The Friday Fourteen: Best Sport Rivalries

One of the most astonishingly unknown statistics in sports has taken center-stage this week.  Did anyone realize that the Packers and the Bears have not played a playoff game since…ONE WEEK AFTER THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR?!?  That is absolutely astonishing, especially considering that this is, in my opinion, the greatest single rivalry in the National Football League.  So, with this game approaching, I figured it would be a good time to try and order the great rivalries that make sports so incredible.  With the snow not allowing me to post this as a “Tuesday’s Top Twelve,” I kept my allegiance to alliteration and made it a “Friday Fourteen” please forgive me and my idiosyncracies.    

As always, I want to set some parameters for the evaluation.    

To be one of the best rivalries, it has to continue from generation to generation

 

What makes a great rivalry?  First of all, I think it has to span generations to really be considered one of the best in sports.  So, you will not see any rivalries on the list involving the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Washington Nationals.  There are some great rivalries going on right now that could become epic and worthy of this list in another ten years, but are not yet.  If you talked to your grandfather about the great rivalries of the Steelers-Ravens or Patriots-Colts, he would probably look at you funny.  The same holds true for college football with Florida-Florida State.  These just have not been great for long enough to make this list.  On the flip side, there are some phenomenal rivalries whose most bitter times have past.  As great as the Steelers-Raiders rivalry was in the 1970’s, it no longer holds the same cache.  The same is true for Sixers-Celtics, Yankees-Royals, or Phillies-Pirates.    

The second component to a great rivalry is that it cannot be too one-sided.  As great as the big brother-little brother rivalries can be to the fans (especially those of the “big brother”), to be an epic rivalry, one side cannot routinely dominate the other.  So, no matter how fierce they may seem, you will not find the college football rivalries of Notre Dame-Navy or USC-UCLA on this list.  You will also not find in-state college hoops rivalries like Kansas-Kansas St. or BC-Harvard on the list because the “little brothers” just do not win enough.    

Third, a great rivalry cannot be overshadowed by another rivalry by that team.  In other words, as great as a rivalry might be, if one (or both) of the teams involved have even bigger rivals elsewhere, then we cannot consider it one of the best.  Rivalries that fall into this category, and therefore will not be on this list, include Duke-Maryland and UNC-N.C. State in basketball.  Texas-Texas A&M, Penn State-Ohio State, and Tennessee-Florida in football, and the budding (and WAY too new and “novel”) baseball rivalries of Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox.    

As big as a rivalry may be to local fans, the greatest rivalries usually have great national intrigue

 

Further, as much as I believe that rivalries are MADE for the “locals,” I had to draw the line on some of the rivalries that were just too provincial.  I think as great as some rivalries may be to their specific areas, there has to be some aspect of national appeal.  This is why the “Civil War” in Oregon (Oregon-Oregon State) and the “Egg Bowl” in Mississippi (Mississippi State-Ole Miss) did not make the cut.  Also, many people do not realize how phenomenal some of these college hoops rivalries are.  Xavier-Cincinnati means everything in that city.  Memphis-Tennessee and Louisville-Kentucky are clearly more ferocious than anything you can image in their respective states.  And, basketball fans in and around Nashville, Tennessee, will tell you that “The Battle of the Boulevard” between Lipscomb and Belmont may be the best rivalry in all of sports.     

Because of the proviciality of evaluating rivalries, I have to recognize my own biases.  Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I wanted to put Phillies-Mets on the list, but I had no justification.  I also considered adding to the list the longest running high school football rivalry in the nation, Haverford versus Upper Darby, on the list, but other than my fellow Haverford alums, I am guessing that no one else cares all that much.    

I am also leaving off “niche sports” and their rivalries, like the Los Angeles Sparks and Houston Comets in the WBNA, the NY/NJ Metrostars and DC United in MLS, and the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL…oops, is that another gratuitous slap at hockey?  Sorry, puckheads.    

Further, I am not even going to touch the intense emotions involved in sports between nations.  In trying to keep this to sports on which I can effectively comment, I will respectfully recuse myself from weighing in on the passions of the great soccer rivalries of Argentina-Brazil, England-Germany, Italy-France, or Spain-Portugal.     

(And, to be honest, if we were really establishing the most heated, most passionate rivalries in all of sports, there is one that would stand out above all the rest:  Norway versus Sweden in cross-country skiing.  But, for the sake of the blog’s credibility, I will leave this one off of the list.  Trust me, though, there may be no rivalry on the planet more bitter, more intense, and more competitive than Scandinavian skiing.)     

A list of the "greatest" anything without The Greatest of All-Time?

 

Finally, and this was the hardest decision I had to make, I have decided to leave off individual rivalries.  It was easy to rule out individual rivalries in team sports.  Chamberlain-Russell, Brady-Manning, and even Willie, Mickey, and The Duke are not on the list.  With individual sports, though, it was more difficult.  It is hard to even consider the best rivalries in sports without mentioning Federer-Nadal, Palmer-Nicklaus, Evert-Navritalova, or maybe the greatest rivalry we have ever seen in any arena – Ali-Frazier.  But, in the end, I thought that individual rivalries are too fleeting.  The greatest individual rivalries of all-time, because they involve individuals, are either just beginning or long-gone.  As great as Palmer-Nicklaus or Ali-Frazier were, I never partook in the fun.  And, as great as Federer-Nadal is now, my kids will never experience it.    

Okay, now that we are 1,000 words in, let us get to the actual question here:  What are the greatest sports rivalries of all-time?    

Honorable Mentions:    

  • Real Madrid – Barcelona.  The only reason this is not on the actual list because, well, I don’t really know anything about club soccer.  But, if you take away the ethnocentricity of life in the U.S., this rivalry is probably not just on the list, but at the top.  Unfortunately, as a red-blooded American, I have been brainwashed to believe that everything happening here has to be better than anything happening anywhere else.
  • Pittsburgh – West Virginia.  “The Backyard Brawl” is one of the best rivalries in the sport that lives and dies on its rivalries – college football.  Unfortunately, this rivalry is just slightly too local to make a Top 12.
  • Georgetown – Syracuse.  A great rivalry in the Big East that has definitely passed the test of time.  It did not quite make the cut of Top 12, but should be mentioned.
  • Chiefs – Raiders.  The AFC West is a really underrated division, when it comes to NFL rivalries, as you can throw the Denver Broncos in the mix with either of these teams as well.  But, the Chiefs-Raiders is the ultimate rivalry in this division and deserves mention on this list.

The Top Fourteen Greatest Sports Rivalries    

14). Penn – Princeton.  This is a bit of a strange one to open the list with, but let me explain.    

While mostly seen as a basketball rivalry, there is great history in the Penn-Princeton football games, as well

 

The Ivy League may be the longest running athletic association in the world that has not changed its membership from its establishment.  These schools are obviously well-known as academic institutions.  Not only were seven of the eight schools founded during the Colonial Period (the exception being Cornell, the baby, which was founded in 1865), but all eight are ranked in the Top 15 in the nation for academic excellence – six of the eight are in the Top 10.  However, what people may not realize is that while these schools have lagged behind in the “big-money era,” this league was founded, in part, because of the schools’ elite athletic programs (as well as their elite academic programs and, well, elite elitism) and have fiercely competed in a wide range of different sports for the better part of a century now.  And, the one sporting rivalry that transcends all the other rivalries that the Ivy League creates (various Presidential races between Harvard and Yale grads, notwithstanding) is the Penn-Princeton rivalry on the basketball court.  The two dominant teams in the only conference without a conference tournament meet twice a year, with basically their entire seasons on the line.  The Ivy League has crowned 57 champions since its inception in 1954; 49 of those have been either Penn (26) or Princeton (23).  It really is “winner-take-all.”    

13). Cubs – Cardinals.  Once known as the “Route 66 Rivalry,” this is one of the best (and longest-running) rivalries of our national pastime.     

Generations of Midwestern kids have been taught to hate one side or the other

 

It does not get the esteem of some of the other baseball rivalries (namely that one in the Northeast that appears a little later on this list), but if you live in the Midwest, this is the rivalry and has been for generations.  While Missourians obviously tend to favor the Cardinals and Illinoisians prefer the Cubbies, there are a ton of baseball-crazed states in the middle of the country with no professional team, and the residents of those states are oftentimes directly split between allegiances to the Cubs and the Cards.  Having played each other an astonishing 2,000+ times, the Cubs have a slight lead in the head-to-head matchups, but the Cardinals have the clear edge in overall team success, winning 17 pennants and 10 World Series, while, as we all know, the Cubs have not won a World Series in more than 100 years.    

12). The Philadelphia Big Five.  Okay, I may have broken the rules here with this one.     

The Philadelphia Big Five: Something you have to experience to understand

 

This rivalry is mostly a local one; it rarely has any impact whatsoever on the national scope of college basketball; the greatness of the rivalry(ies) were at least one generation ago, if not two; and, it probably is only even under consideration because of my Philly roots.  HOWEVER, I will defend that it belongs on this list.  There is no other place in America with this many D-I basketball teams in such a small locale.  Back in 1955, the athletic departments of the five Philadelphia basketball teams (Temple, St. Joe’s, Villanova, LaSalle, and Penn) decided that they would have a round-robin competition every year to crown the best team in the city.  It forged rivalries that are unmatched in their competitiveness, passion, and electricity anywhere in sports.  And, to make it that much better, all games were played in double- and triple-headers in the greatest basketball arena on the planet – The Palestra.  Again, I know that this rivalry may appear, on the surface, to be much like the aforementioned Kentucky-Louisville or Lipscomb-Belmont rivalries, in that they are great for the locals, but not really for the nation.  But, you just have to trust me that the history and the passion that dominates every Big Five matchup is enough to put it on this list.  In fact, my concern over provincialism may have forced me to drop it too far down the list.    

11). Lehigh – Lafayette.  What?  Lehigh-Lafayette?  Really?  Yes, really.     

"The Rivarly" is the oldest...and maybe still the best

 

I did not believe it myself, until I ran this post idea across a friend of mine and he said “any list of the greatest rivalries is incomplete without Lehigh-Lafayette.”  And, he was right.  Known simply as “The Rivalry,” these two schools are 11 miles apart and have met more times than any two football teams in the world (146 times since 1884).  It is also the most longest uninterrupted rivalry, as they have played every year since 1897.  The rivalry is so old that it predates trophies.  The winning side gets to keep the game ball every year.  But, while the football rivalry alone would be enough to put it on this list, The Rivalry extends to any sport contested between the two schools.  ESPNU ranked this as one of the top 10 college football rivalries in the country, despite taking place in the low-major, no-scholarship conference, the Patriot League.    

10). Lakers – Celtics.  Now, because I was only alive for about 8 months of the 70’s and I did not watch more than a handful of NBA games in the 80’s, I might be underselling this rivalry.      

A rivalry so good that "Magic vs. Bird" is just another chapter

 

But to those who might say that, just know that it is the only NBA rivalry that made the list, so I do have respect for what this rivalry has meant over the history of the Association.  But, to be honest, if I had made this list prior to June 2008, I probably would not have even thought about this when considering rivalries.  But, the 2008 NBA Finals (and then again in 2010) rekindled some old spirit in the generation above me that forced this rivalry back into the limelight, and though, there can be an argument that, like the aforementioned Steelers-Raiders or Yankees-Royals, it is more of the memory of a rivalry than a real, bitter rivalry.  However, with the resurgence of the East vs. West wars in 2008 and 2010, the memories of West vs. Cousy, Russell vs. Chamberlain, and, of course, Magic vs. Bird are brought back to the forefront.  This was, for several generations, everything in the NBA.  Hearing stories of Larry Bird checking the Lakers boxscores every morning to see what Magic did the night before are epic.  Just hearing Jerry West talk about the Celtics is telling.  This rivalry is so good that it is spawned the “Beat L.A.” chants.  So, despite the fact that these two teams only play twice each year, the history of this rivalry (and, now its seeming resurgence in the past couple years) is enough to catapult it into the best of the best.    

9). Texas – Oklahoma.  “The Red River Shootout” is clearly one of the best in college football and, therefore, one of the best in all of sports.     

It has absolutely everything you would be look for in a sports rivalry.  There is geographical proximity – Oklahoma and Texas are separated by the Red River, hence the name.  This game is very often key in the national championship picture in college football, as both teams are perennial powerhouses (61 of the last 66 games has been played while at least one of the two teams was ranked in the Top 25, and 6 of the last 10 featured a team that played in the BCS title game).  The rivalry has been going strong for generations, as the first game between these two was played in 1900, when the Oklahoma territory was not even a U.S. State yet.  And, it is always competitive.  Since WWII, Texas has a slight lead in the series 33-30 (with 3 ties).  The passions that are evoked by this boundary war are electric and the whole country takes notice.  While only ranked #9 on this list, this rivalry might be the epitome of what sports rivalries are all about.    

8). Packers – Bears.  The impetus of this post comes in at #8.  As I said in the opening, it is, in my opinion, the single greatest rivalry in the NFL.     

Two of the flagship NFL franchises have not met in the playoffs since 1941

 

Basically, as long as people have been playing the game of football, the Packers and the Bears have been rivals.  The 181-game rivalry began in 1921.  The Bears lead the regular season series 92-83-6, and they lead the postseason series 1-0.  Yes, 1-0.  It is hard to believe that their only postseason meeting was in 1941, but we get to witness the second on Sunday.  The greatness of this rivalry comes in part from the history of the clubs and, in a strange part, in the harshness of the weather conditions.  Football, being mostly contested in the dead of winter, is especially authentic when the conditions are those that are so often present in blustering cold of Chicago and Green Bay.  Further, a large proportion of the game’s greatest all-time players have worn one of these two uniforms.  The Packers have 21 Hall of Famers, which is the second most of any team in the league.  They are second to…yep, you guessed it, the Bears.  There are 26 Bears in the Hall of Fame – the most of any team.  The only reason it is not higher on this list is because, well, they have not really played for “all the marbles…” until now this year.  This weekend’s NFC Championship Game is going to be great because it pits such bitter rivals.     

7). Michigan – Ohio State.  When a matchup comes to be known simply as “The Game,” you know that it has reached the pinnacle of rivalry games.     

However, the fact that I have this listed as #7 makes me feel like I have to defend why it is so “low” on this list.  In 2000, ESPN ranked it as the single greatest rivalry in North America in the 20th century.  In 2007, HBO Sports made a documentary entitled simply, “The Rivalry,” and it was all about this game.  Michigan recently fired coach Rich Rodriguez, presumably, simply because he could not beat Ohio State.  The period of time when Woody Hayes coached Ohio State and Bo Schembechler coached Michigan had been dubbed the “Ten-Year War.”  Hayes was famous for never actually saying the word “Michigan,” instead he would use phrases like “that team up north” or “that state up north.”  In fact, there is an old legend at OSU that says Hayes once refused to add gas to an empty gas tank until he crossed out of Michigan and back into Ohio, allegedly saying “…I don’t buy one goddam drop of gas in this state.  We’ll coast and the push this car across the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!”  Needless to say, with the emotion, the national championship impacts, and the two 100,000+-seat stadiums, this is rivalry is off-the-charts.  The only thing I can say to justify the #8 spot is that I believe, for reasons I am about to lay out, that as great and epic as this rivalry is, I think there are 6 rivalries in sports (including 2 college football) that are better.  I think the best days of this rivalry may have already occurred.    

6). Yankees – Red Sox.  If you did not think I was crazy for putting Michigan-Ohio State down at #7 (and not #1 in college football), then you are going to absolutely lose it with the Yankees – Red Sox here at #6 (and not #1 in baseball).     

If only the Red Sox had won SOMETHING for 86 years, this could have been #1

 

But, give me a chance to explain.  Yes, in the past decade (or, at least since the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees in 2004), this has been, maybe, the greatest rivalry in all of sports, let alone baseball.  And, yes, there is a long stretch of history between these two bitter rivals.  However, if we can (and I know it is hard) try to think back to the days before the Dave Roberts stolen base, we will see a bitter rivalry that was more like the bully and the nerd.  The Yankees always won.  Yes, they played each other a lot, and yes, the two fanbases hated each other, but the Red Sox did not win a World Series for 86 years.  The Yankees, during those 86 years, won TWENTY-SIX titles.  And, do the players really care?  Johnny Damon went straight from the ’04 comeback to wearing pinstripes.  Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs had no problem switching allegiances.  Could you imagine what Woody Hayes would say if one of his players said he wanted to transfer to Michigan?  I think, to be honest, that there can even be the argument made that this is too high for this rivalry, but I put it here because I have seen first-hand the vitriol with which the two fanbases treat each other.  When the Patriots won their first ever Super Bowl, there were chants of “Yankees suck!”  Also, on the field, there have been some thrilling moments.  Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone taking center-stage for some absolute stomach-punching Red Sox defeats, and then the 2004 comeback was one of the greatest sporting events in history because of the unlikeliness of the comeback and, more so, because of the social implications of the turning-of-the-tables in the rivalry.  I know this will not appease a large majority of fans who believe that this is the greatest rivalry in sports, but I am pretty comfortable with this right here in this spot.    

5). The NFC East.  Before you accuse me of being a homer with this selection, I want you to know that I am not delusional here, I know that the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry (not any of the Eagles rivalries) is the only one in this division that would be considered for this list, by itself, and even that one would fall below the Packers-Bears.     

Any way you slice it, these guys flat-out don't like each other

 

However, every different individual matchup in this division is such a great rivalry in and of itself, that I wanted to capture this as its own entity.  And I believe that this is where it belongs.  These three fanbases literally despise each other, and it is not like the cute, Midwestern, “I kind of hope your team loses” kind of hatred.  It is the hardened, Northeast, F-you kind of hatred.  I like to consider myself a pretty friendly, nice, personable guy.  But, I know, as an Eagles fan, if I see some random guy on the street with something on demonstrating that he is a Giants fan or a Cowboys fan or a Redskins fan, I instantly get a feeling dislike…for HIM, like, as a person.  When I see a car with a Giants license plate, I get some weird diabolical urge to slash the tires.  I am not proud of it, and I wish it was not like that, but it is.  And, the only thing that saves me from feeling like a total sociopath is that I am sure that, if he knew that I was an Eagles fan, he would have the exact same reaction.  I even find myself rooting against teams like the Rangers and the Nationals for no reason other than I know that if they lose, many Cowboy or Redskin fans will be upset.  I get some sick joy out of that.  But, again, I expect that they feel the same about the Phillies or Sixers.  If I’m messed up in a messed up world, then aren’t I just normal?  And, what I just described is “normal” when you root for a team in the NFC East.  That, my friends, is what “rivalry” is all about – and there are six different rivalries all wrapped into one here in this division, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Every game is a war and every war your team wins makes your life that much better.    

4). Giants – Dodgers.  Though you would never know it with the media attention shamelessly heaped upon the Yanks – Sox, the best baseball rivalry is almost undebatable.     

When a rivalry can span 120 years and a coast-to-coast relocation, you know it's one of the best

 

Spanning well more than a century and broiling on both coasts, the Giants – Dodgers rivalry is baseball’s best.  The rivalry started in New York City homes in the 19th century.  The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants were both in the city of New York and both in the National League.  And…they were both great.  Now, 125 years later, both teams are 3,000 miles away from their birthplaces and, while the rivalry may not penetrate households like it did in the Big Apple, it is still as heated as ever.  Both teams look at the other as The Enemy and, usually, when one succeeds, it has to go through the other to do so.  That is the icing on the cake of this rivalry.  It has 125 years of history.  It had infiltration of households and fanbases that despised each other.  No, while that heat may not have completely traveled to the Left Coast, the quality of the teams keeps this rivalry alive and strong.  No professional sports franchise has more wins than the Giants; the Dodgers are third.  The Yankees have the highest winning percentage in the history of Major League Baseball; the Giants are second and the Dodgers are third.  The Yankees have the most pennants in baseball history; the Dodgers are second and the Giants are third.  Only one team has more Hall of Famers than the Dodgers, and it is not the Yankees.  It is the Giants.  And, head-to-head, it is almost incomprehensible how close it is.  The two teams have played 2,337 times.  The Giants have won 1,171, while the Dodgers have won 1,149 (with 17 ties), and astoundingly, the Giants 10-8 season series win in 2010 broke a 51-51 tie in season series (with 18 ties).  The Giants have finished with a better record 62 times, while the Dodgers have finished with the better record 59 times.  And, most amazingly, to me, is that of the 121 seasons of competition between the two teams, only SEVEN times did both teams finish below .500, as opposed to 46 times where both teams finished ABOVE .500.  In a sport that is often criticized for its marathon-like regular season, every game between these two always matters.  To sum it all up:  Jackie Robinson – clearly one of the classiest men to ever live – was traded from the Dodgers to the Giants on December 13, 1956.  That January, he retired from baseball.  Jackie Robinson decided to never wear a uniform again rather than put one on that said “New York Giants.” 

3). Alabama – Auburn.  Better than Texas-Oklahoma?  Better that Michigan-Ohio State?  Yes, for one reason and one reason only:     

Border wars are one thing, but when the rivalry infiltrates families, it is on a whole other level

 

“The Iron Bowl” carries all the cache, all the history, all the national title impacts, and all the fan hatred that these other two rivalries carry with one added “bonus.”  This rivalry divides neighborhoods, streets, and even families.  If you were raised in Michigan, you, most likely, love the Wolverines and hate the Buckeyes.  If you were raised in Ohio, the opposite.  If you were raised north of the Red River, you are a Sooner fan; south of it, a Longhorn fan.   So, neighborhood and families all across Michigan fly maize and blue flags.  There are clear dividing lines.  There is “Sooner Country” and “Longhorn Country.”  Obviously, there are opposing fans that have relocated or, for whatever reason, root for the other team, but there are clearly living in a hostile area.  But, Auburn and Alabama are in the same state.  They lay claim to the same turf.  Sure, you are probably more likely to be a Tide fan with the closer you are to Tuscaloosa, but these boundaries are very gray.  It is far too often that, in a family, one child goes to ‘Bama and the other to Auburn.  Or an Auburn fan falls in love and marries and Alabama fan.  This divides households.  There are countless blocks in the state of Alabama where you will see Alabama flags next door to Auburn flags and so on down the block.  This rivalry cuts are the soul of who are as an Alabaman.  We do not even need to go into the 75-year history of the rivalry (with a close 40-34-1 Alabama lead) or how the teams have combined for 37 conference championships and 15 national championships, along with 117 All-Americans and 4 Heisman Trophy winners.  This rivalry has all of that…but it also has the infiltration of the neighborhoods and even the families.    

2). Duke – UNC.  Only one rivalry in sports encapsulates all of the things we have discussed that makes up a great rivalry (with even more than that), and that is Duke-UNC.     

We'll be neighbors again tomorrow...but not today

 

First of all, these two schools are 8 miles apart in a basketball-crazed area of the country.  Secondly, they could not be more different institutionally.  While both schools are well-renowned for their academic excellence, Duke is a relatively small, private, elitist, incredibly expensive school that attracts a student body from all over the country and the world.  UNC is a very large public university, where in-state tuition is relatively inexpensive and 80% of the student body is made up of native North Carolinians.  So, despite these two schools being so close geographically, they often appeal to vastly differing fanbases.  And, maybe the most important aspect of this rivalry is that these two teams are both just so incredibly dominant in their sport.  Since its founding in 1953, the ACC has consistently considered as the strongest basketball conference from top to bottom.  Yet, despite the elite programs that round out this conference, Duke or UNC has been crowned champion in 80% of the ACC regular seasons.  One of the two has also won 61% of the conference tournaments, including 13 of the last 14.  And, they haven’t just dominated their own conference.  Only three programs have more D-I basketball wins than Duke, and one of them is UNC (#2 behind Kentucky all-time).  UNC has made 18 Final Fours (the most all-time), and Duke has made 15 (3rd most all-time).  And, both programs are in the top 5 in all-time championships (UNC-5, Duke-4).  If you have ever seen a game between these two, you know the passion with which they treat this rivalry.  There is no doubt that these games are the biggest games on either of their schedules.  With the 8-mile geographical proximity, the immense history (they have played every year since 1920), the infiltration of neighborhoods, and the divergent student bodies and fanbases, this rivarly is second to none.  Well, actually, in my opinion, it is second to one…    

1). Army – Navy.  While Duke-UNC has everything that I have deemed important in judging rivalries (and then some), it has to take a backseat to one rivalry and one rivarly only.  Incidentally, this rivalry is lacking in many aspects of how I am judging these rivalries.  However, when making this list, there was absolutely no doubt what would be #1, and I never wavered.  The Army-Navy Game.     

Sports' greatest rivalry...and it's not even close

 

This all comes down to what sport really is all about?  Why do we play?  We play for the competition and for the love of the game.  I would argue that this game embodies those two things more than anything else across all sports, in all the world.  Very few of the players in this game ever play professional football.  Never does this game have any national championship impacts (and oftentimes not even any Patriot League impacts).  These men are soldiers.  They play football for sport.  For the seniors, this is usually the last competitive football game in which they will ever play.  During wartime, it can be one of their final days before being deployed to battle.  At the end of every game, the two teams stand, in uniform, alongside each other, facing the student bodies as both alma maters are played – and all of this has happened for 120 years.  There is a cliche that I believe epitomizes a true “rivalry.”  And that is “if we only win one game all year, it’ll be a good year if that win is against ____.”  Well, that is not really true anywhere but here.  Duke can lose three times to UNC, but if they win the national championship, they will have had a successful year.  Michigan can lose to Ohio State, but if they go to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State is 5-5, Wolverine fans are happy.  But, it is absolutely true that if Army goes 1-10 and Navy goes 10-1, with that one win for Army coming in this game, both sides will agree that Army had the better season.  My friends, this is the ultimate rivalry.  And, honestly, it’s not even close…    

As always, these rankings are based on indisputable facts and have not been impacted in any way by opinion, bias, or perception.  Feel free to debate the list as long as you understand that debate here is futile…

Playoff Top Twelve: Head Coaches

As we finish up our week long Playoff Top Twelve, we hit the coaches.  This ranking is done based mostly upon the answer to the question:  “Who do you trust most in a playoff game?”  I have tried to encompass my thoughts on the coaches’ experience, preparation/gameplan ability, in-game scheme adjustments, motivational ability, and late-game decision-making (e.g. clock management, 4th down decisions, etc.).  This year was actually pretty tough, as we are loaded with excellent coaches in the playoffs this year (basically the usual cast of characters – Norv Turner, Brad Childress, Wade Phillips, etc. – did not quite make it in this year).

12). Todd Haley – Chiefs.  (1 organization, 2 seasons, 14-18 regular season, 1 division title, 0-0 in playoffs) 

I actually like Todd Haley and think that he is probably going to have a pretty long, successful head coaching career.  But, on this list, he has to rank at the bottom because, right now, he is still a guy with a 14-18 record and zero playoff experience…as a head coach.  Remember, though, he was the offensive coordinator on that Arizona team that just missed winning the Super Bowl with a mediocre defense, so the certainly has playoff credentials as a coordinator.

Never accused of being soft-spoken, Todd Haley is ready to start his playoff career as a head coach

11). Pete Carroll – Seahawks.  (3 organizations, 5 seasons, 40-40 regular season, 1 division title, 1 wild card, 1-2 playoffs) 

It doesn't come with a house for two in Malibu, but life in the NFC West has its perks

I was very close to putting Carroll at #12 to give the Seahawks the sweep of the bottom spots in this week’s rankings.  However, there were a couple reasons that I have him at #11, and actually think that he is a very pretty good coach.  One, despite his short tenures, he has won just about everywhere he has been.  He coached in New England (back when they were a pretty downtrodden franchise) for three years without a losing record, including two playoff appearances.  Then, he went to USC, and we all know what he was able to do out there.  Then, he came to Seattle, and in his first year, with zero talent, somehow managed another playoff appearance.  You don’t think that Pete Carroll had a lot to do with how well the Seahawks played on that do-or-die Sunday night against the Rams?  The guys is certainly a motivator, which runs thin after a while with professionals, but, if used in moderation, can be awfully effective.  That being said, he was only 7-9 this year, and he is only a .500 NFL coach.

10). Mike McCarthy – Packers.  (1 organization, 5 seasons, 48-32 regular season, 1 division title, 2 wild cards, 1-2 playoffs, 1 NFC Championship appearance) 

Honestly, I have no idea what to think about Mike McCarthy, even after 5 years in Green Bay.  He has made the playoffs three times and, with only a minor bump in the road, brought that franchise through one of the toughest situations for a team I have seen in any sport (that whole saga with #4).  But, on the other hand, they have a ton of talent, and he has only managed ONE playoff win in five years?  And, with the complete implosion in Minnesota this year, there is no reason that they should not have have won NFC North (with all due respect to Chicago).  I know that they were hurt by a ton of close losses, but doesn’t come back to the coach, at least in some part?  I think his in-game decision-making leaves a lot to be desired, and, unlike Andy Reid, does not yet have the postseason success to allow us to overlook it.  I was actually strongly considering putting McCarthy at the very bottom of this list, but, in the end, I thought his experience and regular season success was enough to rank him slighly above Haley and Carroll, but one more flame-out in the playoffs, and I am completely off of the McCarthy bandwagon.  Consider yourself warned, Mike.

"Just when I thought I finally deserved more headlines than my brother."

9). John Harbaugh – Ravens.  (1 organization, 3 seasons, 32-16 regular season, 3 wild cards, 3-2 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship appearance) 

This is where it really gets tough to rank them.  As evidenced by his #4 on last year’s list of top playoff coaches, I really think Harbaugh is an excellent coach.  I have him down here at #9 more because I think this year’s crop of playoff coaches is just better than last year’s (and because I think Caldwell may have surpassed him).  Harbaugh took over a franchise that was at a real crossroads after the departures of Brian Billick and the late Steve McNair, and all he has done is win three road playoff games in his first two runs through the AFC.

8). Jim Caldwell – Colts.  (1 organization, 2 seasons, 24-8 regular season, 2 division titles, 2-1 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship appearance, 1 Super Bowl appearance) 

Interestingly, Harbaugh, Caldwell, and McCarthy were #4 through #6 last year, and this year, even though they all have better resumes, considering they have another playoff team to their names, they are #8 though #10.  But, again, that just shows you that when you have a playoff round without Norv, Brad, and Wade, the baseline is elevated.  That being said, I do not think that Jim Caldwell gets enough credit for the job he has done now for two years as a head coach in Indy.  He, basically, went undefeated last year and won the AFC, while this year, he faced an ungodly number of injuries and still won 10 games and the AFC South title.  Yes, he does have Peyton Manning, so it is really hard to evaluate him, but I cannot imagine that Caldwell does not deserve at least some of the credit for this team’s successes.

7). Mike Smith – Falcons.  (1 organization, 3 seasons, 33-15 regular season, 1 division title, 1 wild card, 0-1 playoffs) 

Am I too high on Mike Smith?  Maybe.  Is there reason to be this high on him?  Absolutely.  Can we think back, for a second, at just where the Atlanta Falcons franchise was before he got there.  In the wake of the Michael Vick debacle, they fired Jim Mora, Jr., and brought in the high-profile college coach, Bobby Petrino to run the team, and former high-profile college quarterback, Joey Harrington, to make everyone forget about Vick.  Well, it, not surprisingly, blew up in their face, and they were absolutely terrible.  Mike Smith comes in, drafts Matt Ryan, and the team goes to the playoffs.  They take a small step backwards last year before exploding this year at 13-3.  All the evidence points to Mike Smith as being a terrific head coach.  Granted, he has yet to win a playoff game, so, to be consistent, he should probably be ranked below guys like Caldwell and Harbaugh, but I am not sure that they could have done with this franchise what Smith has in such a short period of time.

6). Lovie Smith – Bears.  (1 organization, 7 seasons, 63-49 regular season, 3 division titles, 2-2 playoffs, 1 NFC Championship appearance, 1 Super Bowl appearance) 

"Man, you guys think Cutler throws a lot of picks? Don't you remember Sexy Rexy?"

On the proverbial “hot seat” coming into the season, Lovie Smith has proven once again that he is one of the best head coaches in the National Football League.  Actually, read the last part of that sentence again.  It even sounds strange to me, and I wrote it.  Is Lovie Smith one of the NFL’s best coaches?  Well, since I am sure not many people jump to say “yes,” stop and think of the success he has had in Chicago and then think about the talent with which he has done it.  Prolonged success for head coaches is usually accompanied by at least one thing:  a great quarterback.  Belichick has Brady; Dungy had Manning; Reid had McNabb; and, even as far back as you want to go with Walsh and Montana, Shula and Marino, Knoll and Bradshaw, and even Lombardi and Starr.  No, please do not take this the wrong way.  I am not saying that Lovie Smith is Vince Lombardi; I am just trying to make the point that all these guys had great quarterbacks.  But, Lovie Smith has now won three division titles with three different quarterbacks.  He even made the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman.  And, it is not like the Bears of Lovie’s time had a Walter Payton to handoff to or any big-time receiving weapon. Lovie Smith does not jump out at you as a fantastic coach, but don’t we often look at “doing a lot with a little” as evidence of a good coach.  Well, Lovie has, at least on the offensive side, certainly done a lot with very little to work with.

5). Rex Ryan – Jets.  (1 organization, 2 seasons, 20-12 regular season, 2 wild cards, 2-1 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship appearance) 

I have gone back and forth numerous times on Rex from the day he took the job in New York.  His bravado is awesome, but is it good for winning football games?  His charisma is perfect for HBO, but is it good for the locker room or the sideline?  His brutal honesty with the press creates fantastic copy, but does it undermine his players, particularly his young quarterback?  I am not quite sure how to answer these questions, but for now, I am going to go with what I see, and what I see is a team that overachieved last year, causing them to be extremely overrated this year, which completely hides the fact that they probably overachieved again this year.  And, they still have a playoff run to put a cap on this season.  I have a soft spot for anything to do with the Ryan family, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think Rex is doing a great job in New York, in two years, and has pulled 20 wins (plus 2 playoff wins) out of a team that probably had 14-win talent.

Mike was better as Quincy McCall in Love & Basketball than anything he's done on House

4). Mike Tomlin – Steelers.  (1 organization, 4 seasons, 43-21 regular season, 3 division titles, 3-1 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship appearance, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 Super Bowl title) 

What does Mike Tomlin have to do to be considered elite?  In my opinion, he may have already done it.  He won the division in his first year and then the Super Bowl in his second, and, arguably, this year, he has done the best job of his career.  This team started 3-1 with Dennis Dixon at quarterback.  They lost Polamalu a couple of times this year, but kept on trucking.  He has a fantastic demeanor and a knack for the moment, and I think he is about to have yet another one of those Super Bowl rings.  He has got it all, and the sky is the limit for his coaching ability.

3). Andy Reid – Eagles.  (1 organization, 12 seasons, 118-73-1 regular season, 6 division titles, 3 wild cards, 10-8 playoffs, 5 NFC Championship appearances, 1 Super Bowl appearance) 

For a long time, I have wanted to write a post on how NFL coaching is a strange profession that mandates a two sets of skills that are so polar opposites that it is unfair for us to expect these human beings to excel in both, and maybe our evaluation of them is too far on one side to the near ignoring of the other.  The first part of NFL coaching occurs from Monday through Saturday.  This part involves evaluating your opponent, evaluating your own team, and devising a system that creates the best possible mismatches of your guys against theirs.  This skill is deliberate, calculated, and strategic – much like a game of chess.  Then, you get to Sunday afternoon and the other part of coaching, the part where you have to make split-second decisions and adjustments depending on game situations.  This part accentuates on-the-fly decision-making, instant evaluation, and the motivational and inspirational ability – much like a game of doubles tennis.  These two skills involve incredibly divergent skill sets.  In fact, being good at one is usually at the detriment of the other.  For instance, if you are someone adept at split-second decision-making, you may tend to lack some of the discipline to sit down and make detailed evaluations with unlimited resources.  On the other hand, if you excel at the deliberate, thorough evaluation activities, you may find it difficult to switch into a mode of making instant assessments.  In my opinion, I think, while both areas are vital, I think it is far more important to be the best Monday through Saturday coach you can be.  A good gameplan will usually overcome incorrect replay challenges or wasting a timeout or two.  However, the majority of football fans only evaluate coaches by their ability on Sundays.  That is why most people think that Andy Reid is a bad head coach.  He wastes timeouts.  He is terrible at replay challenges.  His two-minutes offenses are infuriating.  But, couldn’t that just be a manifestation of the things that makes his such a great coach?  His insistence on complete analysis, his obsession with details, his “paralysis by analysis.”  Yes, that is a detriment on Sundays, but it may be the reason the Eagles win.  And, I will take all these wins, even if it makes me pull my hair out on Sunday afternoons.  Let’s face it, coaches have one job – to win.  And, Andy Reid does that as well as anyone (but one) of this generation.

2). Sean Payton – Saints.  (1 organization, 5 seasons, 49-31 regular season, 2 division titles, 1 wild card, 4-1 playoffs, 2 NFC Championship appearances, 1 Super Bowl appearance, 1 Super Bowl title) 

I ranked Payton at #3 last year, saying:  “I have, in the past, been accused of being way too high on Sean Payton, so maybe this is just another example of that, but I think he is a fantastic coach.  I know that he missed the playoffs in two of his first three seasons in New Orleans, but let’s not forget that it is the SAINTS.  His offensive gameplans gave me nightmares when he was with the Giants, and he has brought that ability to New Orleans with him.  Plus, he seems like a guy that the players trust and respect to the fullest.”  After Super Bowl run of last year, I feel a little vindicated, and I am no longer gunshy about saying that Sean Payton is the second-best coach in the NFL. 

1). Bill Belichick – Patriots.  (2 organizations, 16 seasons, 162-94 regular season, 8 division titles, 15-5 playoffs, 4 AFC Championship appearances, 4 Super Bowl appearances, 3 Super Bowl titles) 

Think this "being this best" thing ever gets old?

As easy as it was to put Brady as the #1 quarterback, it was that much easier to pick his coach as the #1 coach.  Bill Belichick is the best coach I have ever seen in any sport.  Ho-hum, another 14-2 season for the master, and this year, he has done it with talent that may even be considered “marginal.”  The defense is average.  Brady’s weapons are good, not great.  Randy Moss is gone.  Mike Vrabel and Teddy Bruschi are gone.  All those ungenius coordinators – Romeo, Charlie, Josh – are gone.  Yes, they don’t miss a beat.  What is the constant?  He is, and he’s the best.

Playoff Top Twelve: Defenses

All week long, we’ve been running a special NFL Playoff Top Twelve “marathon.”  We did the quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, but today we’re going to switch over to the other side of the ball and do defense.  Unfortunately, I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough (nor would I probably have the time to try) to break down by defensive positions, so today’s Top Twelve is going to be defensive units, as a whole.  Like I’ve said before, I do not like the way the NFL “ranks” its defense (by yards allowed), so, rightly or wrongly, I put very little stock into the official rankings when making these decisions.  What I do put a lot more stock into is the much (and I don’t know why) overlooked statistic of points allowed.  I mean, after all, that is the goal of every defense, right?

12). Seattle Seahawks.  (27th overall – 21st rush, 27th pass; 25th in points allowed, 25.4)  Yet again, the Seahawks find themselves ranked last among playoff teams in a specific category.  This defense is, well, not very good.  They are led by a couple of solid players who may have lost a step in Marcus Trufant, Lofa Tutupu, and Lawyer Milloy, and they have a couple good up-and-coming players in Earl Thomas and Aaron Curry.  But, their d-line is not very good, with their two best pass-rushers being Eagles castoff, Chris Clemons, and Colts castoff (and former Temple Owl), Raheem Brock.  The numbers on this defense are not good, and that is even against a very soft schedule.

11). Indianapolis Colts.  (20th overall – 25th rush, 13th pass; 23rd in points allowed, 24.2)  The Colts have really struggled on defense this year for much of the season.  There is hope, though, as their main problem has been the fact that they were absolutely gashed against the run.  But, in their last two games (must-wins), they shut down Arian Foster and then Chris Johnson, so they may have figured it out.  And, the danger of this defense is that if the offense can get them a lead and force the opposition to throw the ball, they still have two of the best pass-rushers in the game, in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who can cause mayhem if allowed to just pin back their ears and go after the quarterback.  And, they do still have two of the more underrated defensive players in the league in safety Antoine Bethea and linebacker Gary Brackett.  Overall, though, this defense is certainly not the strength of this team and could really cost them if they return to their run-defense struggles.

10). Philadelphia Eagles.  (12th overall – 15th rush, 14th pass; 21st in points allowed, 23.6)  Ranking this team 10th may be a bit of a concession to my ongoing debate with Doogan.  I think this defense is pretty good; he does not.  Well, Doogan looks more right than I do right now, as this defense has struggled in the last quarter of the season.  Injuries have played a big role, and that does not help heading into the playoffs.  The losses of Brandon Graham, Nate Allen, and Stewart Bradley have really hurt.  We will have to hope that guys like Jamar Chaney and Dmitri Patterson can step up and fill the void.  The bright spots are that the Birds do still have one of the planet’s best pass-rushers in Trent Cole and one of the best defensive playmakers in Asante Samuel.  They cause a ton of turnovers and put tremendous pressure on opposing quarterbacks.  They are still a unit to be afraid of, but, unlike in the golden Jim Johnson years, this defense is not capable to carrying the team to great heights.

9). Kansas City Chiefs.  (14th overall – 14th rush, 17th pass; 11th in points allowed, 20.4)  The Chiefs have the old philosophy of run the ball, play good defense, and you will win games.  Well, they certainly got the first part right, and the second part is coming along.  It is a young and inspired defense, led by a great coordinator in Romeo Crenel.  Derrick Johnson is a stud linebacker, and Brandon Flowers has probably entered the top 4 or 5 among NFL cornerbacks.  Rookie Eric Berry has been outstanding, and Tamba Hali has broken out this year with 14.5 sacks.  It is a good defense, but still learning.  It should be interesting to see how they handle the spotlight of the playoffs.  #7, 8, and 9 were really, really close in my book, and I think the Chiefs are still a little green to be ranked ahead either of the next two.

8). New Orleans Saints.  (4th overall – 16th rush, 4th pass; 7th in points allowed, 19.2)  The defending champs are known to be a dynamic offensive team, but you do not win Super Bowls without a very good defense, and they have a lot of that defensive ability back this year.  In fact, I think that their regular season was better defensively this year than it was last year.  Their secondary is full of playmakers in Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, and Tracy Porter.  Their d-line is also dangerous with Will Smith and Sedrick Ellis.  The linebackers are a little shaky, but they have the veteran Jonathan Vilma, who seems to step up in big moments.  This team still relies on its potent offense, but this attacking defense is nothing to sneeze at again this year.

7). Atlanta Falcons.  (16th overall – 10th rush, 22nd pass; 5th in points allowed, 18.0)  A bit of a no-name defense that has just flat-out gotten it done.  A team that does not have that quick-strike kind of offense relies a little bit more on the defense to make sure that games stay close.  And, this defense has come through all year.  Brent Grimes (from Northeast High in Philly) and Kroy Bierman (a great name) have been quietly excellent.  John Abraham is still a stud.  As good as this defense has been, though, I do think they are vulnerable, though they will benefit from home games through the NFC playoffs.

6). New England Patriots.  (25th overall – 11th rush, 30th pass; 8th in points allowed, 19.6)  A lot has been said about how this defense, particularly the secondary, will not be very good this year.  Well, in typical Belichick style, he just took the guys he had and coached them up to be a solid, if not spectacular defense yet again.  Yes, there are holes, but overall this defense – led by Belichick’s brilliance – is back and very good.  Vince Wilfork is still a monster in the middle, and Jerod Mayo has been their best linebacker since the day he was drafted.  But, it is the secondary that has been so surprising.  Probably defensive rookie of the year, Devin McCourty has come out of nowhere, as has safety Patrick Chung.  The other safety, Brandon Merriweather, is going back to the Pro Bowl (a questionable selection), so this secondary is playing at a pretty high level.  Like many of the teams listed above, this team will not win the Super Bowl because of their defense, but it’s not that likely that they will lose because of it either – which is more than most expected coming into the season.

5). New York Jets.  (3rd overall – 3rd rush, 6th pass; 6th in points allowed, 19.2)  Something is wrong with the Jets defense this year, and I think I know what it is, though you may not believe me.  I think it is Darrell Revis.  I think he is still banged up.  And, this defense is so reliant on shutdown corners to enable them to send their crazy blitzes, and Revis (and Cromartie on the other side) have not been as shutdown as they have been in the past.  Added to the secondary’s issues is the loss of Jim Leonard for the season.  Leonard may not seem like the all-important safety that he is, but he is the leader of this defensive backfield and he has been sorely missed.  Now, I might be far too low on this defense this year because they still have some great pieces and a great defensive mind leading the way, but I think Rex’s unit is not nearly as strong as they were when they entered the playoffs a year ago.  Plus, I think that they have particularly bad matchups, with Peyton Manning (who has owned the Ryans in the past) in the first round and then, if they get there, Tom Brady and the Pats in Round Two.

4). Baltimore Ravens.  (10th overall – 5th rush, 21st pass; 3rd in points allowed, 16.9)  Say what you will, I love this defense.  I would still probably call Ray Lewis and Ed Reed the best at their position in 2022.  Lewis is known as, by far, the smartest, most prepared, and most inuitive defensive player in the game.  He knows some of the offensive playbooks around the league better than guys on those teams.  And, what can you say about Ed Reed?  He led the league in interceptions this year, with 8, after missing the first SIX GAMES.  This defense changes the game, and I have not even mentioned the freakshow athlete of Haloti Ngata in the middle.  There are still questions about the corners, and the depth all over, but I will take my chances with Lewis and Reed any day, any year.

3). Chicago Bears.  (9th overall – 2nd rush, 20th pass; 4th in points allowed, 17.9)  I wonder how some of these organizations are able to do it every year, even with the incredible turnover that dominates the NFL.  Teams like the Ravens, Steelers, and these Chicago Bears seem to have great defenses every year, no matter what – even through changes coaching changes and personnel makeovers.  The Monsters of the Midway may be the best example.  This team has had a good defense pretty much consistently since, well, forever.  And, they are back to it again this year.  I picked the Bears to be a real surprise team at the beginning of this year, and I think that not many people joined me in this is because we tend to forget that this team added two of the best defensive players in the league back to the defense this year.  Everyone knows that they signed Julius Peppers – who clearly just needed a change of scenery – but I think many people forgot that the Bears would also add Brian Urlacher back after missing all of last year with an injury.  With Urlacher back and Pepper wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, guys like Lance Briggs, Chris Harris, and Peanut Tillman were able to thrive in secondary roles.  This defense is fast, athletic, and well-coached.  Lovie Smith knows defense, and this team will go as far as this defense can carry them.

2). Green Bay Packers.  (5th overall – 18th rush, 5th pass; 2nd in points allowed, 15.0)  Everyone talks about Aaron Rodgers and the elite weapons he has on offense.  But, this team may be better on the defensive side of the ball than they are on offense.  Call me crazy, but I think they are the second-best defense in the entire NFL.  Cla Matthews is an absolute stud; Charles Woodson is the ultimate defensive playmaker; and, A.J. Hawk is one of the most underrated linebackers in football.  Plus, the d-line is getting very good with the emergence of B.J. Raji in the middle, and a rejuvenation of Cullen Jenkins.  This defense is Super Bowl caliber.  This team is a brutal #6-seed.

1). Pittsburgh Steelers.  (2nd overall – 1st rush, 12th pass; 1st in points allowed, 14.5)  As high as I am on the Packers, the Bears, and the Ravens, this #1 choice was easy.  The Steelers are, in my opinion, far and above the best defense in the NFL.  With all the coverage and talk about Troy Polamalu, it is hard to imagine him not being overrated, but in fact, he might even be underrated.  He is THAT good.  But, it’s not just that long-haired Samoan.  James Farrior and James Harrison are beasts.  Ike Taylor has become a very good cornerback, and Lawrence Timmons is vastly underrated.  Casey Hampton is a beast on the line, and, to make it all worse for AFC competitors, their best d-lineman, Aaron Smith, might be healthy and able to play when the Steelers host the Divisional Round game.  This defense is the reason that I believe the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the mighty Patriots, are the favorites to win another Super Bowl this year.

2011 Playoff Top Twelve: Receivers

As Doogan pointed out in a comment the other day, this has completely become a passing league.  The best running backs in the league are not in the playoffs, while a team with a subpar quarterback has basically no shot.  So, one would then be safe to assume that the best teams in the league are those with the best wide receivers, right?  Not necessarily.  If you asked random fans of the NFL to name the league’s best receivers, what answers would you get?  Andre Johnson?  Calvin Johnson?  Larry Fitzgerald?  Brandon Marshall?  Some fans focused on reputations might still answer with Randy Moss or Terrell Owens or Chad Ochocinco.  Some more savvy fans might even answer Brandon Lloyd, since he did lead the league in receiving yards.  Well, every single one of those players have one thing in common – they are NOT in the playoffs this year.  So, what wins in this passing league?  The short answer:  diversity.  The teams with the best offenses have a real diversity and depth in “weapons.”  Throwing to Randy Moss or Brandon Marshall 15 times a game is not going to win any more in today’s NFL.  The best receiver is simple:  the one that is open.  And, the teams that might have to sacrifice having an elite-elite wideout for three or four, or sometimes more, “weapons” that will be open 8-10 times a game are the teams that are winning in 2010.  So, on that note, let us dive into our playoff receiver rankings. 

Like yesterday with running back groups, today’s list is not going to be individual receivers, but instead groups of receivers, or receiving corps, if you will.  We are going to try and not take into account the guy throwing the ball, so we will not focus on “passing rankings,” but more focus on the guys catching the ball, including tight ends, running backs, and, of course, wide receivers.  I will also try and consider a team’s “passing scheme,” as best I can.  Along with the ranking will be, in italics, a list of the guys who had either 30 catches or 300 yards receiving this year for that specific team.

12). Seattle Seahawks.  (Mike Williams 65-751, Deon Butler 36-385, Justin Forsett 33-252, Brandon Stokley 31-354, John Carlson 31-318, Ben Obomanu 30-494) 

Reconnecting with his old coach, Pete Carroll, has given Mike Williams a second chance in the NFL

Again, Seattle finds itself last on a list.  The Seahawks traded away their two most experienced, most dependable wide receivers before the halfway mark of the season this year (and, maybe not coincidentally, both wound up as rather important components of playoff teams ranked higher than Seattle on this list).  T.J. Houshmandzadeh was traded away to Baltimore before the regular season began, and Deion Branch was traded back to New England a couple games into the season.  What they are left with is an inspiring reclamation project and, well, not much else.  Mike Williams nearly ate himself out of the league after making a bad decision to follow Maurice Clarrett (probably never a good decision to do anything that Clarrett decided to do) out of school as a sophomore, sitting out a year, and then being a gigantic bust for Detroit.  His old college coach, Pete Carroll, brought him back and he looks really good.  But, he is really the only weapon Seattle has to work with.  John Carlson is an okay receiving tight end, and Justin Forsett is a decent pass-catcher out of the backfield, but this is a pretty dreaful offense, all-around, and it is primarily because of a lack of weapons.

11). Kansas City Chiefs.  (Dwayne Bowe (72-1162, Tony Moeaki 47-556, Jamaal Charles 45-468)  

If you ask Matthew Berry, or any other fantasy dork, they'd probably tell you that Jerry Rice was pretty good, but no Dwayne Bowe

I ask anyone who finds this ranking far too low to answer one question:  How much do you pay attention to fantasy football?  If the answer is “a lot,” then please try and separate fantasy football with reality.  Andre and Calvin Johnson are both on losing teams.  Yes, Dwayne Bowe had an absolute monster of a fantasy season.  And, he is an outstanding receiver.  But, part of the reason he put up such crazy numbers is because there is no one else around him that can catch balls.  Bowe has been great for about 11 or 12 weeks now, but would you trust him more in these playoffs than Reggie Wayne or Roddy White or Greg Jennings?  I certainly would not.  And, there is really nothing else on the outside for Cassel to throw to.  Tony Moeaki had a decent rookie season, but he is not an elite tight end.  I do love Jamaal Charles and his pass-catching ability, but Thomas Jones is not a threat.  Other than Bowe and Charles, this team’s weapons are rather tame. 

10). Chicago Bears.  (Johnny Knox 51-960, Matt Forte 51-547, Earl Bennett 46-561, Greg Olsen 41-404, Devin Hester 40-475) 

He's the best...kick returner

One of the reasons I defend Jay Cutler is that I really do not completely trust this group of receivers he has got here…at least not yet.  I think that this group could, at some point, blossom into a really nice group, but right now in January 2011, they are not all that scary for opposing defenses.  Johnny Knox is a speed merchant, who is becoming a really good deep threat.  He has had a pretty good year, but I refuse to think of him as a real difference-maker yet.  Earl Bennett has a nice rapport with Cutler, considering they roomed together at Vanderbilt, but he is nothing more than an average NFL receiver.  And, Devin Hester, as good as he is as a kick returner (easily the best EVER), he is still not a dependable receiver and has trouble getting open in this league.  However, for the lack of anyone on the outside, I do feel like the strength of this Bears receiving corps is out of the backfield and at tight end.  Matt Forte can be a dynamic threat out of the backfield, playing the Marshall Faulk role in the Mike Martz offense.  And, I think that Greg Olsen might be the most underrated pass-catching tight end in the league.  The only problem is that Martz has no idea how to use a tight end, so a lot of Olsen’s abilities are wasted in this offense.  Overall, I find this Bears receiving corps a lot better than Seattle and very close to the next four or five teams, and I am a very big fan of the Mike Martz system.  In my iterations of this list, they were as high as #6, but, in the end, the lack of a real go-to guy or a lot of depth plus the fact that they will play at least one game in “The Windy City” has them settled here at #10.

9). Indianapolis Colts.  (Reggie Wayne 111-1355, Pierre Garcon 67-784, Jacob Tamme 67-631, Blair White 36-355) 

Still getting it done...sometimes by himself

This one is so incredibly hard to rank because it is really hard to parse out the Peyton Manning effect on all of these receivers.  Personally, I think that on any other team, Pierre Garcon is an average 3rd wideout – at best – and Jacob Tamme is a backup tight end.  And, Blair White is probably a practice squad guy.  This team has just been riddled with injuries – losing Dallas Clark, Anthony Gonzalez, and Austin Collie – leaving them very short at the skill positions.  There are two reasons that I decided to – barely – slot them ahead of the Bears.  One is the great passing scheme this team runs.  Again, this might have a lot to do with Peyton, but I do not think it is all him.  This offense has been rolling for a decade now (especially at home), so the system is certainly a part of it.  And, the second reason is clear and simple:  Reggie Wayne.  He is still, somehow, one of the best in the business.  He still has some of his great breakaway speed that makes him a legitimate deep threat on every possession, but he is also an excellent route runner that gives him that third-down conversion ability that the Colts will need if they are to make a run in the playoffs this year.

8). New York Jets.  (Dustin Keller 55-687, Braylon Edwards 53-904, Santonio Holmes 52-746, LaDainian Tomlinson 52-368, Jerricho Cotchery 41-433)  

Santonio shines brightest when all the world is looking

I am not a big fan of this group of Jets receivers, but if we are just talking about who I trust the most to come up big in these playoffs, I could not drop them below any of the teams already mentioned, as much as I wanted to.  Plus, in looking at the numbers, we have to remember that Mark Sanchez is not really that good, and consequently, Brian Schottenheimer is forced to call a rather conservative gameplan.  So, just looking at the receiving corps here, there is a lot to like, albeit, nothing spectacular.  Dustin Keller is a very good tight end, who has become a much-needed safety blanket for the young QB.  Braylon Edwards, while nowhere near the star he should be with that talent, is still a dangerous receiver.  And, we have all seen LaDainian Tomlinson’s body of work as a pass-catcher out of the backfield, so despite losing a step or two, he is still a real threat.  And, then there is the ultimate X-factor on this team – Santonio Holmes.  He missed four games and still finished with 52 catches and over 700 yards.  Plus, when the spotlight shines the brightest, we all know that Santonio steps up (as evidenced even this year with two huge game-winning plays).

7). Pittsburgh Steelers.  (Mike Wallace 60-1257, Hines Ward 59-755, Heath Miller 42-512, Emmanuel Sanders 28-376) 

"You may not know it by looking at me, but I can run really fast."

The Steelers claim to have jettisoned the aforementioned Holmes because of a caustic personality and a desire to “improve the team’s character.”  The real reason they did this (it certainly has nothing to do with personal character because look at the quarterback they run out there every week) is because Holmes was expensive, and they had a guy just as good, if not better, waiting to break out.  Though not many people are talking enough about him, Mike Wallace has become a legit superstar in this league.  He is an absolute burner, but he is also a concise route-runner and a gamer.  Putting him on the opposite side of one of the ultimate professionals, in Hines Ward, gives the Steelers all that they had when they won two Super Bowls with Holmes and thensome.  It still remains to be seen if Wallace has the knack for the moment quite like Holmes, but he certainly has the ability.  And, despite a down year, Heath Miller is still one of the more reliable pass-catching tight ends in the league.  The downside to this receiving corps is that they do not get anything from their running backs.  Mwelde Moore is an okay pass catcher when he is in there, but Mendenhall has yet to show any ability to be a threat out of the backfield.

6). Atlanta Falcons.  (Roddy White 115-1389, Tony Gonzalez 70-656, Jason Snelling 44-303, Michael Jenkins 41-505) 

Veteran Tony Gonzalez brings as much with his veteran leadership to the Falcons as he does with his Hall of Fame ability

If the theme of this year was not “depth over singular talent,” then I could be justified moving this receiving corps higher because of just how good Roddy White is.  I did consider it because I think White is that good.  But, I want to stay consistent, and the Falcons depth cannot match up to the depth of the five teams I have ranked above them.  Tony Gonzalez is going to the Hall of Fame, but not for what he has done in a Falcons uniform.  He is still very good, but no longer elite.  I do really like Michael Jenkins on the other side, but I would never be surprised to see  him shutout in a playoff game.  And, like the Steelers, the Falcons primary back (Michael Turner) is no threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.  Jason Snelling is a solid pass-catcher, but he does not play every down.

5). Green Bay Packers.  (Greg Jennings 76-1265, Donald Driver 51-565, James Jones 50-679, Jordy Nelson 45-582, Brandon Jackson 43-342) 

It is time to face the fact that this guy is a superstar

I really struggled with where to put this group on this list.  In my various drafts, I have had them anywhere from #2 to #6.  I finally settled on #5.  The little group of #4 – 6 is very interesting and could go any way.  They all – Falcons, Packers, and Ravens – have #1 receivers (White, Jennings, and Boldin), but I ranked them in the opposite order of how I feel about those receivers individually because I think that the complementary parts are a little more important right now.  I think Roddy White is the best of the three and then Greg Jennings, who is an absolute star.  But, the complementary parts of these two teams are not as good as those of the Ravens.  I like Donald Driver, and he is terrifying in a playoff scenario because of his experience and big-game mentality, but I am still unconvinced about James Jones and Jordy Nelson.  All that being said, if the Packers had not lost Jermichael Finley to injury, I might have them as high as #1 – that is a huge loss.

4). Baltimore Ravens.  (Anquan Boldin 64-837, Ray Rice 63-556, Derrick Mason 61-802, Todd Heap 40-599, T.J. Houshmandzadeh 30-398) 

The Ravens knew what they were getting in Anquan Boldin - a quiet superstar

I knew this would be bad news when the team I am accused of having a secret love affair with acquired my favorite receiver in the league.  Well, I have to say that, while I think the Ravens made a brilliant move in acquiring Anquan Boldin, he has not been quite as good as I anticipated.  In fact, that and the breakout of Jeremy Maclin has proven, once again, the Eagles are run just about perfectly, from a personnel standpoint.  That being said, though, Boldin is still a very good #1 and exactly what the Ravens needed this offseason.  But, they were not done, as they added another veteran receiver in T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who has also paid solid dividends.  The ageless and constant-professional Derrick Mason, despite an in-season tiff with his young quarterback, has had another fantastic season, and Todd Heap has had a resurgent season, after a couple disappointing ones started to raise alarm about what he has left.  Add to the mix one of the best 3 or 4 pass-catching running backs in the NFL, in Ray Rice, and you have a pretty solid group of weapons surrounding Joe Flacco.  Questions may arise as to just how well they are being used, but they are certainly very talented, and immensely experienced.

3). New England Patriots.  (Wes Welker 86-848, Deion Branch 48-706, Aaron Hernandez 45-563, Rob Gronkowski 42-546, Danny Woodhead 34-379, Brandon Tate 24-432) 

Never thought I would compare Bill Belichick to Bobby Fischer

The next two teams on the list are the two perfect examples of this trend of “depth over individual stars” that is going on around the league’s receiving corps.  The Pats ousted the uber-talented Randy Moss and got better.  They lean on two guys under 5’10”, a guy on the wrong side of 30, and two guys built more like offensive lineman than pass-catching athletes.  But, it works.  And, it works because the scheme is so brilliant.  Even without a freakshow athlete, like Moss, the Patriots are absolutely sensational at causing matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.  They use the size (or lack thereof) of Welker and Woodhead to perfection.  And, then they use their two grueling tight ends – Hernandez and Gronkowski – in perfect harmony with their offensive goals.  I have heard the great simile of saying that Belichick uses his tight ends the way a chess Grand Master uses his knights.  These two guys can do things that other guys on the field cannot do, and therefore, defenses cannot stop.  This offense is sickly good, and it is mostly because of the scheme and the buy-in from these players of that scheme.

2). New Orleans Saints.  (Marques Colston 84-1023, Lance Moore 66-763, Robert Meachem 44-638, Jeremy Shockey 41-408, Devery Henderson 34-464, Reggie Bush 34-208, Jimmy Graham 31-356, David Thomas 30-219, Pierre Thomas 29-201) 

Coach Payton must have a lot of fun crafting plays with all these tools available

Talk about loaded.  The Saints, again, enter the postseason presenting quarterback Drew Brees a veritable smorgasbord of options.  And, Brees’s favorite one?  The open one.  That is why this offense is so good.  Sean Payton is a brilliant designer of offense, and Drew Brees is the perfect guy to captain this ship.  Colston had another under-the-radar great year, without stifling the growth of breakout guys like Lance Moore and Robert Meacham.  They also still get great contributions from guys like Devery Henderson and Jeremy Shockey.  They get great production out of the backfield from Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, and they have this new, fancy weapon, in tight end Jimmy Graham (the former U of Miami basketball player), who is an absolute nightmare to cover on the goalline.  This team is, again, loaded, and will test every member of an opponent’s secondary on just about every drive. 

1). Philadelphia Eagles.  (LeSean McCoy 78-592, Jeremy Maclin 70-964, Jason Avant 51-573, DeSean Jackson 47-1056, Brent Celek 42-511) 

The Eagles with the best weapons in the NFL? When a guy as good as Jeremy Maclin can go almost unnoticed, it might not be so crazy

Call me what you will, but this is the best set of weapons in the National Football League.  First of all, they have the ultimate game-changer in DeSean Jackson.  Defenses have no idea what to do with him, as his speed is absolutely devastating.  Then, they have a guy who may have already been a legit #1 receiver in this league if he weren’t coupled with Jackson in Jeremy Maclin.  The most underrated player on the this team, Maclin had a brilliant year, with 70 catches, 964 yards, and 10 touchdowns.  Further, the Eagles have maybe the best third-down possession receiver in the game in Jason Avant, who has the size to get open on third downs and the hands to be trusted on to convert.  They have a very good tight end, who is just starting to play like everyone thought he would in Brent Celek.  And, oh by the way, they just happen to have the best pass-catching running  back in the NFL in LeSean McCoy.  Add to that one of the smartest, most prepared, and most creative offensive playbooks in the league, and you have yourself the best set of weapons in the NFL.  Yes, the Eagles.  My, how far we have come since the days of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small.

2011 Playoff Top Twelve: Running Backs

In continuing the week-long NFL playoff theme of ranking the playoff teams in their respective aspects of the game, today’s Top Twelve will be running backs.  But, it is not individual running backs, it is more the team’s running game.  I tried to incorporate their corps of running backs, their offensive line, and even a bit of the coaching staff’s “commitment to the run.”  The list will have teams with their main running backs in parentheses, but the “analysis” (if you want to even call it that) includes the o-line and offensive scheme, as well.  By the way, I do not put much stake in “NFL rushing rankings” because I think all of those rankings are flawed by (1) such a high variance in game situations (e.g. winning or losing early, weather conditions, etc.) and (2) such a small sample size (16 games) against such varying schedules of opponents.  However, I did include them with the write-ups in an effort of full disclosure.

12). Seattle Seahawks.  (#31 – 89 ypg:  Marshawn Lynch – 573 yards, 3.5 avg; Justin Forsett – 523 yards, 4.4 avg)   Get used to this trend going on here with the Seahawks being ranked #12 in the playoff rankings.  I actually like the Marshawn Lynch pickup, and I am not really that low on Justin Forsett either, but this team has proven all year that they really cannot get anything done on the ground.  It might have to do with the fact that they were often playing from behind, but it might also have to do with the fact that they really just are not very good.  Their o-line is very shaky, and Lynch is a guy that was not even good enough for Buffalo (and any other team that could have traded for him).  The Seahawks were, for the majority of the season, the worst rushing team in the entire NFL (they were “passed” by Arizona in Week 17), so it is hard not to say they are the worst rushing team among the playoff qualifiers. 

11). Indianapolis Colts.  (#29 – 93 ypg:  Donald Brown – 497 yards, 3.9 avg; Joseph Addai – 495 yards, 4.3 avg; Javarris James – 112 yards, 2.4 avg; Mike Hart – 185 yards, 4.3 avg; Dominic Rhodes – 172 yards, 4.6 avg) 

I wonder how many yards I could rush for if I had Peyton reading defenses for me

This might sound a bit odd, but I think the Colts rushing attack is more aided by its quarterback than any other team in the NFL, with the possible exception of the Eagles.  And, no, I am not confused and mistook Peyton Manning for Randall Cunningham.  I know that Peyton is slow and almost awkward when he tries to scramble.  But, he has such a grasp on the defensive formations and his own o-line’s blocking schemes, that I think he calls even better audibles to running plays than he does to passing plays.  Time and time again, I will see him go to the line, step back, change the play, and then just run a simple handoff to a running back that goes 8 yards before he is even touched.  And, that is why, well, the Colts are still at #11 here.  Their running backs stink.  Donald Brown is a decent back, if he is your third-down, change-of-pace kind of guy, but as a lead back?  He is bad.  Joseph Addai is still not healthy, though he did play okay in Weeks 16 & 17, but he is not even that good when healthy.  And, Javarris James, while related to the great Edge, is no Edge.

10). Green Bay Packers.  (#24 – 100 ypg:  Brandon Jackson – 703 yards, 3.7 avg; John Kuhn – 281 yards, 3.3 avg; Aaron Rodgers – 356 yards, 5.6 avg)   I actually debated making this team even lower because I do not think this running attack puts fear into anyone.  But, I think this is just about as low as I can justify putting them because the bottom two teams have proven all year that they just cannot run the ball.  This team, at least, tries to do it.  And, it is not totally their fault, as they lost their workhorse back, Ryan Grant, in Week One.  They have turned to Brandon Jackson, who has been, well, just okay.  He is not a terrible north-south runner.  He hits the holes well, but he does not make anyone miss and is actually a complete non-factor in the passing game.  John Kuhn is a goalline threat, but that is it.  This team will live and die on the passing game.

9). New Orleans Saints.  (#28 – 95 ypg:  Chris Ivory – 716 yards, 5.2 avg; Pierre Thomas – 269 yards, 3.2 avg; Julius Jones – 193 yards, 4.0 avg; Ladell Betts (waived) – 150 yards, 3.3 avg; Reggie Bush – 150 yards, 4.2 avg)  

Does a repeat depend on Reggie's health?

This team cannot run the ball effectively either.  This is a real sign of the change in the league that one-third of the playoff teams have almost completely ineffective running games.  And, there are at least two more on this list whose running games are not exactly “feared” in any way.  This Saints team has been stricken by injuries in the backfield this year, as Reggie Bush missed most of the season with a broken leg and Pierre Thomas has missed most of the season with some sort of mystery injury.  Both are now relatively healthy, which is how I can justify moving this team ahead of the Packers, but they still are not that good, as they still rely on the unproven Chris Ivory and the proven-to-be-bad Julius Jones far too much.  The o-line is okay, but is much better in pass protection that opening up holes for backs.  Like the Colts and Packers, this team will not be knocking people off this month with a hard-nosed running attack.

8). Chicago Bears.  (#22 – 101 ypg:  Matt Forte – 1069 yards, 4.5 avg; Chester Taylor – 267 yards, 2.4 avg; Jay Cutler – 232 yards, 4.6 avg)   I actually really like Matt Forte and Chester Taylor as a 1-2 punch out of the backfield.  I think that, because of this senseless obsession with fantasy football, Matt Forte has become really underrated among the general public because he did not live up to his high fantasy projections last year.  But, the guy is a very good dual-threat running back.  The same goes for Chester Taylor, who was sorely missed on the Vikings this year.  But, all that being said, I think that those two are so good, in large part, because of their ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, and right here, we are only judging rushing attacks.  Also, I think that this team could be a lot higher if they had a different mentality.  Mike Martz does not like dive plays or even off-tackle runs.  He likes to spread the field.  I am not saying that this offense would be better another way; I am just saying that the running attack would be better if they, ya know, actually ran the ball consistently.  But, even with Martz and the gunslinger QB, Cutler, they are still scary on the ground, especially in Chicago in January.

7). Baltimore Ravens.  (#14 – 114 ypg:  Ray Rice – 1220 yards, 4.0 avg; Willis McGahee – 380 yards, 3.8 avg; Joe Flacco – 84 yards, 2.0 avg) 

I hope the movie busted blocks because the real-life "Blind Side" has been a bit of a flop so far

While the bottom five teams pretty much fell into place, I had a lot of trouble trying to order the next three teams.  I went back and forth several times between these three and finally decided that the offensive lines of the other two teams I was considering in this group are just so far superior to the Ravens that they had to be ranked above, even though neither of those teams has anyone with near the ability of a Ray Rice.  The Ravens – and Rice – have actually struggled to run the ball effectively this year.  They are committed to do it with Rice and Willis McGahee, but their yards per rush attempt (3.8) was better than only four NFL teams this year.  Their offensive line has been a disappoinment, and Rice has not really taken that next step in his rushing ability.  McGahee continues to have a nose for the endzone, but has not been much of a factor at all between the twenties.  Even with all the talent in the backfield, this team could struggle this year to generate any consistent running attack against the good playoff defenses they are bound to face in the AFC gauntlet.

6). New York Jets.  (#4 – 148 ypg:  LaDainian Tomlinson – 914 yards, 4.2 avg; Shonn Greene – 766 yards, 4.1 avg) 

I would never count out one of the two best RBs I've ever seen, but LT looks like he's just about done

Yes, I know that this team is #4 in the NFL rushing rankings (with two of the teams ahead of them not making the playoffs), but as I said in the intro, I put very little emphasis on those rankings.  As good as he was in the beginning of the season, it seems as if LdT has hit a real wall.  And, what happened to the Shonn Greene that looked like Michael Turner on steroids in the playoffs last year?  He has been pretty bad this year.  I think this team has really missed Thomas Jones this year (more on Mr. Jones a lot later in this post…if get me).  I do, however, strongly believe in this offensive line.  It will not take much rejuvenation from LdT or Greene because D’Brickashaw (maybe the greatest first name since the invention of the first name) and Company are that good.  The substance on that line is the reason that I even have this team even this high and not down with the bottom-feeders. 

5). New England Patriots.  (#9 – 123 ypg:  BenJarvus Green-Ellis – 1008 yards, 4.4 avg; Danny Woodhead – 547 yards, 5.6 avg) 

He might be best known for his annoyingly overused nickname, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis has had a quietly excellent season

I think one of the most under-reported stories of this season has been the emergence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a legitimate threat out of the backfield for the Patriots.  Green-Ellis, with 80 yards on Sunday, became the first 1000-yard rusher for New England since “Clock-Killin'” Corey Dillon in 2004.  This story was so underreported that I actually had to look it up myself (usually all things Patriots are all over ESPN and the like).  Everyone talks about – and rightfully so – the incredible season for Tom Brady, but Green-Ellis and fellow backfield-mate, Danny Woodhead, seem to get forgotten.  The Pats, for all their successes this decade, have not won a Super Bowl since beating the Eagles six years ago.  That year was, maybe not coincidentally, that same year that Corey Dillon ran for 1,000 yards.  But, this year, the Pats have a serious running attack, and it all starts up front.  As good as Green-Ellis has been, the o-line has just been outstanding.  One of the best run-pass combination lines in football, this Patriots team has committed more to the run and it shows in their ability to open up holes.  This offense is downright terrifying.

(By the way, if you get a chance, go here and select one of the links for the video of Danny Woodhead posing as a Modell’s salesman trying to sell Danny Woodhead Patriots jerseys.  It is pretty entertaining and really makes him out to be a pretty down-to-earth kind of guy.  But, the most telling part of it – for me, at least – is looking at him standing next to regular people.  There is a middle-aged woman who appears to be towering him.  And, yet, this guy has been taking the NFL by storm in the second half of the season.  It is awesome to see, though I am a bit hesitant to start talking about how “anyone can make it – just look at 5’5″ Woodhead.”  That is a bit ridiculous because, though he was not blessed with even average size, he was blessed with off-the-charts athletic ability.  So, it is not like this is your average office worker, who decided to have a go at the NFL.  But, either way, he has been awesome.)  

4). Pittsburgh Steelers.  (#11 – 120 ypg:  Rashard Mendenhall – 1273 yards, 3.9 avg; Isaac Redman – 247 yards, 4.8 avg; Ben Roethlisberger – 176 yards, 5.2 avg)  It was not long until Rashard Mendenhall broke out on the NFL stage.  He is a very talented back, who was drafted by a team that flat-out knows how to run the ball.  Mendenhall, and to a lesser extent Isaac Redman, have held down the fort and compensated for a rather poor offensive line all season.  Throw in the scrambling ability of Big Ben and the strong commitment to the ball-possession running game, and you have got yourself a very, very good rushing attack.  There is a reason that this team went 3-1 (and an overtime game against the Ravens short of 4-0) without its All-Pro quarterback.

3). Atlanta Falcons.  (#12 – 118 ypg:  Michael Turner – 1371 yards, 4.1 avg; Jason Snelling – 324 yards, 3.7 avg; Matt Ryan – 122 yards, 2.7 avg)  I love the Falcons style of play.  They still have a little bit of that “three yards and a cloud of dust” offensive mentality that was so effective for so long in the NFL.  Michael Turner (and his misnomer of a nickname, “The Burner”) is a grueling, hit-you-in-the-face kind of back that lives on wearing down defenses, so that he can punish them in the fourth quarter.  And, when Turner needs a break, they just throw Jason Snelling in there to do more of the same.  Matt Ryan is an okay scrambler, and the offensive line makes up for in size and continuity what it may lack in athleticism.   This is just a grueling team that is very comfortable in that role.

2). Philadelphia Eagles.  (#5 – 145 ypg:  LeSean McCoy – 1080 yards, 5.2 avg; Michael Vick – 676 yards, 6.8 avg; Jerome Harrison – 239 yards, 6.0 avg) 

Is LeSean McCoy the best back no one ever talks about? Either way, he's just another example of the fantastic drafting of our Philadelphia Eagles

Call me homer all you want, but remember that it was just yesterday that I ranked Michael Vick as in the middle of the pack as far as quarterbacks go.  It may be strange to think about, but this Eagles team has a truly elite rushing attack.  In fact, it took every non-homerish bone in my body to keep me from making them number one on this list.  Hear me out.  The Eagles were #1 – BY A MILE – in yards per rush.  They averaged an absolutely mind-boggling 5.4 yards per rush attempt.  The next best were the Oakland Raiders at 4.9.  That means that they were 0.5 yards per rush better than any other team in the NFL, and 0.7 yards per rush more than the next best playoff team, the Chiefs.  To put that in perspective, after the Birds and the Chiefs, the next best playoff team in this stat is New England, who averaged 4.3 yards per rush.  And, 4.3 yards per rush is only 0.7 higher than the WORST team in the NFL (Arizona).  So, the margin between the Eagles and the next best playoff team in this statistic is the same margin as the Patriots (the third best playoff team here) and the worst team in the NFL at rushing efficiency.  That is astronomical.  And, if you want to say, “Ya, well, they still are not running the ball when they have to,” then I will point you to the first Dallas game in Week 14.  The Birds got the ball, up three, with over four minutes to go.  They just handed the ball off to LeSean McCoy repeatedly, who completely iced the game.  They have been running on running downs and still doing it effectively.  The offensive line has had its ups and downs in pass protection, but they have been massive in the running game.  To be honest, I think that I am over-compensating for any possible homerism here by not having the Eagles as #1.  My only rationale for keeping them at #2 is that I am still not convinced that Andy Reid is completely committed to the run, and that some of these stats may be inflated by Michael Vick scrambles – even though, I believe these should be counted as running plays.  And, finally, I think that this team still struggles in goal-line situations.  I am not nearly as confident in them scoring on 3rd-and-Goal at the 1 as I am with the #1 team on this list…

1). Kansas City Chiefs.  (#1 – 164 ypg:  Thomas Jones – 896 yards, 3.7 avg; Jamaal Charles – 1467 yards, 6.4 avg) 

The perfect running back complements - Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones - lead the league's best rushing attack into the playoffs

This rushing attack seemingly has it all.  They have the dynamic, homerun hitter in Jamaal Charles, and the tough, experienced, “get you 3 yards when your season depends on getting 2” guy in Thomas Jones.  They also have a stark commitment to the run and an offensive line big and tough enough to dominate.  Again, I think that I am catering to my fear of homerism here, as I think the Eagles combination of McCoy and Vick is more scary, more dynamic, and probably better than Charles and Jones, but I cannot go against this rushing attack because I have been a believer all year in these two.  And, as I said above, on 3rd-and-Goal (or even 3rd-and-1 in the middle of the field), this team picks up the yards.  The Eagles do not have a Thomas Jones to lean on when they absolutely need 2 yards.  But, it is very close – and that is saying something when you are talking about an Andy Reid team.

2011 Playoff Top Twelve: Quarterbacks

We ran this last year during playoff week, and I had fun with it, so let us try it again.  

Usually the Top Twelve lists are reserved for those select Tuesdays when I cannot think of anything else to write about.  However, because of the NFL playoffs starting this weekend, I have decided to forego the convenient alliteration and even more convenient personal laziness to try and do a Top Twelve list each day this week, focusing on a different aspect of the twelve teams that are still alive in their pursuits to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next month.  As always, these lists are based entirely on fact.  Mere opinion plays no role whatsoever, so please don’t even attempt to dispute it. 

Today, we are going to start with quarterback–the most scrutinized position in all of sports.  This is not about debating the relative careers of these twelve guys.  It’s not even about debating their relative 2010 seasons.  This list is going to attempt to rank the 12 quarterbacks in order of who I would want (and trust in the upcoming month of playoff games) to have on my team right now. 

12). Matt Hasselbeck – Seahawks(3001 yards, 12 TDs, 17 INTs, 59.9% completion, 73.2 QB rating, 69-62 as a starter, 4-5 in playoffs, last playoffs: 3 years ago, lost in Divisional Round to Packers) 

Maybe he would have been ranked higher back when he had hair…in high school

The answer to the question of which quarterback you trust least in the 2011 NFL playoffs is made even easier with the fact that the worst QB may not even be (a) healthy or (b) trusted enough to start for his own team on Saturday.  We are going to assume that it is Matt Hasselbeck who will be starting for the 7-9 Seahawks on Saturday when the host the Saints, but it could be Charlie Whitehurst – who might be ranked 19th on this list of Top Twelve.  Hasselbeck has been a competent – borderline very good – quarterback for most of his career, as evidenced by his 9 career playoff starts – more than every playoff quarterback this year not named Brady, Manning, or Roethlisberger.  However, the sun is setting on the career of Mr. Hasselbeck (12 TDs, 17 INTs), and I think it is not even really that close between he and anyone else in the playoffs as to who you would rather have for a playoff run this year, particularly if he is not 100% healthy. 

11). Mark Sanchez – Jets.  (3291 yards, 17 TDs, 13 INTs, 54.8% completion, 75.3 QB rating, 18-12 as a starter, 2-1 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, lost in AFC Championship Game to Colts)  Well, our old friend Mark Sanchez is moving up in the world.  Last year, when we ranked the playoff quarterbacks, Sanchez brought up the rear at #12.  This year, he improves one spot to #11.  It was a second straight up-and-down year for Sanchez in New York, but honestly, I feel better about him this year than I did a year ago at this time.  I think last year, they were winning despite him and gameplanning around his deficiencies.  This year, while the Jets are not winning because of Sanchez, they are allowing him to play more of a role in this offense.  No longer do they have to run the ball to win (which is good because they have not exactly done that well this year) because they allow Sanchez to make plays.  Brian Schottenheimer has done a very good job in scheming an offense that plays to Sanchez’s strengths and away from his weaknesses.  Plus, as a Southern California kid, he is still learning to play in the elements – something that he probably will not have to deal with in the first round because of their trip to Indy.  Overall, I think Sanchez, while numbers do not look much different, has shown some decent progression from first year to second year.  I still do not think he is anywhere near an elite quarterback and probably never will be, but, as the Jets proved last year, he probably does not need to be.

For better or worse, the Jets have given the San-chise more leeway to run the offense

10). Matt Cassel – Chiefs.  (3116 yards, 27 TDs, 7 INTs, 58.2% completion, 93.0 QB rating, 24-21 as a starter, 0-0 in playoffs) 

Don’t sleep on Matt Cassel and the Chiefs

Many people thought that the Pats just fleeced KC with this trade, but Charlie Weis and Todd Haley have really done a great job utilizing the strengths of Matt Cassel this year, and he has had an excellent season.  His seven interceptions is the third fewest of any playoff quarterback, behind the immortal Tom Brady and Michael Vick, who only started 11 games.  But, as good as the numbers look, you have to keep in mind two big things:  (1) the Chiefs played one of the worst schedules in all of football, and (2) they had the best running attack in the league.  So, Cassel was not needed to come from behind all that often and he was throwing against a lot of 7- and 8-man fronts.  He has done a very nice job under center, but this team is going to win or lose with its backs, and I would probably rather have any other playoff quarterback if my team needed an 80-yard touchdown drive with two minutes to go.  So, while Cassel is as unlikely as any playoff QB to cost the Chiefs the game, he is also probably as unlikely to win one for them. 

9). Jay Cutler – Bears.  (3274 yards, 23 TDs, 16 INTs, 60.4% completion, 86.3 QB rating, 35-34 as a starter, 0-0 in playoffs) 

How would we feel about Jay Cutler if 2009 never happened?

I am actually a bit of a Jay Cutler defender.  I actually said, at the beginning of the year, that we should watch out for the Bears with the Cutler-Martz combination.  And, I definitely think people are way too low on this guy as a result of one terrible season.  He responded this year with a much better year (though 16 INTs is still too much when you only throw for just over 3,000 yards).  All that being said, I am still not sure that he is a guy that can be trusted.  He still thinks that he can make any pass at any time into any coverage, and in the NFL that over-confidence will kill you.  He has led his team to a first-round bye this year with a marginal set of weapons, but he has also leaned heavily on a very good defense to do so.  I am generally higher on Cutler than the average public perception, but I cannot say that I “trust” him more than any of the nine guys I have yet to mention. 

8). Joe Flacco – Ravens.  (3622 yards, 25 TDs, 10 INTs, 62.6% completion, 93.6 QB rating, 32-16 as a starter, 3-2 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, lost in Divisional Round to Colts) 

If we are so quick to kill QBs for not winning, shouldn't we be celebrating those that do?

While Doogan will probably take this ranking as another example of my subconcious love of the Baltimore Ravens, I will try and defend why I moved Flacco up from #10 last year to #8 this year, even though his numbers are only slightly better, while his receiving corps is a lot better.  Most of the defense will be directed at the four QBs ranked below him on this list.  Hasselbeck and Sanchez are no-brainers for the bottom two, right?  The next group of 8 to 10 was Flacco, Cutler, and Cassel.  Cutler and Cassel have never played in the playoffs.  Cutler is erratic, while Cassel is ordinary.  Flacco is experienced (depite his youth), effective, and reliable.  He, like Cassel, is not going to make too many game-changing mistakes, but, like Cutler, can make some big-time throws.  He is certainly not among the upper-echelon of starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but the guy had a QB rating over 93 this year, with 25 TDs and only 10 INTs.  Also, he has started every game of his professional career and won 2/3 of them.  He also won three playoff games in his first two NFL seasons.  There is a large separation between the top 7 on this list and Flacco, but I think he is clearly the best of the rest in this year’s playoffs. 

7). Aaron Rodgers – Packers.  (3922 yards, 28 TDs, 11 INTs, 65.7% completion, 101.2 QB rating, 27-20 as a starter, 0-1 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, lost in Wild Card Round to Cardinals)  I might be crazy here, but there are 6 quarterbacks I would take before Aaron Rodgers right now.  A lot of it has to do with the fact that Rodgers, as the 6-seed, will be on the road for the entirety of the playoffs.  I also took into account the concussions (and other nicks and bruises) Rodgers has been trying to overcome in a rough second half of the season.  While I believe that Rodgers is absolutely an elite quarterback in this league, he also has the benefit of a stable of fantastic receivers on offense, so his numbers may be a little inflated in that regard, as well.  Do not get me wrong, as an Eagles fan, I am not looking forward to our secondary against Aaron Rodgers, I am just saying that, given all that is going on with the Rodgers right now, I would be even more frightened if he traded places with any of the next six guys.  

6). Michael Vick – Eagles.  (3018 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 100.2 QB rating, 46-31-1 as a starter, 2-2 in playoffs, last playoffs: 6 years ago, lost in NFC Championship Game to Eagles) 

This book still has more chapters to be written...and I am anxious to read them

A guy who will probably finish second in the MVP voting – on the team on which this blog focuses – and he is only ranked sixth among playoff quarterbacks?!?  That can’t be right.  But, as always, I am trying to be as objective as possible here, and I think that, given the situation (a little banged-up and having to play in the Wild Card Round and then on the road, presumably, for the rest of the way), I could not justify placing Michael Vick any higher on this list, even though I think that, as I have said before (a little tongue-in-cheek, but a little not), “we cannot yet rule out that he may be the greatest quarterback to ever walk the earth.”  The following is a sentence that you will hear a lot in the next week and is completely overstated, yet not wholly untrue:  “The New York Giants found the blueprint for stopping Michael Vick.”  Like I said, this is completely overstated, but something did change that day.  Defenses no longer believe that zone defense is the only way to stop Vick.  They have been bringing a TON of pressure, and Vick is taking a ton of hits.  He is forced into bad decisions, as well.  All that being said, Michael Vick has been the most dangerous, most explosive, most feared quarterback in the National Football League.  Yes, he has not played in a playoff game since Leavenworth.  Yes, he has never relied on his pocket passing ability to win a big game.  And, yes, he has had a slew of dynamic weapons in his holster this season.  But, it is now a clean slate, and let us not forget that Michael Vick has been, by a mile, the Most Valuable Player in the NFC this year…maybe I do have him too low here. 

5). Matt Ryan – Falcons.  (3705 yards, 28 TDs, 9 INTs, 62.5% completion, 91.0 QB rating, 33-13 as a starter, 0-1 in playoffs, last playoffs: 2 years ago, lost in Wild Card Round to Cardinals)  For the better part of his 3-year career, I thought Matt Ryan was a bit overrated for his quarterbacking ability.  He seemed like a decent “game-manager” (the ultimate in back-handed compliments for QBs), but I still was not convinced that he would be anything more than a decent quarterback on a team with a great running game.  Well, I have changed my opinion this year, and I now believe that Matt Ryan is an elite passer in the NFL.  No matter how good your team’s running game is, it is hard to argue with a 33-13 career record as a starter.  Plus, if you add in the fact that he has only lost TWO games at home in his entire 3-year career and the Falcons never have to leave the Georgia Dome, then Ryan is a pretty good pick as a quarterback to trust this playoff season.  In fact, he is only behind the four guys with some hardware on their mantles…

4). Drew Brees – Saints.  (4620 yards, 33 TDs, 22 INTs, 68.1% completion, 90.9 QB rating, 79-58 as a starter, 4-2 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, won Super Bowl) 

The Reigning Champ

The defending Super Bowl MVP is back to retain his crown this year.  There are several tiers in the playoff quarterbacks this year, and #4 marks the end of the top tier.  Hasselbeck and Sanchez are in the bottom tier.  Then, there is the Cutler, Cassel, Flacco group.  After that, we have a group of near-elites in Rodgers, Vick, and Ryan.  And, now we hit the best of the best.  Four quarterbacks with Super Bowl titles; four quarterbacks with Super Bowls MVPs; three of whom also have NFL MVPs; four quarterbacks who carry their teams to victories on a weekly basis and then find a new level in the playoffs.  At number, I have Drew Brees.  Brees has been very, very good this year, but has had enough shaky moments to elicit minor questions about his consistency.  Plus, the Saints will probably have to win three straight road games to get back to the Big Game, so he ends up at the bottom of the Best of the Best group.  He is still an unbelievable quarterback and an unbelievable human being.  Half of that is true about… 

3). Ben Roethlisberger – Steelers.  (3200 yards, 17 TDs, 5 INTs, 97.0 QB rating, 69-29 as a starter, 8-2 in playoffs, last playoffs: 2 years ago, won Super Bowl)  Number one in your hearts, number three on this list.  If this was a list of the best people in the playoffs, Ben would, uh, not be this high.  But, fortunately for Steelers fans, Super Bowls are not won on the strength of character, and Ben is, whether we like it or not, one of the best quarterbacks in the world.  And, the best part about him is that he gets even better when the games get bigger.  Yes, this team relies on its defense, but, with the exception of that guy in New England, there is no one I would rather have to lead a game-winning drive than this guy.  He just gets it done.  In fact, for one drive, with everything on the line, I might actually take Ben over Brady…maybe.  But, trust me, I am rooting for him to fall flat on his face in the biggest moment; I just do not think it will happen. 

2). Peyton Manning – Colts.  (4700 yards, 33 TDs, 17 INTs, 66.3% completion, 91.9 QB rating, 141-67 as a starter, 9-9 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, lost in Super Bowl to Saints) 

The One We'll Tell Our Grandkids About

There is a lot of talk about Peyton – there has been all of his career.  “He comes up small in the clutch.”  “He has lost a step.”  And, my personal favorite, “He is a ‘system quarterback'” (what does that even mean?).  But, there is one thing that must be said above all:  “He is one of the best there ever was.”  9-9 in the playoffs?  Yes, I know.  17 interceptions this year?  Yes, I know that, too.  But, if you look deep down at the most brutally honest depth of your soul and can actually tell me that you would rather have anyone (other than Brady) over Peyton Manning, then I do not really know what to tell you.  Nine straight 10-win seasons (eight of them were 12+).  Eleven of the past twelve seasons with 10+ wins.  Wow!  And, this year, to do it with a host of undrafted free agents and castoffs, might be his greatest accomplishment to date.  Do I think the Colts are legit contenders in the AFC this year?  No, I don’t.  But, we are just ranking quarterbacks here, and I almost made this guy #1…almost. 

1). Tom Brady – Patriots.  (3900 yards, 36 TDs, 4 INTs, 65.9% completion, 111.0 QB rating, 111-32 as a starter, 14-4 in playoffs, last playoffs: last year, lost in Wild Card Round to Ravens) 

Maybe it's the hair (but, let's hope not...)

Ho-hum, another 14-2 year for the Patriots.  Is it possible that Tom Brady had a better regular season this year than in 2007, when he threw 50 touchdowns and went undefeated?  He did most of his damage this year after the team jettisoned their only real deep threat.  He also had to get by for 8 games without their best offensive lineman and no real running game.  Throwing to guys named Hernandez, Gronkowski, and Woodhead, Tom Brady threw 36 TDs and only FOUR interceptions.  And, unless you were asleep since last century, you know that this was not exactly a “flash in the pan” season for the Golden Boy.  111-32 as a starter is mind-boggling.  14-4 in the playoffs is even more impressive.  A team with a questionable defense and no real weapons went 14-2 this year against a brutal schedule.  They won at San Diego by 3, at Pittsburgh by 13, at Miami by 27, and at Chicago by 29.  They beat Baltimore, Green Bay, and Indianapolis.  And, oh by the way, they thrashed the Jets on a Monday night, 45-3.  Now, this is not all Tom Brady, but wouldn’t you agree that it is mostly Tom Brady?  I would.  This one was easy.

Tuesday’s Top Twelve: The Contenders

This is one of my favorite (and maybe the only) regular Top Twelves.  About this time in the baseball season, it’s interesting to start thinking about (a) the races and (b) what teams are best suited for fall baseball, as opposed to spring or summer baseball–and I’m not talking about the weather here.  Some teams are just flat-out better suited for postseason baseball than they are for regular season baseball.  Just look at all those Braves teams that won 14 straight NL Easts, but only 1 World Series.  That was not a fluke, it was because they had a deep, consistent pitching staff that feasted on mediocre and bad teams, but weren’t always equipped to go through the best offenses.  They also had just mediocre bullpens, which can really hurt you in postseason series because one blown game could mean your season.

That being said, it’s time to see who has, in my opinion, the best chance to win the 2010 World Series.  I honestly think we can narrow the field to a dozen (6 from each league), without leaving anyone out who truly has a shot–with all apologies to the Rockies, Dodgers, and Tigers.  Oh, and the Mets are not on this list, in case you were wondering.

12). Chicago White Sox.  The ChiSox are currently 4.5 games behind the Twins in the AL Central, which is probably their only chance to get in, considering they are 9.5 games out of the wild card.  They are on this list because it’s not unreasonable to think that they can catch the Twins in the Central to make the playoffs.  And, as the 2006 Cardinals showed us, you just have to get in and anything can happen.  It was a hard call between 11 and 12–mainly because I don’t think either really have a shot–but I went with these Sox as having the longest odds just because I don’t really see them built for either the regular season or the postseason.  Their offense is just okay, and they are counting on guys like Gavin Floyd and Freddy Garcia.  As a Phillies fan, you can probably guess my level of trust in those two guys.

11). Boston Red Sox.  Look, the Red Sox may just be the third best team in baseball, despite all their injuries.  But, it doesn’t matter if the first two are in your division.  The Sox are a real longshot to even make the playoffs right now, but if they can put it together, they do have the talent to make a run at a title (though, that run is much less likely now with the season-ending injury to Youkilius).  And, they are only 5.5 games behind the Yanks and Rays–and they only have to catch one of them to get in, most likely.  So, despite their incredibly long odds to even make the playoffs, they are still on the list of possible contenders.  Consider this:  they have been ravaged with injuries and have played a combined 20+ games against the two best teams in baseball, but they are still only one-half game behind the Twins and a full game ahead of the Rangers in the standings.  Plus, there is always some fight left in this team.

10). San Francisco Giants.  Now, we’re into the ten teams that really have legitimate shots at this year’s World Series title.  The Giants do have a shot to win this year’s World Series.  They are only one game back in the wild card race, and they have a pitching staff built beautifully for the postseason, if they are running on all cylinders.  Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez would be a devastating trio in any postseason series, plus they probably have the best closer in baseball that no one’s ever heard of, in Brian Wilson.  Honestly, I have them as the longest shot among contenders from the NL because I have no trust in their offense to score any runs when needed, but I certainly wouldn’t want to face them in a playoff series.  All of this, of course, is completely dependent upon Tim Lincecum actually pitching like Tim Lincecum and not Tim Belcher.

9). Minnesota Twins.  Don’t get me wrong, I think the Twins have an excellent team, but there are a couple reasons why I have them as low on this list as I do.  First of all, it’s still unclear whether or not Justin Morneau will really get back to 100% this year.  Without a fully-healthy Morneau, this offense is just a bit light in the middle.  Yes, Joe Mauer is absolutely blistering hot, but, as you saw last year, they need a little bit more than just Mauer to really make any noise.  The second big reason is that the front of their rotation is not exactly Koufax and Drysdale.  Francisco Liriano has become a really good pitcher and is clearly their ace, but he is a distant fourth among the likely four aces that will be in the AL playoffs (Sabathia, Price, and Lee).  Plus, after Liriano, there is a pretty big dropoff to the likes of Kevin Slowey (might not be healthy) or Scott Baker or even Carl Pavano.  That means that the Twins might not have a pitching advantage in any playoff game they enter all October.  And, finally, think about the road for Minnesota.  They will most likely have to go through both the Yankees and the Rays in order to get to the World Series.  And, unless they beat out the Rangers, they might have to play that first 5-game series without home-field advantage.  It’s a long road for the Twins.

8). Cincinnati Reds.  Yes, the Reds have a 2.5 game lead on the Cardinals in the NL Central, and a 1.5 game lead over the Phillies, should they need the wild card to get in.  So, chances are the Reds will be playing in the postseason for the first time in a very long time.  However, I really don’t see them built to win in October.  Harang and Arroyo are nice pitchers for 25-30 regular season starts.  They keep you in every game, but are they really stoppers?  Johnny Cueto is a nice piece, but Mike Leake looks like he’s completely hit the wall (not surprising since he didn’t spend a single season in the minor leagues).  Joey Votto is a dark horse MVP candidate, but the rest of the offense is mediocre, and Votto hasn’t proven that he can do it when it matters.  It hurts because I root for the Reds (great fans in a good baseball city that are mired in a long stretch of futility right now), but I have to say that they are more of a longshot than a couple teams they are looking down upon in the standings, including a team in their own division…

7). St. Louis Cardinals.  This team is dangerous.  They are on the outside looking in on the playoff picture, as we sit today, and, to be honest with you, I don’t have a ton of confidence that they’ll get there, but if they do, they’re gonna be a tough out–that’s for sure.  With Wainwright, Carpenter, and Garcia, they are built for the postseason.  Plus, they are seasoned on how to play in big games, and they have one of the game’s best managers in Tony LaRussa.  Oh, and by the way, they have the best player on the planet sitting in the middle of their order.

6). Texas Rangers.  If you’re a Rangers fan, how thankful are you that Cliff Lee fell into your lap?  He is the only saving grace for the World Series chances of the Texas Rangers.  Again, don’t get me wrong here, I think the Rangers have a really solid team, top-to-bottom.  They have a very potent lineup with the likes of Hamilton and Vlad and the eternally underrated Michael Young and Ian Kinsler.  They have solid pitching even after Lee in Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson.  And, they have a decent bullpen bolstered by probably AL Rookie of the Year, Neftali Feliz as the closer.  But, just like the Twins, they are going to, almost assuredly, have to beat both the Yankees and the Rays in the AL playoffs just to get to the World Series.  I’m not saying this can’t happen; I’m just saying that if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t exactly put the farm on this inexperienced team winning 7 playoff games against the beasts of the AL East–even with the great Cliff Lee.  Plus, you can throw on the Angels theory from the past couple of seasons.  The Rangers probably won’t play a meaningful game for a good three weeks before the playoff start because they lead the division by so many games, so who knows if they’ll be on top of their game? 

5). San Diego Padres.  I really struggled with #4 and 5.  I am going to go with the Padres here at #5 just because I’m not totally sold on the depth of their talent.  Yes, they have the best record in the National League (third best in all of baseball), and yes they are well on their way to homefield advantage throughout the playoffs (which is big for a team so perfectly suited for its ballpark), but how much faith can you possibly have in a team that will probably be throwing Jon Garland out there in Game One.  I like Latos and Richard behind Garland, but they are just kids.  Plus, they have already given more than 250 at bats to the following marginal MLers:  Wil Venable, Chase Headley, Tony Gwynn, Jr., and a couple of Hairstons.  Yes, Adrian Gonzalez is an absolute monster and David Eckstein is a proven winner (albeit incredibly overrated), but this team is still not immensely talented.  Right?  If it were not for the gigantic additions of Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick recently, I would have them a lot lower.  Well, that and the fact that they have, by far, the best bullpen in baseball.  This might actually be the best bullpen baseball has seen since the Wetteland-Rivera days of the mid-90’s Yankees.  And, bullpens win in October.  But, we’ll see.

4). Atlanta Braves.  The Bravos have been playing some really good baseball lately, and they added a proven hitter in Derek Lee to address their biggest problem–run production at firstbase.  They also have a fantastic pitching staff, led by the immensely underrated Tim Hudson and Jair Jurrjens, the recently blossoming star in Tommy Hanson, and the ole veteran who’s been there before in Derek Lowe.  However, despite all of this, they do have some question marks.  Chipper is done for the year, so they really don’t have a big-time run producer (unless Lee can provide that or someone like Brian McCann or Jason Heyward can step up and fill the void).  Plus, they also do not exactly play the best defense in the league with guys like Melky Cabrera, Martin Prado, and Alex Gonzalez in key positions.  Billy Wagner has had a really nice year, but he might be tiring down the stretch, as he has struggled as of late.  The one reason, however, that I have the Braves ahead of San Diego in this order is because of the Bobby Cox Factor.  It is the swan song for one of the best managers of a generation, and you never know what kind of motivation that will provide.

3). Philadelphia Phillies.  I have been accused of being a homer before, and I’m sure I will be accused of it again, but I can assure you that I tried as hard as I could to find a reason NOT to make the Phillies the odds-on favorites to win the National League for the third straight year…but I couldn’t.  This team is loaded again.  There are two big question marks (health and the bullpen), but all in all, this team has to be considered the favorite to win a third straight pennant, and possibly a second World Series in three years.  In 2008, this team won the World Series with Cole Hamels as their ace.  Cole Hamels is pitching just as well as he did then, and he is their #3.  In 2008, this team won the World Series with Pedro Feliz as its thirdbaseman.  Now, it’s the amazing Placido Polanco.  Everything else is the same.  Throw in the fact that this team is on their way to 90 wins having only had their starting lineup play together SEVEN TIMES!  Ya, that’s right SEVEN.  Six of the 8 everyday players have spent extended time on the DL this year.  The bullpen has  been in shambles, due to major injuries and ineffectiveness, yet this team is still only 2.5 games out of the NL East title and is leading the wild card race.  Oh, and to bolster the argument even more, they happen to have added Roy Oswalt to be their NUMBER TWO STARTER.  Plus, they play in the National League, so instead of having to go through the Yankees and Rays to get to the World Series, they will probably be facing some combination of the Padres, Reds, Braves, Giants, or Cardinals.  If the season ended today, they would face San Diego in the NLDS and then the winner of the Braves-Reds in the NLCS.  Not exactly a “tough road.”  The question marks will persist, however, about the bullpen and the overall health of guys like Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, but it is hard to argue (damn near impossible) that this is the National League team that is best-equipped for a championship run.

2). New York Yankees.  The defending champs have brought back the team that dominated both the 2009 regular season and the 2009 postseason to give it another run.  And, they are set up to do just that.  They still have CC Sabathia at the front of the rotation, and they still have Mariano Rivera to close out games.  They still have Mr. Clutch in Derek Jeter and the most talented player of our generation in Alex Rodriguez.  They have seen breakout seasons from guys like Robinson Cano and Phil Hughes.  They have the best infield ever assembled and the best closer to ever live.  This team is, well, pretty good.  However, they are not the BSB pick for the favorites to win it all this year.  And, there are a couple of reasons for that–most of which have to do with the flaws of this team, rather than the overall dominance of the other.  The Bridge to Mariano is shaky again this year.  Joba is just not that good and the rest of the ‘pen is a bit suspect.  But, they can get around that, if some other things were in place.  But, Father Time is also looking like he may have come calling.  Derek Jeter is starting to actually look old (something I thought I’d never see).  A-Rod is still very good, but no longer great.  Mark Teixeira has had a miserable season.  Curtis Granderson (the big offseason pickup) looks completely lost against left-handers (and, by the way, the aces on the other three likely AL playoff teams are all left-handed–Lee, Liriano, Price).  Jorge Posada doesn’t look like he can really catch anymore.  And, the big acquisition of Lance Berkman looks like a big bust.  All that being said, this team is still a fantastic collection of baseball talent and will be a very tough out.  I just don’t see them being the odds-on favorites right now.  But, have no fear Yankees fans, not winning the World Series this year will basically just assure the fact that Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford will be wearing pinstripes next year and everyone else will be playing for second place.

1). Tampa Bay Rays.  Yes, all that young talent that shocked us all in 2008 is a little bit older and a whole lot better.  David Price has taken his rightful place at the top of one of the best rotations in the game.  Evan Longoria is leading an offense that just doesn’t stop hitting all the way up and down the lineup.  Jason Bartlett leads one of the most athletically-gifted defenses in baseball.  They still have question marks in the bullpen, but expect rookie Jeremy Hellickson to play the role of 2008 David Price out in the ‘pen this offseason because, well, why not?  When you have 5 immensely talented pitchers, just throw your young stud out in the bullpen.  This team is young and good, but the difference this year is that they’re probably a lot more hungry.  They tasted the glory in 2008 and then the pain in 2009.  And, looking ahead, they know that Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are probably long-gone from this team, so there is a sense of urgency.  Right now, I think it’s pretty clear that the Tampa Bay Rays are the favorites to win the 2010 World Series.

Tuesday’s Top Twelve: Most Disappoiting World Cup Eliminations

(It’s not Tuesday and it’s not going to be twelve, so whatever.)

Now, that the World Cup has gotten through group play and into the knockout round, half of the field has been sent packing.  Some of the teams eliminated really were just kind of happy to be there and their elimination doesn’t come as a big surprise and isn’t that big of a disappointment.  But, others had monumental failures on the world’s biggest stage, bringing embarrasment and shame to the countries.  So, we are going to try and rank the disappoinment level of the 16 World Cup teams that did not qualify for the knockout round.

16). New Zealand.  The All-Whites are absolutely the least disappointed team that didn’t make it through to the knockout round, for several reasons.  One, they had absolutely no expectations.  This team is a bunch of semi-pros and amateurs.  There is not even a professional league in all of New Zealand.  They were said to be the equivalent of a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament.  But, I think it might be more like a D-III team playing the D-I tournament.  So, they had the longest odds to win this thing, and yet they will be leaving this tournament undefeated.  They drew with mighty Italy and actually finished ahead of them in the group standings.  Yes, it would probably be pretty disheartening for most teams to leave the tournament without losing a single game, but for this team, they are leaving with their heads held high and no regrets.

15). Slovenia.  The Slovenians, playing in their first ever World Cup as an independent nation, put on a nice show for the home fans.  They won their first ever World Cup game, beating Algeria 1-0, then they drew with the US and played England awfully tough, before bowing out and going home.  Yes, there is probably some disappoinment that they had a slew of chances to actually win Group A, but for a country with a population the size of Houston to be a play or two away from winning the group is nothing to hang their heads about.  Very nice performance by the Slovenians.

14). Honduras.  After the first two rounds of play, it looked like Honduras would be leaving somewhat disappointed, having not scored a goal in two losses.  But, though they still have not scored, they did play Switzerland to a scoreless draw (in a game in which they probably outplayed the team that beat Spain), thus eliminating the Swiss.  It was a nice performance for a team that just did not have the talent to compete with the big boys of soccer.  However, they are leaving with only 1 point and 0 goals, so it was exactly a success, but I would say that for a team with really no knockout stage expectations, they had a decent tournament.

13). North Korea.  It’s hard to say that the North Koreans are disappointed by their 0-3 performance in the World Cup.  In fact, I would venture a guess that, given the group in which they were placed, no one in their right mind predicted that they would even sniff a single point in group play.  They were the 104th-ranked team in a group with #1, #3, and the best African side.  And, to boot, they played a really tough game against Brazil and only lost 2-1.  However, they were embarrassingly outscored 10-0 in their final two matches, as they were just the whipping boys for Portugal and Cote d’Ivoire, as both teams tried to qualify on goal differential by beating up on the Koreans.  Because of those embarrassing performances, the North Koreans are probably more disappointed than the three already mentioned, but as a result of their group placement and their lack of expectations, they are probably not nearly as disappointed as the 12 teams not yet mentioned.

12). Algeria.  The expectations for the Algerians were probably not all that high.  They were the least likely team to get through Group A, and they almost definitely fall into the category of “happy to be there.”  In fact, they may have taken their place in that category too seriously.  If not for their second half against the USA, I would say that Algeria had a pretty successful tournament, highlighted by the draw against England and the near draws against the USA and Slovenia.  The North Africans only gave up two goals in three games, and they were able to show the world a couple of their stars.  However, there was that second half against the USA.  Algeria was still very much alive in the qualification scenarios.  If they had beaten the US by 2, they would have gone through to the knockout stage.  But, they didn’t seem to care.  They played defense, seemingly content with a 0-0 draw that would have eliminated them.  And, to make matters worse, they didn’t even get that draw, as Donovan scored in stoppage time.  That second half is why I think that the Algerians were more disappointing than the other four “happy to be there” teams.  Their team didn’t even really try to get through.

11). Denmark.  The Danes did not have enormous expectations coming into the tournament, so their elimination in this stage was not a devastating one, but the way they went out was pretty discouraging.  They weren’t supposed to beat Holland, and they didn’t.  They probably weren’t supposed to beat Cameroon down here in South Africa either, and they did.  And, that Cameroon win set up a de facto playoff game against Japan for the right to move on, and Denmark just didn’t show up.  They got beat handily by a good, but not great, Japan team, and they packed their bags.  All in all, you have to be relatively happy with Denmark’s performance, but you probably can’t stop thinking about the fact that they lost a playoff game to Japan.

10). South Africa.  It is very disappointing to become the first host nation not to get out of group play, but other than that (which is big), it’s hard to find disappoinment in Bafana Bafana this tournament, beating France and drawing with Mexico.  They even gave the world some drama in the final game of group play, as they had a real shot to surpass Mexico for that final qualification spot, they just fell two goals short.  Considering how lowly they were ranked in the world, this was a pretty nice showing for the gracious hosts. 

9). Cote d’Ivoire.  It’s really tough to pick through these middle teams and their levels of disappoinment, but I think the Ivoirian are probably more disappointed than the hosts because of expectations.  Before the draw came out, if you had said that Cote d’Ivoire would not make it out of group play on African soil, they would be strong contenders for most disappointed.  But, then the draw came out, then Drogba got hurt, then Portugal abused North Korea to the tune of 7 goals, then Brazil conspired with their former colonial masters to a 0-0 draw, and then Cote d’Ivoire was sent home.  It’s hard to say that they “should have” gotten through a group that included two of the top three teams in the world, so it’s hard to say that they are very disappointed, but the fact remains that this was probably the most talented African team (when healthy), playing on African soil, and they failed to qualify for the knockout round. 

8). Switzerland.  All in all, in looking back at their performance at the 2010 World Cup, the Swiss will probably take a lot of pride in their team’s performace in knocking off the pre-tournament favorites (and, who knows, maybe the eventual champs), Spain.  They will also take a lot of pride in breaking the all-time record for consecutive scoreless World Cup minutes, dating back to 2002.  So, all of that is good.  But, the bad part is that they beat Spain and still couldn’t get through the group.  Even with a loss to Chile, they still had a very good chance to get through on the final day of group play.  All they needed was a 2-goal win over lowly Honduras to ensure themselves a place in the final 16.  But, they came out and stunk against Honduras.  They actually should have lost the game, but it ended in a 0-0 draw that ended the World Cup for Swiss.  They were almost definitely the third-best team in the group, so it’s hard to be upset that they finished third, but after a win against Spain, they really should have qualified.  

7). Australia.  If you told the Aussie faithful before the tournament that Australia wouldn’t get out of Group D, I think that they would say that it must have been absolutely devastating, despite knowing how good Group D was.  And, honestly, it is pretty devastating, if you think about it.  This is the best group of Australian soccer players that the country has ever seen, and they are all on the wrong side of 30.  Plus, there is not a great group of youngsters coming up the pipeline, so this might have been their last chance to make any noise in international soccer for a while.  But, the way they went out was just unfortunate.  They got red cards in both of their first two matches, which just destroyed their chances.  Their 4-1 loss to Germany turned out to be the killer, even though they got an inspired draw with Ghana (short-handed) and then a really nice win over Serbia.  The Soccerroos lost on goal differential, but were probably the second-best team in the group, so that is some solace.

6). Greece.  This is not surprising, as the Greeks always seem to disappoint in the World Cup–much to the delight of international soccer fans, who seem to hate the Greeks because of their boring style of play that revolves around conservative defense and goals on set plays.  This style has proven rather ineffective in the World Cup because of the lack of team practice time to perfect the set plays and the immense talent levels of some of the best teams, giving them the creative abilities to break down any defense and score.  So, surprising?  Not exactly.  But, disappointing?  Definitely. (Especially for loyal BSB follower, Alexi.)  The biggest factor of this disappoinment for the Greeks is that they lost out to South Korea, a team that they should have been a lot better than, but clearly were not.  They still have Euro 2004 to hang their hats on, but that is getting smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror for this proud nation.

5). Nigeria.  The big reason the Greeks are disappointed is that they were outplayed by the Asian nation of South Korea.  Well, Nigeria has that same reason and then some.  They also failed to qualify out of Group B, but they did so on their home continent and did so by allowing some soft goals and failing to score on gimmes (one, in particular).  They could have beaten out South Korea, but they blew it, and they have only themselves to blame.  Along with the other African failures, Nigeria has left the torch burning only for Ghana in what was supposed to be the coming-out party for African soccer.  That, in itself, is disappointing.

4). Serbia.  Group D proved to be a very tough group, as both Australia and Serbia–two of the better teams in the world–were eliminated.  But, Serbia’s elimination was pretty tough to swallow regardless of the difficulty of the group.  They started the World Cup with a very disappointing loss to Ghana, where the only goal of the game was gifted to the Ghanaians on a strange handball by a Serbian defender on a relatively harmless ball.  Then, they recovered and beat the group champions, Germany.  But, on the final day, knowing that they just needed a win to qualify, they lost to Australia, 2-1.  And, to make it even tougher for the Serbs to get past this loss, they would have been placed in the D2 spot (where Ghana is now), which is a wide open portion of the knockout draw.  They would have only been wins over the USA and either Uruguay or South Korea away from the semifinals.  This must be real tough for the Serbs.

3). Cameroon.  All of the African teams that failed to get through group play under African skies must be devastated, but I would say none more so than the Indomitable Lions because they had a very winnable group, and played so terribly, finishing as the only team other than North Korea with ZERO points.  And, this was a top-20 team in the world, playing in a group with only the Netherlands to fear.  They opened the tournament with a loss to Japan and followed that up with a loss to Denmark, before bowing out to the Dutch.  It was a nightmare all tournament for Cameroon, and this was one of the African sides that really had a shot to make some noise here.  The Cameroonian debacle is devastating.

2). Italy.  Speaking of debacles, what happened to the defending champs?  They had a very soft group that they probably should have won in their sleep and not only do they fail to win it or even qualify, but they finish DEAD LAST–behind even New Zealand.  This was a total abomination for the Azzurri, who were accused of selecting a team that was too old to win it.  Well, they were too old to win a single game.  All I can say is wow.  The ONLY reason that they are not the most disappointing team in this World Cup is because all their embarrassment was confined to their performance on the pitch.  The most disappointing, embarrassing, humiliating performance was…

1). France.  This one was pretty easy, even though Italy was terrible as well.  Not only did the French finish with one point–last in a weak Group A that included losses to both Mexico and South Africa–but they were utterly humiliated off the pitch, as well.  They had internal strife; they had walkouts at practice; they had mutinies and scandals and everything else.  They were embarrassing.  It turns out that that handball gift to Thierry Henry that got them here in the first place might have actually been a terrible thing for French football.  Their performance in this World Cup was more embarrassing than if they had failed to qualify at the hands of Ireland.  And, honestly, who better to face this humiliation than the French?  I can’t think of anyone…

So…Now Who?

Let’s be honest, if you didn’t pick Kansas in your bracket to win it all, it was for some reason aside from a belief that they were not the best team in the country.  There are plenty of respectable reasons (you were in a big pool and wanted to go the non-popular route, you thought that they had a tougher road, you just don’t like Bill Self, etc.), but if you know anything about college hoops and I gave you truth serum and said “who is the best team?” you would answer Kansas.  But, sixteen teams still have a shot at the 2010 national championship and KU is not one of them.  So, who’s the favorite now?

Instead of a Top Twelve, we’re going to do a Top Sixteen because, well, there are 16 teams left.  So, here it is–one man’s opinion of the order of the remaining teams by their chance to cut down the nets in two weeks.

16). Michigan St.  It is never, EVER a good idea to pick against Tom Izzo when talking about anything.  But, I did it in my bracket, and I’m going to do it again here.  The team was just a bit too dysfunctional even with their best player, Kalin Lucas.  But, even with a nice Sweet Sixteen draw (N. Iowa), without Lucas this team is not going to win the title.  Then again, I went against Izzo with New Mexico St., so don’t listen to me.

15). Xavier.  I love the A-10.  I think Xavier is very, very good.  I think they deserve to be here in the Sweet Sixteen.  (By the way, there are only two teams in this year’s Sweet Sixteen that are making their third straight trip to this round–and I ranked them as the two teams with the worst chances to win the title, Xavier and Michigan St.)  But, the Musketeers just aren’t that talented outside of Jordan Crawford–who is a complete stud.  And, they have a brutal road to just get out of their region, with K-State on Thursday night and maybe Syracuse on Saturday.  They really have a very long shot to win it all, but nonetheless, another great season for the X.

14). Washington.  Great job by the Huskies to beat two very solid teams and reach the Sweet Sixteen, giving the Pac-10 a little vindication after a historically poor season for the proud conference.  And, despite their 11-seed, they most certainly have the talent to be here.  However, their road through the East Regional is not going to be pretty, as they start with West Virginia and then maybe Kentucky.  I wouldn’t rule it out because of their talent, but it’ll be a big surprise if UW even makes the trip to Indianapolis, let alone wins two games while they’re there.

13). Northern Iowa.  The team that beat Kansas has a shot to ride that to being more than just a nice story.  No, I don’t think that the Panthers would beat KU in a 7-game series.  But, do I think it was a total shock that they beat the Jayhawks?  No.  They were grossly under-seeded (as I said before the first round started) and Sweet Sixteen good.  Did I think they’d get here when the brackets were announced?  Of course not, but they are this good.  And, they are good enough to win four more games–trust me.  However, the road isn’t going to be easy (despite drawing a beat-up MSU team in the Sweet Sixteen).  They still do rely heavily on the three-ball and do not have a dominant big man (I think Egelseder is a bit overrated), and they probably just won’t have the horses to cut down the nets in Indy.  But, it’s not crazy to think that they could.

12). Butler.  The Butler Bulldogs had a nice win over UTEP and then knocked off a feisty Murray St. team to get here.  Now, the level of competition just took a huge step up.  They have Syracuse on Thursday and the K-State/Xavier winner on Saturday.  I think Butler is a nice team, and probably better than some of the teams above them on this list right now, but the West Region is pretty tough right now, and I don’t think they have what it takes to even get to Indy.  Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me that much–they have won 24 straight games.

11). Purdue.  My first thought was to put them dead-last on this list.  My next thought was “if they still had Hummel, they might be FIRST on this list.”  Then, I thought, “they beat Siena and a tough Texas A&M team to get here without Hummel, so maybe he’s not Michael Jordan.”  This is still a very talented team and now they’re playing with house money.  They are still battle-tested through a tough Big Ten schedule and can still beat just about anyone in the country.  Plus, they have a bit of a soft South Regional to get through.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see them frustrate Duke and then overwhelm Baylor to get to the Final Four.  But, then again, they are missing their best player.

10). St. Mary’s.  I was as impressed by St. Mary’s as I was by any team last weekend.  They manhandled two very good teams and did it their way.  They pounded the ball down low to their legit big man, Omar Samhan, and hit jumpers when teams sagged.  They also get to go through a relatively unimpressive South Regional right now, so anything can happen.  This is the first of the 16 teams mentioned that I really feel have a legit shot at winning this tournament right now.  The first six mentioned would be a bit of a surprise, but now we’re getting to the real contenders.

9). Cornell.  After watching them play Temple and Wisconsin, how do you beat them?  No, really.  Based on the first two rounds of this thing, the Big Red should probably be #1 on this list.  But, they are still an Ivy League team.  They still just do not have the athletes that schools that can offer scholarships have.  They are still a 12-seed whose best win before last week was road win at Harvard.  But, looking at team construction, they have the pieces.  They have a legit 7-footer with size and strength.  They have two wings who will play professionally somewhere after their college careers.  And, they have 8 seniors who have been preparing for this exact moment for almost one-fifth of the time they have been on this planet.  Maybe I’m a jaded Temple fan looking for justification of the Friday debacle, but I think the Big Red can win this thing.  The whole f’ing thing.

8). Tennessee.  Talent-wise this team might be the worst team left in the field.  But, somehow, some way, their coach has got them do all the right things (as usual), and with Kansas out of this region, they have a legitimate shot to get to Indy, where anything can happen.  One win over Ohio St. in the Sweet Sixteen will almost definitely make them a favorite in the Elite Eight (against Michigan St. or N. Iowa), so who knows?  Do I think they will beat the Buckeyes?  No.  But, after the job he’s done this year, I’m starting to think that Bruce Pearl can do anything.

7). Baylor.  If you had told me that this would be the Sweet Sixteen, I would tell you that Baylor might be the favorite to win it all.  But, I watching both Baylor games, and they were not impressive.  I also saw both St. Mary’s games and the Duke-Cal game and those two teams flat-out played better than the Bears.  Yes, they are in Houston, but they will need to bring a better version of themselves to Reliant Stadium if they want to go to Indy.  Then again, they had the talent to win it all when the tournament started and they survived the first weekend, so you have to think they are still a favorite.

6). West Virginia.   And, now we get to the elite contenders for this title.  Despite the clear fraudalence of the Big East, I still think West Virginia is a championship-caliber team.  They may not like their matchup with Kentucky in the Elite Eight, but their matchup with Washington is pretty good in the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s not crazy to think that they might get Cornell in the Elite Eight.  Oh, and they do have the best clutch-scorer in the country this year in Da’Sean Butler.

5). Kansas State.  K-State hammered N. Texas and then beat a really good BYU team that was Sweet Sixteen good with a legit seed.  This Wildcat team is for real.  As much as I love the A-10 and the “little guy,” I am kind of rooting against Xavier and Butler because I cannot wait to put my feet up on Saturday and watch Syracuse – K State.  There might not be a possible matchup to which I am more looking forward.  This team is a legit title contender.

4). Kentucky.  Yes, they won by 29 and 30.  They are supremely talented.  But, it’s not the blowout games against a completely inferior team (E. Tennessee St.) or a completely dysfunctional team (Wake Forest) that is going to remind us that these guys are all freshmen.  It’s the close games.  It’s the games that are tied with 6 minutes left.  It’s the games where the opposition slows the ball down and takes them out of what they know.  It’s the games against a team like…well…Cornell.  Or West Virginia.  It wasn’t the matchups in New Orleans that should worry UK fans.  And, honestly, it might not even be the matchups in Indy.  It’s probably these matchups in Syracuse that should worry Ashley Judd and company.  Cornell can frustrate them and annoy them and make them feel the pressure.  West Virginia could also.  That is why, despite their immense talent, I think that there are three teams with a better chance of taking home the hardware this year than Kentucky.  Well, that and the fact that I’m sure these wins will be vacated eventually anyway.  And, then Calipari will somehow be hired to succeed Coach K.

3). Syracuse.  I love this Syracuse team’s chances at the title.  I have from the beginning.  But, their road is still tough.  Kansas being cleared from their half is nice, but Butler is no picnic in the Sweet Sixteen and K-State is a HUGE potential roadblock in the Elite Eight.  Nevertheless, they have the talent to beat anyone at any time.  I was very, VERY close to having them as #1, but in the end, I was just too scared of them getting out of Salt Lake City.

2). Duke.  Now, let me set the record straight here.  I do not think that Duke is one of the two best teams left in the tournament.  I also do not think that they have a great team or are playing exceptionally well right now or anything.  Nor do I want to type this at all.  But…for sake of this list and my (unfortunate) opinion, I think that Duke is probably the second most likely team to win this title.  As someone I was with said this weekend, “this just feels like the kind of year that Duke would win it.”  I have to agree, unfortunately.  Look at their draw now.  Nova–the team that beat them last year–is gone.  Baylor has been shaky.  And, their Sweet Sixteen draw is Purdue without Hummel, who is probably just happy to be here.  They have three legit rebounders, three other legit scorers, a great coach, and, as always, a very solid defense.  Unfortunately, we might be looking at another Duke championship.  God, I hope I’m wrong.

1). Ohio St.  The one thing that is probably the most important factor overlooked with all these upsets in the first two rounds is that it took the best Region and turned it completely upside-down.  Everyone was talking about how crazy tough the Midwest was when the brackets came out, but look at the four remaining teams.  Missouri Valley team and 9-seed, N. Iowa.  And, two middling big-conference teams without their best players (Lucas due to injury, Tyler Smith due to suspension).  All of a sudden, the seas parted and they’re just inviting Ohio St. to walk to Indy.  And, once they get there, they will be as big of a favorite as anyone because they will always have the best player on the floor.  All told, the team that many people had going out in the Sweet Sixteen or, at the very latest, the Elite Eight, is now the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, mostly thanks to Ohio University and the University of Northern Iowa.

Playoff Top Twelve: Head Coaches

As we finish up our week long Playoff Top Twelve, we hit the coaches.  This ranking is done based mostly upon the answer to the question:  “Who do you trust most in a playoff game?”  I have tried to encompass my thoughts on the coaches’ experience, preparation/gameplan ability, in-game scheme adjustments, motivational ability, and late-game decision-making (e.g. clock management, 4th down decisions, etc.).

This Year’s Top Twelve Playoff Coaches

12). Brad Childress – Minnesota.  (1 organization, 4 seasons, 36-28 regular season, 2 division titles, 0-1 playoffs)  I kind of like Brad Childress…kind of.  But, he is a pretty bad head coach.  He makes terrible in-game decisions, doesn’t seem to formulate any sort of inventive gameplan, and never seems like he ever has control of his team.  The way he handled the Favre thing this year from the day he left practice to personally pick him up at the airport to the day it came out that Favre wouldn’t let him bench him several times this year just shows how weak he is.  The Vikings are immensely talented this year, but they seem like a bit of a long-shot, to me, to win the Super Bowl because I just cannot trust Childress to get anything done from the sidelines (other than win a Tony Kornheiser look-a-like contest).  The Vikes would be better off with any other playoff coach calling their signals.

11). Marvin Lewis – Cincinnati.  (1 organization, 7 seasons, 56-55-1 regular season, 2 division titles, 0-1 playoffs)  I never thought all that highly of Marvin Lewis, but he has impressed me this year, with the way he has kept his team together through some off-the-field issues.  And, it is also impressive that he won 10 games and a tough division with a marginally talented squad.  However, I can’t give him a pass for the awful failures in 5 of his previous 6 seasons as Bengals head coach.  And, because of that, he still needs to prove something before I can say that I have any trust in him in the playoffs.

10). Norv Turner – San Diego.  (3 organizations, 12 seasons, 90-98-1 regular season, 4 division titles, 4-3 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship Game appearance)  Everyone rips on Norv.  And, rightfully so, in many, many ways.  Let us be honest, the guy is not a very good coach.  His gameday decisions are questionable at best, ludicrous at worst.  His preparation for a season is dreadful–just look at how San Diego always starts the year.  But, somehow, at least in this his third team, he gets the Chargers playing well in December and January.  But, then again, let’s look at some of the talent that good ole Norv has to play with out there in sunny SoCal.  My distrust of Norv is only exceeded by my trust for the talent on his team, so when Norv hoists the Lombardi Trophy this year, don’t think it is because of his brilliant coaching.

9). Rex Ryan – N.Y. Jets.  (1 organization, 1 season, 9-7 regular season, 1 wild card, 0-0 playoffs)  Ryan falls here at #9 because I have absolutely no idea what to think of him as a head coach.  So, he’s a zero.  I see the first three guys as negatives, and the next 8 as positives.  Plus, I am impressed with Ryan’s ability to make the playoffs with a rookie QB and an incompetent set of receivers.  He has built an amazing defense up there, so I like the direction in which he is taking the Jets, and I kind of have to root for him, as the son of the great Buddy, so #9 sounds about right.

8). Wade Phillips – Dallas.  (5 organizations, 10 seasons, 81-54 regular season, 2 division titles, 3 wild cards, 0-4 playoffs)  Personally, I think Wade gets too much flack for his coaching.  Everywhere the guy has been, he has won…in the regular season.  Then, I think about the teams that he has had and the fact that he has still never won a playoff game, and I think–maybe everyone’s right about Wade.  Well, I’m giving Wade one more chance.  If the Eagles go in there and beat Dallas on Saturday, then I will officially join the “Wade sucks” bandwagon.  Let’s hope that happens.

7). Ken Whisenhunt – Arizona.  (1 organization, 3 seasons, 27-21 regular season, 2 division titles, 3-1 playoffs, 1 NFC Championship Game appearance, 1 Super Bowl appearance)  I guess it’s impressive that Whisenhunt has taken a notoriously awful franchise and turned them into a winner, almost overnight.  So, that’s good.  And, I do think that he seems to have a good sense of his team and a really good understanding of the game of football (which is surprisingly lost on WAY too many of the 32 head coaches in this league).  However, there is just something about the last three Cardinals teams with Whisenhunt at the helm that irks me.  It’s the inconsistency.  One week, they look unbeatable, and the next, they look like the old Cardinals.  Now, granted, last year the “unbeatableness” came at just the right time, so I guess if that happens again this year, you have to say that Whisenhunt knows when to hit the pedal, but I’m going to wait for that to happen before proclaiming him a great, trustable coach.

6). Mike McCarthy – Green Bay  (1 organization, 4 seasons, 38-26 regular season, 1 division title, 1 wild card, 1-1 playoffs, 1 NFC Championship Game appearance)  I guess McCarthy is one of those coaches that you don’t really think about, but you’d have to consider pretty solid, right?  He’s been in Green Bay for 4 years.  The first one was just miserable because Favre looked completely washed up.  Then, the next year, they won 13 games and went to OT in the NFC Championship Game.  Then, last year, again Favre derailed the season, with all those distractions and the breaking in of a new quarterback.  And, then this year, they look like a powerhouse again.  I never think of McCarthy as a really good coach, but I guess he’s kind of on his way to becoming one, right?  Either way, I think he does a good job, and I would trust him to coach my team in a playoff game.

5). Jim Caldwell – Indianapolis.  (1 organization, 1 season, 14-2 regular season, 1 division title, 0-0 playoffs)  This one is tough.  The reason Wade Phillips, and his .600 winning percentage is all the way down at #8 is because he hasn’t won a playoff game.  Well, Caldwell hasn’t either, so it’s hard to make a case that you can really “trust” him in the playoffs yet.  However, I think that he is a no-brainer selection for Coach of the Year this year, and I think it’s probably time we start taking just a little of the mounds and mounds of praise we give to Peyton Manning for this season and give some over to the coach.  I’m not going to get into what I think about his decision to rest people and whatnot, but let’s just remember that this man has still never lost a game in which he played his starters–EVER.  So, until he, well, loses, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I probably could have ranked him even higher, but he is, after all, still a rookie.

4). John Harbaugh – Baltimore.  (1 organization, 2 seasons, 20-12 regular season, 2 wild cards, 2-1 playoffs, 1 AFC Championship Game appearance)  If you told me, two years ago before he was hired to be the successor to Brian Billick, that I would rank John Harbaugh as the 4th best coach in the 2010 playoffs, I would have said you were crazy, unless the list was limited to the best special teams coaches.  But, no, Harbaugh has done a phenomenal job in both of his 2 seasons at the helm in Baltimore.  He inspires the team; he trusts them; and, he gameplans around the weaknesses to take full advantage of their strengths.  He has made the playoffs two years in a row with an inexperienced quarterback, in a tough division.  And, last year, they were only a play or two away from going to the Super Bowl.  Yes, this guy can flat-out coach.

3). Sean Payton – New Orleans.  (1 organization, 4 seasons, 38-26 regular season, 2 division titles, 1-1 playoffs, 1 NFC Championship Game appearance)  I have, in the past, been accused of being way too high on Sean Payton, so maybe this is just another example of that, but I think he is a fantastic coach.  I know that he missed the playoffs in two of his first three seasons in New Orleans, but let’s not forget that it is the SAINTS.  His offensive gameplans gave me nightmares when he was with the Giants, and he has brought that ability to New Orleans with him.  Plus, he seems like a guy that the players trust and respect to the fullest.  Except for the two playoff coaches with a generation of playoff experience and success, Payton is the best coach in this year’s playoffs, in my opinion.

2). Andy Reid – Philadelphia.  (1 organization, 11 seasons, 108-67-1 regular season, 5 division titles, 3 wild cards, 10-7 playoffs, 5 NFC Championship Game appearances, 1 Super Bowl appearance)  Say what you will about his clock management or his run-pass balance or his tendency to lay an egg against a really bad team once a year or even his inability to win a title with a load of talent.  Please say it.  We’ve all heard it all, and yet, Andy Reid is back again with the Eagles at 11-5 and a team that nobody really wants to face in the playoffs.  Yes, they blew a chance at the #2 seed and maybe even the NFC Championship Game at home, but this team is still rolling.  And, they are rolling despite having all of their healthy offensive weapons, save the quarterback, under 24 years old.  They are still rolling despite having several disastrous injuries on the offensive line and a complete patchwork of a linebacking corps.  They are still rolling despite the offseason personnel decision to get rid of their only emotional leader on the defensive side of the ball.  Yes, Reid drives me absolutely nuts on Sundays.  He makes terrible game-day decisions and STILL does not understand anything about a 2-minute drill.  He may be the worst NFL coach on Sundays.  But, I would argue that he is one the best of all-time from Monday to Saturday.  The guy is amazing at gameplanning and scheming.  He is phenomenal at handling his players and working them so incredibly hard in August, before giving them loads and loads of rest in November, so that they are ALWAYS peaking in December and January.  With maybe one exception, there is no one that I would rather have calling the shots for my team from Monday to Saturday than Andy Reid.  And, I think that that makes up for his glaring weaknesses on game day.

1). Bill Belichick – New England.  (2 organizations, 15 seasons, 148-92 regular season, 7 division titles, 15-4 playoffs, 4 AFC Championship Game appearances, 4 Super Bowl appearances, 3 Super Bowl titles)  This was the easiest choice of the week.  3 Super Bowl titles for a team that was a laughingstock before he got there.  I don’t like Belichick.  I think he’s arrogant; I think he’s self-absorbed; I think he’s mean-spirited.  But, he is one hell of a football coach.  And, there is no doubt that he is the best in these playoffs, and he’s almost inarguably the best of my generation.