Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Quick Hits

OK so Superbowl XLIV is over, and the New Orleans Saints nabbed their first ever league crown, removing another team from the list of franchises that have still never won the trophy, making more room for my Eagles on that ignominious roster of historical ineptitude. For most guys -- including me -- the superbowl is always bittersweet, because while it is a great, exciting game in most cases, once it is over, well, there's a void.

A serious void. If for some reason you still play fantasy football, and especially if you obsess over it like I once did back when it was cool, then that void is even larger. Sometimes it can seem unthinkable that you won't be watching any more football on tv until late in the summer. That's six looooooong months of no football, and the prospect can be a bit daunting to be sure.

So for those of you, I will start with some parting thoughts today as Superbowl XLV has officially come and gone. With a day or two to think things over and let things crystallize in my mind, it is clear to me now that both head coaches really puckered up like they were drinking pure lemon juice in the first half of that superbowl. I already mentioned how unforgivably hideous Sean Payton's play-calling was on 3rd and 4th and goal from the 1-yard line late in the first half. To call two straight running plays just off tackle there with all the offensive weapons on that team is simply unthinkable, and Payton showed that he was not ready for prime time at that point in the game, a mistake which he soon corrected with the onsides kick to start the second half of the big game. But Colts head coach Peyton Manning Jim Caldwell also made a very similar error just after that huge goal-line stop by his Colts, opting to run three consecutive running plays after a quick first down, basically right up the middle, none of which worked even remotely well. To not attempt to mount a real drive there at a point when all the momentum was going the Colts' way, was just inexcusable, and as is often the case, this mistake really hurt the Colts as it led to the Saints getting the field goal right back that they gave up by opting to go for it and then running a horrible play on 4th and goal from the 1, and it completely switched the momentum that to that point was all weighing in favor of the Saints.

In the second half, as I mentioned Sean Payton really deserves a lot of credit for the ballsy onsides kick call, which obviously would make him the goat of the superbowl if the Saints don't pull that play off. But it was a brilliant play and one which was executed flawlessly by the Saints, and I give Payton a lot of credit for deciding during halftime to stop being a pussy and start trying to find a way to go and win the game. As I mentioned previously I think the kind of reckless playcalling that Payton exhibited a few times yesterday is probably above the level I would think of as optimum risk-taking -- I mean think about it. Honestly, do you think Bill Parcells would have opened the 2nd half in that spot with an onsides kick? Bill Bellichik, yes, sure he would have. But he's never won shit when he hasn't been proven cheating on every single play. Andy Reid would have done the onsides kick there too. But, well, he's Andy Reid and his record in big games is beyond laughable. But would Parcells? Bill Cowher? No, I don't think they would have, not in that particular spot. Because if you miss this roughly 50% chance of getting the ball back, your team is more or less finished in the superbowl given the way things were going. I'm not so sure I want my coach deciding with 30 minutes of football left in the biggest game in franchise history that he's going to willingly take a 50-50 gamble that will result in surely losing the game if he's wrong, and may or may not lead to victory if he is right and his play works. But I do give Payton credit for coming out and trying to grab the win instead of waiting around, and especially for his team obviously being more than ready to run that play to perfection.

I also give Sean Payton a lot of credit for what the Saints did defensively to confuse Peyton Manning. Now sure, nobody actually ever confuses Peyton -- you can just watch him at the line for a few plays to see that he always knows what's going down better than anyone else on the field for the most part -- but the Saints did as good a job as anybody in holding Manning and the Colts to just 17 total points on offense. They moved the ball well and outgained the Saints by around a hundred yards in the game, but despite that, Peyton never really seemed to get into that rhythm where he is a few steps ahead of the defense and can basically isolate the coverage mismatches and throw quick-strike bombs to penetrate the weaknesses. The Saints deserve a lot of credit for the way that they kept changing up their defenses, encouraging the Colts to run the ball early in the game and then taking away the run in the second half once the Saints got ahead on the scoreboard. The Saints not only changed their looks but they actively rotated different defensive packagesm, alternating between a 3-4, a 4-3, the nickel and various other formations which clearly helped to keep Peyton Manning off of his best game. The Saints rarely showed their full blitz package prior to Manning hiking the ball, and the result again was that Peyton was never really able to get on a roll and just pick apart the defense like he usually has been so adept at doing. Kudos to the Saints on defense, and to Drew Brees on offense, in what was truly an amazing run. Like I said yesterday, it's very rare that we get a true #1 vs #2 matchup, in football or in any sport really for that matter, and this one did not disappoint.

Also interesting this year in the NFL is that the NFC has finally caught up and seemingly passed their AFC counterparts after several years of AFC superiority. This year the Colts were awesome, but the Saints were better start to finish. And I think most people would agree after the playoffs that the Vikings were the next best team in the NFL as well. The Chargers looked good, the Jets had their moments, but the bottom line is that the best teams in football no longer reside in the AFC. If recent history is any guide, this could be the start of a long period of NFC success, as the conferences have tended to run in cycles of 10-15 years in duration with one conference having the clear advantage over the other.

It's also worth mentioning that, at least in my view, the superbowl loss has real significance in the career of Peyton Manning. I myself proclaimed that with the win in this year's superbowl, Peyton would already be well on his way to being the greatest quarterback who ever lived. Well, Peyton didn't win on Sunday, and I am revoking my statement as a result. The bottom line is, Peyton's number are sickeningly great, and his performance on the field is even so much greater than just what his number show, but in the end -- for quarterbacks more than almost anyone else in sports -- champions equate with all-time greatness. You simply need to have multiple superbowl titles to be considered one of the all-time greats in my book. It doesn't mean you have to win four or five superbowls -- too much of that is tied up in what specific team you happen to be drafted for and at what specific time -- but one is not enough to be grouped alongside the Montanas, the Elways, the Aikmans et al. By losing on Sunday, Peyton still has work to do all over again in order to ascend to "elite of the elite" status in the eyes of most knowledgeable football fans. Peyton's numbers by the time he is done with this league are going to speak for themselves as to how great he really is, and his one superbowl is enough to cement him a top-10 spot already for sure. But he can call all the plays at the line of scrimmage all he wants -- there are still other quarterbacks out there who did less playcalling and audibling at the line, but who had more overall success than Peyton in playing the position the way they know best. So Peyton's still going to have to win a second title to get the historical credit we all know he deserves in the eyes of many a football fan after losing his bid for a second superbowl title in Miami this past weekend.

Before closing the book on the 2009-2010 NFL season and commencing the huge wait until next season ramps up, I figured it's never too early to start thinking about next year already in the sports books. Courtesy of our personal information-disclosing friends at Bodog, I present to you, in alphabetical order, the hot-off-the-presses futures odds to win the 2011 championship in Superbowl XLV:

Arizona Cardinals - 35/1
Atlanta Falcons - 30/1
Baltimore Ravens - 20/1
Buffalo Bills - 100/1
Carolina Panthers - 40/1
Chicago Bears - 35/1
Cincinnati Bengals - 30/1
Cleveland Browns - 100/1
Dallas Cowboys - 12/1
Denver Broncos - 50/1
Detroit Lions - 100/1
Green Bay Packers - 12/1
Houston Texans - 35/1
Indianapolis Colts - 13/2
Jacksonville Jaguars - 50/1
Kansas City Chiefs - 100/1
Miami Dolphins - 45/1
Minnesota Vikings - 12/1
New England Patriots - 10/1
New Orleans Saints - 10/1
New York Giants - 20/1
New York Jets - 25/1
Oakland Raiders - 100/1
Philadelphia Eagles - 16/1
Pittsburgh Steelers - 11/1
San Diego Chargers - 8/1
San Francisco 49ers - 45/1
Seattle Seahawks - 45/1
St.Louis Rams - 100/1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 100/1
Tennessee Titans - 25/1
Washington Redskins - 50/1

Looking at the above list, a couple of names jump out at me as potentially representing some decent value. The Steelers are 11-1, and we all know that they have the personnel on both offense and defense to get back to the big game. I don't think the Eagles have the personnel to make it there, but the Jets at 25-1 are also worth a look given that we know they will have the defense again, and they managed to make their way to the conference finals this season already. The Minnesota Favres are at 12-1 right now, placing them in a three-way tie for sixth-highest on the board, but I imagine that as soon as Brett Favre makes official his obvious desire to return next season, that number probably climbs up to 10-1 or 19-2, so there may be an opportunity to get in early on that one before Favre makes his decision official. The Denver Broncos at 50-1 are also intriguing, only because the team was 6-0 and looking unstoppable a few months ago, and those are some long odds that could really pay off a small fortune if you have a hundy to drop on a few teams in advance of the 2010 NFL season commencing late this coming summer.

Now, enough about football, bring on the pause and some time to focus on March Madness as we roll into the home stretch in conference play in the NCAAs. And, of course, some time to focus on Lost! I watched last week's episode again on Monday evening, and I have to say without reservations that that was one cool episode. They've given us some solid more information that we never had before, introduced us to a new group of characters at a final station on the island heretofore never seen, and they've given some solid clues as to what makes certain people on the island immortal. As someone who was generally underwhelemed by the silly over-complexity of Season 5, the first episode of Season 6 seemed like it harkened back to the old days of this show, which is a welcome change to me to say the least. I realized yesterday while at the gym that I am genuinely looking forward to Lost tonight -- have been for several days, really -- for the first time in almost two years. I mean, I really can't go even 15 minutes without thinking about Jacob, the Japanese guy, and what's going to happen next. With just one episode this year, Lost has already grabbed me totally back in, which is a very good sign I think heading into the series conclusion just 15 episodes from now. Some people have heard tonight's episode is going to be crazy, and some have heard the really crazy one is next week's, but suffice it to say that Lost is really back with a vengeance, and is captivating its viewers like it hasn't for many of us in a long, long time. And nobody is happier about that fact than me.

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