Tuesday, January 13, 2009

NFL Conference Title Games

Nope. No Patriots game today. Strange huh? While we don't have a team to root for today, we certainly have a team to root against: the Steelers.

Before I go out and shovel I would like to remind Pats fans why we should be rooting for the Ravens today. Granted, it is hard to root for Ray Lewis but remember...we HATE the Steelers. Despite knocking them off at home twice in 4 years for the AFC title and again in the regular season in '05 and '07, the likes of Lee Flowers or Joey Porter always claim the Steelers are the better team. It was also Porter who wanted his "three rings back" when asked about Spygate. What a joke.

The two I just mentioned are no longer in Pittsburgh but they do epitomize the Steeler mentality. Rarely has the vaunted Steeler defenses of this era come up big in January:

-The Steelers let Drew Bledsoe top them in '01 (with some special teams lapses included).
-In 2002 they gave the Browns a 24-7 lead but won 36-33 even after allowing 429 passing yards from the great Kelly Holcomb. They lost the next week 34-31 to the Titans. That's 67 points in 2 weeks.
-In 2004 the Patriots destroyed their zone coverage with Deion Branch.
-When Pittsburgh won the Superbowl in '05 it was aided by the cheap shot given to Carson Palmer by Keith Von Oelhoffen.
-David Garrard ran for 32 yards on fourth-and-2 against this "Steel Curtain" last year with the game on the line to beat the Steelers.

The Steelers will once again lose a conference championship today at home. Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend haven't been exposed because of the great Pitt pass rush in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley but the Ravens offensive line has been playing well and I expect Joe Flacco to continue making throws when he has to. Flacco has gotten better and better at throwing out patterns as the playoffs have progressed. The Ravens backfield of McGahee/McClain will also be a problem for Pittsburgh.

I don't see Ben Roethlisberger being able to do much against this Ravens defense. I know it was "ranked" behind the Steelers but this is the kind of game where Ed Reed and Ray Lewis show why they're going to Canton some day.

Say it with me, New Englanders: Go Ravens.

Prediction: Ravens, 20-14

Out west in Arizona we have a truly bizarre NFC title game on our hands. The 9-7 Cardinals are facing the 9-6-1 Eagles. The Cards lost 3 of their last 5 and laid down to the Pats in Foxboro (much to Dan Shaughnessy's chagrin). The Eagles tied the Bengals and needed a perfect week 17 to grab the eight spot. Now the two are playing for a Super Bowl appearance.

Based on the way the two teams have played thus far, I'm going with Arizona today. Its offense has never been in question but their suddenly turnover-creating defense has vaulted them to their current position. Formerly a weakness, the secondary has been a true strength in these playoffs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been great and will be a stud for years to come. He has received help from Roderick Hood as well as safties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson.

As great as Larry Fitzgerald was last week, the addition of Anquan Boldin would be huge for the Cardinals since the Eagles will be using zone coverages against the Arizona receivers. A key factor will be to see how much Edgerrin James can give both in terms of production and pass protection, an aspect of football he doesn't seem to be too fond of anymore.

If Brian Westbrook were completely healthy, I'd most likely be picking the Eagles but I can't see the Eagles winning two straight weeks with their best player having less than 25 touches. Donovan McNabb has been just good enough so far and he's going to need to play better in order to get to Tampa.

Prediction: Arizona, 24-17.

Some Red Sox Notes:
-After talking to a few people over the past day or so, it could be interpreted that me championing Jice Rice's candidacy for the Hall stems from me being a Red Sox fan. Not the case. Ask me about Carl Yastrzemski. I consider him to be in the Cal Ripken category of being a "compiler". Outside of his Triple Crown season in '67, Yaz lacked the year-to-year numbers of the other revered hitters of his tine. He spent 23 seasons with the Sox and had 100+ RBI in only five of them. No, I don't subscribe to the theory that he was a victim of a pitchers era. In fact, '67 was the height of that era and he had the last Triple Crown we've seen. After a batting title in '68 (with a .301 average) back-to-back 40-home run seasons in 1969-70 Yaz was an ordinary player who was a good fielder with 20-25 HR power. Overrated.

-The Kevin Youkilis deal is an absolute steal for the Sox. We should feel extremely comfortable about the future of this team with Youk and Pedroia in the infield for at least the next 4 years.
-If he hadn't already redacted his trade request the Red Sox would have been smart to inquire about the availability of Michael Young. Young has asked for a trade after being asked to move to third in order to make room for hot prospect Elvis Andrus at short. Young is 33, is owed $62 million over the next five seasons, had his worst year since 2002 and had an injured finger for most of the second half of 2008. All that being said, I would have loved for the Sox to deal a package of Jed Lowrie or a raw third base prospect like Michael Almanzar, a low-A pitcher along with the seemingly immovable object known as Julio Lugo. Oh well.

-The Sox have quickly built the best and deepest bullpen in baseball. Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez, Javier Lopez leading up to Jonathan Papelbon is going to be very dependable. Keep in mind the Sox also have Justin Masterson once John Smoltz comes back as well as Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden waiting in the wings.

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