Archive for the ‘Football’ Category

Breaking down Super Bowl XLVIII

- January 31st, 2014

The biggest game of them all couldn’t have a better matchup. It’s the best offence in the history of the NFL against the best defence in the league this year.

It’s a clash of titans worthy of playing a game known as the Super Bowl.

Peyton Manning will lead the Broncos against the Seahawks impervious defence. It’s everything that you could want.

What made Denver’s attack so powerful was its ability to continually march down the field with short and intermediate passes that keep Manning in the pocket for just short periods of time. That means he wouldn’t be hit, putting at risk his surgically repaired neck.

The bad thing for the Broncos is that the Seahawks defence is essentially built to stop offences just like that. They’ll beat up receivers at the line, throwing them off their routes and disrupting the timing of patterns.

It’s not like the Broncos extraordinary amount of receiving options – four different receivers had 10+ TDs this season – will weigh heavy on the Seahawks either. Seattle has shown great depth in its secondary after having to deal with injuries and suspensions this season.

It looks like the weather won’t play a huge role, but you can’t discount the fact that it’s going to be close to freezing. It won’t hamper the passing game too much, but we might see one or two drops as a result of the cold. The wind can’t be discounted either, as Manning’s “ducks” may hang just a little bit more than usual – which could be some very bad news.

And while I write the name Richard Sherman with a groan, his impact should be big for this game. For the AFC championship game, Demaryius Thomas said that he wasn’t looking forward to facing Aqib Talib; Sherman is every bit as physical and great in coverage as Talib and probably better. That’s why you can’t buy that Thomas says he wants to Sherman to cover him – that’s just hiding his nerves.

Another two X factors that you can’t forget about the big game: Seattle’s amazing safety duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. They’re probably the best tandem in the NFL and will have some sort of impact on the game, either with an interception, or breaking up a big pass. Also, Pete Carroll rarely dials up blitzes, usually using four-man rushes. If his interior line can create pressure on Manning, it could force some mistakes.

But while the Seahawks defence matchups up well with the Broncos offence, you can say the same thing when reversing the roles.

The Broncos had the fourth-best run defence in the league and will be charged with stopping Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson on the ground. While Denver is quite adept at stopping opposing rushers, their numbers are slightly inflated by the fact that teams were forced to pass against them a lot while trailing late in games. And Lynch has gone up against strong run defences before and done just fine – just look at his 109-yard performance against San Francisco in the NFC championship game.

The big X factor for Seattle is Percy Harvin. With the dynamic receiving threat healthy for the Super Bowl, he should be a big part of the gameplan for Seattle. He’s likely to have at least a couple of crafty screen plays drawn up for him and should serve in return duties.

Speaking of return duties, you can’t discount the big advantage that Seattle has in special teams in general. It’s about the kickers or punters either, it’s about the coverage teams. The Seahawks were among the league’s best at stopping returns, which says a lot about their defensive depth as it’s the third and fourth string guys that are on those teams. That fact means that Trindon Holliday the Broncos dangerous kick returner, shouldn’t get a chance to break a big return like we’ve seen before.

What we’re in for is likely a low-scoring Super Bowl, much to fans chagrin. That favours the Seahawks and that’s who I’ll take.

While this has undoubtedly been Peyton Manning’s season from the first kickoff when he scored seven TDs against Baltimore, to setting multiple passing records, to slaying the rival Patriots in the AFC title game, it won’t end pretty for him. He’ll be the bridesmaid and we’ll be stuck with another season of debating his legacy.

The pick: Seattle 23, Denver 20

MVP: Russell Wilson, SEA

This playoffs: 3-4-3

This season: 119-125-9 (3 games with NL)

What does Peyton Manning’s future hold?

- January 29th, 2014

While there has been much talk about Peyton Manning’s legacy leading up to the Super Bowl and if a win would make him the greatest QB of all-time, the real question is what the future holds for the Broncos all-world QB.

The reality is that, at 37-years-old, Manning’s career is near its end. There’s no way around that. It’s very rare that players even make it to play at 38 in this league, let alone after four neck surgeries.

So, could Manning retire after the Super Bowl? He may say that he’s not thinking about it, but I bet that it’s in the back of his mind just a little bit.

There wouldn’t be a better way to go out if Manning won the MVP and the Super Bowl in his final year. He already has the MVP dialled in after being named the all-pro team QB unanimously, only the Super Bowl stands in his way of that dream.

Not many legends actually get a chance to go out on top and it’s a chance that may be too attractive to turn down.

If Manning can’t prevail over the tough Seahawks in the swamps of New Jersey on Sunday, then I think it’s close to 100% that he’ll come back. There’s nothing like unfinished business to keep a motivated guy like Manning going.

But it’s not very fun to speculate on what Manning would do if he comes back next year, that much is obvious – throw for 50 more TDs and probably 5,000 more yards while winning the AFC West again. That would easily put him past Brett Favre for most passing TDs (he needs 17 to tie) and would leave him roughly 2,000 yards short of the record.

And it’s not like he couldn’t hold up to play another season. The only injuries he has suffered since his return were a couple of sprained ankles that didn’t even cause him to miss any time.

But speculating about Peyton playing on isn’t fun; what would he do if he retires?

There are three real options: Go into coaching, go into TV or take a year or two off.

I, personally think that the last option is the least likely. Manning is too dedicated to the game of football to stay away from it.

Even when he’s on the field, Manning is an excellent coach. He seems destined to be able to pick up a clipboard and start doling out advice right away and would be an outstanding offensive co-ordinator, or at least a QB coach. I would only question where he would choose to coach, as a good situation may not be immediately available.

That might keep him off the sidelines for a year or two, which leads to his most obvious stop on his post-playing career path: Television.

When at Tennessee, Manning studied communications and is known to be a great speaker and, of course, football mind.

Every network would be falling all over themselves to try to land Manning, leading to a huge bidding war. I’d say either FOX or NBC would be the favourites to land him, but that’s just my uninformed speculation.

But really, the only thing that we know for certain is that five years after he does hang it up, Manning will be enshrined at Canton – there’s no debating that.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

How to fix every sport’s all-star game

- January 27th, 2014

Even after all the rule changes and tweaks made for Sunday’s night Pro Bowl, the game itself was so terribly blah that the only redeeming thing about it was the final few minutes.

So the time has come and I have taken it upon myself to fix all-star games once and for all. Yes, we’re not going to fix just the NFL’s version of the all-star game, we’re going to fix them all. It’s a tough job – well, not really – but somebody has to do it.

Let’s start with a general problem that plagues every all-star game: Fan voting.

I understand that these games are exhibitions for the fans and a way to reward players, but having fans vote for the starters leads to controversy every year. Just look no further than basketball fans electing Kobe Bryant to start this year’s game despite playing just six games due to his Achilles injury and a broken bone in his knee.

I won’t go as far as to take voting away from the fans completely, but let’s scale it back a bit. How about having the top vote-getters in each conference make instead of the entire starting lineup? Or why not use fan voting as one of the factors, but not an automatic place on the team? That way we would see only the most deserving players competing.

Another general improvement I would make is to up the payday for the winning teams, giving players more incentive to compete instead of playing some unreasonable facsimile of defence that is often embarrassing to sports and competition in general. More cash at stake – for the players or charity – would eliminate some of the matador defence you often see in these games.

As for the individual games, let’s start with the easiest one to improve, the NFL’s Pro Bowl. How do you improve it? Eliminate it completely. Using a fantasy draft to pick the teams was a nice step forward, but not enough to salvage that trainwreck. Let’s just scrap the game entirely. Give the players their titles as all-pros, give them a trip to Hawaii, but don’t force them to play another meaningless game. It has no value to the fans, league and TV networks, so let’s just quit this farce.

For baseball, it’s hard to make changes when you consider that something is actually at stake for their Midsummer Classic. If you take out the whole playing-for-homefield-advantage thing, a fantasy draft could be quite interesting. You could even have the winner of the home run derby get first pitch and such. One other thing would be to have the fan-voted starters finish the game instead of starting it. That way you wouldn’t see some of the lesser “stars” facing off with the game on the line – although that does create more heroes in the game. Otherwise, there’s not much you can do improve the best all-star game out there.

The NHL, which started this fantasy draft craze, has pretty much plateaued. I think you could actually take it one step further to make deciding teams even more fun: Do it shinny style. Have every stick thrown in the middle of the ice and sort it out like that. Or, instead of having players as captains, have two lucky fans pick the teams. What a publicity win for the league that would be!

The only real way to improve the game itself would be to have a higher compete level and players that actually try on defence. An 11-9 score isn’t exactly representative of a real ice hockey game. But, again, that’s a general ASG problem.

The NBA all-star game is perhaps the easiest fix: Use a fantasy draft. There is no league in which the players are driven by slights as the NBA. Being passed over by a teammate who is captain or picked behind a positional rival would bring out the best sides of players in this meaningless exhibition. If you don’t think Rajon Rondo would go crazy after being picked last, you’re crazy.

And if you want me to fix the MLS all-star game – which is basically an exhibition against a European team – you’ve come to the wrong place. That thing is a nice exhibition, but it’s beyond fixable.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

Ranking potential Super Bowl matchups + picks

- January 17th, 2014

FOX must be delighted at how the NFL playoffs have turned out. Any way you slice it with these four teams left, the network is going to get one hell of a Super Bowl matchup.

It really says something when the least desirable team – Seattle – finished with tied for the best record in the NFL this season.

In the Patriots-Broncos matchup, we have Tom Brady facing Peyton Manning for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. That’s a no-lose scenario.

In the Seahawks-49ers matchup, you have two of the best defences in the league facing off in perhaps the best rivalry in the game today. Whichever team makes it to New Jersey will have bragging rights over the other for the next year.

You could also have intriguing storylines like Seattle head coach Pete Carroll facing his former team in the Pats, Tom Brady playing the team he grew up rooting (San Fran) and don’t forget that both NFC contenders tried to sign Manning before he chose Denver.

With two weeks of buildup, there will be no shortage of features on the two Super Bowl combatants coming after Sunday’s games. Good thing they should all be interesting.

So, in order, here are the definitive rankings of best-to-worst potential Super Bowls coming into championship weekend.

1. New England vs. San Francisco – Brady chases his fourth ring to equal Montana against the team he grew up rooting for.

2. Denver vs. San Francisco – The Niners try to cap their build to a championship against the league’s undisputed MVP.

3. New England vs. Seattle – Brady chasing No. 4 vs. Carroll, who isn’t exactly loved for his time in New England.

4. Denver vs. Seattle – Manning tries to cap his MVP season against one of the rising teams and league’s best defence.

As for the picks for who will be playing in New Jersey, the lines are from BOVADA.

New England at Denver

It’s Manning-Brady CXIV! OK, maybe the tally isn’t that high – and I’m not complaining about it either – but these two are pretty regular combatants.

But this game isn’t really about the guys that are playing, but the ones that aren’t. Each side has been hit hard by the injury bug this season, especially late on. Both defences are missing their top two players and many more role players. The Broncos offensive line is missing several starters while the Pats have had to adapt with Rob Gronkowski again. So it really comes down to which coach is better at adapting and playing the ‘next-man-up’ game and that’s something that Bill Belichick may be the best at in the NFL.

But here’s the rub: Brady and Belichick always gets the best of Manning in the big games.

And I hate to be THAT guy, but isn’t there no way that if the Broncos win, it won’t be by more than a field goal? Take the points.

Pick: Patriots +5.5

San Francisco at Seattle

I’m sure there was no shortage of experts that had this picked as the NFC title game back before the season started, which is a testament to just how good these teams are and how they’ve lived up to expectations.

Their defences are as advertised: Tough as nails and not willing to give an inch. There’s nothing gimmicky about them either; both teams rely on solid fundamentals and simply outplaying the other side, making this matchup a bit of a wash.

There are two X factors that will no doubt decide this game.

1. The Seahawks immense home-field advantage. The 12th Man factor in Seattle has been widely talked about and can throw an offence into wide disarray. When you can’t call audibles effectively, it limits what you can do offence.

2. Michael Crabtree. Since the Niners top receiver has returned from his Achilles injury, San Fran’s offence has looked as dangerous as ever. He adds that one extra dimension that allows the rest of the pieces to operate at 100%. He’s big, physical and can get open and any range – exactly the type of receiver you need against the Seahawks.

But what I think this game comes down to is one thing: Can the Seahawks offence put up enough points to win? I say yes. One thing about the Seahawks offence that people aren’t talking about enough is the fact that Marshawn Lynch seems to be the one back that runs effectively against the Niners.

With a steady diet of power rushing and crowd, the Seahawks should be punch their ticket to the swamps of New Jersey.

Pick: Seahawks -3

Last week: 2-1-1

Playoffs: 2-3-3

Expanding the NFL playoffs isn’t the answer

- January 10th, 2014

I’m sure you’ve read enough about how amazing wild-card weekend was. Seriously, it was great. If you didn’t watch any of it, you missed out on some thrilling games and especially thrilling finishes.

So, why would the NFL want to mess with that and add more teams to dilute the wildness of wild-card weekend? That was the talk this week from commissioner Roger Goodell.

But adding another two teams and therefore two more games isn’t a great idea.

It’s not as if there are a lot of deserving teams that are missing out. Looking back through the past few seasons, there are a lot more 9-7 and 8-8 teams that would be getting in than the odd 10- or 11-win team that undeservingly misses out.

What the league really has to look at is seeding the playoffs properly, rewarding the teams with the best records rather than division winners. Why should the Packers play at home for winning the weak NFC North while the 11-win 49ers are forced to play on the road?

Also, the extra games would mean that only the top seeds would get a bye week, which would sting for No. 2 seed.

And do we really need a Monday night playoff game? That would put the winning team at a disadvantage heading into the divisional round on a short week.

While more playoff football sounds like a great idea on paper, in reality we just need a more fair system.

As for this week’s picks, the lines are from Bovada.

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks slammed the Saints in Seattle about a month ago, but times have changed. New Orleans’ running game has started to look able to bear some weight and provide balance for Drew Brees and the passing game – which could run into problems with Jimmy Graham blanketed by Seattle’s vaunted, physical secondary. But, because the Seahawks offence has gotten into a bit of a funk, it’s totally possible for this rematch to have a different outcome. At the very least, this one won’t be settled by more than a TD.

Pick: New Orleans +8

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots

The only non-rematch of this round could and should be the biggest blowout. The Colts got really lucky last week, thanks to Andrew Luck leading that massive comeback. This week, don’t expect T.Y. Hilton to getting that wide open against Aqib Talib and the Pats secondary. The amount of mistakes that Indy made last week was very amateurish too, which they can’t get away with against any well-coached team. The Pats shouldn’t let their home-field advantage go to waste here.

Pick: New England -7.5

San Francisco 49ers at Carolina Panthers

The last time these two teams met, it was a defensive slugfest that Carolina took in San Francisco. Well, they shouldn’t get too excited because the Niners are going to get their revenge. This team is heating up thanks to the return of Michael Crabtree and all still capable of playing a grinding game too. While it’s very rare to see a home dog in Round 2, it’s a deserving line and the favoured 49ers should cover. Worst-case scenario, this could be a push.

Pick: San Francisco -3

San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos

The two times these teams met this season, they were incredibly close games and the Chargers made the high-powered Broncos offence look mortal. Last time, Wes Welker wasn’t playing though and Denver wasn’t coming off a bye. Peyton Manning won’t be messing around and the Cinderella story of Philip Rivers and Co. is about to strike midnight.

Pick: Denver -9

Last week: 0-2-2

This playoffs: 0-2-2