Friday, November 30, 2007

Five that Matter: Dec. 2, 2007

Legitimately, Green Bay at Dallas was the game of the week. If you're like 95% of football watching America and missed the game last night, I hate to break it to you but the recaps don't do it justice. Aaron Rodgers was, to say the least, impressive, in his relief of Brett Favre (who'd been laying bricks all night). The Cowboys looked great for an NFC team. Cris Collinsworth calling a game is a thing of beauty. He provides just the right mix of snark, "shut the hell up, Bryant," and genius game analysis to make me forget Marv Albert ever did this job for a living.

Incidentally, having NFL Network isn't a testament to my hardcore football love, but rather to the fact that my roommate insists on having the Sundance Channel and Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles really, really stinks (Seriously, if I wanted to get charged for 6 months of cable service I didn't order, I would have asked for it. Jerks.). Hooray for Dish Network.

The Other 5 To Watch

Jets at Dolphins

Our throwaway entry is a matchup of the stoppable force versus the movable object. This game has no significance to anyone outside of New York or Miami, but I live in The City, so who cares what those people think. For the Jets, this is going to be a critical test for The American Dream Kellen Clemens. He’ll need to prove he can helm this team against a similarly talented squad and inject the offense with some much needed life if he’s going to convince the Jets that they should pass up on any of the potentially stunning QB talents in the upcoming draft. For the Dolphins, this is the last chance to get a win. Buffalo is good enough to survive a team as bad as they are, the Ravens still have too good a defense, the Pats are the Pats, and Cincy’s offense will put up 63 to Miami’s 21. It’s a yuckfest, but we’re on the brink of history here, people.

Jaguars at Colts

The Jaguars are a weird team to root for. Firmly in second place in their division, coming off off an impressive defeat of division rival Tennessee and the San Diego Chargers, they still couldn't sell out last week's game at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium. Even the people of Jacksonville don't seem to care much about this team, and yet they're winning anyway, almost in spite of Jack del Rio looking silly in a suit.

If I hear one more news report about the bursitis in Marvin Harrison's knee, what Dwight Freeney's foot means in the grand cosmological order of the universe, or the mystery of Adam Vinatieri's recent hookfest, I may just puke. The bottom line is that the Colts need to win this game. New England, remember, plays a bunch of games against the rest of the AFC East. If the Colts don't beat the Jags, there's the distinct possibility they'll tie the Jaguars for the AFC South. Bye-bye bye week.

Steelers at Bengals

The Steelers are the biggest enigma of this NFL season, and the entire mystery is wrapped around Ben Roethlisberger and the offense. Defensively, this team is creating havoc for opponents. Linebackers attack seemingly at will from any point on the field, and Troy Polamalu continues to act as the wonderful, menacing anchor of the unit, making quarterbacks pay for every misread defense, every errant throw, every poor decision. Offensively, however, the team has shown two very distinct identities, and it’s time for one of the two to declare itself the dominant personality, lest the schizophrenia derail the entire season as the surging Browns bear down. As easy at it would be to lay the blame for this confusion at the feet of Big Ben, doing so would be a mistake. Whereas in the past Ben’s inner gunslinger has been a liability to a team that thrives on slow, methodical, torturous offense, this season it has been the very quality that makes the team terrifying to face. When Ben is able to unleash all of his physical gifts, there isn’t a defense that can account for a quarterback with the arm to hit any point on the field, the mobility to create his own offense, and the sense of daring to do both without hesitation. What’s more, Ben’s physical stature allows him to do all of this with the kind of time that would make lesser quarterbacks panic; watching defenders try and drag him down I get the same feeling biblical spectators must have had watching lesser challengers face Goliath: Cute effort, but it’s going to take a little more than that.

But if Ben’s cohorts on offense aren’t able to give him the opportunities he needs to use his incredible gifts, then this offense is prone to the kinds of errors that always plague a unit with questionable line play. What’s worse, they face an offense this week that will make them pay for missed opportunities. Perhaps what makes this Bengals squad so scary to legitimate contenders is that when they have nothing to play for, they have nothing to lose, and the full arsenal of their offensive might is free to be unleashed on opponents. Last week, in their three touchdown bonanza, Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson showed an emotion that’s been sorely missing from that squad all year: Anger. Pure, bitter, unmitigated anger at fans and pundits that questioned their talent level. Chad’s camera celebration last week was the perfect metaphor for what his performance meant: He was seizing control of his image once and for all. Don’t doubt that they’ll have the same fire against the team that has taken what so many believed was rightfully the Bengals’ division. So it is up to the rest of the offense to allow Ben the opportunity to work, to create his magic out of nothing at all. Hines Ward needs to decide he’s a less heralded version of T.O. after all. Willie Parker needs to realize that if he doesn’t become an elite back now, in this offense, he may never have the chance again. Santonio Holmes needs to be asked to become a man sooner than anyone thought he would. This will be a battle between a team that is finding itself too late and a team that needs to find itself before it’s too late.

Lions at Vikings

God's team is on the ropes. Losers of 3 straight, with an offensive line composed of fat guys who get pushed around a lot, a quarterback who is frequently thrown on his back, and a defense that lets Ryan Grant gain 100+ yards on them is in dire need of some divine intervention. A win keeps them in the play off hunt. A loss drops them to 6-6 which I find funny, but I'm kind of lame like that.

Adrian Peterson is probable for Sunday's game. I really don't care about anything else. But since Zac is a stickler for "content": the other Vikes running back is also very good (better than Cedric Benson, anyway). They totally dominate on run defense. Their supposedly atrocious pass defense completely dismembered Eli Manning last weekend. Tavaris Jackson can hand off 80% of his downs and look like a genius. This is the Vikings pre-playoff-playoff game. A win keeps 'em in it, despite the lousy start. The NFC is that bad this season.

Buccaneers at Saints

I don’t understand the Bucs. Really, I don’t. The only theory I have is that Jon Gruden is the movie monster of the NFL: Attack him, hit him, even hurt him, but he just won’t die. How he’s taken a defense that is older than dirt and turned it into a top ten defense is baffling; how he’s taken an offense that started with nothing special BEFORE its only glimmer of hope was destroyed and turned it into a division leading squad is nothing short of a miracle. This team, must like its head coach, frustratingly survives despite all of its shortcomings. Perhaps that’s what I missed when I had this team in the cellar of their division. Adding Jeff Garcia, a proven survivor, to a squad already built around key pieces that were racing against their own demise gave this team an edge, a ruthlessness for which very few opponents have been prepared. Joey Galloway is playing like he discovered the fountain of youth, Gruden has found a quarterback that makes his complicated west coast offense a thing of beauty, and Earnest Graham (EARNEST GRAHAM?) plays with the young grizzle that only comes with obscurity. In short, this team is dangerously close to being the least predictable playoff squad in the NFC, helmed by a quarterback and a coach that are thriving with little more than an uncanny ability to get by.

By contrast, the Saints have become the Bengals of the NFC, and owe a weaker conference a debt of gratitude for allowing them to hang around despite their obvious underachievement. As such, however, there is still time for the pieces that made this team so devastating on offense last year to find themselves, and if they do, I have little doubt that they can go toe to toe with anyone in a shootout. To do so, however, they’ll need the centerpiece of their offense, Reggie Bush, to add elements to his game that have been sorely missing. He doesn’t have to become an elite north-south back, but he does need to make teams believe he can attack the hole hard enough to nickel-and-dime defenses to death if allowed to do so. If he can keep defenses honest, and Sean Payton can find ways to turn him into the amorphous offensive weapon he was so clearly meant to be, Reggie Bush, the little back who’s gained a rep for being too small, could carry the weight of his team all the way to playoff success.

The one thing both of these teams have in common is that they’re just unpredictable enough to be the kind of opponent no squad would want to see in a playoff game. The Saints, though abysmally inconsistent this year, are just one clicking cog away from becoming an scoreboard turning machine. The Bucs, the epitome of a team backed into a corner, have enough veteran resilience to survive and enough craftiness to find and exploit any weakness their opponents reveal. If either one of these teams stumbles into the playoffs having found themselves through the brutality that has been the inconsistent NFC this year, nobody will know what to make of them…a fact that should terrify any potential opponent.

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