Friday, January 14, 2011

Foo'ball Update

Last week (wild-card weekend) and this weekend (conference semifinals) are the best that the NFL can offer in terms of entertainment. These events have crept later--and may end up a week or two later still if the NFL makes good on its threat to extend the regular season from 16 to 18 games--but no matter: the league dictates when, and our eyes follow. Unless, of course, one has no interest at all in the modern version of team gladiatorial combat, which is certainly defensible.

I'm not such a fan that I know the rosters in detail, or care the slightest about the endless hoopla about the annual draft of college players, or watch preseason games. I sometimes catch a regular season game if I happen to be in front of the TV and the games interest me. We get the Broncos on the AFC local telecasts, which has been interesting in the past but is no more; but on the NFC we don't seem tied to any particular franchise, so we get what the network thinks we would like.

This year, it was a lot of Michael Vick and Brett Favre. The first was quite interesting to watch, the latter not so much. Vick wowed everyone in the middle part of the season--he was promoted to starter after the first-string Eagles QB Kolb went down--and did some things that some of the talking deadheads could not recall ever seeing. It was the combination of dynamic running, rollouts, good defense reads, and precision passing, and it was blowing defenses away. Some were reluctant to credit the convicted dog-killer, but seeing was believing, and most gave him credit for (finally) growing up. By the end of the regular season, though, NFL defenses were making adjustments--mostly by various blitz combinations--taking away the time Vick needed to make the big plays. The Eagles slid into the playoffs on the last weekend, facing a tough Packers defense with strong linebackers: blitzers who can also fall back and cover. So, one of the big questions of last weekend was how that would pan out.

The Eagles fell short in the late minutes--the Packers did outplay them but the Vick factor kept the outcome in doubt until the end. It was one of three outstanding contests during the weekend, with the other two being upsets of the defending champion Saints by the (7-9 regular season) Seahawks and of the defending runner-up Colts by the New York Jets, 17-16. The Jets found the only way to beat the Colts and Peyton Manning in a close game: score the winning points on the final play of the game, so Peyton has no chance to come back.

The fourth game of last weekend was the Baltimore Ravens' dismantling of the Chiefs, 30-7. The Ravens looked like potential champions--for one game at least--as they showed added offensive punch to their perennially stifling defense. This weekend, the Ravens draw the Steelers; it should be a rugged defensive battle (major snow?), and the Jets go to New England to face the favored Patriots with their not-yet-crowned league MVP for the regular season, Tom Brady. Patriots have the best record in the league and are strong favorites--for this game, the AFC Championship, and even the Super Bowl--but I am predicting loss for them, either in this game or in the AFC finals. This way, I take credit for the upset, and if it doesn't happen, I don't mind seeing the Pats in the SB, anyway. My feeling from the start of the season was that this could be the Jets' year, and, though there may be fairly long odds, my hunch is that still may be true.

In the Other Conference, as with my recent posting on the Republican Presidential nomination competition for '012, someone will have to win. The Atlanta Falcons have the best record at 13-3, but I have to say that I didn't watch a minute of their regular season, so, based on ignorance and lack of track record from previous years, I have to discount their chances against the Pack.

Through an anomaly and rare misstep of NFL marketing, the second-seeded bye team, the Bears, play the worst team in the playoffs, the Seahawks: this is because the league gives the third and fourth seeds in the conference to the non-bye-winning division champions, even if they have worse records than the wild card teams. This is something I feel certain the NFL will rectify in some way for future seasons. Anyway, the Bears are big favorites over the Seahawks, and you have to expect that, indeed, it will be a one-sided win, despite the late-season resurgence the 'hawks showed with the final game win which got them in, followed by that gutsy first-round win.

So, my picks are Jets, Ravens, Packers, and Bears this weekend; the most interesting game should be the second game on Sunday between the Jets and Patriots. Of course, if that one's a big Patriots blowout (as was their latest, much-hyped matchup about a month ago), then it will be the unknown Falcons vs. Green Bay.

From this vantage point, my picks are the Bears and Jets in the S(t)upor Bo'. I'll take the Jets in that matchup, and the AFC in any other, too.

Big and Cheesy Series Wrap
Sounds tasty, no? Well, the Bowl Championship Series had three close games and two blowouts in its five games, which is decent, acceptable, but hardly proof of concept (after 15 years or so, we're still waiting for the concept to be vindicated). The Rose Bowl was a terrific matchup, soon-to-be-bigtime-Conference (but the wrong one) TCU (that's the undefeated, MWC-champion Texas Christian University Horned Frogs from Fort Worth, TX) winning one for the little guys over a game Wisconsin, 21-19, by stopping the Badgers' late two-point conversion to try to force a tie. The Sugar Bowl was also a good one, Ohio St. upholding the faltering prestige of the Big Whatever Conference (hint: they call it 10, have 11, going to 12) with a close-fought 31-26 win over a new-look, modernized U. of Arkansas team (third or fourth best in the SEC, but that's saying something). As expected, the ACC and Big East champions came up way short in their BCS matchups, with ACC champ Va. Tech (and their 10-game win streak) crushed by serious flash-in-pan Stanford (coach Harbaugh deserting the Cardinal, going pro, and likely taking their big-time football program with him).

The Fictional National Championship game itself, despite an unusual matchup of teams--Auburn and Oregon were both in the FNC for the first time--and undefeated records (the only ones, other than TCU), and a close game, was strangely not too compelling for me, probably because of a sloppy and scoreless first quarter. Auburn clearly had a major advantage in beef per capita, while the plucky Ducks used quickness--especially in their huddles and snap counts--to try to keep the Tigers (or is it War Eagles?!I'm confused!) off-balance.

Still, it had a dramatic climax. A late forced fumble given up by Heisman superstar and once-and-future-pro Cam Newton (the forced fumble is my least favorite play in football, and it is becoming more and more prevalent in both college and pro football, as coaches teach defenders to slap the ball rather than tackle the ball carrier) gave Oregon a chance, and they converted the turnover into a late touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the score. Auburn, though, quickly moved down the field--through the help of an odd play, in which a ball carrier was brought down, put his hand down, but his body rolled over the defender without touching the ground, allowing him to roll to his feet, look around, see his teammates waving him on, and run for another 20 yards--got into field goal position, and kicked the winner as the clock ran out. As has become usual, the SEC team won.

Meanwhile, the team I would insist was the best one in the nation this year, the one that would've won the championship in a playoff system, the defending champion and thrice-beaten Alabama, won in the Capital One (nee Citrus) Bowl on New Year's Day by about 40 points. And that is why the current system is defective, though I have to give credit to Auburn: in the key game of the regular season, their final regular-season game (before the SEC Championship game), Auburn came back from a two-touchdown deficit and somehow nosed out the Crimson Tide. I also have to admit that the playoff system would probably have needed 12 teams or more (three rounds) to get Alabama into it, as the first 10 probably would've been the ten in the BCS games (if they gave automatic berths at all, which, given the university politics, would be required).

I've given college football far too much space here given my loathing of the current system. I will say that, defective as it is, the BCS is the second-best postseason competition of American minor league sports (after the NCAA basketball tournament).

Other Foo'ball
Besides Foosball, probably the most popular version of soccer-related activity in the country today.

For me, big-league soccer means Europe, with particular focus on the English Premier League (EPL). Our Chelsea F.C., the defending EPL champions, had burst to the lead from the outset and widened it early. Then, something happened: injuries to the native Englishmen stalwarts of the midfield and backfield, Frank Lampard and John Terry, were the first signs of trouble, though they didn't register as such at the time. Nagging injuries to various defenders, and the announcement that star attacker Didier Drogba had contracted malaria, helped explain a couple of games that Chelsea lost, either to unusual defensive lapses or failure, despite monopolizing ball possession, to put the ball into the net. But excuses are running thin, and Chelsea has dropped out of the top four, to the point where even a spirited recovery of form would be unlikely to get them back into contention for the EPL title. Their run of bad games could endanger their chances of finishing in the top four (and keeping a European Champions League berth). Arch-enemy Manchester United's coach Alex Ferguson is cackling (with a Scottish accent) at the inexplicable decline of our front-runners.

Are we (i.e, they) getting old? Is their trouble in the locker room? Is our coach a neutered puppet? The answers will come in the next month or two as Chelsea tries to salvage the season through the secondary F.A. Cup (we have two titles in a row) and the primary Champions League. Chelsea clinched its berth in the second round of the Champions League early on, before its general decline, but hardly look like Europe-beaters at present. We have talent as good as any team in Europe, but something has surely been lacking. We shall see.

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