Friday, October 26, 2007

Five That Matter – 10-26-2007

Every Friday, Alex and Zac come together and pick the five games that they feel best advance the epic story that is the NFL season, and point out the important football and narrative implications of each game.
5. Giants vs. Dolphins

The game itself shouldn’t matter. By halftime, Eli will have thrown for two scores, Cleo Lemon will have been sacked at least twice, and the 22 foot animatronic Jason Taylor Robot will be weeping tears of oil and emotions it hasn’t been programmed to understand. What is interesting here is that the NFL is taking its product overseas in the hopes of spreading the joy of football (REAL football, you limey bastards!) overseas. True, the sell of “watch Cleo Lemon’s career end” isn’t a good one, but the Giants have fireworks on both sides of the ball, and Eli Manning is pasty and ugly enough to pass for British, so the game has that going for it. In any event, with the league as popular as ever stateside, the time has never been better to test the waters of international expansion. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’m into the idea of turning my favorite sport into a battle of world powers. The sport is already one that lends itself to combat metaphors; why not make it a world war?

4. Lions vs. Bears
Between the joyful surprise of the Packers, the high flying revival of the Lions, and the inexplicable fall of the Bears, the NFC North is fast becoming one of the more interesting divisions on football. This week, two of those teams square off for a matchup that will determine which one has legitimate intentions of making the playoffs, and who’s just hanging around until an inevitable near miss.

For the Bears, this has been a strange season. The formula didn’t seem to have changed all that much, and ruthless efficiency was still the order of the day. Yet perhaps in their endless quest to streamline their system, the Bears managed to remove the one or two squeaky wheels that made the whole machine run. Tank Johnson is gone from the middle of the line on defense, and the team is getting gouged on the ground. Thomas Jones was sent away to make Cedric Benson happy, and the running offense has become equally abysmal. Having turned the team over to steady hand of Brian Griese, the antithesis of Rex Grossman’s wild flashes of brilliance and ruin, this Sunday represents a crossroads game for Chicago, a team that is dangerously close to losing its death grip on the division.

For Detroit, the season has been everything Jon Kitna thought it could be thus far. With a high flying pass offense that has lived up to the hype, the apostle Kitna is proving doubters wrong throw by throw. He’ll have to keep it up too, because the run game has been slow to catch up, though the return of Kevin Jones is promising. The defense has been equally unimpressive. Even so, this team is somehow two games over .500, and well within reach of the division crown. If they can finish off the Bears, sweeping them for the season, the Lions will have taken great strides toward their own redemption. Jon Kitna tried to warn all of you the rapture was near; let’s see if he’s a prophet or another lunatic shouting at the skies.

3. Jaguars vs. Buccaneers

Both of these teams are coming off of tough losses, and both of these teams are solid, with their fair share of doubters. For the Buccaneers, it’s been a season of victories that embody veteran craft. On offense and defense, the team is nowhere near as good as its record would indicate, but they win where it counts: The scoreboard. This is particularly true on defense, where the Bucs allow the fifth fewest points in the league, even though their statistical performance elsewhere is in the bottom half of the league. What remains to be seen is whether or not Jon Gruden coaches with the same sense of urgency now that his job is a bit more secure.

The Jaguars, by contrast, have made their bones by becoming a brutalizing force on the field. They pound the ball on the run game, possessing the league’s third most productive rush offense, courtesy of the best running back tandem in the league. On defense, they give up their fair share of yardage, but are extremely stingy about points, giving up the second fewest points of any team. Del Rio has made this team in his own image, a plodding giant that knows nothing of finesse, and in a league that has forgotten how to play hard nosed, slow paced football, he’s made it into a winner. A win here would return his squad to their slow trail toward the playoffs, where their unique style of football could prove puzzling to the lighter, faster, happier squads of the AFC elite.

Look for a war of attrition, with both coaches having shown themselves to be far more cunning than their detractors would have you believe. Both teams are tight fisted about giving away opportunities to win, and equally capable of seizing even the smallest opportunity and taking advantage of it. Probably not a pretty game, but an important one for anyone looking forward to watch.

2. Colts vs. Panthers
The basic underlying principal in economics is the maximization of utility. In terms of most bang for your buck fun, Colts vs Panthers may not seem like much. Indy is playing like a Zen monk meditates—quietly, calmly, and and fully in touch with the inner void. They don't do things like run up the score, don't have calamitous break downs on D, and are so all around solid it's a little hard to pay attention to them. The Panthers are a winning team, but I can't for the life of me explain how, other than Steve Smith warps time and space around him, their defense isn't bad, and they've won against scrubs: The Saints when they sucked, the Falcons, St. Louis, and the Cards starring Tim Rattay. Vinny Testaverde is providing further proof that the baby boom generation absolutely will not relinquish its time in the spot light.

What makes this game interesting in the grand scheme o' things is its implications for dum… dum…DUM the Pats/Colts showdown at the Horse Shoe (yes, I know I may be the only person who calls it that). Will it be a battle of the undefeateds? A proud one-loss team taking on the last undefeated team? It's up to the Panthers to decide the Colts end of the equation. Hopefully they'll make a game of it.

1. Redskins vs. Patriots

Readers of this blog are well aware that the Redskins have become something of an obsession of mine this season, particularly given my own squad’s poor play. Defying traditional notions of team chemistry and its role in victory, this band of nomads and mercenaries has marched across the league, losing only twice in two close games to solid opponents. In their victories, they’ve looked impressive. The offense, though still gelling, has all the pieces necessary to be a force. Helmed by The Behemoth under center, growing each week that his receivers don’t drop the ball, the threat of a quick strike offense has actually made the potent combination of Portis and Betts effective on the ground. Meanwhile, the defense is brutal. A squad of high priced free agents who love destruction and nothing else, the team hits hard and forces high powered offenses to stay on the ground thanks to the most dangerous secondary in the league. This isn’t your dad’s football team. This isn’t “underdogs overcoming adversity.” This is talent winning out over scrappy, unified opponents. The Redskins are overpowering not only other teams, but every conception of what a winner is supposed to look like in the NFL.

Were they playing a different team, they’d be the same great villain that they’ve been this entire season; however, they play this season’s ultimate villain this week. If you don’t live in the New England area, then the Patriots are ruining everything you love about the NFL season. Simply put, the team looks unbeatable. The defense harasses opponents on the ground, and is continuing to get better as players return and become reabsorbed to the hive mentality. On offense, the team flies effortlessly through the skies, with Randy Moss making everyone forget how he tore apart a franchise and Tom Brady sneering his way into the hearts of women who don’t know better everywhere. Even as they play some of the most exciting football we’ve seen in years, the team maintains their obnoxious sense of entitlement and walks with the same unattractive chip on their shoulder they’ve always had, making their dominance all the more unbearable. Now, on the verge of a matchup with fellow member of the league of undefeateds, the Colts, the Patriots have one more neck to step on before the clash of the titans sports pundits are all eagerly awaiting.

As such, the Redskins are America’s antiheroes, Han Solos in a world looking for a Luke Skywalker to defeat Emperor Belichick. The Redskins have been defying conventional beliefs of what a winner looks like for the entire year, and I think this is the week they defy the belief that the Patriots are the unstoppable force of the league. This is the week that the weaknesses of the Patriots come into the light. The league needs New England to be beaten. The Behemoth and his three headed hydra of a pass attack need to connect deep, exposing a secondary that shouldn’t be quick enough to keep up. Portis and Betts need to use their unique blend of joy and pain to keep the Patriots front seven on their toes. Most of all, the defense needs to hold the line the same way it has all season. Shawn Springs needs to remind Randy Moss why he was a Pro Bowler. Fred Smoot needs to remind Donte’ Stallworth that he’s never been an elite receiver. The highly paid linebacking corps needs to show Wes Welker that white receivers went the way of the Dodo when Wayne Chrebet retired. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the tandem of Sean Taylor and LaRon Landry need to remind the Pats receivers what it feels like to be hit by a big, fast, angry human being, and remind Tom Brady how hard it is to try and outmaneuver one of the most athletic pass defenders in the league. Clinton Portis says that the Redskins have just as talented a team as the Patriots, talk that makes no sense to sports columnists who have been crowning the inevitably 16-0 Patriots all season long. But to the Redskins, who have played like a team that never picked up a sports page in their life, it’s the same thing they’ve known all year, and on Sunday, they get a chance to prove it.

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