Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Pumped and Jacked Like Pete Carroll

Super Bowl week has arrived.  The countdown to kickoff begins in earnest.  Questions aplenty to be debated, churned-over, and beaten to death.  Without further ado, here are three key things to think about during the lead up to and look for during Super Bowl 46:


  • Gronk and His Ankle:
    • This is the biggie--the obvious question for New England.  The effectiveness of tight end Rob Gronkowski in the Patriots non-vertical aerial attack is vital.  Without him and fellow tight end on the field together, the Patriots slip back to their Stand and Wait for Wes Welker to Beat the Double Team offense. As to his status, there is little doubt that other than regressing, he will play.  Can the ankle hold up the entire game and can he remain the dynamic force blocking and out in pass patterns remain to be seen.  The offense doesn't need a decoy, it needs play-makers making big plays on Sunday.
  • Nate Solder and Seabass:
    • As I noted here last week about the match-up with the Baltimore Ravens,  the Patriots with a healthy Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle allows them to open up their playbook and use rookie swing tackle Nate Solder as the third tight end. I won't belabor the point because if Vollmer is not healthy enough to play or not effective enough to protect quarterback Tom Brady, then Solder is in at right tackle asap.  
      • UPDATE: According to ESPNBoston,  Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told WEEI.com Tuesday that starting offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who has missed the last seven games with back and foot injuries, will play in Super Bowl XLVI  
  • Special Teams
    • Both teams are in Super Bowl 46 because of their special teams.  The Patriots watched Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff miss insanely wide left at the end of regulation in the AFC Championship game.  The Giants got a mighty special teams assist from the son of Chicago White Sox General Manager Kenny Williams who flubbed two punts leading to the Giants scoring twice and winning in overtime.  Both teams have solid special teams with good kickers.  If they neutralize each other (Danny Woodhead: no fumbles on kickoffs!), it takes away an advantage each team has usually had during the season. One big play, be it punt or kickoff return, fumble or forced fumble, pin-down punt or long field goal may be enough to swing the tide of the Super Bowl for these fairly evenly matched teams.  One point to note from week nine: The Giants pinned the Patriots back inside their 20 the entire first half.  It was a huge advantage, and I am sure the Patriots coaches are harping on field position as a big key on Sunday.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Green Machine

Four game winning streak? Check.  Back to .500? Check. Ready to make a run at the run'n'gun 76ers? Um, hold that thought for a second.  The Celtics have some sorting out to do this season, and in the most unlikely of circumstances, the Big Three Plus Rondo are back for another season.  Unfortunately, this season has not looked like the victory lap of a group of veterans making their final run to glory. Some thoughts on the Green Machine so far in 2011/2012:

  • Lockout:
    • Any advantage from a lack of a full off-season and training camp was not for this club. Normally a time for coach Doc Rivers to integrate the bench into the offense (watch Rajon Rondo drive, clear-out so as to isolate Paul Pierce one-on-one, or run screens for Ray Allen to pop open for a three...seriously, that's the offense) and defense.  Instead, the Celtics sat dormant like the rest of the league and then had to scramble to put together a roster, let alone get enough players in camp for five-on-fives.
    • Paul Pierce was injured and out of shape.  That is a fact.  He is just now, eighteen games into the season, getting close to being "Paul Pierce".
    • Ray Allen is old, as is Kevin Garnett, and there are nagging injuries and periods of invisibility in games.  
    • Jeff Green's season-ending heart surgery.  Green was brought in last year to be the bridge piece who spelled the big three for major minutes, was a scoring machine off the bench, and eventually became a building block for the future.  A full off-season and training camp, integrated into the regular rotation, and a full season of transition was the plan General Manager Danny Ainge had in mind.  Surgery for an  aortic aneurysm was not part of the plan, and left the Celtics scrambling.  Heck, they are still scrambling. 
  • Injuries:
    • Ray Allen, missing games by the boatload.
    • Kevin Garnett, little life left in those old legs.
    • Rajon Rondo, nursing a wrist injury and missing a bunch of games.
    • Jermaine O'Neil, supposed starting center, shockingly out injured AGAIN (dripping with sarcasm as usual here)
  • No More Excuses
    • OK, every team has injuries, and every team was disrupted by the lockout. Jeff Green was a big loss, but losing a key player happens.  This team does have some positives.
      • Brandon Bass is a huge upgrade over Big Baby.
        • Wow, the old horse-trader Danny Ainge picked the Magic's pocket on this deal.  Stronger in the paint, better at defense at everything other than taking a charge, and a sweet outside jumper and ability to finish with a bit of touch within five feet make Bass the favorite for best off-season pick-up.
      • Chris Wilcox is a legitimate big man.
        • When healthy (just starting to get there) and integrated into the bench mix as he learns the defensive rotations, Wilcox can provide 10 to 15 minutes of energy, some scoring touch, and tough defense.  
      • Avery Bradley may yet be a decent point guard.
        • Bradley is the Jose Iglesias (Red Sox short stop prospect) of the Celtics.  Bradley's defense, like Iglesias's fielding prowess, is plus-plus and ready for prime time.  Unfortunately, neither player has a clue on offense.  Two years ago, the toss-up was between Bradley and John Wall as to which NCAA freshman was going to be the most dominant.  Unfortunately for the Texas Longhorns, it was not Bradley.  Fortunately for the Celtics, Bradley bailed on Texas after one season and landed in their lap as an intriguing prospect.  
        • I love watching Bradley on defense, as he head and shoulders above anyone else on the court, and a stopper at guard is huge for the playoffs when Dwayne Wade of the Miami Heat and Derrick (definitely not Jalen) Rose of the Chicago Bulls likely play-off opponents.  If he can get time at point to grow his offensive game enough to not be a liability, and   the Celtics will have their first legitimate back-up point guard in years.
      • Mickael Pietrus can contribute a bit. 
        • Pietrus is a decent bench player who can pay dividends throughout the year. Some size, nice touch outside: not a star or starter, but a nice piece off the bench.  These players are needed throughout the season.
      •  E'Twaun Moore offers hope.
        • A second round pick who contributes. Big three point shot. This kid already looks like a good fit coming off the bench and bringing energy and offense to the second unit.  Another one of those picks where Ainge obviously saw something that everyone else missed.  An exciting, cost-efficient second-unit guy. 
Not a perfect team here by any stretch.  But fresh off a 27 point comeback against Orlando and beating Indiana at home, there's hope still for this Celtics squad.  To accentuate the positive, they have finished pre-season (even if these 18 games counted) and are starting to get healthy. The bench is coming together and they will at least be interesting as the doldrums of winter come up in the coming weeks.  They definitely bear watching.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Off-season Fenway Follies

The Patriots are a week from playing in their fifth Super Bowl in the past ten years.  The Bruins go into the All-Star Weekend as #2 in the conference as they defend their Stanley Cup crown.  The Celtics...well, at least they've won four straight games.  Where is the Red Sox excitement? The anticipation of Spring Training being less than a month away?  Well, talk of fiscal responsibility, luxury tax concerns, and endless replays of Liverpool FC matches on NESN (disclaimer: Everton fan here at BostonSportPage.com and Liverpool represent the 76ers to my Celtics, the Yankees to my Red Sox, and the Canadians to my Bruins; I am NOT amused by John Henry buying Liverpool FC and stuffing them down the craw of all NESN viewers.) hardly inspires confidence.  So, with a bit of a lull in the sports euphoria (at least until the Patriots land in Indianapolis and the media beings their non-stop 24-7 coverage of Super Bowl week) the time seems ripe to review some of my off-season gripes regarding the denizens of Yawkey Way.



  • Historic September Collapse: 
    • Um, I'm not quite ready to face these emotions again. It's only been four months...
  • Beer and Chicken Wings:
    • A snack I enjoy immensely, but is certainly not appropriate for the pitching staff in the middle of a game.  The fact that Josh Beckett, et al had the audacity to disrespect a manager who went out of his way to protect them from the ravenous Boston media and took the heat for them again and again is beyond shocking.  The fact that other than paying John Lackey a boat-load of cash to rehab during the season there was no shake-up of the starting rotation shows the front-office/ownership dysfunction in Boston.  The problem is not the manager, the problem is the players and who ultimately brought them to town. For the record, Theo Epstein was not employed by the Red Sox when Josh Beckett came to town, and I am sure that under the influence of  Sodium Thiopental, better known as Sodium Pentothal, will tell anyone that he had NOTHING to do with bringing in Carl Crawford or John Lackey.  Those moves have Larry Lucchino's fingerprints all over them. 
  • Losing General Manager Theo Epstein:
    • This one hurt. No one did more to keep this team competitive with savvy free agent signings (HIS signings, not OWNERSHIP'S signings...big difference there), decent trades, and excellent amateur drafting.  Theo was simply the Red Sox best defense against the Yankees.  No matter what they did in New York, Theo Epstein took the body blow and came back with a counter-punch.  He had a plan. He believed in the plan.  The plan worked.  Losing him hurts more than anyone will realize for a few years.  Mark my words, this was not a good move to let him leave/push him out (I know we do not have, nor will have anytime soon, the real story there).
  • Firing Terry Francona: 
    • I understand that after the above-mentioned event may have warranted drastic action. That said, are the Red Sox in a better situation than they were on August 31st? Terry Francona was a perfect fit in Boston.  Two World Series Championships? Whatever. Best Red Sox Manager Ever? Sure, but what have you done for us lately? Firing Francona made no sense then and makes no sense to me now.  Shake up the players rather than kowtowing to the players whims and giving them what they want: a fall guy. Oh yeah, don't even get me started about the slander campaign after Francona got axed with the leaks about pain medication issues. Pure slander. Typical Boston mudslinging. Disgraceful.
  • Hiring Bobby Valentine:
    • I understand the Larry Lucchino reasoning of bringing in Bobby V: the media will be spending all spring training  not talking about the Theo/Terry exodus, but rather gushing about how entertaining and exciting Bobby V will be. My first problem is that he is hardly what the team needs in this market.  Valentine is all about brand Bobby V. He is not going to go over the statistical analysis that the team pays out the whazoo to provide. He is not going to diffuse situations. No, Bobby V is going to put Bobby V in front of any TV camera he can find and make sure that everyone sees him.  Not what this team needs to succeed.  Second, he has been out of the game. He last managed in the majors in 2002. Lest anyone forget those Mets teams, but they (like the year before in 2001 as well) were a damned talented team that underachieved and finished .500.  Oh hooray, sign THAT manager up, please!  Finally, lest I forget, he is coming down from behind the microphone to manage.  Wow, that is a formula for success!  I just think of the Chicago White Sox in the 1986 hiring former Red Sox wild man Hawk Harrelson to be General Manager.  Showing why commentators announce the game and don't belong in charge, Harrelson fired Tony LaRussa (the late 80s Oakland A's weren't THAT great, d'oh!),  put Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk in left field, and traded a rookie named Bobby Bonilla to Pittsburgh for Jose "Ponce" DeLeon (epic fail!). Please tell me that Bobby V won't be THAT bad! 
  • Big free-agent signings this off-season re-tooling the team:
    • STILL WAITING!!!
  • Seriously, This team must have made SOME attempt to improve the team:
    • Let's review off-season activity:
      • Trade shortstop Jed Lowrie for a middle reliever quality pitcher (Mark Melancon).
      • Trade shortstop Marco Scutaro for a middle reliever quality pitcher (Clayton Mortensen). 
      • Sign outfielder Cody STINKING Ross. 
      • Trade to patch hole created by not coughing up the dough for their best relief pitcher since Dick Radatz to replace him with a relief pitcher not as good, aka trade for relief pitcher Andrew Bailey and get fourth outfielder deluxe Ryan Sweeney.  
      • Seriously, unless you count signing utility infielder Nick Punto or back-up catcher Kelly Shoppach, then there is nothing
    • So HOW EXACTLY are they improved?
      • Umm, I'm at a loss. 
        • Seriously.
          • Yup, Nick Freaking Punto. 
            • Seriously.
              • Oh yeah, and Carl Crawford had off-season surgery. 
                • It's gonna be a loooooong season!




Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Spare Neurons

Here is where you find the random thoughts, caffeine-fueled rants, "smacking the dashboard and screaming at radio hosts" diatribes, and bizarre observations that pop into my head and are not worthy of a full post:


I am glad Rob Gronkowski skipped practice on Wednesday.  He needs to rest that damned ankle until he's close to 100% or game-time, whichever comes first.  Without both tight-end at full-speed, this team is lacking a key play-maker (see no Aaron Hernandez last year).


* * *


When I think of Eli Manning, I am haunted by the horrible Oreo cookie commercial with Eli and brother Peyton in a "Lick-off" with Venus and Serena Williams.  Oog, I think I'm sick to my stomach.


* * *


I have come to the conclusion that Rex Ryan is correct, as much as it pains me to admit it. As evidenced by all the talk out of Baltimore about jumbo tron down and distance disparities on the final drive of the game, it is obvious that Bill Belichick is in the heads of the opposing coaches in the NFL (save Ryan).  


The fallout from "spygate" is that teams are convinced that forces are conspiring against them the minute the walk into Foxborough. Strange forces controlled by Bill Belichick.  "Bill Belichick is going to cheat!" They walk into the stadium convinced they have already lost the game.  Sexy Rexy meant that by not kissing Bill Belichick's rings means that he's not going into the game already defeated.  


Is there any other explanation why the Jets are one of the Patriot's toughest opponents.Look at how teams react when they defeat the Patriots. The Detroit Lions declared themselves Super Bowl contenders when they beat the Patriots in the pre-season. The Buffalo Bills celebrated like it was the a championship game when they won during the a fall game this year. Heck, Josh McDaniels at Denver in 2009 when they beat the Patriots in the regular season. 


Staying in the game feels like a victory even if they lose when they come into the game defeated. Funny how Ray "Murderer Who Belongs in Prison" Lewis of Baltimore went on a rant after the game a few years ago when Tom Brady turned to an official and mimicked throwing a flag (LIKE EVERY SINGLE PLAYER DOES IN THE LEAGUE!). Lewis could not stop his mouth then, but where was he calling out his own coach for running down the sideline last Sunday doing the SAME EXACT THING.  Funny how it's only New England, those damned consistently winning while millions under the salary cap Patriots, who elicit so much negative attention.


You know, even if it makes Rex Ryan correct, I kind of like rooting for the bad guys. 


* * *


The Red Sox are killing me this off-season.  Replace the aging, lefty designated hitter with a bigger thumper who is years younger? Of course not.   The Red Sox (official slogan: "We don't admit to scrambling to be under the luxury tax when it is obvious to all") have decided to keep David Ortiz for another year and pass on signing Prince Fielder to create the best 1-2 punch since a young David Ortiz paired with Manny Ramirez.  For less than the cost of Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey the Red Sox could have had the best power-hitter this side of Ryan Howard.


* * *


Prince Fielder to Detroit?  OK, I did not see that coming.  Good fit? Sure. He's gonna chomp burgers and hit dingers no matter what park you put him in. paying out $214 million in guaranteed dollars means that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch must be making some serious Little Caesar's pizza money.  Of course, check out Cliff Corcoran working the WAR numbers: 


By Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, which factors in runs saved or lost on defense and adjusts for position, Fielder ranks just 23rd in baseball over the last five years, just barely ahead of the Reds' Joey Votto, who played just 24 games in the first of those five seasons, and far behind four other first basemen: Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, new teammate Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira. Swap out the declining Teixeira for Votto, and Fielder looks like the fifth-best player at his own position, never mind among all hitters. That does not suggest that he's worth the fourth-largest commitment in total dollars ever given to a major league player.
Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/01/24/prince.fielder/index.html#ixzz1kV9wo5ky


No matter the cost, someone needs to point out to Ben Cherington, Boston Red Sox Neo-Boy Wonder General Manager and the John Henry ownership group that THAT is how you replace Victor Martinez's numbers in the lineup.




* * *


I can't say enough great things about ColdHardFootballFacts.com.  Kerry J. Byrne has been backing up his smack talk online with cold, hard facts (and lots of talk about two other favorites of mine, food and beer) for years.  Just passing on a must-read about his Passer Rating Differential statistic and how it affects this and past Super Bowl as an indicator of victory.  Great stuff here at: Kerry's Super Bowl Tour de Statistical Force .

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

3 Quick-Reaction Keys for the Patriots in the Super Bowl

OK, so the Patriots have made the Super Bowl.  No time to rest, less than 2 weeks now until the big game.  As Gronk said after the Ravens game, it is time for "the 'ship" (and, yes, I wasn't sure if he was referring to "the mother ship" at first before realizing he meant "championship")  and there is no time to waste in preparation. Forget 2007 and Super Bowl XLII (FYI, I hate these Roman Numerals), these are two different teams. Doing my part for the cause, I have identified three keys for the Patriots for Super Bowl XLVI:






1. Tom Brady Bounce-back:  
Tom Brady said it best. He sucked. Again, it was the turnovers. A couple of times trying to do too much, too quick. While I appreciate and encourage the offense to take their shots down-field, good defenses will make their plays be it picks, negative plays, or pressure and hits.  Hey, it's why they are good.  I hope everyone enjoyed the nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, defensive slug-fest with short bursts of big offensive plays thrown in.  Looks like this Super Bowl could mirror these Championship Games where a small mistake can change the entire game. 


Brady threw two picks and a fumble after getting hit in the pocket against the Giants in week nine.  Remember, that game was zero-zero at half-time and all the scoring took place in the second half. Brady is going to be thinking about those and how to remain aggressive and at the same time eliminate those mistakes.  Brady finished with 342 yards passing, so  remember that the offense got in rhythm and moved the ball on the Giants defense.  Another game like that minus the slow start and turn-overs makes for a whole different game.






2. Rob Gronkowski's Ankle: 
This will be the most talked about/photographed/observed ankle in New England for the next two weeks (seems like a set-up for a joke about Victorian-era fashion and moral...let's not touch that with a ten foot pole).  The fact that Gronk got up and hopped off the field gave hope. The fact he got back in the game was inspiring.  How it holds up is the next question.  


Since Ed Reed of the Ravens had an injury that looked as bad or worse against Houston and was back with no ill effects evident against New England makes one think that two weeks is plenty for Gronk to get healthy.  With Gronk and Hernandez, the Patriots offense is able to click at full speed and be at its most dangerous in the Red Zone, and that will be desperately needed.


3. Offensive Line Play versus the New York Giant's Defensive Front:
What killed the Patriots' offense in Super Bowl 42 (Twelve days to the Super Bowl and I am officially swearing off Roman Numerals)? The Giants pressured Brady without blitzing and covered up Wes Welker, Dante Stallworth, and Randy Moss. In week nine, it was more of the same as the Patriots offense made some plays, but was far from clicking on all gears.  But the Giants did not pressure Brady like he had been that day. The Giants made big plays on defense, only sacked Brady twice, but at the end of the game, the offense took advantage of the Patriots defense.


That said, Brady's pick on the first play of the second quarter came with a clean pocket and no pressure, and then the second pick at the start of the third quarter he tried to squeeze it to Gronk on 3rd and 3 and had it picked with a clean pocket to throw from again. Neither time was there pressure or was Brady in duress in any way.  These were both mistakes that he should not make, and credit to Giants defense for making good plays on those and the two Patriot fumbles as well. Add in a missed "gimme" field goal and the Patriots have a lot of "should haves " to look at on film this week.


Also, don't forget the Patriots were giving snaps to Chad Ochocinco on offense and the defense was a mess in the secondary. The offensive line did alright, and needs to do better on the big stage, though.


A COUPLE BONUS KEYS (Always got a few extra keys on the key-chain, right?): 


4. Slowing down Eli Manning and Victor Cruz:
This is no Tim Tebow or even Joe Flacco the Patriots face in the Super Bowl.  Bill Belichick had better make a trip up the Mass Pike to Amherst and get the scoop on UMass alumni Victor Cruz because he makes big plays.  


5. Giants Tight End Jake Ballad
Ballard shredded the Patriots in the week nine Giants win, as all the tight ends around the league seemingly have big games against New England this season.  Four receptions for 67 yards and a TD, but the feeling seemed to be that he was open all game. Shore up the middle of the field, linebackers!

Bernard Pollard is Keeping it Classy

2011 NFL playoffs: Bernard Pollard hopes New York Giants 'put a thrashing' on New England Patriots - ESPN Boston
:

Bernard Pollard is keeping it classy.

"If the game got to overtime, we knew we were going to the Super Bowl," Pollard said of Sunday's AFC Championship game, which the Patriots won thanks to a missed Ravens field goal in the final seconds and a dropped pass in the end zone two plays earlier.

Seriously, why is this idiot even talking after the game. Coulda, shoulda, woulda. Somebody roll this loser back under his rock.


"To lose to a team like (the Patriots), the way we played. We played a good game," Pollard said. "You have to look at what the Giants have -- they have a front four that's relentless, they have a secondary that is really, really good. They have a linebacking corps that has been with them. The (Patriots') dinking and dunking, man, it's just not going to happen. They're going to have to take shots down the field."

"Dinking and dunking". Yeah, and your team played their best game of the season and it was not good enough. Wah, wah, wah, Pollard. Time to enjoy your spotlight for its last few seconds before you go back to the footnote to history that you are.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Review of my Key Points versus Baltimore

Am I an idiot? Did I know what I was talking about? Did I have any relevant insight in advance about how the Patriots won on Sunday? Join me for full accountability time as I review my Key Points versus Baltimore:

1. Pass protection for Tom Brady. 



I said:  In addition to this being simply the one thing the Patriots did NOT do in 2009, the Patriots have the ability, if Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer) is healthy to bring Nate Solder in as a 3rd tight end and basically give the team a six man offensive line. In that set they could line up Gronk tight to the line on the opposite side of Solder, put Aaron Hernandez in the backfield, Wes Welker in the slot strong or weak-side and Deion Branch out wide. Hernandez then can empty the backfield to the opposite side of Welker, he can split wide to allow the Patriots to have "trips" on one side and Gronk in isolation on the other side, or simply stay in the backfield as a 7th blocker or slip out for one of his short catches where he beats a linebacker and turns it into a big game.  

In reality:  Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer)  did not even dress for the game, but the offensive line had an overall great game.  Tom Brady stayed upright for the most part and the line opened some holes for Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis who had a strong game running the ball.  Nate Solder gave up a sack on one play where he was just plain beat.   If it only happened once that is not bad.

2.  Ray Rice as dual threat  

I said:  Ray Rice is the offense for the Baltimore Ravens. Period. Great job by Mike Reiss digging up the nugget about Dane Fletcher as spy on Rice ("like white on rice" is inappropriate and in poor taste, so I'm not making this pun here) as he did previously. Rice is a handful for any defense, and if the Ravens are to have any chance at all, they HAVE to have Joe Flacco attack the Patriots secondary deep with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin (deep middle of the field is where he works best). If the linebackers are up in the box, Flacco has the opportunity to strike deep. That said, San Diego had that same game plan against the Patriots, and once their running backs started putting the ball on the ground, a back and forth battle (Phil "Biff" Rivers is much more comparable and capable to hold his own in a shoot-out than Flacco) became a strong win for the Pats.

In reality:   I still feel very strongly that Philip Rivers should be referred to as Biff.  The Patriots front seven did a great job of containing Ray Rice, but did make Flacco try to beat them.  They, save for a few exceptions, kept Baltimore from connecting deep.  Other than Super Bowl costly drop at the end of the game in the end zone, Lee Evans made more plays than expected.  



3.  Who wins inside the 20?  
I said:  Red Zone offense and defense is something that seemingly comes up every time Bill Belichick is speaking. That Patriots game plan is built around scoring touchdowns on offense inside the 20 and holding their opponents to field goals. Danny Woodhead becomes a huge x-factor for New England in the Red Zone with his ability to operate out of the spread offense as a darting runner or catching a pass swung out of the backfield. With all the attention given (and rightfully so) to the tight ends ends and Wes Welker, Woodhead could end up with the ball in his hands in space with one man to make miss making the difference of four crucial points squarely on him. 

In reality:   Well, the call of Danny Woodhead as the X-Factor was dead-on, but for the wrong reason. His costly fumble turned momentum.  That said, on the Patriots eventual game-winning touchdown, it was Woodhead's run down to the one yard line that set-up Brady's "victory dive".  The Ravens kept the Patriots out of the end zone, and that is why they were able to stay in the game when the Patriots offense moved the ball more effectively.  A couple of field goals in the first half converted to touchdowns changes the whole dynamic of the game.


4.  Ravens' coverage vs. "Boston TE Party" 
I said:  Speaking of those tight ends, am I the only one that wants to see Bernard "Brady's knee" Pollard juked out of his shoes and breaking his ankles trying to stop Hernandez or getting bowled over in the open field by the runaway Gronk train? Again, a key in deciphering the Ravens pass defense has to start with Ed Reed and where he is on the field and what he sees going down. The man is simply the best secondary player in this generation, bar none. Charles Woodson is great, but he's no Ed Reed (and don't throw that weak-ass Troy Polamalu crap over here...the man is Brandon Meriweather running around out of position out on the field with a better PR man). 

In reality:   One good juke by Aaron Hernandez leaving Bernard Pollard grasping at air as he slithered out for a first down was the highlight. Of course, the one almost knock-out by Pollard with his (legal) tackle and twist of Gronk's ankle almost cost the Patriots a chance in the Super Bowl.  Two weeks of rest may do Gronkowski good.  Looking at where I wrote "breaking his ankles" and feeling a little sick to my stomach as I initially thought Gronk broke or tore something on that tackle.


5.  Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Patriots' Vince Wilfork 

I said:  Ah, yes. The two beasts of defense. In addition, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, et al need to be stout up front. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and the past two years (three if we count 2007 Super Bowl versus the Giants) in the playoffs the Patriots were dominated on both sides of the ball and lost winnable games. To get to the big game, this must not happen.  

In reality:   The biggest key of this game was the Patriots defensive line.  Their hogs showed up big time.  Pressure neutralized Joe Flacco when they needed to. After years of being spoiled by Tom Brady's poise in the pocket, it was so surprising to see Joe Flacco so roiled by pressure.  A fourth down pass lobbed so far out of bounds? Unfathomable.  Give Big Vince Wilfork his due: he made the plays! On the other side, the Patriots offensive line protected Brady. Haloti Ngata was effectively neutralized by Patriots interior line. Center Dan Connolly with Guards Brian Waters and Logan Mankins picked a great time to have their best game of the season.  Those three along with Vince Wilfork were the AFC Championship game MVPs.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Quick Hits - AFC Championship Game - 1/22/2012 - Patriots 23 Ravens 20

First reaction: Wow.  Patriots had no business winning this game. This was a Rodney Harrison/Ty Law/Tedy Bruschi/Richard Seymour Patriots win vintage 2001/2003/2004.  The Patriots could not make any big plays on offense but moved the ball.  The defense kept them in the game and made just enough plays to eke out a win where fortune fell their way.

The defense came out strong with three big three and outs. At that point, if the offense had been sharp, the game would have been over. Credit the Raven's defense, they slowed down the Patriots offense.  Brady made plays, but the big play was never there for the offense.  They Patriots were forced to fight for first downs and struggle down the field.  Once in the red zone, the Patriots wound up kicking too many field goals early.

The Ravens made some big plays down the field against the Patriots defense, but no team was able to pull away from the other.  Joe Flacco made some plays, but looked extremely uncomfortable under pressure.  Often times he had receivers open down field and didn't get the ball there, as the slightest contact by a defender made him throw the ball away.

The officials made it clear that there were going to be no ticky-tack calls during the game, letting defenders from both teams make contact down field.  Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis had to have his helmet ripped off to get a face mask penalty.  One Patriots drive in the first half was extended with an illegal contact call that resulted in Wes Welker making an adjustment and missing the ball which was intercepted.  Had the ball fallen incomplete, I'm not sure a flag would have flown.

Tom Brady had two poor throws, and as good defenses do, the Ravens made him pay each time by making athletic interceptions and keeping the Ravens in the game.  The second interception was particularly egregious as Brady lobbed the ball up in the middle of the field for Matthew Slater immediately after a potentially momentum changing pick by Brandon Spikes.  A controlled, patient, time-consuming drive down the field featuring the hard-charging running of Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis could have broken the backs of the Ravens.



Also, trying to drive and run down the clock, I was very confused by the second down call before the two-minute warning where Bill O'Brien called a toss sweep to Ben-Jarvis Green-Ellis on second and three.  Green-Ellis had been a beast running between the tackles all game.  Deviating at that point made no sense. A toss sweep to a shifty back like Danny Woodhead would have made more sense than giving it to Green-Ellis. The third down call to Aaron Hernandez was a fine call, a first down being more important than running the clock down a few seconds.  It should have worked but, again, the Ravens defense played it well.

The Ravens have the whole off-season to kick themselves after that final drive.  Let me point out that Bill Belichick did not "ice" the Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff or make the ridiculous move that some coaches make of running onto the field and calling a timeout a split second before the ball is hiked. The Ravens still had a timeout and chose not to take it.  I thought they looked rushed getting out on the field to get ready for the field goal even though there was no doubt they had to kick the potential game-tying field goal.at that point.

That said, the Ravens had the game won.  Buffalo Bills cast-off Lee Evans had a touchdown in his hands and had no excuse to drop it. A great effort by Sterling Moore to make a play there.  Then, when the Ravens had a chance for first and goal at the two yard line, Sterling Moore again made a great effort to knock the pass down and forcing the Ravens to try to tie the game.

Billy Cundiff had no excuse for missing the kick,  The snap was fine. The punter handled it clean, got the ball down, and had the laces out.  Cundiff rushed and hooked it bad.  A bad kick by a Pro Bowl kicker.  Ouch. Cundiff  missed bad. The ball was on the right hash mark and he hooked it past the left upright and missed the net behind the goal posts by a good margin. A painful loss for the Ravens, as the opportunities were there.

Make no doubt, the Patriots need to play a lot better in two weeks to win that elusive fourth title.

5 Key Points - Patriots versus Ravens 1/22/2012 AFC Championship

Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com has long been a favorite writer for his insight and passion for covering the Patriots in direct contrast to some "Superstars of the Media" of this city that "boasts" blow-hards like Ron Borges, Dan "CHB" Shaughnessy, John Tomase, "Gresh", "Felgie", and other winners who come and go in the local sports media. Reiss has constantly reached out to the fan-base and even brought their questions directly to the coach or player at the podium while striving to actually give a well-thought, cogent opinion to go along with the news he regularly brings. This morning he posts his Things to watch: Patriots-Ravens and I just wanted to bring attention to the article add my 2 cents.

1. Pass protection for Tom Brady. If Brady has time to throw, like he did in the divisional round against the Denver Broncos, the Patriots are at their highest level of explosiveness. This puts the spotlight on left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, center Dan Connolly, right guard Brian Waters and right tackle Nate Solder. If third-year offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer (back/foot) is cleared to play, that would further bolster the Patriots up front. Empty sets, with no players in the offensive backfield along with Brady, are a big part of the Patriots' attack and that will be a game within the game to monitor in terms of how the Ravens defend "empty" looks. 
In addition to this being simply the one thing the Patriots did NOT do in 2009, the Patriots have the ability, if Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer) is healthy to bring Nate Solder in as a 3rd tight end and basically give the team a six man offensive line.  In that set they could line up Gronk tight to the line on the opposite side of Solder, put Aaron Hernandez in the backfield, Wes Welker in the slot strong or weak-side and Deion Branch out wide.  Hernandez then can empty the backfield to the opposite side of Welker, he can split wide to allow the Patriots to have "trips" on one side and Gronk in isolation on the other side, or simply stay in the backfield as a 7th blocker or slip out for one of his short catches where he beats a linebacker and turns it into a big game.

2. Ray Rice as dual threat There were only two running backs in the NFL who led their team in rushing yards and receptions -- Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte. This is priority No. 1 for the Patriots' defense, limiting Rice on the ground (1,364 yards, 2nd in NFL) while also accounting for him in the passing game (76 receptions) as a check-down option. Looking for a possible unsung contributor, perhaps it's linebacker Dane Fletcher. He helped "spy" Rice in a 2010 regular-season meeting between the teams. 
Ray Rice is the offense for the Baltimore Ravens. Period. Great job by Mike Reiss digging up the nugget about Dane Fletcher as spy on Rice ("like white on rice" is inappropriate and in poor taste, so I'm not making this pun here) as he did previously. Rice is a handful for any defense, and if the Ravens are to have any chance at all, they HAVE to have Joe Flacco attack the Patriots secondary deep with Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin (deep middle of the field is where he works best).  If the linebackers are up in the box, Flacco has the opportunity to strike deep.  That said, San Diego had that same game plan against the Patriots, and once their running backs started putting the ball on the ground, a back and forth battle (Phil "Biff" Rivers is much more comparable and capable to hold his own in a shoot-out than Flacco) became a strong win for the Pats.

3. Who wins inside the 20? The Ravens ranked first in the NFL in red zone defense (TD percentage), surrendering just 16 touchdowns in 42 trips. The Patriots' red zone offense was the NFL's second-best, with 47 touchdowns in 72 trips. It's a battle of strength on strength inside the 20, where the space gets tight. Look for the Patriots to go empty to try to loosen things up.
Red Zone offense and defense is something that seemingly comes up every time Bill Belichick is speaking.  That Patriots game plan is built around scoring touchdowns on offense inside the 20 and holding their opponents to field goals.  Danny Woodhead becomes a huge x-factor for New England in the Red Zone with his ability to operate out of the spread offense as a darting runner or catching a pass swung out of the backfield.  With all the attention given (and rightfully so) to the tight ends ends and Wes Welker, Woodhead could end up with the ball in his hands in space with one man to make miss making the difference of four crucial points squarely on him.

4. Ravens' coverage vs. "Boston TE Party" Few teams have had the answers to limit Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez this season. Safety Bernard Pollard figures to be involved in some form, so that will be a matchup to watch. One other possible wrinkle: The Patriots have had success going with a three-tight end package at times -- using offensive lineman Nate Solder as the third option -- and then throwing out of it. When looking to strike the balance between playing physical up front but also maintaining a threat in the passing game, that could be an effective approach at times. 
Speaking of those tight ends, am I the only one that wants to see Bernard "Brady's knee" Pollard juked out of his shoes and breaking his ankles trying to stop Hernandez or getting bowled over in the open field by the runaway Gronk train?  Again, a key in deciphering the Ravens pass defense has to start with Ed Reed and where he is on the field and what he sees going down.  The man is simply the best secondary player in this generation, bar none. Charles Woodson is great, but he's no Ed Reed (and don't throw that weak-ass Troy Polamalu crap over here...the man is Brandon Meriweather running around out of position out on the field with a better PR man).

5. Ravens' Haloti Ngata vs. Patriots' Vince Wilfork The two defensive linemen won't be on the field at the same time, but they represent what this game figures to be all about -- an all-out slugfest at the line of scrimmage. They are the two most powerful players on both teams' defense. We remember the 2009 wild-card round game in which Ray Rice raced 83 yards on the first offensive play, with Wilfork brushed to the side. If the Ravens can establish that type of command up front, it could be a long day for the Patriots. The Patriots seem better prepared to avoid that type of performance this time around.
Ah, yes. The two beasts of defense. In addition, Kyle Love, Gerard Warren, Shaun Ellis, Ron Brace, et al need to be stout up front.  Games are won and lost in the trenches, and the past two years (three if we count 2007 Super Bowl versus the Giants) in the playoffs the Patriots were dominated on both sides of the ball and lost winnable games.  To get to the big game, this must not happen. 

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Spare Neurons

Here is where you find the random thoughts, caffeine-fueled rants, "smacking the dashboard and screaming at radio hosts" diatribes, and bizarre observations that pop into my head and are not worthy of a full post:



  • Drunk Jays Fanshttp://www.drunkjaysfans.com/ - - This is a great blog.  Granted, the poor bastard is a Toronto Fan in the A.L.East ruled by the free-spending Steinbrenners', Disciples of Joe Maddon (does he have his own religion in Tampa yet?), and my sisters of the poor here in Boston.  But any blog with a WADE BOGGS HEAD prominently displayed earns my instant respect. (And the Jays are coming. Beware fellow Red Sox fans: Toronto is miles ahead of Baltimore in terms of possibly competing for 3rd place and on the rise!)
  • Hard to believe I used to mock the Bruins regularly for not attempting to even compete for a championship and the hearts (and WALLETS!) of the fan base.  Now, my son even knows half the roster and recognizes Brad Marchand in some horrible hockey wholesale place commercial.
  • Getting anxious here in Celtics viewership-land here, Danny Ainge.  Mighty anxious.  Just sayin'...
  • Why Chad Finn at the Boston Globe rocks, reason # 1,568: His tweet after the Scutaro trade: "At age 20, Bobby Valentine hit .340 with a .910 OPS in Triple A. His position was shortstop. As far as I'm concerned, Scutaro's job is his."
  • Speaking of my man Marco, now that he has been traded, does that mean I have to change my fantasy baseball team name from "Scu-Scu-Scutaro"? 
  • Also, who the heck plays shortstop now? Mike Aviles? 
  • What did the Red Sox get for Scutaro? Clay Mortensen: A 26 year-old former pitching prospect, aka roster filler. Yes, it was an official salary dump.
  • Dear Red Sox Management, This is a work in progress, no?
  • I want to go on record to say that my prediction is that Wes Welker will have a HUGE game against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game.  As in un-coverable, playoff-record shattering stats, and be the key to a big win on Sunday. 

Marco? Marco? Mmmmmmmmmmmmaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrccccccccccccccooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!

Your small-market, low-spending, cash-strapped Boston Red Sox are desperately trying to free up cash to acquire a premium starting pitcher.  Please, call John "Jimmy Swaggert" Henry!  Send your $20! Your $30! Your $50!  YOUR Red Sox need cash!  YOUR cash!

The needy Sox (do their red socks need darning and can't afford to be sewn?) traded shortstop Marco Scutaro a few months after trading their other shortstop (Jed Lowrie).  Umm, I am all for trading for pitching at ANY time, but seriously?  Free up money for Roy Oswalt or outfielder Cody Ross?  I am both flabbergasted and speechless.


  • So that John Lackey signing for $17.5 million per year? Wasted cash.  Sure would be nice to dump that into Liverpool for that mid-fielder they need for the Mersey Derby next year...umm, I mean a shortstop for the Red Sox. 
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka? Wasted cash.  
  • Carl Crawford? How much money to fill out the disabled list? 


Something tells me Ben "Boy Wonder" Cherington is thinking that he and Theo "He who shall not be named" vociferously fought against these "seat-fillers" eating up the budget and not waiting for Anthony Rizzo to develop at first base instead of unloading him (and other prospects) for Adrian Gonzalez (of whom I am a huge fan of and think is a great fit, btw).

Well, I guess those insanely priced tickets (for regular and exhibition games!) along with the pound and pounds of crap related to "Red Sox Inc." that ownership grubs from Joe Everyday Fan is desperately needed to field a competitive team (for Liverpool and Roush Racing!).

Turn-over and Turnovers

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the Patriots in their 2009 playoff loss to the Ravens have Ben Watson and Chris Baker at tight end, Randy "I give up" Moss, Sam Aiken, and rookie Julian Edelman at wide receiver (and don't forget converted quarterback Isaiah Stanback at wide receiver, because I know I did!) and last and certainly least Laurence Maroney and Fred Taylor at running back?  This is not the same Patriots team other than a few key players. This was a completely different team altogether.  

PATRIOTS 2009 DEFENSIVE STARTERS VERSUS BALTIMORE:
DE: Ty Warren NT: Vince Wilfork DE: Jarvis Green OLB: Adalius Thomas ILB: Jerod Mayo ILB: Gary Guyton OLB: Tully Banta-Cain CB: Shawn Springs CB: Leigh Bodden S: James Sanders S: Brandon Meriweather
The defense that got shredded returns all of Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo as contributors.  Showing up in the 2009 Playoff game included Brandon Meriweather watching Ray Rice run past him on the opening play 83 yard touchdown run, James Sanders at the other safety a step slow as usual. With Leigh Bodden at one corner and Darius Butler splitting time with malcontent Shawn Springs, this secondary makes Kyle Arrington and Devin McCourty seem like the belles of the ball. 

With Mayo at linebacker was Gary Guyton (still on the team, not seen on the field in a while), Tully Banta-Cain, Adalius Thomas, and the corpse of Junior Seau.  Yikes.  Defensive line alongside Wilfork  had rookie Myron Pryor (on injured reserve presently), Ty Warren, and Jarvis Green.   Any wonder this defense was shredded?  Now the Patriots have a good run defense and have locked down opposing offenses in the red zone. 

Remember as well, this 2009 Patriots team was the first team since 2002 that got away from Bill Belichick in the clubhouse and spilled over into sloppy, undisciplined and poor play on the field. There was Randy Moss showing up late, Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs undermining the coaching staff. Hardly a team that was prepared to make a run through the playoffs.  

PATRIOTS 2009 OFFENSIVE STARTERS VERSUS BALTIMORE:
LT: Matt Light LG: Logan Mankins C: Dan Koppen RG: Stephen Neal RT: Sebastian Vollmer TE: Chris Baker QB: Tom Brady WR: Randy Moss WR: Julian Edelman WR: Sam Aiken RB: Laurence Maroney
On offense the Patriots return Tom Brady and a few offensive linemen.  Seriously.  Matt Light and Logan Mankins return. No Dan Koppen at center is a bit of a loss, but they have survived without Koppen all year and can do no worse than Koppen did in that playoff game against Haloti Ngata who tossed him around all game. Marcus Cannon is looking like a 5th round steal filling in at tackle and guard like Seabass (Sebastian Vollmer)did in 2009.  Rookie Nate Solder is a beast at right tackle and a definite upgrade over Nick Kaczur who manned right tackle in 2009, and Brian Waters is doing so well at right guard that one wonders if Scott Pioli released Waters because he owed Bill Belichick a favor.  Waters is a huge upgrade over Stephen Neal who was struggling to stay healthy in 2009.

Add in Wes Welker blowing out his knee the week before in their last regular season game in 2009 against Houston (how does everyone forget that?), and that Patriots team was a beaten-down group who had already given-up on their season and had graduated to a status of being classified as no more than Tom Brady and the walking dead. This team could not win on the road. This team got beat by the freaking Dolphins.  This was the year of the melt-down against the Saints where everyone shut off the TV and said "Are the Saints that good or the Pats so bad?" (the answer was Yes and Yes). Do you remember these two incidents from 2009? 
Randy Moss' effort called into question: A firestorm ensued when two Carolina Panthersdefenders said that Moss shut it down during the Patriots’ 20-10 win on Dec. 13 (2009). Owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and Brady threw their support behind Moss. 
Players showing up late for a team meeting: On a snowy, icy Wednesday morning, Derrick BurgessGary Guyton, Moss and Adalius Thomas were sent home by Belichick for being late to an 8 a.m. meeting.  (from: Mike Reiss, ESPNBOSTON.com 1/10/2010)
So if the Ravens can hold Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to 2 receptions for 5 yards like the dynamic duo of Ben Watson and Chris Baker had in 2009, I like the Ravens chances to win.  If the Patriots have to give Kevin Faulk over 20 touches because there is no other offensive weapon for Brady, then these Baltimore Ravens have a real chance tomorrow. But, please, the 2011 Patriots are so very, very different from the 2009 Patriots.  It is hardly a valid comparison.  Call it apples to oranges.  With no disrespect to a defense with Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs, and Ed Reed, but I like the Patriots chances in the AFC Championship game much more than in the 2009 playoff mess. 

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