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Superbowl Focus

In NFL on February 1, 2010 at 9:55 pm

The 44th Superbowl takes place next Sunday night when the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints take to the field in Miami. These two teams have been the best in their divisions all season, and possess arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league.

Here’s a breakdown of the key players on each side, and where the game is likely to be won and lost.

Indianapolis  Offense:

Colts Key Man: Peyton Manning


Of course, we start with Peyton Manning. The Colts quarterback is head and shoulders above everyone else in the game right now, and if he plays like he can then the Colts will win.

Manning has been a superstar since he arrived in the league 12 years ago, but his form rarely seems to dip. This year he racked up another 4,500 yards passing to go with 33 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions. Statistically, it’s been his best season since 2004, when he had Marvin Harrison to aim at. It’s also his 10th season in the last eleven where he has surpassed 4,000 yards passing, and when he gets into rhythm, he is as close to unstoppable as it gets.

In the Championship game against the Jets, he was kept under wraps for almost the entire first half by the best defence in the AFC. Down 17-6 in the embers of the 2nd half though, he suddenly exploded and drove his side 80 yards in three plays. That burst changed the entire complexion of the game, and the Colts took over from that point on as they cantered to a 30-17 win.

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Championship Round-Up

In NFL on January 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

After a furious Sunday night of Championship games, only two teams remain. When the dust settled and the stadiums emptied, we were left with one final showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints.

The NFC title game was 60 minutes of sport at its absolute pinnacle. The first half especially was a perfect example of what every contest should be; a series of challenges met. The Saints and the Minnesota Vikings matched each other drive for drive, catch for catch and tackle for tackle, as each player on the field stood up and played as if their career depended on it.

Drew Brees (9) and the Saints have New Orleans dreaming of its first ever Superbowl

In the end, the Saints needed some luck and five minutes of overtime to overcome a worthy Minnesota Vikings. Once again it was their defence that came up trumps. They’ve been the masters at forcing the turnover all year, and it was the key to claiming the NFC Championship.

Looking at the stats, it’s still hard to believe they actually won. Adrian Peterson was due a big one, and sure enough the Vikings key weapon caused some major damage. He rushed for 122 yards and three touchdowns. Brett Favre threw for 310 yards to Drew Brees’ relatively prosaic 197. The Saints were held to just 68 yards on the ground compared to the Vikings 165. Minnesota gave up 32 yards in penalties, while New Orleans were tooted for 88, and the time of possession and total first downs were both around 2:1 in favour of the visitors.

But the key stat was turnovers, which favoured Sean Payton’s men by 5 to 1.These turnovers not only came at crucial times but also caused a huge swing in the game.

With the game in the balance right before half time, Reggie Bush’s short career must have flashed before his eyes when he tried for a special play that was never on, and handed the ball to Brett Favre in the red zone. That should have been a guaranteed 3 points and a probable 7, which would have seen the Vikings gain the lead and a crucial psychological advantage going into the break. Read the rest of this entry »

NFC Championship Preview

In NFL on January 19, 2010 at 11:37 pm

The expected shootout at the SuperDome never materialised last Saturday as the Saints crushed a weary Arizona 45-14. The Minnesota Vikings also strolled to a 31 point win, smashing the Cowboys 34-3 as both sides advanced to the NFC Championship game with ease.

Brett Favre celebrates his Minnesota's crushing win last weekend

It would be a major shock if either team wins that easily on Sunday though

What the Saints did last week was deeply impressive, as they recovered from an early Arizona score to crush the Cards inside three quarters. They did this by scoring on five of their first six possessions, taking full advantage of the three week break most of their starters enjoyed.

This freshness was a stark contrast to the poor Cardinals, who had spent what seemed like forever on the field trying to stop Aaron Rodgers in an overtime win just six days before. Their defence deteriorated so badly that they gave up 31 points to the Packers in last week’s second half, and had already given up 45 midway through the third quarter in New Orleans.

Not even Kurt Warner at his best could make up for that kind of generosity, and certainly not the Kurt Warner that played last weekend. It was always a big ask for him to recapture his Wildcard form, and he was not helped by his receivers fumbling passes and big Bobby McCray serving him up a car crash hit after an interception in the second quarter.

Despite facing a tired team, the Saints were still at full throttle and they will fancy their chances against the Vikings. They rediscovered a bit of devil on defence after their late season travails, forcing three fumbles and an interception, and they recovered brilliantly from Tim Hightower’s 70 yard TD run from the first play of the game. Read the rest of this entry »

AFC Championship Preview

In NFL on January 18, 2010 at 6:49 pm

In the eyes of many, the New York Jets shouldn’t even be in the post-season. At one stage they were 4-6, and even late in the season coach Rex Ryan was under the impression that they were already out of playoff contention.

Then they beat the Indianapolis Colts in week 16 when Jim Caldwell pulled his starters and sacrificed his perfect season, and followed that up by battering an uninterested Bengals outfit who also played at reduced intensity.

That came back to bite the Bengals when they lost again in the Wildcard round, and after the Jets jaw-dropping upset of the San Diego Chargers on Sunday night, Caldwell better hope that he doesn’t live to regret his fateful decision to pull Manning and sacrifice a home game.

Jets corner Darrelle Revis hauls in a miracle interception against the Chargers

The Jets won Sunday’s game the only way they could; with suffocating defence. It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of games, but you won’t find a Jets fan who cares about that. Last week, I wrote that Rivers was prone to the odd turnover in close games. He is usually very careful with the ball, throwing only 9 interceptions all season. But all of those came in games that were lost or won by just a score.

Unfortunately for the Chargers, he did it again on Sunday, throwing two interceptions. Incredibly, the two picks came on consecutive passes, and in opposite red zones, likely causing at least a 10 point swing. Read the rest of this entry »

AFC Divisional Preview

In NFL on January 15, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Baltimore Ravens@Indianapolis Colts

The Baltimore Ravens upset the odds, history and a good portion of the country when they marched into Foxboro last week and destroyed Tom Brady’s Patriots, and they will have to do the same again this week if they want to advance to the AFC Championship game.

The Ravens are one of those teams that you can’t help but admire. They are one of the most physical teams in the NFL, and if there’s any group of players that will relish the challenge of overthrowing the 14-2 Indianapolis Colts in front of their home crowd, it’s Ray Lewis and co.

But while the Patriots were a team with obvious flaws to be exploited, this Colts side have looked almost untouchable for a good portion of the year. They were 14-0 and on track for a perfect season before Jim Caldwell decided to rest his starters. Sure, they had some close games, but with Peyton Manning looking more intimidating than Clint Eastwood with an Uzi, you always feel that they’re just a couple of snaps away from a match-winning play.

Peyton Manning runs an offense that's limited, but still almost impossible to stop

Manning, like Brady, is a sure-fire Hall of Fame player. He needs another Superbowl ring to cement his legacy though, and silence the doubters. This pressure has clearly weighed on Archie’s boy. At times, he’s looked haunted by the ghosts of playoffs past, and he’ll need to play with the bravery and freedom he’s capable of if he’s to break this B-more D.

Manning is a special case, because even if the unit in front of him are under pressure, he still has an uncanny ability to step up and make plays when he looks certain to be sacked. This must drive opposing pass-rushers insane. Read the rest of this entry »

NFC Divisional Preview

In NFL on January 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Dallas Cowboys@Minnesota Vikings

The Dallas Cowboys are the trendy pick for the Superbowl right now after ruining the New Orleans Saints’ perfect season and demolishing a miserable Philadelphia Eagles side.

But I’m not convinced.

The Minnesota Vikings have looked awesome for large stretches of the season, but frailties have been exposed in recent losses, leaving them as underdogs in the eyes of many, despite holding home field advantage for this Divisional playoff game.

I think the Vikings will win this, and they have a great chance of finally ending that Superbowl drought.

You see, the Eagles were really a perfect match-up for the Cowboys. They were also away from home and ravaged by injury. But Dallas will not be able to bully this Minnesota outfit in the same way.

Dallas QB Tony Romo still has a lot to prove

For one thing, running inside against the Eagles undersized interior is a far cry from budging Kevin and Pat Williams. This will put more pressure on Tony Romo, who had an armchair ride against Trent Cole and the Philly pass rushers, who hardly got near him all day. When they did though, it looked for all the world that the old Romo was still very much alive and well. One interception at 7-7 could have made last week’s game a very different affair, and there was one other panicked dump which could easily have been picked off. Jared Allen will be dusting off his hurting pads and licking his lips at those particular misfires. Read the rest of this entry »

Wildcard Round-Up

In NFL on January 11, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Midway through the 3rd quarter of yesterday’s Cardinals-Packers game in Arizona, it looked as though we were snoozing our way to the end of the tamest Wildcard weekend in living memory. With quarterback Kurt Warner and the hometown Cardinals shredding one of the toughest teams in the league and delighting their home fans with a 31-10 lead, we were well on the way to the fourth lopsided contest of a deeply disappointing couple of days.

But Aaron Rodgers had other ideas.

There’s always a worry how playoff rookies will react on the big occasion. And Packers fans must have feared the worst for the future as their general seemed overawed and uncertain on his first post-season appearance. His first play of the game will still give him nightmares, as he broke right out of the pocket, reached the sideline, and then threw a crazy blind pass across his body into double coverage. Cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie duly picked off the pass and Tim Hightower got the scoreboard ticking with a 1-yard run just a few plays later.

Cardinals receiver early Doucet ships a big hit from Packers safety Atari Bigby

Cardinals receiver Early Doucet ships a big hit from Packers safety Atari Bigby

The Pack’s offense stalked back onto the field looking like they had something to prove. But it was the Arizona defence which once again rattled them into a turnover. This time, hard hitting linebacker Karlos Dansby was the one who stripped Donald Driver following Rodgers’ first completion of the day. This set Kurt Warner up for a quick 15-yarder to wideout Early Doucet, as the Cards shot out to a 14-0 lead and the neutrals grumbled. Read the rest of this entry »

Baltimore Ravens vs New England Patriots

In NFL on January 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm

The Patriots and Ravens meet on Sunday night for the second time this season, and incredibly, this is the only Wildcard match-up that isn’t a re-match from Week 17. The Pats escaped with a 27-21 win in Week 4, as a Ravens drive stalled yards from the goal-line with time expiring.

The Patriots have been shaky since then though, despite the routine heroics from ‘Comeback Player of the Year’ Tom Brady. In fact, their defence has been so unreliable that even Bill Belichick has been reluctant to lay his trust in them at crunch time. This lack of faith led to his infamous 4th down call against the Colts in November, which must rank alongside Zidane’s bull impression and Jordan’s baseball career in the pantheon of bad sporting decisions.

Pats coach Bill Belichick has had a tough year

At a glance, the stoppers don’t look to be in the worst shape, ranking 5th in the league in points conceded (17.8 per game, stats fans), but it’s been their inability to do it when it matters that has really hurt them. Their loss to the Miami Dolphins, for instance, nearly dragged them right back into the dogfight for the Eastern Division.

They did rattle off three wins in a row after that to pull clear and seal their place though, and last week’s loss to the Texans shouldn’t be too much of a worry considering how little was at stake. But questions remain over just how good this year’s edition of the Pats are.

With Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren back from injury, and they should help keep Ray Rice and the revitalised Willis McGahee under wraps, but they might struggle to pressurise Joe Flacco. Read the rest of this entry »

Green Bay Packers vs Arizona Cardinals

In NFL on January 8, 2010 at 5:35 pm

The third Week 17 rematch of the wildcard round sees last year’s surprise Superbowlers the Cardinals welcoming the streaking Packers to the desert in what could turn out to be the tie of the weekend. Ignore Green Bay’s 33-7 win last week. Arizona had nothing to play for and hardly even unveiled their starters, so beyond the possible psychological edge, that game means very little.

Historically, the Cardinals have been about as threatening as a marshmallow Care Bear and have rarely made it into the post-season, but they have evolved in the last few years. Last year was their coming out party, as they exploded in the play-offs and came within a few seconds of Superbowl glory.

Kurt Warner put in one of the all-time great post-season performances last year. Can he do it again?

That was mainly down to the combination of experienced quarterback Kurt Warner and their supernaturally gifted receiver Larry Fitzgerald. When it comes to playoff play, these two were unparalleled last year, setting post-season records of 30 catches for 508 yards and seven TDs (Fitzgerald) and 1,147 yards passing (Warner).

In fact, Warner has plenty of previous for this kind of ridiculous behaviour when it comes to the business end of the season. He averages an insane 306.2 yards per game, has the second all time passer rating (behind Bart Starr) of 98.9, has a completion rate of 64.8% and also holds the second most yards in a campaign (1,063 with St Louis in ‘99) to go with last year’s effort. In short, he’s very, very good. Read the rest of this entry »

Philadelphia Eagles vs Dallas Cowboys

In NFL on January 6, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Saturday night’s game between these bitter NFC East rivals will see the hometown Cowboys eager to complete their 3rd win of the season over the Eagles, while Philly will be desperate to redeem themselves after they stunk the place out last Saturday and forfeited the 2nd seed.

So what happened in last week’s game?

What Dallas did right:

The Cowboys shut down Philly’s offense, pressuring Donovan McNabb into mistakes and sacking him 4 times. They squeezed him on every possession, and forced him into a couple of fumbles. They clearly got into his head.

Even with Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin wide open down the field, the Eagles QB fired long, or behind his receivers. The Cowboys defensive line will have to recreate this pressure to keep the big no.5 on the back foot, and the terrible trio of Spencer, Spears and Ware will be key.

The lethal DeSean Jackson was kept quiet last week, can the Cowboys do it again?

The secondary also played very well. Not quite lights out, but the dimmer switch was right down. In Newman and Jenkins, they have a very effective pair of corners, and they held Jackson and Maclin to just 3 receptions each for less than 100 yards combined. They will have to keep their concentration and intensity ratcheted up at the weekend, as they will be more aware than anyone of the knockout power this Eagles offense possesses. Read the rest of this entry »