Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Sitting at 51-37 and three games behind Boston heading into the All-Star Break, the Yankees have gone an astonishing 50-19 since the second half began, never losing more than three in a row while stringing together six winning streaks of four games or longer, including their current six-game streak which includes two wins in Anaheim and three against the Red Sox.
Heading into the seventh inning last night with a 3-2 lead against Royals starter Luke Hochevar, the Yankees chased him from the game with a five-run inning. Catching sparkplug Francisco Cervelli led off with a double and scored on a single by Ramiro Pena, who stole second. After a Brett Gardner single and Melky Cabrera walk, Robinson Cano came up with the based loaded.
Cano has not performed well in the past with the bases loaded, with just one career grand slam and a batting average well under .300. But the Yanks are bucking almost every trend they've set over the past few years and this was no different, as Cano pounded a Hochevar mistake into the right-field bleachers to extend New York's lead to 8-2 and end Hochevar's day.
After sweeping the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium and clinching the AL East, as well as locking down the best record in baseball, it would have been easy for the Yankees to take a game off, or even the last six. But as I say every time I post about them, this team is just different.
When Ramiro Pena hit his first career home run off Hochevar in the fifth, he returned to the dugout to a high-five from Joe Girardi and silence from his teammates. A couple seconds later, the smiles busted out and Pena got his congratulations. The chemistry in the Yankee dugout is reminiscent of the championship years of the late 1990s, a key component that management seemed to overlook with their spend-heavy approach so far this decade.
Back to the Boston series for a second though, where the Yankees outscored the Sox 16-7 in the three-game set. Joba Chamberlain was finally let loose in the opener and he responded, working efficiently and throwing just 86 pitches in six innings, allowing five hits and three earned runs while walking just one.
Chamberlain will get one more start before the playoffs against the Royals on Wednesday, and another efficient outing should give him the necessary confidence to be the Yankees fourth starter if they advance past the first round.
C.C. Sabathia threw seven innings of one-hit ball in his game-two shutout, and the Yankees haven't had an innings-eating horse like this at the top of their rotation in years. Andy Pettitte pitched great as well in game three, helping the Yankees to their ninth win in their last 10 games with Boston after they lost the first eight.
If Joba is truly back on track and ready to go deeper into games, the Yankees starting rotation in the playoffs will be one of the best we've seen from them in years. The bullpen continues to take care of business and hold the leads they're given and the Yankees depth throughout the lineup and on the bench will prove to be invaluable in the postseason.
I know it seems like I repeat myself every time I write about the Yankees, but it's difficult to contain my excitement for October baseball this season. It's been smooth sailing for New York ever since the All-Star Break, and that's about the only thing that scares me right now. The Yankees haven't faced any serious adversity in months, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to the adversity they will inevitably face in baseball's second season.
Monday, September 28, 2009
New York came out firing in the first quarter, starting with a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive the ended in a Mark Sanchez 14-yard touchdown run. Sanchez scrambled out of the pocket, made a Titan defender miss and seemed to be stopped at the one. But he turned and extended the ball the short distance to the goalline before it was knocked out of his hands to put the Jets up 7-0.
Tennessee rookie returner Ryan Mouton fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Jets a short field to work with. Five plays and 19 yards later, Sanchez hit backup tight end Ben Hartsock after a nice play-action fake from two yards out to open up a two-score lead. The Jets held the ball for over 12 minutes in the quarter, ran 23 plays and racked up 128 total yards and nine first downs.
The second quarter, however, was a much different story. Tennessee recovered a Sanchez fumble at their own 45 and marched 55 yards in 10 plays, ending the drive with a LenDale White run from five yards out, the first touchdown allowed by the Jets defense this season. They would add a field goal before the half to go into the locker room down just 14-10.
The Titans controlled the ball for 11:09 in the second quarter and held the Jets to -3 total yards and no first downs to climb back into the game. Sanchez was great early, but struggled with the slick ball in the second quarter, having multiple passes slip off his fingers as well as the aforementioned fumble.
Tennessee came out firing to start the second half as well, putting together a seven-play, 60-yard drive to take the lead, as Kerry Collins made a perfect back-shoulder throw to Nate Washington in the endzone, beating good coverage from Dwight Lowery to put the Titans up 17-14.
The Jets went three-and-out on their next drive, as the offense continued to look stagnant after a hot start. The Titans did the same and held the Jets on their next drive as well but Mouton's tough day continued, as he muffed a fair catch allowing the Jets to recover at the Tennessee 23. Like any good team, the Jets would capitalize.
Four plays later, it was Sanchez hitting Jerricho Cotchery from six yards out for his third touchdown of the game and his second through the air. Sanchez barely gave the Titans defense a chance to react, dropping back for barely a second before hitting Cotchery on a quick slant between double coverage. Sanchez has bounced back well after any struggles he has had so far this season, and he continues to impress with his poise.
After retaking the lead, the Jets turned up the heat on the Tennessee offense, blitzing more frequently after playing somewhat conservative (by their standards) in the first half. The Jets held the Titans to just 52 yards on their next 23 plays and Collins didn't complete any of his last 13 passes, as he was victimized by drops all day by receivers Washington, Justin Gage and Kenny Britt.
Britt dropped a third-and-23 pass late in the fourth quarter that would've given the Titans a fourth-and-short opportunity, but played a solid game overall with four catches for 59 yards. Britt was working against Darrelle Revis for much of the day and fared better than Andre Johnson and Randy Moss did against the shut-down corner in the first two weeks of the season. He may not be there yet, but Britt will be a very good NFL player once he gets some more games under his belt.
While the Titans rookies didn't come up with big plays when they needed them, the Jets' rookie quarterback did. Early in the fourth quarter, Sanchez hit Cotchery for 46 yards down the left sideline to get the Jets in field goal range, where they took a 24-17 lead with 11:36 to play. Cotchery finished with a team-high eight catches for 108 yards.
Cotchery was well-covered on the play, but Sanchez dropped the ball to Cotchery's outside shoulder where only his receiver could make the play. Whatever questions they were before the draft about Sanchez's ability to throw deep down the field have been answered so far this season, as he has shown the ability to do just about everything a quarterback needs to do to have success in the NFL.
Sanchez finished 17-for-30 for 171 yards, three touchdowns (one rushing) and an interception that was tipped into the air off the fingertips of Chansi Stuckey. The ground game was quiet, racking up just 83 yards as Leon Washington had 46 of them on 12 carries. Thomas Jones struggled with just 20 yards on 14 carries, but had a long fourth-quarter run called back due to a holding penalty. Chris Johnson had 97 yards on 22 carries for the Titans, as the Jets allowed 100 yards on the ground for the first time this year.
One cause for concern for the Jets coming out of this game is third-down execution. They converted their first four third-down situations, but couldn't convert any of their last ten, finishing four-for-14. But New York proved they could hang on and win games even when they're not at their best, a good sign for the upcoming weeks.
Sanchez became the first rookie quarterback since the merger to start 3-0 and the Jets will have a chance to knock off another unbeaten team next week when they travel to New Orleans to take on Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints offense, which took out the Bills 27-7 this past weekend.
Saturday, September 26, 2009
- Pittsburgh Penguins
The defending Stanley Cup champions are poised to repeat. The Penguins have brought back their core from last year’s championship run and will be difficult to dethrone in the East. The Penguins were in danger of missing the playoffs last year until firing coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Dan Blysma midway through the season. The Penguins took off under Blysma and defeated the Detroit Red Wings in the finals to bring the Cup back to Pittsburgh. A repeat will be difficult, but the Penguins shouldn’t have too much trouble winning the division.
- New York Rangers
The Rangers’ success in 2010 will depend largely on two players, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and newly acquired right winger Marian Gaborik. Lundqvist has kept the Rangers competitive with his stellar play in net the past few seasons, and he will need to keep it up for the Blueshirts to have a shot at being a legitimate contender. Gaborik, who signed a $37.5 million deal with the Rangers on July 1 after eight seasons with the Minnesota Wild, has the potential to be the consistent goal-scorer the Rangers desperately need. He will need to stay healthy, which has been a problem for him in the past. If the Gaborik signing pays off, expect the Rangers to be very competitive. If not, it’s going to be a long season in Manhattan.
- Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers made some moves this off-season, most notably acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks. Pronger will bring some much-needed experience to the Flyers, having been in the league since 1993 and having won the Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks. Goaltending will be the Flyers’ biggest question mark entering the season. The Flyers saw former goalies Martin Biron and Antero Nittymaki sign with the Islanders and Lightning respectively, and picked up former Ottawa Senator Ray Emery. Emery spent the 2008-09 season playing in Russia after his tenure with the Senators went downhill following the team’s run to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Emery will have to control his temper and be stellar in the net for the Flyers to have a shot at going deep into the playoffs.
- New Jersey Devils
The defending division champion Devils didn’t do much to improve themselves this summer. Former head coach Brent Sutter resigned for “family reasons,” then went on to agree to coach the Calgary Flames. Jacques Lemaire, who coached the Devils to their 1995 Stanley Cup championship, has returned to coach them again after spending eight seasons coaching the Minnesota Wild. Right winger Brian Gionta left the Devils for the Montreal Canadiens after seven years in New Jersey. Additionally, backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen, who filled in admirably when Martin Brodeur was out with an injury, signed with the Florida Panthers. The Devils will need Brodeur to have a strong season to have any chance at competing. Get ready for another season filled with 2-1 games, Devils fans.
- New York Islanders
It’s going to be another long season on Long Island. Isles owner Charles Wang and GM Garth Snow still seem to have no clue whatsoever about building a hockey team. The status of goaltender Rick DiPietro is uncertain, and the Islanders signed backup goalies Martin Biron from the Flyers and Dwayne Roloson from the Edmonton Oilers. Rookie and 2009’s first overall draft choice John Tavares will be interesting to watch, but he will probably be the only hockey player worth watching at the ancient Nassau Coliseum this year. Considering the lack of talent and uncertain future of the franchise with Wang threatening to move the team if he doesn’t get a new stadium deal, expect a lot of empty seats at the Coliseum this season. The fans that do show up won’t be seeing a lot of victories, that’s for sure.
Friday, September 25, 2009
With seven games remaining and needing just three wins to reach 100 for the first time since 2004, the Yankees have done a lot this season to make fans think this could finally be the year they bring a World Series trophy back to the Bronx.
Their lineup is just as potent as it has been in recent years, but it's the timely hitting in clutch late-inning situations that has been particularly impressive, as the Yankees have 14 walk-off wins to their credit this season. It seems like a different player providing the heroics this time around, with the latest coming off the bat of backup catcher Francisco Cervelli.
All these wins in their last at-bat has created a different feel around the Yankees this season, with heroes getting pies in the face from A.J. Burnett. This lineup seems to rally around each other when it comes to crunch time and every man in the order seems to trust the next enough to lay off tempting pitches and give the hitters behind them a chance to come through.
Their bullpen has been generally reliable, especially after the seventh inning with Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera pitching the eighth and ninth innings. Led by C.C. Sabathia, their starting rotation has given them length outside of Joba Chamberlain, who virtually negates all the long outings from the other Yankee starters when he lasts just three innings, which will hopefully change tonight against Boston.
The Yankees went into Anaheim having lost five of their previous nine games and after a 5-2 loss in the series opener, it looked like just another wasted trip out West for New York. But they jumped out to a 5-0 lead after four-and-a-half innings in game two, looking like a team determined to win a series.
But they let the Angels slowly creep back, allowing two runs in the fifth and sixth and one in the eighth. But Brett Gardner led off the top of the ninth with a single, stole second on a pitchout and moved to third on a Johnny Damon sacrifice bunt, where Alex Rodriguez drove him in with a sacrifice fly to put the Yankees up 6-5. This win clinched a playoff spot for the Yankees, after they missed the postseason last year.
Gardner's speed really changes games for the Yankees when he reaches base. The Angels checked on him at least five times at first before the pitchout, and he easily beat the throw to second. Gardner gives New York opportunities to play small ball, which they don't have often with the power present in their lineup.
The Yankees followed that win with a 3-2 victory to take the series, as A.J. Burnett was his usual dominant-then-erratic self, striking out 11 Angels in 5.2 innings but allowing seven hits and three walks as well. The bullpen was able to hold the lead and give Burnett his 12th win.
There are many reasons to believe in the Yankees this season and this series, which will help them get the monkey off their back against the Angels (no pun intended), just adds to the list. The third and fourth spots in their playoff rotation behind Sabathia and Andy Pettitte still worry me, but a solid five-to-six-inning start from Chamberlain tonight would make me feel a lot better about the situation.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
18. Houston Texans (1-1): It seems like every year more people jump on the Houston bandwagon, only to regret it by season's end. After being stifled by the Jets, the Texans proved why so many people had them pegged as a playoff team, running up 34 points on the Titans thanks to four Matt Schaub touchdown passes. Steve Slaton has struggled to get the running game going, but once he does this will again be one of the league's best offenses. Outside of a few playmakers the defense is still below average, allowing 55 points in two games without facing a truly explosive offense. Houston will be fun to watch, but another .500 season seems likely.
19. Green Bay Packers (1-1): Everyone loves Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay passing game, and I am no different. But outside of their aerial attack, the Packers are a flawed team. Their ground game with Ryan Grant is decent but their defense leaves much to be desired. This team should be able to score points but I don't see them winning more than seven or eight games this season.
20. Chicago Bears (1-1): What an enigma Jay Cutler is. He throws four interceptions against an average Green Bay secondary, followed by a two touchdown-no interception performance against the vaunted Steelers, who obviously missed Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. Matt Forte is averaging 2.2 yards-per-carry and will face stacked boxes until Cutler can develop some down-field chemistry with his wide receivers. Their defense was nothing special before Brian Urlacher's season-ending injury, and this team will be a work in progress for at least a few more weeks. That equates to a sub-.500 season in my book.
21. Cincinnati Bengals (1-1): With the NFL's sack leader in Antwan Odom (with seven) and a solid group of linebackers, the Bengals' defense is looking better than it has in years. They were able to take down Green Bay in Lambeau and Chad Ochocinco got to leap into the arms of Bengals fans he paid to sit front row. Carson Palmer, like Tom Brady, will have to shake off some rust as the season wears on, but Cedric Benson has actually been solid on the ground, running for over 200 yards so far and dwarfing his career 3.7 yards-per-carry average. If Palmer stays healthy, Benson continues to run well and the defense can keep it up, Cincinnati can compete. Just seems like too many ifs to me.
22. Miami Dolphins (0-2): Miami has faced two of the league's unbeaten teams so far and the schedule gets no easier, as they wait until Week 10 against Tampa Bay to play a team ranked lower than them in these rankings. In fact, the Bills are the only team they play in that stretch outside the top 15 this week. The Dolphins are a team built to play with the lead, as evidenced by the deplorable two-minute drill they ran last week against the Colts and the super-glue hands shown by top receiver Ted Ginn. Another 10-6 season is out of the question for sure with their upcoming opponents, but could this team struggle to even reach 6-10? With their schedule, I wouldn't be surprised to see them finish closer to 1-15 again than 10-6.
23. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-2): The Jags kept it close against Indy but couldn't do the same against the Cardinals, as they allowed Peyton Manning and Kurt Warner to go 52-for-64 passing, allowing a completion percentage a shade over 80 percent. Maurice Jones-Drew has been good in a feature role, but David Garrard is a much better quarterback on a winning football team, where he can let the game come to him. However, Jacksonville is not a winning football team and they need a quarterback who can make plays, which Garrard can't do with the likes of Torry Holt and Mike Sims-Walker at receiver. Sims-Walker could prove to be the team's best receiver if he stays healthy (big if), but this team isn't good enough defensively to hide their lack of offense explosiveness. After games with the Texans and Titans the next two weeks, the Jaguars could start 0-4 and drop even further in these rankings.
24. Carolina Panthers (0-2): After a four-interception performance in Week 1, Jake Delhomme bounced back against Atlanta in Week 2...sorta. He was able to utilize Steve Smith in the passing game to throw for 300 yards and was only intercepted once, but that turnover came while the Panthers were driving to potentially tie the game late in the fourth quarter. It's hard to trust Delhomme at the helm right now and their defense is not what it was even a year ago. As good as their running game is, it won't be enough to make up for the inevitable Delhomme decline.
25. Seattle Seahawks (1-1): Seattle might have landed higher in these rankings if it weren't for another injury to Matt Hasselbeck in just the season's second game. If Hasselbeck continues to get hurt, this team has no chance to compete with the 49ers and the Cardinals. Their running game is suspect (anyone can rush for over 100 yards against the Rams) and without Hasselbeck at the helm, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Nate Burleson and John Carlson will be underutilized if they have to catch passes from Seneca Wallace. Let's hope for their sake Hasselbeck can stay healthy, or else it will be another lost season for the Seahawks.
26. Oakland Raiders (1-1): It's rare to find a team ranked this low that could actually be 2-0. But bad teams blow leads late, and that's what Oakland did in their opener against San Diego. And that's what the Chiefs did the next week to allow the Raiders to get their first win. JaMarcus Russell has completed a whopping 35 percent of his passes and until he starts playing like a professional quarterback, this team will have no chance of being competitive. With a decent rushing attack and a defense that can hold their own, it's time for Russell to become consistent in his third season. If he can somehow find a way to complete 55 percent of his passes, the Raiders might have a shot at six wins.
27. Washington Redskins (1-1): Even the Seahawks ran up the score against St. Louis. Nine points?!? I know they won the game, but that was a pathetic showing from what has quickly turned into a pathetic team. Their defense is still solid, but their offense is completely devoid of playmakers. Clinton Portis gets older every year, Santana Moss disappears too often, and Jason Campbell is the absolute definition of mediocrity. If this team couldn't score a touchdown against the hapless Rams, there really is no hope. Especially playing in the NFC East.
28. Kansas City Chiefs (0-2): The Chiefs, like the Raiders, are a prime example of why some teams in the NFL are just bad. Bad teams don't get blown out every week, but when they play close games they just can't seem to pull them out. That was the case against Oakland last weekend, and I don't see things looking up for the Chiefs. Matt Cassel doesn't have the supporting cast he did with the Patriots last season and Larry Johnson is, well, Larry Johnson. Cassel-to-Dwayne Bowe might be the only thing this team has going for them, and it's sad that there are four more teams in worse shape than Kansas City.
29. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-2): Tampa Bay can run the football with Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward in the backfield, and Byron Leftwich has proven to be the king of racking up big statistics in garbage time. But this defense can't stop anybody right now, on the ground (Fred Jackson ran for 163 yards) or through the air. This team will be behind often, rendering their effective running game almost useless and forcing Leftwich to win games with his arm. I like Leftwich, but he couldn't carry a team five years ago, let alone now.
30. Detroit Lions (0-2): Lions fans should just be happy they aren't last. Detroit is far from good, but they will win a game this season. It may even come this week against the Redskins. To nobody's surprise, rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford has struggled with just one touchdown and five interceptions. But he doesn't have even one-third of the supporting cast that fellow rookie Mark Sanchez has with the Jets. The Lions are awful on defense and Kevin Smith will find it difficult to run the ball with teams daring Stafford to beat them. Three wins would be a godsend.
31. Cleveland Browns (0-2): The Browns' one offensive touchdown this season came with 28 seconds to play against the Vikings, who were nursing a 21-point lead at the time. Jamal Lewis is old and Brady Quinn is inexperienced. Derek Anderson is the better quarterback right now, but he wouldn't make them a winner so they might as well see what they have in Quinn. Their defense doesn't even deserve mention, except to say that they allowed 27 points to the Broncos, who have their own issues despite being 2-0. If you play fantasy football and you have players who face the Browns, make sure they end up in your starting lineup.
32. St. Louis (0-2): Drum roll please...the most pathetic team in football right now? The St. Louis Rams, due to a total of seven points in two games against two teams outside the top 20 in my rankings. Steven Jackson is a great running back, but he's surrounding by absolutely nothing on offense and less than nothing on defense. Their first winnable game is Week 6 at Jacksonville, and they also travel to Detroit in Week 8 before a Week 9 bye. Frankly, this team will be lucky to win either of those games.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
After four years as one of the most hated/loved (depending which side you're on) college basketball players in the country, the Syracuse native was coming home to play a sport that he once starred in...five years earlier in high school.
So far, the naysayers have been quieted.
Paulus has almost single-handedly made Syracuse football relevant again, leading the Orange to a 37-34 win over Northwestern last Saturday while playing Minnesota and Penn State tough in losing efforts the first two weeks.
The stats are there to show Paulus' progress, but they tell only some of the story. Paulus has completed 66% of his passes so far, throwing for four touchdowns and four interceptions. He has also shown great mobility in and out of the pocket, rushing for a ten-yard touchdown last weekend.
Most of all, Paulus has brought leadership and hope to a place that so desperately needed both after a four-year run that saw Syracuse go 9-36 and win just three conference games.
Paulus has been a model quarterback for the Orange, saying all the right things in the media, staying after practice to watch extra film and treating the loyal Syracuse fan base with great respect. Paulus was the last one off the field after Saturday's win after running down the student-section sideline to give high-fives to everyone in the front row.
The mistakes have been there, of course. After not playing competitive football for five years, they were expected. For example, an overtime interception in the opening-day loss to Minnesota cost the Orange a chance to start 1-0, and a late fumble in last weekend's game allowed the Northwestern offense to get great field position and score to take a 34-27 lead in the fourth quarter.
Paulus has the odd situation of being both a senior and a freshman at once. With only one year of eligibility, he was forced to learn a new offense on the fly, along with the rest of the Orange under new head coach Doug Marrone. Marrone has praised Paulus' smarts and football intelligence, however, and has done a fantastic job of keeping the offense somewhat simple and sticking with Paulus' strengths.
Marrone and offensive coordinator Rob Spence have kept Paulus in the spread system he ran in high school at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse, where he won the Gatorade National Player of the Year award. He is less of a traditional pocket quarterback because of his size (he was a point guard after all), but he makes up for it with elusiveness in the pocket and a knack for throwing well when rolling out to his right or left.
The real question is whether Paulus' body can handle a full football season, especially once Big East play begins and the weaknesses in Syracuse's offensive line are exploited by power teams like Connecticut and Cincinnati.
If Paulus can lead the Orange to a 6-6 record and a bowl appearance, I wouldn't be surprised to see a statue in his honor go up in front of the Carrier Dome. But even without the postseason, Paulus has brought crowds back to the Dome and hope back to the program, and really, that's all anyone could have asked of him.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
It would have been tough after Week 1, but after two weeks of the NFL season, I have seen enough from most teams so far to at least have a slight clue what to expect. So here goes.
1. Atlanta Falcons (2-0): The addition of Tony Gonzalez and the continued development of Matt Ryan are the two major reasons the Falcons top the list this week. Ryan has five touchdown passes through two games and Gonzalez leads the team with 12 catches and two touchdowns. Once Michael Turner gets on track (just 3.4 yards-per-carry), this will be the most balanced offensive team in the league. Add a solid defense and this team will improve on last year's 11-5 finish by a game or two.
2. Baltimore Ravens (2-0): Two teams drafted rookie quarterbacks in the first round last year and they are my top two after two weeks. Like Ryan, Joe Flacco has five touchdown passes already and has taken a massive step forward from last season. The Ravens still have their three-man stable of running backs and Flacco has spread the ball around well, as seven receivers have between five and seven receptions. The defensive struggles are slightly worrisome, but if this offense continues to roll it won't matter.
3. New York Giants (2-0): Their running game has struggled so far, but going into Dallas and ruining the opening of Jerry Jones' new stadium has to count for something. They've beaten two divisional rivals and Eli Manning all of a sudden has two legitimate receivers in Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who both had ten catches and a touchdown against the Cowboys. The defense is still very good and once the running game gets going, watch out!
4. Minnesota Vikings (2-0): If the Vikings were going to be good this season, they were going to start 2-0 against Cleveland and Detroit. Adrian Peterson is the league's best back and Brett Favre has been surprisingly efficient, averaging just 7.2 yards per completion and throwing no interceptions. Percy Harvin is looking like a strong bet for Rookie of the Year and is a perfect fit for this offense, and the defense will continue to stuff the run and pressure the quarterback. Those Super Bowl aspirations look to be realistic, as long as Favre doesn't revert back to the quarterback we all remember from last season.
5. New York Jets (2-0): The new-look Jets defense hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown through two games and they've run the ball down their opponents' throats, averaging over 150 yards per game on the ground. Mark Sanchez has limited mistakes and made his share of big plays through the air in his first two career games. Once Calvin Pace returns in Week 5, this defense will only get better. That's a scary thought.
6. Indianapolis Colts (2-0): It hasn't been pretty, but the Colts are 2-0. I still think they will need an MVP season from Peyton Manning to make the playoffs, but we all know Manning is very capable of that. The Colts will struggle to run as long as Joseph Addai starts over Donald Brown, and their awful run defense was exposed by the Dolphins. However, there may be no team better equipped to protect a lead with less than five minutes to play thanks to a pass rush led by star defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. And Manning will give them that lead more often than not.
7. San Francisco 49ers (2-0): The 49ers held two of the better passing teams in the league in check and beat the two teams expected to compete with them in the NFC West. They play the run well too and Frank Gore has been great (and healthy) so far. Shaun Hill is a poor man's Chad Pennington with how he manages games and is now 10-3 as a starting quarterback. I think San Fran wins 10 games this season and the division.
8. New Orleans Saints (2-0): Drew Brees is amazing (nine touchdowns!?!). And he has six solid options to throw the ball to. Mike Bell has been a revelation, and the running game will only improve with the return of Pierre Thomas (notice I didn't mention Reggie Bush...oops, just did). But New Orleans has allowed 49 points to the Lions and Kevin Kolb-led Eagles. Outscoring teams may get the Saints to the playoffs, but it's going to be an early exit if they can't stop anyone defensively.
9. Dallas Cowboys (1-1): It's been a while since we've seen San Francisco higher than Dallas. But Tony Romo scares me. In a poll done by ESPN's SportsNation, even the state of Texas didn't believe Dallas could win a Super Bowl with Romo at quarterback. He just makes too many mistakes, which was about the only thing that stopped a Dallas drive against the Giants. Romo makes some big plays with his arm and his legs, but unless he cuts the mistakes the Cowboys will forever be a one-and-done playoff team with him at the helm. Teams will throw on the Cowboys too, as they've allowed nearly 600 yards through the air in two games without an interception.
10. New England Patriots (1-1): If it weren't for the Bills' Leodis McKelvin, the Patriots could be 0-2 in their own division to start the season. The Jets didn't let them off the hook like the Bills did, as Tom Brady showed lots of rust after missing all of last season and facing relentless pressure from the aggressive New York defense. New England struggles to run the ball, so they will struggle to score consistently until Brady gets comfortable. And after all the off-season defections from the defense and the loss of Jerod Mayo, New England isn't going to win any games with their defense. A healthy Wes Welker in Week 3 should help Brady get back on track, which he will need to do if New England is going to beat a more-talented Atlanta team.
11. Arizona Cardinals (1-1): After struggling against San Francisco, Kurt Warner bounced back with a near-perfect game against Jacksonville, setting a record for completion percentage in a game (24-for-26). The running game was much more effective than in Week 1 and if Beanie Wells stays healthy and continues to run like he has, he might get sixty percent of the carries by midseason. This offense will be very good once again and their defense will be good enough to win games. Just don't expect another Super Bowl appearance.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1): The defending Super Bowl champion outside the top 10? And behind the team they beat in that game? That's what happens when you lose to the Bears. Their defense is great and Ben Roethlisberger-to-Santonio Holmes is becoming something special, but there is way too much pressure on Roethlisberger offensively with Pittsburgh's non-existent running game. Willie Parker has been declining since 2006, I haven't seen much from Rashard Mendenhall to prove he can be trusted and their offensive line doesn't make holes big enough to make these guys effective. Roethlisberger will continue to make mistakes if he throws 40 times a game, as he's always been a much better quarterback when he throws the ball around 25 times a game.
13. San Diego Chargers (1-1): After struggling in a road win against Oakland, the Chargers lost a tight one when they hosted Baltimore. Philip Rivers threw for 436 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions as the running game was useless without LaDainian Tomlinson, who sat with an ankle injury that could keep him out for Week 3 as well. If Tomlinson stays healthy, the Chargers are good enough on both sides of the ball to make the playoffs. I just don't see the Super Bowl hype right now. I also don't see Tomlinson staying upright all season.
14. Philadelphia Eagles (1-1): Even with a healthy Donovan McNabb, the Saints still would've lit up the scoreboard for 40-plus points. The only difference is that the Eagles might have been able to match it. Kevin Kolb threw for 391 yards and two touchdown, but was intercepted three times. Brees can make any defense look bad, but the Eagles' secondary was supposed to be the strength of their defense this season. It's a good thing they have so many weapons on offense, because they will need them all to make it to the playoffs again.
15. Denver Broncos (2-0): Denver is the only undefeated team so far that I think will struggle to finish over .500. Forgive me if I don't respect their fluky win against Cincinnati or their blowout of the pathetic Browns. Kyle Orton is a decent game manager and they will always be able to run the ball, but Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal have struggled and the Broncos will struggle to make big plays. I don't buy the defensive resurgence so far either, as there's a reason they wanted to ship Marshall out of the town for David Harris.
16. Tennessee Titans (0-2): The first winless team to appear on my rankings, Tennessee is not as bad as the record implies after losing two three-point games to the Steelers and Texans. Chris Johnson dazzled with 284 total yards and three touchdowns against Houston, but the Titans couldn't slow down Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and company through the air. They have shut down the run in both games but have been exposed through the air, which is surprising considering the playmakers they have in the secondary (Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Chris Hope). The Titans may be able to turn it around and push for the playoffs, but they need a win this week against the Jets to keep them afloat for the time being. With the confidence the Jets are building early in the season, that may be a tough task.
Teams 17-32 coming soon...
Monday, September 21, 2009
As the final four seconds ticked away at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night, the NFL-record crowd of 105,121 fell silent. The massive arena’s abrupt shift from raucous to taciturn was brought upon by Lawrence Tynes’ 37-yard field goal as time expired, which gave the New York Giants a thrilling 33-31 victory in the first regular season game at Dallas’ palatial new digs.
Much was made of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ lavish, Texas-sized $1.15 billion stadium, much of which was paid for out of his own pocket. Unfortunately, the Cowboys themselves couldn’t come close to matching the excellence of the stadium in which they played, turning the ball over four times in a decidedly-sloppy performance. That the game was only decided by two points was a testament to the Giants’ continuing red zone woes – New York could have handily beaten the Cowboys on this night.
The Giants managed zero touchdowns in a whopping five trips inside the Dallas 20, whereas the Cowboys were a perfect 4-for-4 in red zone situations. This red zone disparity was certainly the mitigating factor in the game’s closeness, and raised some serious red flags for the Giants going forward.
However, New York’s red zone troubles by no means overshadowed the many bright spots of the game.
The Giants’ 2008 first-round choice Kenny Phillips intercepted two passes and made several touchdown-saving tackles as the last line of defense against an overpowering Dallas rushing attack. On one of the interceptions, Phillips was robbed of a pick-six after catching a bizarre deflection off of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten’s foot – the official erroneously ruled the play incomplete, but it was overturned by video replay.
On offense, Eli Manning turned in one of the most impressive performances of his career, throwing for 330 yards on a night when the New York running game was suffocated. The defining drive came at the end of the game, when the always-cool quarterback marched the Giants out of a first-and-20 hole and into position for the game-winning field goal.
Sharing in Eli’s highlight reel performance was the young-receiver tandem of Steve Smith and Mario Manningham, who, in combining for 20 catches, 284 yards and two touchdowns, put to rest any uncertainty in the 2009 Giants receiving corps. Manningham, in particular, demonstrated that he still has all of the big-play ability that he became known for at Michigan. (An aside: “Manning to Manningham” is too good of a catch-phrase to NOT work, right?)
The bruised New York secondary performed admirably against the previously-vaunted Dallas air game, picking off three Tony Romo passes despite playing without starting cornerback Aaron Ross and dime back Kevin Dockery.
Despite this, the Cowboys exposed a troubling weakness in this year’s Giants: The pathetic ground effort on both sides of the ball. New York, which built a reputation as one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, appeared overmatched at the line of scrimmage throughout Sunday’s contest. Brandon Jacobs couldn’t even manage enough of a head-start to break most tackles, and Dallas’ duo of Marion Barber III and Felix Jones slashed through gaping holes all night as the Giants’ supposedly-dominant front seven was instead dominated by the Cowboys’ O-line.
It was a resounding victory for Big Blue, given the environment in which they played. However, enough red flags were raised that fans’ hopes should be tempered in the coming weeks. Knowing the coaching style of Tom Coughlin, it’s going to be a long week of practice for the victorious G-Men.
The 40-thousand-plus at the Carrier Dome on Saturday night went home with their wishes granted as Syracuse pulled off a 37-34 victory over the Northwestern Wildcats.
In a game that went back and forth, featured five turnovers and also saw a 24-yard touchdown reception by Northwestern's quarterback, the Orange ended up victorious on freshman kicker Ryan Lichtenstein's 41-yard field goal as time expired.
Syracuse's offense finally clicked in the third game of the season after putting up just 27 points in the first two losses to Minnesota and Penn State. Senior quarterback Greg Paulus finished 24 of 35 for 346 yards and two touchdowns, both to wide receiver Mike Williams. Paulus also ran for a 10-yard score in the first quarter and Williams finished with career-highs in yards (206) and catches (12).
Syracuse jumped out to an early 17-0 lead in the first quarter after Paulus' run, a Lichtenstein field goal, and a 66-yard strike to a wide-open Williams. Northwestern then scored 21 unanswered points after a Syracuse fumble. The Orange came back to lead 24-21 going into the locker room for halftime after Delone Carter pounded in a three-yard touchdown score with a minute to go. They had a chance to add on to the lead, but Paulus threw his only interception of the night in the end zone, keeping the lead at three.
Northwestern took a 28-27 lead after a trick play with 17 seconds left in the third quarter. Quarterback Mike Kafka (35/42, 390 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT) handed the ball to receiver Andrew Brewer on an end around to the left side of the field. With Syracuse's defense swarming the ball, Brewer turned and threw back across the field to a wide open Kafka, who had blockers lined up and waltzed into the end zone for a 24-yard score.
On the ensuing possession, Paulus lost a costly fumble and Northwestern capitalized as Kafka and Demetrius Fields hooked up for a three-yard touchdown, giving Northwestern a 34-27 lead. Northwestern kicker Stefan Demos then made the biggest gaffe of the night, missing the extra point to keep the lead at seven.
The Orange fought back as Paulus hit Williams again, this time for 13 yards, and Syracuse tied the game at 34.
With Northwestern driving for the game-winning score with a little over a minute left in the game, Kafka dropped back to throw, was pressured by Syracuse defensive tackle Art Jones, and ended up throwing an interception to Orange safety Max Suter, who returned the pick 22 yards to the Northwestern 39-yard line. Paulus hit Williams for eight yards and Donte Davis for four yards to get Syracuse into field goal range for Lichtenstein, a walk-on who just earned a scholarship last week.
Syracuse running back Delone Carter added 76 yards and a touchdown. In the first quarter, Carter became the 39th running back in Orange history to rush for 1,000 career yards.
With the loss, Northwestern fell to 2-1 on the season. The Wildcats will host Minnesota in their conference opener next Saturday.
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone earned his first career win as the Orange moved to 1-2 on the season. The Orange will play Maine, an FCS Subdivision team, next week at the Dome at 7:00.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Kerry Rhodes said the Jets would hit Tom Brady more than six times. And while they didn't sack Brady once they were constantly in his face, as Brady found about as much rhythm as Matt Schaub did last weekend, which isn't saying much.
The numbers for Brady were pedestrian at best. He was just 23-for-47 passing, the first time he has completed less than 50 percent of his passes since Week 13 of 2007 against Baltimore, the only time it happened that season.
Brady also managed just 216 yards and threw an interception with no touchdowns. It was obvious he missed his security blanket Wes Welker against the Jets constant pressure. Welker missed the game with a knee injury.
It also helped that the Jets have arguably the best cornerback in the league in Darrelle Revis, who held Randy Moss to just four catches for 24 yards after a 12-catch game in Week 1. Undrafted rookie Julian Edelman led New England with eight catches for 98 yards, doing his best Welker impression running the underneath routes.
It didn't help New England's case that Brady was erratic even when he had time to throw. Whether it was the Jets' pressure, Brady shaking off the rust from a lost season or a combination of the two, the Patriots' quarterback missed lots of open receivers in the game. In fact, New England's running game produced almost as many yards per play as its passing game (4.2 compared to 4.6).
All nine of the Patriots' points came in the first half, when they took a 9-3 lead into the locker room. But the Jets would take the lead for good on the opening drive of the second half, going 56 yards in just three plays after a great return from Leon Washington.
A 33-yard pass from Mark Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery and a two-yard run by Thomas Jones took the Jets down to New England's nine-yard-line. I said before the game that Dustin Keller would be a key for the Jets, and he found a soft spot in the Patriots' zone on the next play as Sanchez hit him to put the Jets ahead.
Keller had just three catches for 22 yards, but Sanchez was the story again for the Jets' offense. After throwing just five passes in the first half, he finished the game 14-for-22 for 163 yards and a touchdown. He took care of the football and let the dominating Jets defense do its job, as they have yet to allow an offensive touchdown this season.
In beating the Pats at home for the first time since 2000 and holding them without a touchdown, the first time that's happened since 2006, they surely put New England and the rest of the league on notice. Nothing will come easily against the Jets defense this season, and their offense isn't going to make mistakes.
That offense will also run the ball effectively week in and week out. Thomas Jones and Washington both had 14 carries, with Washington leading the way with 58 yards and Jones adding 54. This two-pronged attack will allow the Jets to keep opponents guessing and control the clock, keeping their defense fresh enough to stay aggressive into the fourth quarter.
New England racked up almost 200 yards in the first half, but couldn't reach the endzone. The Jets stiffened further in the second half while racking up almost 200 yards of their own on offense to take control of the game on both sides of the ball.
Despite the clutch presence of Brady, the moments of trepidation late in the game were few and far between for this Jets fan. After two games, the Jets have a great blueprint in place and the personnel to make it work.
I hate to judge a season after just two games, as we saw last year with a six-week collapse that would impress even the Mets. But something feels right about this team right now. And if they can shut down Chris Johnson and the Titans next week, who lost to Houston this weekend to fall to 0-2, it will go a long way towards cementing those feelings.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Early in the week, Rex Ryan recorded a telephone message for all Jets season-ticket holders, urging them to make life miserable on New England and referring to the Jets as a better football team. If that wasn't enough for the Pats to post on their bulletin board, Kerry Rhodes stepped in and added fuel to the fire.
The Pro Bowl safety, who was outspoken about a Brett Favre's possible return after last season's collapse, expressed his desire to embarrass the Patriots and "make them feel bad when they leave here." Rhodes also guaranteed that the Jets would hit Tom Brady more than six times, in reference to the Bills' inability to get to Brady last weekend.
Brady's response? "Talk is cheap." Short, sweet and to the point. That's typical when it comes to Patriots players who, like this year's Jets, seem to take on the personality of their coach, the stoic Bill Bellicheat.
The Jets are a cocky bunch, especially on the defensive side of the football, and it's hard to argue with the results through the season's first week. They shut down one of the league's top offenses without two of their best defensive players, one who will be returning this weekend (Shaun Ellis).
The Patriots, however, are a confident bunch with their leader back under center. The difference between their confidence and the Jets cockiness? New England has won championships and the Jets have not, which is why Brady can get away with saying, "Talk is cheap." Time in and time out, New England backs it up on the playing field, winning 11 of the last 13 matchups with New York.
But the Jets haven't had a defense this talented and aggressive in years. They blitzed Matt Schaub silly last week, so much so that he was never able to get in rhythm with top target Andre Johnson (or any of his receivers, for that matter). Matt Schaub is no Tom Brady, but the Jets will not allow Brady to sit back in the pocket and pick them apart.
New England struggled to run the ball against Buffalo and this week won't be any different. The Jets held the Texans, who actually have a number-one back, to 38 yards on the ground last week. This game will fall squarely onto Brady's shoulders and he will face a relentless pass rush from the Jets. Expect a mistake or two from Brady, but also expect a few big plays.
Offensively, the Jets should be able to exploit the worst Patriots secondary in years if they can protect Mark Sanchez. And with second-year stud middle linebacker Jerod Mayo out of the lineup for up to six weeks, the Jets should be able to run again this week after racking up almost 200 yards on the ground in Houston.
Watch Dustin Keller and Leon Washington this week. They combined for eight catches last week and will be important check-down options for Sanchez this week, as Bellicheat is sure to confuse the rookie with multiple coverages and blitz packages. Thomas Jones may not rush for 100 yards again, but expect another 20 carries, 80-90 yards and a touchdown.
In his message to fans, Ryan said the Patriots had a better head coach and a better quarterback, but the Jets were a better team. On paper, this seems to be true. The Jets have the superior defense and running game, but so did the Bills last week. The difference is this Jets team won't blow a 24-13 lead with less than five minutes to play.
Prediction: Jets 24, Patriots 20
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Football prognosticators (especially, shockingly, Tedy Bruschi on ESPN) expected to see a Patriot blowout. It was Tom Brady's comeback from a horrific 2008 opening-day knee injury. It was a celebration of the Patriots all-time team at halftime. It was ESPN declaring the return of the Patriots as a Super Bowl contender.
A funny thing happened on the way to Gilette Stadium Monday night, however.
The Bills came out firing from the opening whistle, stopping the Patriots on a 4th-and-2 on the opening drive of the game. When Bills' quarterback Trent Edwards tossed an 11-yard strike to rookie tight end Shawn Nelson late in the first quarter, it gave Buffalo a surprising seven-point lead.
After the Patriots dominated time of possession in the second quarter and Fred Taylor punched in a one-yard score to tie the game, it seemed as though the momentum had swung back to New England and the rout would be on. But Aaron Schobel's amazing one-handed interception and subsequent return for a touchdown gave the Bills the lead back at 14-10, which they held at halftime.
The Bills remained calm and in control throughout the second half, particularly on a 14-play, seven-minute drive that resulted in a Fred Jackson touchdown reception and gave the giant underdog a seemingly insurmountable 24-13 lead with just five minutes to play in the game.
Tom Brady was hell-bent on celebrating his comeback. The Patriots marched down the field at will, converting three third downs on a four-minute touchdown drive that took them 81 yards and ended in an 18-yard touchdown strike from Brady to Benjamin Watson.
This was the game for Bills fans. They (I) could taste the victory. With 2:06 to play, the Patriots had missed the two-point conversion and were kicking off holding all three of their timeouts. If Buffalo could manage one first down on the ground, where they had been successful all game, the Patriots would be out of time and the Bills would walk away with the franchise's biggest win in a decade.
It never got that far.
Buffalo's second-year return man Leodis McKelvin fielded the ball near the goal line, paused, and decided to bring the ball out for a return. A kneel down in the end zone would have resulted in a touchback, though McKelvin said after the game that he wasn't fully sure he was behind the line. McKelvin was stood up by Meriweather at the 25, and held up just long enough for Woods to come along and strip the ball, even with McKelvin doing his best to keep two strong hands on the ball. Of all people, Pats kicker Stephen Gostkowski came up with the recovery.
You can guess the rest. Brady takes the field, throws another touchdown to Watson from 16 yards out, the Bills can't answer with 50 seconds left and two timeouts and the Patriots walk away victorious, 25-24.
Every Bills fan I know said the same thing after the loss.
"I knew it would happen." "What could we expect?" "Same old Bills."
But a couple days after the loss, the heartbreak has healed and some perspective has dawned on this fan.
The Bills legitimately beat the Patriots for 55 minutes on Monday night. A team they haven't beaten in 12 tries, and have never beaten in New England. "Moral victory" is a term that gets thrown around a lot to excuse losing, but I don't think that applies here. The talent is there, the heart is there, and the effort is there. The winning will naturally come next, but when?
Tom Brady celebrated his return in typically amazing fashion. While his timing and accuracy were obviously rusty through the majority of the game, he turned it on when he needed to, putting the ball in the endzone two times in the final two minutes to come away with a win. He tied a career-high with 39 completions for 378 yards and was the reason New England was 10-for-16 on third down.
The Bills have a lot to learn from this game. How to win under pressure, how to stop Tom Brady (basically, you can't) and how to hold onto the ball late in the game. But we learned some things from the young team, as well. They aren't the doormat they've been the past couple of years.
Their three new starters on the offensive line can be effective at protecting Edwards and providing holes for Buffalo's new star, Fred Jackson. The no-huddle offense wore down the Patriots aging defense and Edwards looked in full control running the complex schemes. New offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt can call a game better than Turk Schonert ever has in two years with the team.
When the Patriots come to Buffalo later this year, we'll see if this Bills team has grown up at all from this experience or if their youth will once again come back to bite them where it hurts.
I don't think Leodis McKelvin will be returning kicks in that one. Just a hunch.
I've written before about how the infusion of energy brought in by A.J. Burnett and Nick Swisher has transformed the Yankees from a squad of aging, over-paid superstars to a team with a certain youthful exuberance to them. But besides Burnett and Swisher, Brian Cashman deserves a lot of credit for this turnaround.
He has worked tirelessly the last few seasons to replenish a farm system destroyed by poor trades and it has shown this season, with many ex-Yankee farmhands making important contributions to the major-league club. The Yankees refused to deal prospects like Phil Hughes, Melky Cabrera and Robinson Cano, who have all been key to their success this year.
Another home-grown product, catcher Jorge Posada, has been a lightning rod for criticism this season despite a .281 average, 21 home runs and 76 RBI. Whether it has been his deteriorating defense or his inability to handle A.J. Burnett, Posada has been surrounded by controversy despite enjoying one of the best offensive seasons of his career. Tuesday night's brawl has only added to this.
After Edwin Encarnacion and Aaron Hill were hit by pitches, Toronto reliever Jesse Carlson threw behind Posada in the eighth inning. Posada voiced his displeasure to Carlson, who didn't back down and yelled right back. Later in the inning after Posada had walked, Brett Gardner doubled down the right-field line to score Posada. After scoring Posada elbowed Carlson, who was backing up the play, leading to the dugouts and bullpens emptying.
The aftermath left Carlson with a red mark on his forehead while even Joe Girardi got involved in the fight, almost getting punched by Blue Jays utility infielder John McDonald. It was also funny to watch skinny Edwar Ramirez pulling the back of Rod Barajas' chest protector, but I digress.
Everyone can see that Posada started the brawl, that much is obvious. The elbow was a cheap shot, and no one will defend him for that. But I will defend the fire and passion that you see night in and night out from Posada, the same fire that led him to throw the elbow at Carlson. Joe Girardi agreed.
"The intensity that we love in Jorgy, sometimes these are the types of things that happen," Girardi said. "But I love his heart. I love his intensity and I wouldn't want to take that away from him."
Posada's intensity got him a three-game suspension and a $3,000 fine but if given the choice, he would probably do it again. I'm not saying it was a classy move or something that children should emulate, but when in the past few seasons have you seen this kind of passion from the New York Yankees?
They have turned from a team of high-profile players padding their stats and collecting paychecks to a perfect combination of superstars and young players out to prove themselves. One example is Cano, who had a lackluster season in 2008 both offensively and defensively. But he has thrived this season in the more upbeat, energetic Yankees clubhouse, hitting .320 and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base. And he isn't the only young player helping the Yankees push for a 100-win season.
As ugly as the brawl was, it just reinforces my belief that this year's Yankee team has something different than the teams of the past few seasons. They are hungry for a title and they will stand up to anybody who wants to come at them. And there's no better recipe for success than talented players with a chip on their shoulders.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
As painful as the past two collapses have been for the Mets, this season has been much harder to watch. At least the '07 and '08 teams were competitive; this year's squad has been a disaster. Instead of having to suffer through just one pathetic month of a collapsing team, this year's squad has simply been a trainwreck.
In 2007, the Mets were at least in contention to defend their 2006 division title until the season's final game. As depressing as it was to watch Tom Glavine give up seven runs and not make it out of the first inning in his final start as a Met, handing the division title to the Phillies, at least the Mets provided some memorable moments throughout the season.
Last season, the Mets hoped to atone for the '07 collapse in Shea Stadium's final season. Instead, 2008 brought another depressing September slowdown, culminating with another heart-breaking loss to the Florida Marlins to eliminate the Mets in the last game ever at Shea. There probably aren't many worse ways that Shea could have gone out, but at least the last game at the stadium was meaningful.
You won't be able to say the same about the last game of the first season at Citi Field. This season, the Mets entered a July 3 series in Philadelphia only one game behind the division-leading Phillies. The Mets were swept in that series and went on to freefall out of contention.
Granted, the 2009 Mets have been ravaged by injuries, but most teams who fall out of contention early have enough talent in their minor-league system to at least call up a young prospect or two in August or September to give fans a look at the team's potential future.
Although it is impossible for a team to prepare for losing just about everyone in its starting lineup at some point in the season, the players who have been called on to replace Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes, Carlos Delgado and the rest of the Mets who have spent considerable time on the disabled list have simply been nowhere near major-league ready.
The Mets already lost two of their top prospects for the season in outfielder Fernando Martinez and starting pitcher Jon Niese. Beyond the two of them, the Mets really haven't been able to make any exciting call-ups because their minor league system is so depleted. It has been nice to see catching prospect Josh Thole make a few appearances, but that's just one position.
There is little to no hope coming from pitching prospects, as late season call-ups have included journeymen Elmer Dessens and Nelson Figueroa, as well as 40-year-old Japanese rookie Ken Takahashi. Those names don't exactly get fans excited for already-meaningless September games.
As hard as it is to watch a team blow a seemingly-certain playoff berth in the final weeks of the season, the bottom line is this: only one team can win the World Series every year and only eight teams make the playoffs. For many teams, the season is pretty much over by June 1, or in the 2009 Mets' case, around July 20. I'll take a September collapse over a September with a starting pitching rotation featuring the likes of Figueroa, Tim Redding and Pat Misch any year.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Duke-point-guard-turned-Syracuse-quarterback Greg Paulus played relatively well in just his second career start, finishing the game 14-for-20 for 105 yards while throwing a garbage-time touchdown pass to Donte Davis. The Nittany Lions also intercepted Paulus twice off of tipped passes, one of them a drop by freshman receiver Alec Lemon.
Head coach Doug Marrone also made good use of the "Stallion" (Wildcat) formation for the second week in a row, using backup quarterback Ryan Nassib to throw from the usually run-heavy set. Nassib finished the game 4-for-5 for 30 yards, but Marrone insisted after the game that there was no sniff of a dreaded quarterback controversy.
"I think we'll need both quarterbacks to help us win this year," Marrone said in the post-game press conference.
While Penn State ended up with 28 points on the game, the Orange defense played relatively well for a second straight week. After an opening-drive 49-yard touchdown pass from Penn State quarterback Darryl Clark to do-it-all running back Evan Royster, it looked like a repeat of 2008's 55-13 blowout in the Carrier Dome.
The Orange defense, however, made a 4th-and-goal stand from the one-yard-line on the Nittany Lions' next possession, seemingly shifting the momentum back to Syracuse. But the Syracuse offense, as they did most of the game, struggled to move the ball and went three-and-out, giving Penn State the ball back at midfield.
This was the story of the game for the Orange. There were plays made on the defensive side of the ball, but the offense couldn't sustain any drives long enough to put points on the board. Eventually, with all the Nittany Lion fire power, it was clear that Penn State was going to put the ball in the endzone.
After a Kevyn Scott interception late in the second quarter, it looked like the Orange had a chance to cut Penn State's lead from 14 to seven and go into the locker room with just a one-touchdown deficit. After some short throws down the field and five minutes gone off the clock, Syracuse was forced to attempt a 51-yard field goal which fell well short and kept the halftime score 14-0.
Penn State's Clark finished the game with 240 yards and three touchdowns, showing no signs of slowing after losing his top three receivers from last season. The Orange defensive line kept the Nittany Lions' running game fairly silent though, holding them to just 78 yards on the ground, 41 of them from Royster.
Syracuse, who was 1-for-13 on third down in last week's loss to Minnesota, was just 5-for-13 in Happy Valley on Saturday. The playcalling continued to be conservative, especially through the air. So far it seems Marrone and his staff are afraid to put too much in Paulus' hands early in the season.
Syracuse fell to 0-2 for the fourth consecutive season as seventh-ranked Penn State moved to 2-0.
Syracuse gets its third Big Ten matchup in a row next week as Northwestern comes to the Carrier Dome. Penn State will look to remain undefeated at home against the lightweight Temple Owls.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Texans averaged 25.8 points per game at home last season, but couldn't muster an offensive touchdown against the new-look Jets defense. Running back Steve Slaton managed just 17 yards on nine carries, while quarterback Matt Schaub was under constant pressure all game as the Texans struggled to find any offensive rhythm.
New York's other big addition, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, showed why he was the fifth overall pick in this year's draft. The Jets struggled to run the football early, but Sanchez was able to lead the offense through the air to eventually open up the running game.
Sanchez led the Jets on a 16-play, 68-yard drive in the first quarter that lasted 8:27 and culminated in a short Jay Feely field goal. Then with 3:27 left in the first half, Sanchez exploited a Texans blitz and hit a wide-open Chansi Stuckey in the middle of the field for a 30-yard touchdown, the first of his career, to end another impressive drive that spanned 10 plays and 78 yards and put New York up 10 heading into the locker room.
What was particularly impressive about Sanchez was his poise and mobility inside and outside of the pocket, as Mario Williams and the Texans' pass rush didn't register a sack on the rookie all day. Sanchez was able to sidestep numerous blitzes with his impressive footwork and only broke the pocket when absolutely necessary. This made him extremely effective on third down, when he went 12-for-15 for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Throw in Sanchez's ability to throw on the run and he looks like the real deal after just one week of play. He finished 18-for-31 for 272 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Sanchez will inevitably struggle like any rookie quarterback but few will deny this kid has a bright future, both as a quarterback and a leader.
It also helps when you have a solid running game to lean on and the Jets have just that, as they ran the ball 42 times for 190 yards. As a result, they dominated time of possession over Houston, controlling the ball for nearly 39 minutes. Thomas Jones was held to just 16 yards on his first 14 carries, but that included a one-yard touchdown plunge to put the Jets up 17-0 in the third quarter.
Jones would bust loose for a 39-yard run on his next carry later in the quarter and, after Sanchez threw an interception that was fumbled and recovered by the Texans for a touchdown, Jones sealed the victory with a 38-yard touchdown run with just over 10 minutes to play in the fourth. Jones finished with 107 yards on 20 carries, 91 of those coming on his final six carries.
There can't be a discussion on the Jets running game without mentioning the diminuitive Leon Washington, who carried 15 times for 60 yards and caught four passes for 24 yards. Washington played a major part in nearly every Jets drive, whether it was taking handcuffs, being a safety valve for Sanchez or successfully running the Wildcat on several occasions.
It's obvious the Jets will look to deploy Washington even more this season as he continues to provide a perfect compliment to the more powerful Jones, who turned 31 in August. Jones has less than 2,000 career carries in nine seasons, so there may still be a year or two left in the tank if Washington can keep him fresh. In comparison, another back many experts have predicted to slow down this season, 30-year-old LaDainian Tomlinson, has 2,657 carries in eight seasons, an average of over 330 carries per season, comparison to 220 or so per year for Jones.
I don't know what was more surprising, the Jets ability to keep Houston's offense off the field with time-consuming drives or their absolute dominance on defense. The Texans' trio of Schaub, Slaton and receiver Andre Johnson was completely shut down, as Johnson managed just four catches for 35 yards and was a non-factor until the game was out of reach.
Credit for that should go to All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who continues to solidify his place among the best corners in football in his fourth season. With Lito Sheppard making contributions on the opposite side of the field and Kerry Rhodes lurking at safety, the Jets held Schaub to an 18-for-33, 166-yard, one-interception game. That kind of pass defense will work well with a run defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground without Calvin Pace and Shaun Ellis, two of their best run-stoppers.
The Jets will play their home opener next Sunday against New England, who will play Buffalo tomorrow night in their first game. That game will be a good early-season test for the Jets to show how good they can really be this season.
If they can come out and beat the pre-season AFC favorite with a rookie quarterback making just his second career start, it may not be too early to jump on the playoff bandwagon. Of course, Jets fans did that after Week 12 last season and it proved to be too early, so what do I know.
Friday, September 11, 2009
The Steelers had plenty of motivation of their own as well. The road to defending their title would start at home against a division rival, one that beat them handily in their last matchup. If Pittsburgh let Tennessee come into their house and leave with a win, that would deliver a serious blow early in the season to a team with aspirations of a repeat.
In the early stages the game was dominated by both defenses, as there wasn't a single point scored in the first 28:38 of play. Madden 10 co-cover boy Troy Polamalu was all over the field, showing his ability to play the run as well as the pass.
With Tennessee pinned at their own six on their first drive, Polamalu darted into the backfield from his safety position in under two seconds to cut down speedy running back Chris Johnson in the backfield on third-and-six. On the next series, the safety picked up an unnecessary roughness penalty cutting out Johnson's legs on the sideline, but later stripped tight end Bo Scaife on third down, forcing a field goal attempt that was missed by Rob Bironas.
Later in the first quarter, Polamalu made a spectacular one-handed interception in downfield coverage of rookie wide receiver Kenny Britt on the Steelers five-yard-line. But when the Steelers blocked a Bironas field goal with just over two minutes left in the first half, Alge Crumpler landed on Polamalu's left leg in the scrum for the ball, forcing the Pro Bowl safety out of the game.
In less than a half, Polamalu had six solo tackles, two passes defensed and an interception, but the sprained MCL he suffered on that play will keep him on the sideline for 3-6 weeks as the "Madden curse" continues. Watch out, Larry Fitzgerald!
On the next drive, Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes continued to build on his performance in the big game last season, catching a 34-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger as the Steelers used the no-huddle offense to open up the field. Kerry Collins and the Titans answered back just 34 seconds later as Justin Gage got open down the sideline for a 14-yard touchdown after a 57-yard pass to Britt and the game went to the half tied, 7-7.
The score would stay that way until early in the fourth quarter, when Bironas connected on his third attempt of the game from 45 yards out to give Tennessee a 10-7 advantage. The Steelers were able to make it inside the Titans 20 with a few minutes to play, but only managed a Jeff Reed 32-yard field goal to tie the game.
After the Steelers regained possession, Roethlisberger used his improvisational ability to avoid the Titans pass rush and lead his team into field goal range with less than a minute to play. Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward inside the 20 with room to run, but Michael Griffin came from behind to punch the ball away from Ward when he refused to go down, a move that would have sealed the Titans' fate in regulation.
But Roethlisberger wasn't discouraged and led his team back down the field in overtime, this time hitting rookie speedster Mike Wallace inside the Tennessee 20. Pittsburgh wasted no time getting the kicker onto the field and Jeff Reed nailed the 32-yarder to give the Steelers their sixth consecutive victory in a home opener.
Despite struggling early on, Roethlisberger finished his 20th career comeback victory 33-43 for 363 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, one of which came on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. He was sacked four times, including a 19-yard sack early that knocked Pittsburgh out of field-goal range, but was able to maneuver his way around the pocket and buy time for receivers to get open downfield on numerous occasions.
All of Roethlisberger's improvisation was necessary, as Tennessee stifled Willie Parker and the Steelers' running game to the tune of 36 yards on the ground, and just 19 for Parker on 13 carries. Holmes posted the same exact line from last year's Super Bowl with nine catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, while Ward added eight grabs for 103 yards.
For the Titans, Collins was 22-35 for 244 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Johnson ran for 57 yards on 15 carries and Gage caught seven balls for 78 yards and a touchdown. Britt also showed flashes of his big-play ability, with four catches for 85 yards.
Tennessee will host Houston next Sunday in hopes of avoiding an 0-2 start, which would be just one less loss than they had all last season, while the Steelers travel to the Windy City to take on the Bears and new quarterback Jay Cutler.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Jeter busted out of his mini-slump on Wednesday night with three hits in the Yankees 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays as the Yanks completed a four-game sweep of last year's American League champion. In the process, Jeter tied Gehrig's team record of 2,721 hits, which he will look to break when the Orioles come to town for a weekend series starting Friday.
Jeter likes to downplay individual achievements and keep the focus on the team, and that's what I will do as well. But not before I laud Jeter for what he has done throughout his career as a Yankee.
Since he came up in 1996, Jeter has won four World Series titles (1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000). He hit .361 as a rookie in the 1996 playoffs, as well as batting .353 in the 1998 and 1999 World Series. He topped off this amazing five-year start to his career with a World Series MVP in 2000.
Jeter was named captain in 2003, only the 11th player to be given that distinction in Yankees history. And this season, at 35 years old, he is in serious contention for the AL MVP in what might be his best statistical season since 1999. He is on pace for just his fourth career 20-home run season and has a .330 average through 134 games.
But enough about Jeter, who would have it no other way. After winning 12 of their last 14 games, the Yankees are an astonishing 40-13 since the All-Star Break. The performance of their lineup in late-inning situations has been beyond impressive, and this series against Tampa was no different.
In game one, Robinson Cano had a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the eighth inning, as the Yankees were shut down through seven innings but ran up Matt Garza's pitch count to 120, forcing the Rays to turn to their shaky bullpen. In game three, it was Nick Swisher getting in on the walk-off action, with a line-drive home run into the jetstream in right in the bottom of the ninth.
And last night with the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the eighth, Jorge Posada entered as a pinch-hitter with two runners on base. His ensuing three-run home run gave the Yankees a 4-2 lead and a sweep of the reeling Rays, who now sit 18.5 games out in the East and 9.5 games out of the Wild Card.
With Brett Gardner returning from the disabled list, the Yankees will only add to their impressive offensive depth and firepower. Gardner will provide them with the one niche they lacked in his absence: blinding speed. Gardner's 20 steals are second on the team to Jeter's 25, but Gardner has done it in just 207 at-bats.
But offense is not the Yankees' major issue. It would seem like there are no serious issues for a team that has won 40 of their last 53 games. But there are still a few question marks surrounding the Yankees' pitchers.
A.J. Burnett pitched well his last time out, throwing six innings of one-run ball, allowing just four hits and striking out eight Rays. But this start came with Jose Molina behind the plate, as Posada received a day off.
The ongoing struggles of Burnett with Posada behind the plate are troublesome. As good as their lineup is, the Yankees need Posada's bat when the playoffs come around. However, they also need Burnett to pitch well, which puts manager Joe Girardi in a tough spot. Does he DH or bench Posada when Burnett is on the mound, or does he try to force Burnett to work through obvious issues with Posada as his catcher?
Molina will be a gaping hole in the Yankees lineup and, for a team that relies so heavily on a lineup that has no holes, that could hurt the Yankees in late-inning situations if Posada is penciled in as the DH, since the Yankees would be unable to put Posada behind the plate.
The other dilemma the Yankees have is the young Joba Chamberlain. He has thrown just 13 innings in his last four starts, allowing 13 earned runs. Joba is obviously uncomfortable with the Yankees imposition of the innings limit and he has thrown just 149 pitches in his last three starts.
The real question is, why are the Yankees still starting him if the plan is to let him throw just three or four innings? I understand they want to keep him throwing every fifth or sixth day, but do they really expect him to be able to consistently throw 90-100 pitches in the playoffs if he isn't allowed to do it now?
I wasn't as against this innings limit as much as most Yankee fans and media initially, but now that I have seen it in action, I have seen enough. Every time he pitches, the bullpen has to throw five-plus innings. By protecting Joba, the Yankees are overextending their bullpen at the worst possible time.
Who knows what kind of shape pitchers like Alfredo Aceves will be in by the playoffs if he continues to throw three innings in relief of Joba every fifth day. And who knows if Joba will be able to handle six innings of rigorous playoff baseball after being coddled for the final month and a half of the regular season.
All of these issues have been disguised by the Yankees consistent play since the All-Star Break, but these are issues that need to be solved before the playoffs. Despite having the best record in baseball by 6.5 games, the Yankees are far from a lock to win the pennant, especially considering their past struggles against the Angels.
In the best-case scenario for the Yankees, the Red Sox knock out the Angels in the first round of playoffs to set up another Boston-New York ALCS. And considering the way the Yankees have played Boston since losing the first eight games of the season against them, that would be the ideal situation for the Bombers to reach the World Series for the first time since 2003.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
The Yankees scored more than five runs in every game of the series and allowed more than three just once. This stretch could have turned out differently if not for Robinson Cano, who came through in the 10th inning of game one against Chicago with a walk-off three-run home run, adding to the long list of Yankee walk-off wins this season.
Sergio Mitre was uncharacteristically lights-out in game two, holding the Sox to just one hit and no earned runs in 6.1 innings of work before leaving with a bruised forearm, by far his best outing since joining the Yankees rotation in late July. As great as it was to see Mitre pitch well, just as encouraging was the fact that Chad Gaudin didn't allow a hit over the final 2.2 innings in the 10-0 romp.
Joba Chamberlain had an extra short leash in game three, throwing just 35 pitches in three innings and allowing two earned runs. Alfredo Aceves followed up with three big scoreless innings for the Yankees, who are doing everything they can to protect Joba at this point.
If they aren't going to honestly let him throw more than 40 pitches in a game, why bother starting him? As Derek Jeter said afterwards it's a good thing the team is winning, because if they weren't this would be a much bigger issue.
After Mitre dazzled with his one-hitter against the White Sox, Andy Pettitte tried to one-up him in the opener at Camden Yards. Pettitte took a perfect game into the seventh, where a two-out error by Jerry Hairston Jr. on a routine ground ball to third broke it up. Nick Markakis then slapped a ground ball past Hairston down the left field line to end the no-hitter.
Hairston was only playing because it was Alex Rodriguez's day off for the week, and it's safe to say A-Rod would have made that play. But Pettitte pitched great regardless and moved into third on the Yankees all-time wins list all by his lonesome, passing Lefty Grove.
A.J. Burnett had a much different experience in the second game of the series, allowing 11 hits and six earned runs in five-plus innings. There continue to be communication issues between Burnett and catcher Jorge Posada, but Posada proved why he's behind the plate more often than not with his two home-run, three RBI day.
After getting shelled by Boston and striking out 12 Rangers in six innings in his next outing, Burnett went back to his recent inconsistent ways. With all the uncertainty around Joba's availability right now, the Yankees need to find a way to get Burnett's confidence back. If that means catching Jose Molina and using Posada as a DH to keep his bat in the lineup, so be it. I think this offense can afford being without Hideki Matsui once a week if it helps foster a good outing from Burnett.
While Burnett's recent stretch has many Yankee fans scratching their heads over the money the Yankees threw at him in the off-season, very few are questioning bringing in C.C. Sabathia, who continues to be a horse for New York. He capped the Yankee sweep by allowing just seven hits and one earned run in seven innings with nine strikeouts.
For the fourth straight start, Sabathia walked one batter or less and he hasn't walked more than two batters in a game since the middle of July. He still needs to prove himself in the postseason, but in moving to 16-7 on the season, he has been well worth the Yankees' investment up to this point.
After struggling against a real contender in Texas, the Yankees were able to bounce back against two teams who can't seem to find themselves right now. When they travel to Toronto tonight for a four-game set with the Blue Jays, they will find more of the same.
This time around they won't avoid Roy Halladay, who is slated to start Friday. Halladay has been hittable recently, however, allowing 22 earned runs in 42 August innings. Expect the Yankees to take at least three of four from Toronto heading into next week's series at home against the Rays, which includes a day-night doubleheader on Monday. That series should be a good barometer of where the Yankees stand right now against a legitimate playoff contender.
Harris led the Jets in tackles in his rookie season of 2007 and registered 75 tackles last season in just 11 games. With the addition of middle linebacker Bart Scott and the presence of tackle Kris Jenkins, the Jets look poised to have a very strong inside run defense this season.
Part of the reason the Jets would be silly to trade Harris for Marshall is their weakness on the outside of their front seven. Linebacker Calvin Pace is solid, but will miss the season's first four games for violating the league's performing-enhancing drugs policy. Aging defensive end Shaun Ellis still has some gas in the tank, but he too will miss the season opener due to a substance-abuse suspension.
Former first-round pick Bryan Thomas is an average option at outside linebacker, as is Marques Douglas at defensive end. And without Pace and Ellis for the opener, inexperienced linebacker Vernon Gholston and third-year defensive end Mike DeVito will have to fill in those respective voids.
The Jets are solid in the secondary, but losing Harris would be a huge blow to their run defense, which already could struggle against teams who run well off tackle. This year's team is built on a strong running game and solid defense, and while adding Marshall would help the passing game, that doesn't seem to be a priority for the Jets this year.
Marshall would definitely aid in the development of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, giving him a sure-handed option who has caught 206 balls for 2590 yards in the last two seasons. His 6-4 frame makes him a great target in the red zone, something the Jets lack, and his presence would help them stretch the field and keep defenses from stacking the box to stop the run.
But let's not forget why there is trade talk surrounding Marshall. He hasn't dedicated himself to learning Josh McDaniels' playbook and was recently suspended for the rest of the preseason after noticeably dogging it during a practice. There is also his checkered past with the law, which could give teams pause in meeting the Broncos' demands for Marshall.
Marshall is a great talent, don't get me wrong. But despite a glaring need at wide receiver, trading Harris and most likely a draft pick to get Marshall is not a prudent move for a run-heavy team that made numerous moves to bolster their defense heading into the season.
Even if they acquired Marshall, the Jets would stay a running team while severely subtracting from their interior run defense, which is now a strength. It seems unlikely that Ryan and the Jets would pull the trigger on any deal where they were giving up defense for offense. But that's not for me to know, and we will see if these talks heat up as a result of the Broncos' demands or shut down before they even start.