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Posts Tagged ‘Carolina Panthers’

NFC South Preview

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 5, 2009

Teams listed in predicted order of finish.

1. Atlanta Falcons – The turnaround that the Falcons made last season ranks right up there with Miami as one of the most stunning in NFL history.  The franchise had hit rock bottom after losing franchise centerpiece Michael Vick to the dogfighting fiasco.  The organization also had a black eye because of that.  Atlanta was bad enough in 2007 to warrant picking third overall in the draft.  Last year, despite a rookie quarterback and rookie head coach, the Falcons finished 11-5 and made the playoffs.  Ev en though they lost in the first round at Arizona, the fact Atlanta made the playoffs after the previous few seasons was nothing short of incredible.  This year, the Falcons appear to have the pieces in place to be even better.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had such an outstanding rookie season that Falcons fans forgot about Vick in a real hurry.  Many people had questioned the selection of Ryan with the third overall pick last year, but the Boston College product showed from the word go that he is more than capable of leading an NFL team.  I mean literally from the word go, because the first pass of Ryan’s career was a 62-yard touchdown.  From there Ryan hit the ground running, making excellent decisions, showing great arm strength, an ability to find multiple receivers and an ability to absorb an NFL offense very quickly.  Ryan also proved to be very durable, and the Falcons are confident that he will be even more improved with the offseason work he has put in.  Ryan’s outstanding season was coupled with one by receiver Roddy White, who had by far the best season of his four year career.  White was rewarded in the offseason with a lucrative contract extension, and he will be paired with longtime Falcon Michael Jenkins.  Atlanta only strengthened the passing game with the addition of arguably the best tight end in NFL history, tabbing Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City.  Gonzalez is certainly up there in age, but his ability as a receiver and a blocker in unparalleled among tight ends in the league.  His presence will cause all kinds of matchup problems for opposing defenses.  Atlanta also has good receiving depth with Harry Douglas and Brian Finneran.  This offense is potent enough with what we’ve talked about so far, but factor in the running game and it might be unstoppable.  Michael Turner finished second to Adrian Peterson last year in rushing, going over 200 yards in a game twice.  Not bad for someone who toiled as LaDainian Tomlinson’s backup in San Diego.  Turner showed without doubt that he is a bona fide starter in the league, a back who is a threat to score at any time.  With Turner leading the running game and the passing game expected to be potent again, Atlanta’s offense will be very good indeed.  Oh yeah, and the offensive line gave up just 17 sacks last year.

The defense is still a work in progress, but the Falcons do have a Pro Bowl pass rusher in John Abraham, who recorded 16.5 sacks last season.  However, he didn’t get much help on the other end from Jamaal Anderson, a 2007 first round pick who has yet to be an impact player.  Atlanta hopes that first round pick Peria Jerry of Ole Miss will help strengthen the defensive line.  The linebackers will have a new look, with longtime veteran Keith Brooking headed to Dallas and Michael Boley gone to the Giants.  The Falcons did sign Mike Peterson from Jacksonville, and the Falcons are confident he will bounce back with a good season this year in new surroundings.  2008 second round pick Curtis Lofton is also expected to make an impact.  The secondary will feature two rookies (safety William Moore of Missouri and cornerback Chris Owens of San Jose State), so it will be definitely be tested, especially early in the season.

The Falcons are set at kicker with Jason Elam, who is entering his 16th NFL season.  Last year Elam made 29 of 31 field goals, including two game winners.  (Denver has to feel very dumb for letting him leave).  Punter Michael Koenen also has a very strong leg, and proved to be an effective weapon for the Falcons in terms of dictating field position.  The return duties are expected to be handled by Jerious Norwood and Harry Douglas, both of whom are solid but not spectacular.

I don’t think there is much question the Falcons have risen to the top of this division.  They will face some stiff competition, but I think the additions they have made will put them over the top.

9072. New Orleans Saints – The Saints have to rank among the disappointments of last season.  New Orleans had everything in place for a massive breakout season, including talent on both sides of the ball.  Instead the Saints stumbled to an 8-8 finish, the very definition of mediocrity.  They battled all kinds of injuries and inconsistency.  They also turned out to be very deficient on defense.  The Saints feel the additions they have made will help.  With everyone healthy this could once again be a dangerous team.  Then again, it remains to be seen how it will all fit together.  Either way, the Saints will certainly be very exciting to watch.

The Saints may have their question marks, just like any other team in the NFL, but quarterback definitely isn’t one of them.  Drew Brees had one of the best seasons in league history last, year, throwing for over 5,000 yards and just barely missing breaking Dan Marino’s record for single-season passing yards set in 1984.  Brees put up these numbers despite missing players around due to injury most of the season.  His ability to throw downfield accurately makes him a talent, but couple that with his ability to extend plays in the pocket, and you’ve got arguably the best quarterback in all of football.  Brees will no doubt be very excited to have his receiving core back and healthy.  Marques Colston and Lance Moore are both outstanding route runners and both have an ability to make big plays down the field.  Colston was severely hampered by a thumb injury last season, although he still managed 64 catches despite missing five games and playing hobbled in several others.  He is now healthy, so defenses will not strictly be able to key on Moore.  The two together will be very dangerous, along with Devrey Henderson.  Tight end Jeremy Shockey was largely a disappointment last season since coming over from the Giants, but he was slowed down by a sports hernia and an ankle injury.  The  Saints hope being more familiar with the offense will help him be more productive this year.  The running game was also hampered by significant injuries last year to Deuce McAllister.  McAllister is now gone, having not been retained by head coach Sean Payton.  New Orleans will now rely on Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas.  Thomas was a surprise last year and emerged as the primary back, and the Saints hope that he’ll be able to handle those duties again this year while they use Bush in a more complimentary role.  Thomas doesn’t possess great speed but he can run between the tackles.  Bush’s ability as every down back is still in question, so this could be a good arrangement for the Saints, particularly if they get more big plays out of Bush when he is fresh.  The offensive line returns intact after allowing an NFC low 13 sacks last year, so that is definitely not a question.

The offense is good, we know that, but the biggest problem in New Orleans last year was the defense.  The Saints made a big effort to address that by signing six free agents on that side of the ball, as well as using their first three draft picks on defensive players.  Defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant return from last year (Mainly because they have big expensive contracts) so the Saints will be needing them to produce.  Paul Spicer was signed as a free agent from Jacksonville, so he could well end up being a starter at one of the ends.  Defensive tackle will continue to be a battle between holdovers Kendrick Clancy and Sedrick Ellis, and newcomer Rod Coleman, signed from the Falcons.  The Saints hope the new blood will combine with improved play from their existing linemen to create more of a pass rush and better ability to stop the run.  The Saints also actually have talent at linebacker with Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma.  the group is solid but not spectacular, and should be the same again this season.  The secondary gets a big boost with the selection of Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins in the first round of the draft.  I would be shocked if he’s not an opening day starter, being that the Saints got scorched for lots of big plays a year ago.  The Saints also boosted the secondary by raiding the Vikings for veteran safety Darren Sharper.  Sharper is a good run stuffer, a big hitter, and has a knack for being around the football.  His presence will significantly improve the secondary in New Orleans.

The Saints have tremendous confidence in kicker Garrett Hartley.  Hartley arrived in week 10 last year and made all 13 field goals, and was also perfect in extra points.  Punter Greg Pakulak also arrived in week 10 last year and possesses a very strong leg.  The return game also has few concerns with Reggie Bush a threat to score every time on punts, and the speed of Courtney Roby on kickoff returns.

New Orelans has the look of a team that could really break out.  Then again, they have had that look for several years.  They did make the NFC title game in 2006, but have been a real non-factor since.  The Saints will be in the hunt for the division, but they need to put it all together and stay healthy to end up on top.

3. Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were largely a surprise last year, finishing 12-4 and earning a bye in the first round of the playoffs.  Everything came crashing down in the divisional round though when they got blown out on their home field by Arizona, 33-13.  That defeat really soured an otherwise impressive season by Carolina, and it created a lot of question marks heading into 2009.  The Panthers didn’t make very many offseason changes, and fans are hoping that means a repeat of the 12-4 record, and not  repeat of getting hammered in the playoffs.

Many Carolina fans are scratching their heads about the five year extension signed by quarterback Jake Delhomme in the offseason.  The extension includes about $20 million in guaranteed money.  Not bad for a guy who is 34 years old, but he is coming off the worst performance of his career in the playoff loss.  Delhomme threw five picks in that game and also lost a fumble.  This is not to say that one game defines a season or a career, but he had a really bad game at a really bad time.  The Panthers have confidence in Delhomme despite that game, for they love him as a locker room leader and game manager.  He is 14-6 over his last 20 starts, so Carolina is confident Delhomme will bounce back with a good year.  He does have one of the best receivers in football to throw to in Steve Smith, and that never hurts.  Smith had over 1,400 yards receiving last year despite missing two games, and he will counted on for another big year.  Smith is such a tough matchup that most defenses can’t cover him one on one.  Muhsin Muhammad also returns for another year, and although he is getting up there in age, he still possesses the ability to be a good complimentary receiver.  The tight ends are average in Jeff King and Dante Rosario, so a lot of the onus for big plays in the passing game will be on Smith.  The running game is outstanding with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.  How Williams missed the Pro Bowl with a 1,500 yard season and 20 touchdowns is beyond me (not to mention he averaged five yards a carry).  Stewart also proved to be a nice compliment, so the Panthers have two backs capable of handling a heavy workload.  Fullback Brad Hoover also is great at helping at the offensive line open up holes.  The offensive line is also in good shape, having set a team record for fewest sacks allowed last year.  The running game will certainly be key for the Panthers, and if they can get some plays from Smith mixed in, they could prove to be a difficult attack to stop.

The defensive line will be impacted one way or another by Julius Peppers.  Peppers finished with 14.5 sacks last season, and is clearly the anchor of the entire defense, but he has made it clear he wants out of Carolina.  The Panthers have essentially ignored this request, making for an interesting locker room dynamic.  No one is exactly feeling sorry for Peppers, who will make $16 million this season.  It will be interesting to see how Peppers plays this season if he is continually unhappy about being a Panther.  It will also be interesting to see how his teammates react to his unhappiness.  Perhaps this why Carolina took a defensive end, Everette Brown of Florida State, with their first pick in the draft.  The rest of the defense is solid, anchored by linebacker Jon Beason.  Nai’ll Diggs also provides an ability to make plays at the linebacker position.  Cornerback Chris Gamble had trouble with Arizona’s receivers in the playoff game last year, but he has shutdown ability, and is the leader of the Carolina secondary.  The safeties are very average and that could expose the Panther D to some big plays.

Kicker John Kasay believe it or not is an original Panther, having kicked in Carolina since the franchise’s inception in 1995.  He made 28 of 31 field goals last year so he still has ability.  Punter Jason Baker is also very solid.  The Panthers’ best kickoff returner is actually Steve Smith, but they aren’t about to use him there when he is so sorely needed at receiver.  Ryne Robinson will get the first opportunity to return kicks this year.

The Panthers are no question a talented team, but they are definitely aging.  The question marks on defense, especially the attitude of Peppers, make it difficult to see them back in the playoffs.  They will be in the hunt, but will need some breaks.

4, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – To say that the Buccaneers are a team in transition is a big understatement.  This team appeared to be in great shape last year, starting 8-4 and ready to make a playoff push.  Things derailed quickly however, as Tampa lost its final four games, including a blowout loss at home to San Diego, and a disastrous home loss to the horrible Oakland Raiders in the finale.  The Bucs missed the playoffs, and thus sweeping changes were made.  Coach Jon Gruden was fired, replaced by defensive coordinator Raheem Morris.  Several veteran players were let go, a clear sign that the team is in rebuilding mode.  Oh, and just this week offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was fired.  Jagodzinski had come over from Boston College, but didn’t even last long enough to coach a real game.  You know things are bad when a coach is fired based on the meaningless preseason.

The fact the offensive coordinator was fired tells you all you need to know abut the state of this offense heading into the season.  Quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese were both let go, meaning Tampa Bay has a lot of mediocrity at the position.  They did spend their first round pick in the draft on Josh Freeman of Kansas State, who has great size at 6-5 and 248 pounds.  Freeman has the ability to make plays with his feet but needs work on learning to throw in the pros, thus the plan is not to play him right away.  That leaves holdover Luke McCown and veteran Byron Leftwich to battle it out for the position (as of this point no starter has been announced for week one).  Leftwich played well in Pittsburgh last year filling in for Ben Roethlisberger, but it will be interesting to see how he fares if he is named the starter, for he didn’t exactly wow anyone in Jacksonville.  The receiving core sustained losses as well as veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard were not retained.  Anotnio Bryant and Michael Clayton are back, and will be depended on heavily to help the quarterback.  Bryant is actually a very underrated receiver and has Pro Bowl talent, but Clayton has largely been a disappointment after a good college career at LSU.  Kellen Winslow is a very talented tight end, but has not been able to stay healthy.  If he can, his presence could be vital for this offense.  The running game will also have a new look.  Many Bucs fans were upset the team released Warrick Dunn, but they did sign Derrick Ward from the Giants.  Ward came out of nowhere last year in New York and had an outstanding season, and he will be paired with Earnest Graham, who started to emerge as capable back last year.  The Bucs also hope Cadillac Williams will return to the field at some point this year.  Williams has battled two devastating patellar tendon injuries the past two years, but if he is his old self he could be dangerous.

Defense has long been a staple in Tampa, but that will have a new look too.  Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has been the face of the franchise for ten years, was released in a cost cutting move.  Just the fact he is not there alone means this defense will look different.  (As a side note it is equally stunning that Brooks has yet to find a new team).  Veteran linebacker Cato June was also not retained.  The front seven will rely on a lot of youth, including draft picks Roy Miller of Texas and Kyle Moore of USC.  Both are expected to start along the defensive line.  The Bucs will also rely heavily on veteran tackle Chris Hovan and linebacker Barrett Ruud to keep the young players in check.  The secondary is still anchored by cornerback Ronde Barber, who seemed to be the only one to survive the veteran purge.  Barber still tied for the club lead in interceptions last year, and is part of a good cornerback tandem with Aquib Talib.  The safeties however are very mediocre, with Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson expected to start.

Kicker Matt Bryant actually provided three game winning field goals last year, but he doesn’t have the length strength that other kickers possess.  He was just 2 for 10 from 50 yards or more last year.  Punter Josh Bidwell is solid, which is good because the Buccaneers may need him often this season.  Michael Clayton and Clifton Smith are expected to handle the return duties.

The Buccaneers are a team in disarray.  It is highly unlikely that they will compete for a playoff spot.  Especially considering the division they play in, it might be too much to ask for them to even be near .500.  It does look like it could be a rough year in Tampa Bay.

Coming next: the AFC West

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Divisional Playoff Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on January 9, 2009

We won’t discuss last week where I went a mighty 1-3.  I have no doubt that Ken Wisenhunt, Norv Turner and Andy Reid are hoping that I pick against their teams again this weekend.  Regardless, there are great games on tap this weekend so let’s get right to it.

Baltimore at Tennessee: The Titans won 13-10 in Baltimore in week five, thanks to a Kerry Collins TD pass to Alge Crumpler in the final two minutes.  I expect the rematch to be very much the same kind of game, low scoring, physical and dominated by defense.  The Ravens come into the rematch red hot, having completely destroyed the Dolphins last weekend.  The Ravens defense is playing well enough to evoke memories of 2000, when they won the Super Bowl.  In that playoff year, the Ravens won their divisional playoff game on the road against…..you guessed it, Tennessee.  The Titans were the number one seed that year too, and the Ravens were a wild card just like they are this year.  Over the years the Ravens have proven they are not afraid of playing on the road, so home field advantage won’t be much of a factor in this one.  Baltimore actually has more offense this year than they did when they won the Super Bowl, despite the presence of a rookie quarterback in Joe Flacco.  The Titans meanwhile are well deserving of the number one seed, proving their worth for that spot with an impressive win over Pittsburgh in week 16.  Tennessee will also get the boost of getting Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch back along the defensive line, although center Kevin Mawae will not play, which will hurt the offensive line and the running game. 

In the first meeting, the Ravens were much more effective on the ground than the Titans, outgaining them 132-47.  This does not bode well for the Titans in the rematch in light of Mawae’s absence.  I don’t think the Titans will have much success if any on the ground as well as the Ravens’ defense is playing.  The running game will be extremely important in this kind of low scoring game that could be decided by turnovers.  Each defense forced two turnovers in the first meeting, so expect lots of them on Saturday.  I do have slight pause of picking a rookie quarterback on the road against the experienced Kerry Collins, not to mention I give Jeff Fisher a big edge in the coaching matchup over John Harbaugh, but I think the Ravens are just playing too well right now to be denied.  The Titans have the look of a flawed top seed, and the Ravens look like they might even be the AFC’s best team at the time of year where it matters most.

The Pick: Baltimore 20 Tennessee 10

Arizona at Carolina: This is a rematch of one of the more interesting games of the season, a 27-23 Panthers win in Charlotte in week 8.  Arizona actually had a 10-0 lead in the game, and even had the lead through most of the third quarter, before Steve Smith turned the game with a 65-yard touchdown catch along the sideline on the last play of the quarter.  It is interesting to note that the Cardinals outgained the Panthers thanks to a 381 yard day by Kurt Warner, but that the Cardinals were doomed by a lack of a running game and also seven penalties, not to mention an untimely Warner interception in the red zone in the fourth quarter.  DeAngelo Williams had a huge game for Carolina, gaining 108 yards on just 17 carries, and that was a big factor for the Panthers. 

What doesn’t bode well for Arizona heading into this game is that the Cardinals were 0-5 on the east coast during the regular season.  The other thing that doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals is the Saturday night weather forecast in Charlotte.  All things considered, the temperature won’t be that bad for the Cardinals (temps are expected to be in the 40s), but it is the 50 percent chance of rain that will seriously hamper Arizona’s passing attack.  The Cardinals may not have Anquan Boldin, who pulled his hamstring on his 71-yard touchdown catch last week against the Falcons.  In any case, the Cardinals will need a huge game on the ground from Edgerrin James to even have a chance, and I don’t see that happening against Carolina’s strong defensive front seven.  The Panthers have one of the league’s best running attacks with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, and that alone gives them an edge in the playoffs.  Steve Smith is also the kind of playmaker that can turn close games in his team’s favor, as he did in the first meeting between these teams.  I think the Panthers roll in this one, in large part because I can’t see Arizona playing well on the road when it matters and also in part because I think Carolina is a focused team on a mission. 

The Pick: Panthers 31 Cardinals 17

Philadelphia at NY Giants: These teams split their regular season meetings, with each team winning the away game.  The Giants won in Philadelphia 36-31 in week 10, while the Eagles won at Giants Stadium 20-14 in week 14.  The Giants ran for an astounding 219 yards in the first meeting, including 126 from Brandon Jacobs, while they held Brian Westbrook to just 26 yards rushing on 13 carries.  In the second meeting, Westbrook ran wild for 131 yards and added 72 receiving with 2 touchdowns, while Jacobs was held to 52 yards, and the Giants mustered just 88 rushing yards total.  It is interesting to note that the second meeting was the Giants’ first game since the Plaxico Burress fiasco, and that the G-men stumbled to a 1-3 finish in their final four games, while the Eagles went 3-1 over their final four regular season games, and then won on the road in Minnesota last week.

Generally speaking, anything goes when teams are meeting for the third time in a season.  Neither team has any secrets from the other, so coaching influence is minimal.  I think the key will be which team will be better able to establish the run, because judging from the first two meetings this game should be within a touchdown either way.  Call me crazy, but I think the Eagles are in much better position to run the ball effectively in this game.  Brian Westbrook is healthy and red hot, while Brandon Jacobs was anything but healthy for the final four games of the regular season.  Even though he has had the bye to regroup, something tells me that Jacobs will still have a hard time in this game.  The Giants did get a huge game from Derrick Ward against Carolina in week 16, so if Jacobs isn’t 100 percent, Ward will need to step up.  I also actually like Donovan McNabb better than Eli Manning in this game based on the way each QB has been playing recently down the stretch.  Manning actually has a difficult matchup against one of the league’s top secondaries with Asante Samuel and Brian Dawkins, especially with the receivers still in flux (Memo to Dominek Hixon: stop dropping passes).  The Giants may have home field and may be the defending champs, but I think the Eagles have more momentum and are actually in better shape to win this game.

The Pick: Eagles 24 Giants 17

San Diego at Pittsburgh: This is a rematch of one of the most bizarre games of 2008, an 11-10 Steelers win in week 11 at Heinz Field that really should have been 18-10, thanks to an incorrect ruling by the official on the game’s final play that wiped out Troy Polamalu’s return of a lateral for a TD.  In any case, Pittsburgh won this game without scoring a touchdown, thanks to three Jeff Reed field goals and a safety.  The Chargers’ one touchdown came courtesy of LaDainian Tomlinson, who is highly doubtful for Sunday’s rematch with a groin injury.  Ben Roethlisberger actually threw for 308 yards in the first meeting, although he got carted off the field in the regular season finale against Cleveland.  He says he will play Sunday, but how effective will he be?  The Steelers did get a 115 yard effort from Willie Parker in the first meeting, and they will need that again on Sunday.  One thing that doomed the Chargers in November was that Philip Rivers had one of his worst games of the season, throwing for just 164 yards and two picks.  If they want to have a chance Sunday, Rivers can’t have that kind of repeat performance.  One thing is for sure, Darren Sproles is guaranteed to have a much more productive game than the first meeting, when he had just one carry for zero yards and caught just one pass for nine. 

It is really crazy to think that if San Diego and Baltimore both win, the Chargers would host the AFC Championship Game in a season in which they were at one point 4-8.  I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad news for the league, but that scenario could put the Chargers in position to complete the highly improbable run from 4-8 to Super Bowl champion.  That’s the thing about the playoffs: once you’re in, what happened in the regular season doesn’t matter.  This is game is a challenging one to pick because of Roethlisberger’s health, and also considering the Chargers are a red hot team playing on the road against a team that earned a bye despite playing the most rigorous schedule in the NFL.  Over the years the Steelers have actually fared much better in road playoff games than they have at home, so that makes it highly tempting to pick San Diego.  On the other hand, no team has made the conference championship game with fewer than 10 wins since Jacksonville did it in 1996.  I think the Steelers will be out to prove something after their home flameout against Jacksonville last season, and I think the Steelers defense will find a way to slow down Rivers and Sproles enough.  Either way, this should be the best of the four games this weekend.

The Pick: Steelers 24 Chargers 21

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Not Division Champs Yet

Posted by mizzou1028 on December 15, 2008

Bad day for the Broncos.  As they took the field today against the Carolina Panthers, they did so with the knowledge that they were likely about to win the division, and sit tonight knowing they still have work to do.  See, Kansas City led San Diego 21-10 with less than 90 seconds to play when John Kasay kicked off to Eddie Royal to begin the Broncos game.  Little did the Broncos know that the Chargers would score, recover an onside kick and quickly score again to take the lead, and that the Chargers would end up winning when the Chiefs missed a 50-yard field goal on the last play.  The Broncos thought they had already clinched the division, not thinking there would be any way even Kansas City could blow THAT lead.  To boot, the Broncos themselves got run over by the Panthers, and thus can’t quite start printing playoff tickets just yet.  

To be perfectly honest, I can’t say I’m at all surprised by what transpired in Charlotte today, as the Broncos got beat by a much better team in the Panthers.  I was hopeful for an upset yes, especially after the Broncos had pulled off surprises in their previous two road games against the Falcons and Jets.  But being hopeful and being realistic are two completely different things, and I just knew the Broncos had their work cut out for them against a Panthers that in my opinion has usurped the Giants as the top team in the NFC and may just be the best team in the NFL right now.  We’ll find out for sure when the Panthers face the Giants next week, but at any rate Carolina is quickly proving that they are at the very least a bona fide Super Bowl contender.  

The Broncos employed the only defensive strategy they could in this game, and while it achieved the stated goal (stopping the run) it simply didn’t work overall.  With Champ Bailey out once again (more on that in a moment), the Broncos were severely shorthanded in the secondary against a great receiver duo in Steve Smith and Mushin Muhammad.   Despite this, Denver knew that their only chance to even have a shot was to try and slow down Carolina’s running game, which tore apart the Buccaneers for a franchise record 299 last week.  To do this, the Broncos had to bring an extra defender in the box.  The Broncos had the benefit of getting top linebacker and leading tackler D.J. Williams back at linebacker today after he had missed the last month due to injury (he had three tackles today).   Knowing this the Broncos took the unusual measure of starting Wesley Woodyard, who had been filling in for Williams, at strong safety.  In this instance the Broncos were actually quite clever in how they did this, because they had the benefit of an extra linebacker as the run stuffing safety.  For most the game the Broncos actually did an excellent job against the run.  The final stats may not indicate it, DeAngelo Williams finished with 88 yards on just 12 carries (a 7.3 average) while Jonathan Stewart added 52 yards on 16 carries (a 3.3 average).  All told the Panthers rushed for 147 yards and averaged 4.9 yards a carry, which isn’t good generally speaking.  A further look though reveals that 56 of Williams’ 88 yards came on one play, a sensational touchdown run in which Williams was completely bottled up by three Broncos and made a sharp cutback move reminiscent of Terrell Davis in his heyday.  Once Williams was off to the races there was nothing the Bronco defenders could do.  Taking that one run out of the equation, Williams had just 32 yards on his other 11 carries, for just a 2.9 average.  Overall, the Broncos allowed just 3.1 yards a carry when not factoring the touchdown run.  I realize it of course foolish to not include it, but I’m merely illustrating the Broncos overall actually did an excellent job stopping the run in this game, considering the Panthers’ offensive line dominance this season and the caliber of backs they were facing. 

So while the Broncos did well against the run, the downside of their strategy was they were forced to single up Steve Smith, without question one of the top five receivers in football, with so many defenders committed to the run.  The results of this were not pretty, as the Panthers immediately caught on to the fact that Smith was isolated.  Smith caught three passes on the Panthers’ first drive of the game alone for 64 of Carolina’s 77 total yards on the march, including the touchdown that tied the game on a bubble screen pass.   Smith was often open down the field, and finished with 9 catches for 165 yards and a score.  The Broncos resorted to double teaming Smith a few times, and he was able to gain separation anyway, and when he didn’t the Panthers could move the ball with the run.  Smith’s receiving mate Mushin Muhammad, who was also single covered most of the day, added four receptions for 70 yards.  

So while the Broncos did what they had to do to the stop run, the only strategy that even gave them a chance to do it, Smith was able to burn them all day long.  I am convinced that if a healthy Bailey were able to check Smith, the strategy would have had a much better chance to succeed.  Smith is way too good to be shut down by anyone,  but Bailey would have at least had a chance to contain him enough to where Jake Delhomme wouldn’t have been near as confident to throw Smith’s way.  With all respects to Dre’ Bly, he is not near the corner Bailey is, and frankly he never had a chance in his matchup against Smith.  It is worth noting that Bailey has now sat out seven consecutive games since the bye week, and he has been rumored to be returning for five of them, all the way back to the Atlanta game.  If Bailey wasn’t healthy enough to go when the Broncos needed him against Smith, it seems clear that his injury is much more serious than has been let on.  This is not to put any blame on Bailey by any means, but it is an illustration of the defensive troubles the Broncos have experienced this season.

The thing that doomed the Broncos above all else though, was what else, turnovers and lack of execution offensively.  The Broncos were brilliant on their first two drives, which resulted in a touchdown pass to P.J. Pope and a long field goal.  After that, it was all downhill from there.  Here is what happened the rest of the game, in order:

– Drive 3: Cutler throws an interception on the first play after the Bronco defense forced a punt, a poor decision throwing into double coverage, and the pass was picked after a deflection.  Resulted in a Carolina field goal to tie it at 10-10.  

– Drive 4: Punt, after the Broncos unsuccessfully hand off to Selvin Young on 3rd & 16

– Drive 5: Punt, after a drive stalls around midfield.  The Panthers take the ensuing drive 75 yards for a touchdown.

– Drive 6: Young fumbles at his own 25 with 10 seconds remaining in the first half, a turnover that results in a Carolina field goal (Two problems here: of course the fumble is inexcusable, but why didn’t the Broncos just take a knee and enter halftime with a seven point deficit.  Ridiculous play call, but that still doesn’t excuse Young).

– Drive 7: (After the Williams TD run put Carolina up 27-10) Three and out.  Punt.

– Drive 8: Three and out.  Punt

– Drive 9: (After a Bronco interception)  Missed field goal by Matt Prater.

– Drive 10: Three and out.  Punt

– Drive 11: Broncos gain 70 meaningless yards, end of game.

The Broncos once again lost the turnover battle, which is obviously costly.  These two turnovers were particularly bad timing however.  The first came when the Broncos were ahead 10-7 and had a chance to add onto the lead with a good drive, and the second came right before the half and essentially handed Carolina three points to give them a 20-10 lead when it otherwise would have been a one score game at halftime.  Had it not been for the fumble, it is reasonable to argue that the second half could have unfolded differently.  The Broncos made mistakes that simply can’t afford to be made on the road against an excellent team, and Carolina was able to take advantage and put the game away early in the second half.  

If I had a chance to offer a revised Super Bowl pick, right now, I would take the Panthers.  They are easily able to keep teams off balance with their two-headed monster running game and the presence of Smith.  Even a great defense will have trouble stopping them if the Panthers are clicking.  The X factors for Carolina are Delhomme, who is not always consistent and has a tendency to sometimes make bad decisions if he faces pressure, and the defense, which at times has been prone to big plays.  If the Panthers beat the Giants next week, they clinch home field throughout the playoffs, and being that they’re unbeaten at home this year, I think that would be case closed for the NFC if that happens.  The Broncos should not be ashamed of losing to Carolina on the road, but they do need to play better next week against the Bills, a team that has nothing to play for.  Beat Buffalo and the Broncos are in as division champs, but the Broncos must approach it as if it’s a playoff game, because let’s be honest.  At this point it is a playoff game, one that could define the Broncos’ season.  Or they could root for Tampa Bay against San Diego, but they’d better not count on the Bucs.  Next week the Broncos are much better off simply taking care of their own business.

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Week Two Picks

Posted by mizzou1028 on September 12, 2008

This NFL season is certainly shaping up to be very intriguing on a number of fronts.  Could we possibly have a playoffs that doesn’t include New England OR Indianapolis?  It could be possible if Matt Cassel proves to be no Tom Brady and the Colts take too long to get it together after their disastrous week one effort.  Are the Jets the new favorite in the AFC East, or is Buffalo for real?  Are the Steelers ever going to get their due for being consistently good?  Is the Bears defense back to the level of two years ago?  Who is going to win the awful NFC West?  It’s only one week into the season, and a number of my season picks are threatening to blow up in my face already.  I keep telling myself it’s still early, but it is possible that my AFC Super Bowl pick may not be all its cracked up to be. I still think Jacksonville’s defense will not allow them to be a disappointment.  Was I nuts to pick the 49ers to win the NFC West?  I still maintain they’ll be a surprise by the end of the year.  Was I drinking the Kool-Aid on the Minnesota hype?  I still think they have a team that is scary talented.  Am I underestimating Aaron Rodgers? I have to admit he looked very good in week one.  We’ll see if he can maintain it over the long haul.  Are the Chargers in trouble without Shawne Merriman?  Or is that wishful thinking on my part?.  It did seem like someone forgot to tell them the season started for three quarters against Carolina.  Speaking of the Panthers, are they once again a contender in the NFC? That offense could really come alive when Steve Smith returns from suspension in week three.  How praytell did the Falcons win a game, let alone dominate? I reserve judgement until I see them against someone other than Detroit.  

At least I got a few things right in week one.  The Cowboys dominated on the road.  The Browns looked lost and confused.  The Giants looked dominant like you would expect a defending champ to be.  The Bengals REALLY stink, or did you see Joe Flacco score on a 38-yard touchdown run while jogging through the Bengals defense? The Seahawks looked horrible on the road.  Brett Favre can still play a little.  Donovan McNabb looks poised for a big season.  The Raiders are a mess akin to Days of Our Lives as usual.  The Broncos offense could be scary good.  Or maybe that’s wishful thinking.  Perhaps that was more the Raiders are awful.  

One thing I know, this could be a season unlike any other.  Or maybe it will be just like any other.  For 11 consecutive seasons, there have been at least five teams in the playoffs who did not qualify the previous year.  With the exception of the 2006 Seahawks, the Super Bowl loser has missed the playoffs every year since 2000.  Even at that the Seahawks only made it past the first round the next year thanks to Tony Romo’s butterfingers.  Here are the numbers:

2000 New York Giants – Lost Super Bowl XXXV
2001 New York Giants – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2001 St. Louis Rams – Lost Super Bowl XXXVI
2002 St. Louis Rams – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2002 Oakland Raiders – Lost Super Bowl XXXVII
2003 Oakland Raiders – 4-12 record, no playoffs

2003 Carolina Panthers – Lost Super Bowl XXXVIII
2004 Carolina Panthers – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2004 Philadelphia Eagles – Lost Super Bowl XXXIX
2005 Philadelphia Eagles – 6-10 record, no playoffs

2005 Seattle Seahawks – Lost Super Bowl XL
2006 Seattle Seahawks – 9-7 record (made playoffs, 2nd round exit)

2006 Chicago Bears – Lost Super Bowl XLI
2007 Chicago Bears – 7-9 record, no playoffs

2007 New England Patriots – Lost Super Bowl XLII
2008 New England Patriots – ??????

This does not bode well for the Patriots in light of Tom Brady’s injury.  I know, I picked the Patriots to return to the AFC title game, but I also said they were done if Brady went down.  It will be interesting to see if the Patriots continue the trend of Super Bowl losers struggling the next year.  On one hand, it is hard a fathom a team threatening history one year and missing the playoffs the next year.  On the other hand, the Patriots missing the playoffs this year would be right in line with what the NFL is about much of the time. I still shudder when I think of the Broncos going 6-10 in 1999 after winning back to back Super Bowls and being favored to compete for a third.  After all there is the old cliche “On any given Sunday……”   Now on to the picks.

Last Week: 9-7

– Jaguars over Bills: I have to admit I really struggled with this one.  The Bills dominated Seattle last week, and the Jaguars look like they could be in trouble.  Still, I can’t picture the Jaguars 0-2, especially with Jack Del Rio having a week to drill discipline into his team before the home opener.

– Cardinals over Dolphins: Surprise stat of the week: the Cardinals actually went 6-2 at University of Phoenix Stadium last season.  The Cardinals at 2-0 would rank among the season’s early surprises, but it would be an even bigger surprise if Chad Pennington had a big day against what is becoming one of the league’s most underrated secondaries.

– Jets over Patriots: Brett Favre’s home debut in New York puts an extra charge into this one, plus the Jets would just love to stick it to the Patriots in the wake of Spygate last year.  I have a feeling Matt Cassel will find the road to be much more daunting than Gillette Stadium.  Oh, and he doesn’t have the luxury of facing the Chiefs.

– Titans over Bengals: No Vince Young for Tennessee, but it won’t matter.  There are high school teams that tackle better than Cincinnati’s defense.  The Bengals offense looked a little confused too last week.  Carson Palmer under 100 yards passing?  The Marvin Lewis watch begins in Cincinnati.  I say 75 percent he’s axed before the year is over.

– Steelers over Browns: Pittsburgh will run away with the AFC North.  The Browns proved last week that they are a ways from the elite against Dallas.  This one will be competitive due to the rivalry factor, plus an emotional under the lights home crowd in Cleveland, but the Steelers are the class of the division and they will prove it.

– Vikings over Colts: Chalk this one up as the most intriguing game of the week for me.  Is this an elimination game of sorts already?  The Colts cannot be confident heading into the loud Metrodome after getting shelled at home in their opener.  Minnesota needs Tarvaris Jackson to show that potential we keep hearing about, but the Vikings defense will follow the Bears blueprint and harass Peyton Manning.  Peyton, meet Jared Allen.  Good luck.  The Colts at 0-2? It seems beyond crazy, but it might just happen.

– Broncos over Chargers: Denver’s confidence is sky high after destroying the Raiders on the road, plus Brandon Marshall is back.  If D’Angelo Hall couldn’t cover Eddie Royal one on one, how are the San Diego corners going to handle him and Marshall?  The Chargers pass rush will really miss Merriman, plus Antonio Gates is hobbled.  The Broncos might allow a high rushing day for LT, but their offense will be enough to win a shootout and enjoy a large lead in the AFC West.  San Diego at 0-2? Seems really crazy, but it just might happen.

– Chiefs over Raiders: Dud game of the week.  The rivalry is nasty enough that the game could actually be fun to watch, but these are two of the worst teams in the league.  The Chiefs are reportedly having trouble selling out Arrowhead for this game, which tells all you need to know about the state of football these days in Kansas City.  Still, the Raiders are a mess in every way, and Larry Johnson will run for enough to get KC a rare W.  

– Giants over Rams: The G-men’s biggest challenge will be overcoming a 10-day layoff after opening the season with their Thursday night win over Washington.  St. Louis was maybe the worst team in week one, so there is nowhere to go but up.  This seems like it could be a trap game for New York if the Rams’ offense wakes up (Torry Holt 1 catch for 9 yards last week – are you kidding me?).  Still, the Giants should be able to rely on their championship experience and pull out a win.

– Saints over Redskins: New Orleans will really miss Marques Colston, who is out 4-6 weeks.  Still, Drew Brees has enough targets for the team to score offensively.  The Redskins looked like they didn’t know which end was up offensively last week.  If that continues, New Orleans will win a low scoring affair.

– Bears over Panthers: This should be a great game.  Both teams pulled shockers in week one, so it’s hard to say which of these teams is better right now.  The Panthers are without Steve Smith for another week, so that gives an edge to the Bears defense.  Chicago won on the road during their Super Bowl run two years ago, and the hunch is they’ll find a way to pull out this one.  This one really could go either way though.

– Packers over Lions: Aaron Rodgers played well last week in the spotlight, and the Packers look like they have a statement to make.  Detroit? The Lions should be embarrassed losing to Atlanta.  Home field advantage won’t help the Lions if they keep playing like that.  This won’t exactly be a difficult road environment for Green Bay’s young signal caller.

– Buccaneers over Falcons: Brian Griese gets the start for Tampa so that gives slight pause.  Still, the Falcons aren’t playing Detroit anymore.  Matt Ryan could be in for a rude awakening this week against Monte Kiffin’s defense.  Tampa Bay almost stole one last week and could be just good enough to make things interesting in the NFC South.  On a side note, I am kicking myself that I didn’t rank Michael Turner higher in fantasy this year.  He could have some big games this year even though he’s playing for the Falcons.

– Seahawks over 49ers: Seattle is still really banged up, and I really want to pick the upset.  Thing is, Seattle has a tremendous home field advantage, and there is no reason to back San Francisco on the road right now after the way they played last week.  Besides, Matt Hasselbeck has got to play better this week doesn’t he? This could be a really sloppy game.

– Texans over Ravens: This game has been moved to Monday night due to Hurricane Ike, which makes it the first Monday night game in Texans history.  Even though it won’t be nationally televised,that’s enough for me in this toss-up matchup.  Baltimore’s defense is still good, but I still want to see Joe Flacco on the road.  Houston is a much better team than what they showed last week.

– Cowboys over Eagles: This too will be a fantastic game.  In a way it’s a shame one of these teams will have to start the year 1-1.  I like the Cowboys in what should be a raucous atmosphere for their home opener, on a Monday night no less.  Still, the Eagles pose a big challenge.  The sway factor will be a monster game from Terrell Owens, eager as always to show Andy Reid and company they did him wrong.

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