Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tripodi's Top Teams: Week 17

1(1). New England Patriots (13-2) - The Pats blew out the Bills and that's that. I do nothing but hate on their defense but they've allowed just 64 points in the last five games and 7 or less in three of the five. And their +174 point differential leads the NFL. They're definitely the Super Bowl favorite right now.

2(3). Baltimore Ravens (11-4) - It seems weird to put a team that's likely to make the playoffs as a Wild Card this high, but I think Baltimore is a better team than Pittsburgh and the rest of the AFC contenders. They're probably the team with the best chance to unseat the Pats, as they can play defense and at least keep up offensively. Nobody else in the AFC can.

3(5). New Orleans Saints (11-4) - Despite a couple bad interceptions from Drew Brees, the Saints still managed to go into Atlanta and beat the Falcons. And that gets them a week in front of their division rival, even if they're the second team in my top three that's likely to be a Wild Card.

4(2). Atlanta Falcons (12-3) - It seems harsh to drop Matt Ryan and company two spots after a home loss to a very good Saints team, but Atlanta has beaten just four teams with winning records and their major strength, their ability to win at home, is now in doubt. This team can be beat even with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and that alone is enough reason for a slight drop. I can't see them losing to the Panthers though.

5(7). Pittsburgh Steelers (11-4) - Carolina is terrible, but the Steelers did what they had to and blew them out. Cleveland is all that stands between them, the AFC North title and a first-round bye and with a beat-up Peyton Hillis going up against the league's most feared run defense, I think the Steelers will get their week off.

6(8). Chicago Bears (11-4) - The Bears reach their highest point of the season in the rankings after beating the Jets and if Jay Cutler can continue to rack up the points like he did, this team may be more of a threat to the NFC's top contenders than anybody has given them credit for this season. Beating the Packers would get this team to the playoffs riding high.

7(4). Philadelphia Eagles (10-5) - If not for the best eight minutes of football anybody has seen in recent memory, this team could be 9-6 and out of control of their own destiny, much like the Giants. Instead, they have the NFC East locked up. Vick's presence always gives this team a chance but when he's human like he has been in 112 of the team's last 120 minutes, the Eagles lack the defense and running game to seriously compete with the big boys.

8(6). New York Jets (10-5) - The Jets showed they could put up points on a good defense, which is a positive to take from a close loss. But if they can't go into Chicago and beat the Bears, how are they going to go into New England in round two (possibly) and beat the Pats. This team better hope to avoid Tom Brady if it wants to see another AFC Championship game.

9(10). Green Bay Packers (9-6) - The Packers control their own destiny, but this week's game with the Bears will be far from easy. Even with the Eagles' loss last night clinching a first-round bye for the Bears, they can still grab the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage if Atlanta loses at 1 p.m. (this game is at 4:15 p.m.). The Packers should really be rooting for Atlanta to kill the Bears' incentive.

10(12). Kansas City Chiefs (10-5) - The Chiefs crack the top 10 in my rankings for the first time this season after clinching the AFC West. Kansas City's only wins against teams over .500 this season were against the Chargers and Jags and they haven't played anybody with more than nine wins so far. The Jets will be their biggest test to date and it's tough to figure out how they may respond, even with an undefeated record at home.

11(13). Indianapolis Colts (9-6) - All Indianapolis has to do to make the playoffs is beat a reeling Titans team at home. Peyton Manning is not one to let an opportunity like that slip away.

12(9). New York Giants (9-6) - If the Giants knew how to keep the football on offense they could be a top-five team. But Eli Manning continues to make bad decisions and Ahmad Bradshaw continues to fumble (no I didn't forget about your miscue, Brandon Jacobs). If the Giants don't turn it over they should beat Washington and if Chicago can hold off Green Bay, this team could limp into the playoffs.

13(15). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-6) - The Bucs need a lot of help to make the playoffs, namely a win over New Orleans (who can still clinch the NFC's top seed), a Giants loss and a Packers loss (or ties for those who actually account for that rarity). Too bad I'm predicting a Bucs loss, a Giants win and a Packers win. There's always next year, when Josh Freeman should be even better.

14(11). San Diego Chargers (8-7) - The Chargers, as usual, are nothing but a tease. A team worthy of making the playoffs would've gone into Cincinnati and blown out a team missing its top two receivers. It's painstakingly obvious that this team didn't deserve to get in.

15(14). Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7) - Without David Garrard this week, Jacksonville's hopes rest on the arm of Trent Edwards and the hope that Tennessee can upset the Colts. Talk about your slim chances.

16(19). St Louis Rams (7-8) - The four teams above them in the rankings are likely out, but the Rams can get in with 8 wins. Life is unfair sometimes and if Charlie Whitehurst is under center for the Seahawks on Sunday night, it will feel unfair for Seattle fans. Sam Bradford looks likely to make it three straight seasons in which a rookie quarterback has led his team to the playoffs. Good luck winning a game though.

17(16). Oakland Raiders (7-8) - At least the Raiders aren't a total disaster! Jacoby Ford is a playmaker week in and week out and once this team finds a franchise quarterback, they may compete in the AFC West. JaMarcus Russell has seriously set this franchise back.

18(17). Miami Dolphins (7-8) - Chad Henne's chokejob pretty much assures me that this team will be looking to take a quarterback in the first round. Whoever they draft will have a decent stable of receivers to throw to and a solid defense. But what has happened to this team's running game?

19(NR). Minnesota Vikings (6-9)
- Minnesota shocked the world beating the Eagles on Tuesday night and while Joe Webb may not be the answer for them at quarterback, he's one heck of an athlete and looks like a potential playmaker if they move him to receiver. This is another team that will take a serious look at guys like Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker and Cam Newton in the middle of round one.

20(NR). Washington Redskins (6-9) - The Redskins have shown signs of life under Rex Grossman and Donovan McNabb is all but cut in the offseason. The team claims to want him back as a backup, but not at the price they just signed him for. And I highly doubt McNabb wants to be in Washington after the past few weeks. This is the third straight team in my rankings that will be taking a hard look at the triumvirate of mid-first round quarterbacks.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Jets back in, Giants back out?

This just in: A strong-armed quarterback plus two of the league's fastest receivers beats man coverage. At least that's what the Bears were able to do against the Jets on Sunday.

The Jets pressured Jay Cutler into an early pick-six but from then on it was all Cutler to Johnny Knox and Devin Hester, who consistently got downfield behind the Jets secondary for three touchdowns (2 from Knox, 1 from Hester). Few people expected a shootout between two teams with good defenses and the potential to struggle offensively, but based on the matchups it shouldn't have been too surprising.

I discussed why the Bears were able to rack up the points (not to mention Matt Forte had a field day on the ground) but Chicago's defense generally allows teams to throw downfield, something Jets fans know is a better fit for Mark Sanchez than a team that only allows the underneath stuff. Even with a supposedly sore shoulder, Sanchez had one of his better games of the season (24-37, 269 yards, TD, INT) and was an impressive 13-for-15 in the first half.

That interception was a killer though, as it shut down a potential game-winning drive from the Jets. Sanchez was unable to recognize the Bears' Cover 3 and his pump fake did nothing to freeze safety Chris Harris, who jumped in front of Santonio Holmes to seal the game. If Harris isn't there, the Jets take a 41-38 lead and might have clinched a playoff spot themselves.

Instead, they had to rely on a Redskins victory over the Jaguars to get in by default. And while that should allow the Jets to rest guys like the aging LaDainian Tomlinson and possibly the injured Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes, I'm sure Rex Ryan and company would rather have gotten in with a win.

Speaking of Ryan, a questionable coaching move probably cost the Jets the game. A fake punt on fourth-and-three from his own 40 resulted in a dropped pass and a Bears touchdown on the next play, while kicking to Devin Hester on the next possession led to a 38-yard return and a 25-yard touchdown to Hester a few plays later.

But the Jets are in and that's really all that matters. The AFC playoffs are set except for the AFC South, but the Colts are in complete control there after Jacksonville's second straight loss. The Giants, on the other hand, need lots of help after their turnover-filled 45-17 loss to Green Bay.

Four Eli Manning interceptions proved that he really does miss Steve Smith and a fumble each from Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs doomed the Giants against Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 404 yards and 4 touchdowns to put Green Bay in the driver's seat for the final Wild Card spot.

There really isn't too much more to say about that game, but possibilities still exist for the Giants to make the playoffs. If they beat the Redskins and the Packers lose to the Bears, they're in. If they win and the Saints lose to the Falcons tonight and the Bucs next week, they're in.

Right now New Orleans (even with a loss tonight) and Green Bay control their own Wild Card destinies. But both have tough matchups next weekend, much tougher than New York's. It's not all over just yet for the Giants and all they really need to do to beat a Rex Grossman-led Washington team is limit turnovers. Take care of the football and your talent will win out. Too bad it may not be enough for the team that many considered the league's best after a 6-2 start.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tripodi's Top Teams: Week 16

1(1). New England Patriots (12-2) - The Pats won a surprisingly close game against Matt Flynn and the Packers that came down to the final seconds. If Aaron Rodgers is handling the ball in the final minute rather than Flynn, there's a good chance the Packers get into the endzone and analysts are questioning the Patriots' defense. I'm still skeptical this defense is good enough to beat three good teams in a row in the playoffs, but the Pats have taken out the Jets, Bears and Packers in their last three games.

2(2). Atlanta Falcons (12-2) - The Falcons' win over Seattle couple with the Saints' loss to Baltimore all but assures Atlanta the NFC South title, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But a loss this week in Atlanta would make Week 17 important for the division and playoff positioning.

3(5). Baltimore Ravens (10-4) - Ray Rice had his first huge game of the season and it couldn't have come at a better time for the Ravens, who needed all the offense they could find to outscore the Saints. And their major theme of the season, an inability to close out games, was not an issue in this one. The Ravens have winnable division games remaining but need to finish ahead of Pittsburgh to win the NFC North.

4(6). Philadelphia Eagles (10-4) - What a comeback by Michael Vick and the Eagles against the Giants on Sunday. Yes, New York did everything they could in the final eight minutes to give that game away but Vick's dual-threat ability was on display in the fourth quarter as the Eagles chewed up yardage quickly. All Philadelphia needs to do to clinch the NFC East is beat Minnesota and Dallas, two teams with backup quarterbacks playing.

5(3). New Orleans Saints (10-4) - Despite one of the catches of the year from Lance Moore, the Saints just didn't have enough to beat the Ravens on the road. They need to beat Atlanta this week to keep their division-title hopes alive but the way Matt Ryan and the Falcons play at home, that won't be an easy task.

6(8). New York Jets (10-4) - Surprise of the week? Even I didn't expect the Jets to be able to protect the ball and put enough points on the board in Pittsburgh, but they did. It helps to see Troy Polamalu on the sideline but this win is a definite confidence booster for Mark Sanchez and the Jets, who go to Chicago next week hoping for a letdown from the Bears, who were the first team to clinch their division this season.

7(4). Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) - There were definitely more offensive touchdowns than I expected in this game; there were even more special-teams touchdowns than I expected from either offense. The Steelers had a chance late and impressed with multiple drives of 80-plus yards but they lost the field position battle and couldn't create any turnovers. Carolina and Cleveland are winnable late-season games and Pittsburgh still controls its own destiny in the AFC North.

8(10). Chicago Bears (10-4) - Chicago beat down Minnesota on Monday night and became the first team to clinch their division this season. This week it's the battle of teams that got murdered by the Patriots recently as the Jets come to town and the Bears will need to avoid a letdown and bring the heat on defense early to rattle Mark Sanchez.

9(7). New York Giants (9-5) - I said a big game from Eli Manning would make me believe in this team more and even though they lost, this team showed they can make some noise in the playoffs. They kept Michael Vick in check for 52 minutes, but he showed that 8 minutes is plenty for him to score four times. And the fact that Matt Dodge still has his job is shocking to me.

10(9). Green Bay Packers (8-6) - Matt Flynn showed that he could play some football, but Green Bay fans have to wonder if Aaron Rodgers' injury is going to cost them a shot at the playoffs. They're currently a game back of the Giants, who they play this week with Rodgers likely returning before hosting Chicago at home in Week 17. It will be tough, but Green Bay can still get into the NFC playoffs.

11(13). San Diego Chargers (8-6) - Vincent Jackson earned a big off-season payday with his 112-yard, 3-touchdown performance on Thursday night with both Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd out with injuries. If the Chargers can beat the Bengals and Broncos and get help from either the Titans or Raiders in beating the Chiefs, this team can be dangerous in the playoffs if Floyd and Gates return healthy.

12(14). Kansas City Chiefs (9-5) - The Chiefs got Matt Cassel back this week and while the competition wasn't quite as tough as it was the week before, they took care of business against the division-leading Rams (that's a pathetic statement). They just have to win out to get in but in doing so, they will have to avenge an earlier loss to Oakland and stop Chris Johnson. Crazier things have happened.

13(15). Indianapolis Colts (8-6) - The Colts took back control of the AFC South with a win over the Jaguars and once again look like a team headed for the playoffs. Only two of their six losses this season have come against teams at .500 or worse which is right where their next two opponents, Oakland and Tennessee, fall in the standings. The Colts control their own destiny, but this defense is questionable at best and could be their late-season undoing.

14(11). Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) - The Colts actually shut down the Jaguars running game, which is the major reason Jacksonville is now looking up at Indianapolis in the division. Winning out might not even be enough for Jacksonville at this point, but the Colts are vulnerable enough to lose a game or two to finish the year.

15(12). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6) - Tampa Bay finally lost to a bad team and it was a killer to their playoff chances. Rather than being tied for the sixth seed with the Giants, they are now a game back with Green Bay and need to win out and get help. With a Week 17 matchup against New Orleans, this team seems likely to watch the NFL's second season from home.

16(17). Oakland Raiders (7-7) - The Raiders have now alternated wins in their past four games, so expect a loss against Indianapolis this week after Oakland beat down the broken Broncos. If only it were that simple...

17(16). Miami Dolphins (7-7) - With their playoff hopes now dashed after a loss to the Bills, the real question for the Dolphins becomes what to do with their mid-first round pick. To draft Jake Locker, Ryan Mallett or Cam Newton or to roll with Chad Henne, that is the question on Miami fan's minds right now.

18(NR). Tennessee Titans (6-8) - Seems like these last three spots are filled with garbage every week and Week 16 is no different. The Titans smashed the Texans to replace them in the rankings, but this is another team with lots of off-season questions looming. What to do with Vince Young will be at the top of the list.

19(18). St Louis Rams (6-8) - If it wasn't for a St. Louis-Seattle Week 17 matchup where somebody has to win (right?), this division could actually be won with a 6-10 record. As it is 8-8 will take it but most likely, there will be a 7-9 team representing the NFL in the playoffs. I'm rooting for Sam Bradford and the Rams and they control their own destiny, with games against the 49ers and the Seahawks left.

20(19). Seattle Seahawks (6-8) - Seattle has the toughest Week 16 matchup of the NFC West contender, facing a solid Bucs team. If the Seahawks lose and the 49ers beat the Rams there will be a three-way tie at 6-9 for first place and the 49ers will control their own destiny. Maybe an 0-5 start is no longer a death sentence after all?

Monday, December 20, 2010

From 0-8 to 4-10: A Buffalo Bills story

Anybody who follows the Bills knows they weren't going winless all season. Out of their first eight games, two went to overtime and three others were decided by one possession. They aren't a good football team but they fight every week and that alone will get you wins in the NFL, especially later in the season.

They still haven't beaten a team currently over .500 although Miami was 7-6 before Sunday's game, so you can say that stat is false if you want. But we all know Miami isn't good, which is part of the reason people think the Jets aren't good after their Week 14 loss to the Dolphins. But does this mean the Bills are better than the Jets?

No, that's a blasphemous statement. You can use similar opponents to compare any teams in the NFL and you may find an argument that every team is better than every other. The Browns beat the Patriots a few weeks ago; are they better than New England? The Jets beat the Browns who beat Patriots; are they better than New England?

I could go on all day, but the fact is that any professional football team can beat any other on any given Sunday. The odds may be low, but they are never impossible. And the way Ryan Fitzpatrick has played this season, the Bills can be competitive with anybody.

Fitzpatrick won't amaze you with his athleticism or his arm strength, but he's a heady quarterback (and not just because he went to Harvard). The guy just has a feel for the timing of playing quarterback in the NFL. He knows he can't rifle balls into small spaces or into perfect coverage but, much like Chad Pennington used to, he gets rid of the ball that second or two sooner so the ball is right on his receiver when it needs to be.

Fitzpatrick also reminds me of Jon Kitna; a player who has started in the league before but is better served being one of the NFL's best backups. Fitzpatrick's play this season has given him at least a career as a backup and one who can lead a talented team almost as well as its starter. Just look what he's done with the likes of Stevie Johnson, Lee Evans and David Nelson at receiver.

The Bills have a lot of holes along their offensive and defensive lines and elsewhere defensively. Many Buffalo fans are pushing hard for Andrew Luck but even if Luck comes out, I'm not sure he's the Bills' best option. With their current winning ways they may be pushing themselves out of the Luck sweepstakes anyway, which may allow them to fill other needs in the offseason.

The Bills are near the bottom of the league in both sacks and turnovers and they have been gashed on the ground this season. Despite allowing just 28 sacks, their much-maligned offensive line has struggled to open holes consistently in the running game.

Assuming the Bills still end up close to a top-five pick, there are a few impact players that could help them. They could always take Luck if he falls that far but if not, they need a shutdown corner: Nebraska's Prince Amukamara and LSU's Patrick Peterson fit the bill.

They also need help along the defensive line, particularly a pass rusher: North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Alabama's Marcell Darius, Ohio State's Cameron Heyward and Auburn's Nick Fairley are all potential top-10 picks. All of those named except Darius can get after the quarterback and although Darius did have 6 sacks this season he would be more of an asset against the run, something the Bills also need to worry about.

The Bills could also consider a player like Georgia's A.J. Green at the 6th or 7th pick. Green is a stud receiving prospect and while Stevie Johnson is enjoying a breakout season, the jury is out on whether he's a legitimate number-one target.

Buffalo has a few options at the top of this draft and I think most of them are better than Andrew Luck (or Arkansas' Ryan Mallett if Luck is gone). It wouldn't be a mistake to draft him because I don't think Fitzpatrick is a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback, but he's good enough with pieces around him that the team won't be a disaster. And they have much bigger holes to fill.

If the Bills don't go defensive line or cornerback in April's draft I will be surprised. But it's December when I'm writing this and we know how much a player's draft stock can rise/fall in the offseason. It should be interesting to see what other players get themselves into the top 10 mix in a few months and who the Bills look to target.

Jets hold on for key win in Pittsburgh

In the NFL you are only as good as your last game, which means that Jets were one of the league's worst teams heading into Pittsburgh despite their 9-4 record. Their offense hadn't scored a touchdown since November and they were about to face one of the league's best defenses, albeit without star safety Troy Polamalu.

Do I think this game might have a different outcome if Polamalu was healthy? Polamalu is probably the best safety in the NFL and an absolute game-changer, so this game could have easily gone a different way with him in the lineup. But the Jets beat their opponents that were actually on the field and that is really all that matters.

When Brad Smith took back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, I thought the Jets were in good shape. I actually came into the game saying the first team to score a touchdown would probably win, considering the Steelers have been far from spectacular on offense this season as well.

The Jets were able to rush for 106 yards against Pittsburgh, the highest total of any team this season. This performance came on the heels of losing tackle Damien Woody for the season, a loss that many including myself thought the Jets couldn't afford.

Mark Sanchez took care of the football and was an efficient 19-for-29 passing, taking advantage of his receivers' newfound ability to catch the football, namely Braylon Edwards. And while the Jets defense allowed almost 400 yards they bent but didn't break for most of the game, with half of those yards coming on two 90-plus-yard drives from the Steelers which resulted in only 7 points (the last one ended as time ran out deep in Jets territory).

As a Jets fan who is used to the failings of this team over the years, I was skeptical heading into this week. I thought the Steelers defense would be Sanchez's undoing, but the kid hung in the pocket and made some difficult throws into tight spaces in big situations. And that play fake on the fourth-and-one bootleg that turned into a touchdown really showed one of Sanchez's biggest strengths: ball fakes.

Sanchez can run play-action and pump fake with the NFL's elite at the quarterback position and it was proven once again that the Jets can beat a playoff team on the road with him at the helm as long he stays efficient and doesn't get careless with the football. I'm much more confident in this team heading into Chicago this weekend than I was a few days ago.

After bad losses to New England and Miami, I thought the Jets were destined for a Week 17 showdown with Buffalo (who just beat Miami) that would determine their playoff status. Now they can clinch a spot with a win and while they won't win the division, their 6-1 road record bodes well for their chances against either Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City or San Diego.

We've all seen Sanchez have his issues in cold-weather games and luckily for him, all of those teams besides the Chiefs play in domes or warm climates. Traveling to New England, Pittsburgh or Baltimore for a second-round game will be a challenge, but once you get to that point anything can happen. After all, nobody gave the Jets a chance in a cold-weather game on the road this week and all they did was beat the likely #2 seed in the AFC.

Vick comes back in spectacular fashion as Giants fold late

I would've been sitting pretty as a Giants fan, up 31-10 with about eight minutes to play. There is only one quarterback who could have engineered an Eagles comeback yesterday and it just happens to be the man who was under center for Philadelphia.

Using his arm, legs and some poor Giants coaching and execution to his advantage, Michael Vick single-handedly brought the Eagles back from a sure loss to win in regulation thanks to Matt Dodge failing to kick away from DeSean Jackson. But he had other help too.

Brent Celek made an appearance catching a beautiful deep ball from Vick, but Kenny Phillips whiffed on the ball instead of playing to make the tackle and allowed Celek to tack on another 30 yards and a touchdown and with time being the one major factor playing against the Eagles, they scored in two plays.

Vick would scramble three times for 20-plus yards over the next two drives, running one in himself from four yards out and hitting Jeremy Maclin on a short curl for a touchdown. Where Terrell Thomas was playing Maclin nobody will ever know, as he was on the goalline with Maclin at the five, allowing him to catch and make an unbeatable move to the inside to clear a path to the endzone. You can't give a player as quick as Maclin that much room and give yourself a chance.

Just when you figure the game is going to overtime, the Giants were stopped on their next drive and had to punt with 14 seconds left. Rookie punter Matt Dodge, instructed by coach Tom Coughlin to kick out of bounds, didn't and Jackson made the Giants pay.

Jackson bobbled the punt, which was probably the best thing he could have done. The Giants coverage team lost their lanes and Jackson used the best acceleration I've seen in the NFL in a long time to break free and sprint down the sidelines almost untouched for the winning touchdown as time expired.

All the positive things the Giants were about to take from their big divisional win went out the window. It doesn't matter that they held Vick to 21 passing yards in the first half. Or that Eli Manning threw 4 touchdowns and looked comfortable even without Steve Smith. The Eagles magic number is now down to one thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker; one Philadelphia win and one New York loss and the Giants only path to the playoff is through the Wild Card and a guaranteed first-round road game.

The Giants outplayed the Eagles badly for over 50 minutes, but the Eagles have the league's best quick-strike offense thanks to Vick, who added to his MVP candidacy in leading this comeback. Speaking of Vick, it's time to look at what this man has done.

From a lazy player who took his immense talent for granted to sitting in jail not knowing when or if he would play again to using a Kevin Kolb injury to propel himself back into the spotlight, it sure has been a journey for Michael Vick. And while I am a dog lover I'm also a firm believer in second chances and I've been all about Vick's from the start.

To paraphrase something I heard Vick say earlier this week, he wants a dog himself as part of the "rehabilitation process." Vick wants to be a role model for kids but he understands his path and how people can learn from it. He wants to be looked up to as somebody who "rose to the top, failed dramatically, then rose again."

This is a contrite man who knows he made a huge mistake and that quote shows he recognizes this. Am I forgiving his! What he did was terrible and it will always be in the back of my mind whenever I watch him play. But what will be at the forefront of my mind at the same time is the beauty of watching what happens when once-in-a-lifetime talent meets work ethic and that was on display yesterday.

We all make mistakes, some on a larger scale than others. And since being put in jail, Vick has done everything he was supposed to. He lost all of his money, did his time and returned to the league humbled and ready to prove he could still play. He has been a model citizen and until that changes, I will continue to root for the man and his second chance.

And I will also continue to root for an Eagles-Falcons NFC Championship game. The owner and team that Vick essentially screwed versus the player and person they thought they were drafted nine years ago. This saga has honestly turned from a terrible story into one of redemption. And wouldn't beating Atlanta to get to the Super Bowl be the ultimate redemption?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Moral victories are for minor league cultures

Over the past decade, Knicks fans have put up with terrible basketball. Terrible, terrible basketball. So I can understand why fans are extremely excited about last night's loss against the Celtics because I am an extent.

It was the 1990s the last time there was a game of this relevance at Madison Square Garden. The World's Most Famous Arena, a place that used to be the mecca of professional basketball, had lost its luster. But for anyone who watched or attended last night's game, that playoff atmosphere that transcended the Garden throughout the 90s is back in a big way.

The Knicks looked great. They led for most of the game against arguably the NBA's best team. Every time Boston tried to inch closer in the fourth quarter, the Knicks had an answer on the offensive end. It was great to watch the Knicks be competitive once again with the league's elite.

But that's where it ends. Last night was an exception and I will allow it. After a decade of pathetic failure on the court, the Knicks gave their fans something to be excited about. And that is a big deal in itself.

Now that we know the Knicks can play with anybody in the league, please refer back to the title of this post. "Good game" is no longer good enough. You want to bang around with the big boys? Then there's no such thing as a moral victory, you have to win the game. Period.

By no means am I trying to take anything away from the Knicks' performance last night. They suffered a few late defensive lapses that left one of the all-time great shooters open and they couldn't close out the Celtics. But not many teams have since Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo joined Paul Pierce in Boston.

Speaking of Pierce, I hate him so much. So much. His game-winner was awesome to watch, as long as you're not a Knicks fan. And stepping in to prevent Amar'e Stoudemire from dunking home the go-ahead basket gave Pierce the chance to play hero on the next possession. He's a great player but even he might have to admit that the "rivalry" status of Knicks-Celtics is on the precipice of existence once again.

The Knicks can take a lot of positives out of this performance but hopefully those good feelings don't last long. They still lost the game and their eight-game win streak in the process and they come back tomorrow night to play LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The same LeBron James who spurned coming to New York in favor of Miami.

How great would it be to watch the Knicks end the Heat's current 10-game win streak? It's actually the only acceptable outcome in my mind. This is a team that should be motivated for many reasons: meaningful home game, coming off a tough loss and facing a player who didn't want to play for them, despite all the potential benefits.

So no, a buzzer-beating loss to the Heat won't resonate the same good feelings Knicks fans have right now. This is no longer a minor league basketball culture in New York and there are NO MORAL VICTORIES. Win the game or be disappointed. It sounds harsh, but I doubt the Knicks would have it any other way.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tripodi's Top Teams: Week 15

1(2). New England Patriots (11-2) - Two straight blowouts of 9-4 football teams, including one on the road, get you the top spot in the rankings. Tom Brady shredded the Jets and Bears for 81 points in the last two weeks and gets another good defense this week in Green Bay. But if Aaron Rodgers can't play, the game is already over.

2(1). Atlanta Falcons (11-2) - It's hard to punish a team that comes out and punishes a bad opponent like the Falcons did to Carolina, but the way the Pats are playing right now it's very difficult to keep them off the top of the heap. Atlanta is still the NFC's best and while the Saints are still a threat to take the top seed from the Falcons, they have to travel to Baltimore and then to Atlanta in the next two weeks. I doubt Falcons-Saints on Monday night will be as bad to watch as Patriots-Jets was.

3(4). New Orleans Saints (10-3) - Make that six straight for the streaking Saints, who proved that whoever wins the NFC West has no chance in the playoffs. With road matchups against Baltimore and Atlanta on tap, Drew Brees will need to make sure he's at the top of his game along with their defense, which is making big plays again. These rankings could look much different in two weeks, just like they were two weeks ago.

4(3). Pittsburgh Steelers (10-3) - Good thing the Steelers have a great defense, because they can't do anything on offense right now. And against the Bengals? Whatever the over-under on their game with the Jets this weekend is I'm taking the under; these teams will be lucky to score an offensive touchdown against each other.

5(5). Baltimore Ravens (9-4) - This team has trouble closing out games and that will come back to haunt them in the playoffs. The combination of not having a workhorse running back (I love Ray Rice, but he's no closer) and struggling in pass defense means that this team will likely continue to struggle salting away leads in the second half. Drew Brees knows all about late-game comebacks, so this game looks dangerous for the Ravens even at home.

6(9). Philadelphia Eagles (9-4) - The Eagles held on against Dallas, who has been playing good football under Jason Garrett. Unlike the Ravens, this team can close games because LeSean McCoy is extremely underrated as a runner. Everybody knows what he can do catching passes out of the backfield, but if he can run like he did towards the end of last week's game the Eagles will be a tough out.

7(10). New York Giants (9-4) - Hakeem Nicks came back healthy as the Giants beat up on Minnesota but with Steve Smith now out for the season with a knee injury, Eli Manning will be without his most trusted third-down target. I hate to say it but without Smith I don't think this team can win a Super Bowl. A big game from Manning against Philadelphia this week would start to change my mind, if only a little.

8(6). New York Jets (9-4) - Miami has a good defense but they aren't THAT good. The Jets are just that bad on offense. It doesn't get any easier this week without Damien Woody (out for the year) and facing a Steelers defense that turns turnovers into points instantly. The Jets defense needs to come to play again against a Steelers offense that is struggling as bad as theirs right now.

9(7). Green Bay Packers (8-5) - The loss hurts, yes, but Aaron Rodgers' concussion is of much more concern to this team, especially heading into a huge game with New England. If Rodgers can play I expect a shootout but if he can't, the Packers defense is going to have to do what the Jets and Bears couldn't: slow down Tom Brady. Tough task.

10(8). Chicago Bears (9-4) - Last week it was the Jets, this week it's the Bears. Teams that think they have a shot at contending with the best getting rolled by the best. The Jets lost on the road, but the Bears got destroyed at home in weather you would expect them to be used to. The Jets followed up their blowout loss by losing to an average team; the Bears would be well-served not to let that happen in Minnesota.

11(12). Jacksonville Jaguars (8-5) - Jacksonville got gashed by Darren McFadden but won a high-scoring game. The Colts don't have the running game to beat the Jags defense but Peyton Manning should have no issue throwing against them. A win this week would clinch the division for the Jaguars and to do that, they're going to have to score points like they did against Oakland. Luckily for them they have Maurice Jones-Drew and the Colts can't stop anybody on the ground.

12(13). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-5) - Tampa Bay beat another bad team, what a surprise. They are tied with Green Bay for 7th place in the NFC but the Packers are limping to the finish line. If the Bucs beat Detroit they will be tied with either the Eagles or Giants for the last Wild Card spot and they finish with Seattle and New Orleans. I'm not sure 10-6 gets them into the playoffs but I expect them to be sitting at 10-5 going to New Orleans in Week 17 with a chance at 11 wins and an almost-guaranteed spot. That would be a great time for their first win this season against a winning team.

13(15). San Diego Chargers (7-6) - The Chargers were a little lucky the Chiefs had to start Brodie Croyle, who is now 0-10 in his career as a starter. The health of Antonio Gates is worrisome and while Philip Rivers has plenty of other weapons, a healthy Gates would make a huge difference. They might have to get to the playoffs without the league's best tight end and if they do, he will likely tough it out for the games that matter. They still need help to overtake the Chiefs, though.

14(11). Kansas City Chiefs (8-5) - That was an ugly loss without their starting quarterback, but Matt Cassel should be back under center this week after his mid-week appendectomy. The Chiefs just need to beat sub-.500 St. Louis, Tennessee and Oakland to make the playoffs but they can't afford to slip up with the Chargers hot on their tail.

15(16). Indianapolis Colts (7-6) - Peyton Manning got back on track this week against Tennessee, picking on rookie Alterraun Verner all day. He will need to pick on the Jags secondary this week if the Colts have any chance at the playoffs, as a loss means they need to grab a Wild Card berth at 9-7 and nobody is making the playoffs in the AFC this year with less than 10 wins.

16(17). Miami Dolphins (7-6) - I'm not sure if that win says more about Miami or the Jets. Miami is awful on offense but took advantage of turnovers and field position to put 10 points on the board. We learned the Dolphins aren't very good but there was no real doubting that; we also learned the Jets should probably be a 7-6 football team right now too. If Miami wins their next two against the Bills and Lions, they may be visiting New England in Week 17 with a Wild Card berth on the line if the Jets keep slipping,

17(14). Oakland Raiders (6-7) - This team is extremely inconsistent; one week the defense shuts down a good Chargers offense and the next week, they allow 38 points to the Jaguars. Any realistic shot at the division or the playoffs is now gone and this team will just be playing out the string. A strong finish should lend hope for next year considering their division.

18(18). St Louis Rams (6-7) - Someone has to win this division and be a sacrificial lamb in the first round of the playoffs, might as well be the team led by a rookie quarterback. Bradford showed his youth against the Saints opportunistic defense this week and their Week 17 showdown with the Seahawks could decide the division. Don't rule out the 5-8 49ers either.

19(19). Seattle Seahawks (6-7) - Seattle got torn to shreds by Alex Smith this week. Does that mean Smith is finally ready to realize his potential as an NFL starter or does it mean Seattle is terrible? I lean towards the second part of that statement, but sadly they may represent the NFL in the playoffs this season. It's hard to predict which awful team will win this division.

20(20). Houston Texans (5-8) - Houston mounted one of the better prime-time comebacks in recent history only to falter at the end when Matt Schaub threw a ball into the hands of Josh Wilson, who took it to the house to end overtime. This was a second straight game effort by the Texans against a good football team, but this team still cannot win when it matters in crunchtime. And a lot of that is on Schaub. Stats look great, but wins look better.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Giants ride the ground game to dispose of Vikings

So this is what "ground and pound" is supposed to look like, huh? (take notes Brian Schottenheimer) That's two straight weeks where both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw have rushed for over 100 yards, this time against the Williams Wall and a top-five run defense.

The Giants run game is jelling at the right time, especially considering their struggles in the passing game. Hakeem Nicks returned this week with a solid 7-catch, 96-yard line but Steve Smith struggled in his first action since Week 9, catching just one pass for 12 yards before leaving with a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter.

It's obvious that Smith is essential to the success of Eli Manning, who is still burdened by poor throws and poor decision-making. Since the start of last season, Smith has served as Manning's Mr. Reliable and without him, Manning really does look lost at times. Nicks' healthy return gives him a big-play threat, but not a sure-handed guy he can trust on third down. That's Smith.

There were questions heading into this game about whether New York was rushing their receivers back and in Smith's case, maybe they did. Obviously a hamstring injury has no correlation to his previous chest injury, but his availability for the Giants' most important game of the season to date, this week against Philadelphia, is now up in the air. If he was rested this week, he'd be ready for sure. But hindsight is 20-20.

The Giants defense rendered the Vikings offense essentially useless with Brett Favre breaking his streak of 297 consecutive starts. Tarvaris Jackson looksed lost on every play and without much of a passing threat, Adrian Peterson had no holes to run through against the Giants defensive front. Minnesota had just 164 total yards for the game.

As for what to expect against the Eagles, I see no reason why the Giants won't continue to pound the run successfully. They had just 61 yards on 19 carries the last time these two teams played and you can be sure they will make a point to establish the run early, especially if Smith can't go. The Eagles have a good run defense but it's no better than Minnesota's and the Giants are coming off of two straight 200-plus-yard weeks on the ground.

If the Giants come out running the ball well and can keep Michael Vick off the field, I like their chances at home. They contained Vick in the last meeting; his 34 rushing yards were his second-fewest since his return from injury and he didn't pass for a touchdown.

It's a tall task to ask this defense, no matter how good it is, to contain Vick once again but if they do, there's no reason to think they can't win this game and pull ahead in the NFC East with two games left. Keep Vick in check, establish a strong rushing attack and limit turnovers (looking at you, Eli) and the Giants should come out with a win. But if they only do one or two of those things, I think Philly has a great chance to sweep the season series and essentially clinch the NFC East.

Cliff Lee to the Phillies? Does baseball need a cap?

Now before I go any further, let me reiterate a simple fact that people who know me know to be true. I am a Yankees fan, but I am probably the least front-running, most realistic Yankees fan you will find. I have been in favor of a salary cap in baseball for years now; I personally hate how the Yankees consistently buy all the best players. It's embarrassing for the game and for fans.

I have always been a believer in building through the farm system with good scouting and home-grown stars, while using free agency to add valuable role players at positions of need. Take the Yankees of the mid-1990s, who were full of home-grown players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams.

The players they signed in free agency weren't the A-Rod's of the world. They were solid professionals like Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez. And all of these guys performed in the playoffs when the lights shined the brightest. Was it the lack of pressure having a huge contract and being a highly-publicized star in New York? Or is it that you don't need to be a superstar to perform consistently when your team needs you? Either way, this is how I would build my baseball team (and probably why I'm not a GM).

The moment New York started buying players is when they stopped winning titles every season or two. There's a little thing called chemistry in sports, just ask the Miami Heat. Baseball has needed a salary cap for years now and while it likely won't happen anytime soon, please don't say I'm a whiny Yankees fan who's just pissed the Red Sox got Carl Crawford, the Phillies got Cliff Lee and the Yankees got nobody...oh nevermind, they got RUSSELL MARTIN!

Baseball needs a cap because now there is about an 80 percent chance the Phillies and Red Sox will be playing in the World Series. I say only 80 percent because things don't always happen like they should on paper, but looking at both teams it's hard to see how they don't meet.

The Phillies now have four number-one starters. Lee will combine with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels to form possibly the best foursome of starting pitchers EVER ASSEMBLED. The Red Sox have added the big power bat they needed to replace the diminishing production of David Ortiz along with arguably the game's best outfielder to a position (left field) that they got nothing out of last season.

My bold player prediction for this season is that Adrian Gonzalez leads the league in home runs. Moving from a pitcher's park in San Diego to a bandbox in Boston has to add 10-15 bombs to his bat, at the least. And Boston's pitching, while nowhere near Philadelphia's, is pretty good with Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and a likely rebound from Josh Beckett. I hate Dice-K, but he's an okay fourth starter.

Despite not making the playoffs last season, the Red Sox look fine. The Twins are too small market to improve much from year-to-year, the Rangers and Yankees both missed out on Lee, a player they each desperately needed, and Crawford's swap from Tampa Bay to Boston leaves the Rays in disarray.

As for the NL, the Giants may still be able to compete with the Phillies but that's about it. And only because they have a great young pitching staff with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Jonathan Sanchez that can at least attempt to rival Philadelphia's. Forget that their lineup is probably too weak for another World Series run.

So in the end, the Red Sox and Phillies end up the big winners from baseball's winter meetings and free agency. Usually it's the Yankees, and usually they end up losing at some point. Maybe the year New York misses out on all the big free agents will be the year they win it all again? Maybe, but I'm not hanging my hat on it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sanchez struggles in second straight setback

Anybody who knows me knows I like Mark Sanchez. I think the kid has a lot of potential, but lately even I have been questioning when and if he's ever going to realize it.

Over the past two weeks Sanchez has been downright awful, struggling with confidence, poor decision-making (4 interceptions), severe inaccuracy (34-for-77 just won't cut it) and an inability to hang onto the football (4 fumbles this week!). When you discuss the league's top quarterbacks, what are the four traits that come to mind? They are supremely confident and even cocky, make good decisions with the football, put passes right where they need to be and protect the ball against pressure in the pocket.

My defense for Sanchez's detractors has been this: He started just one season in college and was instantly thrust into an NFL starting role, mainly because the Jets had nobody better on their roster. Sam Bradford was thrown into a similar situation this season with less to work with, albeit after starting for three years in college, yet Bradford has already enjoyed more success and looks like a better NFL quarterback than Sanchez.

Bradford was put into a no-pressure situation, while the Jets had playoff expectations. Sanchez almost killed those expectations last season before calming down in the playoffs and leading the Jets to two wins. This year he looked to be making strides, leading multiple fourth-quarter comebacks and bailing out his defense after they saved him so many times last season.

But the last two games have been atrocious to say the least. Sanchez is locking onto receivers and refusing to go through his progressions; just look at his interception early in the second half last week where he made the pre-snap decision to throw to Santonio Holmes and didn't adjust when Holmes was covered by four Patriots. The post-progression regression is on and as an NFL quarterback you need to improve every week and not ride the roller coaster, as Sanchez himself said.

Opposing defenders have dropped as many interceptions in the past two games as they've caught, as Sanchez could easily have 7-8 interceptions rather than 4. And while he has proven time and time again his ability to improvise inside and outside of the pocket, that's not the trait that's going to make him even an average NFL starter.

His offensive line and running game have done him no favors, as LaDainian Tomlinson is slowing down and Shonn Greene looks plodding and just falls into the line. It's painfully obvious that this team misses veteran Alan Faneca, who they inexplicably released before the season started. Second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse is far from ready and Matthew Slauson is a backup. Add an aging right side and injuries and this whole offense is struggling.

Is it just Sanchez? No, it's not, but everything starts with the quarterback and his blatant lack of confidence seems to seep through to everybody else. His receivers have been dropping key passes left and right; maybe they're surprised when the ball hits them in the hands?

Either way, if the Jets don't pick it up right away on that side of the ball (the defense did what they had to against a bad offense), they will be staring 9-6 in the face after dates with Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Sanchez has struggled with cold weather and pressure, two things that he will see plenty of going on the road against the Steelers and Bears. I don't see the Jets being able to run the ball particularly well either and Pittsburgh and Chicago defenders must be salivating at the chance to play this team and get after Sanchez.

If his struggles continue, we could see Mark Brunell under center at some point like we almost did this week. Week 17 against Buffalo is looking more and more like a must-win, as it's hard to have any confidence in this team's ability to score points right now. Really, really hard.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Amar'e leads Knicks to sixth straight win

It's hard not to throw Amar'e Stoudemire's name in the hat when it comes to early-season MVP candidates. He has six straight games with 30+ points and has been clutch when it counts for the Knicks.

Last night against Toronto was no different. Stoudemire entered the fourth quarter with 16 points on the night and when all was said and done, he had 34. The Knicks never trailed in the fourth quarter and every time Toronto tried to creep close, Stoudemire answered. Eight of his nine fourth-quarter baskets answered a Raptors score that either tied the game or cut the Knicks lead to two points or less.

Andrea Bargnani had a career-high 41 points in the loss, 14 of those coming in the fourth quarter. He played just as well as Stoudemire, scoring when his team needed to trim the Knicks lead. It was a back-and-forth battle between Bargnani vs. Stoudemire and it seemed like whenever one scored, the other answered.

But it wasn't Stoudemire who put the final dagger in the Raptors' hearts. It was the Knicks' other big off-season acquisition, point guard Raymond Felton. Felton rimmed home a three in the final seconds that bounced off iron at least four times before going in to give the Knicks the lead for good.

At 14-9, New York has the Eastern Conference's fifth-best record over a quarter of the way through the season. With only seven teams in the East over .400, the playoffs seem like as much of a lock at this point as you can get this early (the Knicks could go 21-38 the rest of the way and likely grab the eighth seed with just 35 wins).

The additions of Stoudemire and Felton along with second-round pick Landry Fields, who has surprised many with his solid play and was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for November, have made the Knicks a legitimate contender much quicker than anybody could have thought.

But let's not forget the fact that the Knicks have played a ridiculously easy schedule so far this season, with just five of their 23 games against teams over .500 (they're 2-3 in those games). In the next eight days they will get Denver, Boston and Miami, all at home. Come back to me next weekend and we'll know more about whether this Knicks team is destined for a first-round exit or if they can make some noise come April.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Tripodi's Top Teams: Week 14

1(1). Atlanta Falcons (10-2) - Down by 10 on the road early in the fourth quarter, the Falcons caught a break when Eric Weems returned a kickoff for a touchdown. But good teams make plays with their backs against the wall and the Falcons did by coming back against a good Bucs team.

2(3). New England Patriots (10-2) - That wasn't even close. The Pats manhandled the Jets, who were nowhere to be found once they stepped off the bus. I still think this team's defense will be their downfall, but if they score 45 points every week defense doesn't really matter, does it? The Bears can actually pressure the quarterback without blitzing, but who really thinks that's going to faze Tom Brady?

3(5). Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3) - If it weren't for some questionable playcalling from the Ravens, Troy Polamalu would've never had the opportunity to knock the ball out of Joe Flacco's hand to set up the game-winning touchdown. But this game isn't played on ifs and the Steelers went into Baltimore and won. If they win their final two division games against Cleveland and Cincinnati, they should win the AFC North and clinch a first-round bye.

4(6). New Orleans Saints (9-3) - Does anybody even realize this team has won five in a row? While only one of those came against a winning team, you'd be a fool to bet against a Drew Brees-led team that looks to be hitting their stride. Any of this week's top four teams could legitimately be #1 by the time Week 17 rolls around.

5(4). Baltimore Ravens (8-4) - I thought the Ravens would win this game and they probably should have. But they didn't represent at home and even against a team like the Steelers, that means you drop in the rankings. Next time, just run the football on second-and-five.

6(2). New York Jets (9-3) - Can anybody say wake-up call? That was one of the most pathetic performances I have ever seen in a prime-time football game. Luckily for the Jets they get Miami before traveling to Pittsburgh and Chicago. They need to put a complete game together this week otherwise those are going to be extremely tough road games against good defenses. And this team is coming off a three-point stinker against a poor defense.

7(7). Green Bay Packers (8-4) - Have the Packers finally found their replacement for Ryan Grant? James Starks carried the load against San Francisco with his first 18 career carries and is a much better fit as a featured back than Brandon Jackson ever was or will be. It's scary to think how good this team can be with a running game.

8(8). Chicago Bears (9-3) - They hung on against an always tough Detroit team, despite the 2-10 record, and now they get a red-hot Tom Brady. The Jets couldn't pressure Brady with the blitz but maybe Julius Peppers can get to Brady a few times off the edge. If he can't and the Bears don't end Patriots drives with turnovers, this might be the second straight week New England serves a supposed contender a wake-up call.

9(9). Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) - Michael Vick had another great game and with him at the helm, it really doesn't seem to matter how many times this team hands it off to LeSean McCoy. McCoy gets his work in the passing game and Vick more than makes up for the lack of carries with his own legs. The Eagles head to Dallas this week after a Thursday night win against the Texans and Vick and company sure hope this isn't their last trip to Cowboy Stadium this season.

10(11). New York Giants (8-4) - Hakeem Nicks could be back this week against the Vikings, which would definitely give Eli Manning the receiving help he hasn't had with Nicks and Steve Smith on the shelf. But when you have two backs go for over 100 yards like Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw did last week, it doesn't really matter. Too bad those gaping holes won't be there against the Williams Wall in Minnesota.

11(12). Kansas City Chiefs (8-4) - All I do is propose worst-case scenarios for the Chiefs, and all they do is take care of business. I had them pegged as a sleeper heading into the season but even I didn't truly believe. It was an ugly win against Denver but if this team can win when Dwayne Bowe is shut out, they might be legit. With a two-game lead in the division thanks to Oakland's road spanking of the Chargers, this team looks playoff bound with a home game to boot.

12(16). Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) - The Jags took care of a reeling Titans team and have emerged as the frontrunner to take the AFC South. That's more because the Colts can't seem to get themselves straight than because the Jags are a playoff-caliber team. They may get a home game, but that doesn't mean they'll escape the first round. First things first though and they need to win games against their average remaining schedule, especially Week 15 in Indy.

13(15). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-5) - Continuing a trend, the Bucs are undefeated against sub-.500 teams and winless against teams over .500. They played the Falcons real close and had a two-score lead in the fourth, but found a way to lose. That's what bad teams do and while the Bucs aren't bad, they also aren't good just quite yet. The NFC South is going to be awesome next season.

14(19). Oakland Raiders (6-6) - Oakland went into San Diego and laid a beatdown on the upstart Chargers, who nobody thought could possibly lose this game (the spread was 13 points!). They ran for over 250 yards and gashed a Chargers defense that was statistically one of the best heading into the game. I don't think either team can catch the Chiefs now, but I wouldn't bet against Oakland giving them the best run for the division.

15(10). San Diego Chargers (6-6) - Just when you think this team has turned the corner, they don't show up at home against the Raiders. And if they thought Darren McFadden and Michael Bush were a difficult duo to stop on the ground, now they get Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. If this defense doesn't get angry and focus on stopping the run, they're going to get spanked at home for a second consecutive week.

16(13). Indianapolis Colts (6-6) - What's up, Peyton Manning? Will a date with the Titans pass defense finally get you and this passing game back on track? Tennessee is seventh in the league with 33 sacks this season and Jason Babin and company should be able to pressure a one-dimensional Colts offense. I've never been a big Joseph Addai fan, but this team really misses his presence on offense. And no, he's not playing this week.

17(14). Miami Dolphins (6-6) - Miami couldn't afford to lose last week against the Browns, but they did. If they won, they could have pulled to within one game of the Jets for a potential Wild Card spot with a win in New York this week. Now they face a Jets team that should be extremely embarrassed and will be out for blood. Unless of course, they are the pretenders many think they are. In that case, Miami could win. This game is less about what they're going to bring to the table than it is about how the Jets will react to Monday's massacre.

18(20). St Louis Rams (6-6) - Josh Brown's four field goals outscored the whole Cardinals offense but the Rams will actually be tested this week when they travel to New Orleans. If Sam Bradford can lead this team to a win in a hostile environment against a top-five team, it may lend hope that whoever represents the NFC West in the playoffs could make it out of the first round.

19(NR). Seattle Seahawks (6-6) - After beating up on the Panthers, the Seahawks get to go to San Francisco and reap the benefits of Alex Smith's first start since Week 7. A win combined with a likely Rams loss would put them on the top of the division with a winning record (!!!). That in itself could be cause for celebration in the Northwest.

20(17). Houston Texans (5-7) - Houston was game competition against the Eagles but the better team won. Unless the Jags fall off hard, this team seems done in the division and their Wild Card hopes are even slimmer. Anything can happen but I'm not expecting much at home against a Ravens team that, much like the Jets, will be looking to avenge a painful divisional loss.

Syracuse passes first real test of season, downs Michigan St.

Just last week, I deemed the Syracuse Orange an overrated basketball team. It wasn't just me though; Jim Boeheim felt much the same way about his squad. Watching them struggle to win against N.C. State in person at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, I thought Tom Izzo and Michigan State were going to take care of business against Boeheim's boys.

Boy was I wrong. After falling behind 5-1 early, Syracuse went on a 24-8 run and held a 12-point lead less than 11 minutes into the game. The Spartans would cut the Orange lead to just two with 13:16 left in the second half, but Syracuse never relinquished their lead and pulled away with a 24-12 run.

Michigan St. has struggled with turnovers all season and last night was no different against the 2-3 zone, as Izzo's team committed 20 turnovers. They settled for jump shots all game, went just 7-for-24 from three-point range and rarely tried to attack the hoop, resulting in a 42-24 advantage for Syracuse in points in the paints and a 38-30 advantage on the boards.

After the game, Izzo said his team played like "sissies" and that he felt like the New York Jets (ouch, burn!). Rick Jackson was an absolute monster down low for the Orange with 17 points and 16 rebounds while Scoop Jardine added 19 points on a surprisingly efficient 7-for-9 shooting and Kris Joseph added 14.

This Syracuse team lost a lot from last season and their weaknesses are still obvious. The departure of Wes Johnson has left the team without a go-to scorer as Joseph hasn't stepped up like many, including me, thought he would. The Orange miss the outside shooting of Andy Rautins as they went just 2-for-11 from beyond the arc. Jackson's improvement, however, has helped mask the loss of big man Arinze Onuaku.

Historically, Michigan State is a team that struggles early while playing one of the nation's toughest schedules, while Syracuse thrives against lesser competition. This is why Izzo's teams tend to outperform their seed in the NCAA tournament while Syracuse is a prime upset candidate.

As much as I'd like to believe in the Orange as a top-10 team RIGHT NOW, I just can't (I'll give them top 15, though). They lack a go-to guy in crunch time and without any real three-point threats, they will need to rely on their defense to force turnovers if they ever fall behind by a significant amount.

Michigan State is a very talented team but they aren't a top-10 squad either, not at this point of the season. I wouldn't be surprised to see these teams playing in the Sweet 16 or even the Elite 8 come March, but they both have a lot of work to do.

Syracuse might find the going tough in the Big East or against teams that can match up with Jackson down low, while the Spartans need to get Kalin Lucas back to 100 percent. What helps both teams is their depth; players like Draymond Green and Korey Luscious from Michigan State would start for most teams in the country and C.J. Fair has looked great in limited minutes this season for Syracuse.

I wouldn't be surprised if Fair develops into a go-to scorer for Syracuse later in the conference season. The kid can flat out score and he's not afraid to take the ball to the hoop. His outside shot needs work but unless Joseph breaks out of his early-season funk, Fair may be the answer for the Orange come 2011.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Way to show up, Jets!

Blame whoever you want. Blame the 11-day layoff between games (the Jets are now 0-3 when they have 9+ days to prepare for a game), blame the offense, blame the defense, blame the special teams. When you play like that, everybody is to blame.

After holding the Pats to a field goal on their first drive, the Jets first drive ended in a Nick Folk missed field goal. New England started at their own 43 and, with the help of a long pass interference penalty on Eric Smith that placed the ball at the 1-yard-line, scored a touchdown. 10-0.

The Jets next drive stalled at their own 20. A 12-yard punt by Steve Weatherford gave New England another short field at the Jets 32. Four plays later, touchdown. 17-0.

The next Jets drive made it inside the New England 25, but Braylon Edwards dropped a third-down ball that would've resulted in a first down. 17-3 (Folk actually made the kick).

New England rode Jets castoff Danny Woodhead for 39 yards on the first two plays of the next drive, resulting in another touchdown. 24-3.

Each of the above graphs represents some sort of mistake from the Jets. As someone who watches this team consistently, how could I or anybody else for that matter think they actually had a chance in this game? Especially with the way this secondary has been penalized in recent weeks.

You can't give Tom Brady a short field and expect a good-not-great defense to stop him. Maybe the Jets defense of last year would've had a chance but this year's version? None. It's funny because the only player they lost in the offseason was Kerry Rhodes, who wasn't the impact player last year that he had been in the past.

On paper, this defense got BETTER in the offseason. But once again, that's why they don't play games on paper. Darrelle Revis is great but without a stud receiver for him to lock down, his impact on the game is easily limited. And Brady absolutely tore Antonio Cromartie and the rest of the Jets defensive backs to shreds.

Mark Sanchez looked nervous early and it helped put the Jets in a big hole. Sanchez and his receivers were out of rhythm all night against the league's worst pass defense. Was it the extended layoff? Who knows, but it was pathetic. I guess these games are to be expected from an inexperienced second-year quarterback, even one who came in playing as well as Sanchez.

The Jets were able to run the ball effectively, but a 17-point first-quarter deficit doesn't exactly call for the run to bring you back. And just when they seemed to have something going on the opening drive of the second half, Sanchez tried to force a ball into triple coverage in the endzone to Santonio Holmes. The ball was intercepted by the linebacker underneath - he wasn't even one of the three guys actually covering Holmes!

I think I've said enough about this game already. The offense couldn't move the football and the kicking and punting game hurt the Jets field position just as much as the lack of extended drives. The defense wasn't good, not at all, but they didn't get much help either. Asking a unit to stop one of the all-time great quarterbacks multiple times when he only has to drive half the field is a tall task for any defense.

As bad as the Jets looked, I'm not going to overreact to one week and say they're an obvious pretender. What they do in the next four games, particularly in matchups with Pittsburgh and Chicago, will determine their contender or pretender status in my book. But last night's game sure doesn't inspire much hope.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What a difference two weeks makes, right Giants fans?

Four weeks ago: The New York Football Giants were riding high after five straight wins, which included just one over a team with a record over .500. But there they were, the best and most complete team in the NFL and a Super Bowl favorite.

Two weeks later: Following a terrible loss to a newly-inspired Dallas team and a tough loss at divisional rival Philadelphia, the bloom was off the Giants' rose. They were on the outside looking in to the playoff picture and without their top two wide receivers, many thought this was the beginning of the end.

Today: An ugly season-saving win against Jacksonville (I'm not hating, just proving a point that a win's a win) and a blowout of a Redskins team that isn't as good as its 5-7 record have the Giants tied for the division lead at 8-4 with the Eagles and for the NFC's final Wild Card spot with Green Bay. With Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks hoping to return for this week' game at Minnesota, things are looking up for the Giants.

One of my major themes of this year's NFL season has been hating on fans who overreact to one week of football. The Jets are tied for the league's best record right now at 9-2 but after an ugly opening-week loss to the Ravens, they were the most over-hyped Super Bowl contender ever. Their quarterback was garbage and in today's NFL, no team could compete for a title without a great (or even average) quarterback.

Fast forward to eleven weeks later. The Jets have won nine of 10, many of them due to the great clutch play of their terrible quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Since Week 1, Sanchez has been great and has turned from the player many thought would hold this team back into a player that looks like he can lead the team to wins when other facets fail.

Back to the Giants though. They won't run for 200 yards every week but they won't need to with their receivers getting healthy again. Eli Manning has been more caretaker than playmaker the last two weeks, but this short stretch should help him and the offense once they're completely healthy.

The best news for Giants fans? With games left against the Eagles and Packers, they control their own destiny in terms of playoff positioning. All is not lost yet for the G-Men and it's looking more and more like one of these three deserving teams will miss the playoffs. The funny part is that all three can also still make moves on the second seed and a first-round bye. It's going to be a fun final four weeks in the NFC; much more so than the AFC.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yanks re-sign Rivera, Jeter on deck?

Amidst all the talk of stalled negotiations between the Yankees and Derek Jeter, nobody has really been talking about Mariano Rivera. Today the Yankees re-signed their All-Star closer for 2 years and about $30 million.

Nobody was talking about Rivera because the negotiations were handled correctly (read: they were kept private). The fact that Jeter and the Yankees still haven't agreed to a contract is not a big deal to me; the fact that the negotiations got messy and went public is.

The Yankees have supposedly upped their money offer to Jeter from the 3 years, $45 million they initially offered. That original offer would've made Jeter the highest-paid shortstop in baseball, but his camp is trying to inch closer to their initial request of 6 years, $150 million.

That's an absurd amount of money for somebody who was paid $189 million over his last 10-year contract. Those 10 years represented the prime of Jeter's career and now he wants more per year at age 36 when his skills are in obvious decline?

Give me a break. As much as I love Jeter as a Yankees fan and appreciate everything he has done for the team over the years, the Yankees owe him nothing. They already paid for everything he has done; now it's only about paying for what he will do in the next few seasons.

Looking at Jeter on the field, anybody can tell he's not worth $15 million a season over 3 years. I would say he's worth $25 million TOTAL over 3 years, so the Yankees initial offer was a gift given because of everything the captain has meant to the organization.

I see no reason why Jeter shouldn't accept whatever the new offer amounts to; he gets more money and gets to save face, while the Yankees are still overpaying an above-average MLB shortstop. No other team will pay him what the Yankees will and it's extremely arrogant of the Jeter camp to think differently.

If they don't accept this new offer, I will have no problem saying goodbye to Jeter if another team beats that offer, as strange as it will be. But that isn't going to happen and Jeter will likely end up limping back to the organization's offer, looking bad in the process.

It's telling that most people in baseball are siding with the Yankees, the most hated franchise in baseball by non-Yankee fans. That should send a clear message to Jeter and his representation: YOU ARE WRONG. Sign the deal and finish your career the right way; with the Yankees. Or go somewhere else and look stupid. As Hank Steinbrenner said, the ball is in Jeter's court.

LeBron may be a prick, but he's also pretty good

I know everyone is probably sick of ESPN's oversaturation of LeBron James' return to Cleveland last night but all that coverage actually made me watch the game. And I don't make it a point to watch an NBA game that doesn't involve the Knicks. Ever. I'd take a random college game any day - like Duke and Michigan State the other night where the next stud to come out of Duke, Kyrie Irving, absolutely went off. But that's neither here nor there.

The first question on people's minds was whether LeBron was going to do his chalk toss. And I think it's obvious he was; if he didn't, that would mean he was going out of his way to change his routine based on the circumstances and that he was scared. James proved he wasn't scared by doing the toss and by what he did on the court.

Obviously the man got booed when he was introduced, but I love the fact that Cleveland fans gave former Cav Zydrunas Ilgauskas a huge cheer. LeBron was also booed every time he touched the ball in the early part of the game, but once the Heat opened up a huge lead the fans seemed to get lazy. Not that it was realistic to expect them to boo every time he touched the ball for the entire game anyway.

On a non-basketball note, I enjoyed some of the signs and shirts seen in the crowd. The Lyin' King with a quote saying LeBron wouldn't stop until he brought Cleveland a championship? Amazing. I'm just disappointed no one had a shirt or sign (that I saw) playing off his "What should I do" commercial. Even South Park touched on that, come on Cleveland.

LeBron's first half was nice; 14 points, 4 rebounds and 6 assists. Many predicted before the game (and I was one) that he would play great; scoring 30+ points or putting up a triple-double. I was thinking triple-double and his first-half performance didn't change that. But James grabbed just one rebound the rest of the way.

Instead, James scored 24 points in the third quarter. He came out of halftime scorching hot and every time he put up a shot in the quarter, I thought it was going in. Even when he sprinted towards the baseline, staring at a cameraman, came to a jump-stop and turned in midair, finally looking at the hoop. The resulting shot hit nothing but twine and if it wasn't already painstakingly clear that James was thriving off of the crowd's hatred and hostility, that shot was the dagger.

By the way, Miami won by 28 and was ahead by 30 after three quarters. James sat the whole fourth quarter and if he hadn't, I think he would've put up 50 on his old squad. But he had nothing left to prove at that point and I'm glad Erik Spoelstra kept him on the bench; it prevented him from completely showing up the fans he once loved to play for and kept James and other players safe. Who knows what drunk Clevelanders were willing to throw on the court at that point.

So what did we learn? We learned that LeBron James is really, really good at basketball and that he can thrive off the scorn of others. As much as I still hate LeBron, he proved himself right. He left the Cavs because he didn't think his supporting cast was good enough and they sure looked overmatched last night.

I will still bash "The Decision" and how LeBron exited Cleveland. But it's obvious that he left to play with better players and no matter how much the 12-8 Heat have "struggled" this season, they're a lock for the playoffs. And last night was probably the most complete game they have played all season.

Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of his Heat teammates knew what this game meant to LeBron and they came out and performed. Wade almost had a triple-double himself (22 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists). I'm not saying this game is going to turn the Heat into a top three team in the East right now, but it proves that by the end of the season they will be a tough out in the playoffs.

It's not what many expected; predictions of 72-plus wins and a challenge to the 1995-96 Bulls record were asinine. And this game really doesn't prove much since Miami has been killing bad teams all season; it's hard to play a team that has the three best players on the court. But when the Heat play teams (like Boston) that have players at the top to match the Big 3, they have struggled. And that will continue.

It's not time to overreact to one good game against a poor opponent and say the Heat are about to go on a roll. But this game shows the potential of this team if they can come together and if Wade and LeBron can coexist. But what we did learn last night is that LeBron James is still a great basketball player. And yes, he's still a scumbag.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tripodi's Top Teams: Week 13

1(1). Atlanta Falcons (9-2) - They've won five in a row including two of the last three against legitimate contenders at home, where they are almost unbeatable. Considering they are the front-runner for home field throughout the playoffs, that also makes them the clear favorite in the NFC through 12 weeks.

2(2). New York Jets (9-2) - People say the Jets have been lucky, but this team hasn't played a complete football game since they beat the Bills in Week 4. If they're 9-2 when they're NOT playing at their best, it's scary to think how good this team could be if they could consistently click in all facets of the game. This week against New England would be fine timing for that.

3(3). New England Patriots (9-2) - Monday Night Football this week may decide the AFC East. If the Jets can go into Foxborough and pull out a win, they'll have essentially a two-game lead in the division with the head-to-head tiebreaker, while New England will only have a one-game lead and the same 3-1 division record. Tom Brady against the Jets pass rush and man coverage will be the matchup to decide this game, and possibly the division.

4(4). Baltimore Ravens (8-3) - They look better than the Steelers right now and get to play them at home on Sunday night. What a week of primetime football we have in store, with two games that could decide the two toughest divisions in football four weeks before the end of the season.

5(5). Pittsburgh Steelers (8-3) - The top five remains unchanged, but the Steelers came dangerously close to dropping out last week. If Steve Johnson didn't drop the game-winning touchdown in overtime, the Steelers would be staring at an absolute must-win against Baltimore. Last week's performance doesn't exactly instill confidence that they can go on the road and beat the Ravens.

6(7). New Orleans Saints (8-3) - No one is talking about Drew Brees and the Saints, and that's how they like it. After starting last season 13-0 and garnering attention for the entire season, I think this squad is more than happy to fly under the radar while everybody pimps the Falcons as the NFC's best team. If they can beat Atlanta at home in Week 16 many might change their tune, but that will be a mighty tall task.

7(9). Green Bay Packers (7-4) - They were my NFC pick to make the Super Bowl heading into the week but that loss hurt. It's hard to fault a team for losing to the Falcons in Atlanta, but a win would've kept the Pack in contention for home field throughout the playoffs. If the path to Dallas runs through Atlanta, it's tough for me to buy the Packers making a Super Bowl run.

8(16). Chicago Bears (8-3) - Did I have them too low? Are they overrated now that they beat a good team at home? Only time will tell but with three divisional matchups remaining plus the Jets and Patriots at home we will know how good these Bears are by Week 17, when their matchup with Green Bay at Lambeau Field could be another division-deciding game. How good do I think they are? They lead the division, but I still have the Packers ahead of them. That should tell you what you need to know.

9(8). Philadelphia Eagles (7-4) - Michael Vick threw his first interception of the year, but played very well overall against one of the league's better defenses. Speaking of defense, Philadelphia's allowed Jay Cutler way too many opportunities to make plays and as much as you have to like this team, their defense seems likely to hold them back against the NFC's best.

10(15). San Diego Chargers (6-5) - This Philip Rivers apologist won't feel bad about ranking a team one game over .500 in the top 10. Not when they still get to play the Chiefs (who sit a game ahead of them) at home and are notorious for great late-season play. I'd be shocked if the Chiefs can hang on to first in the AFC West.

11(6). New York Giants (7-4) - Now Giants fans know what it's like to be a Jets fan this season; a win is a win no matter how ugly. Washington and Minnesota in the next two weeks are very winnable games, even for a team with as many injury issues as the Giants. But they better hope Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks are back by Week 15 when the Eagles come to town, especially when that game is followed by a trip to Lambeau the following week.

12(14). Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) - After rolling NFC West pretenders, the Chiefs better not look past the Broncos this week before heading to San Diego. If they do, they could be staring 7-6 in the face in two weeks. That's a tough swallow for a team with the league's top running game and arguably the best QB-WR connection with Matt Cassel and Dwayne Bowe both enjoying breakout seasons against a long string of terrible defenses.

13(10). Indianapolis Colts (6-5) - The Colts looked terrible against the Chargers and while a lot of that has to be credited to a good San Diego team, Peyton Manning has looked out of sync with anybody not named Jacob Tamme for weeks now. After Week 10 it seemed like both of last year's Super Bowl teams were headed to the playoffs; now I'm not so sure about the loser of that game.

14(11). Miami Dolphins (6-5) - Reports of Chad Henne's season-ending demise were premature, as he came back to lead Miami to a much-needed win over the Raiders this week. Sitting three games back in the division and two in the Wild Card, this team might need to win out to make the playoffs. It's crazy to think that a 10-win team could miss the playoffs this season, considering the West and South might be taken with 9 wins.

15(14). Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4) - I've said it before and I'll say it again. Tampa Bay vs. teams under .500: 7-0. Tampa Bay vs. teams over .500: 0-4. Good enough to beat the losers, too young to beat the winners. Unless that trend changes with an upcoming game against Atlanta and a Week 17 visit to New Orleans, this is another team that could win 10 games and still be watching the playoffs from home.

16(18). Jacksonville Jaguars (6-5) - Jacksonville missed a great opportunity to take control of the AFC South, but they couldn't close out a limping Giants team. Like the NFC West, the AFC South is a complete toss up at this point but until the Jaguars show me they can close games, the presence of Peyton Manning might be just enough for the Colts to continue their division dominance.

17(20). Houston Texans (5-6) - Houston saved their season by blanking Tennessee after two unlucky last-second losses. With one game left against the Jags and the Colts' recent struggles, this team could sneak in to the playoffs if they play well enough down the stretch to get to 9-7.

18(12). Tennessee Titans (5-6) - This team looked terrible with Rusty Smith at the helm so they must be counting their blessings that Kerry Collins will be healthy enough to start this week with Vince Young on IR. Like the Texans above, they're going to need to win the average AFC South to find their way into the playoffs.

19(13). Oakland Raiders (5-6) - Any talk of this team potentially winning the division went out the window when they lost to Miami last week (and probably Kansas City the week before). The Raiders would be wise to ride Darren McFadden the rest of the way and keep Jacoby Ford heavily involved in the passing game; this kid makes plays with the ball in the air. If they can find consistency at quarterback, this could be a dangerous team come next season.

20(NR). St Louis Rams (5-6) - Since the NFC West needs a representative, the Rams crack the top 20 once again. Sam Bradford is doing his best Matt Ryan circa 2008 impression and it wouldn't surprise me if in two years, he's leading one of the NFC's better teams near the top of the rankings (much like Ryan and the top-ranked Falcons this week).