by Tom Weppel
Random thoughts from a cluttered mind…
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
And so, after a long and arduous regular season, we now get into the NFL playoffs! Twelve teams, all feeling confident they have a shot at making it into the Super Bowl down in South Florida on February 7th. This weekend we have four games to be played…two in the AFC, and two in the NFC. What is certainly wild about these games is that three of them will feature teams that played each other LAST week! That has only happened in seven other games in NFL history!
We’ll start out in Cincinnati, where the Bengals (10-6) will host the New York Jets (9-7). Last week the Jets beat the Bengals handily in the Meadowlands, 37-0, to get into the playoffs as a wild card. Cincinnati, meanwhile, had already clinched their spot in winning the AFC North. Offensively, both teams have strong running games, while their passing has not been top shelf. The difference should be in the fact that the Bengals’ Carson Palmer is a more solid QB than Jets rookie Mark Sanchez. Defensively, though, the Jets feature the #1 outfit in the League, and they seem to be on a late-season surge. The Bengals are a slight favorite in this one, although New York was 5-3 on the road this year. I consider it very possible for the Jets to pull this one off.
The other AFC matchup features the Patriots hosting the Baltimore Ravens. As we all know, New England is all about Head Coach Bill Belichick, QB Tom Brady, and a mostly-veteran ballclub, against a Ravens squad that was inconsistent for most of the season. Baltimore comes into this contest most likely wanting to run the ball in order to win. In RB’s Willis McGahee and Ray Rice, they have two guys who have pounded out yards for the Ravens offense. This will be a key to their being successful. The Patriots have had a good, but not great, season. It did not end, though, on a positive note, with the loss of their top WR, Wes Welker, who tore knee ligaments in their game last weekend against Houston. Without Welker, Brady will have to rely on Randy Moss and rookie WR Julian Edelman to throw to. Its possible New England will go more to the run in order to gain yardage and score, and that might be tough against a strong Ravens defense, led by veteran LB Ray Lewis. We all know Belichick is a veteran and a master, with his proven success in the playoffs. Add the fact that the Pats were 8-0 at home this season, and I would say New England should win this one in the end.
In the NFC, the Eagles will go back to Dallas to play the Cowboys for the third time this season. Dallas shut out Philly last weekend, 24-0, and seem to be on a roll. QB Tony Romo is throwing the ball well to a good set or receivers, and the defense is coming on strong heading in to the postseason. Dallas was 6-2 at home in their new stadium, and head coach Wade Phillips has been doing good things these last few weeks for the boys. But Philadelphia has been showing their prowess towards the end of the season, having won six in a row before their loss last week. Head coach Andy Reid is savvy in getting his troops geared up, especially on the defensive side of the ball. While their rushing has been down, the play of QB Donovan McNabb has been quite solid. And the Eagles feature one of the best playmakers in the NFL in WR DeSean Jackson. Both teams know each other extremely well, coming from the tough NFC East. I consider this the feature game of the weekend. NFL pundits will tell you it is very, very difficult for one team to beat the other three times in one season. Combine that with the fact that Dallas has NOT done well in the postseason, and my feeling is the Eagles will win this game and continue the Cowboys’ playoff dry spell.
The last game of the weekend is another rematch, with the Packers heading to Phoenix to play the Arizona Cardinals. Last weekend, Green Bay played all their regulars in a 33-7 pasting of the Cards, who rested a lot of their starters. Its been interesting, how the Packers have essentially been overshadowed all year by Brett Favre and the Vikings, who have commanded all the media attention. It has allowed Green Bay to fly under the radar and put together a pretty good team. Aaron Rodgers is a very good QB, and his receivers have done a great job. For Arizona to win, it will be up to QB Kurt Warner to get the ball to his great corps of WR’s, including Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston. He’ll have a tough test, though. The Packers feature a defense ranked second in the NFL. Their blitzing and pass rush, combined with solid pass coverage, will make it difficult for the Cards to score. Arizona was only 4-4 at home this season. The playoffs have proven you need a solid ground game and a strong defense to win. That said, my feeling is Green Bay can go back and beat the Cards, although the score will be much closer than last week.
So there you go…I like three road teams…the Jets, Eagles, and Packers, along with the Patriots, to win and move on into next week. Should be fun…
After a rough loss at Cleveland, the Jaguars finished their season with a 7-9 record. At one point, the Jags were 7-5 and looking pretty good for the playoffs, but then folded at the end, losing their last four games. This isn’t the first time Jack Del Rio’s teams have lost games to close out seasons. Last year, they lost six of their last seven. In ’06, they lost their last three. Unfortunately, the Jaguars deficiencies were especially glaring. Offensively, David Garrard was not passing the ball productively. He was getting hit more than any other starting QB in the NFL, and his WR’s were dropping balls. On defense it was even worse. They had no pass rush, for all intents, and their pass defense was non-existent, as Peyton Manning and Tom Brady showed us.
The bad play has caused a majority of fans in the area to not feel good at all about Del Rio, suggesting he should be canned. Many also feel Garrard is not the QB the Jaguars should be using. And of course we’ve all heard people throwing Tim Tebow’s name into the mix. But when you look at the season and compare it to last year, you can say Jacksonville actually did improve, especially considering their huge roster turnover, and the changing of their GM, from James Harris to Gene Smith. In the seven seasons Jack Del Rio has been head coach of the Jaguars, they’ve gone to the playoffs once! Compare that to Tom Coughlin, who took the Jags to the AFC Championship TWICE in his first five years here (losing both), and it makes you wonder what should be considered fair in evaluating this former NFL LB-turned-head coach.
The bottom line here is that overall, owner Wayne Weaver most likely believes his organization is on the right path, considering where it was only one year ago. It certainly was rough financially, with only one home game being shown in the market, and ticket sales having dropped. It also doesn’t help to have only one ‘star’ player, in RB Maurice Jones-Drew.
That said, the Jags have a ton of work to do during this off-season. They much do solid evaluations of their roster, deciding what kind of talent to bring in, and at what areas. Hopefully they can find a couple of solid free agent vets to plug in to positions in need. Hopefully they can follow up last years strong draft class with another good group of rookies to come in and play. (note: look for there to be a ton of discussion in consideration of Tim Tebow…from his local ties, to his Gator success, to his potential pro skills…or lack thereof!)
If Del Rio and GM Gene Smith can do a good job, along with their respective staffs during this off-season, then it will be up to Weaver and Co. to get the locals excited again about Jaguar football. Should be a rather interesting off-season, for sure.
THE JOCK 1-7-10
by Tom Weppel