Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How Long Must Drew Pearson Wait?

Coming to the Super Bowl every year is a real pleasure for a football junkie. It is a chance to see the meeting place of everyone who is anyone in the NFL historical archives mixing with the present day stars. It can be a bit much, but I never get tired of celebrating the greatest sport of them all one more week before we send it away on its offseason vacation for several months before it starts again in the late summer.

As everyone jokes, there is actually a game at the end of the long week (which we will get to soon enough), but along the way there are several items of business that must be conducted. Easily the most interesting item to me is the annual Hall of Fame selection meetings, where new players are selected to be enshrined in to the hallowed hall in Canton, Ohio.

This year, 15 finalists will be considered as well as 2 additional senior committee finalists. These 17 names will be broken down and carefully examined over the course of many hours on the day before Super Bowl 46. Those with local ties include Charles Haley, Tim Brown, and the legendary coach, Bill Parcells. It will be interesting to see if any or all of those 3 can run the gauntlet to the finish line, as the pro football HOF continues to pride itself on being a very difficult building to enter for a candidate.

But, every time I see another year come and go in the hall of fame selections, it makes me wonder about another Cowboys' great that I have a hard time understanding why he is absent from the yellow jacket club.

Up through 2005, there was a woeful under-representation of Dallas Cowboys in Canton. One of the most prolific franchises in the history of the sport had only 5 players who played the majority of their careers in Dallas. Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, Randy White, Tony Dorsett, and Mel Renfro.

Then, in 2006, those many arguments of an "Anti-Cowboys Bias" began to melt away as 6 Cowboys were added in the next 6 seasons. Troy Aikman, Rayfield Wright, Michael Irvin, Bob Hayes, Emmitt Smith, and last season, Deion Sanders were all put into the Hall. 11 primary Cowboys now move the franchise way closer to being properly represented with Haley certainly soon behind and Larry Allen a short distance down the road.

There are certainly others who time is getting closer to forgetting, and one in particular that really bothers me: The absence of Drew Pearson.

Pearson's career speaks for itself if you have even the slightest grasp of NFL history. Hardly a NFL Films reel can be shown without Pearson's greatness spilling onto the screen. He made plays. Historic plays. Plays in historic games that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed them.

And yet, he has not been inducted. The Senior Committee could right this wrong down the road, so Drew must wait - like he did for the Cowboys Ring of Honor for so many years, but it is imperative for those of us in the media that feel this is a severe oversight to not let the issue die until he is in.

Many will tell you it is simply a raw numbers issue, and in fairness to those who may have that argument, his numbers are exceeded by several from his era. If it is simply a question of total receptions or yards, Charlie Joiner, Steve Largent, and James Lofton will have quite an advantage over Pearson. On the other hand, you can put all of their post season numbers together and Pearson could measure right up.

What makes Pearson a legend was simply knowing the league. Knowing the most dangerous receivers on the most dangerous teams and seeing that Drew Pearson was always a factor. 22 playoff games in his 11 seasons attests that he played in games that mattered when the world was watching. And the fact that you can picture many of his playoff moments of greatness right now as you read this suggest that this shouldn't be too complicated to consider.

And yet, here we sit. He is out, while those with similar resumes - Lynn Swann and John Stallworth are both in. It has been said a million times "to the victors go the spoils", and I get that. But, that would seem to suggest that the Cowboys never had their day. This isn't an Andre Reed (0 rings in 4 Super Bowls) vs Michael Irvin (3 rings in 3 tries) case. Reed never won the big game. Pearson was a part of Super Bowl 12's celebration. Reed belongs in the hall, too, but the fact that he will likely get in this week and Pearson may have to wait much longer is just not right to me.

If Jackie Smith makes the catch in the end zone or the Benny Barnes pass interference is called differently, is Pearson in and some guy in Pittsburgh is still petitioning to get Swann in the Hall? Is that how we measure decade long careers?

Swann is in the HOF for reasons that numbers cannot justify. Here are the 3 receivers from the two rivals of the 1970s:


HTML Tables

Quite comparable, right? Stallworth and Swann have both been inducted. Pearson is no longer even a finalist. The numbers will look quite pedestrian to those who are playing today. Tim Brown and Cris Carter dominate these numbers and Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson will have no problem blowing by them all. But this is about era-context. In 1977, Pearson led the NFL with 870 receiving yards. 870 yards in 2011 would have ranked Drew 35th in the NFL. Behind Michael Crabtree (874) and in front of Jeremy Maclin (859) and Laurent Robinson (858). The game is played quite differently today, so we must simply compare players to those in their era and in similar situations. That is why this 3-man comparison seems proper.

Here is the same chart, but just playoff numbers:


HTML Tables

Again, I feel that Drew Pearson needs no defense with these numbers. Those guys were in - not because of their raw stats that Steve Largent could mock. Instead, they are in because they were who they were on teams that were outstanding. Nobody would take that away from the Steelers any more than someone would try to say Joe Namath doesn't belong in the HOF because he has thrown 47 more interceptions than touchdowns. The Hall is not just about numbers. It is about players that made the league what the league is today. Legends who made memories.

And yet, the guy who caught the original "Hail Mary", the guy who wore 88 as the #1 receiver for Roger Staubach, the guy who was a one-handed tackle from rendering "the Catch" meaningless is not in the Hall.

At some point, #88 will hopefully be no longer overlooked. But in a hall where Lynn Swann was recognized for being more than just a numbers account, I have to believe that it is a shame that Drew Pearson is not afforded the same respect.

Let's hope that gets fixed soon.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Wondering About Beaubois

I really enjoy the sports debates that require note-taking so you can remember your own personal feelings at points in time. In 2009, you felt this way, but in 2010, you changed your mind and went the other direction. Then, last year, you realized you were right back in 2009 and went wayward in 2010. Sorry about that. But, now in 2012, you wonder if you were right back in 2010, after you were wrong in 2009 and before you were wrong again in 2011.

It all makes perfect sense, right? That is why very few of us should ever consider ourselves candidates for GM jobs.

There aren't many debates that change this often, but when they happen, you quickly realize that there are just some teams and athletes that we don't know enough about. And neither do the experts in the business that should know way more than media types.

Such is the case with Rodrigue Beaubois. Now, almost 24 years old, we are still trying to get a handle on the athletic wonder from Guadeloupe. Just 6'2 and well under 190 pounds, he is simply a player that is too electric to ignore and too inexperienced to fully trust with the ball in his hands. And yet, as a follower of Mavericks basketball, he is a perfect example of wanting to be extremely careful with a developmental player so that you don't do all the hard work so that his next employer can reap the benefits.

He is going through another one of those stretches recently that make you wonder if the sky is the limit. Since Jan 19th, he has been filling in for various absences from Jason Kidd and Delonte West and has been thrown into the teeth of some pretty competitive contests. During that 6 game stretch, he is averaging 24 minutes per game, with 12.5 points and an assist-to-turnover ratio of over 3 to 1. Most importantly, he is looking like he knows his place so much more since last spring, when the Mavericks threw him into the fire to see if he was "ready" to play a key role and hopefully replace much of the scoring lost when Caron Butler blew out his knee.

During that stretch he was lost. Offensively he did not see the game well and the drop off from a Jason Kidd-decision to a Beaubois-decision was too much for anyone to stomach. Further, when he had the ball, he did not often understand the difference between a shot and a good shot. He would try to split double teams on the pick and roll - a cardinal sin in the NBA - and find his way back to the bench. Defensively, he could dazzle with his ability to get steals and block shots, but he would often get switches wrong and frustrate his coaches.

By April, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki met with Coach Rick Carlisle and asked him to pull the plug on the Beaubois experiment for now so that the team could round into shape for the playoff run and reinsert DeShawn Stevenson into the proceedings. It worked like a charm and a parade was planned about 60 days later. Beaubois never played a second in the playoffs last year, and the project that had so much upside that he had scored 40 in a night would have to be put on ice. During the summer, it was revealed that the foot-injury late in the summer of 2010 had ultimately slowed him down the entire 2010-11 season, long after he was cleared as "healthy". Screws in a player's foot can do that to a speedster.

So, following that stretch, many followers on the team lamented the fact that his trade value had dropped to point where it barely existed. This, just 12 months after people around the organization claimed that every call they received had been from the rest of the league trying to pry the young prospect out of the Mavericks organization. On draft night 2009, it appeared the rest of the league didn't know he existed and then within a few months, they all wanted him? And now his trade value went from through the roof to through the floor and the kid was still just 2 seasons into his career.

Is it possible all of this knee-jerking has been this severe? Did he go from anonymous to untouchable to refuse in 18 months? And if he did, at what point should anyone be ready to call out his ultimate path? I am the first to admit that I have offered contradicting opinions of his game. At times, he seems fearless and ready for the big stage, pulling the veterans around him through a tough patch and making plays on each end of the court that save a game. Other nights, he looks like a player who hasn't been playing basketball very long, lacking instincts and simple decision making skills that only arrive upon playing the game for years and year.

In another life, it would have been incredibly fascinating what a few years of college basketball would have done for a player like Beaubois and his development. Short of that, one wonders if he had been snagged by a lottery team, where winning is not realistic or fully expected, if he would have developed these skills quite quickly playing 35 minutes a night in Milwaukee or Detroit.

But, again, last night, you saw that he is improving. Those days in the gym with Kidd, one of the great decision makers in history, have had an effect. He is on a team where winning is imperative and the time and patience to allow a kid to learn on the job is limited and heavily critiqued. But, seeing his difference-making plays on either end of the court make you fully appreciate what Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban see. They see a player who has youth and physical tools that cannot be easily acquired, and if they ever move him along in the NBA player exchange, they want to be certain that they aren't sending away a future star.

Because when they make that decision, unlike those of us who simply observe and critique, they will not be able to change their opinion in a few months when they realize they are wrong.

There is nothing linear about his development and his play. Up and down, down and up. Dick Vitale used to describe his type as "Dow Jonesers", the type who bounce around like the stock market. Frustrating for a week, phenomenal for another week.

But, this latest stretch allows one to squint and see the possible future of the Mavericks, once the backcourt pillars, Kidd and Terry leave massive vacancies. And that is something that could happen before Beaubois turns 25.

So, Regis, before I give my final answer, I would like to keep watching.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Estimated Distance Left: 1 Mile

The other day, I drove my wife's car and found it in that familiar condition - with the fuel light on. So, I filled up the tank, but first took a picture and tweeted it to demonstrate my love for her.

Then, the P1's started responding.

Once -

Twice -

Three Times, a lady -


Friday, January 27, 2012

Protecting Romo

Protecting the QB is the name of the game in the National Football League. If you are lucky enough to have an elite arm throwing the football for you, then you simply must give him time to distribute the football. This is an era where the rules of the sport greatly favor the offense in nearly every situation. These rules allow for a record number of yardage through the air from offenses around the league. And the only thing that can slow it down for even a second is getting a big pass rush going. That might explain the difference between the Cowboys who are today experiencing the end of the 4th week of their offseason, or the New York Giants who are packing for Super Bowl 46.

In those two head to head match-ups in December between the two teams that battled for the NFC East divisional crown, the Giants out-sacked the Cowboys, 9-2. In the 5 games to finish the season (post-Thanksgiving), the Cowboys were sacked 19 times (the 2nd most in the NFL) and the Giants allowed Eli Manning to be sacked just eight times. In fact, only 4 teams in the league allowed fewer sacks than the Giants after Dec 1 to finish the season. The playoffs have been a difficult proposition for the Giants, as they have allowed 8 sacks in 3 games and Eli took a beating in San Francisco. Meanwhile, their Super Bowl opponent, New England has allowed Tom Brady to be sacked just once. Much like Super Bowl 42, the winner of Super Bowl 46 might come down to pass protection again.

So, from a Dallas Cowboys perspective, let's examine 2011 on the basis of giving Tony Romo time to throw. Now, before we proceed, it should be clearly pointed out that sack totals allowed can be one of the more deceiving statistics available as a sole metric for pass protection. Sacks can be avoided easily if the goal is to avoid sacks. Quick releases, keeping players in to double in pass protection, and not even calling pass plays are 3 simple ways to avoid sacks. But, the name of the game for any offense is to put points up on the scoreboard, and this often requires a team to risk getting their QB hit. Which leads us to another reason sacks are faulty. Sacks are all-or-nothing stats, where "almost sacks" are not recorded. Pressures and QB hits are way too subjective and not universally recorded or recognized to be properly measured.

A QB's ability to move in the pocket is invaluable to pass protection, and Tony Romo is a natural in this category. He has kept numerous plays alive this season that were doomed from the start, but because he can move, spin, and slide in the pocket, he saves a lot of blame by avoiding a sack and then delivering a throw. But, usually, the pressure eventually busts pipes, and in December, the Cowboys conceded multiple sacks in every game, and 2 games in particular were a complete disaster; 5 sacks at Arizona and 6 sacks at New York.

Looking at the last decade of Cowboys' sack totals allowed, you see the numbers are actually quite manageable whenever Romo has been under center. This year was the worst season of his 6 years in terms of sacks allowed (39), but nowhere near as bad as 2005 when Drew Bledsoe was sacked 50 times or 2002 when Chad Hutchinson was sacked 34 times in just 9 games and the team suffered 54 sacks in the season. 2002 finished 2nd to only 1986 in Cowboys history for sacks allowed. In 1986, the team was sacked 60 times - Steve Pelluer alone, 47! So, by historical lows, 39 doesn't seem so bad.

Of the 39 sacks allowed, 28 were on the road (72%). This sort of home/road split is actually quite uncommon. And this goes back to my long-believed premise that Jason Garrett calls a completely different game plan on the road than he does at home.

Also, the sack totals by month were shocking: September 6, October 9, November 5, and December 19. It should be noted that September only contained 3 games and December had 5, but nevertheless, it is clear that the dam broke after Thanksgiving.

39 sacks-against ranks them tied for 14th in the NFL. St Louis was worst with 55, Buffalo best with 23. From a pass play percentage, they were sacked 6.4% of the time or once every 15.6 passes. New Orleans was the best at 3.5% and Miami was the worst at 10%.

Let's look at each offensive lineman in the department of pass protection and what led to sacks. Again, this is faulty research because we are not discussing pressures and other busts - only those that resulted in sacks. I broke down every sack allowed this season and attempted to find the fault in each play. This is sometimes very easy and other times it is a complete line collapse. We also used data from profootballfocus.com to further fill in some gaps.

So here is the individual pass protection numbers for the OL:

LT - Doug Free - 641 pass plays - 10 sacks: Free started the season very well coming off his new contract. In the first 4 weeks of the season, Free was not involved in hardly any situations that led to sacks. Andre Carter went around his edge in New England, as did James Hall of the Rams, and Trent Cole of the Eagles. There was one blitz awareness issue in the game at Washington that led to London Fletcher's sack, but otherwise a very strong month of November. But, in December, Free was just beaten over and over again (6 of his 10 sacks in December). In fairness to Free, Jason Pierre Paul was dominating the rest of the league, too, but against the Giants and JPP, Free was eaten alive. 4 sacks in 2 games just from the left tackle spot and Trent Cole got him again in Dallas. In all, I had Free as the primary blame in 10 sacks this season, but with 2 against Cole and 3 against Pierre-Paul (and 1 more against Chris Canty) meant that 6 of his 10 sacks allowed were against the Giants and Eagles. Free sees the toughest match-up nearly ever Sunday, so, I am not here to suggest he is doing a lousy job, but it does appear that he might be more of a right tackle in the long term.

LG - Montrae Holland - 361 pass plays - 1 sack: Now, we must keep in mind that interior sacks are much less acceptable and much more easy to defend. However, Holland did a nice job in limited duty making sure he was not to blame for these breakdowns very often. He generally was helping in double teams and not left on an island very often. The one sack he conceded was in Week 14 against the Giants when Chris Canty beat him for a sack.

LG/C/RG - Kevin Kowalski - 82 pass plays - 2 sacks: Kowalski was thrown into duty on a number of occasions because of in-game injuries to the interior. He did a reasonable job until week 17 when he had to replace Kyle Kosier at RG and was tossed about like a rag doll on a few occasions, giving up a ask to Osi Umenyiora on a stunt to the inside and then Justin Tuck threw him on his way to getting to Romo to end the Cowboys season. He will need to improve his strength and anchor to survive.

C - Phil Costa - 601 pass plays - 3 sacks: On a play by play basis this season, the Cowboys center had immense issues in dealing with the bulls that he must block all season. However, in terms of actual sacks allowed, Gary Gibson beat him clean to get to Romo against the Rams, Chris Neild jacked him back into Romo at Washington, and Paris Lenon sprinted past him to nail Romo at Arizona. As December hit, there is no question that he was being targeted by inside blitzes, including the one that knocked Romo out on Christmas Eve. He is not always assignment-sound on who to block. This is an area where the Cowboys will need to either really develop him for next season or get a replacement because the amount of inside pressure against the Cowboys OL was a real hinderance when the season was on the line.

RG - Kyle Kosier - 618 pass plays - 4 sacks: Kosier had a disappointing year that many insiders blame on his deteriorating health, but regardless, he normally doesn't lose as many inside battles. His run blocking was actually a bigger concern, but in pass protection, he was bulled back by Ray McDonald for a rather easy sack in San Francisco, a blitzing Bart Scott got him in New York, another Osi stunt in Week 17 went past him, and Juqua Parker stunted past of the Eagles. You hope a healthy Kosier can be solid as a rock, but we seldom see a healthy Kosier survive an entire season. He has many miles on his tires and will give you everything he has, but it is a battle to stay on the field.

RT - Tyron Smith - 641 pass plays - 8 sacks: A world of expectations have been placed on Tyron Smith, and he took every single snap he could this season at right tackle. From day one, teams tried to confuse him with stunts and blitzes to make his rookie head spin. He also was victim to some old tricks with one pass rush move setting up another. He had Calvin Pace beat him in Week 1, Ryan Kerrigan in week 3. Willie Young bull rushed him on to his back to end the Lions game, Andre Carter went clean around his flank in game 5. Then Jason Babin used two inside spins to get him in Philadelphia and Trevor Laws stunted around him to get a 3rd in that forgettable night against the Eagles. But, here is the great news. Starting in the 2nd half of the year, as the rest of the line was crumbling, Tyron was figuring it out. Kerrigan got him again in Washington and Michael Bennett did get his flank in Tampa Bay, but that was it. All of the troubles against the Giants were not because of right tackle. In his first 7 games, Tyron game up 6 sacks. In his last 9 games, he only conceded 2. His upside is immense and he is only getting better.

As you can see, that only accounts for 28 of the 39 sacks. at least 4 more were caused by Romo holding the ball too long. Another 2 were blitz pickups by running backs, and a few more were too chaotic to blame any one man. Pass protection is something that must be done in concert as a unit or everything looks bad.

Overall, it is clear that Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones tried to limit this number by "the road game plan" which includes quick passes, lots of shotgun, and not allowing Romo to stand back there and look for wide receivers down the field. They knew that they could not trust the offensive line to give substantial time and that is why this is a major area of need to get deep into January next season.

There is some things to like, but overall, this will be the charge of Bill Callahan and Garrett with the players, and Jones and his war-room in the offseason. Figure out a way to better protect the QB, and this will lead to more opportunities down the field for the skill players.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Eyeing Calais Campbell

On draft day 2011, the Dallas Cowboys had a choice on their hands when they selected #9 overall. High on their board was a player they believed could play tackle for them for the next 10 years at a very high level, Tyron Smith from USC. But, just as high according to at least one source, was a DE from Wisconsin that they felt could fill a real position of need for them in their scheme as a disruptive, all-situations DE in the 3-4, JJ Watt.

Picking that high in the draft is not something that a team wants to do very often, as it is usually the direct result of a disappointing season, but when you do find yourself in the Top 10, it is crucial that decisions like these are made carefully and properly.

Both Smith and Watt were strongly supported with great tape in college and a solid spring pre-draft season where questions would be answered about their abilities. The brass had a choice to make, and the simple discussion of position premiums easily helped make the decision. The chance to have a left tackle who should be elite for years to come was too much to pass on. The Cowboys happily rushed to make the choice. Tyron Smith was a Cowboy and the war-room was thrilled with the result.

It was the right choice. Tackles are so vital to the game of football and the overall protection of the Quarterback. To have one with all of the skills of Tyron Smith seems like a choice that cannot bring regret. His development this season alone is enough to excite any fan of the team, and it seems reasonable to assume that he will be at left tackle by start of business 2012 and remain there for a long, long time.

But, when you are a team that has multiple needs at multiple spots, the choice you make is often at the expense of a number of other spots. If the Cowboys would have taken JJ Watt, they would have also addressed another major need. And frankly, it remains a spot where they simply must get better for the Cowboys to have that defensive front that they so desire. A front that makes plays in the backfield, disrupt plays, and batters opponents.

We are a long way down the road since the false narrative was offered by so many about how "defensive ends don't make plays in the 3-4". This was used to explain the largely anonymous seasons that the Cowboys DE's would turn in after the Cowboys flipped schemes in 2005. The explanation was that the DE is there to simply tie up the OL and stand their ground, 2-gapping and allowing the LBs to run free and make plays.

But, that didn't explain what was going on around the league, where we would watch each post-season and see many 3-4 teams having great success in the playoffs. And each time, it seemed like they had defensive ends that could play in every situation and that could make plays of great importance. This year, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald were substantial forces in San Francisco. JJ Watt and Antonio Smith in Houston were disruptive all year, too. It was just that the Cowboys didn't seem to possess any of that breed.

In the last 4 seasons, only one Cowboys defensive end has played more than 600 snaps in a single season. Given that each season has roughly 1,000 to 1,100 defensive snaps, the fact that only Chris Canty played 677 in 2008, you can see what the Cowboys biggest problem is and was. They just don't have any full-time, any-situation defensive ends.

So, instead, they try to get by with 2 sets of part-timers and patch them together. Marcus Spears would handle the run snaps from RDE this past season, then Jason Hatcher would come on to the field in passing downs at the same spot. On the other side, Kenyon Coleman would start each set of downs, and then Jay Ratliff and Hatcher would be joined by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer in 3rd Downs scenarios.

What that amounted to was this: Ratliff played 750 snaps, Hatcher 429, Coleman 426, Spears 400, and reserve Sean Lissemore 284. They used a crew of players to patch together different situations and did the best they could. But, from the defensive end position, for another season of many, the Cowboys had no DE's who could do what a full-time DE must do. Stand up well against the run while possessing the ability to beat his man and get to the passer on a pass.

Heading into 2012, that allows us to look at options for the Cowboys in this offseason.

I was asked last week to write about my free agent priority, and I detailed at great length my feelings about Saints guard, Carl Nicks . I think the offensive line could greatly benefit from adding Nicks, and going into free agency, if I am going to break the bank, it has to be for a player who is both young and elite.

But, in discussing the defense, the answer to my free agent priority is more of an outside possibility. Word from Arizona seems to indicate that the target for this defensive end need will never make it to March 13, but if the Cardinals do not get a deal done with Calais Campbell, and do not slap the franchise tag on him, then the Cowboys should pounce.

Let's look at him for a moment:

Calais Campbell - DE
6'8, 310
9/1/86 (Age 25)

At 6'8, 310, Campbell is a rare specimen, but out of college was thought of as lacking both strength and quickness. Neither has proven to be a fair assessment, but the Cardinals were thrilled that he slipped to them in the 2nd round in '08.

Because of the new CBA, we are seeing players getting to free agency from the 2008 draft (those who did not sign 5-year rookie deals) in full force. That means that players who have not signed extensions from the 2nd round on are up for bid in March. Jordy Nelson and Lamarr Woodley are examples of players who have been extended this year, but many have not come to an agreement with their clubs and therefore, WR Desean Jackson and Calais Campbell are two of the premium players who could hit the market.

To see Campbell's skills on full display, pop in the tape of the Cardinals match-up with the Cowboys from early December. Playing over Doug Free and Montrae Holland for most of the day, he terrorized both the run and pass game of the Cowboys by demonstrating quickness that was too much for the Cowboys to handle. He would shoot gaps on pass plays and get to Romo for a sack and several other pressures. Then, we would blow past Free and run down DeMarco Murray before a play could get started in the Cowboys backfield. Darnell Dockett and Campbell make a very formidable DE duo in Arizona, and both had big days as the Cardinals totaled 5 sacks of Romo.

Looking at Campbell's stats will impress you, especially if you compare them to anything you have seen at DE for the Cowboys in years, but I am more impressed from the overall effect of having a DE that causes so much disruption. Before long, he is demanding a double team and freeing up a team-mate for a match-up that can be won. He blocks kicks, bats down passes, never stops running to the ball, and best of all, is only 25 years old.

To prepare for this project, I watched several more of his games this week to see how he performs from week to week. Both 49ers games were more of the same as he competes hard all of the time. In Week 3, he destroyed Russell Okung for 3 sacks in Seattle. He played 1,033 snaps this season and seldom leaves the field. Dockett, his more noted mate, signed a 6-year, $56 million deal in 2010, but is also 30. Together, they show that the 3-4 is run in different ways, but a smart coaching staff tailors the scheme to fit the play-makers. And clearly, the Cardinals love to tailor what they do around Dockett and Campbell.

Again, chances are that he never gets to the open market. But, if the Cardinals mess around and make him open to bidders, I fully believe that the Cowboys would make him a very top priority and make that JJ Watt regret disappear. It isn't likely, but keep that name front and center on your off-season radar.

Jerry at the Senior Bowl

Cowboys' Owner, General Manager, #1 Fan, and Overall Head Of All Things Jerry Jones was wearing his casual Cowboys gear underneath the stands at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl on Monday, as he spoke to the gathered media and offered his thoughts on many items of general interest.

The quote that will receive the most play will most likely be the part where he seemed to say that the difference between the Giants and Cowboys was Eli Manning. “I don’t want to take anything away, but the big difference was Eli came up here and started what seemed like a pretty significantly...But the quarterback play with Eli was the huge difference. But I was pretty impressed with how they’ve defense played the last three or four ball games...They are a great inspiration and what I hoped that we were going to be and that is a team that had good days and bad days and really took off on a run. They did it and we didn't.”

The truth is, if you can weed through the odd speaking cadence of Jerry that he was not saying anything negative about his own QB, Tony Romo, but rather properly placing credit for the Giants success in this last 2 months in part to the play of their QB. Confusing and dancing on the line of comparing the two and preferring the other team's QB, but in listening several times to his quotes, I don't believe it would be fair to say that he drove a bus over his own QB.

And, I do believe, as we sit here and ponder the idea of Eli Manning at his 2nd Super Bowl as Romo has never been past the quarterfinals, that QB is the least of the items that separate the Cowboys and the Giants. Just 3 weeks ago, these two teams were dead even heading into the 16th and final game of the season. Now, depending on perspective, there are some that position the Giants as miles and miles better than the Dallas Cowboys. If that is true, than it is also true that the Cowboys were one 3rd Down completion to Miles Austin in Week 14 from eliminating these same Giants from playoff contention altogether. And missing the playoffs is a long, long way from the Super Bowl - just ask the Cowboys.

But, as we do sort through what Jerry said yesterday in nearly 25 minutes of holding court with the media on pins and needles, I did see several other things that will generate fewer headlines but strikes me as more relevant to the big picture. Let's review those:

On the Defensive Backfield: "over in the secondary, I do think we will get better. We very likely will have new faces back there. How many, I can't tell you, but we will have new faces."

This one might be straight from the department of the obvious. It will be a priority to sort out the secondary in the offseason, and it appears that 3 of the top 5 are guaranteed to be back due to the recent contract extensions to Gerald Sensabaugh and Orlando Scandrick and the continued development of Mike Jenkins. That seems to pretty clearly put a target on Terence Newman and Abram Elam. Elam is a UFA who will be looking for multiple years, and I was a bit surprised that Sensabaugh was the safety to get the extension instead of Elam, but I suppose the team was using age as their guide. Sensabaugh is 28 and Elam is 30. The idea that the Cowboys could do better in the secondary is pretty clear, but the big question is how much of the available assets to use this spring on addressing another part of the roster that is on the perimeter of the game. If you have been reading my material for very long, you know that my feelings are clear about building from the inside-out. The game is won and lost at the line, and the Giants have a comparable secondary to Dallas, but an incomparable defensive line. Which brings us to his next comment:

On the Defensive Line: We had a couple young guys play pretty well there. Our defensive front is one of the strengths of our team. We know Baltimore is a team which we can look to and say that is what we would like to be

This one is where I spit coffee on my screen. The defensive front is one of the strengths of the team? I would like to respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree. The front is not anywhere close to a strength. If it was, then Eli Manning wouldn't have been able to come into your stadium and throw 50 times without having anyone lay a hand on him. We all saw that San Francisco hit Eli Manning repeatedly, thus keeping his ability to slice and dice them to a minimum. We saw the Giants front batter Tony Romo in Week 17 to the tune of 6 sacks and an almost comical level of chaos in his lap. We saw the Patriots blow up play after play with Vince WIlfork and friends destroying the line of the Ravens when they dared to run the ball. But, no, we never saw the Cowboys front do anything of the sort. And, if we are looking at Baltimore, then we better find that 350-pound nose tackle, like the Ravens have been basing their 3-4 around with Haloti Ngata. Start there, with a NT that demands a double-team (like Wilfork, Casey Hampton, BJ Raji) and then you can have linebackers blowing up plays from inside. Otherwise, you can watch the Ravens but you cannot duplicate them.

On the Offensive Line: "Possibly, in personnel, we may have gotten a little over zealous with some young players in the middle of our offensive line. We need to give them a chance to grow and have progress, and have the kind of protection that we want."

And finally, a quote that concedes the August idea of shedding veterans Andre Gurode and Montrae Holland in exchange for Phil Costa and Bill Nagy to start without ever winning the job was a horrendous idea. Not that Gurode or Holland were great players or that they should have been upgraded when the chance came along. But, moving Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo out was going to be a big enough mountain, why self-inflict even more issues with these cost-cutting measures. Was it a financial move or a football move? Tough to say since the owner and the general manager are the same guy. But, either way, it was obvious by Week 3 that it was a disaster, and then Tony Romo had to run for his life for much of the rest of the season. By December, opponents were running stunts and blitzes right at the young interior because they knew the results were unpleasant for the Cowboys' offense. Jerry learned a valuable lesson here, but you would think that by his 22nd year in power, he would have known that starting two unregarded kids in the middle of your offensive line was a crazy idea that better work. It didn't come close to working and they are lucky that it didn't cost them more than it did.

Now, the Senior Bowl is on the minds of the Cowboys' leader. Before long, the Combine and Free Agency will arrive. The moves that need to be made are right there to be seen. Let's hope he reads the evidence and comes to the proper conclusions.

But, sometimes, when he speaks, it makes you wonder.

Monday, January 23, 2012

An Unforgettable Championship Sunday

Other sports can not compete with Sunday. The NFL is the top product in sports for a number of reasons, and we had many of them detailed to us over the course of 8 riveting hours of tense, painful, and high-stakes competition.

In the end, it seemed that two teams advanced by simply surviving. All four teams accomplished many of their laid-out objectives and felt like they put themselves in a perfect position to win late in the game. But, only two would advance to play for the Lombardi Trophy in 2 weeks time. And how those games played out were enough to have each dropped into the "instant classic" bin immediately.

The AFC Championship Game was a battle of strengths as the Patriots offense would have to deal with the Ravens defense. But, the game was so much more than Tom Brady versus Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. New England was a favorite, but because of some sloppy play at times (from Brady, no less), the Patriots ended up allowing the Ravens a +2 turnover margin. In the NFL this season, that 2 turnover margin has been given 107 times, and the record for those on the short end of the stick have gone 10-97 (9% win percentage).

The Ravens caused stops, misses downfield, and even the occasional takeaway. Allowing Joe Flacco and the offense to carve out some offense of their own over the course of the 4 Quarters. Back and forth this hard hitting battle went, and the closer the end came, the closer the two teams were on the scoreboard. Neither side was giving in. And that is what makes this theater so interesting to the viewer. Veterans who may never get this far again, selling out on the field and trying to make the difference for their side.

And what happens when all of those collective contributions are cancelled out on the other side of the field? That is we see an entire season that begins in July boils down to one play in late January. And with all of the stars playing in the game on each side, we also see that the key players in the game are not the players at the forefront of your memory when you look back at this contest.

The Ravens caused a 3-and-out late from the Patriots offense when Ed Reed broke up a 3rd Down pass, and now the Ravens were going to get the ball back one last time with under 2 minutes to go. Trailing 23-20, they would be able to go to the Super Bowl with a touchdown, or settle this in overtime with a field goal.

And this is where Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and the rest of the Patriots offense would go sit down. As would the Ravens defense of Reed, Lewis, and friends. This game would be settled by none of them. They had done what they could to impact the game and now they would spend the rest of the afternoon as spectators.

Those who would decide this game included Flacco, a player who most felt did not have the quality to win a game like this - including some of his teammates. But, throughout the day, he looked poised and ready to make a play when needed. He missed on a few throws that would have been huge gainers to his speedster, Torrey Smith, but managed the game quite well.

On this final drive, the Ravens went to work on Julian Edelman, the Patriots 2-way player (according to ProFootballFocus.com, he played 28 snaps on offense, 27 on defense Sunday), who was trying to cover Anquan Boldin in the slot with very little success. 5 times Flacco went to Boldin - 4 times with Edelman lined up to cover him - for a total of 4 catches for 60 yards in this drive. The Ravens were marching and in position at the 14 yard-line to have at least 2 shots at the end zone before settling for overtime with a chip-shot field goal.

And that is where the play of the game would occur. Lee Evans, who had 4 receptions all year after a 7 productive years in Buffalo, would be lined up in man coverage alone on the right side of the formation, opposite Smith and Boldin on the left. Boldin had Edelman again, so the Patriots were rolling all of their coverage in that direction. The Ravens had the perfect scenario lined up with Evans against Sterling Moore.

Moore, who played his college football for SMU, was undrafted last spring. In July he was signed by the Raiders, but after failing to make their squad out of camp was pushed to their practice squad. Then, 3 weeks later, the Raiders cut him off the practice squad. From September 26th to October 5th, Moore was unemployed, and perhaps pondering a life that did not include football. But, on October 5th, the Patriots called and placed him on their practice squad. Due to injuries and circumstances, Moore was promoted to the roster for the Week 10 game against the Jets and played in 5 regular season games - 3 as a safety, 2 as a corner. So, with a Wide Receiver playing defense against Boldin, here is this unregarded SMU Mustang covering Evans with the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.

On the snap, Flacco makes no mistake where he is going with the ball. He locks on Evans, throws a huge shoulder fake, and then waits for Evans to clear Moore for the back shoulder fade in the end zone. It works perfectly and when the ball falls in Evans arms, Moore is face guarding him - with really no idea where the ball is. Evans catches the ball and appears to have just caught the winning score, when Moore in desperation swipes at the ball. Somehow, Evans seems to have relaxed his grip a bit and Moore is able to get the ball free. Incomplete pass.

3rd Down is a protection breakdown as a 3-man rush cause Flacco to turn away from Boldin vs Edelman and he finally offers a desperation throw to his tight end, Dennis Pitta, that falls incomplete as Sterling Moore again bats the ball away.

4th and 1 from the 14. For reasons that seem unclear, Baltimore had trouble getting the FG team on in a timely manner. By the time they are set up, the play clock is down to inside 10 seconds. Baltimore has a timeout, but perhaps recalling the moment Dallas had this season, John Harbaugh does not call a timeout and risk "icing his own kicker". This causes a rushed snap, a hold that does not get the laces right, and a hooked kick by former Cowboy (2002-2005), Billy Cundiff. It was a gutting end to a valiant effort from the Ravens, and for New England, a fortuitous ending that will put them in yet another Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, over 2,600 miles away another classic was about to happen. This one involving the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers in a rematch of some wonderful playoff games 2 decades ago.

Much like the earlier battle, the largest lead would be only 7 points, and the battle would be intense all afternoon long.

For much of the day, we thought the hero might be Vernon Davis. Davis continued to be a player who can only be stopped by his own decisions as his two touchdowns were somewhat mitigated by his two personal fouls. He is simply too talented to cover as a tight end, too fast for linebackers or safeties, too strong for cornerbacks.

If not Davis, then surely it would be Eli Manning again. Manning took a tremendous beating, being sacked 6 times and hit at least 20 times in all. The 49ers pass rush started slow, but by the 2nd half, Eli seemed to take a shot almost every time he threw the ball. It demonstrated yet again that Manning has grown into one of the more clutch QBs in the sport, despite many of us refusing to place him in that class. The facts are that his 4th Quarter performances are top notch, his 3rd Down throws are as good as anyones, and now he has won a 5th road playoff game - someone nobody in the NFL has ever done. That final statistic is a bit dubious, as many of the greats seldom find themselves on the road as often as Eli in the playoffs (given that they win higher seeds), but nevertheless, the playoff road game is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL for a QB, and Manning has now done it 5 times.

But, despite many huge throws in tight spots, this game was likely not decided by either QB. Although, Manning threw the ball 58 times and Alex Smith only completed 12 passes all day. The Giants took 90 snaps to the 49ers 57, but in the end, yardage was close enough, 352-328, New York.

No, this game, like the game before it, would be settled by unlikely characters. Kyle Williams, a 6th round pick in the 2010 draft from Arizona State, is the son of Chicago White Sox General Manager, Kenny Williams. He is a young WR, who appears to have some value, but yesterday was asked to return punts as the normal return man, Ted Ginn, Jr, was unable to play due to injury.

Williams had returned just 5 punts as a pro in 2 seasons, but yesterday was asked to field 8 punts in rather wet, high pressure situations. The first sign that trouble might be ahead was with 13:30 left in the 3Q, where Williams made a very risky decision to dive to catch a punt as pressure was bearing down, rather than the percentage play of getting away from the ball and letting it bounce. He fielded it as the stadium gasped, and no damage was done.

But, in the 4th Quarter with a 14-10 lead, Williams would not be as fortunate. A punt with 11:15 to play landed 10 yards in front of him, but then rolled at him as he casually moved stepped towards the ball. The ball takes odd bounces, and this time it brushed his leg ever so slightly, putting the ball into play as Giants gunner, Devin Thomas alertly grabbed the ball. In another era with no instant replay, this play would have stayed with the 49ers. But, with replay, it was properly discovered that the Giants just found field position that they did not have to travel with their offense. A possession that started inside the 49ers 30-yard line was eventually cashed in for a go-ahead touchdown when Eli found Mario Manningham for a 17-14 Giants lead. It was the first turnover of the game.

The 49ers would tie the game, aided by a big Williams return, and send it into overtime at 17-17. But, again, this amazing Sunday would frown on young Kyle Williams. A punt with 9:40 left in overtime was fumbled again by Williams as rookie Jacquian Williams for New York would strip him and Devin Thomas would recover again at the 49ers 24. Amazing.

A few moments later, Lawrence Tynes would do what Billy Cundiff couldn't do, which was to nail a chip shot on the road, and the Giants would also punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

Even the biggest football experts would not have placed Sterling Moore and Kyle Williams in the headlines as the day started. Nor, Lee Evans and Devin Thomas. But, the hands of fate put them all front and center as the NFL's Championship Sunday paid off with drama that will not soon be forgotten.

And now, it is the Giants and Patriots, back together again in the Super Bowl. And we have 13 days to wait to see if this tournament
can captivate us one more time.

Amazing theater from the National Football League. I only regret it is about to go away for 7 months.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The NFC Merry-Go-Round - and Picks

The post-free agency era of the NFL has given us a tale of two conferences when it comes to championship games and Super Bowl appearances. 1993 signaled the first real phase of free agency around the league where players could easily change teams when their contracts expired. If you allow for a few years for market corrections and the effects to take hold, many have blamed free agency with slowly ending the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 1990's, and ushering in an era of parity around the league.

The two conferences, though, appear to have gone in drastically different directions for parity since that time.

In the AFC, since Dallas and Pittsburgh met in Super Bowl XXX to conclude the 1995 season, there have been 15 Super Bowls played and the AFC has been represented by only 7 different teams (43% of the conference). New England has gone 5 times, Pittsburgh has added 3 more, the Colts and Broncos have gone twice, and the Titans, Ravens, and Raiders have all gone once each.

This is in stark contrast to the NFC, where in 15 Super Bowls since the Cowboys have last attended, there have been 11 different NFC teams (69% of the conference), with only one team, Green Bay having gone more than twice (3). Beyond that, the Giants have gone twice, the Rams went twice, and 8 other clubs have gone once each - The Falcons, Buccaneers, Panthers, Eagles, Seahawks, Bears, Cardinals, and Saints.

But, it gets even more shocking when you zoom in a bit on the results since the year 2000, when free agency had totally cycled through the NFL feeding system for nearly an entire decade.

Since then, in the AFC, only 9 teams have played in the AFC Championship game and just 5 have gone to a Super Bowl since the 2000 season. Basically, the last dozen seasons in the AFC have been about 3 teams dominance, the Patriots, the Steelers, and the Colts.

Meanwhile, in the NFC, 13 different teams have played in a NFC Championship game in the last decade. 13 of 16 teams accounts for 81% of the teams in the entire conference and has put almost every single team within 60 minutes of a Super Bowl in the last 10 seasons. Only Detroit, Washington, and Dallas have not played in a NFC Championship game since the turn of the millennium. It is almost impossible to ponder.

And here is the most staggering number of all. If the San Francisco 49ers win on Sunday afternoon, that will put 11 different NFC teams in the Super Bowl in the last 11 years! Starting with St Louis in the 2001 season, the NFC has sent in order, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Arizona, New Orleans, and Green Bay.

Pending a 49ers win this weekend, the only teams in the NFC to have not been represented in the Super Bowl since Bill Clinton left the White House are the Lions, Redskins, Cowboys, Vikings, and Falcons.

The odds of 11 different teams representing the NFC in 11 years are monstrous. And yet, it is difficult to draw any conclusions due to the fact that the AFC has not dealt with this parity or mediocrity. Once again, this year, the AFC will have a match-up of two teams that have 7 AFC Championship Games in this decade. While the 49ers are headed to their first NFC Championship Game since 1998.

Are the franchise QBs of the AFC that far superior to anything the NFC has thrown out there? Is the AFC simply top heavy and therefore the depth of the conference makes it easier for the better teams to return to the late rounds of the playoffs again and again? Or, does the NFC just not have any teams that separate themselves from the competition? Since 2000, only Philadelphia (5 times) and New York (3) have been to more than two conference title games.

Regardless, it is an interesting study in parity. It does exist. The teams are closer together than ever before, however, to suggest it is random and even would be to ignore the Steelers and Patriots, in particular.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys, whose 14 NFC Championship Game appearances lead the conference still (SF will play in #13 this weekend), now face a drought from this weekend that is only surpassed by Washington and Detroit who played each other in 1991 at RFK Stadium, and have not returned.


Here are my picks for the weekend's conference title games:

Baltimore at New England: This looks to be an excellent matchup of the strengths as the Patriots offense takes on the Ravens defense. Certainly, the Ravens will not be over-run, but the environment that they walk into will be one where the New England offense looks unstoppable. There was a time, earlier in the season, where the Patriots were beatable at home, but as the season has gone on, it is back to believing that a team would need to approach 30-35 points if they are to take down Tom Brady. And that is what Baltimore will have to deal with. They figured it out in January of 2010 in Foxboro, but I have a hard time believing this Ravens offense, which struggled for large swaths of the game against Houston last week, will be able to go score for score with New England. Further, Ed Reed is gimpy, and Joe Flacco's numbers on the road are extremely pedestrian. One hopes for an exciting game, but when you consider a number of elements, I arrive at a game which I think is in full control in the 4th Quarter. Patriots win this one and return to the Super Bowl, in Indianapolis of all places. Patriots 28, Ravens 17

New York at San Francisco: I am quite excited about this battle. One thing that has made both teams successful this season has been their play along the line of scrimmage. But, now, they play each other, which most believe will be each team's best attribute squaring off. Will NY's Defensive line be able to bully the sizable OL from San Francisco? I don't believe so. Will NY be able to run on the San Francisco front? I doubt it. Also, will Eli Manning have all day, like he did in Green Bay, to wait for openings in the secondary? The key for San Francisco will be to figure out how to get off the field on those 3rd Down situations where Eli has been so good recently. Also, there is obviously a question about how Vernon Davis will be covered (hopefully, the Saints taught New York that man-to-man isn't really an option) and an even bigger question about Alex Smith continuing his play that is defying most of his critics. My pick in this game is quite difficult and certainly doesn't hold a ton of confidence, but I am going to believe that the 49ers will be able to run the ball a bit and the belief that the Candlestick crowd will get them over the top. This should be a classic bloodbath starring Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Justin Tuck, and Jason Pierre-Paul, and a can't miss afternoon of football. 49ers 24, Giants 21

Enjoy it while you can. Football season is almost over.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Free Agent Target: Carl Nicks

As we move into the offseason, it is time to get serious about the ways to improve the Dallas Cowboys roster. Contrary to popular belief, the Cowboys have not been major players in free agency in a number of years. We would define that by looking at the players and prices in which they get involved on the early days of free agency where the dollars are the highest and auctions can break out. This can get very expensive and very dangerous to make mistakes. A quick look at page 225 of the Dallas Cowboys 2011 Media Guide confirms that the big spending the Cowboys have done in the last 5 seasons has been mainly on their own players before they hit free agency:

Leonard Davis - 3/4/2007 signed a 7-year, $49m contract
Ken Hamlin - 3/24/2007 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract


Keith Brooking - 2/28/2009 signed a 3-year, $6m contract
Igor Olshansky - 3/6/2009 signed a 4-year, $18m contract
Gerald Sensabaugh - 3/9/2009 signed a 1-year, $1.75m contract


Kenyon Coleman - 7/30/2011 signed a 2-year, $3.75m contract
Abram Elam - 8/3/2011 signed a 1-year, $2.5m contract

This demonstrates that Leonard Davis was the last of the big ticket items (with all due respect to the Igor Olshansky deal that was more of a "paper" contract that would never come close to the value in the headlines). Davis was obviously cut early, too, but he did see a large sum of his money.

So, five years since the last bold strike in free agency lends credence to the idea that Jerry Jones is not the free-wheeling spender he once was, or if he still is, he has been using most of his petty cash on the new stadium construction and re-signing his own players.

Nevertheless, this season, we see that the Cowboys appear eager to strike in free agency. With about $17m in cap space, and the ability to create much more room with restructures and future releases of players under contract, they have to deal with their own free agents (Anthony Spencer, Laurent Robinson, Mat McBriar), their rookie draft class, and then they can also dip into free agency for a bold strike or two.

Which leads us to this week's project. If you read my thoughts for very long, you will soon realize that I am one of many that believe the game of football is always won at the line of scrimmage. And while the Cowboys focus seems to often be on players on the perimeter of the game (WR, RB, DB) and building from the outside-in, I think you will see that many successful teams build from the inside-out.

So, when I am proposing ideas or looking at players in the draft or free agency, I will give some thought to your defensive back idea, but I will then attempt to twist your arm and look at the offensive line and the defensive line. And with the success of teams that stress that sort of building in the post-season having success this month (Houston, New York, San Francisco, Baltimore), perhaps that is something worth considering.

Which leads us to what is reportedly the apple of the Cowboys' eye right now, Carl Nicks, OG for the New Orleans Saints.

Carl Nicks - OG
5/14/85 (age 26)
6'5, 343

Nicks is a very impressive force who has started from Week 4 in 2008 for the Saints. Since that time, he has been rated no lower than the Top 5 guards in the NFL. In fact, if you start grading him from 2009 to 2011, you will see that he is among the top 2 or 3 on any given ranking by personnel people around the league. He is flat-out quality and a mauler inside.

Unlike Leonard Davis, the last time the Cowboys dipped into the free agent pool, he is not going to be converted from tackle back to a guard, and he isn't 29 years old. He has only played guard and he is very good at it. He is also just entering his prime, and you can feel great about a major investment in him.

Looking back at his 2011, Nicks was an anchor in one of the most prolific offenses in football history and a chief reason why the Saints ran the ball with ease. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he was on the field for an insane 1348 snaps this season (Doug Free led the Cowboys OL with 1080) and pass blocked on 844 occasions for Drew Brees. He gave up 2 sacks all season. In Week 3, Texans DE Antonio Smith worked around his shoulder for a sack in space where Nicks didn't move his feet enough against an impressive interior pass rusher. And in Week 14 at Tennessee, rookie Karl Klug finally worked past Nicks when Brees held the ball for 4.8 seconds. Other than that, there were almost no occasions where Brees was hit because of Carl Nicks.

As a run blocker, he is above-average and has great quickness to get to the Linebackers on the 2nd level. The Saints don't ask him to pull in space too much, but his angle blocking is apparent. This past weekend, against the 3-4 of San Francisco, you can see him fire up the field and lock down Patrick Willis on several inside run plays. In the pass game, he has his hands full with an elite matchup against Justin Smith of the 49ers, and won more than his share of battles. Smith has great strength and while he pushed Nicks around a bit, but not enough to cause too much trouble.

Maybe the most impressive attribute that Nicks has that is not talked about is the ability to switch off and deal with stunts and blitzes with no difficulty whatsoever. There were a few occasions where he dealt with multiple rushers trying to work a seam on either side of him, and there was no daylight as Nicks would block one and then get a piece of the other in the blink of an eye.

This will be a very expensive signing and it won't come with glamour and huge headlines in places where fantasy football and jersey sales are important. But, in the film room where a team has dealt with a below average offensive line for several years in a row, this would signal a major upgrade at a spot where the Cowboys could now afford to get by with average center play because the guards next to him would be able to cover that up. There will not be as many days where the Cowboys are trying to game plan around a weak OL. Instead, like Brees, Romo can stand back and comfortably look for a target. If the Cowboys started a Phil Costa or Bill Nagy at center next season, but had Carl Nicks to the left and Kyle Kosier to the right, they would be far better equipped to deal with the Giants or Eagles than they were this season.

Having watched him closely this week in several games, and noting the Bill Callahan-Nebraska connection, as well as the Cowboys' interest, I would absolutely endorse a signing of Nicks when free agency opens. It will be very expensive, as his team-mate in New Orleans, RG Jahri Evans signed a 7-year, $56.7m deal in May of 2010. That seems to be the rough estimate of Nicks' price, but it would also settle things for the Cowboys at a major position of need.

Then, if Tyron Smith moves to LT, and Free back to RT, Nicks will solidify things and offer you a major improvement inside. Also, keep in mind that Nicks has been present and accounted for each Sunday along the way. He appears to be a pretty special player and should be target #1 in this offseason.

The defense needs help all over, and there will still be some money and a full draft to address that, but I think this is a very worthy ambition for the Cowboys front office.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dez Bryant News Archive - Updated Again

Primarily for my personal use, I am have compiled a Dez Bryant news archive so that I can remember everything. I am sure not all of this is his fault (or is even newsworthy), but wow he can keep the media busy.

I am attempting to keep this news archive to merely stories that are not directly related to catching the football stories.

Feel free to remind me what I have missed, and I will add them if you email or comment a link.

October 7, 2009 - Dez Bryant in big trouble at Oklahoma State

February 28, 2010 - Bryant is always late for practice and a risky pick

March 30, 2010 - Bryant runs, posts slow times at personal workouts - forgets shoes

April 23, 2010 - Bryant has an irregular heartbeat

April 28, 2010 - Jeff Ireland asks Dez if his mother as a prostitute...then apologizes

May 1, 2010 - Dez is winded and puking at rookie mini-camp

May 3, 2010 - Angela Bryant wants apology, but also has some new law problems

May 19, 2010 - Dez Bryant is wearing Nike after signing 2 year deal with Under Armour 3 months ago

May 27, 2010 - Bryant misses mini camp practice....and then...

May 27, 2010 - Dunks on people that night at basketball game

July 22, 2010 - Dez Bryant and Cowboys agree to a 5-year contract

July 24, 2010 - Dez tells David Moore that Roy Williams and Bryant will not be pitted against eachother

July 25, 2010 - Dez Bryant refuses to carry Roy Williams shoulder pads

July 26, 2010 - Under Armour and Dez break up

September 28, 2010 - Dez Bryant pays $54,000 for a team dinner

November 16, 2010 - Dez Bryant loses his earring in the New Meadowlands and has it found by a security guard

December 6, 2010 - Bryant refuses to talk to reporters, prompting Jerry to say Dez needs to mature

March 22, 2011 - Dez gets kicked out of NorthPark Mall for wearing his pants too low

March 25, 2011 - Deion says he's separated himself from Dez

March 28, 2011 - Two parties come forward to sue Bryant over his debts for jewlery and tickets

May 2, 2011 - Dez Doesn't show at facility when almost everyone else does

June 6, 2011 - Despite his claims, Dez still owes money to jewelers

July 15, 2011 - Dez Bryant no shows for a card show that he was paid for

July 30, 2011 - Bryant started off on the wrong foot. He was late to the first team meeting of training camp.

August 2, 2011 - Dez proud of maturing and having a quiet camp

August 22, 2011 - Dez gets in a fight near the locker room with his girlfriend

October 4, 2011 - Dez dissed by Jim Schwartz of Detroit

October 13, 2011 - Dez misses preseason drug test, is cleared

October 21, 2011 - Romo defends Dez not getting the ball in 2nd half

October 21, 2011 - At 2-3, Dez proclaims the Cowboys "unbeatable"

November 4, 2011 - Dez not interested in changing his sideline demeanor after rants in Philadelphia

November 11, 2011 - Jerry calls drafting of Bryant "frustrating and elating" and exactly what he expected

November 13, 2011 - Dez thinks the Cowboys have best WR group in the NFL

December 26, 2011 - Dez hires Rosenhaus, breaks up with Eugene Parker

December 29, 2011 - Stephen Jones would like Dez to “get his hands around what he’s doing off the field.”

December 30, 2011 - Jerry makes sure Dez' latest lawsuit is paid up in full

January 17, 2012 - Dez involved in physical altercation and detained by police at Club LIV in Miami

July 16, 2012 - Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was arrested Monday by DeSoto police on a family violence charge.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Home Field Stuff

Over the course of many years, I keep a data-base for various trends in the NFL game. This morning, let's update two of the most interesting, Home Field Advantage, Seeding, and the Turnover Battles:

Home Field Advantage and Seeding:

The table you will see below is a simple tracking of seeding and home field advantage in the NFL playoffs since the field was expanded to 6 teams per conference in the 1990 season.

As you might notice, the 2011 column only represents 8 of the 10 games that are played before the Super Bowl (since the final 2 games have yet to be played). In that 22 seasons, the best year for home teams was 8-2. This season, if New England and San Francisco both win on Sunday, that would put the home teams at an all-time high 9-1, which I suppose would suggest that home field means something again. But, given that in 2010, the home teams were 4-6 in the playoffs, that would likely be a rush to judgement and a knee jerk reaction we should resist.

What makes that 9-1 home record all the more remarkable would be that the lone loss would be 15-1 Green Bay losing at home as the #1 seed in the NFC. A quick scan of the NFC side of the table below will reveal that the #1 seed of the NFC Playoffs played in the NFC Championship Game every year from 1990-2006. But, in 2007, when the Cowboys lost in their 1st playoff game, the #1 seed started trending in the wrong direction. Since then, the 2008 Giants, 2010 Falcons, and 2011 Packers have all gone one-and-done.

YearHome RecordAFC SeedsNFC Seeds
19908-21* vs 21 vs 2*
19918-21* vs 21* vs 2
19925-52 vs 4*1 vs 2*
19938-21* vs 31* vs 2
19948-21 vs 2*1* vs 2
19957-32* vs 51* vs 3
19968-22* vs 51* vs 2
19976-42 vs 4*1 vs 2*
19988-21* vs 21 vs 2*
19997-31 vs 4*1* vs 2
20008-22 vs 4*1* vs 2
20017-31 vs 2*1* vs 3
20028-21* vs 21 vs 2*
20036-41* vs 31 vs 3*
20046-41 vs 2*1* vs 2
20054-62 vs 6*1* vs 5
20068-23* vs 41* vs 2
20075-51* vs 32 vs 5*
20085-52* vs 64* vs 6
20097-31* vs 51* vs 2
20104-62* vs 62 vs 6*
20117-11 vs 22 vs 4

Table Tutorial

(* = Super Bowl Team)

The other thing that is extra fascinating about tracking these numbers since the format change is that the Super Bowl representatives have also opened up quite a bit in the last handful of years. Between 1990 and 2004, there were no #5 or #6 seeds to play in a Super Bowl - let alone to win one.

Since then, it seems like anything is possible if you simply "make the tournament". Get in and if you can play the hot hand, you can go all the way. It started with the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were the #6 seed in a crazy year where 11-5 was the last spot to make the playoffs. They won 3 straight road games at Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver and won the Super Bowl over Seattle in Detroit at Ford Field.

In 2007, we all remember the #5 seed New York Giants, who finished at 10-6, caught fire with wins against Tampa, Dallas, and Green Bay and go on a run all the way to Glendale, Arizona to defeat the 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl 42.

And in 2010, the #6 seed Green Bay Packers (10-6) barely scraped into the playoffs before getting on a huge roll and winning games in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago, before edging Pittsburgh in Super Bowl 45 in Arlington.

So, it only makes sense that the same Packers squad would get the #1 seed and home field throughout and then see their title defense end in less than 3 hours to a team that finished the season 9-7. Of course it does.

One other item that is interesting to track is the cumulative record for the home team during this 22-year study. 148-70 (67.8%) is the overall home record during the stretch, but you see the decline over 5 year increments that would seem to coincide with free agency and further NFL parity. By 2005, home field had almost no bearing at all:

1990-1994: 37-13 - 74%
1995-1999: 36-14 - 72%
2000-2004: 35-15 - 70%
2005-2009: 29-21 - 58%
2010-2011: 11-7 - 61% (only 1 complete year)
Totals: 148-70 68%

You would still always prefer to have a home game when everything is on the line, but the league is so close that the opportunity for the visitor to win a big game is as good as it has ever been.

Turnover Battle:

Despite the innovations of the NFL game over the year, there is nothing more constant than the impact of the turnover. It is staggering and reliable that the turnover - even one - impacts the game more than any statistic on the face of the earth.

Every year, the rate of winners of the turnover battle also winning the game hit at 78.4%. Now remember, this number has no relation to home field, point spreads, health, caliber of QBs, or anything. Put Team A against Team B - makes no difference which is which, and see that the winner of the turnover battle, even if it is only by a +1 margin, will win around 4 of every 5 games.

So how does this affect the playoffs? Since 1990, the winner of the turnover battle has a record of 171-33 in the playoffs. This winning percentage is even higher, hitting at 83.8! The results are far more convincing than home field advantage or favorite or anything.

Here is that 22-year trend by 5 year blocks:

1990-1994: 43-4 - 85%
1995-1999: 38-8 - 83%
2000-2004: 41-7 - 85%
2005-2009: 39-9 - 81%
2010-2011: 10-5 - 67% (only 1 complete year)
Totals 171-33 - 84%

You can certainly see that last year in particular was a crazy playoff, where 4 teams won games where they lost the turnover battle, but that is an extreme rarity.

This past weekend, New York was a +3, Baltimore a +4, and San Francisco a +4. Denver actually won the turnover battle with New England, but that cannot erase 6 Tom Brady touchdowns. In the wildcard round, there was only one game with a turnover differential, and that was Houston at a +3 over the Bengals.

So, next time you hear about key stats, just recall that sometimes we over-complicate matters. The NFL has changed, but it still comes back to giveaways and takeaways. 84% of the time, that shows you the winner. A trend that is almost certain to be unmatched.

Credit to Eli Manning

Being both a big mouth and a football-obsessed member of the media for 18 years, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure things out in the NFL. Over 3,100 episodes of the Bob and Dan show since 1999 on Sportsradio 1310 the Ticket on Dallas airwaves at 3 hours per show has put us dangerously close to the Malcolm Gladwell "10,000" hour rule. That rule argues "that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours."

And yet, as I reread Gladwell's thoughts on the 10,000 hour rule, it does not profess to offer perfection after 10,000 hours. A pianist will not reach that milestone and suddenly never play a wrong note. A basketball player or golfer will not make every shot just because they have put in the experience. And to that truth, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Because after writing thousands of football blogs and bantering on and on about the sport for almost two decades, it is clear that I am now prepared to look a major mistake right in the eyes. After talking about Eli Manning for years and years, I am more that prepared to take it all back and admit I had it completely and utterly wrong.

You see, I have been skeptical of his work since Ole Miss, when he arrived on the scene as this prodigy who can't miss. Why? Because he is the son of a NFL Quarterback and the brother of maybe the best QB of our generation. And that is what bothered me. I would watch him play in college (in particular, a home and home series with Texas Tech in '02 and '03) and would begin to assemble a theory that most of the media was looking at his family lineage a lot closer than his actual play.

I saw problems with his judgement, his throws were sometimes off the back foot, his composure was hit-or-miss, and it just seemed lazy for media types to look at his last name and not look at his tape. I wasn't going to make that mistake, I thought. I will watch more tape and try to imagine him without that last name. What would I think of Eli Manning if his name was Scott Smith? I would think that he was a decent QB, but not destined for NFL greatness.

On draft day, 2004, Eli and his father decided to dictate terms to the NFL when it came to drafting him. San Diego had the top pick in the draft, and in the NFL, it takes a lot of nerve to think you can tell a franchise that you aren't going to play there. It delivers a message of ego and narcissism that usually doesn't exist in a kid right out of college, but the Mannings did not appear short on nerve. Somehow, playing in San Diego seemed to not meet with their hopes, and instead, with some help, they brokered a deal to where Eli could land in the biggest media market on the planet, New York.

Looking back, that surely affected my judgement. He was going to dictate terms to the NFL? Again, if he was Scott Smith, this would never work, I thought. This is more catering to his last name. And he wanted to go play for them? The Giants? Surely, my judgement was also affected by this kid wanting to force his way to a NFC rival that already thinks they are deserving of whatever advantages they may receive from their geographical location and self-assigned significance on the NFL landscape.

His career began in New York and his numbers were brutal. In his first few years, his production was far more reminiscent of Quincy Carter than any superstars who go #1 overall and tell San Diego to take a hike. Yet, he was being lavished with riches and adoration from New York and celebrated as NFL royalty. All the way through the end of his 4th season, his completion percentage was always in the mid-50s (mediocre) and his QB rating was always in the mid 70s (worse than mediocre). 4 years and 55 starts into his career, I had seen enough to feel like I hit this one out of the park. He was an average QB and New York and the NFL was fooled by his last name. If only they had done the Scott Smith test, like I did.

I clearly remember the start of the 2007 playoffs. New York was at Tampa Bay, and most were of the feeling that the Giants would be one and done. They beat Tampa, and Eli looked good. But, surely, that wouldn't last. The next week, they were coming here, to play the Dallas Cowboys and the 13-3 juggernaut with their "elite QB" Tony Romo. Romo, seemed to be the polar opposite of Manning. He was undrafted and yet had numbers that dazzled. QB rating was up their with Eli's big brother, Peyton. He wasn't anointed on draft day as the 2nd coming. Romo worked for everything that he had earned. Eli was presented everything on a comfortable pillow.

And then, the game revealed that Eli was ready to win this game. Throw after throw was made and 3rd downs were converted. Eli was no "bus driver". On that day, he out-dueled Romo and shocked the NFL with a knockout of a #1 seed. It was the first time that my opinion was rocked. The very next week, he made more big throws and never threw the big interception at Lambeau Field. He delivered on a stage where Brett Favre was sure to have a date with destiny in Super Bowl 42. But, Eli took that date and cancelled it. Not by himself, but again, like with his beating of Romo, he clearly offered the edge at QB play. His defense and running game did the rest, but Eli was no passenger.

Super Bowl 42 was a thing of beauty. Again, the Giants were a big underdog and were not a hot team at all when the playoffs hit. They finished the year 4-4 and were thought of as a nice easy playoff opponent. But after he made big throws in the 2nd half of that Super Bowl against the 18-0 Patriots, nobody doubted his award for Super Bowl MVP. He was clutch and he got it done. His playoff numbers in 2007 were the best of his career, with a rating of 96, and 6 TDs and just 1 INT.

Personally, I had mixed emotions on what he was all about. On one hand, we had a huge body of work of very average QB play over 4 seasons in the pros. But, then we had this remarkable month in January of 2008 where he couldn't miss and wouldn't crack under any type of scheme or pressure. Was this the case of a player in a 1-month zone, playing the best of his career at just the perfect time? Or even luckiest time?

2008 started and Eli was a Super Bowl champion. He was now in a position to be one of the elite QBs and needed to prove he could play well on a Sunday to Sunday basis like the greats all could. But, he was simply, "ok". He won a lot of games, but his QB play just wasn't that impressive. His numbers were always so-so, and his posture and expressions indicated that he was never enjoying himself. His demeanor seemed to indicate that this was not a fun profession, but rather something he had to do since he was a boy. His enthusiasm seemed to be non-existent and in a sport that features some very enthusiastic QBs, this was a weird departure.

The Giants were one-and-done in 2008, 8-8 in 2009, and missed the playoffs late in 2010. With each passing year, Eli's 2007 looked more like a decent QB playing out of his mind in that one month. He was a fine QB, but not a great one. Looking around the NFL, it was easy to make cases for his skill set being inferior to quite a few others.

But he had his ring. And therefore had the debate advantage against anyone who did not have one as well. As he hit his 30th birthday, opinions were still just as split as ever on Eli Manning.

In August, he was asked how he could get to that top class of NFL QBs, next to Tom Brady. Eli responded, "I consider myself in that class." I snickered. It seemed absurd.

2011 brought the 1st year in his career where his brother was not putting up superior numbers elsewhere in the league. And Eli responded by putting up the best numbers of his career. Easily the best yardage per attempt and yardage per game numbers. The interceptions that haunted him in 2010 dropped substantially, and his performances in big games started to soar again.

And yesterday can put those 2007 "fluke" premises to bed. His performance at Lambeau against a heavily-favored, 15-1 Packers squad cannot be understated. The Packers played like a team with the weight of the world on their shoulders and as they say, "pressure busts pipes". With each drop or fumble, the Packers free-wheeling offense grew tighter and tighter. Things were so easy until they were not. And with a ticking clock piling more and more pressure up, Eli hit Hakeem Nicks for a pair of gigantic 1st half TDs, including a Hail Mary that likely won New York the game.

Aaron Rodgers, who 9 out of 10 football people would say is a better QB, succumbed to the pressure of the situation - missing throws he never misses. While Eli Manning stood tall and delivered precise passes to perfect spots for a good part of the game. His best throws were his most important throws, converting on long 3rd Downs all day long. He won a duel that most people thought he couldn't.

Now, Eli Manning sits in the NFC Championship Game. He will again be an underdog, and many of us will look at a San Francisco defense to take him apart. But, my days of vocally doubting Eli Manning are done. He has seemed to always play well against the Dallas Cowboys - so much so that he autographed the wall in the new stadium visitor's locker room, but those aren't his only big days. In fact, they are not even close to his most important big days.

He beat Brady in a Super Bowl. He beat Favre in Lambeau in the NFC Championship Game. He now has beaten Rodgers in Lambeau in the playoffs. He has won enough times during the playoffs in very difficult situations to realize that while, yes, he does have the pleasure of playing on a team with a very dominant defense, he still delivers when called upon. He is not winning by himself, but he is winning.

So, yes, I was wrong on Eli Manning. Many times. I have no idea where to rate him among the elite QBs in the NFL. But, it is foolish to spend much time picking apart his body language or his October passer rating. He plays his best at the biggest time of the year, and has a special ability to never seem to feel pressure when his counter-parts do.

And that is where we must surmise that his lineage does matter and always did. The NFL is not as impressive to someone who grew up in a home with NFL Quarterbacks his entire life. His mind is not blown by the environment. And it shows.

So, I am out of the business of doubting him. He has taught me a valuable lesson that took almost 10,000 hours to learn. Sometimes, the name does matter. And no matter how much time you spend on your opinions, some of them are going to be dead wrong.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Play After The Catch

This week marked the 30th anniversary of one of the single most famous moments in the history of our game of football. As any Cowboys fan recalls, January 10, 1982 was the day of "The Catch" in Candlestick Park where Joe Montana found Dwight Clark in the back of the end zone with Everson Walls attempting to lunge and stop this moment in time which defined both franchises in the 1980's in their respective cities.

The 49ers had gone 13-3 in 1981, after 3 seasons where they combined for 10 wins total (2 wins in 1978, 2 in 1979, and 6 in 1980). Meanwhile, the Cowboys had won 35 games in those 3 previous years (12, 11, and 12) and had put up another 12 win season in 1981. These were two teams on a collision course at Candlestick the entire season long it seemed, but the Cowboys were still the team that most thought would win this game. The 49ers were home, but really, who were the 49ers in 1981? Just an upstart, not that unlike the team that will host New Orleans on Saturday in 2012.

Everyone remembers the catch by Clark and the throw from Montana. It would send the 49ers on their way to dominate the 1980s and it would start a stretch of 18 years in which the 49ers would win at least 10 games on 17 occasions - during a stretch where they went 5 for 5 in Super Bowl appearances.

But, what seems to elude the memory of many is that the catch was made with 0:51 left on the clock. Trailing 28-27, the Cowboys had the ball and needed only a field goal from the reliable kicker, Rafeal Septien. What would happen next would not only define the fates of the teams involved, but also the legacies of two of main players in the game.

On the very first pass of the final Cowboys drive, starting at the Dallas 25 and with 0:47 left, QB Danny White dropped back to pass and threw a dart to Drew Pearson on a "dig" route at midfield. The throw required precision as it threaded the needle between the corner and safety perfectly to hit Pearson at midfield and in stride. Rookie cornerback Eric Wright was in a trail position, but was able to get his right arm under the collar of Pearson and dragged him down to the ground at the 49ers 44 yard line.

His one armed tackle arguably saved a touchdown, and a one-play answer to the drive by Montana. A score would have then put the Cowboys into Super Bowl 16 against the Bengals and history would have changed forever. Replays showed that Dwight Hicks, the 49ers free safety had a great angle to bring down Pearson inside the 40, but we will never know if that would have happened or if the announcers were right, that Wright saved a sure touchdown.

Regardless, the Cowboys still had 0:39 to work with, and the ball less than 10 yards out of field goal range. From the 49ers 44, White dropped back to pass again, but an inside stunt from the 49ers defensive line matched Lawrence Pillers up against Cowboys right guard, Kurt Peterson. Peterson was over-powered, thrown aside, and Pillers sacked White and stripped the ball. Jim Stuckey recovered the ball for San Francisco and the game was won for the 49ers and they were on their way to Pontiac Michigan for Super Bowl 16.

And in that moment in time, the day was saved for the Niners and the Cowboys had lost their 2nd of 3 straight NFC Championship Games.

One can only wonder, what was done to the legacies of Danny White and Drew Pearson with that one play. For White, a player who started 92 games for the Cowboys at QB and won 62 of them, he would be forever known as a "2nd-tier" QB between Staubach and Aikman, despite winning a lot of games in the regular season and 6 playoff games. Years later, Tony Romo would be compared to him rather than the legends who won Super Bowls. But, had he won that game and carried his team into the Super Bowl, perhaps he would have a better place saved for him in Cowboys' lore.

Meanwhile, there is no real great reason that Drew Pearson has been out of the Hall of Fame. With his numbers and his moments in the post season that defined greatness, he has a resume that is limitless. He absolutely should be in Canton, but for whatever reason, he was left out when the shrines were built to honor those from his era. One can only imagine what that catch and that moment would have done for his legend. It would have ranked up there with his Hail Mary moment and his performance in Atlanta in the 1980 playoffs as his greatest hits and would have made him an automatic entry into the Hall of Fame.

The point to all of this is that White and Pearson did what they could. If Walls could get his fingers on that pass or Peterson could have held off Pillers, the game would have been won. It demonstrated the hands of fate that a QB and a WR have no control over, and yet, they must forever be remembered as "losing those games". Even in individual honors, it is truly a team sport.


Here are some playoff picks for the weekend:

Saturday -

New Orleans at San Francisco: This contest involves the great discussion of a wonderful offense against a solid defense. The 49ers are better than most will admit, as they have beaten a host of playoff teams this season, and the Saints give us pause when they leave the friendly confines of the Superdome. The question is whether the front 7 of the Niners can disrupt the multiple-faceted attack of the Saints for 3 hours and generate enough offense of their own in their short passing game and pounding the rock with a big, physical offensive line. This could be a real war and a very entertaining game. In the end, I like the Saints, but I believe they will be stretched to the outer limits of their abilities to advance. Saints 24, 49ers 20.

Denver at New England: Ah yes, what could be the most watched divisional round playoff game in NFL history will explode for all to see on Saturday night in prime time. Everyone knows that strange things occur on Saturday night in the NFL playoffs, but it will take more than the kickoff time of this game to save Denver. They are a truly wonderful story and the Tim Tebow narrative is fascinating on a number of levels, but the idea that they can beat a wounded Steelers team at home is a way different challenge to slowing down Tom Brady and the Patriots at their place. Also factor in that the Patriots have been a very poor playoff team at him in the last several years, requiring them to hear this again and again stack the odds more against Denver. And that doesn't even weigh the short work week and the cross-country travel. It has been a nice run for the Broncos, but it won't advance past this game. Patriots 31, Broncos 17.

Sunday -

Houston at Baltimore: The wonderful journey of what is left of the Houston Texans puts them 60 minutes from the AFC Championship Game. Despite crippling injury issues hitting the squad, they pounded the Bengals last week in front of their adoring public. Now, they face a team that had a QB that certainly seems shaky and vulnerable in many situations, but has the luxury of playing with a lead on most occasions. How TJ Yates is able to make plays down the field to Andre Johnson will tell us a bit about how this game plays out, but more importantly to the pace of the game will be how Houston can move the football on the ground. I am tempted to take Houston here, but that would be underselling the Baltimore defense - something that is not to be done unless there is a very dynamic QB taking them down. And there is not. Baltimore 20, Houston 16.

New York at Green Bay: Finally, the game that has had so many people on the underdog, that they might actually be the popular choice. There is no doubt that the Giants have a few things working for them here. 1) they have strengths where the Packers have weaknesses. The Giants DL against the Packers OL is a major mismatch, and the Giants passing game should be able to accomplish some things against the Packers secondary and lack of pass rush (provided Dom Capers doesn't get there with the blitz like he did last post season so well). Also, the Giants have the swagger of having won in Lambeau in 2007 with many players remaining. But, the trendy pick is also a pick that ignores the wild inconsistencies of the Giants this year and the fact that Aaron Rodgers has not thrown a multiple-interception game all year. With that and home field, I believe form holds here: Green Bay 31, New York 24.

Enjoy the games, after this weekend there are only 3 more games until September.