Quick Hits on a Friday Afternoon

-I get the frustration with the Eagles front office and with Andy Reid after the loss to the Packers, but I don’t really get all of the frustration that there seems to be among fans with regards to the defensive coordinator job.  People are mad that they didn’t know who would replace McDermott when they fired him.  If they felt like McDermott wasn’t getting the job done (which they obviously did), then they absolutely should have fired him.  Now, before criticizing them, let’s see who they hire.  And before criticizing THAT hire, we should probably see how the defense performs next season.  In any event, I though Phil Sheridan’s Inquirer article today hit the nail on the head.

-Speaking of new Eagles coaches, the hiring of Jim Washburn as the new defensive line coach has received near-unanimous praise.  The comments from his former players say a ton.  Albert Haynesworth:  “If my deal was $100 million or whatever, then Washburn deserves $90 million.”

-Though I still think the Cardinals will find a way to keep Albert Pujols, it’s starting to look more and more possible that the best player of this generation might be changing teams.  I’m sure that has fans of just about every team in the league pondering how they can get him onto their roster, and I’m right there with them.  How about this: Ryan Howard for Pujols.  Howard is a St. Louis native who would be going home as a hometown hero, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s a former MVP winner still in his prime that’s hit more home runs than anyone in the game since he came into the league.  Why would the Cards do that trade?  Because they obviously don’t want to let Albert walk for nothing, and how can you sell your fans on trading the best player in the game for prospects, especially when the team is in contention every year?  True, Howard also has a massive contract, but his deal pays him $25 million per year and $125 million total.  Pujols will be looking for a 10 year/$300 million deal, which just might be more than the Cardinals can afford.  But who can afford that deal?  Your Philadelphia Phillies.  Especially if they’re moving that Howard deal off the books.  And you know those concerns we have about a right-handed bat?  You think Mr. Pujols may solve that problem to some extent?  Ok, ok, this isn’t going to happen.  But let me dream!  We’ll throw in a prospect too, Cards!

-A note on a couple of A-10 hoopsters who haven’t gotten any national notice but are playing real well: Richmond’s Justin Harper, who I mentioned as an honorable mention in my list of the Top 15 Big Men, would definitely be on that list if I made it again.  Over the last 8 games he’s averaging just under 24 points, and he’s 27 for 48 from 3 in those games, which is a mere 56%.  Not bad for a 6-10 forward that’s also averaging 7 boards a game.  Temple’s Khalif Wyatt probably hasn’t earned national recognition yet, but he’s on his way.  The sophomore from Norristown has stepped up in the absence of Juan Fernandez (knee injury) and is averaging 17 points over the last 5 games.  He’s hit 14 of 28 3’s in that stretch, and twice had six assists in a game.

-With the run of Rex Ryan’s Jets to the AFC title game, there was a fair amount of talk on WIP about his dad, Buddy.  I knew Buddy was the architect of the legendary ’85 Bears defense and the Eagles’ Gang Green defenses of my childhood, but I decided to look into his career a little bit and saw that he also spent a couple years as defensive coordinator of the Vikings in the 70’s, for the defenses known as the Purple People Eaters.  The guy was a defensive genius.  Too bad he wasn’t entirely cut out to be a head coach.

-The one good thing to come out of the life and times of Bernie Madoff continues to be his impact on his favorite baseball team, as it’s looking more and more like the Mets ownership (and ability to spend) will be negatively affected by ongoing lawsuits and allegations.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

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…

2011 BSB NFL Playoff Challenge: Scenarios

I tried this last year, and I think it worked, so I am going to try and give the scenarios for the Challenge winner here, depending on how these final 7 games turn out.  Here is what I came up with (the numbers in parentheses are the chances, out of 16, that that entry would win given the named Super Bowl champion):

If New England wins the Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Teddy (13), Waters (3)

  • Teddy wins if(1-4) Atl wins NFC; (5-8) GB wins NFC; (9-12) Sea wins NFC; (13) Chi wins NFC, GB beats Atl, and Bal beats Pit
  • Waters wins if(1-2) Chi wins NFC and Sea beats GB; (3) Chi wins NFC, GB beats Sea, and Pit beats Bal

If Atlanta win Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Alexi (8), Teddy (3), Alex (3), Waters (1), Bry (1)

  • Alexi wins if(1-4) Bal wins AFC; (5-6) Pit wins AFC and NE beats NYJ; (7) Pit wins AFC, NYJ beats NE, and Chi beats Sea; (8) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, Sea beats Chi
  • Teddy wins if(1-2) NE wins AFC and Bal beats Pit; (3) NE wins AFC, Pit beats Bal, and Sea beats Chi
  • Alex wins if(1-2) NYJ wins AFC and Pit beats Bal; (3) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, and Chi beats Sea
  • Waters wins if(1) NE wins AFC, Pit beats Bal, and Chi beats Sea
  • Bry wins if(1) Pit wins AFC, NYJ beats NE, and Sea beats Chi

If Pittsburgh wins Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Bry (14), J (1), Bry/J (1)

  • Bry wins if(1-4) if Atl wins NFC; (5-8) if GB wins NFC; (9-12) if Sea wins NFC; (13-14) if Chi wins NFC and NYJ beats NE
  • J wins if: (1) Chi wins NFC, Atl beats GB, and NE beats NYJ
  • Bry & J tie if: (1) Chi wins NFC, GB beats Atl, NE beats NYJ

If Chicago wins Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Waters (11), Alexi (3), Waters/Alex (1), Alexi/J (1)

  • Waters wins if(1-4) NE wins AFC; (5-8) Pit wins AFC; (9-10) NYJ wins AFC and Pit beats Bal; (11) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, and GB beats Atl
  • Alexi wins if(1-2) Bal wins AFC and NYJ beats NE; (3) Bal wins AFC, NYJ beats NE, and GB beats Atl
  • Waters and Alex tie if(1) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, and Atl beats GB
  • Alexi and J tie if(1) Bal wins AFC, NE beats NYJ, Atl beats GB

If Baltimore wins Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Alexi (14), Teddy (1), Alexi/Teddy (1)

  • Alexi wins if(1-4) Atlwins NFC; (5-8) Chi wins NFC; (9-12) Sea wins NFC; (13-14) GB wins NFC, NYJ beats NE
  • Teddy wins if(1)  GB wins NFC, NE beats NYJ, and Chi beats Sea
  • Alexi and Teddy tie if(1) GB wins NFC, NE beats NYJ, Sea beats Chi

If Green Bay wins Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Teddy (15), Teddy/Rob Smith (1)

  • Teddy wins if(1-4)  NE wins AFC; (5-8) Pit wins AFC; (9-12) Bal wins AFC; (13-14) NYJ wins AFC and Bal beats Pit; (15) NYJ wins AFC, Pit beats Bal, and Sea beats Chi
  • Teddy and Rob Smith tie if: (1) NYJ wins AFC, Chi beats Sea, and Pit beats Bal

If N.Y. Jets win Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Alex (12), Rob Smith (4)

  • Alex wins if(1-4) Atl wins NFC; (5-8) Chi wins NFC; (9-12) Sea wins NFC
  • Rob Smith wins if(1-4) GB wins NFC

If Seattle wins Super Bowl:

Potential Winners:  Bry (7), Teddy (5), Alexi (3), Rob Smith (1)

  • Bry wins if(1-4) Pit wins AFC; (5-6) NYJ wins AFC and Pit beats Bal; (7) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, and Atl beats GB
  • Teddy wins if(1-4) NE wins AFC; (5) Bal wins AFC, NE beats NYJ, and GB beats Atl
  • Alexi wins if(1-2) Bal wins AFC and NYJ beats NE; (3) Bal wins AFC, NE beats NYJ, and Atl beats GB
  • Rob Smith wins if(1) NYJ wins AFC, Bal beats Pit, and GB beats Atl

2011 BSB NFL Playoff Challenge: Wild Card Results

One round in the books, and the BSB NFL Playoff Challenge is off and running, and here are our standings after the Wild Card Round: 

[NOTE:  when listing the teams lost below, a * indicates a “most trusted” team and a ^ indicates a “least trusted” team]

LEADERS:
Teddy – 25
Alexi – 24
Rob Smith – 23
Bry – 22
Doogan – 21
Matt – 20
The Cuz – 17
J – 17
Alex – 14
Scott – 14
Waters – 14

POINTS LOST:
Teddy – 21
Alexi – 24
Doogan – 24
Waters – 24
J – 26
Scott – 26
Bry – 27
The Cuz – 27
Matt – 28
Rob Smith – 28
Alex – 32

1). Teddy.  (25 points, +4 differential)
Teddy, thanks to his strong belief in Baltimore (9) and Green Bay (11) takes the lead after the wild card round.  His only big loss was Philadelphia, whom he had at 8, but it was good for him, considering he was so high on Green Bay.  Teddy may be in even better shape than it seems, as he has only lost 21 points – far fewer than anyone else.  He was helped mainly because of how low he was on New Orleans.

Seattle^ over New Orleans^ = -5
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -1
Baltimore over Kansas City = +7
Green Bay* over Philadelphia = +3

Points Lost:  21
Phi (8), NO^(6), KC^(2), Sea^ (1)

2). Alexi.  (24 points, 0 differential)
Alexi is in prerry good shape after the wild card round, as he and fellow Ravens fan Teddy are sitting 1-2 in the ChallengeAlexi was real low on the Eagles, so their loss doesn’t hurt him, and his 11-spot with Baltimore might be huge.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -9
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -4
Baltimore* over Kansas City^ = +9
Green Bay over Philadelphia^ = +4

POINTS LOST:  24
NO (10), Ind (7), Phi (5), KC^ (2)

3). Rob Smith.  (23 points, -5 differential)
Rob Smith put a lot of faith in both the Eagles and Packers, so he was not hurt that bad, even though he lost his 12-team.  He also has a lot of faith in the Jets, so if they can go a long way, Rob Smith could still win this thing.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -8
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = +3
Baltimore over Kansas City = +2
Green Bay over Philadelphia* = -2

POINTS LOST:  28
Phi* (12), NO (9), Ind (4), KC (3)

4). Bry.  (22 points, -5 differential)
Bry put too much faith in the hometown Eagles, as their loss is going to hurt him.  But, he did put a lot of faith in Baltimore, which should help.  He was also the only one to get more than 1 point for the Seahawks, as he put them at 2.

Seattle* over New Orleans = -7
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = +1
Baltimore over Kansas City = +5
Green Bay over Philadelphia = -4

POINTS LOST:  27
Phi (11), NO (9), Ind (4), KC (3)

5). Doogan.  (21 points, -3 differential)
Doogan took the biggest hit with the Saints elimination, but did real well with the Ravens and did not lose much at all with the Eagles loss.

Seattle^ over New Orleans* = -10
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -2
Baltimore over Kansas City^ = +7
Green Bay over Philadelphia^ = +2

POINTS LOST:  24
NO* (11), Ind (6), Phi (5), KC^ (2)

6). Matt.  (20 points, -8 differential)
Matt’s day looks good, but he is one of three entries to lose his 12-team in the first round, as he had Indy there.  Fortunately, he actually did quite well in the other games, including a big win for his entry by Green Bay.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -7
N.Y. Jets^ over Indianapolis* = -10
Baltimore over Kansas City = +3
Green Bay* over Philadelphia^ = +6

POINTS LOST:  28
Ind* (12), NO (8), Phi^ (5), KC (3)

7t). The Cuz.  (17 points, -10 differential)
The Cuz got hit hard in the NFC, as he had the Eagles and Saints big, and the Packers and Seahawks small.  He did have a lot of faith in the Ravens, so he still has hope.  Also, he has a decent number (6) on the Bears, which could help.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -9
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -1
Baltimore over Kansas City^ = +6
Green Bay over Philadelphia = -6

POINTS LOST:  27
Phi (11), NO (10), Ind (4), KC^ (2)

7t). J.  (17 points, -9 differential)
J took a huge hit in losing New Orleans, but he still has a lot of his points remaining, including his 9-team in Baltimore.  He is not high on the Packers or Falcons, so the way the NFC played out may hurt him.  He does have a decent number on the Bears, though, so that could help.

Seattle^ over New Orleans* = -10
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -1
Baltimore over Kansas City^ = +7
Green Bay over Philadelphia = -5

POINTS LOST:  26
NO* (11), Phi (8), Ind (5), KC^ (2)

9t). Alex.  (14 points, -16 differential)  
Alex put all his eggs in the Kansas City basket, and now he is in trouble here.  He also was extremely low on Green Bay, which doesn’t help.  What does help, however, is his 10-spot on the Jets.  If the Jets go all the way, he could be a contender.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -6
N.Y. Jets* over Indianapolis = +6
Baltimore over Kansas City* = -9
Green Bay^ over Philadelphia = -7

POINTS LOST:  32
KC* (12), Phi (9), NO (7), Ind (4)

9t). Scott.  (14 points, -12 differential)
Scott had all of his double-digit teams on the bye, so he isn’t out of it yet, but he did not have a great day.  The Eagles hit him hard, and the Colts hit him even harder.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -6
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis = -4
Baltimore over Kansas City^ = +4
Green Bay over Philadelphia = -6

POINTS LOST:  27
Phi (11), NO (10), Ind (4), KC^ (2)

9t).  Waters.  (14 points, -10 differential)
Waters, despite his low point total, is not in terrible shape, since lost the 2nd fewest points in the whole Challenge.  The loss of 10-team New Orleans does hurt, but he is in really good position, as he is MUCH higher on Chicago than anyone else.

Seattle^ over New Orleans = -9
N.Y. Jets over Indianapolis^ = +2
Baltimore^ over Kansas City = -2
Green Bay over Philadelphia = -1

POINTS LOST:  24
NO (10), Phi (7), KC (4), Ind^ (3)

Eagles – Packers: Wild Card Preview

Well, here we go.  It is finally here.  The Playoffs.  All year has been working towards this day, and now it’s here.  Let us get right to a couple of thoughts on the individual unit matchups that we will see today.

Eagles on Offense:  The Line of Scrimmage
I started with this because I think that this matchup has the most potential to win or lose the game for the Birds.  The Packers defense is fantastic, and it, like most great defenses, is predicated on putting pressure on the quarterback.  The problem – for the Eagles – is that they with the more athletic, speedy guys that are prevalent in 3-4 defenses.  The Birds absolutely have to pick up the blitzes from guys like Cla Matthews (who had a MONSTER game against the Birds in Game 1) and Desmond Bishop out of the linebacking corps, and they cannot let B.J. Raji wreak havoc on the line.  The Packers also got some good news when Cullen Jenkins was declared able to play this morning.  Jenkins has missed four weeks with injury, but will bring his 7 sacks to the game today.  But, the big thing that we have to watch for in the game today is the Packers stealing a page from the Giants and, subsequently, the Vikings gameplans – sending fast, athletic guys at Vick.  The Giants did it successfully with Antrelle Rolle, and the Vikings took it to another level with Antoine Winfield.  Unfortunately, for the Eagles, the Packers might have the BEST blitzing d-back in the NFL in Charles Woodson.  This whole game might come down to the ability of Shady McCoy and company to pick up the blitz of Woodson, at least enough for Vick to dump it off or escape for scrambles.  If we see Packers #21 in the Eagles backfield, it might mean one-and-done for the second straight year.  Good news on the injury front is that Todd Herremans will play.  He has maybe been the most important lineman for the Eagles this year.  The bad news is that Max Jean-Gilles is a gametime decision.

Eagles of Offense:  The Secondary
I ranked all 12 playoff “weapons” on Wednesday and actually put the Eagles at #1.  It has been a long road from the days of Charles Johnson and Torrance Small, but we finally have a receiving corps that is not only dangerous, but terrifying for opposing defenses.  This is where I think the Eagles can excel and win this game – not because the Packers are weak, by any means, in the secondary, but because I think this group of receivers is just that good.  Unfortunately, the Packers have cut ties with our old friend Al Harris, so we will not be handed a 15-yard personal foul and a 35-yard pass interference today, but I do think that DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin can produce the big plays that we have grown accustomed to seeing all year.  I also think that if Woodson and Matthews are going to be highly responsible for containing Michael Vick, then LeSean McCoy could be a huge threat out of the passing game.  And, one other thing to look for:  though he had a really slow start to the season, Brent Celek has come on lately.  Do not forget that he led this team in receptions just a year ago.  This is very intertwined with the ability to protect, but if the Eagles think that they can hold down the fort with just their five linemen, then Celek could be a real weapon down the seam.

Packers on Offense:  The Line of Scrimmage
The one real vulnerability of the Packers is their offensive line.  Last year, they were dreadful, and this year, they are competent, but barely.  They added Brian Bulaga with their first-round draft pick, and he has been good – not great, but good.  And, another big loss for this team is Ryan Grant, who not only was he a very good runner, he was an excellent pass blocker in the backfield.  Brandon Jackson is not as good at picking up the blitz.  We are going to miss Brandon Graham today (and the rest of the year), but the Birds have plenty of talent leftover on that line.  Trent Cole and Juqua Parker should abuse the Packers tackles and get to Rodgers in the backfield.  I think that this is where the Birds can really give the explosive Packers offense some trouble–and they are going to have to because I am not sure this next matchup is all that encouraging.

Packers on Offense:  The Secondary
Now, we said that the Eagles offensive line versus the Packers rush attack might be the difference in this game…well, this matchup is right behind in importance, and could certainly be what we are talking about if the Birds season is to end today.  We all know about the struggles of Dmitri Patterson, and it should be interesting to see (a) if Patterson even starts today, and (b) who, on the Packers, he ends up spending most of his time covering.  If he is on Greg Jennings, then he will need to either play the game of his life or get a lot of help because Jennings is that good.  On the other side, Asante Samuel is one of the best on the planet, but there is a problem.  The Packers offense is predicated on the one-step drop out of the shotgun and the quick, West Coast passing scheme.  The best defense for this is the bump-and-run, physical-type defense, but Asante Samuel has made a living of playing off receivers and taking chances to get picks.  With Rodgers arm strength and quick passing scheme, that gambling style may not work that well.  That being said, Samuel is always able to change the game with one big play.  As much of a loss as Stewart Bradley and Brandon Graham are, the Nate Allen loss may be the most significant.  He was playing a great free safety in this his rookie season, and now we are left with 7th-round pick, Kurt Coleman.  Fortunately, Quintin Mikell has had a terrific season at strong safety.  One piece of good news for the Birds is that the Packers have not found anyone close to a replacement for injured tight end Jermichael Finley, who is a HUGE loss for the Packers offense.  All in all, the Birds have to stop these great Packer receivers if there are to pull this out.

Special Teams
The Eagles, with DeSean Jackson returning and David Akers in placekicking, are better.  If it is a close game (likely), where field position is essential (not as likely with the explosive offenses), the Eagles have the advantage.  Also, playing at home can often really help the special teams play, be it the kicking game or the emotion with which you have to play on kick coverages.

The Pick
After all of this, I can definitely see why the prevailing opinion if that the Packers are going to win this game.  However, I am going with the Birds for several reasons:

  1. As Doogan aptly pointed out, this Packers love may be giving our Birds a real chip on their shoulder.
  2. The de facto “bye” week may be huge for this team, and in particular, this quarterback.  In fact, Andy Reid did not allow Vick in practice all week last week with direct instructions to study the Packers.  He rolled the dice that the Packers would be the opponent, and he wanted Vick as prepared as possible.  He thought that any Dallas gameplanning would interfere with that preparation.  Plus, Vick says he is now totally healthy, and we all know just how good he can be when he is healthy.
  3. At this time of year, the homefield advantage is gigantic.
  4. Andy Reid is 7-1 in playoff opening games; Mike McCarthy is 1-1. 
  5. Michael Vick has two playoff wins; Aaron Rodgers has none.

My Pick:  Eagles 24 – Packers 21

Random Notes

  • For more than a month now, I have strongly believed that Marty Mornhinweg would be the next Cleveland Browns head coach.  But, now, it looks like Ray Sherman is the favorite for the job, which I think is really positive for the Birds because Mornhinweg is a fantastic coordinator.
  • Nnamdi Asomugha has been declared an unrestricted free agent.  Now, I am sure that there are 31 fanbases now drooling of thinking of him in their team’s colors, but let us think for a second of how great it would be if the Eagles landed Nnamdi.  They have landed two monster free agents in the past couple of years, and they have plenty of room under the salary cap – even with franchising Vick and giving DeSean Jackson a much-deserved contract extension – so there’s at least a chance.  Wow!
  • I heard a report that the Eagles will accept no less that TWO first-round picks in a trade for Kevin Kolb.  I like that because (a) I could see a team caving and giving that up, which would be quite a haul, or (b) we will keep Kolb as a nice security blanket for Vick.

2011 BSB NFL Playoff Challenge Preview

In the second edition of the BSB NFL Playoff Challenge, we have 11 participants.  The following are the official entries.  In addition to the actual picks, I listed the teams to which the person gave the most points of any of the competitors (“most trust in”) and those to which they gave the least (“least trust in”).  In other words, any team on a competitor’s “most trusted” list means that no one has that team listed higher on their list.  I also calculated each competitor’s best possible total score at the end and their best possible score for this round.  And, finally, I looked at what the biggest “swing game” of the week would be for each person, which I just defined as the game with the biggest differential between the points given to the teams.  (EDIT:  I actually mixed up Scott’s picks for the Saints and Seahawks, so this post has been edited since it first went up.  The edit actually cost Scott a good amount, so thanks to him for pointing it out to me.)

BRY:
12-Pit, 11-Phi, 10-Atl, 9-NO, 8-Bal, 7-GB, 6-NE, 5-NYJ, 4-Ind, 3-KC, 2-Sea, 1-Chi

Most Trust In:  Pit, Sea
Least Trust In:  Chi, NE

Best Possible Score:  156
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Wild Card Round:  16

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (9) – Seattle (2)

Thoughts:  Well, Bry has gone for a huge risk-reward play here.  He has Pittsburgh at 12, and no one else has them any higher than 10.  If the Steelers win the Super Bowls, he might be hard to beat.  He also is real low on the Pats, Bears, and Colts, so if either of those teams make any noise, he could be in some trouble, no matter what else happens.  This week, Bry has hedged a little on the Phi-GB game, but is strong on Baltimore; he also is the only one in the entire competition that didn’t have Seattle at 1.

DOOGAN:
12-NE, 11-NO, 10-Atl, 9-Bal, 8-Pit, 7-GB, 6-Ind, 5-Phi, 4-NYJ, 3-Chi, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE, NO
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC, Phi

Best Possible Score:  157
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Possible Wild Card Round:  12

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (11) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Doogan, maybe a reverse-jinx attempt, has the least faith of everyone in the Birds, even though this competition does have a fair number of non-Eagles fans.  Two wild card teams could make or break Doogan – New Orleans and Baltimore – so he is hoping that they both survive this weekend.

Alexi:
12-Atl, 11-Bal, 10-NO, 9-GB, 8-Pit, 7-Ind, 6-NE, 5-Phi, 4-Chi, 3-NYJ, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  Atl, Bal
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC, Phi, NE

Best Possible Score:  160
Best Wild Card Round:  37
Worst Wild Card Round:  11

Biggest Swing Game:  Baltimore (11) – Kansas City (2); New Orleans (10) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Alexi, like Bry, is banking on New England going out early.  He has put a ton of faith in his hometown Ravens, but he also made the savvy pick of a 12 for Atlanta (the only one to put the NFC’s top seed that high).  Other than New England, Alexi is also very low on Philly, so he could gain a lot if they go out this weekend.

Scott:
12-NE, 11-Atl, 10-Pit, 9-Phi, 8-Ind, 7-NO, 6-Bal, 5-Chi, 4-NYJ, 3-GB, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC

Best Possible Score:  154
Best Wild Card Round:  30
Worst Wild Card Round:  10

Biggest Swing Game:  Philadelphia (9) – Green Bay (3); New Orleans (7) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Scott has put his faith in the two top seeds, so he is rooting for chalk.  He is pretty low on the popular New Orleans and Green Bay picks, so he would be okay with the Seahawks and Eagles winning the NFC Wild Card games.

The Cuz:
12-NE, 11-Phi, 10-NO, 9-Pit, 8-Bal, 7-Atl, 6-Chi, 5-GB, 4-Ind, 3-NYJ, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC, Atl

Best Possible Score:  157
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Wild Card Round:  11

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (10) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  The Cuz, trying to defend his title, has put a lot of faith in a couple NFC wild cards – Philly and New Orleans.  Accordingly, The Cuz has given very small number to Atlanta and Indy, so he is hoping for a Divisional Round upset in the NFC and a Wild Card upset in the AFC.  He has a lot at stake in Baltimore beating KC this weekend.

J:
12-NE, 11-NO, 10-Pit, 9-Bal, 8-Phi, 7-Atl, 6-Chi, 5-Ind, 4-NYJ, 3-GB, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE, NO
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC, Atl

Best Possible Score:  156
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Wild Card Round:  10

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (11) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  J, like The Cuz, is down on Atlanta, but is is actually real high (comparatively) on the other NFC team with the bye – the Bears.  High on Chicago, if the Monsters of the Midway (or Saints) make a run to the Super Bowl, J could follow them to the challenge title here.

Rob Smith:
12-Phi, 11-NE, 10-GB, 9-NO, 8-Atl, 7-NYJ, 6-Pit, 5-Bal, 4-Ind, 3-KC, 2-Chi, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  Phi
Least Trust In:  Sea

Best Possible Score:  154
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Wild Card Round:  17

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (9) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Rob Smith is going to lose a big number this weekend, as he has 12 on the Eagles and 10 on the Packers.  But, it the winner of that game can make a run, his entry could be real tough to beat.  He also has a 9 on New Orleans and an 8 on Atlanta, so he has a lot at stake in Chicago losing in the NFC.  His AFC teams are relatively low, especially Indy, so he needs New England to come out of that conference.

Teddy:
12-NE, 11-GB, 10-Atl, 9-Bal, 8-Phi, 7-Pit, 6-NO, 5-Ind, 4-NYJ, 3-Chi, 2-KC, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE, GB
Least Trust In:  Sea, KC

Best Possible Score:  155
Best Wild Card Round:  33
Worst Wild Card Round:  12

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (6) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Teddy has a lot of faith in the Packers ability to win on the road, as he has them at 11.  His high number on his hometown Ravens could also go a long way to a Teddy title here.  Though his score would obviously be higher with a Saints win this weekend, he is probably rooting for Seattle because he has the Saints at a very low number, compared to everyone else.

Alex:
12-KC, 11-Atl, 10-NYJ, 9-Phi, 8-NE, 7-NO, 6-Chi, 5-Pit, 4-Ind, 3-Bal, 2-GB, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  KC, NYJ
Least Trust In:  Sea, GB, Pit

Best Possible Score:  162
Best Wild Card Round:  38
Worst Wild Card Round:  10

Biggest Swing Game:  Kansas City (12) – Baltimore (3)

Thoughts:  With the most polarizing entry, Alex is either going to run away with this championship or fall rather short.  A very high-risk, high-reward entry, Alex is going big on the Chiefs and Jets in the AFC.  In fact, his Chiefs entry is ranked 9 spots higher than anyone else in the challenge, so even one Chiefs win could put him in good shape, and two Chiefs wins might clinch the whole thing.  But, on the flip-side, if the Ravens go in there and win, he could be in some trouble.  He also has good numbers on Atlanta and Chicago.  Alex is very low, comparatively, on Green Bay and Pittsburgh, too, so losses by those teams could really help him.

Matt:
12-Ind, 11-GB, 10-NE, 9-Atl, 8-NO, 7-Pit, 6-Bal, 5-Phi, 4-Chi, 3-KC, 2-NYJ, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  Ind, GB
Least Trust In:  Sea, NYJ, Phi

Best Possible Score:  160
Best Wild Card Round:  37
Worst Wild Card Round:  11

Biggest Swing Game: Indianapolis (12) – N.Y. Jets (2)

Thoughts:  Matt is all-in on the Indianapolis Colts.  Any run by the Colts will make this entry tough to beat, but if they go down to the Jets on Saturday night, he could be in some trouble.  He can fall back on a big number on Green Bay in the NFC, as he has them at 11.  If both the Colts and Packers lose this weekend, Matt’s challenge may be over.

Waters:
12-NE, 11-Atl, 10-NO, 9-Phi, 8-Pit, 7-Chi, 6-GB, 5-NYJ, 4-KC, 3-Ind, 2-Bal, 1-Sea

Most Trust In:  NE, Chi
Least Trust In:  Sea, Bal, Ind

Best Possible Score:  151
Best Wild Card Round:  28
Worst Wild Card Round:  12

Biggest Swing Game:  New Orleans (10) – Seattle (1)

Thoughts:  Waters has a lot of points in the teams with byes, so he probably cannot get himself in much trouble this weekend.  But, when we get to next weekend, he is almost assuredly going to be in the mix because of his faith in the #1 seeds.  Scott is the only other entry to give 12 and 11 to the top seeds, so if homefield holds, it might come down to this week’s Seattle-New Orleans game to crown the winner, as Waters is big on New Orleans, and Scott is in on Seattle.

The Other Games: Handicapping the Three Non-Eagles Games This Weekend

How great are the NFL playoffs?  Fantastic!  Actually, I was thinking of what my favorite sports weekends of the year are (sounds like a nice topic for Tuesday’s Top Twelve), and I am not exactly sure where this one falls, but it could be as high as #3.  For me, number 1 is obviously the first two round of the NCAA Tournament, and #2 is next weekend with the Divisional Round, but after those two there are a handul (including this one) that are in the mix.  Either way, this is great.  And, with an Eagles game (as the nightcap), it makes it that much more intriguing (and nerve-racking).  Anyway, here are a couple observations about the “other 3” games.

  • I am not a proponent of changing the current playoff system, no matter what happened in the NFC Worst this year.  I would be strongly opposed to not allowing a division-winner in the playoffs.  Seattle won their division, so they deserve to be a higher seed than the Saints or the Packers or the Giants or the Bucs, who all did not win their divisions.
  • However, I would only be slightly opposed to switching up the home teams.  In fact, it is interesting to note that, an argument could be made that ALL FOUR games this weekend are being played in the wrong city.  The Saints, Ravens, and Jets all have better records than their division-winning opponents, and the Packers, with the same record as the Eagles, won their one head-to-head matchup.
  • The Eagles-Packers game, while being the most intriguing (and most interesting to this website) may also be the most important game of the weekend for next weekend’s matchups.  The Saints are a dome team that relies on a lot of team speed and plays much better indoors than out.  Assuming they are able to beat a bad Seattle team today, they will play in one of two vastly different situations, all depending on the result of the Eagles game.  If the Birds beat the Packers, the Saints get to play indoors against familiar foe Atlanta.  But, if the Packers win, the defending champs will have to take their speed-oriented passing offense to a bad turf on a, most likely, cold, brisk, windy day in Chicago.

New Orleans at Seattle
It is interesting to listen to public opinion about games like this swing so strongly back and forth.  At first, everyone was saying that this won’t even be a game.  Then, people starting trying to talk themselves into thinking that the Seahawks have a chance here.  “The 12th man is so good in Seattle.”  “The Saints have been struggling recently.”  “Chris Ivory and Malcolm Jenkins are big losses for New Orleans.”  “Hasselbeck is back and he is a very experienced quarterback.”  Yes, all of those thing are true.  Do you know what else is true?  The Seahawks stink.  Like, honestly, this isn’t just a 7-9 team…this is a BAD 7-9 team.  They went 7-9 against a really bad schedule.  They lost all nine games by AT LEAST 15 points.  They’ve been outscored by almost 100 points this year.  They have one of the worst offenses and one of the worst defenses in the NFL.  If they had lost to St. Louis on Sunday night (a close win at home against another bad team), they would have had the #6 pick in the draft.  NUMBER SIX!  They stink.  My Pick:  New Orleans 31 – Seattle 10

Jets at Colts
This is a  pretty juicy primetime matchup on Saturday night.  I am not really all that sold on the Jets D this year, but I think the Colts are completely banged up.  It is so hard to pick against Peyton Manning, but it it not hard to pick for any Ryan.  I think the Colts are probably just too banged up.  Let us not forget that the Jets had a tough schedule and won 11 games.  The Colts, on the other hand, were in a surprisingly disappointing division, and had to fight and claw to 10 wins.  Plus, I don’t think this Jets team is intimidated by anyone.  I am not a Sanchez fan, but I like the Jets to win tonight.  My Pick:  N.Y.Jets 20 – Indianapolis 17

Ravens at Chiefs
No matter what happens on Sunday, Chiefs fans have to be really happy with their team’s 2010 season.  To come back from back-to-back top 5 draft spots to win a pretty decent AFC West and get a home playoff game is quite an accomplishment.  This might be tough for the Ravens to swallow, though, as they finished 12-4 and have to settle for a road playoff game in a brutally tough place to win.  And, let us take a quick look at the Ravens season and see how close they were to putting themselves in a much different position.  They won twelve games, including the Jets and Steelers on the road and the Saints at home.  And, here were their four losses:

  • Week 2:  15-10 at Cincinnati –> This was before the Bengals fell apart, and the Ravens led this game with less than 5 minutes to go
  • Week 6:  23-20 (OT) at New England –> The Ravens had a 10-point lead late in the 4th quarter, before Tom Brady led a wild comeback to send it to OT.
  • Week 10:  26-21 at Atlanta –> On the road on a Thursday night, the Ravens led 21-20 with 20 seconds left, when Matt Ryan hit Roddy White on a 33-yard touchdown pass, capping a drive that included a couple third down conversions and a fourth-down conversion.
  • Week 13:  13-10 vs Pittsburgh –> The Ravens had the ball and a 4-point lead, trying to run out the clock, when Troy Polamalu forced a fumble, recovered the fumble, and Roethlisberger threw a last-minute touchdown pass for the win.

Let’s recap:  All four losses were 5 points or less.  In all four losses, the Ravens led with less than 5 minutes to go.  In three of them, they led in the FINAL MINUTE.  Three of the losses were to playoff teams, including one each to the top two seeds in the AFC.  Three of the losses were on the road, including one on a Thursday night in Atlanta.  In other words, it is not a stretch to say that this team was a play or two away from the #1 seed in the AFC.  Plus, they have three road playoff wins in the past two years.  My Pick:  Baltimore 20 – Kansas City 10.

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.

The Birds Will Pull It Out Vs. Packers

The Birds will stay one step ahead on Sunday

I was with my BSB co-author last Saturday and, shockingly, we had some discussion about the upcoming NFL playoffs.  The Eagles’ opponent wasn’t known yet, but I told Bry, “I think the Packers will beat us.”  For weeks now, the one matchup I did not want for the Eagles in the 1st Round of the playoffs was the Green Bay Packers.  Sure enough, that is the team coming to Philly this weekend for what promises to be a great game for any fan of the sport.

Anyone that pays attention to the Eagles and the NFL and the coverage this week of the Wild Card Round (and if you’re reading this, I’m pretty sure you fall into that category) knows that the Packers are a bad matchup.  The Eagles are starting two very inexperienced defensive backs, and the Packers feature one of the game’s premier quarterbacks and a deep, talented corps of receivers.  The Eagles offensive line has struggled in pass protection all season, and the Packer defense excels in the pass rush, with one of the all-time great, quarterback-killing defensive coordinators (Dom Capers) calling the shots.

Meanwhile, the Eagles, of course, come limping into the playoffs, with the Giants and Vikings seemingly laying out the blue-print for containing the Eagle offense.  The home-field advantage is huge and I still believe the Eagles are a really good team, but all week I’ve seen this game as a narrow Green Bay win.  Until this morning.

You may say I’m just looking for reasons to believe in an Eagles win, and you’d most likely be right, but an article I read this morning by Marcus Hayes was enough to shift my thinking just enough that I now see the Birds pulling out a close one on Sunday.  As the article shows, I’ve been far from alone in my feelings about the game.  The vast majority of experts around the country, and even in Philly, have been picking the Packers to win this game, and that fact has not been lost on the Eagles players.  The Eagles are division champions, playing on their home-field against the Wild Card, 6th-seed Packers, yet all they’ve heard all week is that they’re going to get beat.  And, apparently, they are NOT happy about it. 

A team that has spent most of the season hearing people singing the praises of Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, and others, has spent the last two weeks hearing about how they’re not good enough.  I think that’s given them the classic “nobody believes in us” chip on their shoulder that will make the difference on Sunday.  It’s pushing them to prepare a little bit more this week, to work just a little bit harder, and to come out on Sunday taking things up in intensity one notch more than they otherwise would have.  The defense, in particular, feels like they have a ton to prove, and they will make just enough plays to bring home the win.  Eagles take it, 21-20.

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.