Getting Hot at the Right Time?

After an up-and-down non-conference season, the Temple Owls have started the Atlantic 10 season 3-1.  They beat a mediocre LaSalle team and then lost at UMass, but the last two games, they have registered impressive 25- and 27-point home victories over a solid St. Louis team and a struggling, but talented Charlotte team.  Both of these wins showed strong signs of a team that may be hitting its stride–not just because they were lopsided victories, but because both wins featured three things that the Owls will desperately need going into the meat of their conference schedule:  defense, and scoring from guys not named after a holiday in December.

Thursday night, the Owls held Rick Majerus’s Billikens to 40 points on 29% shooting.  They outrebounded St. Louis 38-22 in the 65-40 win, including 7 each from Lavoy Allen and Dionte Christmas and 6 off the bench from Sergio Olmos.  Not only did the Owls’ big men dominate the boards,  but they also contributed most of the scoring.  Allen led the team with 16 points (on 8-10 from the field).  The biggest surprise of the year, Craig Williams, chipped in with 11 (4-6) and Michael Eric, the big Nigerian with a soft touch added 7 points off the bench.  Yes, Christmas left the game for good with 13 minutes to play, but it is still a good sign that the bigs are getting involved because come March, the Owls will need inside scoring to return to The Dance.

All these promising trends continued Saturday night, as the Owls registered a sixth win in their last seven games.  Again, the defense led the way, holding Charlotte to their second-lowest scoring output of the year in an 80-53 win at the Liacouras Center.  This was the second straight game that the Owls held an opponent under 30% from the field.  It was also the second straight game that the Owls big men dominated and the team was led in scoring by someone other than the A-10’s leading scorer, Dionte Christmas, who teams are obviously trying to bottle up.  Lavoy Allen had 16 points and 10 rebounds; Craig Williams added 7 and 8; and Sergio Olmos scored 6 points in only 13 minutes off the bench.  Plus, the Owls received a great game from point guard Semaj Inge, who recorded 19 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and only 2 turnovers in 32 minutes against an athletic, aggressive defensive team.

The Owls, who have a bubblicious 49-RPI right now, will need to keep all these positives going, as they enter a 6-game stretch starting Wednesday night at 13-7 Rhode Island.  After that, they return home to face 11-8 Richmond on Saturday.  Then on February 5, they travel to 17-2 Xavier (#4 RPI) and return home for another date with URI.  Finally, they end this brutal stretch of six straight winning teams with road tests at 11-7 St. Joe’s and 13-6 Duquesne.  If the Owls can win four or five of these games and don’t falter against the bottom of the conference, they may put themselves in the discussion for an at-large bid, but it is going to take a continued effort from the bigs on the offensive end and the glass, and everyone on defense.  But, the signs are all there.

Ps…Get used to seeing this guy.  He’s the new Argentinian point guard, Juan Fernandez, who only arrived in country about four weeks ago, but is tall, extremely athletic, strong with the ball, and totally fearless.  He may be the proverbial “X-factor” down the stretch for the Owls.  He plays the game with a fire that has been noticeably missing from this year’s team with the graduation of Mark Tyndale.

Yes, I Care…A Lot

I know I’m one of only 17 people in this country not named McEnroe who care about professional tennis, but it is certainly in my “Big Four” sports (MLB, NFL, NCAA basketball, and the ATP).  The Australian Open is always so incredibly interesting, being the first major of the year, usually played in extreme heat in front of raucous late-night crowds of sports-loving, beer-loving Aussies.  It is also the only major that does not closely precede or succeed another major on a different surface.  The players get revved up for the hardcourts in New York in September and then have the entire winter (barring any Davis Cup matches) to keep their “hardcourt legs” under them to play the Australian Open.  Plus, it is almost four months before the French Open, so no one is looking ahead to the clay court season.  It is all about the hardcourts and starting off one’s season on the right foot, so to speak.  Plus, you can throw in the fact that it takes place when only two NFL teams are still playing, spring training has yet to start, the NBA is still in the first half of its marathon season, and college hoops is good, but just beginning its crescendo to March.  For all these reasons, the Australian Open is my favorite major of the year.  And, it has NOT disappointed this year, in any way.

Check out these Round of 16 matchups, leading into the quarterfinals:

  • #1 Rafael Nadal vs. #13 Fernando Gonzalez – The #1 player in the world has been absolutely phenomenal so far, and Gonzalez has struggled through two 5-setters so far.  But, Gonzo, a finalist here two years ago, is supremely talented and he is just learning the importance of “heart.”
  • #6 Gilles Simon vs. #12 Gael Monfils – Two young, exciting, and extremely athletic Frenchmen will play for the right–probably–to play Nadal in the quarters.  These two are big parts of the “next wave” of great players
  • #4 Andy Murray vs. #14 Fernando Verdasco – This might be the “Year of Murray,” but watch out, as Verdasco has been playing very well, and he has the experience to pull the upset if Murray isn’t careful
  • #5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. #9 James Blake – Tsonga, last year’s surprise finalist, was hampered with injuries.  But, now he seems healthy and is ready to return to the forefront of men’s tennis.  But, Blake is always a tough out on hardcourts and is playing with a lot of confidence right now.
  • #7 Andy Roddick vs. #21 Tommy Robredo – I took too long to post this, and now this side of the draw is complete, but this match was not that big of a surprise, as Roddick rolled over Robredo.  Roddick is now 10-0 against Robredo in his career and has only dropped one set to the talented Spaniard.  Roddick is looking strong, but the toughest is still to come.
  • #3 Novak Djokovic vs. Marcos Baghdatis – Baghdatis, the only unseeded player to make the Round of 16, is hardly your typical “qualifier,” and he showed that in taking Djokovic to 4 sets–losing a tough tiebreaker in the second, before winning the third, but falling short in the fourth.  Djokovic and Roddick’s quarterfinal collision course is now set–it is going to be fantastic.
  • #8 Juan-Martin Del Potro vs. #19 Marin Cilic – Two BIG-hitting 20-year olds that are the core of the “next wave.”  The 6’8″ Del Potro was just a little too tough for Cilic, but both players have a VERY bright future ahead of themselves.
  • #2 Roger Federer vs. #20 Tomas Berdych – In, what looked to be the shocker of the men’s draw, Berdych took the first two sets–rather convincingly–from “The Federer,” but in majestic fashion, as always, Federer roared back and won in 5.  It could have been different had Berdych made one of two easy volleys that would have given him a 5-3 lead in the third set.  He would have forced Federer to hold and break to avoid losing in straights.  But, the Czech tightened up and dumped them both into the net, ended up being broken and lost the last three sets.  In the round before, Federer looked like the 2007 version as he dismantled a very game Marat Safin, in straights.

MY 4th ROUND PREDICTIONS: 

  • Nadal beats an exhausted Gonzalez easily in straights
  • Murray drops at least one set, but outlasts Verdasco
  • Blake upsets Tsonga in 5 (now that he has gotten over the 5-set hurdle)
  • Simon capitalizes on a lot of errors from a game Monfils to win in straights
  • Federer, Djokovic, Roddick, and Del Potro have already won

MY QUARTERFINAL PREDICTIONS:

  • Nadal overmatches Simon, wins in straight sets
  • Murray beats a tired Blake in straight sets
  • Rod Laver Arena is just too big for the 20-year old Del Potro, as he loses to Federer in straights
  • Roddick upsets Djokovic in a 5-set thriller (I know it seems that I am too pro-American with the Roddick and Blake picks, but I really am not.  I actually usually pick against the “homeboys,” but I think that it actually looks good for Blake and Roddick in their next matches)

MY SEMIFINAL PREDICTIONS:

  • Nadal, after dropping the first set, turns on the jets and cruises past Murray to win in 4
  • Roddick throws everything he’s got, but it’s only good enough to take one set from The Federer

MY FINAL PREDICTION:

  • Federer beats Nadal in yet another INCREDIBLE match.  A five-setter that puts Federer in the record books, as tying Pete Sampras’s 14 Grand Slam titles.  This is a tough one because I think that if Federer needs more than 7 sets to win in the quarters and semis, he might not have enough to outlast the Spaniard.

Where are the “Suitors?”

We are now a little over three weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting, and check out the list of free agents who are still UNSIGNED:

  • Manny Ramirez – Yes, we all know his weird personality and all the baggage, but wasn’t this guy THE BEST PLAYER IN BASEBALL in the second half of the year last year, including the playoffs?  Maybe I don’t understand statistics, but I think hitting over .396 in a two-month span and .500 in the playoffs means you’re pretty good.  Oh, and he’s a power hitter.
  • Bobby Abreu – Granted, I am biased because I love Bobby Abreu.  But, the numbers are objective.  1946 hits, 454 doubles, 53 triples, 241 HRs, 1,084 RBIs, 1,174 runs scored, 318 stolen bases, a .300 batting average, a .405 on-base percentage, and a .491 slugging percentage.  He is only 34, and had a steady season last year right in line with those career numbers.  He gets a bad rap for his defense, but that is only because he won an undeserving Gold Glove in 2005.  He is certainly NOT a butcher out there.  He has a rocket arm and is quick to the ball, he just doesn’t ever go near the fence.  Dare I say it, he is a much better fit for the Phillies than Raul Ibanez–oops, my bad.
  • Ben Sheets – When healthy, he is a certifiable front-end starter.  Yes, he has injury issues, but any more than A.J. Burnett?
  • Adam Dunn – I agree, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think “Adam Dunn” is “strikeout.”  But…the guy has hit 40 HRs in each of the last four years and has had an on-base percentage higher than .385 in four of the last five years.  That’s pretty good for a guy out of work.
  • Oliver Perez – Again, you don’t think “superstar” when you hear his name, but Oliver Perez is the type of guy that usually gets like a 6-year, $70 million contract on the open market.  He’s a lefty with a proven track record.  At the very worst, he should be no less valuable than guys like Carlos Silva (4 years, $48 million) or Gil Meche (5 years, $55 million).
  • Randy Wolf – I guess when you’re a poor man’s Oliver Perez and Oliver Perez is out of work, that means that you’re probably out of work too.  It just doesn’t make sense to me.
  • Orlando Hudson – A good switch-hitting, defensively capable secondbaseman.  And, he is out of work.  At worst, he would be an upgrade for half the major league teams out there, probably more like three-quarters.
  • And, there are plenty of others that could help any team from Pittsburgh to the Yankees.

Cimorelli’s Question of the Day: Available NFL Coaches

Has the NFL head coach “free agent pool” ever been this strong? 

Check out the accomplishment of some of the coaches that do not have NFL head coaching  jobs right now:

  • 4 guys that are clearly “looking for work” (as a head coach) have WON Super Bowls (Billick, Gruden, Martz, Shanahan)
  • 4 more guys that have WON Super Bowls are not actively looking for head coaching positions, but could probably be talked into–or paid enough to consider–taking one (Cowher, Holmgren, Reeves, Seifert)
  • 3 more guys that would clearly take a head coaching position have won conference titles (Callahan, Fassel, Ross)
  • 4 more guys that have won Super Bowls are probably still young and healthy enough to coach, but are choosing not to (Dungy, Gibbs, Johnson, Parcells)
  • And, 1 more guy is out there who not only won a Super Bowl, but an NCAA national championship also, who would be looking for work, if he didn’t SUCK as a coach (Switzer)

Cimorelli’s Question of the Day: James Harden

Is James Harden the Best College Basketball Player that No One Has Ever Heard Of?

I say that unless no one has ever heard of Blake Griffin, yes, Harden is the best.  I just got DVR, so I have been able to watch a lot of college hoops (also, trying to forget about the upcoming Super Bowl), and James Harden, the Arizona State sophomore that very few people have ever heard of, has been THE reason that I have watched a couple Sun Devil games this year.  In the win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion last Saturday, he absolutely looked like an NBA player in a college game.  If you get a chance to watch an ASU game (maybe Boot can lend you a ticket or two, if you’re in the area), do it.  Trust me, that one guy is worth the price of admission/space on your TiVo.

The March Continues

giantWell, let’s remind ourselves to enjoy this. It had already been the best sports year for Philly fans in a generation, and now we have the events of the last few weeks.  Not only do the Eagles find themselves in the NFC Championship Game, but the script couldn’t have been written any better.  They embarrass the Cowboys in a winner-take-all (ok, winner-take-#6-seed) showdown in the final game of the regular season.  In the Divisional Round, they go to the Meadowlands and beat up on the Giants, and now they get a very beatable Cardinal team, with a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line.  It’s been perfect, thus far.

Before I get to my keys for the NFC Championship game, let’s take a quick look back at some thoughts on last week’s win:

-I loved that the Eagles came out running the ball, even with the wind at their backs.  Have to keep defenses honest.

-The vaunted Giants pass rush did not sack McNabb once in their 3 meetings this year.  That’s the first time ever (since the sack became a stat) that a team didn’t register any sacks against a team they played 3 times in a season.  The injury to Justin Tuck certainly helped.

-How about the Eagles running a successful two-minute drill at the end of the 1st half?  With 1:24 on the clock and 1 timeout, they took the ball from their own 25, all the way to the Giants 7-yard line for a chip shot field goal as time expired.  That was very encouraging, and something that could really come in handy this week.

-Here’s hoping that Plaxico Burress parts ways with the Giants.  It’s amazing how much impact a great wide receiver can have on an entire offense.  The Eagles know that all too well from what T.O. did for them four years ago.  When teams have to focus so much on one receiver, it opens things up for EVERY other skill player on the field.

-I think I enjoyed looking at Eli in the final minutes of the game a little too much. It’s not right to take so much pleasure in other people’s pain, is it?  Oh well, that was great.

And with that, onto my Keys for the Game against Arizona on Sunday:fitzgerald

-Contain Larry Fitzgerald:  This may seem like the ultimate no-brainer when going against the Cardinals (especially with Anquan Boldin hobbled, if he even plays), but the Panthers weren’t able to do it at all last week.  As I mentioned above, a great wide receiver can make all the difference in the world for an offense.  I’ve read and heard numerous NFL experts out there that are ready to give Fitzgerald the mantle of “Best Receiver on the Planet”.  He may not have elite speed, but he is elite in every other aspect that a receiver can be.  He’s the best I’ve ever seen (topping Randy Moss) at coming down with jump balls.  The guy is a force of nature, and the Eagles will need to keep him marked with two defensive backs at ALL times.

-Put Kurt Warner on the ground:  Jim Johnson will have his boys gunning for the Cardinal quarterback, and they need to get to him and put hits on him.  This will go a long way towards keeping Fitzgerald in check and could also lead to turnovers, as Warner is famously prone to fumbles.

-Don’t turn the ball over:  I think the Eagles are the better team in this matchup.  Their defense has been dominant and the main thing the offense needs to do in this game is take care of the ball.  The Cardinals forced 6 turnovers last week, but this isn’t a fearsome defense.  If McNabb, Westbrook, and company just play a solid game, they should be able to put enough points on the board to take the W.  The Eagle defense looks ready and able to carry the team to the conference title, the offense just needs to keep the defense out of short-field situations. 

I’m not discounting the Cardinals, or saying that the Eagles are suddenly unbeatable, but I just think the match-ups really favor the Eagles in this one.  The Cardinals are a pass-heavy team with an immobile quarterback, which is just the type of offense that Jim Johnson defenses tend to dominate.  I’m not expecting a blowout like on Thanksgiving night, especially with the game being in Arizona, but I’ll take the Eagles by a score similar to their first two playoff wins this year, let’s call it 24-13.

Cimorelli’s Question of the Day

Does it seem a bit surreal that the Eagles are playing in the NFC Championship game on Sunday?

To me, it does.  Maybe because they were 5-5-1 after tying the Bengals.  Maybe because, just over a month ago, we had all resigned ourselves the Kevin Kolb Era beginning in Philadelphia.  Maybe because they need multiple miracles in Week 17 just to get into the playoffs.  Maybe because the Vikings win was somewhat expected, and the Giants win seemed more about what the Giants couldn’t do then it was about what the Eagles could do (which is a total mirage because this defense is playing as well as anyone right now–more on that in a later post).  Maybe because they play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, so it does not have the feel of an NFC Championship game.  I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t seem real.  And, trust me, I’m not complaining. 

The 3 straight losses in NFC Championship games were devastating.  There are six sports defeats in my lifetime that really rocked me to the core of my existence.  And, two of them were in consecutive years–the losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina.  Those games were done-deals.  Those games were just stepping stones to the Super Bowl.  And, those games were both lost in devastating fashion.

I was out of the country for 2004.  The only game I saw all year in English was the Championship game against the Falcons.  I followed the season online, got to a computer to watch the gamecast of the Vikings divisional round game, saw the Falcons game on Armed Forces network, and had to watch the Super Bowl in a rural African hotel that just happened to get the Super Bowl on French TV.  I was not as invested in that Super Bowl as most of you reading this right now, so it did not hurt me like some of the others.

This game coming up against the Cardinals is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my sports fandom.  It is a game that, because of the circumstances and the happenings of the season, I never, EVER expected.  And, if it were any other year, it would be nice just to get here.  But, this year gives us the Arizona Cardinals.  So, with my feeling of the proverbial “playing with house money” is a strange combination of “there’s no way we lose this, right?”  I have never had a “no way we lose this, right?” at the same time as “how did we ever get here?”

It is just all so surreal, and honestly, it kind of scares me because a loss will not be the same devastation as those awful, awful days against Tampa and Carolina, but it will be a totally different devastation–one for which I may or may not be prepared.  Let’s hope it’s a moot point.

The Best Weekend in Football

Other than a couple weekend in March, the weekend of the NFL divisional playoffs is by far my favorite sports weekend of the year.  The Wild Card round is also fantastic, but there is nothing like having four teams who won last week facing four other teams that earned a week off last week.  The rivalries usually come through (this year is certainly no exception) and there is usually at least one interesting David vs. Goliath matchups.  The Super Bowl is in view, but still far enough away, so that there is real intrigue thinking about the possibilities.  And, best of all, we get back-to-back days of seven straight hours of pure American Football.  So, let me see if I can give quick breakdowns of the four fantastic games this weekend.

Saturday, 4:30:  Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans
I live in Baltimore, and this city is ridiculous when it comes to the Ravens.  I have found that the fans here are blindly supportive of their purple and black–VERY supportive and VERY blind.  I am going to stop now because this could be its own weblog.  Anyway, back to the game.  The Ravens are a team that I really would not want to play at any point right now.  I think the Titans got a really bad draw with Baltimore coming to town.  The Ravens defense is as good as it has been since the Super Bowl team, and their offense is capable of sustaining drives and giving that defense just the little bit of rest it needs.  I think they will be able to stop the Titans and make enough big plays (be it offense or defense) to score the points to win the game.  The team believes in Harbaugh, and more importantly, the team believes in Flacco.  Plus, look at the Ravens five losses this year–2 close, controversial losses to Pittsburgh, a very close loss to Tennessee, and losses at the Giants and at Indy.  No disrespect to the Titans, who have had a fantastic season, but I think that the Ravens will win this game, somewhat easily.
FINAL SCORE:  Baltimore 23 – Tennessee 13

Saturday, 8:30:  Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
I probably give the Cardinals more of a chance in this game than most people.  A lot of talk has been circulating about how bad the Cardinals were when they came to the east coast.  Now, yes, they 0-5 in the eastern time zone this year.  And, yes, two of those games were debacles in front of national audiences in the final five weeks of the season, but let us look closer at the five games they lost on the east coast this year.  Four of the five losses were in games played at 1:00, Eastern (10am, Pacific time), and the other one was on four days’ rest against a desperate Eagles team on Thanksgiving night.  Two of the games (at Washington in Week 3 when they were playing very well and at Carolina in Week8) were close games against very good teams decided in the fourth quarter.  And, the two worst performances were Week 4 (the game after Washington) against the Jets, after they had decided to stay all week on the East Coast and the Week 16 disaster against the Patriots in the snow.  Of the five teams that they played on the east coast, none has losing records, two of the five are still playing this weekend, and another one was 11-5 in the regular season.  All that being said, I think the Cardinals have a good chance to pull the big upset today.  The weather will be decent in Carolina, and the game is at 5:30 Pacific time.  Because of all of this, I would have picked the Cardinals to win this game and break up the Panthers undefeated home season…….except Anquan Boldin may not play at all and certainly will not be at 100%.  Because of this, I think that the Panthers will get enough offense from their backs and their superhuman wide receiver, Steve Smith, to pull it out in the end.
FINAL SCORE:  Carolina 27 – Arizona 24

Sunday, 1:00:  Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
New life.  It is amazing that the Eagles are still playing.  It is amazing that they have a legitimate chance to end the Giants title defense.  It is amazing that a group of players that looked on the downside of their careers just before Thanksgiving (Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Brian Dawkins, John Runyan, Tra Thomas, etc.) are playing some of their best football just after New Year’s.  This game is going to be a true NFC East WAR, especially when the Giants have the ball.  They will try and pound the ball down the throats of the Eagles, and the Eagles’ defense will try and push right back.  The one wildcard in this game is the health of Brandon Jacobs.  He tore up the Eagles in their first meeting and through the first quarter and a half of the second meeting, but then left with injury.  If he is able to control the game, the Giants should be able to make enough plays.  However, the Eagles defense is playing as well (if not better) than it has in the Jim Johnson Era (I wanted to write a blog on this, but didn’t want to jinx it).  Stewart Bradley, in only his second season, is playing well enough to evoke the names of Jeremiah Trotter and Byron Evans.  Quentin Mikell has emerged as one of the most underrated strong safeties in the league.  The combination of Bunkley and Patterson at D-tackle have been stout.  Darren Howard is finally living up to the contract he signed, and Trent is a flat-out stud at defensive end.  The cornerbacks are, obviously, phenomenal.  And, the best sign of all is the inspired resurgence of a future Hall of Fame free safety, Brian Dawkins.  B-Dawk, my favorite all-time Eagle, is playing a level we have not seen in 4-5 years.  On the other side, the Giants have question marks.  Is Jacobs healthy?  Can Eli really move the ball without Plaxico (who used to absolutely KILL the Eagles)?  Is Justin Tuck and the rest of the D-line even close to healthy (they have gotten very little pressure recently, and their depth is being called into question)?  Yes, the Eagles have been inconsistent, but I think they (as it stands now) are the better football team.  If the Giants had a healthy Tuck, Jacobs, and Burress, I would pick them to win this game by at least a touchdown, but they are not healthy.  Plax isn’t playing, and the Eagles have the exact je ne sais quoi that the Giants had last year.
FINAL SCORE:  Philadelphia 20 – New York 17

Sunday, 4:00:  San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers
New Life.  The Chargers are dangerous, just like the Eagles, because they are playing with the preverbial “house money.”  And, if this game were being played anywhere but Pittsburgh, I would give the Chargers a decent shot to pull off the upset.  However, I think that at home (with great fans), the Steelers team is just too good, especially without a healthy Tomlinson on the other side.  As good as Sproles looked last week against the Colts, it was, after all, not the Steelers.  Sproles relies on his incredible speed and acceleration to break big plays, but there are two things working against him in this game.  One is the Steelers’ defense–the fastest defense I have ever seen.  The other is the field, which has terrible traction and is very difficult to make cuts and explode.  The Steelers should wrap up Sproles, and I am pretty confident that Michael Bennett (cut by Seattle earlier this year) will not win this game for them.  Rivers has been, arguably, one of the best two or three QBs in the league this year, and will probably play well, but cannot carry this team over this defense.  I think the Steelers defense will put on a show on Sunday, and move on to the AFC Championship Game.
FINAL SCORE:  Pittsburgh 27 – San Diego 10

Keys for the Birds

mcnabb vikesSo the Eagles are on to the Divisional Round to face the hated Giants in what should be a frigid Giants Stadium on Sunday.  The game against the Vikings last week was one of the most predictable games imaginable.  If you asked before the game what I expected to happen, I’d have probably said,  “Both defenses will play solidly, Peterson and Westbrook will both break a long touchdown, Tarvaris Jackson will throw a killer pick, and the Eagles will win by about 10 points because they’re slightly better on defense and much better at QB.” 

Also predictable was the way Andy and Brad Childress attempted to manage the clock at the end of the first half.  It was like watching two blind guys match up in a chess match.

Anyway, here are my BSB Keys to the Game for the Birds on Sunday:

1. Keep the Giants running game in check:  I know, I know, Eli won a Super Bowl last year.  I noticed.  But when I think of what scares me about playing the Giants this week, the thought of Eli going deep to Domenick Hixon isn’t really jacobsone of the first things that comes to mind.  Now more than ever (thanks Plax!), their offense is driven by the ground game.  The scary thoughts I have involve Brandon Jacobs taking 6 yards at a time up the middle, and Derrick Ward coming off-tackle for 15. 

Luckily, this Eagles defensive unit is one of the best Jim Johnson has had at stopping the run.  Bunkley and Patterson are clogging the middle, the linebackers’ strength has been run-stopping and, of course, there’s always Mr. Dawkins coming up to the line and flinging his body haphazardly at opposing backs.  Johnson will need to temper his blitzing tendencies a bit, and Stewart Bradley and Chris Gocong will need to have big days.

2. Contain the Giants pass rush:  Of course, the other strength of the Giants is attacking the quarterback, and the Eagles struggled in protecting McNabb last week.  Along with Jacobs and Ward, the third player popping up in my visions is Justin Tuck (luckily, both Jacobs and Tuck are hurting, but should be ok for the game).  Tuck’s a monster, and Steve Spagnuolo will be sending his boys after Donovan in this game.  With Shawn Andrews out and Jon Runyan banged up, the Eagles O-Line is not looking too great, and the unit will definitely be a key to the game.

3. Don’t fall behind early:  This will be important for two reasons.  It will prevent the crowd from getting too much into the game and, more importantly, it will prevent Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg from giving up on the run.  If the Eagles are willing and able to continue handing the ball off to Westbrook and Buckhalter, the Giant defense will not be able to attack as much as they would like, and that will go a long way toward attaining Key #2.  In their win at Giants Stadium last month, the Eagles were able to keep a slim lead throughout and put it away in the 4th quarter.  They’ll most likely need to repeat that scenario this week.

An Idea for Playoff Seeding

Due to the lopsided divisions in both conferences this season and a team like the 11-5 Patriots missing the playoffs, there has been a lot of talk about changing the playoff format.  Some people have called for seeding based solely on record, while others have said that a team should have to have a winning record to get a playoff berth.  Someone else has probably thought of the idea I’ve come up with, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. 

In my plan, the criteria for making the playoffs stays exactly the same.  I think the rivalries that arise from the division format are great, and that each division champ has to get a berth, no matter how bad their record may be.  However, I would make a change to the seeding process.  I would seed each team according to record, with a couple exceptions.  First, a team must win their division to get a first-round bye.  In other words, if the two best records in the conference are in the same division, the second-place team would get the #3 seed.  Also, the first tie-breaker would be whether or not a team won their division, with the next tie-breakers following as currently used.

Under this format, the seedings this season would look like this:

AFC: 1. Tennessee, 2. Pittsburgh, 3. Indianapolis, 4. Miami, 5. Baltimore, 6. San Diego

NFC: 1. New York, 2. Carolina, 3. Atlanta, 4. Minnesota, 5. Philadelphia, 6. Arizona