4 born-and-raised Canadians invited to NFL’s scouting combine

Four of the 323 players invited to this month’s NFL scouting combine are born-and-raised Canadians.

It may turn out that more have sort-of Canadian status. The four we do know, who will be grilled, inspected and (if healthy) worked out from Feb. 17-23 in Indianapolis:

**    RB Tyler Varga (Yale University) from Kitchener, Ont., who turned some heads at the Senior Bowl two weeks ago;

**    OT Brett Boyko (UNLV) from Saskatoon, who is the CFL Scouting Bureau’s top ranked prospect for May’s CFL draft.

**    QB Brandon Bridge (University of South Alabama), who is from Mississauga. The 6-foot-5, 235-pounder transferred from Alcorn State. He has one helluva cool Twitter handle: @Air_Canada_7.

**    DL Christian Covington (Rice University), who is from Vancouver. The son of CFL Hall of Fame defensive end Grover Covington (a Hamilton Tiger-Cat) dislocated a knee cap in November. He is not expected to work out at the combine.

More Canadians (per capita) watched Super Bowl than Americans

America loves the Super Bowl. Canada loves it more.

At least based on this year’s TV ratings.

Anyone doubting the U.S. pro league’s popularity in Canada after the demise of the ill-conceived Bills-in-Toronto series needs to digest the following numbers, to convince himself of his error.

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was viewed by more people in Canada than in the United States, on a per-capita basis.

TV ratings numbers provided this week by Canadian host broadcaster CTV indicate that 55% of all Canadians (19.3 million of 35.1 million) watched at least part of last Sunday night’s thrilling Super Bowl telecast, either on English broadcaster CTV or French network RDS.

By comparison, 51% of all Americans (161.3 million of 316.1 million) watched the game on NBC, according to statistics released by the NFL.

CTV, Canada’s largest private broadcaster, simulcasts the NBC feed. It subs out American commercials for a mix of its own ads plus a too-frequent, always-annoying mini-loop of grating promos for CTV shows.

The Super Bowl is one of the most-watched TV shows each year in Canada. It has been the top-rated show each year in the U.S. going back decades.

This year’s game, in which the New England Patriots held off the defending champion Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in a down-to-the-wire classic, blew away the previous record average audience in Canada with 9.2 million viewers (8.2 million on CTV, 1 million on RDS).

That’s 13% more than the 8.2 million across Canada who watched the New York Giants defeat the Patriots three years ago, the previous domestic record audience for an NFL title game.

The Super Bowl last year drew 7.9 million Canadian viewers, and 7.4 million the year before that.

Katy Perry’s halftime show on Sunday drew an average Canadian audience of 12.2 million.

What is no less surprising about the just-concluded NFL season’s playoff ratings in Canada is that earlier games similarly set records.

Seattle’s miraculous comeback win over Green Bay on Jan. 18 was the most-watched afternoon NFL conference championship game in Canadian history, with an average audience of 2.3 million. It was the most-watched TV program that week in Canada.

A week earlier, on the second Saturday night in January, 1.56 million Canadians watched the Patriots rally twice to defeat the Baltimore Ravens. It was the most-watched program in Canada that Saturday night.

Which means NFL playoff games drew more viewers than Hockey Night in Canada on each of the last three weekends of the NFL season.

The Sunday, Jan. 11 divisional playoff thriller between Dallas and Green Bay drew 1.6 million viewers in Canada. The average divisional-playoff weekend audience of 1.4 million represented an 11% increase over last year, and 37% of all Canadians (12.9 million) at some point watched one of those four games.

In the States, a record average TV viewership of 114.4 million watched Super Bowl XLIX, eclipsing last year’s record by 2 million. Viewership peaked at 120.8 million in the fourth quarter.

Super Bowl: Episode XLIX — The Overview

Super Bowl cover

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Super Bowl: Episode XLIX is finally here.

In Star Wars terms we have the bad guys, the New England Patriots. The galactic empire, led by the mysterious, hooded evil emperor himself, Bill Belichick.

Their opponent? The cocky young rebels — the Seattle Seahawks, led by their “crazy old man” of a leader, the Obi-Wan like Pete Carroll.

How long can we keep this Lucasfilms analogy going?

Let’s see, Seattle has two players from Ice Planet Hoth — Canadian tight end Luke Willson (of La Salle, Ont.) and Canadian punter Jon Ryan (of Regina).

Then there’s Darth Brady and his Stormtroopers, clashing with Russell Skywalker and Marshawn Lynch, and . . .

Yeah, that’s about as far as it goes.

No matter, the NFL’s 2014 season climaxes Sunday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale with Super Bowl XLIX. For those of you tired of figuring out the Roman numerals, it’s Super Bowl 49.

Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m. EST on CTV/NBC.

If the NFC champion Seahawks win, they’ll become the ninth team to repeat as champion. Quarterback Russell Wilson will have begun his career with two Super Bowl wins in three years — a feat last accomplished 11 years ago by Tom Brady.

Speaking of whom, if the AFC champion New England Patriots are victorious it would mark the fourth Super Bowl win in seven appearances this century for the most successful coach/quarterback combo the NFL has known.

Belichick and Brady won it all in the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons and lost the title game in 2007 and 2011. Since 2001 they have led the Patriots to 20 playoff victories. Pittsburgh’s Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw are next with 14, followed by Dallas’ Tom Landry and Roger Staubach with 11.

But even if Belichick/Brady win Super Bowl No. 4, and playoff game No. 21, for at least he time being it would come with an asterisk the size of a, well, Death Star.

That’s because the NFL, inexplicably and voluntarily, chose to tarnish this Super Bowl with a bungled, clumsy launch of an investigation into what now has all the appearances of a dubious — probably impossible-to-prove — charge of illegal, purposeful football deflation on the part of Patriots in the AFC title game.

The NFL says most or all of the 12 footballs the Patriots used on offence against Indianapolis were found at halftime to have dropped in pressure below the allowable range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch, by as much as 2 PSI.

The referee had found New England’s footballs to be properly inflated during his requisite pregame testing. Somehow, though, the pressure in those balls deflated slightly after two quarters; the Colts’ balls did not.

Belichick, Brady and Pats owner Robert Kraft have all emphatically insisted neither they nor anyone on their team deliberately let any air out of those footballs, presumably to provide Brady with better grip on a cool, rainy night in New England.

Some scientists and electric-pump experts have reached out to me to suggest entirely plausible scenarios whereby 2 PSI could have deflated naturally, given various conditions, and without anyone from the Pats surreptitiously inserting a pin to release air, as is suspected.

Whatever.

The scandal has overshadowed one of the most compelling Super Bowl matches in recent memory, with all its compelling storylines:

 

THE BEST vs. THE BEST

New England and Seattle shared the league’s best record in 2014 with three other teams, at 12-4.

But by season’s end, each clearly was the best team in its conference. The Patriots have lost one meaningful game since September (at Green Bay), the Seahawks one since mid-October.

Rarely have two teams burst onto a Super Bowl field on such rolls.

 

BRADY & CO. vs. BOOM & CO.

New England’s under-appreciated rushing offence and high-precision passing attack, piloted by Brady, faces one of the greatest defences in NFL history.

Spicing up this matchup is that the last time the two teams met, in October 2012, Brady got into it verbally with some of the Seahawks defenders, who still haven’t forgotten the slights despite winning 24-23.

“He was pretty much saying that we were nobodies,” Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said last week, “and we should come up to him after they got the win. He said stuff like that throughout the game.”

No stat speaks to the historical greatness of Seattle’s defence more than this: five of their last six regular-season opponents failed to score more than seven points. In this era? With virtually every rule jerry-rigged to aid the offence? Incredible.

The unit is anchored by a fast and ferocious line, perhaps the league’s best linebacker corps — led by someone who should be a household name, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner — and the most feared secondary in the game, the “Legion of Boom,” that boasts (oh, does it boast) the game’s best safeties and league-best cornerback in Sherman.

“We go into every game thinking we are going to dominate on defence, and limit you on everything,” all-pro safety Kam Chancellor said. “That’s what No. 1 defences do. That’s our mentality. That’s how we approach every single game.”

COACH vs. COACH

Belichick vs Carroll, probably the best two coaches who have worked a sideline anywhere this century.

Both came up through the defensive ranks, and both keep their game-day plans of attack on that side of the ball as basic as it gets: take away what opposing offences like to do most.

Yet their means to that simplistic end are so dissimilar in so many ways: Belichick with his calm, cunning, calculated approach to everything, and Carroll with his universally applied Up With People mantra, with energy and compete knobs cranked always to 11.

But after taking their lumps in the ’90s, both men have figured out brilliantly this century how to win, their way, at equally impressive rates.

At the traditional Friday morning Super Bowl news conference pairing both head coaches, Carroll and Belichick predictably chatted up the other. But their mutual respect seemed to strike so much deeper.

“I think that Pete’s one of the great coaches in my time,” Belichick said. “What he’s done at USC and now in his five years with Seattle is beyond impressive. I tried to study him closely and learn from many of the things that he and his organization have done.

“They play extremely hard, down after down after down, week after week, year after year. They compete as relentlessly as well as any team or any organization I’ve ever observed.”

Said Carroll of Belichick: “Having the first-round bye 10 times … all the championship opportunities, all of the Super Bowls, and the ability to show –regardless of the personnel, regardless of the coaching staff — championship-level play, that’s Bill. That’s Bill’s direction and leadership.”

 

THE BEAST

It’s hard to remember the last time we saw an NFL running back the likes of “Beastmode” Lynch. Earl Campbell in the late ’70s? Maybe.

Lynch is about to conclude his eighth year in the NFL. Yet his formidability still seems to grow with each victim conquered, like (mixed sci-fi metaphor alert!) the Alien. Seriously, it’s as though Lynch becomes even harder to haul down with every handoff, every game, every tackler he trucks over, bounces off or screeches around.

Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia summed up the wonder that is Beastmode.

“He always has his feet in good position to be able to break, or move,” Patricia said. “His jump-cut ability, and his ability to slide from side to side, is just phenomenal. And the ability to explode and burst out of that, and through tackles.

“He’s really the full package. We got to see him quite a bit when he was in Buffalo (2007-10), and I was pretty happy when he left to go to Seattle.”

 

RUSSELL WILSON

Finally, there’s Wilson, this century’s version of Doug Flutie.

He’s too short. Too unconventional. Too scrambly. And too young to have figured it all out so completely already.

The counters to each of those? But he plays above it. But it doesn’t matter. But he makes it work as few other scramblers ever have. But it’s true; he has.

Unlike Flutie in his stints south of the Canadian border, however, Wilson not only has a coach and owner who believe in him fully, but who empower his sometimes unorthodox yet highly effective approaches to NFL quarterbacking.

“He can pass inside the pocket, he can pass on the move and all the structured stuff,” Carroll said. “But then he has the dynamic ability to get out of the pocket and create with his legs, running as well as passing. (He can) run the full gamut of what you would hope a quarterback could do.

“That’s not even to mention the leadership qualities, the character he brings, the tremendous competitiveness. He’s a perfect fit for us.”

 

*  *  *

 

So either way, history will be made Sunday night in this sprawling desert metropolis.

Seattle can join Green Bay (1966-67), Miami (1972-73), Pittsburgh (1974-75), Pittsburgh again (1978-79), San Francisco (1988-89), Dallas (1992-93), Denver (1997-98) and New England (2003-04) as the only back-to-back Super Bowl champions since the high holy holiday of Americana kicked off on January 15, 1967.

For New England, Belichick can join Pittsburgh’s Noll as the only four-time Super Bowl winning coach, while Brady can join Pittsburgh’s Bradshaw and his own childhood Bay Area idol — San Francisco’s Joe Montana — as a four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback.

Canadians even have a greater interest than usual in the Super Bowl’s outcome. According to NFL Canada, north of the border the most popular NFL team is the Seahawks, while the top-selling player jersey is Brady’s.

Perhaps the only life-forms who aren’t interested in this game’s outcome lived a long time ago — in a galaxy far, far away.

5 reasons the Patriots will win Super Bowl XLIX

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Let’s get right to it. Here are the five reasons the New England Patriots will win Super Bowl XLIX:

 

1. THE BRADY FACTOR

Ya hate to point this out so frankly, but it’s true. Last year in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, Denver’s Peyton Manning played as he usually does in the post-season. Tentative. Unsure. Flustered. And most of all, not well.

He’s 11-13 (.458) in the playoffs and stumbled to his worst playoff performance against the Seahawks, or at least until his stinker against Indianapolis a few weeks ago.

SUPERFor whatever reason, by comparison, New England’s Tom Brady (my Media Day photo, right) shines at this time of year.

He’s 20-8 (.714) in the playoffs, which is almost as good as his NFL-best-ever regular-season win percentage of .773.

What’s more, Brady is 3-2 in the Super Bowl, with the only losses coming late to the New York Giants, by three points apiece, thanks to a pair of freak completions; the Giants are still paying down that hefty debt to Football’s Valhalla.

Bottom line, Brady won’t be scared worth a damn. Even by this Seahawks defence.

 

2. QUALITY-FOE COMPARISON

The Patriots fared much better than the Seahawks did against good teams, records notwithstanding. You reach this conclusion after taking a closer look at the comparative games.

In the regular-season Seattle was 5-1 against eventual playoff teams, and 5-3 against teams that would finish with a winning record.

New England was 4-1 against playoff teams, and 6-3 against above-.500 clubs.

But it was far from a wash.

The Seahawks played a lot of teams this year that started second- or third-string quarterbacks, because of season-ending injuries to the No. 1s.

Check this out. After impressively crushing Green Bay 36-16 in the game that kicked off the 2014 NFL season, the Seahawks played only four more teams that started their No. 1 QB against them and which would finish with a winning record.

Seattle lost to three of those teams (to San Diego 30-21, to Dallas 30-23 and to Kansas City 24-20), and beat the other only in overtime (Denver 26-20).

The Seahawks needed a blocked-punt return for a TD and a gift TD scored after the recovery of a muffed punt by the Cowboys at their 10 to not have been blown right out of their own stadium.

SUPERIn the playoffs, the Seahawks needed QB Russell Wilson (left) to have probably his best passing performance as a pro to eventually pull away from 7-8-1 Carolina in the NFC divisional playoffs, 31-17, then required a once-a-decade miracle comeback plus overtime to beat banged-up Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, 28-22.

New England, meantime, rebounded from a 41-14 shellacking at Kansas City on the last Monday in September to do this to winning teams starting a No. 1 quarterback:

Beat Cincinnati, 43-17.

Beat Buffalo, 37-22.

Beat Denver, 43-21.

Beat Indianapolis, 42-20.

Beat Detroit, 34-9.

Lost at Green Bay, 26-21.

Beat San Diego, 23-14.

And lost to Buffalo 17-9, in a meaningless season finale in which the Patriots either rested or briefly played many key starters.

In two playoff wins in January, New England scored 80 points, coming back to beat Baltimore 35-31 and destroying Indy 45-7.

The inescapable conclusion is that the Patriots have been the far more dominant team against good opposition this season than the Seahawks.

 

3. BELICHICK WON’T TURTLE

SUPERThink Bill would shut his offence down after halftime, as Packers head coach Mike McCarthy did, up 16-0 at Seattle in the NFC title game? Of course not.

You don’t run up such large margins of victories against good teams as New England did this year without a cut-throat mentality.

If the Patriots get ahead, they won’t be content to stop playing hurry-up, as the Packers did in the second half even though it proved so successful in the first half.

Belichick and Brady keep swinging until delivering knockout blows.

 

4. LEGION OF BOO-BOOS

Three-quarters of Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary, at best, will play the Super Bowl slightly banged up. To what degree will their injuries hamper them against Brady and Co.?

SUPERAll-pro cornerback Richard Sherman (left) dislocated his left elbow against Green Bay two weeks ago. Apparently he’s fine now.

All-pro deep safety Earl Thomas dislocated his left shoulder two weeks ago. He hasn’t had to tackle anybody since the fourth quarter against the Packers.

And second-team all-pro strong safety Kam Chancellor limped away from practice just on Friday, after slipping and hurting a knee. He’s listed as probable to play Sunday.

If any of them aren’t playing up to their usual abilities, the Patriots coaches and Brady will surely notice soon enough, and exploit the opportunity.

 

5. PATRIOTS CAN RUN IT, TOO

Ask the Indianapolis Colts about that. In two games against New England this year the Colts surrendered a combined 423 yards on the ground.

LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Jonas Gray form an under-rated running-back-by-committee. All they need to do is gain enough yards to keep the Seahawks defence not thinking pass-only.

But there’s this, too. At times this season the Seahawks’ great defence did prove vulnerable against the run. Especially when teams ran straight at them, because it nullifies their incredible east-west speed.

Six times during the regular season the Seahawks allowed 100-plus rushing yards. They lost four of those games: at San Diego, to Dallas, at St. Louis and at Kansas City.

Expect the Patriots to run right at the Seahawks, and be successful enough at it to win Super Bowl XLIX.

 

 

Blandino: NFL consults with CFL to see how adding PI calls to video reviews went over in 2014

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The NFL has been in touch with the CFL about how video reviews for pass-interference calls went over in 2014.

Dean Blandino, the NFL’s vice-president of officiating, told Sun Media after Thursday’s football-operations news conference here at Super Bowl XLIX that he has talked with his counterpart north of the border about the matter of adding PI calls to video reviews.

“Yeah, I talked to Glen Johnson, who is (the CFL’s) head of officiating, and we’ve had conversations,” Blandino said. “And he has sent me the video, because it’s something that we’ll review with our committee.

“That’s something we can take and say, ‘Hey, that’s something they’re looking at it and let’s review.’”

According to Sun Media colleague Kirk Penton, CFL coaches challenged 55 pass-interference calls or non-calls in the 18-game 2014 season. Overturns occurred 17 times, or 31% of the time.

Coaches, players, executives and fans all seemed to be happy with the results.

‘Yeah,” Blandino said. “They seem to. I think the coaches appreciated the ability to at least challenge those calls.”