For the Birds

Well, it was bound to happen when the NFL decided to split the league into eight divisions; it was only a matter of time.  And here we are, with the embarrassment of a 7-9 team hosting a playoff game while two 10-6 teams are sitting at home.  Almost everyone outside of Seattle agrees that this is a travesty, and, unlike some arguments I have heard, this is not an aberration—it will happen again.  When you have nearly as many divisions as playoff spots, you are practically begging for it to happen again.

Even if you want to make the argument that Seattle deserves to be in the playoffs because they won their division (not much of an accomplishment considering that my cousin’s midget football team could win seven games in that division), you can’t possibly believe that the Seahawks deserve to host a playoff game, that the 11-5 Saints should have to travel to Seattle to play this game.  And consider this: if things had fallen a little differently in the last week of the season, it would have been the Falcons with a 12-4 record heading to 7-9 Seattle.  Does anyone seriously think this is good for the NFL?

So what should they do about it?  They’ll never go back to six divisions, so that’s not an option.  Ideally, only the top three division winners in each conference should be guaranteed playoff spots, but the owners would never go for that, either.  At the very least, the owners should agree that winning your division should not guarantee you a home playoff game.  The playoffs should be seeded according to record.  Not only is this the fair thing to do, but it would also make the final games of the regular season more interesting.  Think about how many teams rest players during the last two weeks because their seeding is locked up.  For example, the Eagles would not have been able to rest their starters in last week’s Dallas game under this proposed format because they would have fallen behind Green Bay in the seedings and lost their chance to host a playoff game.  Also, the Bears would have had more to play for in the final week because a loss would have meant falling behind the Saints and losing their first-round bye.  In fact, every playoff team in the league except for the Patriots would have had something to play for in the final week.

The NFL has been searching for ways to make that final week more interesting and this seems like a perfect solution.  Not only would fewer teams be resting players at the end of the season, but the playoff seeding would be much more equitable.  Yeah, you would still have crappy 7-9 Seattle in the playoffs, but at least they wouldn’t be rewarded with a home playoff game against a much better team.  They would be the 6th seed, where they belong.

But I didn’t come here to talk about that 🙂

Time for this week’s picks.  Might as well start with the team in question…

New Orleans at Seattle
Seattle might actually have a chance to win this game . . . if a wormhole swallows up the Saints’ plane on the way to Seattle.  I’m feeling generous, so I’ll give the home team a special teams TD to go with a couple of field goals.  Saints: 31, Seahawks 13.

Baltimore at Kansas City
Kansas City has had an admirable season, but they’re not ready for a game like this against a team of this caliber.  Ravens 23, Chiefs 14.

New York at Indianapolis
This is my slight upset pick of the week.  Manning just doesn’t have the weapons this year and I think the Jets will win the battle up front.  Jets 24, Colts 21.

Green Bay at Philadelphia
This should be the game of the week between two teams with explosive offenses.  Green Bay seems to be the popular pick around the country, but I’m going to be a homer here and pick the Birds to eke one out.  Eagles 28, Packers 24.

Random Thoughts

In lieu of a new article, here’s a compilation of my sports-related thoughts from this past weekend…

Saturday at 7:07pm
Wanted: Closer. Location: Philadelphia. Job Description: Get people out. Must be willing to travel.

Sunday at 12:01pm
I’m ready for some football!

Sunday at 2:45pm
Can’t ask for a much better first half. Stupid penalties at the beginning, but they more than overcame that. The defense was awesome!

Sunday sometime after 3pm
It’s so nice to see McNabb running again . . . oh no!!!

Sunday at 4:22pm
Today’s game ball goes to Sean McDermott. He answered any questions about the defense without Jim Johnson in a HUGE way.

Sunday at 4:38pm
Fractured ribs! How quickly euphoria can turn to despair. Anybody who watched the offense today with Kolb at the helm better hope that McNabb can return sooner rather than later . . . and I don’t even want to think about having to root for a Vick-led football team. With all apologies to Westbrook (who I love), McNabb is the most irreplaceable player on this team.

Sunday at 5:11pm
It sure looked like an unflagged late hit that caused the injury. McNabb was clearly on the ground and the TD was already called, but the #92 a-hole kept coming and pounced on him. Freakin’ Carolina. They did the same thing to him in the championship game a few years back: pounced on him with a late hit and knocked him out of the game. I hope this one gets fined at least. So much for protecting the quarterbacks.

Sunday at 8:26pm
I’m glad the Phillies won today, but nearly another blown save! What’s Mitch Williams doing these days?

Sunday at 11:10pm
A month ago Pedro was pretty much an afterthought . . . not anymore.

Monday at 8:15pm
I like the Garcia signing. He’s a veteran and knows the offense. If McNabb is going to be out for the next two games, which is highly probable, I’d much rather have Garcia in there than Kolb or Vick, though unfortunately Kolb will still be starting this week. Here’s hoping he proves me wrong.

Tuesday at 9:30am
Good first week for my fantasy team, The Untouchables: 162.5 points, thanks mostly to Brees and the Eagles defense/special teams, who combined for about 90 of those points. Good first week for me in the pick’em pool as well: I went 13-3; could have been even better if I had gone with the Jets as I had been tempted to do.

Tuesday at 2:56pm
So Andrews is done for the season. It doesn’t look like this guy is ever going to live up to his talent. Apparently, at least one medical doctor thinks he may never play again. Justice played well this week, but it’s time to bring back Runyan.

On Vick and the Eagles

Damn you, Andy Reid. Damn you, Jeff Lurie. Damn you both for putting me in the position of rooting for a team with a dog murderer on it. Let me make this clear: I don’t want Vick on my team. As a dog owner, I abhor him and the horrific things he did. Anyone who gets off on torturing helpless animals has something wrong upstairs. What Vick did was the behavior of a sociopath, plain and simple.

I would be all for second chances, even for a thug like Vick, if I truly believed he was remorseful. However, I don’t think he regrets what he did; I think he just regrets getting caught. I don’t see how the Eagles can justify signing Vick after firing T.O. because of his character. Reid always talks about having character guys but I guess his standards have significantly lowered. As much of an a-hole as T.O. is, he has never been a criminal like Vick. And as others have pointed out, if they’re so big on second chances, why not rehire Dan Leone, the handicapped employee who had the audacity to criticize the Eagles on facebook for not resigning Brian Dawkins?

And I won’t even get into why I thought this signing made no football sense, that’s for another article.

That being said, I am going to watch and root for the Eagles this Sunday. A lot of people have said they will never watch another game, and a lot of people from other towns have said that if their team had signed Vick, they would have stopped rooting for them. Well, that’s easy to say when you’re not actually faced with the situation, and even easier to say if you live in a city with multiple teams to switch your allegiance to. It’s also easy to say if you were only a casual fan of the team to begin with. But for those of us who have bled Eagle green our entire lives, it’s not such an easy thing to abandon the team you love and grew up with. And Eagles fans are not alone in this: nobody in New York stopped rooting for the Knicks when they signed Latrell Sprewell after he tried to strangle his previous coach to death, and nobody in Philly stopped rooting for the Phillies when Brett Myers beat his wife.

Why? Because the team is bigger than any single person. You can hate certain members of the organization all you want, but in the end, when it comes down to game day, they’re still your team. You’re not going to suddenly start rooting for the Cowboys. The Eagles are bigger than Vick or Reid or Lurie. This football team was around long before those guys got here, and it will be around long after they’re gone. For me, the Eagles are Jaworski, Montgomery, and Bergey. They are Cunningham, Quick, and White. They are McNabb, Westbrook, and Dawkins. These are the players I have rooted for my whole life. I have never rooted for the coach or the owner, so there’s no reason I can’t continue to follow my football team in spite of my disgust with Eagles management.

Does that mean that all is forgiven? Hell no. I don’t think I will be approaching this season with the same gung-ho enthusiasm that I have in the past. Maybe the disgust will wear off at some point, but it will take time. I definitely will NOT cheer when Vick takes the field. Does that mean I will boo if he makes a big play? I can’t honestly say, but if I had my wish, he would never set foot on the football field in the regular season. When Vick is on the field, do you hope he gets sacked even if it means the Eagles lose? Once again, damn you Reid and Lurie for putting me in this position.

I won’t go to the games this season and I won’t buy merchandise, but I will watch on TV. Some of you may say that still puts money in Vick’s pocket, and while the Eagles do get revenue from television broadcasts, it is a deal in which all NFL teams share equally, so anyone who watches ANY football game on television is technically putting money into Vick’s pocket. But I’m not here to argue about the nuances of NFL finances. I’m just here to declare that the Eagles are still my football team, and I intend to continue rooting for them to win on Sunday afternoons. I’m going to root for McNabb and Westbrook and Cole and Jackson and everyone else on the team who deserves my loyalty.

If you are among those who will never watch a game again, I respect your feelings. I just ask that you respect mine as well.

Battle of the Birds

It’s hard to believe we’re sitting here talking about the Eagles in the NFC Championship game after the season they had. On at least two different occasions I was convinced the season was over. The first time was after the Ravens debacle, when McNabb was pulled and the team imploded. How did the Eagles respond? By coming back four days later and destroying the Cardinals on Thanksgiving, kicking off a three-game winning streak that put them back in the hunt . . . until the second occasion when I (and almost everybody else) thought the season was over: the Washington game. We all know what happened after that: the Eagles bounced back to annihilate Dallas and Tampa Bay lost at home to Oakland. Absolutely improbable, but here we are, and through two playoff games, the Eagles have proven that they belong here.

Not too many people gave them a chance to beat the Giants, but the game played out pretty much how I thought it would. I knew that if the Eagles contained the running game and forced Manning to beat them, he would fold, and that’s exactly what happened. The Eagles were actually fortunate to have the lead at halftime as the offense had not done much, but once again, the defense came up huge and kept them in the game until the offense found its rhythm. And like the Minnesota game, the Eagles took over and dominated the second half. The defense allowed nothing but a field goal, and McNabb fought through the fierce wind to lead the Birds on three more scoring drives, making several key third down throws in the process.

So here we are, in an NFC Championship game that NOBODY predicted: the Battle of the Birds. It’s only a shame that the higher seed automatically goes to the division winner, because the Eagles, having the better record, could have hosted the game, and there’s no way the Cards would have won in frigid Philly. I still believe the Eagles will win, so do most experts (as the Eagles’ road favorite status will attest to), but this game will not be as easy as people think, primarily because the Eagles have played two brutally physical playoff games while the Cardinals have had a relatively easy time of it, but also because we will not see the same Cardinals team that the Eagles blew out in November. They will be at home, on eight days of rest, and brimming with confidence after two impressive victories over Atlanta and Carolina. Also, they are no longer one-dimensional after discovering that Edgerrin James is still on the team, so as I said, this will not be easy.

Still, this game, like most games this time of year, will come down to defense, which is where the Eagles are the far superior team. It’s no coincidence that the top three defenses in the league are still playing on Conference Championship weekend. The lone exception: the Cardinals, whose defense was in the middle of the pack. Meanwhile, the Eagles defense has given up 14 points or less in six straight games. The last team to score more than that on them? Arizona. So I’m expecting a fairly high scoring game in this one. Both offenses are capable of putting points on the board, but the red-hot Eagles defense will hold Arizona down enough to secure the win. Eagles 28, Cardinals 20.

As for the AFC Championship, another team of birds, the Ravens, travels to Pittsburgh, where their season will end. I just can’t see Baltimore staying in this game unless Pittsburgh completely self destructs, like the Titans did last week. Flacco has had a nice rookie season, and even though he has already seen the Steelers twice, I don’t think he has any idea what he’ll be walking into on Sunday evening. Baltimore’s great defense may keep it close for a while, but Pittsburgh’s defense is even better, as is their offense, which will eventually pull away. It would not surprise me if Baltimore fails to score a TD in this game, but I’ll give them the benefit of a defensive touchdown. Steelers 20, Ravens 10.

And on to the All-PA Super Bowl I predicted at the beginning of the season!

Rant of the Week

Once again the NFL is the subject of my rant. Last week, I criticized the playoff seeding; this week, it’s the scheduling.

Normally I couldn’t care less about the Baltimore Ravens, but they are getting shafted by the league as the only team in the divisional round of the playoffs being forced to play on six days of rest. This is a subject close to my heart because the NFL did the same thing to the Eagles two years ago when they forced the Birds to travel to New Orleans on six days of rest. And like the Ravens this year, the Eagles were the only one of the eight remaining playoff teams forced to play that week on six days of rest. If you don’t think that extra day makes a big difference, especially this time of the year after a season’s worth of bumps and bruises, then you don’t know football. The short turnaround was definitely a contributing factor to the Saints being able to rush for so many yards in that game; the Eagles just looked spent.

It would be one thing if there were other teams playing on six days of rest, but to force only one team to do this is blatantly unfair, especially when the scenario is so avoidable. Instead of letting the 8-8 Chargers play on eight days of rest tomorrow, the NFL could have scheduled the Pittsburgh/San Diego game for today, so that both the Chargers and Ravens would be playing on seven days of rest. All they needed to do was adjust the scheduling after the matchups were known last week. Would that have been so difficult?

Eagles Fly On

This entry is late, so there’s not much point in going into heavy details of the Eagles’ win in Minnesota. To be honest, it’s a game they should have won. They were the better team. The fact that it took them until the 4th quarter to finally break away was mostly the result of a very lackadaisical first half (the kind of half they can ill afford if they hope to beat the Giants this week). But they came to play in the second half, completely dominating the Vikings on both sides of the ball. McNabb handled bad field position in the third quarter like the veteran he is, twice leading the Eagles on long drives that, while they did not produce any points, ate up the clock, wore down the Vikings’ defense, and shifted the field position. The Birds’ defense and Westbrook did the rest.

Peterson had a good first half, but he basically disappeared in the second half as the Eagles defense shut him down. Meanwhile, Westbrook’s brilliant touchdown run is the type of highlight that will be replayed for years to come. Yes, there was great blocking on the play, but there are only a handful of backs in the entire league who could have taken that screen pass all the way to the house. Okay, so I guess I wrote more about the game than I was planning to. Anyway, on to the Giants.

This is going to be a tough game for the banged-up Birds as they must now travel to the Meadowlands after a very physical game in Minnesota to face a well-rested Giants team, especially if the brutal weather being predicted for the game comes to pass. An optimist would say that the Eagles just dominated the Giants a month ago and they can do it again. A pessimist would say that it’s very difficult in the NFL to beat the same team twice in such a short span, especially a division rival. An optimist would say that the Eagles have been on a roll over the last month while the Giants finished the season 1-3. A pessimist would say that a bad weather game favors a running team like the Giants.

All of the above points are valid, but in the end this is a game that will largely be decided by the Eagles’ defensive line. In the first matchup this season, the Giants won the game by running all over the Eagles’ defense. In the second game, the Eagles shut down the Giants’ running attack and dominated the game from start to finish. If the Birds can shut down the Giants’ backs, they should win the game, because Manning will not beat them. Of course the wildcard, as always, is Andy Reid. If he tries to throw the ball 40-50 times in blustery conditions, it could get ugly. However, if he sticks to the running game even if it’s not working (as he admirably did last week), I like the Eagles’ chances.

As for my prediction . . . come on, do you really think I’m picking against the Eagles? Whether it’s my head or heart speaking doesn’t matter. This is a blog, not a newspaper. With that in mind, we’re looking at a close game, as every Eagles/Giants matchup seems to be. In a defensive struggle, I will go with the Birds’ defense, which is playing as well as any in the NFL right now, having given up 14 points or less in five straight games. The weather will keep the final score fairly low: Eagles 20, Giants 16.

Rant of the Week: NFL Playoff Seeding

How screwed up is the NFL when a 9-7 team (Arizona) is hosting an 11-5 team (Atlanta), and an 8-8 team (San Diego) is hosting a 12-4 team (Indianapolis)? And even though Miami and Baltimore have identical records, Baltimore technically finished ahead of Miami because they beat them head-to-head, so that makes three of the four road teams this weekend with better records than their home opponents. And if the Eagles hadn’t blown the Washington game, all four road teams would have had better records than their home counterparts. I’d be surprised if that even happened twice in one playoff week before this season.

It’s a consequence of the eight-division alignment the NFL now employs: you get a weak 8-8 division winner like San Diego hosting a playoff game while New England at 11-5 is sitting home (not that I feel sorry for Belechick). I know such occurrences happened occasionally in the old six-division alignment, but that problem was largely resolved when they added a third wildcard to each conference. Things were running pretty smoothly from that point on until they decided to realign into eight divisions. Unfortunately, the NFL has backed itself into a corner. They can’t add more playoff teams (that would just dilute the quality and turn the NFL into the NHL), and they’ll never return to a six-division alignment, so it will probably become fairly common to see teams with double-digit wins sitting at home for the playoffs while 8-8 teams move on. We may even one day see the unthinkable scenario of a 7-9 team hosting a playoff game against a 13-3 team–it could happen, and that would be a major embarassment for the league.

At the very least, the NFL should rethink giving automatic higher seeds to division winners, because there’s no way that San Diego and Arizona deserve to host playoff games.

Sometimes the Long Shot Comes In

Who would have thought we’d be sitting here on Monday talking about the Eagles’ upcoming playoff game? Nobody. Who in their right mind thought Tampa would lose at home to a lousy team like Oakland, blowing a ten-point lead in the process? Nobody. Who thought the Eagles would put a spanking on the Cowboys the likes of which have rarely been seen in Eagles history? Nobody. The Bears losing in Houston wasn’t terribly surprising, but the chances of both Chicago and Tampa losing were pretty small. In fact, you probably had a better chance of winning the lottery than witnessing the confluence of events that occurred yesterday to allow the Eagles to sneak into the playoffs. Then again, it’s been that kind of wacky season (the Chargers rallied from a 4-8 record to win their division for god’s sake).

I’m not surprised the Eagles beat the Cowboys (though, in my understandable dejection after the Washington debacle I said something much different), but the way they did it was certainly shocking. Playoffs or no playoffs, that was one of the more enjoyable games in Eagles’ history. The Cowboys, with eight days of rest and a playoff spot on the line, flat-out choked like the frauds they are. Of course the Eagles had something to do with that, particularly the defense that is playing as well as any in football right now. It doesn’t get much sweeter than demolishing the Cowboys, especially given the bonus of sending them home for the postseason. I’m glad Reid finally discovered that Buckhalter is still on this team. He and Westbrook would make a formidable tandem if Reid would just use them. I hope he has finally gotten the message that you have to run to win, but how many times have I said that in the past? I won’t hold my breath that he’s suddenly a changed man, but we can at least hope that he’ll continue the trend for the playoffs.

The Eagles have been largely representative of this year’s NFL as a whole. One game they look unbeatable, the next they look like they can’t get out of their own way. Thankfully, against the Cowboys, we got the former. Now the question becomes which Eagles team we’ll see in the playoffs. When they play like they did against Washington, they are capable of losing to anyone, but when they play like they did yesterday, they are capable of beating anyone. And really, does anybody in the NFC playoffs scare you? If the Eagles can get on a roll with the way the defense is playing, they have just as legitimate of a shot as anyone. The Giants proved last year that if you get hot at the right time, it doesn’t matter how many road games you have to play.

As for the game itself: Minnesota is a very beatable team. Defensively, the Eagles just need to stack the line and force Jackson to beat them through the air. Peterson is a monster, but the Eagles did a good job of stuffing him last year, and I have faith in Johnson to come up with an effective scheme for containing him once again. On offense, they may have to throw more than we want them to because Minnesota is so good against the run, but it would be a mistake to abandon the running game altogether, so please, Andy, learn from your past mistakes for a change!

My prediction: I just don’t see Minnesota being able to put that many points on the board against the Eagles’ defense, and I think McNabb and the offense will do just enough to pull this one out, even if Reid goes brain dead and throws 80% of the time again. Experience wins out in this one: Eagles 20, Vikings 10.

Half A Yard Short: A Microcosm for the Whole Season

First, let’s face facts: the Eagles season ended in Washington. They’re not going to the playoffs. Tampa Bay is not going to miraculously lose at home to the hapless Raiders. And even if the unthinkable happens and Tampa loses, the Eagles still need either Minnesota or Chicago to lose. And even if the miracle of all Christmas miracles happens and both of those scenarios come to pass, the Eagles still must beat the Cowboys—and after watching that pathetic effort against a bad Washington team, does anyone believe that is going to happen?

The Eagles were already given the opportunity to control their own destiny when Tampa lost to San Diego—and they flat-out blew it. They came up smaller than small when everything was on the line. The game itself isn’t even worth writing about, so I won’t rehash what happened, other than to marvel at Reid’s undying stubbornness in throwing the ball 80% of the time on a blustery, windy day while giving Westbrook all of ten meaningful carries. This blurb from Phil Sheridan’s article says it all:

“Take away the two junk runs at the end of the first half and the Eagles called just 12 runs while attempting 48 passes (not counting two McNabb spikes). That’s an 80/20 split, if you’re interested in percentages. That’s just stupid, if you’re interested in adjective.”

I’ve outlined in several previous blog entries why Reid should be fired, so no need to go there again. This season has convinced me more than ever that Reid’s past success was due primarily to Jim Johnson’s defense and Donovan McNabb’s talent. Now that McNabb, several years and major injuries later, is no longer capable of winning games by himself, Reid’s shortcomings have been laid bare. I don’t know how many more times he has to miss the playoffs, how many more times his team has to fail to show up in big games, before Lurie will finally pull the trigger.

If I thought there was any chance Reid would be fired, I would strongly consider rooting for them to lose this week. But as it is, we should savor what could well be McNabb’s final game as an Eagle. The greatest quarterback in franchise history will no doubt be made the scapegoat this offseason—not the receivers who perpetually lead the league in drops, and certainly not the coach who thinks a running game is some movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. If nothing else, the Eagles have the opportunity to drag the stinkin’ Cowboys down with them into playoff oblivion, and that would at least be some small consolation.

Eagles Still on the Outside Looking In

Last week the Eagles pummeled the Browns into submission, but their third consecutive win still wasn’t enough to get them back to the inside track of the playoff hunt, thanks to Tampa Bay, whose loss to Atlanta just closed the window of opportunity a little more. The Eagles now must hope that either Atlanta loses to Minnesota or Tampa Bay loses to San Diego, because both teams have very easy games next week.

Things haven’t changed for the Birds—they still must run the table to have any shot at the playoffs, and to do so, they must play better than they did last week. Even though they blew out the Browns, it was a very sloppy game (they probably should have won by 40 points against a Browns that barely even showed up). Nevertheless, the Eagles should beat a slumping Redskins team, which (if things fall right) would have them battling Dallas in the last game of the season for that final playoff spot—and nothing would be sweeter than securing a playoff spot by sending the ‘Boys packing.

But for this weekend at least, the Philly faithful will be huge San Diego and Minnesota fans, because if Atlanta and Tampa both win, the season is probably over.