Archive for February, 2010

The Ten Best NFL Games Of The 2009-2010 Season
February 16, 2010

I can’t say goodbye yet.

Even with all of the high-profile sporting events that took place over the weekend – the NBA All-Star Game (which I believe was attended by more people than watched the finale of The Jay Leno Show), the Daytona 500, and of course, the Vancouver Winter Olympics, I found myself longing for the NFL.

I dreamed of Tony Siragusa field reports, even though they have the depth and insight of a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. I yearned for Faith Hill’s weekly Sunday night appearance, undoubtedly the best mix of silly and sexy on TV – she sings about Cris Collinsworth while wearing a micro dress – since Catherine O’Hara unveiled Lola Heatherton a million years ago on SCTV. I ached for sound bites from the alarmingly hilarious Mike Singletary and the alarmingly pudgy Rex Ryan.

So, while I wean myself from my Sunday and Monday (and sometimes Thursday) fix, while I try to get accustomed to hearing Mike & Mike drone endlessly about the NBA trade deadline, and while I try to figure out which of the in-studio analysts for the Big Ten Network annoy me more – right now it’s Tim Doyle – allow me one final look back.

Here, then, are my choices for the 10 Best NFL games of the 2009-2010 season.

10. Cleveland Browns at Detroit Lions, Week 11, November 22, 2009. Lions win 38-37. On a day that featured huge matchups (Indianapolis at Baltimore, New York Jets at New England,  Philadelphia at Chicago), this game, between two teams that had so far combined for one win, was ridiculed as the biggest joke of not only the weekend, but the year.

Instead, Matthew Stafford and Brady Quinn put on the most entertaining show of the day, as the two struggling quarterbacks combined for nine touchdowns and 726 passing yards en route to a 38-37 Lions victory. Stafford sealed the win with a touchdown pass to Brandon Pettigrew with no time on the clock after injuring his shoulder on the previous play.

Though the Lions seemed to emerge from the win as the best of NFL’s worst, they lost every one of their remaining games. Meanwhile, the Browns won four of their last six games and, with Mike Holmgren assuming the role of team president and former Eagles GM Tom Heckert now in that job in Cleveland, the Dawg Pound has reason to hope heading into the 2010 season.

9. New Orleans Saints at Miami Dolphins, Week 7, October 25, 2009. Saints win 46-34. The unbeaten Saints had faced few challenges in compiling a perfect 6-0 record. Miami was looking to get back to .500 after starting its season 0-3.

On the same day that the Steelers knocked the Vikings from the ranks of the unbeaten (see below), it looked like the Saints were also heading for their first loss, as Miami was up on the Saints 34-24 heading into the fourth quarter. At home, it seemed the Dolphins’ lead was safe in the hands of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Instead, Drew Brees led the Saints on fourth-quarter scoring drives of 94, 60, and 64 yards, and cornerback Tracy Porter – months before doing the same to Peyton Manning – ended the game with a pick six of Chad Henne to seal the 46-34 Saints win.

With this victory, New Orleans learned that it could win close games, a lesson that would prove crucial en route to their first Super Bowl win.

8. New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Week 5, October 11, 2009. Broncos win 20-17 (OT). No team had had a worse offseason than the Denver Broncos. Even after starting the season 3-0, no one took them seriously. A victory in week 4 over the Dallas Cowboys raised some eyebrows, but nearly everyone expected the fairy tale to end against the vaunted Patriots.

Instead, Broncos head coach and former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels shocked his old team, his old boss Bill Belichick, and the football nation at large with a 20-17 overtime victory that featured an outstanding 98-yard, Kyle Orton-led drive to tie the game 17-17 in the fourth quarter.

After Matt Prater won the game in overtime, McDaniels was more excited than an audience member at one of Oprah’s holiday giveaway shows, jubilantly pumping his fist several times while fans everywhere decided to finally take these upstart Broncos for real. Unfortunately, they would go on to lose eight of their last eleven games. So much for fairy tales.

7. Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 7, October 25, 2009. Steelers win 27-17. In a game eerily prescient of the NFC Championship Game (see below), the visiting Vikings dominated the Steelers yet lost 27-17 due to ball handling issues.

The big-play fourth quarter is what made this game memorable: Up to then, both Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger had been contained by the opposing defense; the fourth period started with the Steelers up 13-10. The Vikings looked to go ahead but an eight-minute, 73-yard drive ended instead with a Brett Favre fumble that Pittsburgh linebacker LaMarr Woodley recovered and returned for 77 yards.

That 20-10 Steelers lead lasted all of 14 seconds as Percy Harvin returned the ensuing kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. After a Vikings defensive stop, Favre drove the Vikings another 55 yards only to see the comeback attempt end when Chester Taylor bobbled a pass that then fell into the arms of linebacker Keyaron Fox, who took it the other way 82 yards.

The Vikings, of course, would bounce back from this loss with a big win at Lambeau Field. The Steelers would shockingly lose five of their next six to miss the playoffs. But on this day, Pittsburgh looked very much like one of the very best teams in the NFL.

6. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints, NFC Championship, January 24, 2010. Saints win 31-28 (OT). The Vikings outgained the eventual Super Bowl champions 475-257 yards, ran 27 more offensive plays, and held the ball for nearly nine more minutes.

But the Vikings could not escape their own carelessness with the football as the Saints’ aggressive defense caused Minnesota to fumble the ball a whopping six times, three of which the Vikings lost.

But the biggest mistake belonged to Favre, who, with one single careless fourth-quarter interception, regained the sloppy reputation he had successfully overcome most of the year. By making an errant pass instead of trying to pick up a few extra yards on the ground to give Ryan Longwell a chance to boot the winning field goal, Favre validated the faith that Packers fans and management had put into Aaron Rodgers and stretched the Vikings NFC Championship losing streak to five.

Of course, all may have been forgiven in Minnesota had the Vikings won the overtime coin toss. But that’s another issue . . .

5. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Week 10, November 15, 2009. Colts win 35-34. Forever to be known as the day that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick lost his “genius” tag – except to Jets fans, to whom he was always an idiot – this was one of the best games in recent memory between two of the fiercest rivals in the league.

The Patriots dominated the Colts for most of the first half, taking a 24-7 lead midway through the second quarter. But Peyton Manning shredded the Patriots’ defense from that point on, bringing the Colts to within 34-28 with just over two minutes to go.

So badly had the Patriots’ defense played that Belichick made the inexplicable decision to try a fourth-and-two conversion on his team’s 28-yard-line at the two-minute warning instead of giving the ball back to Indianapolis. The Patriots failed to convert, and the Colts went on an easy 29-yard touchdown drive to win the game 35-34 with nine seconds left.

Most thought that these two teams were on a collision course to meet again in the playoffs, but New England lost that opportunity when they lost to Baltimore in the wild card round, and Belichick lost his shot at redemption.

4. San Diego Chargers at New York Giants, Week 9, November 8, 2009. Chargers win 21-20. What was hyped as the Eli Manning vs. Philip Rivers showdown did not disappoint. Unless you were watching as a Giants fan, who, after losing this game, fell to 5-4 after beginning the season 5-0. 

Statistically, this was Rivers’s worst game of the season, yet in many ways it was his most impressive. Once again, Rivers had absolutely no run game to speak of – San Diego Chargers fans are more likely to miss Lost than miss the outgoing LaDainian Tomlinson – as 209 of the Chargers’ 226 net yards and all three of the team’s touchdowns came courtesy of his arm.

Of the three, none was more crucial than the last, which came at the end of a monster 80-yard touchdown drive, as Rivers found Vincent Jackson in the end zone with just 21 seconds left. Rivers, who completed six of eight passes on that closing drive, furthered his reputation as one of the best three quarterbacks in the AFC, while Manning and the Giants just displayed how far they had fallen since the Super Bowl run in 2006-2007.

3. Green Bay Packers at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 15, December 20, 2009.  Steelers win 37-36. The most entertaining game of the regular season was also the most puzzling: How could two such purportedly good defenses give up a combined 973 yards of offense? How could Pittsburgh lose in successive weeks to Oakland and Cleveland if their offense could play like this? How could Green Bay have won five in a row with a defense that plays like this? And with no defense and almost no rushing attempts – 31 compared to 94 passes — didn’t anybody tell Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy that the Arena Football League had folded?

At the time, the game seemed like a fluke – clearly the Packers’ defense was better than this. But given that Dom Capers’s unit put in an even worse performance just three weeks later (see below), the game was a wake-up call that perhaps shutting down the less-than-stellar offenses of Detroit and Chicago didn’t mean that Dom Capers was the next Dick Le Beau. Although this game proved that Dick Le Beau wasn’t the next Dick Le Beau either.

Whatever forces conspired to create this game, they should conspire more often. They created a beaut.

2. Green Bay Packers at Arizona Cardinals, Wild Card Round, January 10, 2010. Cardinals win 51-45 (OT). What can you say about a game in which the winning quarterback had more touchdown passes than incompletions? What can you say about a game in which the Packers scored and allowed the most points in their 41-game playoff history? What can you say about a game in which Aaron Rodgers, in essence a second-year quarterback, eclipsed franchise postseason records for yards (422) and touchdowns (4)? What can you say about a game that saw the most points combined in a postseason game in NFL history? What can you say about a game that ended with a defensive touchdown in overtime, the first time that happened since 2004’s infamous “we’re going to take the ball and we’re going to score” Packers/Seahawks game?

Well, you can say this: As much as anyone hates to see referees decide games, the Cardinals’ Michael Adams should have been flagged on that final play for illegal hands to the face on Rodgers.

1. Indianapolis Colts vs. New Orleans Saints, Super Bowl XLIV, February 7, 2010. Saints win 31-17. Was this inarguably the best game of the year? Maybe not, but it was a terrific game with the highest stakes. Although I didn’t buy into all of that “America’s Team” hype with the Saints – as others have said, being host to the Super Bowl champion doesn’t rebuild houses or make whole lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina. But Drew Brees and that ball-hawking defense are awfully hard to root against.

And the onside kick at the start of the second half was the most exciting special teams play in Super Bowl history since Desmond Howard ran one back in 1997. But even though it worked out, I’m still not sure if I liked the call, since if it hadn’t, the Saints might have lost the game right there. And speaking of special teams, who would have guessed that Saints kicker Garrett Hartley – the most famous “Garrett” since original Not Ready For Prime Time Player Garrett Morris – would account for more points than Peyton Manning?

And how about Tracy Porter intercepting Peyton Manning for the game-winning pick six two weeks after in effect ending the Minnesota Vikings’ season with an interception of Brett Favre? Officials in his home town of Port Allen, Louisiana, are changing the town’s name to Porter Allen in honor of his postseason heroics. As impressive as that seems, he may have wanted to hold out for a bigger city – I think “Shreveporter” has a nice ring.

Special kudos to Betty White, Abe Vigoda, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Oprah Winfrey for making the game even more entertaining.

Oh, and despite what some have said: The Who (or what’s left of it) rocked.

All right, I feel better now. Bring on some college basketball. And that Olympic hockey’s not so bad either . . .

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The Super Bowl Not-Drinking Game
February 5, 2010

I was all set to write up a “Super Bowl XLIV Drinking Game” for Sunday’s game.

Then this morning the news broke that Madison, Wisconsin – where I live, work, and annoy my mail carrier by refusing to clear a proper path to my mailbox – was named the 15th drunkest city in America.

My response was immediate.

Really, 14 cities topped us?

But, wanting to be sensitive to the issue and not wanting to contribute to my fine city’s obvious penchant for overindulgence of fine and not-so-fine liquors, I consulted Wikipedia in an attempt to come up with a substitute vice.

And, being brazenly immature, I decided upon nose picking.

So here is my “Super Bowl XLIV Nose-Picking Game.”

Kathleen Falk, I hope you appreciate my teatotaling efforts!

If announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms promote Undercover Boss, pick.

If announcers Nantz and Simms promote Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, pick.

If announcers Nantz and Simms attempt an awkward segue from a CBS promotion to game action (“Peyton Manning is the boss of this game,” or “The Saints secondary is looking for a way to survive Indy’s passing attack”), pick from your weak hand.

If the cameras focus on one of the Miami Dolphins’ many celebrity owners (the game being held at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, of course), including Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and Gloria Estefan – pick.

If the cameras focus on Ron Jaworski, celebrity owner of the defunct Philadelphia Soul of the now-defunct Arena Football League, pick with your friend’s finger.

If The Who performs “Baba O’Riley,” pick.

If The Who performs “Pinball Wizard,” pick.

If The Who performs “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” pick David Caruso’s nose.

If Roger Daltrey has a wardrobe malfunction, pick your congressperson’s nose.

If the camera shows Archie or Eli Manning, pick.

If the camera shows Reggie Bush on-again, off-again girlfriend Kim Kardashian, pick.

If the camera shows Kim Kardashian’s stepfather Bruce Jenner injecting Botox into his face, pick your plastic surgeon’s nose.

If Peyton Manning throws a touchdown, pick.

If Drew Brees throws a touchdown, pick.

If Manning or Brees eats a hot dog on the sidelines during the game, pick the wife of your best friend’s nose.

If Dr. Oz mentions the word “poop,” pick. (Not Super Bowl related, but just had to bring it up. That M.D. is obsessed with BMs!)

If CBS promotes the Red Cross’s Haiti Relief Fund, pick (and then donate).

If Jim Nantz mispronounces the word “Haiti,” pick your brother-in-law’s nose.

If Nantz or Simms mentions “Hurricane Katrina,” pick.

If Nantz or Simms starts to sing “Rock You Like A Hurricane,” pick Klaus Meine’s nose.

If the Colts rush for more than 100 total yards in the game, pick the pizza delivery guy’s nose.

If the Saints fail to generate a turnover, pick your neighbor’s nose.

If game MVP Peyton Manning hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy, pick.

If game MVP Drew Brees hoists the Vince Lombardi trophy, pick your bookie’s nose.

Enjoy the game.

Final prediction: Indianapolis 35, New Orleans 27.

State Of The Big Ten
February 2, 2010

Every month of the year seems to be dominated by one particular sport.

April is ruled by the return of baseball and the hope that springs from fans everywhere (except those in the Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Baltimore-Washington, D.C. areas).

May is when the NBA playoffs are at their most compelling. Yes, they start in April and end in June, but the early rounds proceed at a pace slower than the director’s cut of Berlin Alexanderplatz and the Finals are typically as competitive as a Man v. Food episode pitting John Madden against a stack of baby-back ribs.

September-January? While some would say that the horsehide is foremost in their minds until the World Series wraps, it’s hard to argue that the dominance of football – pro and college – is unrivaled from back-to-school time through Groundhog Day (and slightly beyond).

And at least in my house, July and August are all about CBS’s Big Brother, which is as much of a sport as horse racing or Canadian Football.

College basketball has always owned March – they don’t call it “July Madness” – but the game takes center stage one month earlier than that.

Yes, February is undoubtedly the slowest sports month of the year, but that’s easy to forget if you concentrate on college hoops for 28 days, which isn’t hard since anyone with the most basic of cable systems can check out several games a night.

Once again, it would seem that Big Ten followers are seeing some of the best and most competitive games in the country, with the conference boasting more higher-ranked teams outside the perpetually-dominant Big East. (But when you have 43 teams in your conference, you’re bound to have some standouts.)

But that view isn’t shared by all, as the Big Ten is ranked just fifth in recent RPI rankings while ESPN’s Bracketologist extraordinaire Joe Lunardi has just four teams from the Big Ten in his field of 65.

But Lunardi has none of the four – Michigan State, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State – seeded less than fifth. Could more sneak in as lower seeds – possibly even as much as last year’s seven – with a quality win or two?

Well, if Judas Priest can win a Grammy, I guess anything’s possible. But it doesn’t seem likely.

Let’s take a quick look at the top seven teams in the conference and where they stand heading into the most important month of the regular season.

1. Michigan State (9-0 in conference as of 2/1). The Spartans have been dominating the conference record-wise, but hardly game-by-game: They haven’t won convincingly since a 71-53 win at Iowa on January 9, and since then beat both Minnesota and Michigan by just a point (or as the ubiquitous Wayne Larrivee would annoyingly and repeatedly say, “the slimmest of margins”). The Spartans are obviously going to the tournament, but with their next two games at Wisconsin and at Illinois, they likely won’t survive the first week of February unscathed.

2. Purdue (6-3). Of the four teams currently tied for second in the conference, Purdue has the best chance of catching Michigan State by the simple fact that they still play them twice. Coming off a thrilling home victory over Wisconsin and then a 20-point blowout of outmanned Penn State, Matt Painter’s team has fully rebounded from its three-game slide and seems to be playing its best basketball of the season. With guard Lewis Jackson back, those games against Michigan State become even more intriguing than an episode of Jersey Shore. Assuming those games are competitive, the Boilermakers should be seeded very comparably to the Spartans come tourney time.

3. Wisconsin (6-3). The fact that the Badgers are as winning as many games as they are despite low preseason expectations and despite the loss of Jon Leuer on January 9 means that Bo Ryan might be the best coach in the country. And while Wisconsin’s upcoming schedule is favorable, fans have to be nervous about the team’s continued tendency to go on shooting droughts that seem to last longer than one of Heidi Montag’s marathon plastic surgery sessions. But what keeps the Badgers winning is stifling defense and the uncanny knack for at least one player to bail the team out every game with clutch shooting. With that defense, the Badgers could run the table, but if they don’t start getting more shooting consistency from Jason Bohannon and Jordan Taylor – and something, anything, from Tim Jarmusz – they could drop some close games down the stretch. But it is hard to imagine Bo Ryan not getting this team into the tournament for the twelfth straight season.

4. Ohio State (6-3). Finally at full strength, this is a dangerous team, as they showed with a 22-point beatdown of Minnesota. The main concern: lack of bench production. Still, Thad Matta should be able to ride his starters to a high seed in the men’s tournament.

5. Illinois (6-3). Though tied with Purdue, Wisconsin, and Ohio State in conference wins, Illinois has ranked up wins – close wins – against a fairly easy schedule. They still have to play Wisconsin and Ohio State twice, travel to Purdue, and host Michigan State. If they can find a way to win maybe half of those games, they make the tournament. I guessing they can’t – even Wisconsin should be able to feast on their lousy defense – and they won’t.

6. Minnesota (4-5). Tubby Smith’s team started out 11-3 but has now lost six of its last seven. Most discouraging was its defensive performance against Ohio State, where it allowed the Buckeyes to shoot 63 percent en route to a 85-63 loss. The schedule isn’t terrible the rest of the way, but it won’t matter who they play if they don’t improve in a hurry. Disappointed Minnesota Vikings fans looking for solace in their Gophers will have to look elsewhere, unless any comfort can be found in yet another NIT tournament bid.

7. Michigan (4-5). The Wolverines have been one of the most disappointing teams in the Big Ten, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. If their role players could start hitting more shots – especially three-pointers, which they put up too often – it’s not impossible to see Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims carrying this team to an NCAA bid. The Wolverines have two quality wins on their resumé over Connecticut and Ohio State and they’ll have chances in the next month against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and the Badgers again. But they’ll have to shoot better to catch Joe Lunardi’s and – more importantly – the selection committee’s attention.