57 percent of his passes while averaging 5.3 yards per attempt, and he threw four interceptions without tossing a single touchdown. He has been better during the regular season, but he is still prone to games in which he fails to make adjustments and forces dangerous throws. In fact, he doesn't appear to be maturing in that sense whatsoever. Dalton had three three-interception games this season; only Eli Manning had more.1 Dalton's interception rate rose for the third consecutive season, and he finished with 20 interceptions.

That isn't to say Dalton isn't growing whatsoever. His yards per attempt and passer rating grew for the third consecutive season, his completion percentage remains slightly above league average, his sack rate remains low, and he threw a kinda-stunning 33 touchdowns this season. Cherry-pick samples and you can find a three-game stretch in which he threw 11 touchdowns against two interceptions … and then followed that with a four-game run in which he threw six touchdowns against nine picks. Dalton isn't a bad quarterback, but he is certainly an inconsistent one. And while a high-variance quarterback can put together a lights-out four-game stretch and win the Super Bowl when everything goes right,2 he's also more likely to come out of nowhere with a horrible performance that kills his team's chances of winning a game. The Chargers need to spin the Dalton Wheel and hope it lands on a bad day.

San Diego did lure Dalton into one ugly interception by masking the fact that Eric Weddle was playing center field and offering safety support on what appeared to be single coverage on A.J. Green, but that's not enough. The Chargers need to help their own cause by avoiding mental mistakes and fighting through the play design of the always clever Jay Gruden. During the last Chargers-Bengals game, San Diego really had trouble dealing with Cincinnati when it would line up in bunch formations and run a variety of pick plays or feigned pick plays from the same spot. One such play led to a wide-open touchdown catch for Green when nobody followed his route into the end zone. Cincinnati would later get a key catch-and-run from Andrew Hawkins off a similar route combination. The Chargers are mostly young and inexperienced at linebacker and in the secondary, so it's key that they somehow find a way to stay with their assigned men in coverage and weave through those tangled routes.

One other way to try to help make Dalton have a bad day: Get a hand on him. The Chargers failed to sack or even knock Dalton down once during that first game, and while he only threw 23 passes, the Chargers only really pressured him on two occasions. Defensive coordinator John Pagano has to do more to get after Dalton on Sunday. It seems unlikely that Cincinnati's talented offensive line will blow many assignments in pass protection, but the Chargers could get a boost if left tackle Anthony Collins misses the game with an ankle injury. That would likely push Whitworth, who had a dominant game at guard during the first contest, back out to his traditional spot at left tackle, creating a hole again at guard that would likely be filled by Colts cast-off Mike Pollak.

Chargers' Path to Victory III: What If the Bengals Aren't Great at Home After All?

Yesterday, I wrote about the Saints, an 8-0 home team forced to travel away from their power base in the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals aren't quite as obviously a team built to succeed in their home confines, but they went 8-0 at home for the first time since 1988, a year they finished by winning two more playoff games at home before losing Super Bowl XXIII on a neutral field to the 49ers. The Bengals didn't exactly play a tough schedule in 2013, but they did still manage to beat the Patriots, Colts, Ravens, and Packers during their undefeated home run. Unless the Broncos lose in the divisional round, this will be Cincinnati's final home game of the season. Undefeated home teams don't suddenly start losing in the playoffs, right?

Well, um, funny you should ask. Here are the last 10 undefeated home teams to host a playoff game3 and what happened to them:

TEAMS THAT WENT 8-0 AT HOME

YEAR TEAM RESULT
2011 Saints Won at home against Lions, lost on road to 49ers
2011 Packers Lost at home versus Giants
2011 Ravens Won at home against Texans, lost on road against Patriots
2010 Patriots Lost at home versus Jets
2009 Patriots Lost at home versus Ravens
2009 Vikings Won at home against Cowboys, lost on road at Saints
2008 Panthers Lost at home versus Cardinals
2007 Patriots Won at home versus Jaguars and Chargers, lost Super Bowl to Giants
2006 Chargers Lost at home versus Patriots
2006 Colts Won home games versus Chiefs and Ravens en route to Super Bowl win
That's right, five of the last 10 teams to go 8-0 at home during the regular season promptly lost their first home game during the postseason. You can probably figure out why: The competition gets harder and an eight-game sample just doesn't say very much about anything. There's nothing inherently meaningful about going undefeated at home;4 a team can go 7-1 and still have its home stadium be a "fortress," as I suspect the Seahawks believe their home digs to be.

It also seems silly to suggest you're unbeatable in your home ballpark when you haven't even sold the thing out yet. The Bengals (as well as the Colts and Packers) were still several thousand tickets short of a sellout on Thursday night. The Colts managed to sell their remaining tickets on Friday, and thanks to a league extension will have their blackout lifted. However, Cincinnati is still a question mark and the league will almost surely urge ownership to buy up any remaining tickets before game day to ensure that the city doesn't endure an ignominious local playoff blackout, a very interesting story line amid the new FCC discussion surrounding the sports blackout rule. In any case, while the Bengals will be happy to play at home Sunday, it's not exactly the terrifying enclave their 2013 home record suggests.

It All Comes Down To …

The battle up front will be the most important matchup of all. If the Bengals can knock the Chargers up, down, and around in the trenches, I honestly can't imagine the Chargers winning this game. Their defense isn't good enough to stop the Bengals from running the football if the offensive line gets going, and it will take a perfect game from Rivers to win if his offensive line can't keep the Bengals at bay. Then again, it basically required a perfect month from the Chargers (and the teams around them) to get San Diego into the playoffs, and that's exactly what happened, so you would forgive the Chargers for feeling like they shouldn't be counted out right about now.


DAVID BANKS/GETTY IMAGES
San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers, Sunday, 4:40 p.m.

If you had told Packers fans on Thanksgiving night that they would still manage to squeak their way into the playoffs with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, they would have been delighted. If you had told them they had to play the 49ers in the first round, well, you might not have gotten exactly the same reaction. San Francisco has had Green Bay's number under Jim Harbaugh, winning three games over the past two seasons.

That began on the opening weekend of the 2012 season, with the 49ers traveling to Green Bay and physically overwhelming the Packers in a game that took a bizarre Randall Cobb punt return to finish within one score at 30-22. In the divisional round of last year's playoffs, the Packers famously got stomped by the read-option, with quarterback Colin Kaepernick running for 181 yards in a 45-31 blowout that only looked close because of a meaningless late Packers score. Finally, the Packers battled back in a closer game at Candlestick during the opening week of this campaign, but Anquan Boldin's 208-yard day was enough for the 49ers to launch a fourth-quarter comeback and prevail, 34-28. You often hear that it's hard to beat the same team twice in a season. Well, is it hard to beat the same team four times in two years?

Bullying the Packers

I guess it depends on how you phrase the question. It's certainly not impossible for a team to win four games against another team across two years; it happens all the time, but usually it's when a consistently great team gets to beat up on an ugly sibling within its division twice a year. That's not really a fair comparison here, since the 49ers beating the Packers four times in two years isn't the same thing as, say, Peyton Manning and the Broncos stomping out a hopeless Raiders team. So let's rephrase the question. Is it hard for one playoff team to beat another playoff team four times in a row over two years?

The evidence doesn't seem to point to any conclusions. By my count, there are seven situations since 1990 when one playoff team has won three consecutive games over another playoff team over a two-year stretch (including, of course, their playoff games). In that fourth game, the dominant team has won four out of seven times.5 That includes one series that, sadly, Packers fans might remember well. The Packers lost six consecutive games to the Cowboys over the 1993, 1994, and 1995 seasons, losing their regular-season game to Dallas before being knocked out of the playoffs by the same Cowboys each year. A decade later, the Colts lost four consecutive games to the Patriots before beating Tom Brady three consecutive times themselves, including the famous 38-34 playoff comeback win. It's too small of a sample to say anything, but there's certainly no evidence confirming that the Packers will have no hope of overcoming their three-game losing streak against Harbaugh's 49ers. There's not enough evidence here to suggest that "having a team's number" means very much.

Points at Head to Indicate Intelligence

That's the good news. The bad news? They still have to come up with a way to beat the 49ers, who have badly outsmarted the Packers during their last two contests. While Alex Smith outpointed Aaron Rodgers in Week 1 of the 2012 campaign, the 49ers eventually replaced him with Kaepernick before the rematch in last year's playoffs. After giving Kaepernick occasional reps in the read-option for most of the regular season, the 49ers took the tactic out of their playbook over the final two weeks of the regular season before unleashing it upon an unsuspecting Packers team in the playoffs in spectacular fashion, running it 16 times for 176 yards and a touchdown.

Britches sufficiently burned, the Packers swore they wouldn't lose to the read-option again when they opened up against the 49ers (and then Washington) to start the 2013 season. They sent their defensive staff to Texas A&M to study the read-option in the hopes of understanding how to stop it. Having drilled all the angles and coached up their defense throughout training camp to stop the zone-read, the Packers came out fully prepared for Week 1 and held the 49ers to 10 rushing yards across seven zone-read plays.6 Unfortunately, the 49ers ran 66 other plays that day and averaged 7.3 yards per snap on them, with Kaepernick throwing for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Oops.

So, having been through the read-option wars, only to fall victim to a stunning passing display, why should anybody believe that the Packers have any prayer of slowing down the San Francisco offense in this playoff game?

Well, if you're a Packers fan looking for hope, it should start with the other 15 games of the 2013 season. While Kaepernick had a solid season during his first full year as the starting 49ers quarterback, he was neither the terrifying runner nor the pinpoint answer his starts against the Packers purported him to be. Kaepernick averaged just less than 33 rushing yards per game this year, and after his 412-yard passing outburst in Week 1, he finished up with just less than 186 passing yards per game across his final 15 games. Boldin looked like the biggest bargain of the offseason after his 208-yard opener against Green Bay, but he came down to earth the following week, when Richard Sherman held him to one catch for seven yards. Boldin didn't have another 100-yard game until Week 17, when he caught nine passes for 149 yards against the Cardinals. San Francisco's passing attack was essentially a two-man game7 with Boldin and Vernon Davis until Michael Crabtree returned, and even then, Crabtree has had a relatively quiet 19 catches for 284 yards in his five-game audition for the playoffs. He should be getting better with each week, but he's still rusty and recovering from his torn Achilles.

This should also be the most effective secondary Kaepernick faces during his Packers conquests. In Week 1, the Packers were missing two starters in cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Morgan Burnett. Hayward is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, but Burnett is safely ensconced in the lineup, and he's a better player than Jerron McMillian, who was released by the Packers in December. Green Bay has also turned Mike Neal into a worthwhile every-down linebacker after playing him in a rotational role early in the season; he should offer more as a run defender than Erik Walden did a year ago. Clay Matthews is out, which obviously doesn't help matters, but the Packers have gotten more from rookie Andy Mulumba as the season has gone along. It wouldn't be a surprise to see Mulumba play ahead of 2012 first-rounder Nick Perry on Sunday, as Perry was removed from the game (either because of a foot complaint or poor play or, likely, both) twice during the win over the Bears last week.

And I don't want to suggest that the Packers are due for a takeaway against the 49ers, but it's pretty incredible that Green Bay has had so much difficulty getting the ball away from the San Francisco offense. The Packers have lost the turnover battle five to one over these three recent Green Bay–San Francisco tilts, and while that one takeaway was a Sam Shields pick-six on the opening drive of last year's playoff game, the Packers just haven't been able to create big plays on defense. It's really important to keep competitive with the 49ers in terms of the turnover margin, too. The 49ers are now 38-4-1 under Harbaugh when they win or tie the turnover battle and 1-9 when they lose it. Everyone does better when they win the turnover battle, but Harbaugh's 49ers are an extreme case.


NORM HALL/GETTY IMAGES
Not Miller Time

One issue the 49ers still need to adapt to is the absence of fullback Bruce Miller. An underrated part of the 49ers offense in the way that fullbacks are inherently and consistently underrated, Miller was both a checkdown target in the passing game and a reliable lead blocker on the ground. He went down with a shoulder injury against the Buccaneers in Week 15 and is now on injured reserve, so his season is over. The 49ers tried to replace him with former Stanford fullback Owen Marecic, only to find that Marecic had moved on from football; that left the 49ers with converted halfback Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu, formerly a 293-pound defensive end at Oregon.

The 49ers place more of an emphasis on using the fullback than any other team I can think of. San Francisco ran the ball 374 times this year in a two-back set (per ESPN Stats & Information), which is 120 times more than any other team. In many cases, that was Miller blocking for either Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter. To contrast, only one team in football runs out of a single-back set less frequently than the 49ers, and that's the Saints.

So, replacing a respected fullback with a pair of projects should reduce the effectiveness of your running game. That makes sense. It also hasn't happened for the 49ers. Through the Bucs game, the 49ers averaged 4.1 yards per carry in their two-back sets. They've run the ball 32 times in two-back sets since Miller went on IR, and those carries have produced 167 rushing yards. The sample is small enough that a single 45-yard run makes up the difference between the Miller-led attack and the new effort, but even coming close to their former exploits would be good enough for the 49ers without Miller. ESPN Stats & Information also notes that the 49ers managed to keep their running backs untouched for an average of 2.6 yards before first contact per run play with Miller in the lineup; with Dixon and Tukuafu, that figure is up past four untouched yards per play. It seems like Dixon is winning the battle so far, but if the 49ers can keep defenders off their backs and smash out holes at the line of scrimmage for their backs to run through, I don't think they will care whether Dixon or Tukuafu becomes the full-time fullback for Gore.

The other injury that might cause problems for the 49ers is that of Carlos Rogers, who went down with a hamstring injury during the Cardinals game in Week 17. Rogers is questionable for Sunday, and his absence would create a hole in the slot for the Niners, who are already thin at cornerback after Nnamdi Asomugha washed out. It would likely create a role for veteran Eric Wright, who has played just 117 defensive snaps all season.

It All Comes Down To …

Factors for each side. For the Packers, can they finally muster a two-takeaway day against Kaepernick & Co.? Can B.J. Raji, who had a horrible day last year against the read-option, hold his own up front against arguably the league's best interior line? (It would sure be nice for Raji, who is at the end of a contract year.) Will the Packers gain a competitive advantage in a game in which the temperature at kickoff is likely to approach negative 12 degrees? Is Rodgers 100 percent after his collarbone injury, or will the rustiness we saw during the first three quarters of the Bears game continue to rear its head in this contest? And is Eddie Lacy, who is still struggling with an ankle injury after a meaningless halftime draw a few weeks ago, going to cut at anywhere near 100 percent? Can Mike McCarthy somehow avoid being outcoached in terms of in-game strategy by Harbaugh? No to that last one? OK.

It seems a little clearer for the 49ers. Will they beat themselves? Is Crabtree ready to be a threatening receiver, even if he's not back to his former self? If Rodgers is on, can Kaepernick keep up? In negative-12-degree weather? Will they get the old Aldon Smith as opposed to the erratic, inconsistent guy who has been on the field since returning from rehab? Oh, and do they have another trick up their sleeve that they've been saving for the overmatched Packers? My suspicion is that they don't have one — or need one, either.

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By: timbersfan, 6:16 AM GMT on January 04, 2014

NFL Weekend Preview, Part 1
Here's everything you need to know about the Chiefs-Colts and Saints-Eagles games on Saturday
By Bill Barnwell on January 2, 2014
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Saturday night is alright for revivals. Three of the four teams playing on the opening night of the 2013 playoffs had sub-.500 records last year, including the 11-5 Chiefs, who were the worst team in football a year ago. Each of those teams turned over its head coach, saw much-improved quarterback play, and got some help thanks to a reversal of several outliers that didn't go its way in 2012. And then, defiantly flipping off precedent, there are the Colts, who unexpectedly managed to repeat their 11-5 season from a year ago while producing a résumé with wins over most of the league's top teams.

The Colts do have something in common with two of the teams making triumphant returns to playoff football: They flipped their turnover margin in spectacular fashion. No, really — look at this table:

Team 2012 TO Margin Rank 2013 TO Margin Rank Diff
Chiefs -24 T-32nd +18 2nd +42
Colts -12 26th +13 3rd +25
Eagles -24 T-32nd +12 4th +36
Saints +2 14th 0 14th -2
From 1990 to 2012, there were only 17 teams that improved their turnover differential by 25 turnovers or more.1 There are three such teams playing on Saturday. If you want to figure out why those teams are in the playoffs, you start there. And if you want to figure out who's going to win this weekend, you might be able to end there, too. Since 1990, teams that have won the turnover battle in a given game during the regular season have won that game 79.1 percent of the time. In the playoffs, that figure climbs to 84.2 percent. Of course, everybody knows that winning the turnover battle is important; it's figuring out how to win the turnover battle that's the hard part.

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles, Saturday, 8:10 p.m.

The Saturday nightcap could be a nightmare for the Saints. (I hope you see what I did there. It's important.) It appears that this game will be played in the aftermath of a Northeast snowstorm in low-twenties weather, but I also know for a fact that Drew Brees has significant experience dealing with the impact of colds from his NyQuil commercial, so that should cancel out. I'll spare you the tortured travel food analogies2 and get to the argument that's surrounding this game: The Saints are going to lose because they're leaving home and going somewhere really cold, and the thing they do that works at home doesn't work on the road and especially on the road in the cold. Is that true? Let's try to figure it out.

Home Truths From Abroad

Let's start with the broadest fact: The Saints were much better at home than they were on the road this year. In New Orleans, the Saints went undefeated for the second time in three seasons. They scored 34 points per game and won their average contest by more than 18 points, producing nearly two takeaways for every giveaway. Once they flew out of Louisiana, the Saints were a mere 3-5. They were outscored by an average of 4.6 points per game on the road, and that unstoppable offense could only muster 17.8 points per contest. Their lowest-scoring game at home was 23 points, a figure they only topped twice on the road all season.

There are reasons to be skeptical that the difference is quite as severe as that paragraph makes it out to be. For one, a lot of this is driven by the difference in their records in the two locales as opposed to their actual level of play, and I don't know that their performance gap matches up with their win-loss figures. Consider that the Saints were probably lucky to win their game against the 49ers at home after that phantom penalty on Ahmad Brooks and likewise lost in the last moments of key road games against the Panthers and Patriots, two of the best teams in football. Those were all games where the outcome, win or loss, massively overstates the difference in play between the two teams. So flip the wins and losses in those games for a second. If the Saints are 7-1 at home (having credited them with a loss for the 49ers game) and 5-3 on the road (having now won the Patriots and Panthers games), are we even having this discussion about their performance on the road? Probably not. And if the discussion comes down to what happened in three or four plays across a number of weeks, it's probably not as meaningful as it suggests itself to be.

Oh, and about the Panthers and Patriots? They're really good football teams, and the Saints played a lot of those on the road this year. The Saints also lost on the road to the Seahawks and beat the Bears, neither of which is a fun place to tread. The disconcerting losses on the road were to the Rams and Jets, games in which they faced uncommon circumstances. In the Rams game, Brees threw interceptions on his first two possessions, with one deep in his own territory and the other in the Rams end zone, with both subsequent Rams drives producing touchdowns. St. Louis then delivered an unexpected onside kick to set up a field goal and go up 17-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. I don't know any team that does well after going down 17-0 on the road after a quarter. I will admit that I can't explain the Jets game. I think we should wait for its 'B' sample to get tested before we jump to any conclusions.

DVOA is very useful3 for analyzing things like home and road splits because it puts performance into context; just about every team is worse on a play-by-play basis on the road than it is at home, so the question should really be about whether they're abnormally worse on the road. (It also adjusts for quality of opposition, so no arguments from that perspective, either.) And if we all go take a look at the Saints' rank in DVOA on offense and defense split by their presence at home and on the road, it clears this all up as, um …

Year Off-Home Off-Away Diff Def-Home Def-Away Diff
2013 1 16 -15 7 21 -14
… a really meaningful, tangible thing! Well, that's more complicated than I imagined. The Saints go from being the league's best offense to being the league's average offense when they leave the Superdome, while the defense goes from very good to mediocre. That seems to fit the popular perception. And, of course, that matches up with how the Saints performed during their 2009-11 run of playoff teams with Sean Payton and Brees at their mercurial best, right?

Year Off-Home Off-Away Diff Def-Home Def-Away Diff
2013 1 16 -15 7 21 -14
2011 1 4 -3 28 24 4
2010 16 6 10 23 6 17
2009 2 4 -2 10 22 -12
Oh, great. That doesn't help things at all. In 2010, the Saints — with the same philosophy and a fair number of the same players — were much better on the road than they were at home.4 In 2011, they were basically the same team at home and on the road, relative to the rest of the league. In 2009, they weren't much different on offense. This suggests that there's no real indication the Saints are significantly better at home than they are on the road.


DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES
'Cross the Brees

OK. Let's drill down a little further. When people talk about the Saints and their struggles away from home, they're not suggesting that there's something about Junior Galette's pass-rush essence in the Superdome that loses its aura once he hops on a plane.5 When they say the Saints need to play in the Superdome to win, they're talking about New Orleans's pass-happy scheme and their star quarterback. They want you to believe that Brees isn't anywhere near as good when he's freezing his ass off as he is when he's inside the Superdome. Well, is he?

These sorts of questions are only posed toward quarterbacks who play their home games in warm weather,6 and it's a question that's always unfairly biased because of one simple factor: When it gets cold, they're always playing on the road, and just about every quarterback's statistics at home are better than they are on the road, regardless of whether they play their home games in Miami or Minnesota.

So, keeping that in mind, here are Brees's numbers as a Saints quarterback split by the temperature given by the NFL at kickoff, with games played inside split off into their own category:

Situation Games Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Yds/Att TD INT
Indoors 80 2,106 3,078 68.4% 24,588 8.0 190 81
Cold (21-40 F) 6 178 274 65.0% 1,949 7.1 13 7
Mild (41-60 F) 13 328 518 63.3% 3,591 6.9 27 9
Warm (61-80 F) 20 546 812 67.2% 6,200 7.6 41 15
Hot (> 80 F) 9 225 344 65.4% 2,642 7.7 13 12
Brees is better indoors than he is in any weather pattern. Once he gets outside, it doesn't seem to really matter all that much what the temperature's like. He's a little better in warmer weather than he is when it's colder, but is it materially different? It's a small sample at the extremes, but we're already purporting to know that Brees is worse in that extremely cold weather. Really, he's about the same in miserably cold weather as he is in scorching temperatures. When was the last time you read an article suggesting that Brees and the Saints offense couldn't handle the heat?7

I don't see that the numbers suggest anything specific about Brees and his team that would make me think they can't play well on the road in cold weather. Well, except for one. Chase Stuart, as he often does, came up with the best stat of all: In the playoffs, dome-dwelling teams playing in temperatures below 35 degrees on the road are 3-22. The last time a team like that won was in 2004, when the Vikings beat the Packers in Green Bay. That was the year Chip Kelly turned things around for his employer after years of misery and losing records. He was in his sixth year as offensive coordinator for the University of New Hampshire. 2004 was a long time ago, man.

Safety Squeeze

They might be cold, but two great offenses will be lining up at the Linc on Saturday night. Kelly and Payton hardly run the same offensive scheme, but they certainly both do their fair share of attacking opposing safeties with their game plans, just in different ways. Injuries and subpar play have coincided to leave each of these teams with a big hole in the back end of its lineup, just waiting to be targeted by these offensive geniuses. Who wins on Saturday might just come down to who exploits those safeties more frequently.8

If you watched the Cowboys-Eagles game on Sunday night, you saw just how much Kelly enjoyed spending the first quarter picking on Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, who has had a target on his back for the past several weeks. Heath was a special-teams guy who had to fill a starting role for the Cowboys because, well, Cowboys. Kelly — via his quarterback proxy, Nick Foles — went after Heath until the Cowboys took him out of the game.

The Saints have a different sort of target at safety. After producing one of the worst pass defenses in league history a year ago, the Saints fired Steve Spagnuolo, eventually replaced him with Rob Ryan, and used their first-round pick on the best defensive back available to them. That was Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, who had the unenviable task of replacing Earl Thomas after Thomas graduated.

Vaccaro grew up to become an excellent player at Texas, and while the Saints made a number of key moves around their defensive roster to get better, Vaccaro's presence stood out whenever I watched the Saints on tape. Ryan noted during the season that he had never given a rookie more responsibilities than the work he laid in front of Vaccaro. The Saints used him in a Troy Polamalu–esque role as a rover, playing just about anywhere off the line of scrimmage and taking on just about every responsibility imaginable. Vaccaro wasn't perfect; he would occasionally make the sort of mistakes a rookie makes and blow an assignment or overrun a play, but he really helped turn the tide for the Saints after a dismal 2012, just by doing a solid job in a variety of roles.


STACY REVERE/GETTY IMAGES
I'm speaking about Vaccaro in the past because his season is done, thanks to a broken ankle he suffered during the Panthers game in Week 16. The Saints have Malcolm Jenkins at one safety spot, and he is a former college cornerback who can do some work in coverage, but they don't have a replacement for Vaccaro. They have Roman Harper. And Roman Harper is brutal. Harper has strengths, I guess: He's a big hitter, and if you ask him to run toward the line of scrimmage and fill against the run, he'll do that. But Harper in coverage is grotesque. The man just gets lost chasing ghosts at times, as he falls for seemingly endless double-moves and loses his sense of where he should be within a scheme. Put it this way: It's not a good thing when you Google a player and one of the articles that comes up is "Miscast Harper Infects Saints' Defense." The Saints drafted Vaccaro to get Harper out of the lineup. Now they're going to have to make a playoff run with Harper playing every down.

It will be up to Ryan to use Harper in a way that plays to his strengths while hiding his weaknesses, something Gregg Williams did a much better job of than Spagnuolo. The Saints will likely try to use Harper as a defender attacking the box against Philadelphia's devastating rushing attack while leaving Jenkins deeper in the secondary as a center fielder, since the Ryan family is loath to play Cover 0. They will also sneak in some Rafael Bush, who played as the third safety earlier this year while Harper was injured. That can work, but what it does in the process is limit Ryan's creativity and reveal more and more of the defensive coordinator's plans to Foles (and Kelly) before the snap. And that information is going to be crucial for a young quarterback against an excellent pass rush with a resourceful architect behind it. It should create opportunities for some big plays by the Eagles, either against Harper in coverage or by taking advantage of New Orleans's inability to put him in coverage and hitting shots down the sideline to their receivers against corners in single coverage.

The story surrounding the Eagles' safety situation, sadly, is a less exciting one. Rookie safety Earl Wolff had done a quietly impressive job of solidifying a position that has been a huge hole for the Eagles over the past half-decade, but Wolff went down with a knee injury against the Packers and was replaced by Patrick Chung, whose job Wolff had taken earlier in the season. Wolff made his way back into the lineup for the Week 16 win over the Bears, but reaggravated the injury and will likely be out against the Saints on Saturday.

That means Chung will be in the lineup, which will make Payton happy. Payton loves attacking the other team's safeties with his group of tall, strong, speedy receivers, especially with throws up the seam to Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston. Chung isn't going to do well against those. Do you remember Week 15, when the Eagles got torched for 382 yards and two touchdowns by Matt freaking Cassel and the Vikings? Patrick Chung helped make that happen. Chung was actually benched during that game, with the Eagles bringing in two safeties to replace him, only for each of those safeties to get hurt and push Chung back into the lineup. And, again — that was Cassel throwing to Greg Jennings. Imagine how this will be with Brees and Graham! Oh, what fun.

Of course, there's no good way to cover Graham with a talented secondary, let alone Philly's middling bunch. You might have seen Jason Witten destroy them last week. The Eagles will probably try to use some combination of a chipping linebacker and a cornerback, although nominal slot corner Brandon Boykin won't be big enough to pull off the task. New England had the best success by moving Aqib Talib inside and having him follow Graham around the field, which helped hold him without a catch; I don't know that the Eagles have anybody who can do that, but they can try it with Cary Williams and give him some help. That might be their best way of stopping New Orleans's star receiver.

It All Comes Down To …

Any team matched up against the Eagles has to worry about stopping the read-option. No team runs it more than Philly and it's not even close. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Philadelphia ran the ball using some sort of zone-read play 304 times, gaining 1,725 yards in the process, for a very impressive 5.7 yards per carry. The Saints only saw 36 zone-read plays all year, and they didn't handle them very well: New Orleans allowed 5.6 yards per carry on those 36 plays. If the Eagles can manage it, they'll happily run the read-option 36 times against the Saints on Saturday night.

I suspect that this game will come down to who can run their offensive scheme of choice more effectively. If the Saints can march up and down the field with their low-risk passing game in between big plays up the seam to Graham and Colston, it'll force the Eagles to get out of their rushing attack and chase the game, at which point I'd prefer Brees in a Brees-Foles shootout. If the Eagles can dominate the Saints at the line of scrimmage and run the football, though, they'll have the dual advantage of both scoring points and keeping Brees off the field for long stretches of time. This game might very well be won by who executes on offense in the first half.


DAVID EULITT/KANSAS CITY STAR/MCT
Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, Saturday, 4:35 p.m.

It's not uncommon for two teams to play each other in the playoffs after matching up in the regular season, but it certainly is strange to see them play in the playoffs just two weeks after a competitive regular-season game. The Colts won that game comfortably, 23-7, despite being a dome team playing in frigid temperatures, as that game kicked off at 22 degrees with the wind chill knocking that down to 11 degrees. And given that this playoff matchup takes place in the temperate home confines of Indianapolis, where the Colts have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos this year, it seems like the onus in breaking down this matchup would be to prove that the rematch will be any different from the first contest.

Fortunately for Chiefs fans, there are reasons to think that might be the case. And that starts with the guys who were missing from Kansas City's lineup in Week 16.

Return of the Macks

Let's talk about the missing Colts players from that 23-7 win in Week 16, who will likely be in the lineup for Saturday's playoff game. Guard Hugh Thornton and defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois were both inactive, while cornerback Greg Toler played a handful of snaps in his return from a groin injury. They should each step in as starters on Saturday, and while none of the three is a star, they should provide meaningful depth to Indianapolis's rotations at each position. Kansas City? It was down two Pro Bowlers. Left tackle Branden Albert and outside linebacker Justin Houston are among the best players in football at their respective positions, and their absences — both in that game and over the final half of the season — have had a significant impact on the Chiefs.

Albert missed the final four games of the season with a hyperextended knee, but his absence was most keenly felt in the game against Indianapolis. The Chiefs had the option of moving first overall pick Eric Fisher over from right tackle to the left side, but they instead decided to leave Fisher in his less demanding position on the right side and insert swing tackle Donald Stephenson into the starting lineup on the left side. That, um, didn't go especially well. Stephenson got beat by first-round pick Bjoern Werner early in the game for a sack before eventually falling victim to a number of classic hits by Robert Mathis, including a spin move that flummoxed Stephenson to the point of tripping the All-Pro across from him. Fisher was badly beaten by Mathis on a third-down speed rush that resulted in Mathis knocking the ball out of Alex Smith's arm for a fumble. The Colts finished with five sacks of Smith in 33 dropbacks that day, producing a season-high Smith sack rate of 15.1 percent. They buzzed him with heavy pressure, often around the edges, and prevented him from cycling through his reads comfortably in the pocket.

With the pressure surrounding Smith and some sloppy play from the Kansas City ball carriers, the Chiefs also had another rarity sprout up during that game: turnovers. Kansas City's offense only turned the ball over 18 times in 2013, the second-lowest total in football. In that Week 16 game, the Chiefs turned the ball over four times alone, more than in any other game all season. Three of those turnovers came from Smith, whose calling card is famously avoiding giveaways; he was strip-sacked twice9 and threw an interception in the red zone to Jerrell Freeman. Rookie halfback Knile Davis threw in the fourth turnover by losing the ball with little contact on his lone carry of the game. The Colts also directly benefited from those mistakes; their two biggest offensive plays of the game were a 33-yard catch and a 51-yard run, both by Donald Brown, both for touchdowns, and both on the series immediately following a takeaway.


MICHAEL HICKEY/GETTY IMAGES
And here's the weirder thing: It wasn't even like the Chiefs were unlucky on the day. They fumbled six times, recovering three of them. They were able to hold on to some particularly damaging possible giveaways, notably a second fumble by Davis on a kickoff return. They had two more fumbles questionably ruled to be non-fumbles, including a Junior Hemingway fumble that seemed like such an obvious turnover that the retiring Dan Dierdorf actually shrieked upon hearing the referee's review decision. The Colts even dropped a would-be Smith interception. It was the sloppiest game I saw the Chiefs play all year.10

Here's the big question for me: How much of Kansas City's struggles to hold on to the football in Week 16 amounted to its own sloppy play, and how much of it was the Colts forcing it into ugly mistakes?

I have to admit that I think it's more the former than the latter. While the Colts drastically improved their turnover margin this year, that has more to do with an offense that only turned the ball over a league-low 14 times than with a defense that created 27 turnovers, which ranked 15th in the NFL. In rewatching the game, I saw that a good amount of those takeaways came, honestly, from unforced errors. Davis's fumble between the tackles was one. Smith's underthrown interception was another. The Chiefs did a good job of beating themselves in that game.

The exception to that was what the Colts did up front. Mathis is rightly regarded as one of the best players in football in terms of getting around the edge and either knocking the ball out of the quarterback's hand or hitting his arm as he winds up to throw. The Chiefs couldn't keep him and the other Indy rushers out of the backfield in that game. And while Albert will be back at left tackle for Saturday's contest, Fisher went down in practice this week with a groin injury that could keep him out of the Colts game. That would likely end up with Stephenson playing right tackle as part of a new-look right side, with Geoff Schwartz taking over for Jon Asamoah in recent weeks.

If the Chiefs can't block Mathis, well, there's a classic solution: read him. Kansas City isn't exactly a heavy read-option team by any means, but it enjoyed success several times during the Week 16 game when Smith noticed Indianapolis's edge rushers crashing down the line of scrimmage on handoffs and kept the ball for himself. That's a move that keeps the Indianapolis outside linebackers honest and forces them to stay in their lanes, which weakens the backside pursuit when Kansas City does decide to hand the ball off to Jamaal Charles.

Charles was effective on a carry-by-carry basis against the league's 22nd-ranked run defense in Week 16, picking up 106 yards on 13 carries, but the Chiefs didn't give him the ball enough to make an impact after the first quarter. If that has any silver lining for Kansas City, it's that it has likely managed to rest Charles for these playoffs. He had just eight carries in that incredible five-touchdown performance against the Raiders in Week 15, and after 13 carries against the Colts, Charles sat out the season-ender against San Diego. Charles had previously been averaging 18.3 carries per game, so ending the year with 21 carries over a three-week stretch has to feel like a relative respite. The Colts will have to hope that the return of Jean-Francois helps slow the Chiefs and Charles on the interior.

It would also make things easier if the Chiefs had anybody who could beat man coverage, but that doesn't appear to be the case. When things are going right for the Indy defense, its cornerbacks are bumping and manhandling wide receivers, preventing the West Coast offenses of teams like Kansas City from developing the much-needed rhythm and consistency they desire. Vontae Davis has had an up-and-down season, but he had little trouble dealing with Dwayne Bowe during the Week 16 matchup between these two, with Bowe catching five passes on 10 targets for a total of just 46 yards. Both those players come into Saturday's game with injuries, as Davis is dealing with a groin injury, while Bowe suffered a concussion that ensured his absence in Week 17.11 They're both expected to play on Saturday. Davis will start with Toler likely returning to his starting role on the opposite side, moving Darius Butler back into the slot. Kansas City desperately needs somebody to take the top off this Colts defense and scare Antoine Bethea or LaRon Landry into staying off the line of scrimmage. It's not going to be Bowe, who has just one catch over 30 yards this year. Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster could sure change things with one big catch, but it might be more likely for that long catch to come from Charles or Davis motioned out of the backfield.

Watch Me Jump-Start

Getting Albert back will help the Chiefs. Getting Justin Houston back, though, could be the difference between winning and losing. Houston has missed almost six full games with a dislocated elbow after suffering the injury early in the Week 12 loss to the Chargers, and it's fair to say that the Chiefs have missed him in the process. His absence is almost surely the biggest reason why Kansas City's defense declined during the second half of the season. Take a look at Kansas City's rank in DVOA over the respective halves of the season:

Time Frame Pass DVOA Run DVOA Total DVOA
Weeks 1-9 2 24 5
Weeks 10-17 17 14 15
Why am I pretty confident that the absence of Houston was the key driver of that decline? Well, as a pass-rusher who had 7.5 sacks through three weeks and 11 sacks through Week 8, Houston would naturally exhibit his most notable impact by taking down the quarterback. And during the first half of the season, with Houston around and playing at his highest level, the Chiefs sacked opposing quarterbacks 10 percent of the time, which was the second-highest rate in football. From the Week 10 midway point of the season on, with Houston held sackless before suffering his elbow injury, the Chiefs sacked opposing passers just 4 percent of the time. That was the second-lowest sack rate in football over those eight weeks.12 Kansas City has a solid enough core of linebackers and a deep enough secondary to remain effective without a pass rush, but the difference between a good Chiefs defense and a great Chiefs defense comes down to getting after the quarterback.


PETER AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES
That's normally a bad fit for the Colts, because Andrew Luck is a pass-rush magnet. Luck was the most-hit13 quarterback in football by a significant margin as a rookie, and while the Colts invested in their offensive line during the offseason in the hopes of keeping their meal ticket healthy, the preliminary numbers suggest he was the most-hit NFL quarterback by a significant margin in 2013, too.

While Luck has preternatural pocket presence and the footwork of a 10-year veteran in creating space for himself to narrowly get out a throw at the last moment before being hit, a great pass rush can squeeze Luck's clock dry and prevent the Indianapolis offense from springing to life. A perfect example is the Rams game, in which St. Louis only sacked Luck three times and knocked him down on seven plays, but its ability to force Luck to hurry up and prevent him from finding a comfortable spot to settle before making his throws stifled the Indy offense and led to Luck's worst game of the season.

In Week 16, the Chiefs knocked Luck down five times, but they only sacked him once. Most of that pressure came through blitzes or on stunts that failed to get home before Luck released his pass; there just weren't enough snaps where outside linebackers Tamba Hali and Frank Zombo beat their man around the edge. That's where Houston needs to come in and make a difference.

There's something else unique about that Rams game that the Chiefs have to try to emulate: takeaways. St. Louis had five takeaways in that game. As I mentioned earlier, the Colts have only lost the ball 14 times on offense this year, which leaves some scary math for Chiefs fans: The Colts only turned the ball over nine times across their other 15 games combined. The Chiefs, meanwhile, thrive on turnovers. They had 36 takeaways on defense this year, more than any other team besides the Seahawks (39). Something's gotta give. And in the first game, given that they failed to force a takeaway, it was the Chiefs that gave.

Indianapolis's turnaround in avoiding turnovers on offense is pretty shocking. It was likely that its turnover margin would regress toward the mean before the season, but becoming one of the league's most secure offenses was hardly in the cards. You can attribute that to a few factors. One is really simple: Luck cut his interceptions down by half, throwing nine picks in 2013 after throwing 18 a year ago.

The more subtle figure is Indy's fumble totals, which have gone down noticeably. The Colts fumbled 21 times last year; this year, they've only put the ball on the ground 14 times. Part of that is capital-"L" Luck; their quarterback has only fumbled six times this year, down from 10 a year ago. Another is the larger role provided to Brown, who doesn't fumble. It's only a slight bump in usage, as he's taken 17 percent of the touches this year as opposed to 15 percent a year ago, but every extra snap with Brown helps the Colts hold on to the football. Brown fumbled once during his rookie 2009 campaign … and hasn't since. By my count, Brown has an even 600 NFL touches since his last fumble.14 Brown wasn't often a great back before his impressive run this season, but avoiding fumbles is one of those hidden ways to provide value to your football team that we don't think about unless it's in terms of devaluing a guy who fumbles too much. By expanding Brown's role, the Colts should be able to keep their turnovers down moving forward, too.

The Colts have seen a bit of lowercase-"L" luck on those fumbles, though, too. Indy has managed to recover 10 of those 14 fumbles this year, a 71 percent rate that nobody else in the league can match. The average team has recovered just more than 52 percent of its own fumbles this year. That's not a lot — it's a difference of about two extra fumble recoveries for the Colts this year, given the small sample and small total — but a recovery might be the difference between winning and losing. Would the Colts have won if the Seahawks had recovered Indy's blocked punt in the end zone for an early touchdown as opposed to having it roll out of bounds for a safety?

A key playmaker for the Colts, somewhat surprisingly, could be one of Luck's former teammates at Stanford. You thought I was going to say tight end Coby Fleener? Nah. The deeper cut is wide receiver Griff Whalen, who has had a strange season. Whalen has been cut twice this year and made it back onto the practice squad both times before being re-signed by Indy; he has also been a reasonably meaningful part of the offense around those releases, having caught 24 passes for 259 yards. He actually led the team in receiving against the Chiefs in Week 16, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him play a meaningful role in the slot this week. The Colts have looked better throwing the ball since they replaced disappointing veteran free-agent acquisition Darrius Heyward-Bey with the likes of Whalen and Da'Rick Rogers, just as their running game seemed to improve with Brown replacing disappointing trade acquisition Trent Richardson. It's a weird trend.

The identity of the man who might be covering Whalen on defense remains confidential. The Chiefs invested heavily in their secondary this offseason by bringing in Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson in free agency, but the player who emerged as a surprise contributor alongside them was cornerback Marcus Cooper, who was a revelation during the first half of the season. Then, he ran into Peyton Manning, who — to reuse a gimmick — is some capital-"R" Revelations stuff for rookie defensive backs. Manning tore Cooper15 apart during the two Broncos-Chiefs games this year, and naturally, the rookie's confidence plummeted. By the time the Colts game rolled around in Week 16, Cooper had been benched for Robinson, reversing a decision the Chiefs had made earlier in the season. Cooper played just six defensive snaps in Week 16 before starting as one of the many B-teamers who infiltrated the opening 22 against the Chargers in Week 17. It remains to be seen whether Cooper or Robinson will get more reps in the playoff run. My suspicion is that Cooper's speed makes him a more likely candidate to suit up on a regular basis against the Colts, but if the Chiefs win and play the Broncos next week, I kinda get the feeling that they might prefer Robinson against Peyton & Co.


PETER G. AIKEN/GETTY IMAGES
Dawning of a New Era

If the Chiefs have one other advantage that didn't manage to manifest itself against the Colts the first time out, it's on special teams. Now, before we go any further, chill. I know this is going to be a hard sell right now. Hear me out. Yes, Ryan Succop isn't exactly coming into the playoffs on a hot streak. Not only did Succop miss a kick against these very Colts in Week 16, but he missed a second field goal in Week 17 that would have ended the game in regulation and sent the Chargers packing from the playoffs. That kick didn't miss by very much. And I know that Adam Vinatieri's postseason reputation is beyond reproach, but even legendary kickers miss kicks in the postseason. Vinatieri missed what turned out to be a huge kick in last year's wild-card round when the Colts were down 17-9 in the fourth quarter and stalled in Baltimore territory before Vinatieri surprisingly missed a 40-yard field goal that would have brought Indy within five. Instead, the Ravens took over and scored a touchdown five plays later, producing the final points of the game in doing so.

Field goal kicking is the most visible part of special teams, and it's the one thing the Chiefs do poorly; Succop has been 5.5 points worse than an average kicker this season, while Vinatieri has been 2.9 points better than the average placekicker. KC makes that up in other places. It has the league's best return game by a significant margin, producing 37.1 points on field position combined on kick and punt returns this season under legendary special teams coach Dave Toub, who formerly ran the Bears special teams department during the glory days of Devin Hester. Kansas City has two punt returns and two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season. Indy is a relatively average special teams unit across the board. The Chiefs were able to return one kickoff to midfield during the Week 16 game, but they have the ability to do more against the Colts. At the very worst, it could help them control the field-position battle in a close game.

It All Comes Down To …

The turnovers. More than in a typical regular-season game and even more than in a typical playoff game, these two teams match up against one another as dependent upon creating takeaways and avoiding giveaways. Smith has made a career out of doing just that, but Luck's offense has been better than anybody at pulling that off this year. I think it's fair to say that the Chiefs will play better on Saturday than they did in Week 16, which would point to a close game, but the Colts are now 14-2 in games decided by one score or less under Luck, which is freakish. So then, I go back to the turnover margin. I think it will be exceedingly difficult for the team that loses the turnover battle to win this game.

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gp mls not top 10

By: timbersfan, 6:13 AM GMT on January 04, 2014

If you’re not sick of top 10s of the year by this time, you should be. Fun as they are, most sane people find them as appetizing as turkey right now. I’m going to try not to add to the glut and instead, by way of marking the new year, share just a few off-field moments that have stayed with me from 2013. They’re not always the sort of details there is room to report on, or even enough in and of themselves to be features, but they’re part of what I’ll remember 2013 for, beyond the best game I saw, etc. (New York over RSL, 4-3, for what it’s worth.)

What a Sense of Ownership Means

On an early summer evening in Richmond, Virginia, D.C. United walked off an already darkened field, after their nine men had squeezed through on penalties in their third-round Open Cup match against their USL Pro affiliates, the Richmond Kickers. As a few D.C. beat regulars gathered in the darkness underneath the giant unused stand that runs alongside one side of the field, and which also houses the locker rooms, United manager Ben Olsen conducted a brief interview about this rare bright spot in an inexplicably troubled season. The four or five of us standing around him could barely see him in the gloom. At one point, in one of the most muted postgame pressers I've ever attended, he gently pulled a couple of us to one side as the D.C. team bus backed up toward us, preparing for a quick escape.

D.C. would stay in the competition all the way to the final, before surprising RSL in Utah and winning the whole thing. After the trophy presentation, in a stadium that had emptied with surreal speed, Olsen raced across the field with his players to celebrate with the team's small group of traveling fans, who were swarming down from the upper deck of the stadium, just as they had galloped to the other end of Richmond's grounds to witness the penalty shootout in the third round.

After the final, goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who'd been a rock in the game, held court in a champagne-soaked D.C. locker room, talking about what it meant to him to play for the team he once was a fan of. It's the type of interview that's commonplace in countries with longer-standing leagues, but it's still a rarity in MLS (when Michael Seaton made his debut for D.C. United this August, he became the first MLS player who was born after the league was founded). Surrounded by players with greater and lesser (mostly lesser) experiences of what the MLS salary-cap carousel does to the feeling of being rooted, Hamid's feeling for his hometown club's achievement felt somehow substantial, as did the reaction of his coach, a one-time celebrated player for the club himself.

As if to emphasize the connection, a couple of weeks after the final, Hamid tweeted out a screen-grabbed picture of himself watching the team as a 14-year-old fan with the Barra Brava supporters …


… and I had one of those glimpses of MLS future, when that sort of image will be a familiar trope rather than a rather nice one-off.

There was another moment this year when a fan's relationship to his club's history was particularly resonant. I was at Red Bull Arena for the last game of the regular season and was seated beside Dan Ryazansky in the press box. Dan's one of those numerous people whose efforts keep the fan culture of the domestic game growing and thriving. His Metrofanatic message board is a long-standing Metro/Red Bulls forum, and he has been a New York fan since the start, god help him.

As a second-half avalanche of goals for the Red Bulls won the club the Supporters' Shield, I exchanged the odd joke or remark with Dan, who responded in kind and didn't show any indication of doing anything other than working on his match report and following the etiquette of press box behavior.

When the final whistle blew, though, I got my phone out to grab a short video of the celebrations on the field, then panned back up to Dan beside me, only to see him with his head in his hands, sobbing openly. His team had finally, finally won a trophy. On the field, as I later found out, Thierry Henry was pushing hometown coach Mike Petke toward the South Ward, exclaiming, "18 years! 18 years!" Out of respect for Dan, I won't be posting the video here (look what you did to the Portland crying man, you mean Internet you …), but trust me, if you're a fan of any sport whose team affiliation gets counted in decades, you'll know.

Thumbnail Image of the Year

In my report on the MLS Cup final, I mentioned the way that the mind sometimes misbehaves when asked to correspond with the highlights of what happened in a game. Seth Sinovic's tackle on Alvaro Saborio late in the second half is my abiding memory of the game. It wasn't the only time that happened this season. In my ongoing series following the U.S. Open Cup from first round to final, the story about the D.C. United vs. New England quarterfinal never ran. It missed out for no more sinister reason than scheduling clashes, but it did contain one image that will stick with me more than any other this year, and I wanted to mention it while I still have the chance.

Before the game started, I was in the giant sports hangar housing the locker rooms, adjacent to the main field at Maryland Soccerplex. Over to my left, there was the sound of intermittent yells, as a girls' volleyball tournament got under way. Other kids were drifting in groups to cheerleading practice at the far end of the barn. And a few yards in front of me, New England goalkeeper Matt Reis was shooting hoops with a soccer ball.

Reis retired at the end of this year, after the Revs' playoff loss to Kansas City. But he'd already taken one leave of absence before the Cup quarterfinal as he dealt with the familial trauma of the Boston bombing, which seriously injured his father-in-law. The D.C. game was set to be his first game back.

He was good, making more than he missed. For a moment, I was the only one watching him. Eventually, his teammates drifted out of the locker room, and a few, after circling Reis respectfully for a few minutes with their own warm-up routines, gradually joined in. Reis shared the ball when asked, but didn't particularly join in any banter and just looked serenely focused on the task at hand (or as serene as a shaven-headed, gum-chewing veteran goalkeeper can look). Initially, I couldn't stop projecting the thought that this was part of the keeper finding meditative refuge in a time of duress, but really, after watching for a few moments the activity was enough, in and of itself. So I have no idea whether Reis felt at peace when he was engaged in this ritual. But I know I did while watching him.

I just came across the initial draft of the story from that game and this is how it ends:

"And while I can look at my notes and photos of the game and vaguely remember the Hudson Valley School look of the sky that night, or see that I was behind the goal when Pajoy took his penalty, it’s become clear that my only honest memory of that night is of a moment that might have meant nothing or everything — a grown man playing on his way back to work."

Family

When Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay player to participate in American major league sports, upon his return to MLS with L.A. Galaxy, the immediate focus was on the social significance. But if Rogers was hoping to ease away from the spotlight after the initial media feeding frenzy, the story was rather complicated by sporting matters — namely the MVP form of Mike Magee, the player traded to Chicago Fire in order to sign Rogers.

The form of the two was inevitably compared, and as Magee’s star rose further, soon the media comparisons began to carry a subtle but insidious suggestion that Rogers's arrival in Los Angeles was somehow more of a publicity stunt than a soccer decision. The clear inference was that Magee had been pushed out, and that his publicly stated desire to be closer to his family in Chicago was a convenient front to mask that reality. Comment threads tended to be more blunt in their assessment of a “lopsided trade” — few resisted the urge to go beyond the field in assessing the dynamics of it.

I think that version of events does a disservice to both men, especially at this stage. The Galaxy have a lot of questions hanging over them going into 2014, and Rogers, entering his first full season with the club, is one of them, but a former U.S. international brought in to address the Galaxy's ongoing need for attacking width deserves a chance to provide just that after a proper preseason. As for Magee, I don't pretend to know for sure what motivates him, but sometimes the simply stated public explanations correspond to the actual facts.

I do know that Magee told me, at the MVP press conference, that becoming a father a couple of years back had changed everything for him; he emphatically added that “family is everything.”

I also know that a couple of days later, on the night of the MLS Cup, I retreated after the game to a BBQ restaurant near the hotel and quickly found myself in conversation with my neighbor at the bar. We soon found out we'd both been at the game and when I asked about his connection to it, he indicated down the bar to his left and said, "My son plays." A couple of seats over was Magee, flanked by his mother and his wife, next to my neighbor, Mike Sr. They were extremely warm, friendly people and as the evening went on, it was abundantly clear that they were a tight-knit family delighted that their son was back near the family home. And Magee certainly saw out the season like a man happy where he was playing his soccer.

I thought back to sitting with a still-bewildered Fabian Espindola at a preseason media day, as he discussed moving his wife and new baby from Utah, where he’d just bought a house, to New York for what would turn out to be a short-lived stay following the abrupt end to his half-decade with Salt Lake. Or hearing of the justified frustration of Adam Moffat, himself a new father, as an unexpected move from Houston to Seattle was followed a couple of months later by an offseason trade to Dallas. As fans, it’s just possible that we expect players to be automatons in a league in which the rewards are hardly so disproportionately great that they justify the sacrifices some players make in their family lives.

In MLS, the internal trade system, with capology squeezing players into a different time zone at a moment’s notice, can be cruelly capricious to players and their families. It'll be interesting to see just how freedom of movement is addressed in next year's collective bargaining negotiations, at a time when the world players union, FIFPro, is taking legal action against the very structure of a transfer system.

With the MLS player/league negotiation, a new TV deal to be signed, and one of those World Cup years that tend to provoke introspection about the current state of the domestic game, 2014 will be a bellwether year for the MLS landscape. Thanks for joining me in 2013. Happy New Year.

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bs wcw

By: timbersfan, 6:10 AM GMT on January 04, 2014

The Playoff Gambling Suggestion Box
Now that the NFL doesn't make sense, the Sports Guy has altered his manifesto to include a few recommendations to guide you
By Bill Simmons on January 3, 2014
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I posted my last Playoff Gambling Manifesto in January of 2006 right before the NFL playoffs turned into a glorified crapshoot. That particular document contained 15 gambling "rules" that I created from 1991 to 2005, along with my buddy Geoff, during an extended trial-and-error period that left more than a few scars and bruises. For instance, you only learn a rule like "Never bet on a playoff team coached by Marty Schottenheimer" once you've said things like, "The next time you hear me say that I'm betting on Marty Schottenheimer in January, just swing an ax into my chest."

And you know what? The Manifesto actually worked. When New England won back-to-back Super Bowls, I finished 14-8 against the spread in those two postseasons. Everything flipped in January, 2006, right when I posted Manifesto 4.0. Over the next six postseasons, I staggered to a middling 31-34-1 record, slowly drifting away from the Manifesto as the league stopped making sense. These last two postseasons, I went 15-7 by obeying a stripped-down set of rules (we'll get to them). Still, I'm not sure people realize how wonky these last eight postseasons were.

Since January 2006 …

• The league's two best teams by record only faced off in one Super Bowl: the '09 Saints versus '09 Colts (combined records: 31-5).1

• The no. 1–ranked DVOA team only made one Super Bowl … (long gulp) … yup, the '07 Pats. Only two other top-three DVOA teams made a Super Bowl: the '10 Packers (third) beat the '10 Steelers (second). The last top-two team in DVOA to actually win the title? The '04 Pats, who finished first. In other words, keep your guard up, Seahawks fans.2

• Underdogs covered six of the last seven Super Bowls and won four outright: the '07 Giants (12-point dogs); the '09 Saints (five-point dogs); the '11 Giants (2.5-point dogs); and the '12 Ravens (4.5-point dogs). The previous four underdogs to win a Super Bowl outright: the '02 Bucs, '01 Pats, '97 Broncos and '90 Giants.

• It's really important to clinch a Round 1 bye, right? Well, the '08 Steelers and '09 Saints were the only bye week teams to win Super Bowls. The Bye Weekers only finished over .500 in the playoffs once, in 2009, when they went 6-3. They never went "chalk," finishing 29-30 overall. By contrast, from 1998 through 2004, the Bye Weekers won six of seven Super Bowls,3 went "chalk" three times (in 1998, 2002 and 2004), and never dipped below .500 (finishing 40-22 overall).4

• Three teams won a Super Bowl without hosting a playoff game: the '05 Steelers, '07 Giants and '10 Packers. From 1966 through 2004, that only happened twice.

• The '08 Cardinals went 9-7 and somehow lost the title in the final minute, on the highest degree-of-difficulty game-winning pass in Super Bowl history. Three years later, the '11 Giants became the first 9-7 team to win the title, as well as the only Super Bowl champ that gave up more regular-season points than it scored. I will get over this at some point in my life. Probably not this decade or next decade. But at some point.

• Five of the last six Super Bowls were nail-biters that included at least one unforgettable moment: David Tyree catching a season-saving football off his helmet and then never making another professional catch in his entire life (Super Bowl XLII); James Harrison's insane touchdown and the semi-miraculous Roethlisberger/Holmes game-winning touchdown (Super Bowl XLIII); Peyton Manning's season-ending pick-six (Super Bowl XLIV); Brady just missing Welker for a potential season-clinching TD that I can still see when I fall asleep at night (Super Bowl XLVI); and the blackout and all the other unforgettable stuff that happened during that Ravens-Niners barn burner (Super Bowl XLVII).

• We've had one significant Round 2 upset for eight straight Januarys: the '05 Steelers in Indy (+9.5 underdogs); the '06 Pats in San Diego (+4.5); the '07 Chargers in Indianapolis (+11); the '08 Cards in Carolina (+10); the '09 Jets in San Diego (+8.5); the '10 Jets in New England (+9); the '11 Giants in Green Bay (+8.5); and the '12 Ravens in Denver (+9). Good lord! Seven of those were MONSTER upsets, too. Kudos to the Greatest Quarterback of All Time, Peyton Manning, for somehow being on the wrong side of three of them! (Sorry, I had to.)

• We've had two stunning conference title game upsets: the '07 Giants (nine-point underdogs in Green Bay) and '12 Ravens (7.5-point dogs in New England). And we had one semi-mildly stunning upset that wasn't so stunning because we'd already learned that you should never bet against God, puppies and gambling theories hatched in Pakistan: the '08 Cards as four-point home dogs over Philly.

• From 2000 through 2006, only three times did a matchup feature a playoff team that had won four or more games than its opponent: Eagles-Vikings in 2004, Steelers-Jets in 2004, and Bears-Seahawks in 2006. All three times, the better team won. From 2007 through 2011, those matchups happened at least twice per postseason and an unbelievable 14 times overall. Seven of those 14 games were won by the vastly inferior team,5 including two by .500-or-under teams playing at home and as 7-plus-point underdogs (the 2010 Seahawks and 2011 Broncos).

• For anyone making proclamations this week like "I just don't trust Andy Dalton in January," please remember that, in the last eight postseasons, (a) Matt Hasselbeck and Rex Grossman started Super Bowl games; (b) Mark Sanchez won FOUR ROAD PLAYOFF GAMES IN TWO YEARS; (c) Matt Schaub won a playoff game only 12 months ago and just nine months before he became a bleary-eyed carcass; (e) Jake Delhomme won consecutive road playoff games; and (f) Tim Tebow won a playoff game … in overtime … by completing an 80-yard touchdown pass.6

• In the last eight postseasons, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are 19-16 combined, with two Super Bowl titles.

• In the last eight postseasons, Mark Sanchez, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco are 21-9 combined, with three Super Bowl titles.

• Read those last two paragraphs again.

So I ask you again … how can you give your gambling career over to a Playoff Manifesto when all hell has apparently broken loose????

I don't see things changing, either. We knew the NFL wanted perpetual parity by ushering in the Salary Cap era, but the Bigger, Stronger, Faster era might be having a bigger impact than anything else. These guys are clearly too huge now; the YouTube videos of the 1970s games have little correlation to what we're watching now. (Bonus points for the Brent and Irv footage! I think Irv was the first announcer I ever made fun of ... I'll always have a soft spot for him.) And let's be honest — nobody really cares. The league's PED testing system remains a laughable joke, as does the fact that it won't discuss weight limits or any other out-of-the-box idea that might make the league's players a little more, um, realistic. Instead, it's cracking down on hard hits, cheap shots and headhunting — a decent start, but nothing that will solve the fundamental problem of NFL players outgrowing a sport that was originally designed for different bodies and different speeds.

Whether it's a coincidence or something more (and I say the latter), it sure seems like we're seeing more and more injuries to marquee players. The lack of depth has been astonishing. In Week 16, the injury-ravaged Patriots started four guys they found off the street — not even off practice squads, but off the street. In this month's AFC playoffs, our top-three seeds will be missing Von Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Leon Hall, Vince Wilfork, Geno Atkins, Ryan Clady, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Dan Koppen … I mean, I can't even keep track anymore. Throw in the advances in concussion awareness (translation: "throw in the NFL finally acknowledging that concussions might be dangerous"), and it sure seems like more quality players than ever are either limping off the field, being carted off while sadly slapping hands with teammates, or wobbling back to the sidelines like they're failing a Breathalyzer.

Now throw this in: The slew of NFL safety-first rule changes made it easier for receivers and tight ends to run over the middle, and also allowed quarterbacks to stand in the pocket without worrying about being decapitated or being bernardkarmellpollarded. In the old days, you'd just assume that a shitty-to-mediocre QB would self-destruct in the playoffs because of the defensive pressure, the intensity or whatever. That's why three of my 15 Manifesto 4.0 rules revolved around quarterbacks: "Never, ever, EVER back a crappy QB on the road," "Check out the backup QBs" and "Before you make a decision, take one last look at the quarterbacks again." But in today's safety-first NFL, how many times did we see the likes of Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder or Jason Campbell looking exceedingly comfortable in an allegedly scary venue like Seattle or San Francisco? It's much more difficult to break a quarterback now. Well, unless it's Blaine Gabbert.

Swinging it back to this year's playoffs: In the old days, I would have said, "No way Andy Dalton can win a playoff game on the road, he'll self-combust" and back that mind-set with a sizable illegal wager. In 2014? I mean … name me an AFC team/crowd combo that's breaking Andy Dalton. It doesn't exist. Only Andy Dalton can break Andy Dalton. (And don't worry — he might.) Everyone has a puncher's chance in 2014. Everyone. And that's one of many reasons why Playoff Gambling Manifesto 5.0 will never happen.

The good news? We learned a few lessons and suggestions over these past eight years. You don't have to live by these babies; just keep them in your hip pocket and sprinkle them into your gambling life however you want. Call it a Pseudo-Manifesto.

SUGGESTION NO. 1: Find this year's "NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!!!!" team and give strong consideration to riding them like Secretariat.

We're currently riding a streak of six "NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!" playoff teams: the Giants (2007), Cardinals (2008), Jets (2009), Packers (2010), Giants (2011) and Ravens (2012). Four won Super Bowls, the fifth came one minute away from the title, and the sixth nearly made the Super Bowl with Mark Sanchez. We've covered this phenomenon a million times in this space; it's a real thing. When everything's relatively equal, a little extra motivation goes a long way. Athletes love proving people wrong, and the greatest thing about sports is that, in the words of Joaquin Andujar, "youneverknow." Our best "NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!" possibilities for this year's playoffs?

Green Bay Packers: Somehow made the playoffs after playing Matt Flynn, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace at QB for 40 percent of the season … gave up more points (428) than they scored (417) … nearly lost a win-or-go-home game to a Bears team that was so limited, the general reaction of Chicago fans was, "I'm bummed that we lost, but I'm relieved the season is finally over" … severely banged-up on both sides of the ball … it's unclear if people remember how good Rodgers is (if they don't, the fourth-and-8 play should have reminded them) … had major trouble selling out this weekend's playoff game against the Niners, fostering a little "even Packers fans don't totally believe" sentiment … and here's the biggie: They're GETTING POINTS at Lambeau this weekend. Nobody believes in you, Green Bay!!!!!!

San Diego Chargers: Barely finished 9-7 … only made the playoffs after getting major help from Geno Smith and Geno Smith's dong … oh, and they needed five quarters and Ryan Succop's shanked game winner to beat KC's second string in Week 17 with their season on the line … have a tortured playoff history that includes the traumatic "Freezer Bowl" loss in Cincinnati during the Dan "MFIC" Fouts era … are playing in Cincinnati this weekend … oh, and they're coached by a guy who said "You know what?" approximately 377 times during this allegedly inspiring speech.

(The verdict? You'll have to wait until we get to the picks.)

SUGGESTION NO. 2: Don't bet against God, puppies or gambling theories from Pakistan.

A cousin of Lesson No. 1 … but still …

SUGGESTION NO. 3: Beware of the "Everybody Believed In Us" team.

The bastard sibling of the "Nobody Believed In Us" team. A few years ago, I compared this phenomenon to Albert Ganz, the bad guy in my favorite movie ever (48 Hrs). Nick Nolte shoots him at the end, followed by Ganz looking down at the bullet hole and hissing, "I can't believe it … I got shot." You never want to be riding the consensus favorite that's suddenly and incredulously staring down at that bullet hole — whether it's the 2001 Rams, the 2007 Pats, the 2012 Broncos or whomever. Overconfidence = playoff death. I don't think we have a Ganz team right now; it would have been the Seahawks, but that Week 16 home loss to Arizona may have shaken them out of it. If Seadderall blows someone out in Round 2 and gets a round of "Seattle might be a juggernaut!" momentum going? Be careful, my friends. Be careful. That also leads into our first lesson …

LESSON NO. 1: Beware of the "Looked A Little Too Good The Previous Round" team.

One of the few Manifesto staples that still works — remember, people love overreacting to whatever happened the previous week (and during the Twitter/Internet/Talking Head era, overreacting in general). A good recent example: the 2011 Saints dropping 45 on the Lions in Round 1, charging into San Francisco in Round 2 as four-point favorites … then losing to Alex Smith.

LESSON NO. 2: Beware of any and all aging QBs in cold weather.

Or, as it's better known, the Favre/Manning Theory. (And hopefully not this month, the Favre/Manning/Brady theory.)

LESSON NO. 3: Beware of all dome teams in cold weather.

Thanks to Chase Stuart for this stat: Dome teams are 3-22 in the playoffs when they're outdoors and it's 35 degrees or colder.7

Take it from a lifetime New Englander who spent the last 12 years in Southern California and turned into a total cold-weather wuss — at some point, your body decides, "Look, I'm not used to being cold" and acts accordingly. And if you're an aging QB from a dome team? I think you just self-combust on the first sack.

LESSON NO. 4: Don't make any three-team, 10-point teasers with three Round 2 favorites.

As covered earlier, the last time all four Round 2 teams went "chalk" was January 2005. This isn't even a lesson, it's a rule — no three-team teasers in Round 2. Period. Don't even think about it. The cousin of this rule: "Beware of the two-team teaser or parlay on paper that looks a little too easy." Gambling is never easy. Ever. Ever. Ever.

SUGGESTION NO. 4: Be careful with any team that battled a major off-field distraction during the week leading up to the big game.

Also known as the Eugene Robinson Corollary. All dong-photo scandals, PED scandals, sex scandals, locker room fistfights, hooker/strip club scandals and vengeful-former-employee scandals go here. To be fair, the Ravens won last year's Super Bowl even after the Ray Lewis/deer antler spray fiasco became a major story for a couple of days followed by everyone looking the other way and pretending it never happened — that's why I made it a suggestion and not a rule.

SUGGESTION NO. 5: Ignore final records and gravitate toward how teams finished in November and December.

Again, this one doesn't always work — remember "red-hot" Washington losing to Seattle in Round 1 last season? I'm more leery of teams that started strong and faded late — like the Chiefs winning nine straight, then blowing five of their last seven (including the only three games they played all year that actually mattered). Would you rather take them … or would you rather take the peaking-at-the-right-time Colts? Hold on, this next lesson might help you.

SUGGESTION NO. 6: "Before you pick a team, just make sure Marty Schottenheimer, Herm Edwards, Wade Phillips, Norv Turner, Andy Reid, Anyone Named Mike, Anyone Described As Andy Reid's Pupil and Anyone With the Last Name Mora" Isn't Coaching Them.

I made this tweak in 2010 and feel good about it — especially when the "Anyone Named Mike" rule miraculously covers the Always Shaky Mike McCarthy and Mike "You Know What?" McCoy (both involved this weekend!) as well as Mike Smith, Mike "The Sideline Karma Gods Put A Curse On Me" Tomlin, Mike Munchak and the recently fired Mike Shanahan. We're also covered if Mike Shula, Mike Martz, Mike Mularkey, Mike Tice or Mike Sherman ever make comebacks. I'm not saying you bet against the Mikes — just be psychotically careful with them. As for Andy Reid … we'll get to him in a second.

LESSON NO. 5: Don't forget that the most important people on a playoff team are the coach and the quarterback.

Here's a little game for you: Before every playoff game, rate the coaches and quarterbacks from 1 to 10, add up their scores, then make sure you're OK with the math before you keep going. A good example from last year: Joe Webb (1) + Leslie Frazier (3) against Aaron Rodgers (10) + Mike McCarthy (5). A four against a 15??? And you thought about taking the Vikings +7½???? Really? My numbers for Round 1 this weekend …

Kansas City: Alex Smith (3) + Playoff Andy Reid (3) = 6
Indianapolis: Andrew Luck (8) + Chuck Strong (7) = 15

(Hmmmmmmm. And I only have to lay a field goal with Indy at home???)

New Orleans: Cold-Weather Drew Brees (5 or 6) + Sean Payton (9) = 14 or 15
Philly: Sold His Soul Nick Foles (8) + Chip Kelly (7) = 15

(An even battle! Now I'm even more confused.)

San Diego: Cold-Weather Phil Rivers (7) + Mike McCoy (3) = 10
Cincinnati: Andy Dalton (3) + Marvin Lewis (6 or 7) = 9 or 10

(Basically dead even! Remember — Rivers won in cold weather this year in K.C. and Denver.)

San Francisco: Colin Kaepernick (5 or 6) and Jim Harbaugh (10) = 15 or 16
Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers (10) and Mike McCarthy (3 or 4) = 13 or 14

(Who else is abjectly terrified of taking the "3 or 4" coach against the "10" coach?)

LESSON NO. 6: Never bet too much money on your own team, and (obviously) never bet against your own team, ever, under any circumstances.

Goes without saying. If your team made the playoffs, you already have enough at stake. To be fair, I violated this lesson somewhere between eight and 25 times during the Belichick-Brady era — including Super Bowl XLVI, when I bet most of my winnings from the 2010 Hilton SuperContest on a Vegas ticket for the 2011 Pats to win the title. You know how that turned out. I'm like three bad gambling stories away from a new Grantland Channel series called "Bill's Top 50 Worst Gambling Stories." Anyway, don't bet on your own team. (Well, unless it's next week ... and you're a Pats fan with Andy Dalton coming into town. Then it's OK. Any other time? Not OK!)  

SUGGESTION NO. 7: Don't try to be a hero, just try to win money.

I get it. You want to be cute. You want to say things like, "I don't care about Andy Reid's history in big games, or Alex Smith's history in general … that's precisely why nobody will see the Chiefs coming this weekend!" and load up on the Chiefs, then feel like a hero when they covered.

Ask yourself this question: If your life depended on it, you'd really bet on Alex Smith and Andy Reid in a road playoff game?

(You would?)

(You'd do that?)

(Seriously?)

LESSON NO. 7: When in doubt, gravitate toward the one pick that (a) would screw over the most gamblers and experts, and (b) would definitely be going against the single worst gambler you know.

Remember — there's a reason casinos keep adding new buildings, online gambling sites keep fighting to be legal everywhere, and bookies risk incarceration just to take your dumb/predictable/bandwagon wagers. By the way, I finished the 2013 regular season with a 108-140-8 record against the spread. At least for this season, there's a good chance that I'm the worst gambler you know.

Which reminds me … it's time to make some picks! We'll speed through these because I just laid out all the reasons they're happening.

COLTS (-1) over Chiefs

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Colts: You got too excited about how they finished the season … and forgot that two of those last three wins were against Houston and Jacksonville. You overvalued Week 16's K.C. beating and forgot about the revenge factor. You paid too much attention to the Indy-related "Only six teams ever beat three 12-win teams in one season and three made the Super Bowl!" stat. You forgot that their running backs were Donald Brown and Trent 3.0. You forgot how good Jamaal Charles was, and how scary K.C.'s kick returners were, and how important Justin Houston was to Kansas City's defense. You were a little too excited for a Manning-Colts Round 2 matchup that seemed like karmic destiny and started thinking ahead. And you banked on Andy Reid falling apart in another playoff game while forgetting that it could just as easily happen in Round 2.

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Chiefs: You forgot they went 0-5 against the AFC's other playoff teams, or that they were absolutely 2013's Good Bad Team. You forgot that Andrew Luck is 22-11 lifetime and 13-3 at home, and that he's the best player in this game (and you went against him anyway). You forgot that there's little more agonizing than betting on Alex Smith when he's down by 10 or more. You forgot that every Chiefs fan freaks out during every Ryan Succop field goal attempt (and with reason). You forgot how good Luck has looked in Indy's revamped, up-tempo offense lately. You totally forgot about Andy Reid's play calling and clock management in a big game, and that he was definitely going to be apologizing 90 minutes after the game for mistakenly giving Jamaal Charles just 14 touches. You didn't call your buddy from Philly on Saturday morning and ask him, "Hey, I'm thinking of taking the Chiefs in this game, would you bet on Andy if you were me?" Now you have to spend the next 72 hours hating yourself.

My Pick: Colts 27, Chiefs 14

EAGLES (-2.5) over Saints

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Eagles: You took a newish QB and newish head coach in their first NFL playoff game ever against Drew Brees and Sean Payton. You ignored that the NFC East was awful and had to burp out a champion by default, or that the Saints played one NFC East team (Dallas) and won by 32 points. You forgot that Philly fans are destined to be unhappy in January — that's just what God wants — and the fact that they were actually semi-confident heading into Round 1 was a glaring red flag. You didn't realize that the Saints inadvertently qualify for a junior version of the "Nobody Believes In Us" theory because so many people think they're screwed outdoors in cold weather. You forgot that you can't name four guys on Philly's defense. You got way too excited about Nick Foles. I mean, WAY too excited. He's Nick Foles! What were you thinking???

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Saints: Again, the Saints are a perpetually forgettable road team that plays its home games indoors. You knew this. You also knew that there's a big difference between Indoor Brees and Outdoor Brees. And yet you took the Saints getting less than three points, on the road, against a red-hot Eagles team … when they're playing outdoors in 27-degree weather right after an East Coast blizzard? WTF? Did you get hit in the head? You may have gotten hit in the head. Go get an MRI.

My Pick: Eagles 34, Saints 22

Chargers (+7) over BENGALS

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Chargers: You willingly took a West Coast team that (a) barely eked by Kansas City's second string in Week 17, (b) has the worst defense in the playoffs by far, and (c) shouldn't have made the playoffs anyway. Then, you expected them to hang tough in Round 1 on East Coast time, in freezing weather — against a no. 3 seed that went undefeated at home, always seem to get lucky plays/bounces/tips/rolls when they need them AND scored 208 points in their last five home games. And you did this because, and I quote, "nobody believed in them"? That was your plan, Socrates?

Why You Eventually Regretted Taking the Bengals: You forgot that they haven't won a playoff game since 1990, that Marvin Lewis is 0-4 in the playoffs, and that the Bengals barely sold out this game. You forgot that Cincy was starting two backup cornerbacks, and that Keenan Allen is winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for a reason. You actually said the words "I know Andy Dalton can be awful, but I don't think that's rearing its ugly head until Round 2 or Round 3." You ignored how the Chargers lost their seven games by 3, 3, 10, 6 (in OT), 8, 4 and 7 points … in other words, they always hang around, and yet you stupidly laid a TD against them. You forgot to read my illegitimate son Barnwell on this Sunday's games, so you never knew that Cincy's 8-0 home record isn't as intimidating as it sounds — of the last seven teams to go 8-0 at home that played outdoors, five lost their first playoff home game. Instead, you took the inferior QB, and you weren't scared enough that the superior QB kicked ass in Philly, Kansas City and Denver this season. Most important, you ignored this email in Simmons's column from Jesse in Los Angeles …

"Has any team executed the 'nobody believes in us' strategy in week 17 more perfectly than this year's Chargers? Going to overtime due to a missed 41 yard field goal (not to mention the apparent missed call by the referees) against the Chiefs B-Team and then barely eking out the victory. Think about it, they couldn't even beat a team of practice squad players without the help of some higher power AND the help of the NFL's finest. NOBODY BELIEVES IN YOU SAN DIEGO!!"
My Pick: Cincinnati 27, San Diego 23 (Chargers cover) … a.k.a. the "Andy Dalton Wins People Over With A Last-Minute Season-Saving Drive, Then Totally Self-Combusts A Week Later While San Diego Does A Valiant Job Of Protecting The Nobody Believes In Us Theory" game.

49ers (-3) over PACKERS

Why You Eventually Regretted Going Against The Packers: You went against Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau. You went against a home dog in the playoffs — and not just that, the Packers in zero-degree weather, the very foundation on which that franchise was built. You got carried away by all the Niners hype, and you stupidly believed in Colin Kaepernick when he's more up-and-down than a season of The Walking Dead. Oh, and one more time: You went against Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs. Stop gambling. Just stop it. You suck at gambling.

Why You Eventually Regretted Going Against The Niners: You went against a red-hot contender, one of the NFL's most talented teams AND a potentially explosive offense that's finally healthy again. You went against a team that would have gotten the no. 1 seed if Ahmad Brooks's hit on Brees had been called correctly. You went against Kaepernick against the one team he owns (Green Bay) and the one defensive coordinator he owns (Dom Capers). You backed Mike McCarthy over Jim Harbaugh. Again: You backed Mike McCarthy over Jim Harbaugh. You got seduced by Green Bay's season-saving comeback win while conveniently forgetting that Green Bay never should have gotten itself into that fourth-and-8 mess, and that it took John Kuhn's incredible block, Chicago's abysmal secondary and the best play of Aaron Rodgers's career just to propel the Pack to Week 18. And you screwed up the "Nobody Believes In Us" factor. If anything, nobody believed in the Niners — giving just three points against THAT Packers team? That line was a gift from the gambling gods: a superior playoff team giving a field goal to a deeply flawed playoff team … and you blew it. But hey, there's always next weekend.

My Pick: San Francisco 41, Green Bay 20

Last Week: 6-10
Season: 108-140-8
Playoffs: 0-0

Permalink

2013.1

By: timbersfan, 1:13 AM GMT on January 03, 2014

Who Won 2013?
Our comprehensive, no-stone-left-unturned, mildly deranged accounting of all the people, players, and preposterous memes from the year that was
By Rembert Browne on December 30, 2013
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Few things are worse than a forced wedding hashtag.

A phenomenon gained traction in 2013 as a result of the merger of two of our society's most innocent expressions of self-idolatry: Instagram and weddings. Their spawn is the wedding hashtag, a tool used, yes, to aggregate Instagram photos from a wedding, but also as a way of bringing "Bennifer" and "Brangelina"-esque portmanteaus into the age of social media.

Last year, in this introductory space of the "Who Won 2012?" bracket, I went on a very necessary tear about the "engagement" feature on Facebook and how it was adding much stress and clutter to my life. This year, having my Saturday Instagram feeds filled with #ShaneLuvsBethanny or some horrible combination of "Becky" and "Jamal" (probably #Jamelcky) has simply moved my side-eye from one platform to another. It's almost as if everyone purposefully failed to read the Knot's comprehensive "7 Risks of Hashtagging Your Wedding" piece.

I only bring this up because with every passing year, I'm closer and closer to trashing the "Who Won" bracket model in exchange for "Who Lost." Or "What Ruined This Year for Me the Most, a Bracket of 1024."

Thankfully, we're not there yet. There are still some things worth celebrating, people continuing to find ways to stay relevant and interesting, new concepts and innovation gaining traction, and most notably, new apps being made to distract people from day jobs, child rearing, taxpaying, and general human interaction.

Unlike Grantland's many other brackets, this is not a participatory process. As my mother would say to her curious only child when he had a question about why he had to do something, this is not a democracy. I honor her parental prowess by continuing to make the official call on who won the year, with the consultation and aid of no one, for a third straight year.

Last year's bracket:



The 2012 Final Four: Instagram, Gabby Douglas, GIFs, and the Knowles-Thronedashians, with GIFs losing in the end to the Roc-A-Fella diamond of Jay, Bey, 'Ye, and Kim Kardashian. The victory was an important career moment for the power quartet, particularly since 2011 saw a runner-up performance from the Kim-less "Knowles-Thrones." But as quickly became apparent, they had been missing one puzzle piece in their quest for world domination: Kim Kardashian.

It was a tremendous victory, but it does mean the Knowles-Thronedashians (as a collective, not the individuals) are now the second entity to get TRL-retired from the contest (2011 winner = Twitter).

But enough of the past. Let's discuss 2013.

Structurally, this year's contest will be the same as 2011 and 2012. It's a bracket of 32, instead of 64, because there weren't even close to 64 winners in 2013. The entrants come from four walks of life: Sports/Athletics, Celebrities/Entertainers, Technology/Internet, and Movements/Phenomena. Eight people/teams/entities/things are in each category, which is how, by way of multiplication, we make it to 32.

Before getting to the bracket, a few more crucial agenda items. Though this is a one-man job, there are guidelines, and while this dictatorship lacks checks and balances, there are laws to be obeyed.

The Deceased: Not included. People die and sometimes become postmortem winners, but no. Dying is never a win. Even if they go platinum.

The Royal Babies: Not Prince George, but Nori and Blue Ivy. They're always winning, but I don't have the heart to put them in the bracket. Because then I'd rig it to pit them against one another. And then I'd have to crown a winner and a loser, which would make it very awkward for me as the godfather to both.

The Honorable Mentions: A lot of nouns had great years, but there's just not room for everyone. The streets are rough. Trust me, I know. Because I am the streets. The following were considered but then dismissed:

Kendrick Lamar's "Control" Verse; Everyone Who Got to Bike Around With LeBron in That Commercial; White Santas; Molly (Drug); Molly (Lambert); Versace; Drinkin', Smokin', Fuckin', Plottin', Schemin', Plottin', Schemin', Gettin' Money; Auburn Play-by-Play Announcer Rod Blamblett, Juicy J.

The Really Honorable Mentions: And these are the ones that, for a moment, were in the field, but ultimately were moved to the bubble, either purely as the result of a numbers game or because of personal beefs:

Bitcoin; Lorde; Michael B. Jordan; Tinder; Louisville Basketball; Mike WiLL Made It; Olivia Pope; Yasiel Puig; Jimmy Johnson; Historical Accounts of Black People in Movies Having It the Worst; White Jesus; Drake's Parents; Uber.

The Seedings: This is the part I know no one ever reads, since almost all the comments I receive are people complaining about why certain things were seeded so high/low. But this is the only part of the entire bracket I have no control over. Kind of. It's an objectively subjective process.

Seedings are purely based on the person/thing's number of Twitter followers. That's the objective part. The subjective part is that if someone/something doesn't have a Twitter account, I then grant myself the freedom to pick a semi-related Twitter handle to determine placement.

Last year, I tried to get fancy and create an algorithm loosely related to the singer Jojo, but it was clear that was too AP Calc for the Internet, so we're back to square one: Twitter followers. Again, SEEDINGS = TWITTER FOLLOWERS. One more time: SEEDINGS = TWITTER FOLLOWERS. Let's bold and italicize and underline it: SEEDINGS = TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

But I know no one's reading it, so feel free to argue with me about seedings once you get to the end.

So those are the rules. I hope you feel they are fair, because from here on out, it's no longer about being fair. Only correct. Because, as Beyoncé said about last year's bracket, "This bracket, flawless. My bracket, flawless."



MORE ON HER IN LIKE 17 SECONDS — LET'S GOOOOOOO.

Categories

[**denotes appearance in 2012 bracket, ***denotes appearance in both 2011 and 2012 brackets]

Sports/Athletics

**LeBron James: The basketball player in Florida; @KingJames

David Ortiz: The baseball player in Massachusetts; @davidortiz

Serena Williams: The tennis player from the West; @serenawilliams

Chris Davis: The college football student in Auburn, Alabama; @chris11au

Peyton Manning: The quarterback in the Rockies; @broncos

The Chicago Blackhawks: The hockey team in the Midwest; @NHLBlackhawks

**Andy Murray: The tennis player from Europe; @andy_murray

Jason Collins: The unemployed professional basketball player; @jasoncollins34

Celebrities/Entertainers

Kanye West: The guy with the yells; @kanyewest

**Jennifer Lawrence: THE GOD KATNISS; @TheHungerGames + @AmericanHustle

Macklemore: The dude that isn't Ryan Lewis; @macklemore

The Pope: The Frank, the one after Joey Ratz; @Pontifex

Miley Cyrus: The one without the clothes; @MileyCyrus

Benedict Cumberbatch: The serious actor, based on his name; @Cumberbitches

Pharrell Williams: The man they call Skateboard P; @Pharrell

Beyoncé Knowles: The woman they call Surfboard Bey; @Beyonce

Technology/Internet

Snapchat: The one where they disappear; @Snapchat

Netflix: The thing where you watch a bunch and don't move; @netflix

Grand Theft Auto V: The game where you run over people; @RockstarGames

Vine: The thing that is quick and then loops; @vineapp

***Instagram: The thing where you post old photos once a week; @instagram

Candy Crush: The game that is the same as smoking crack; @CandyCrushSaga

Spotify Premium: The one without the ads; @Spotify

Emoji: The one that makes words not matter anymore; @EmojiDictionary

Movements/Phenomena

The Breaking Bad Finale: The show about the meth; @BreakingBad_AMC

The City of Toronto: The place in Canada; @Drake + @TOMayorFord + @Raptors

Twerking: The dance that just got invented; @yingyangtwins

Scandal: The only show that airs on Thursdays; @ScandalABC

Cultural Appropriation: The phrase everyone just learned; @SenateApprops

Catfishing: The thing where you always lie; @CatfishMTV

Selfies: The cool thing where it's all about you; @shots

The Harlem Shake: The other dance that just got invented; @baauer

So there's the 32. And, just in under 1,300 words, we're ready to begin the bracket. It'll take the rest of the day to read, but don't be scared. You can trust Xtina and Adam.





They're your friends, after all.

[+] Enlarge

MIKE MCGRATH
Round of 32

Gold Teeth, Grey Goose Region

Miley Cyrus (1) vs. Twerking (8): Well what a convenient place to start. One of the most talked-about humans in popular culture going up against the dance move that she became unfairly associated with inventing, or even bringing back. It really started here, in June, in a scene from her video for "We Can't Stop."



And then peaked at August's MTV Video Music Awards:



Even though dancing in such a manner isn't new, she gets credit for making it as mainstream in 2013 as selfie. Ying Yang Twins, God bless their hearts, didn't put the word into the mouths of grandmothers with their 2000 blessing "Whistle While You Twurk." Of course the girls I went to high school with knew what it meant back then, but not the ladies at bingo night. Only 2013 Miley is responsible for a headline like this, in the Financial Times: "A year in a word: Twerking — the oldest trick in the book."

But despite the word taking on a new life of its own, it wasn't bigger than Miley herself. She wasn't a one-twerk pony in 2013; she gave us a year full of stunts to forget Amanda Bynes 2.0 ever existed. And she seemed to never let up, whereas the trajectory of the word twerking had a Facebookian rise and fall, peaking over the summer and then quickly becoming embarrassing to say aloud once it started getting abused by those with AOL email accounts and various members of The View.

Seriously. This video is called "Jenny McCarthy & Sherri Shepherd Twerking!"


So yeah, not even twerking can bounce back from that. Even though "what is twerking?" was the most Googled question of the year, Miley still wins. Because, now that we've all discovered that Google-generated answer, the phenomenon can end.

David Ortiz (5) vs. Macklemore (4): 11-for-16. That's the sporting statistic of the year for me, David Ortiz's line during the World Series (including two doubles, two home runs, and six RBIs). But after watching it in real time, one of the great sports "he's on fire" moments, it's shocking to imagine he actually didn't advance past home plate on four occasions. Even in a career defined by a clutchness rivaled by few, regardless of the sport, this Ortiz stretch truly stands out.


If this were an October 2013 bracket, Ortiz would win. But it's the entire year, and during most of that year, when Ortiz was a very mortal baseball player, a man named Macklemore was everywhere. Yes, the act is a duo, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, but the rapper is the one who absorbs the majority of the praise, and in turn, the majority of the criticism.

Whatever your feelings about the guy, the impact of the singles from The Heist was unavoidable. "Can't Hold Us" was the no. 5 song on the year-end U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts, and no. 2 on the U.S. Rap charts. The song that topped both of those charts? "Thrift Shop." And then, if that weren't enough, there was "Same Love."

The existence, rise, and dominance of Macklemore is one of the more mulled-over conversation topics in music and culture in 2013. But regardless of where you land on him, it's hard to deny what he pulled off for 12 straight months. And for that, he advances.

Pharrell Williams (3) vs. Scandal (6): Imagine a 2013 without "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines." Maybe you'd prefer to, seeing as both songs were played ad nauseam, but there's no ignoring how different the year would have been without them. And neither would exist without Pharrell's vocals on the former, production and ad libs on the latter, and video cameos in both.

Also, Pharrell just turned 40 and is seemingly getting younger.



But it wasn't just those two songs. He produced 2 Chainz's weirdly-not-a-summer-banger-but-should-have-been "Feds Watching." And two tracks on Samsung's Jay Z's Magna Carta ... Holy Grail, one on Pusha T's My Name Is My Name, two on Beyoncé's Beyoncé, and four on Miley Cyrus's Bangerz. And, on top of all that, that great Nelly song in which Nicki Minaj referred to herself as "Bunz Menage."

But then there's ABC's Scandal. For me — and perhaps only me — the show is becoming my Godfather, in the sense that it's the classic example of the thing you tell everyone you've seen but you haven't. (Note: I've seen The Godfather, but you people know who you are.) I've watched only a few episodes here and there, because occasionally it's nice to see your friends on Thursday nights. But, because of the Internet and the live-tweeting culture around the show, I'm completely caught up. No exaggeration, I know every single thing that's ever happened on Scandal, and girl, is Shonda a trip or what, she can't keep putting me through this.

It's a legit phenomenon, and while the show's ridiculous plot twists might ultimately lead to its demise, the hysteria it caused throughout the TV-watching-and-then-talking-about-it-the-next-day public in 2013 makes it one of the year's most colossal forces. Not even Pharrell's conscious effort to make us dance all year can best Olivia and Fitz. So Scandal advances, mainly because if it didn't, my mother WOULD. KILL. ME.

Jason Collins (7) vs. Kanye West (2): I will not insult the year Kanye West had by burying the lede. He easily advances to the second round. But it's difficult to talk about the great things in 2013 without acknowledging Jason Collins's coming-out in April. And the great Sports Illustrated piece he wrote about the decision. And the milestone that it is in professional sports. Yes, there have been efforts to diminish its importance by noting that he wasn't a superstar and isn't currently on an NBA roster, and yes, if LeBron James came out tomorrow, it would forever upend notions of what is perceived as unacceptable and unmasculine, but that's not what matters. What Jason Collins did mattered, and will continue to matter.

But yeah, Kanye was 2013. So he's going to keep going. There's nothing more to say about that.

Bloodstains, Ball Gowns Region

Toronto (1) vs. Cultural Appropriation (8): This image really sums up the year of 2013 in Toronto:



That's Drake and the pre–crack confirmed/post–crack accused mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, having a jolly time in late September, as the news is announced that the city will host the 2016 NBA All-Star game. The two faces of the city, for better or worse, giggling. As someone not from Toronto but long a fan of Aubrey's "All I care about is money and the place I'm from" line, it's been great to see the city insert itself into daily conversations, be they positive or negative. The contrasting nature of its press is what makes Toronto truly relevant. And for big chunks of 2013, it was the most talked-about town in the news. Also, its two-headed monster is a black Jewish rapper and a guy who admitted to smoking crack and is still the mayor. Only in (North) America, right?

Going against Toronto is the phrase of the year. "Cultural appropriation." Regardless of which side of the fence you stand on with regard to those accused of said appropriation, there was no way to avoid the term in 2013. For big chunks of the year, the Internet felt like it'd just taken its first sociology class and was ready to take on the world with the tools gained from that mind-blowing freshman seminar. Just looking around the bracket, there are a number of people or things that were major talking points in the discussion of using "others'" "cultures" "irresponsibly" for one's own personal gain.

I put those three words in quotation marks because the beauty (if you're an ex-sociology major who loves watching dialogue play out) of the year's seminal circular argument hung on what constituted "other," what defined "culture," and what was ultimately "responsible." And the barrier for entry into a discussion about cultural appropriation is so amazingly low ("I don't like this"), anyone can participate.

And in 2013, it felt like everyone did. Which is why it's advancing to the next round. Sorry, Crackronto. Yes, I know you got Kanye to come to your city's club, wear your city's name on a BEEN TRILL shirt, and D'usse drunk scale your city's club's ceiling pipes, but it's not strong enough to advance.

Netflix (5) vs. Jennifer Lawrence (4): Remember about two years ago,

Permalink

2012.3

By: timbersfan, 9:49 AM GMT on January 02, 2014

Jet Planes, Islands Region

LeBron James (1) vs. Chris Davis (8): Before discussing LeBron, just watch this 100 times:


The Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup in 17 seconds was incredible, but this — even in a non-championship game — blows it out of the water. And the great thing about it is that Chris Davis isn't necessarily doomed to the same fate as Andy Murray. Deservedly, he will be royalty in Auburn for the rest of his life, but there could be more moments. Like, for starters, in the upcoming BCS National Championship game.

But he's going up against LeBron. And LeBron is peaking on and off the court at the same time, which is an amazing thing to live through. Not only did he prove 2012 wasn't a fluke by leading his team to a second consecutive title while winning a fourth MVP award, he got married, joyously hug-tackled a fan at half court, and his commercials with his family (or the entire city of Miami) are actually getting better. Between Nike and Samsung, he's becoming a hybrid of Rocky and a 6-foot-9 Cliff Huxtable. He truly had his "Be Like Mike" moment this year, and with the Heat now in a very real hunt for the three-peat, he's — you know — almost really close to being like Mike.

LeBron made it to the Elite 8 last year, and that was before he had another year of doing everything even better. So things are looking great for him. Chris, despite getting the boot, know that the guy who just beat you probably knows who you are now. So, congrats on that.

Peyton Manning (5) vs. Spotify Premium (4): Peyton came into 2013 hot, leading his new team, the Denver Broncos, into the playoffs in his first season back from injury. But then they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in double overtime. His 2013 response? Throwing seven touchdowns in the regular-season opener — against the Baltimore Ravens — in a blowout, and then leading his team to the best record in the league (through Week 16), having a probable MVP season, regaining the single-season touchdown record, and being named the Sports Illustrated "Sportsman of the Year."

Going against this guy is the version of Spotify you have to pay for. Last year, Spotify (the company) made the bracket, but after another year with the must-have service, I realized that there's nothing worse than non-premium Spotify. It's almost worse than not having access to music. We all have that friend that has regular Spotify and turns on music at their house and the vibe gets nice and then there's a 30-second ad for Dial Soap or something. (I say "or something" because I wouldn't know anything about this junior varsity version of musical playback.)

Basically, Spotify Premium is great. But at the end of the day, iTunes got the new Beyoncé album, causing me to rediscover iTunes, so there's no way Spotify can advance. That's just the way rules work. So Old Manning River is on to the next round. To face LeBron James.

Grand Theft Auto V (3) vs. the Harlem Shake (6): Sure, only a handful of people go platinum these days, but video games are doing just fine. Especially the ones whose titles begin with "Grand Theft Auto," with this year's fifth edition resulting in $800 million in worldwide revenue. In the first 24 hours. This is insane, considering the previous one-day record was set by 2012's Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. And it made $300 million less in its first 24 hours.

Going up against this phenomenon is another of the year's sensations: making videos to Baauer's "Harlem Shake." Like a Vine (six seconds) or an Instagram video (15 seconds), all it took was 31 seconds to join the craze that was the Harlem Shake. And for a period of time, if you were any type of collective (team, office, college class, news crew, wedding party, etc.), you were getting in on the action. Even though a personal goal was to make it through this entire bracket without using this term, it was hands-down the viral craze of the year. I know it seems ages ago, but do you remember the mad dash that took place to make these videos? With everyone in a full, unspoken understanding that it would die out by the first of spring?

And, of course, because it was 2013, it wasn't simply a craze. It was also a deeper topic, seeing as it wasn't the first thing called "the Harlem Shake," and with each passing day of it sweeping the nation, some felt as if the original name was being co-opted. Because, quite honestly, it was. I think they called it "cultural appropriation" or something.

GTA V made a lot of money, especially when compared to the cut Baauer probably didn't get for accidentally being behind the here-now, gone-tomorrow sensation of the year. But you can't discuss the first quarter of this year without Baauer's song and the 31-second clips that followed. And for that, like it or not, it must advance. IT MUST.

Selfies (7) vs. Serena Williams (2): Look at the president of the United States of America. JUST LOOK AT HIM.



How did we get to this point? I remember the old days, when it was commonplace to mock someone who took a picture of themselves, with their arms always slightly gracing the edges of the frame, the entire process signaling that the person had no friends to take pictures for them. That feels like ages ago, because now it's the thing to do. Yes, even at Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

Continuing with this point, I really don't know how we got to a point where the act of taking a picture of yourself beats the AP Female Athlete of the Year, a woman who continues to dominate her sport, winning when she feels like it and having another minimum two-Slam year (her sixth). But we're here. Sorry, Serena. But, at the same time, you understand.



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MIKE MCGRATH
Sweet 16

Gold Teeth, Grey Goose Region

Miley Cyrus (1) vs. Macklemore (4): This is some people's 2013 nightmare. That's why it is the perfect matchup. The entire year consisted of both artists gaining in popularity while the force denouncing their existence in particular genres grew in strength. They were like the prom king and queen of the 2013 cultural appropriation thinkpiece, with Miley's centered around her newfound role as the star of Mike WiLL's hip-hopera and Macklemore's being twofold: the most popular rapper in America and music's new face of LGBT equality.

With such similar 2013 trajectories, it's hard to find a clear winner between the two. But there's one piece of luck that Miley enjoyed that Macklemore couldn't compete with. Her name sounds just like the undisputed drug of the year, "Molly." And boy, did that ever come in handy over the course of the past 12 months. There's the "dancing with Molly" lyric from "We Can't Stop" (that sounds just like "Miley" at first listen), as well as the foundation of an entire Migos song, titled (of course) "Hannah Montana":



Maybe if "Cracklemore" had caught on, he would have had a chance. But it didn't. So Miley wins. Again. I'm sorry, America.

Scandal (6) vs. Kanye West (2): Scandal is awesome television. But take this into consideration: On not one but two occasions this year, Kanye West had legitimate late-night television moments. And not the kind to be caught on Hulu the next morning. Moments that needed to be seen in real time, almost as if these were the days before the Internet.

He made people stay in and actually watch Saturday Night Live on a Saturday night, just to see what'd he do. That night in May, the public got very unpolished versions of "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead," pre-Yeezus, and, across the board, most people either didn't like it or didn't get it. Fast-forward seven months later, and they're two of the most critically acclaimed songs of the year, part of the most talked-about album of 2013.

And then there was Kanye vs. Kimmel. Again, there was no catching it the next morning. Because Kanye is so clearly about moments, in this back-and-forth he did not fail to give us a multitude of them. No one else can currently do this to the masses, in the sense of bringing people's lives to a standstill.

In 2013, it seemed like the public was split in half, either wanting him to succeed or wanting him to fail. But either way, we were tuned in.

So Kanye advances, purely on the grounds of being a better television show than Scandal. And just like that we have an Elite 8 appearance for Mr. West without even getting into his album. Or his family. Or his building projections. Or his speeches. Or his tour. Or his Confederate flags.

Bloodstains, Ball Gowns Region

Cultural Appropriation (8) vs. Netflix (5): Speaking of Kanye's Confederate flag, here's one of the Yeezus pop-up shops:



This is how far cultural appropriation got in 2013. While the Mileys and Macklemores of the world were stuck in this world of being critiqued for "appropriation," Kanye was out here attempting "reappropriation." While some spent the year being accused of thievery, Kanye claimed he was forcibly taking back a symbol and making it his own.

And to think, there was a time (last year) when one of America's foremost issues was "not talking about race enough." Seems laughable now. Netflix killed it this year, but it didn't hit every pocket of society the way this once-whispered concept did. And for that, the bracket continues to be a heady, academia-rich experience and cultural appropriation moves on.

Instagram (3) vs. Vine (2): On paper, this is the toughest battle of the round, but there's actually a really simple way to crown a winner. Vine was hot and then Instagram released its video version, which seemed like the six-second app's death knell. Because it should have been. But it wasn't. Because Vine is still alive and well.

Survival (and luck) is what advances Vine past Instagram. Nothing more.

Cristal, Maybach Region

Beyoncé (1) vs. the Breaking Bad Finale (4): I think this may be my favorite GIF of the year, because it's so much more effective than a series of words.



She let everyone have their moments all year, and then came through and reclaimed her throne. It's like when Jordan allowed the Rockets to win two championships in the '90s. More than anything, it's a really kind gesture. But now that she's back, feel free to exit alongside these still-lit candles.

Breaking Bad had the nation locked in for a significant portion of 2013. And "length of time spent enrapturing" is certainly an important aspect of winning. But there's something about coming out of nowhere, pulling the impossible (a secret album), and having it not only be successful but also perhaps one's best work to date that's hard to beat. It's not impossible to beat, but it's hard. Too hard, in fact, for Breaking Bad. Bey, how do you feel about this win?



General indifference? I get that. But what if I told you there's a good chance you're going up against the Pope in the next round?



THERE'S MY GIRL. Let's just see if the Pope can beat Snapchat.

Snapchat (6) vs. the Pope (2): When you stumble into a Sweet 16 berth, it's not great for your future to go up against Pope Francis. He really is the Best Man of Ev'ry Holiday. He's like real-life Upworthy. I'm not going to spend many words on why the Pope deserves to best Snapchat, because it's insulting to God. Honestly, the only person who would have a good rationale for Snapchat's advancement would be the Pope himself, who would probably see the app as a way of "bringing people together without taking up so much phone storage space." But no, not even you, Francis, can argue your way out of this win.

YOU MUST FACE BEYONCÉ. IT MUST BE DONE. AND IN TIME, IT WILL BE DONE.

Jet Planes, Islands Region

LeBron James (1) vs. Peyton Manning (5): And here we are, the two final athletes in the bracket, going head-to-head. I love the idea of Peyton trying to cross over LeBron or LeBron dropping back and hitting Peyton on a slant route. Unfortunately, neither of those dreams has anything to do with one of these men advancing. What is crucial about both is that it's really beginning to feel like a privilege to watch them separate themselves from their peers in real time. Heat and Broncos games are clinics, with the leaders each seemingly playing a different game from their teammates and opponents.

But at the end, like most things, it comes down to winning. And in 2013, LeBron won (again) and Peyton didn't. But he could, come next February. Unfortunately for Peyton's lifeline in the bracket, February 2014 is not a part of 2013. So it doesn't matter. Mr. St. Vincent–St. Mary Class of 2003, on to the Elite 8 for a second straight year. Don't worry about Peyton, though; he'll be back in the bracket as a congressman in three to five years.

The Harlem Shake (6) vs. Selfies (7): This is a great matchup, because neither is cool but some of our coolest humans have fallen into the trap of both. Case in point: CHRISTOPHER BOSH.

Exhibit A: BOSH SELFIE



Exhibit B: BOSH SHAKE



So it's a simple question: Which Bosh is the #BestBosh? In the selfie, it's almost as if Christopher saw himself for the first time and panicked. But when it's time to get goofy and Harlem Shake, Bosh instantly becomes himself, a clown in a cowboy hat that carries a boom box and wears a baby-blue robe. If you're not convinced that is the #BestBosh, you probably need to get your eyes checked (served).

I know we've all tried to pretend like the Harlem Shake 2.0 didn't happen, but it did. And, whether you loved it or were annoyed by it or hated it, for a moment you cared that it existed. For that (and #BestBosh), it rolls on.

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MIKE MCGRATH
Elite 8

Gold Teeth, Grey Goose Region

Miley Cyrus (1) vs. Kanye West (2): At times, they felt like the year's two biggest publicity stunts. But with every passing month, it became clear there was something behind Kanye's "rants" (a word, rudely redefined in 2013 as "the act of Kanye West saying things in such a way that it's easy to bill him as crazy"), whereas with Miley, the stunt-ness only became more apparent as the year progressed. In terms of being topics of conversation, few people could best Miley in 2013 — but Kanye West is one of those few people. And, on top of that, there's Yeezus and then there's Bangerz. So that pretty much does it for Miley.

Bloodstains, Ball Gowns Region

Cultural Appropriation (8) vs. Vine (2): Before jumping into more reasons that cultural appropriation mattered in 2013, it's time to finally talk about one of the saviors of Vine, an overweight little black boy named TerRio.


These were simpler times. Back when it was just Vines of him dancing, seemingly enjoying his childhood. But then, really quickly, he became Honey Boo Boo Black and ended up the unofficial puppet of the Internet. And then, even more quickly, he became the equivalent of a sideshow freak in real life. Like when I took this picture of him in Washington, D.C., outside a club at 2 a.m.



He looked like he just wanted to go home. You know, because it was 2 a.m. and he was surrounded by drunk adults screaming, "Oooh, kill 'em!" and, at the time, he was 6 years old. A star being born, indeed.

The good thing about Vine is that it became a medium that expanded beyond the simple sharing of videos. Its transformation into a star-making platform is what helped it survive the Instagram attack. It is a shame, however, that perhaps the platform's brightest star is also the most exploited second grader in America. This isn't Vine's fault, it's just a reality, and something I'll always link to the app.

And that's all I think I ever have to say about TerRio.

SPEAKING OF EXPLOITATION, let's get back to cultural appropriation. In November, the Huffington Post ran a piece titled "Cultural Appropriation 101, Featuring Geisha Katy Perry And The Great Wave Of Asian Influence." And in this piece were seven subheads to help guide the reader: "What exactly is cultural appropriation?" "Is it always racist?" "So, Miley Cyrus' VMAs performance was, like, definitely a steaming hot plate of racism?" "What about Selena Gomez, when she wore that bindi for 'Come And Get It'?" "Is it ever OK to borrow from other cultures?" "You really haven't answered the main question here. Was Katy Perry racist or not?!" and "But I saw 'Part Of Me' and Katy Perry is so nice. There's no way she was trying to reinforce stereotypes!"

Reading something like this, you'd think cultural appropriation launched at the same time as Uber. But it didn't. It has actually been around for a bit. Like, a forever bit. But this is the year the seal finally broke. And for that, it continues to advance, now into the Final Four.

Cristal, Maybach Region

Beyoncé (1) vs. the Pope (2): This is a balanced 2013 matchup, because both people bring pride to their ilk. Even thought I lack a strong affiliation to either group, it's still quite apparent to me that it's an exciting time to be a woman, because of Beyoncé, and a Catholic, because of Pope Francis. And the sheer reach both have is insane:

Beyoncé-related Twitter mentions, around the world, once the album dropped:



Three million people gathering to hear Pope Francis celebrate Mass in Rio de Janeiro:



So yeah. They're both known. But ultimately, Bey's year doesn't stack up with the Pope's when it comes to getting stuff done. He's making statements on the regular that are changing the face of what it means to be religious and tolerant. Like saying "Who am I to judge?" with regard to those who are gay. And saying atheists "should be seen as good people if they do good." And speaking on the cooperation between Christians and Muslims. And then, when bored of attempting to direct more than one billion humans down a virtuous path, he auctions his motorcycle for the homeless, raises awareness for the Amazon rain forest, occasionally loses the papal garb and roams the streets dressed like a normal priest to feed the homeless, AND TAKES SELFIES.



I take back some of what I said about selfies, because this is a great moment. But I'm glad it's not Francis's phone. I think that's a fair thing to say.

Given what he did, it feels a bit like 2008 Obama. Yeah, I think that's why I like him. And that, among everything else on his lengthy nine-month résumé, is why he gets the best of Beyoncé and moves on.

Yoncé, you just lost to the Pope. Any final thoughts? Are you devastated?



BEYONCÉ I'M SO SORRY I'M SO SORRY PLEASE FORGIVE ME.



Thanks.

Jet Planes, Islands Region

LeBron James (1) vs. the Harlem Shake (6): The reason this is easy is because LeBron was crucial to the years of both LeBron and the Harlem Shake. Easily one of the most tolerable (bordering on enjoyable) versions of the dance was the Miami Heat team version, with #OperationWowLeBronIsReallyLikable in full effect with his behavior in the video.


There's a Harlem Shake phenomenon without LeBron and his teammates, but it doesn't resonate as much, to as many people, without it. So, with ease, LeBron eurosteps into the Final Four.

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MIKE MCGRATH
Final Four

Kanye West (2) vs. the Pope (2)

This is a rough one, and not because it's Yeezus vs. an actual religious figure, but because I don't really want either of them to advance. My hesitations about Kanye are based in keeping his ego in check, and hesitations about Pope Francis are purely because this is his rookie campaign. Who knows, maybe our guy Frank is just a better dressed, more socially conscious Jeff Francoeur, showing up a third of the way through the year, convincing the public he's the next big thing, ultimately getting the cover-boy treatment, and then A-Town Vatican Stomping into mediocrity. Just look at the similarities:



The Pope's Time "Person of the Year" cover might as well have said "Pope Rookie FRANCIS Is Off to an Impossibly Hot Start. CAN ANYONE BE THIS GOOD?" Yes, I want to celebrate the man and all that he's doing, but I'm invested in him doing this for a while. Basically, I need this Pope to help save humanity from itself. And to ensure that, we can't celebrate too early. Because (spoiler alert) the answer to "Can anyone be this good?" with regard to Jeff Francoeur was "Yes, everyone can." I won't let that happen to Pope Francis. I know how bad he wanted to win this, and his street team was persistent as all get-out, but not this year. Not yet.

You're welcome, Kanye West. But don't celebrate too extravagantly. Because, at the end of the day, you're advancing purely on the basis of me trying to save the human race. From Jeff Francoeur.

Cultural Appropriation (8) vs. LeBron James (1)

There are many baseless comparison between LeBron James and Michael Jordan, but one that sticks is that they're really just basketball players. Even as the most popular athlete on earth, Jordan never really crossed that line into cultural commentator like an Ali. For now, LeBron's the same way. And, for now, that's fine. But when you limit yourself to just your field, there's ultimately a ceiling.

That ceiling is apparent when you pit LeBron against a concept. Because concepts can encompass multiple individuals. And actions. And, potentially, other concepts. With the rare exception, in 2013, when you're discussing LeBron, you're talking about sports. Nothing more. With something like cultural appropriation, sports are part of the equation, as are music, clothing, film, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, among others. The scope is larger, and in 2013, its impact was felt throughout society in a way that LeBron simply could not compete with. But again, that's for now.

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MIKE MCGRATH
Championship

Kanye West (2) vs. Cultural Appropriation (8)

****GRAND CHAMPION****

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MIKE MCGRATH
Why?

2013 was incredible, because it played out exactly how I hoped it would. Week in and week out, I would cycle between being insulted, impressed, shocked, dumbfounded, and enlightened by either someone's behavior or someone's critique of said behavior. And, ultimately, I loved it. I can't think of a messier year in my lifetime, in the sense that people were existing with an almost reckless abandon, with discussions previously too taboo to breach exploding everywhere.

The idea of cultural appropriation can mean myriad things, but the rocket fuel behind its rise in 2013 was the question of how we talk about and react to race (and other oft-polarizing issues) in mixed settings. Cultural appropriation has been occurring forever, but it has been long addressed in homogenous silos. In 2013, that changed. We all saw Miley's transformation in 2013 and felt required to talk about it. Kanye West forced discussions of race on everyone, and in turn became the most relevant, polarizing, and discussed artist of his generation. And Macklemore's existence alone made it seem like you had to take a stance on Macklemore's existence — and almost always in ways that had nothing to do with his music or who he was as a person.

But what really stood out in 2013 was the extent to which it was impossible to escape the dialogue itself. It's easy to see much of what happened in 2013 in a negative light. But if you look at the way these explosions of distress were processed by the culture, it didn't always break down along the lines you'd expect. The year helped shine a light on two groups of people, "people who get it" versus "people who don't." And "get it" doesn't just mean the people who don't wear blackface on Halloween. It's the people who truly understand why you shouldn't wear blackface on Halloween. And go out of their way to express why it's inexcusable. And actually feel emotions, like shame and embarrassment, when it takes place.

Through all the mess, that's what stands out about cultural appropriation in 2013. The fact that, through a newfound ability to talk about things, there was a discourse redistricting. And, like it or not, it wouldn't have happened had Miley not become the ambassador for twerking and an assortment of other things that have been labeled as "minstrelsy," had Lorde not written lyrics for "Royals" that could have been misconstrued as racially insensitive, had the Washington Redskins not continued to remain the Washington Redskins, had Macklemore not struck gold with "Thrift Shop" and "Same Love," had the Harlem Shake been titled something different from a dance popularized a decade earlier, and had Kanye not made songs called "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" and then produced apparel decorated with Confederate flags.

A ton of uncomfortable things happened in 2013. But we finally began talking about them together. Declaring cultural appropriation as the winner of 2013 signifies that, for 12 months, we all kind of lost. But I'll take a short-term mess in exchange for long-term progress any day.

Here's to hoping that's exactly what 2013 was. Not the year we wanted, but the year we needed.

And with that, the bracket is over. Now get me the hell out of 2013.

Permalink

2013.2

By: timbersfan, 9:44 AM GMT on January 02, 2014

Netflix (5) vs. Jennifer Lawrence (4): Remember about two years ago, when we were all mad at Netflix? Hilarious, right? Since now it more than just represents the lazy thing you do if you can remember your roommate's password to distract yourself on a weekend day. It's still that, trust, but now it's also a bona fide network. In 2013, there were House of Cards (three Emmys), Orange Is the New Black (summer phenomenon, inspires blackface), and, of course, the semi-triumphant return of Arrested Development. Netflix banked on what its entire existence was built on, binge-watching, and came out looking like a genius. The company's easily one of the comeback stories of the year.

And then there's Katniss. In February, Katniss won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Non-Katniss Role, for Silver Linings Playbook. And now Katniss is in another David O. Russell movie, American Hustle, for which she'll probably get nominated for another Non-Katniss Role Academy Award, and then end up with a second Non-Katniss Oscar statue. And then, on top of all that, there was Katniss as "Katniss" in Catching Fire. She's a true Hollywood force, a rarity in the young, non-tabloid-dependent community. And, as the ultimate cherry on top, she's riding the "J-Law's so normal, just like you and me" wave until the wheels fall off. It's incredible stuff to watch.



But no. In a surprise twist (says Vegas), she is not advancing to the second round, failing to match her 2012 performance of a Sweet 16 berth. The re-rise of Netflix is simply too much to ignore this year, something not even Katniss could (SPOILER ALERT) shoot an arrow at the ceiling of the dome to overcome.

Instagram (3) vs. Catfishing (6): Before getting into Instagram, a quick reminder about how 2013 felt seven years long. Deadspin broke the Manti Te'o–fake-dead-girlfriend-catfishing-or-maybe-Ma nti-is-a-liar story on January 16, 2013. That was this year. So we started this year off talking about the idea of "getting catfished." (Or did he know the whole time?) Either way, between this story and the ever-growing guilty pleasure that is MTV's Catfish, it's a phrase that truly is the Internet's to lay claim to, as well as a phenomenal practice to try to explain to someone over 50 who actually fell in love with someone they met in real life, like the sensible fossils they are.

Speaking of getting catfished, I'm sure Instagram has played a part in a fair share of people in 2013 thinking that model named "Candis" was actually a model named "Candis" and not a barber named "Neil." But it also did so much more this year, most notably adding a video component. Initially dismissed as merely a way to deal with the rise of Twitter's Vine app, it has given us 15 seconds to (classic joke alert) film everything we had at brunch, instead of just a simple image of things that have been Benedicted. If you have Instagram, there was probably a moment when you were skeptical, but now you're all about it. The main people not excited about it? The people trying to get their catfish on. It's really hard to catfish via video. Trust me, I've been trying to catfish CNN's Don Lemon since August, and it's just a lot tougher these days.

Catfishing tactics aside, Instagram wins — easily — if for no other reason than the beauty that is, and will always be, Thanksgiving Throwback Thursday.

Benedict Cumberbatch (7) vs. Vine (2): My dude BC had a huge year. I'm talking 2012-Fassbenderian, even (Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate). That said, I'm still not exactly sure who he is. I mean, I've seen him plenty of times, but whenever I think about him, I just envision my junior high copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Or one of the people in the room when the Articles of Confederation were being debated. Perhaps that's my own fault, but it's the truth.

Do you know what I'll never forget, though?


THAT BACKFLIP. OVER. AND OVER. AND OVER AGAIN.

This Vine, alone, gets it past Cumberbatch. Because, as is true with Vine superstar @KingBach and many others, the medium became more than simply a venue to share things with your friends. Somehow, Vine became its own outlet for entertainment. You know, like television.

So Vine advances. And, for better and for worse, we haven't even gotten to TerRio. Not yet.

Cristal, Maybach Region

Beyoncé (1) vs. Candy Crush (8): A fact about this bracket: I began prepping for it, and then Beyoncé came through like Black Feminist Santa in the middle of the night and released an album. So I had to start the bracket over. I say this for two reasons: (1) to admit there was a time when this bracket didn't include Beyoncé, which is something I'm not proud of, and (2) to make it clear that her sudden, bracket-validating inclusion is most likely not going to result in a first-round exit.

With that said, for most of 2013, Candy Crush was all over everyone's fingertips like liquor. The addiction levels of the game make Rob Ford look like @Pontifex. So yeah, that's next-level crack. [Note: While I was typing this, someone invited me to play Candy Crush Saga on Facebook. I kid you not, the fiends can sense I'm about to knock it out of the bracket. I think they may be at my door. Pray for me.]

But no. Even pre-Beyoncé Beyoncé, the mother, Tumblrer, documentary subject, and Super Bowl halftime performer, advances. But the addition of this:



It's hard to argue with that. So Drunkyoncé advances.

The Chicago Blackhawks (5) vs. The Breaking Bad Finale (4):

So there was this:


But before that, more remarkably, there was this:


In the time it takes to proofread a tweet, the Blackhawks went from looking at a Game 7 to scoring twice in 17 seconds and winning the Stanley Cup. Considering the stakes, and the moment, and the quickness of it all, it's hard to argue against Chicago and its hockey team with the culturally appropriated name as having the best finish of the year. Put simply, it was sports magic, which is often the best type of magic.

While the signature moment of the Blackhawks' season happened unexpectedly, the most incredible aspect of AMC's Breaking Bad finale, "Felina," was the buildup. Because of the unique marriage of television and the Internet, there's never been anything like the crescendo toward the show's last breath. The bar was so high, and the world that had invested so much time in the show and its characters seemed to not be disappointed in what it got — a rarity for a series finale. In this age of instant critiques, things never seem to live up to the hype. The Breaking Bad finale stands apart as one of the few things that did, ending a show that kept its audience enraptured like few other things in 2013. The Blackhawks had their moment, and then they were gone. But when you think back to 2013 and its most prominent figures, one of those is Walter White.

Don't look now, but the Breaking Bad finale is going up against Beyoncé in the Sweet 16, which is hilarious.

Andy Murray (3) vs. Snapchat (6): Sure, it matters what Andy Murray does for the rest of his career/life, but at the moment he finally won Wimbledon, the first British man to win in 77 years, his duty to his country was officially discharged. Yes, he won Olympic gold on his home turf in 2012, but that still wasn't the ultimate prize. He could have been no. 1 in the world for five straight years, but if he failed to win at the All-England Lawn Tennis Club during that span, he'd be seen as a failure. But he did it, so he's the King of England. Forever.

Last year, Andy got ousted in the second round by a "handful of blogs," a.k.a. Tumblr. This year, he's up against "an eyeful of disappearing pictures that actually aren't just the junks of men" in Snapchat. Because this is the pinnacle of Murray's life, and he's going up against some app, it seems like a no-brainer that he advances. Even with a graph like this, showing how significant a market share Snapchat has taken in 2013, Murray, the Brit, won Wimbledon.



So this is Andy's year in this bracket, right? Wrong. Why? Because there's good and bad in peaking. The good, obviously, is the peak. The moment. This moment.



The bad: the reality that it probably can't get any better than this. I've never done anything in my life, so I'm always on a constant push toward being somebody. For Andy, it's all downhill. And that path down, while higher than all of our highs, is still a very clear downward trajectory.

Depressed yet? You should be, because this is the second and final year Andy Murray will be in this bracket. Unless, somehow, he becomes (1) an astronaut, or (2) the new Pope. Snapchat didn't win this round. Andy just lost. Because he reached the mountaintop, which is ultimately the end of me, and probably you, truly caring about Andy Murray.

Emojis (7) vs. the Pope (2): Emojis blew up in 2013. Some would call it "mainstream," and others, "selling out," depending on which set you rep. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was the medium for entire articles, and it became an expression of art. When one of the coproducers of New York's Emoji Art and Design Show, Lindsey Weber, was told that her medium was facing Pope Francis in the first round, her response was



Solid argument, but just not enough to sway me toward thinking emojis somehow had a better year than the Pope. Because, lest we forget, Francis became Pope in 2013, an achievement enough in itself for advancement, but then he additionally ended up being the best guy ever, if you're someone that really enjoys human rights and equality for all.

Speaking of equality, there's still no black person emoji. So there's that.

This is probably the blowout of the first round. And we haven't even started talking about all the stuff the Pope did this year. But there's time. Trust me.

CLICK HERE FOR PART TWO

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