Posted on: January 18, 2009 11:26 pm
Edited on: January 19, 2009 12:45 am

NFL: Cards, Steelers to meet in Super Bowl XLIII

Got both games right today, but it was close in both!

Eagles versus Cardinals -- In the first two-thirds of the second half, it looked like the Cardinals would let this one slip away. Arizona built a 24-6 lead in the first half, with three touchdown passes from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald and a 49-yard field goal from Neil Rackers in the last moments of the second quarter. But, it was apparent the Eagles had made some good adjustments at halftime,coming out to score 19 unanswered points to take the lead 25-24 in the fourth quarter. When it counted most, Warner held it together and drove his team down the field to make the game-winning score, an 8-yard pass to running back Tim Hightower, who did some great running after the catch and twisted and turned his way into the end zone. With the score at 30-25, Arizona went for the 2-point conversion, with Warner throwing a bullet to tight end Ben Patrick to put the score at 32-25, forcing the Eagles to score a touchdown to either tie the game or go ahead with another 2-point conversion. It would stand up as the final score, as the Cardinals’ defense held, taking over on downs. After punting out of bounds and pinning Philadelphia inside their own 10, the Cardinals snuffed out the Eagles’ last play, a desperation attempt at a hook-and-ladder play that ended with a turnover.

Eagles’ QB Donovan McNabb actually outpassed Warner, making 28 of 47 throws for 375 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception. McNabb was put on the deck twice by Arizona pass rushers. He threw to nine different players, with wide receiver Kevin Curtis getting four catches for 122 yards and wide receiver DeSean Jackson catching six for 92 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Brent Celek had a great day, with 10 catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. All-purpose weapon Brian Westbrook wasn’t much of a factor in this game, with 45 rushing yards on 12 carries and two catches for 26 yards. McNabb and running back Correll Buckhalter combined for 52 yards on six carries, giving the Eagles a total of 97 rushing yards. Kicker David Akers made field goals of 45 yards and 33 yards in the first half. Akers was 2 for 3 on the day overall on field goals and also missed an extra point attempt.

Warner had one less interception (0 on the day) and one more touchdown pass, that TD pass representing the difference on the scoreboard. He was 21 of 28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns. He also was put on the deck twice. Warner threw to eight different players and caught a pass himself for four yards. Fitzgerald, the offensive star of the day for Arizona, led the way among those catching passes, with nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin had four catches for 34 yards. On the ground, running backs Edgerrin James and Hightower combined for 106 yards on 27 carries. The Cardinals are truly fortunate to have a talent like Larry Fitzgerald playing for them. The guy is a human highlight reel. If Kurt Warner doesn‘t have him to throw to, obviously, Arizona doesn’t even get this far, much less win this game. He is only one piece of the puzzle, pieces which also include Warner, Boldin, James, and Hightower, as well as others on both sides of the ball, but he is a critical piece.

Kudos to the Eagles, who had to scrap their way into the playoffs and were close to making a one-point lead hold up to make their way to the Super Bowl. As for the Cardinals, they have turned an up-and-down regular season into the team’s first trip to compete for the NFL’s ultimate prize, the Lombardi Trophy.

Ravens versus Steelers -- Leading up to this game, anyone who had anything to say about this year’s third meeting between these two teams knew it was going to be brutal. And they were right. Hard hits, nasty blocks, tough words bantered back and forth, some post-play shenanigans. In other words, everything you would expect in any meeting of bitter AFC North rivals. Both teams endured some frightening moments late in the fourth quarter when Steelers' safety Ryan Clark leveled a hard shoulder hit on Ravens' running back Willis McGahee, who had just caught a pass over the middle. McGahee was taken off the field on a cart, and Clark ended up on the sidelines being checked out by Steelers’ trainers. Clark, who had eight tackles on the day, was credited with a forced fumble as McGahee lost the ball when he was hit. Late word was that McGahee is experiencing significant neck pain, but does have feeling and movement in all his extremities.

During the half-time updates, CBS’ injury report was longer than during any game I’ve seen in a while. One of the game’s best blocks was one laid by Steelers’ wide receiver Limas Sweed, who flexed back to make space for tight end Heath Miller on a pass play. Sweed nearly separated Ravens’ cornerback Corey Ivy’s head from his torso. (It reminded me of the block laid by Steelers’ wide receiver Hines Ward on Bengals’ linebacker Keith Rivers on October 19 during the first of two Pittsburgh victories over Cincinnati in the regular season, a block which put Rivers out for the rest of the season with a broken jaw.) Sweed was likely looking to make himself feel a little better after dropping a perfectly-thrown ball from Ben Roethlisberger that would have been a touchdown had Sweed caught it. (Sweed also made a nice play in the third quarter to break up an interception and give Steelers’ kicker Jeff Reed a shot at a 46-yard field goal, which he hit to put Pittsburgh up 16-7). Each team would put another score on the board after Reed's kick, making the final score 23-14.

The team that made the least mistakes was going to win this one, and that team tonight was the Steelers. Ravens’ quarterback Joe Flacco, who was 13 of 30 for 141 yards, was intercepted three times, one of those returned by Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu 40 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Polamalu, who also had three tackles and an assist, again proved to be the final dagger for the Steelers' defense. Flacco, who also was sacked three times, threw to five players, with running back Ray Rice, wide receiver Derrick Mason, and tight end Todd Heap each getting three catches, Rice for 43 yards, Mason for 41 yards, and Heap for 26 yards. The Ravens’ running game wasn't able to get much traction beyond McGahee, who had 60 yards on 20 carries before he was injured, while he accounted for the Ravens’ two touchdowns on carries of 3 yards in the second quarter and 1 yard in the fourth quarter. Four other rushers combined on five carries for 13 yards.

The Ravens defense was in Roethlisberger’s face all night, getting consistent pressure on the Pittsburgh offensive line, hurling blitz after blitz, sacking Roethlisberger four times and putting him on the ground numerous other times. Roethlisberger was 16 of 33 for 255 yards and 1 touchdown, with no interceptions. He threw to eight players, with wide receiver Santonio Holmes getting two catches for 70 yards and the one touchdown scored by Pittsburgh’s offense. Miller had three catches for 62 yards, and Ward had three catches for 55 yards before being lifted from the game with a leg injury. Sweed had two catches for 10 yards. Running back Willie Parker had 24 carries for 47 yards. Three other rushers combined for 5 yards on four carries. Reed had three field goals on efforts of 34 yards and 42 yards in the first quarter and the 46-yarder in the third quarter.

Kudos to the Ravens, who put together a great season behind a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback and who nearly rode one of the league’s premier defenses to another shot at a Super Bowl ring. As for the Steelers, they have two weeks to get ready to go up against the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, with a chance to establish the NFL record for Super Bowl victories at six. This will be the second time in the last four seasons the Steelers have made it to the NFL championship, having defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in 2006.

Posted on: January 17, 2009 10:14 am

NFL: Conference champs on deck . . .

At the beginning of the 2008 season, I think anyone would have given the Steelers a shot at making the Super Bowl, with one of the better quarterbacks in the game and one of the best defenses. The Ravens would have had an outside shot, considering they have a new coach and a rookie quarterback. I think the Eagles would have been given a similar chance to the Ravens, considering the inconsistency of the team over the last few years and some of the internal issues they have been deaing with recently. Of the four teams still in it, the Cardinals are the team least likely to have been given much love as a Super Bowl contender at the beginning of the season.

Colts, Chargers, Titans -- gone. Jets, Patriots -- didn't even make the cut. Giants, Panthers, Falcons -- gone. Saints, Cowboys -- didn't even make the cut.

So, here we are, about to enjoy a couple of unexpected, but imminently watchable matchups tomorrow.

Eagles versus Cardinals -- The current line here has Philadelphia by 4. This is actually a reasonably significant line for the Eagles going into Arizona. This line tells me there is a feeling that the Eagles have a tangible advantage over the Cardinals. I'm not so sure. Behind quarterback Donovan McNabb and head coach Andy Reid, Philadelphia has plenty of playoff experience. While this is Ken Whisenhunt's first turn in the playoffs as a head coach, he was Bill Cowher's offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh for three years and helped the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl XL, so he has dealt with playoff pressure, too. McNabb's matchup with Cardinals' QB Kurt Warner should be a good one. The Eagles have all-purpose weapon running back Brian Westbrook, rookie phenom wide receiver DeSean Jackson, and a defense that has found its purpose during the post-season. The Cardinals have one of the best wide receiver tandems in the game in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, and running backs Tim Hightower and Edgerrin James have found their game during the post-season. The Cardinals' defense has also played well in the post-season.

The over-under on this game is 47. I have a feeling that total points for the game could end up at 50+, especially if Boldin is able to play. The Eagles' defense will have to be on top of their game to win this one, considering the variety of weapons Warner has at his disposal. Even without Boldin, I think the Cardinals will come out firing and play with a chip on their shoulders again, being underdogs at home. The CBS experts are split, three going with the Cardinals and two plus SPIN going with the Eagles. I'll go against the line and take the Cardinals in this one.

Ravens versus Steelers -- The current line for this one is Pittsburgh by 6. Six points may be a bit generous, considering this could turn into a literal knock-down drag-out sort of game, with two of the best defenses in the game going at each other tooth and nail to get to the Super Bowl. Can the Ravens' unflappable rookie quarterback Joe Flacco stand up against the pressure sure to be brought by the Steelers' stellar defense? Can savvy veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger stand tall in the pocket, avoid throwing mistakes and only scramble when necessary? He could find himself on the move quite a bit against a Ravens' defense that is good from the defensive line to the defensive backfield. Pittsburgh's offensive game planners will have to be careful to mix it up to keep the Ravens' defense off balance. Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are the keys to the Ravens' defense. Flacco is the mastermind for the offense, and he will have to be on his game to try to get his team enough points to win, but also to avoid mistakes in what is likely to be a defensive struggle of monumental proportions. Wide receivers Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington, as well as tight end Heath Miller, will be primary targets for Roethlisberger, but the Steelers must also establish their running game to be able to effectively move the ball, as they did last week against the Chargers with running back Willie Parker. Flacco has wide receivers Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton as his primary targets, and Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee to feed the ball to in the ground game.

This should be a great game. The over-under is at 34, which is a good number. If the total is over, it won't be by much. The Steelers at home by 6 represents a tangible advantage. However, three of six CBS experts and SPIN are picking the Ravens. Both teams will be trying to play the same kind of game -- ball control, no turnovers, and just enough points to win. I think this game will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes and which forces mistakes by the other team. Who will do it? I'll take the Steelers.

Good luck to each of these teams and their fan bases. Whichever teams win, we should be in for an exciting Super Bowl matchup.

Posted on: January 11, 2009 10:06 pm
Edited on: January 11, 2009 10:42 pm

NFL: Eagles hook Giants; Steelers zap Chargers

Another 1 and 1 day, and, again, one expected and one surprise.

Eagles versus Giants -- I expected this one to be a close game, but with a mostly-healthy Giants team, I expected New York to be on the good side of a 23-11 score versus the Eagles. But it didn't turn out that way, with the Eagles' defense being the difference in this game, forcing a fumble and two interceptions. The Giants' defense also netted two interceptions. New York actually had more total yards (307) than Philly (276), but were unable to make those yards bring something they could put on the scoreboard.

Giant's kicker John Carney put the first points on the board with a field goal in the first quarter. Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb, who was 22 of 40 for 217 yards with one touchdown and the two interceptions, got his team's first score with a 1-yard run in the first quarter. The Giants trapped McNabb in the end zone in the second quarter, scoring a safety, then Carney and Eagles' kicker David Akers traded field goals to put the score at 10-8 before the half. Carney and Akers traded field goals again in the third, the only scoring in the quarter. The fourth quarter broke the Giants' backs as the Eagles scored 10 unanswered points, with McNabb hitting tight end Brent Celek for a 1-yard TD and Akers connecting on his third field goal. Running back Brian Westbrook was held to 18 carries for 36 yards and had two catches for 10 yards. McNabb threw to seven different players, with wide receiver DeSean Jackson getting four catches for 81 yards and wide receivers Jason Avant and Kevin Curtis each getting four catches, Avant for 43 yards and Curtis for 40 yards.

The Giants were held without a touchdown. QB Eli Manning was 15 of 29 for 169 yards and the two interceptions. Manning threw to six different players, with tight end Kevin Boss getting three catches for 52 yards and wide receiver Domenik Hixon catching two for 37 yards. While Carney produced all the points for the Giants, he missed two tries during the game. The rushing game contributed as much as it could, with running back Brandon Jacobs getting 19 carries for 92 yards and running back Derrick Ward getting 12 carries for 46 yards. These are pretty good numbers, but the offense could never get them close enough to the end zone to make their power and speed pay off.

This game was closer, I thought, than the final score indicated. Take away a miscue here and there, have Carney hit one or both of the field goals he missed, capitalize more in the red zone, and the Giants are in this game in the fourth quarter. As it was, Philly did what they had to do to win, and they move on to meet the Cardinals next week in Arizona for the NFC Championship. The Giants head into the offseason thinking about what might have been and what will be next year. Kudos to the Giants and their fans on another great year, and congrats to the Eagles, who are one win away from a chance to play for the  ultimate prize.

Chargers versus Steelers -- I, and a lot of others on various threads, said the Steelers should win this game, provided their defense played as they typically do and their offense scored some points to back up the defense. The Steelers got the win, 35-24, and while they did not run away with this game, it wasn't as close as the final score indicates.

The Chargers scored on their first possession of the game with a 41-yard pass down the middle from San Diego quarterback Phillip Rivers to wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a flat-out speed route with Jackson running under a beautifully thrown ball from Rivers. The Steelers answered quickly with a 67-yard punt return by Santonio Holmes for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Chargers' kicker Nate Kaeding hit on a 42-yard field goal, and Steelers' running back Willie Parker plowed into the end zone on a 3-yard run. The Steelers were up 14-10 at the half. The Steelers went up 21-10 in the third quarter, a quarter in which San Diego did not score, on an 8-yard pass from QB Ben Roethlisberger to tight end Heath Miller. In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh running back Gary Russell scored on a 1-yard run, putting the Steelers up 28-10. Rivers hit receiver Legedu Naanee for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 28-17. Shortly after that, Parker would score again for the Steelers on a 16-yard rush, putting the game at 35-17. Running back Darren Sproles would finish the scoring in the game on a 62-yard touchdown pass from Rivers. The Steelers were always able to stay one step ahead of the Chargers after they tied the score in the first quarter.

Rivers was 21 of 35 for 308 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. The Steelers' defense sacked Rivers four times, and also took away a fumble during the game. Rivers threw to eight players, with Sproles leading receivers with five catches for 91 yards, most of it coming on the TD catch. Wide receiver Chris Chambers had four catches for 72 yards, and tight end Antonio Gates had 5 catches for 59 yards. The Chargers had just 15 net rushing yards. Sproles had 11 carries for 15 yards.

Roethlisberger was 17 of 26 for 181 yards and a touchdown. Back-up QB Byron Leftwich came in during the waning moments of the fourth quarter to ensure that Roethlisberger remained in one piece and in possession of all of his faculties. Roethlisberger was sacked once, but did not give up an interception. He threw to six different players, with wide receiver Hines Ward leading the way on four catches for 70 yards. Heath Miller had three catches for 37 yards, including a TD. On the ground, Willie Parker racked up 27 carries for 146 yards and the two TDs, proving to be the engine that drove the Steelers' offense. Six other players combined for 19 yards on 15 carries. The Steelers did not turn the ball over. The Steelers also won time of possession (36:30 to 23:30) and first downs (22 to 15).

Kudos to the Chargers and their fans for a strong finish after what could have been a disastrous season. The Steelers' win sets up a confrontation between them and the Baltimore Ravens, bitter division rivals in the AFC North, for the AFC Championship. Pittsburgh swept the regular season series, and they will have home-field advantage again next week, but the Steelers have to be ready for a Ravens team on a roll. Baltimore may be dealing with injuries to two key players, as linebacker Terrell Suggs left their game against the Tennessee Titans with a sprained shoulder, and cornerback Samari Rolle left the game with a groin strain. Hopefully, the Ravens will be at full strength. It will make this game, already expected to be intense, that much more exciting.

Posted on: January 9, 2009 12:23 pm
Edited on: January 9, 2009 12:26 pm

NFL Div. Playoffs: Now it gets really fun!

I love the playoffs because it means you get to watch two NFL games on Saturday, and all four of the games are scheduled so you can catch them all! It's a bonus when the games are good, and it looks like the matchups on both Saturday and Sunday are setting up nicely.

On Saturday, the Ravens travel to take on the Titans in the early game, a 4:30 p.m. start. The Titans are favored by a field goal at the moment, what I like to call the "tip of the hat" line for home-field advantage when two comparable teams are playing. Essentially, this game is a toss up in my book. I think the Titans CAN win, but will they? If the Ravens play smart offense, like they did last week against the Dolphins, they should win this game. Just let the defense run amok and see what happens.

The other Saturday game has the Cardinals on the road to meet the Panthers at 8:15 p.m. The line on this one is Panthers by 9 1/2. This line tells me that those in the know believe Arizona does not match up well against the balanced attack and stingy defense of Carolina. If the Panthers stay on their game, they should win this one. I'm not sure if they'll cover a 9 1/2-point spread, but they should win.

On Sunday, in the early game at 1 p.m., we have the Eagles traveling to play the Giants. This will be the third time these two teams have seen each other this year, after a regular-season split, with both teams winning on the road. The line has the Giants by 4. Can the Eagles make the road work for them again, coming in against a Giants' team that has had two badly-needed weeks to get healthy? I like the Giants here, provided all the pieces are ready come game time, but I'm not sure if they will make the 4-point spread.

In the late game, the Chargers travel almost coast-to-coast to take on the Steelers at 4:45 p.m. In their meeting earlier this year, the Steelers squeaked by with an 11-10 win, in a game with one of the strangest endings I saw all this year. The line has the Steelers by 6, a clear advantage. The Steelers have had two weeks to get healthy, good news considering starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of their last regular season game against the Browns with a concussion. The Chargers likely will be without running back LaDainian Tomlinson, though this may not be as critical as it normally would be with the performance last week of Darren Sproles. The Chargers bested the Colts last week in a game I thought the Colts should have won, but the victory in which can be traced largely to the performance of Sproles. The Steelers must score points to back up the work of their defense and minimize mistakes when they have the ball. If they can do this, I think they win, but perhaps not by the 6-point margin.

These should be some great games, and I'm looking forward to being able to watch all of them. Playoff football is the best!

Posted on: January 4, 2009 9:20 pm
Edited on: January 5, 2009 7:11 am

NFL: Flyin' the birds - Ravens, Eagles advance

Today, I was 2 for 2, so I'm 3 for 4 in my prognostications overall so far. Not too bad. Today's winners are the Ravens and the Eagles. Now that the Wild Card games are finished, the "predicting" gets even harder.

Ravens at Dolphins -- The Ravens' defense played just the way I thought they would, making life miserable for Dolphins' quarterback Chad Pennington while Baltimore posted a 27-9 win this afternoon in Miami. Pennington was 25 of 38 for 252 yards and a touchdown, but the relentless wrecking crew that is the Ravens' defense picked Pennington four times, a Miami post-season record, one of which picks was returned for a touchdown by Baltimore defensive stalwart safety Ed Reed. Pennington also was sacked three times. As an indication of just how well the Ravens' defense played, the Dolphins won time of possession (33:26 to 26:34) and first downs (18 to 16) and still were overwhelmed. Miami had a combined 21 carries for 52 yards in the game. The Dolphins managed one touchdown on a 2-yard Pennington pass to running back Ronnie Brown in the fourth quarter. A 19-yard Dan Carpenter field goal in the first quarter accounted for the remainder of Miami's scoring. Pennington threw to seven different players, including running back Patrick Cobbs, who had four catches for 55 yards. Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco was 9 of 23 for 135 yards, with no interceptions, and also had a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Flacco was not sacked in the game. Matt Stover had two field goals and Le'Ron McClain added an 8-yard rushing touchdown to round out the Ravens' scoring. Five Ravens combined for 33 carries for 151 yards. To the credit of the Dolphins, the team never gave up. Congratulations to the team and their management for turning around a 1-15 season just last year into an 11-5 year ending in a playoff appearance. And congrats to the Ravens, who move on to play the Titans next week in Tennessee.

Eagles at Vikings -- Through most of this game, it felt like the Vikings would keep it close, then win it in the fourth quarter. The score was 16-14 Philadelphia heading into the fourth quarter. Neither team had scored in the third quarter. Then, midway through the fourth quarter, Eagles' running back Brian Westbrook, who had not been effective up to this point in the game, broke a long run after a short pass from Donovan McNabb, scampering 71 yards to paydirt. That made the score 23-14. In the last minutes of the quarter, Eagles' kicker David Akers would notch his fourth field of the game to cap the scoring and put the exclamation point on a 26-14 victory for the Eagles. McNabb was 23 of 34 for 300 yards, one touchdown and one interception. McNabb threw to eight different players. The Vikings' defense sacked McNabb three times, but could not stop him from piling up the yards. Eagles' cornerback Asante Samuel accounted for the team's other touchdown on a 44-yard interception return. Vikings' quarterback Tarvaris Jackson was 15 of 35 for 164 yards and the interception. Running back Adrian Peterson accounted for all of Minnesota's scoring with touchdown runs of 40 yards and three yards. Peterson had 20 carries for 83 yards, and running back Chester Taylor had 12 carries for 48 yards. Jackson threw to six different players. He was sacked once. Congratulations to the Vikings, who finished strong after a tough season. And congrats to the Eagles, who move on to play the Giants next week.

Around the NFL . . .

Next weekend's playoff matchups


AFC -- Ravens at Titans                NFC -- Cardinals at Panthers


AFC -- Chargers at Steelers        NFC -- Eagles at Giants


P.S. Thanks to fellow blogger iamyo for reminding me about the reseeding. It's a pain in the butt and confusing, but I guess it makes sense.

Posted on: December 29, 2008 9:55 pm
Edited on: December 30, 2008 12:46 pm

NFL: The table is set; three hot seats catch fire

The Wild Card round of the 2008 NFL playoffs are set, and there are some fine matchups in line.

The Seeds

                     AFC                                                                                 NFC

1 --               Titans                                                                              Giants

2 --               Steelers                                                                          Panthers

3 --               Dolphins                                                                         Vikings

4 --               Chargers                                                                        Cardinals

5 --               Colts                                                                                Falcons

6 --               Ravens                                                                            Eagles

The Wild Card Matchups

                      AFC                                                                                  NFC

SAT              Colts at Chargers                                                          Falcons at Cardinals

SUN             Ravens at Dolphins                                                      Eagles at Vikings

I believe the NFC games are easier to predict than the AFC games in this round. The Falcons have been playing heads-up ball lately while the Cardinals have limped into the post-season after claiming the championship in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL. I think the Falcons take this one. And the Eagles are on fire. Granted, they took apart a faltering Cowboys team, but Philadelphia is firing on all cylinders. It took all the Vikings had to get past the Giants by one point. I'm not sure the Vikings can handle the Eagles at full strength. I'll go with the Eagles in this one.

The AFC matchups are more intriguing. The Colts are riding a nine-game win streak, but the Chargers, who are on a four-game win streak of their own, have a huge chip on their shoulders and are playing much better than their record indicates. Being from and living in Indiana, and since my Bengals didn't even come close, I'll be rooting for the Colts, but I think I'll be prepared to be disappointed. I call this one a toss-up with a slight edge to the Chargers for home-field advantage.

Of all the games this coming weekend, I think the Ravens/Dolphins matchup is the most intriguing. Miami is riding high on the wave of an 11-5 season after an abysmal 1-15 campaign last year. They had to beat the Jets this past Sunday to get in. They played effectively and efficiently and got the job done. For the Dolphins, this will come down to mental toughness. For some players, the game against the Jets may have been the playoffs, do-or-die to make the postseason, but, on the good side, the Dolphins come into the game on a five-game win streak. There could be a letdown coming, a letdown they can't afford against a Ravens team that also squeaked their way in, but which also has a lot of playoff experience on the team. Typically, a rookie quarterback could be a weak link under playoff pressure, but Ravens QB Joe Flacco has grown into the position this year and has shown poise beyond that of a typical rookie QB. If the Ravens' defense can handle the flair that the Dolphins' offense may try to throw at them, they should win this game. Behind that defense and with more playoff experience, I'll give the Ravens a slight edge in this game, in spite of home-field advantage for the Dolphins.

Three head coaches early casualties . . .

Browns' head coach Romeo Crennel, Jets' maestro Eric Mangini, and Lions' ringmaster Rod Marinelli were all three shown the door today. Crennel's Browns were 4-12, Mangini's Jets were 9-7, but flamed out toward the end of the season when they looked like sure locks for the playoffs, and Marinelli's Lions set an NFL season record by going 0-16, a mark that will be hard for the hard-luck franchise to live down considering recent years and recent events.

Now, fans are left to wonder where these three will land and who will take their places on their former teams. There are still a limited number of jobs, a limited number of candidates and a limited number of teams, so it's likely Crennel, Mangini and Marinelli will end up somewhere, perhaps even as head coaches again, though it may take a couple of years. The better question is who will take their places -- who might be lured from somewhere else, who might be lured out of retirement, or who might be willing to take a chance on reviving some franchises that have fallen on rough times and want to find a spark to get them going again.

Posted on: December 15, 2008 1:21 am

CIN/WAS Footnote: goal-line stand. BAL/PIT

I didn't want to close the book on today's Bengals versus Redskins matchup without giving the Bengals' defense one more pat on the back.

A little more than midway through the third quarter, with the score 17-10 Bengals, the Redskins had the ball second-and-goal at the Bengals'  1 yard line. Mike Sellers ran the ball up the middle into a pile of players with 6:27 left in the quarter for what looked to be a touchdown. But wait! Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who has typically been hesitant to throw the challenge flag this season, dropped one to challenge whether Sellers had broken the plane of the goal with the ball before he was down on the play. After consideration, the ruling was reversed, with the referee saying Sellers' knee was down before he extended the ball over the goal line. The Redskins went to third-and-goal at the 1/4-yard line.

On third down, the Redskins ran Sellers up the middle again, into a pile of players again, and, in the process of descending through that pile of players, still working to find the goal line, the ball was literally taken out of Sellers' hands by Bengals' linebacker Corey Mays. A fumble, turnover and touchback was ruled for the Bengals. But wait! Redskins head coach Jim Zorn challenged this ruling, believing the ball had broken the plane of the goal before Mays took the ball out of Sellers' hands. The call on the field was upheld, and the Bengals took over on their own 20.

In the fourth quarter, the teams would trade field goals, but that would be the rest of the scoring for the game. If not for the goal line stand, this game could have gone to overtime. Congrats to the Bengals' defense on the first goal-line stand. Congrats to the D on the second goal-line stand and particularly to Corey Mays for the takeaway. Congrats to the officials for getting the calls right on both plays. And congrats to Marvin Lewis for winning two challenges today, including this one.

Around the AFC North . . .

Steelers versus Ravens -- This game was all it was billed to be. These two teams beat each others' brains out for a full 60 minutes, with the Steelers coming out on top 13-9, after a controversial call on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes with less than a minute left in the game. With the win, the Steelers nab their second consecutive AFC North championship, grab a first-round playoff bye, and force the Ravens to continue their fight for a wild card bid. The Steelers travel to play the Titans next Sunday, and the Ravens play the Cowboys at Dallas in a Saturday night matchup.

Browns versus Eagles -- The Browns line up against the Eagles in Philadelphia in the Monday night matchup.

Posted on: December 10, 2008 10:43 pm
Edited on: December 10, 2008 10:45 pm

AFC North: the early lines - Fun with numbers!

This week offers a range of opening lines confronting the teams in our favorite conference, the AFC North.

-- The Bengals (1-11-1) are touchdown underdogs at home to the Redskins (7-6). The Bengals are now in "13 down, three to go" mode, while the Redskins struggle to maintain relevance in the NFC East. The Redskins desperately need a win. The Bengals are still wondering if Carson Palmer will play in the last two weeks of the season (puh-leeeeeeeezzzzz!!!).  Considering how the Ravens picked the Redskins apart last week, the Bengals may have a shot here. Wait, who am I kidding! But, you know I'll be watching and rooting for my favorite bunch of perennial NFL losers!

-- In what may be the Game of the Week, the Ravens (9-4) are two-point favorites at home against the Steelers (10-3). The Ravens have hit their stride, and the Steelers continue to find ways to win in close games. This is a showdown of epic proportions. The Steelers need the win to stay atop the AFC North. A Ravens win would bring a tie for the conference lead and make the last two games on their schedules that much more meaningful for both teams. Pittsburgh enters the game on a four-game win streak, including last week's late-game emotional win over the Cowboys. The Ravens enter the game on a three-game streak of their own, including 29+-point wins over the Eagles and the Bengals and a two-touchdown win over the Redskins last week. Whichever way it goes, both these teams are likely destined for the playoffs. The line is less than the usual field-goal tip of the hat for home-field advantage, so this is essentially a "pick 'em" game.

-- The Browns (4-9) travel to meet the Eagles (7-5-1), who are two-touchdown favorites. The Eagles are 2-1 since the tie against the Bengals and feeling the momentum after a 48-20 win over the Cardinals and an important 20-14 conference win over the rival Giants. The Eagles need a win to keep pace with the Cowboys and the Redskins in the AFC East, since the Giants already have clinched the division and a playoff spot. The Browns enter this game on a three-game losing streak, including a 28-9 loss last week to the Titans. Even though their record is better than the Bengals', I believe the Browns are already in "Let's get this thing over with" mode, much as the Bengals are. The spread seems a bit generous, but with the Eagles at home on a roll and the Browns ready to call it done for this year, the Eagles could put it on them.

Look for an in-depth Redskins versus Bengals preview before this week's game.



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