Stick With the Familiar Faces

No one receives more credit or blame for NFL success or failure than the starting quarterback and the head coach. They are the de facto leaders. They are the faces of the team. And they are inevitably linked to the team’s legacy.

Of the eight teams still playing, three feature Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, and three feature Super Bowl-winning coaches. Not surprisingly, the only two teams that feature both prized possessions – New England and Indianapolis – double as the two most popular picks to win it all this year.

Forget about the mantra that defense wins championships. Soak up the glitz and glamour surrounding the coaches and quarterbacks. They’ll point you in the right direction this postseason. Just remember two simple rules. (Of course, there are always exceptions. Yes, I’m talking to you, Trent Dilfer.)

Rule #1: It takes a star quarterback to win the big one.

Excluding Ben Roethlisberger, who at 25 years old hasn’t played long enough for a career assessment, only two of the past 10 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were not either surefire Hall of Famers or multiple MVP winners.

In the Super Bowl era, Doug Williams and Jim Plunkett are the only two quarterbacks to have won a Super Bowl without making the Pro Bowl at any point in their career. And even they went home with Super Bowl MVP honors.

Rule #2: Experience counts for coaches.

In the Super Bowl era, only six coaches have won the Super Bowl during their first trip to the playoffs. A quick glance at the table below shows that two men on that list are on in the Hall of Fame, Bill Walsh and Gibbs. And Seifert won in 1989 after taking over a 49ers team that had already won three Super Bowls with Walsh. The bottom line: it’s rare that a coach makes a Super Bowl run without having won in the playoffs before.

Applying the rules to the divisional round matchups
(Home team in CAPS)

Jacksonville vs. NEW ENGLAND

There’s no question the New England Patriots have more than a 16-0 record on their side. In Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Patriots have a QB/coach combination that has teamed for three Super Bowl victories since 2002.

On the opposing sideline, the Jaguars feature a QB (David Garrard) that made his first postseason start and a coach (Jack Del Rio) that won for the first time in the postseason last week in Pittsburgh. The Jaguars won in Pittsburgh in December and January, but that doesn’t mean they can travel to Foxboro and topple the Pats.

After throwing three interceptions all season long, Garrard tossed two picks against Pittsburgh. Garrard cannot afford to turn the ball over at all against a New England team with the most potent scoring offense in NFL history. The problem for Garrard is that even if he goes mistake free, “not messing up” will not be enough to beat the Patriots. He’ll need a career day to keep pace with Brady, Moss and company.

The pick: New England 38, Jacksonville 21


The defending champion Colts have the same combination of Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy that proved golden last February. They also have the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, Bob Sanders, which could spell trouble for Chargers QB Philip Rivers, who lost and performed badly last season in the divisional round.

Rivers and Norv Turner are the shakiest QB/coach duo still standing. After getting shutout in the first half last week against Tennessee, the Chargers battled back to win their first playoff game in more than a decade. But it wasn’t pretty. Tight end Antonio Gates hurt his toe and running sensation LaDainian Tomlinson amassed just 42 yards on 21 carries.

On paper, the Colts and Chargers seem to match up evenly. And their week 10 contest actually ended 23-21 in favor of the Chargers, thanks to 6 interceptions of Peyton Manning and a missed field goal by Adam Vinatieri. But when you mention Manning and Dungy vs. Rivers and Turner in a do-or-die game, there’s only one possible outcome.

The pick: Indianapolis 35, San Diego 20

Seattle vs. GREEN BAY

Over in the NFC, the Seahawks and Packers will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, when Matt Hasselbeck’s infamous words, “We’ll take the ball and we’re gonna score!” backfired as he threw a pick-6 in overtime, giving the Packers a 33-27 win on wild card weekend.

Green Bay has Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brett Favre, who hasn’t tasted a playoff since that Haselbeck game. Meanwhile Seattle, who lost in the divisional round last year against Chicago, has Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Holmgren.

Holmgren was the Packers coach when Favre and the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. Does that make their relative experience a draw? Given the choice, take the QB over the coach, especially when that QB holds nearly every passing record imaginable. Favre, a 3-time MVP, had his best year in nearly a decade. It’s hard to imagine him being one and done in the playoffs.

The pick: Green Bay 24, Seattle 23

Finally, there’s the Cowboys and the Giants. Quarterbacks Tony Romo and Eli Manning have started a combined four games in the postseason. Romo’s postseason debut ended in disaster last season when he botched the hold on a would-be game winning field goal and was then tackled just short of the first down marker and end zone, in a 21-20 loss to Seattle. He bounced back with a monster 2007 season, but all of his regular season success will be forgotten if he comes up short against the Giants.

Last week, Manning got his first playoff win in three tries. But beating the Cowboys will be a much tougher task. He’s 3-4 versus the Cowboys in his career. A win this week would silence some critics, but he’ll have to play another mistake-free game as he did last week against Tampa Bay.

The coaching matchup pits Dallas’ Wade Phillips against Tom Coughlin of the Giants. Phillips has never won a postseason game as a head coach, going a combined 0-3 with Denver and Buffalo. Including last week, Coughlin is 5-6 in his postseason career. Neither record strikes fear into the hearts of opponents but count on Phillips to channel Bill Parcells, the architect of this Cowboys team, for a big win.

The pick: Dallas 24, New York 10

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Thoughts and Links From the Workweek

It’s been a busy week in the office and on my social calendar (hence the lack of updates this week). I have managed to do plenty of Web browsing throughout the week though.

Check out these links to some of the most interesting sports news items and stories that caught my eye.

  • You have to read Wright Thompson’s story about Tony Harris, the former Washington State basketball player whose corpse was found in the forests of Brazil. This is not a sports story. This is a human story whose main character just happened to play basketball for a living. It’s a truly gripping and saddening tale. Thompson traveled to Brazil to unearth as many details as possible. You may also want to read Henry Abbott’s conversation with Thompson about the story on Abbott’s phenomenal blog, TrueHoop.
  • In more upbeat news, Bob Sanders had a great week. Already voted a Pro Bowl starter for the AFC, anders was named the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year and voted to the NFL All-Pro team. I’ve watched Sanders play since he was an RB/DB listed as Demond Sanders at Cathedral Prep and it’s been amazing to watch him develop into a star through hard work and hard hits. This Indianapolis Star article says Sanders plays the same way he played as a kid growing up in Erie, Pa. He’s also got his own special on the NFL network, “Who is Bob Sanders?” The show airs tonight at 10:30 with reairs on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Like Sanders, Clayton Holmes was a Super Bowl-winning defensive back. But that is pretty much where the similarities end. Holmes’ tragic story is told by Page 2’s Jeff Pearlman.
  • Scoop Jackson makes an interesting case for Derek Fisher as the most important player to the Lakers success. I wrote a poem called “The Fish That Saved Los Angeles” after Fisher hit the game winning shot against the Spurs in game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Maybe it’s time for a reprise.
  • Did you see the biggest story in college basketball this week? Of course, I’m talking about 7’7” Kenny George, the tallest player in NCAA history. The UNC-Asheville junior got dunked on by North Carolina Tar Heel star Tyler Hansbrough in a 92-81 Tar Heel victory. George had 14 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in the loss, and he is definitely a player to keep an eye on.
  • Finally, have you read about 50-year-old basketball sharpshooter Dave Hopla? This guy makes more than 90 percent of his college-range 3-point shot attempts. And his streak of 1,234 consecutive made free throws really makes me feel like I need to improve upon my personal best of “thirty-something.”

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A Fresh Batch of American Gladiators Episodes? I’ll Take Two Scoops

American Gladiators returns to NBC tonight at 9 p.m., and I’ll be watching. The show was one of my favorites during its original run from 1989-1997. I don’t know if the revamped 2008 edition will provide enough entertainment to compare with the nostalgia of ESPN Classic reruns of the original episodes, but NBC did make things interesting by adding one of my childhood heroes to the mix. Hulk Hogan (along with Laila Ali) will serve as a commentator for the show.

Before the launch of a new generation of gladiators, I have to talk about the greatest competitor in the history of American Gladiators. Of course I’m talking about Wesley “Two Scoops” Berry.

The legend of Two Scoops is part Bo Jackson and part Paul Bunyan. In a day and age when you can Google map your way to much any place on the planet, tracking down information about Two Scoops is about as easy as finding the Fountain of Youth. The few YouTube clips of Two Scoops that I could find only hint at his speed, agility and overall athletic ability.

If Two Scoops didn’t invent the phrase “giving 110 percent,” he certainly was the only athlete who actually did it. He passed through the gauntlet like a pinball, whizzing past some gladiators, bouncing around others, and completed the event in record time. He could leap tall buildings in a single bound. No? OK, but how about a car?

The most amazing moment among Two Scoops’ championship run, which according to came during season 6 (1993-94), was his come-from-behind win in the Eliminator. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find footage of this event online. If anyone has it, I’m begging you to share it online.

I don’t remember the specifics, but somehow Two Scoops entered the final event trailing by a significant margin. But it did not matter. When he got to the infamous cargo net – an area where every competitor seemed to get caught up – Two Scoops scaled the web as if he had spun it himself. He left his competitor in the dust and won the event, and the season’s championship.

While I have no confirmed proof, several Internet message boards suggest that Two Scoops is currently incarcerated for armed robbery. If true, it’s a tragic twist in the story of a man who inspired kids to dig down deep to succeed. But like the rest of the Two Scoops story, it’s hard to access any details about his current whereabouts.

Perhaps NBC will give insight into the current status of the best performer in the history of American Gladiators during its broadcast later tonight. Or, perhaps the legend of Two Scoops will continue to live on in infamy in the minds and memories of a generation that was awestruck by his performances. As time passes by, the stories and personal accounts of Two Scoops’ heroic ascent to American Gladiators greatness will mean more than any YouTube clip ever could.

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How Often Do Championship Games Actually Live Up to the Hype?

After watching three of the first four BCS bowl games turn out to be blowouts, I began wondering about the chances that LSU-Ohio State would also be a blowout similar to the Buckeyes-Gators championship from last year. And that got me thinking about championships in general. How often does the final game of the season actually live up to the hype of a championship?
I did some research and compiled tables (see below) from the past nine championship games (the first BCS champion was in 1999) in college football, the NFL, the NBA, college basketball and Major League Baseball. If we set parameters of a “close game” as 7 points or less in football, 6 points or less in basketball, and 2 runs or less in baseball, only 22 of 45 championship-deciding games have been close in the aforementioned sports since 1999.


It’s hard to compare across sports because obviously basketball games are higher scoring than football games, and baseball games are much lower scoring. Perhaps there’s some statistical expert out there who knows how to formulate a stat that could eliminate the variables and compare the scoring margin across the sporting world. But until that person steps forward, I’ll just offer the data and my observations.


Comparing football to football, the BCS championship games don’t quite stack up against the most recent Super Bowls. The average margin of victory in BCS title games is 15.33 whereas the Super Bowl margin of victory has been just 12.0 since 1999.


Judging the World Series and NBA Finals is also difficult because, unlike the other sports, they decide their champion in a series. But judging by the final game of the series, they are slightly more likely to be close games. In the case of Major League Baseball, no deciding game has been decided by more than 3 runs in the past nine years. Unfortunately, five of those years saw the World Series end in a four game sweep, which significantly lessens the drama and intrigue of the closeout game.


The Nielsen TV ratings indicate that the BCS is performing strongly. While the Super Bowl remains the standard by which all televised sporting events are measured, the BCS ratings average is greater than all of the other sports listed.


What does all this mean? I’m not completely sure, but basically it seems to suggest that even if the game Monday night is a blowout, I’ll probably be watching. Yeah, sounds about right.
(Click the images below to view full size.)

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LSU vs. OSU in the BCS Could Spell Blowout

Ten years later, everyone’s still complaining. Well, not everyone. Fans in Louisiana and Ohio are surely excited as the LSU Tigers and Ohio State Buckeyes prepare to meet in the 2008 Allstate Bowl Championship Series Championship Game.

For all its hype, all its hoopla and all its maybe-this-will-make-them-stop-talking-about-a-playoff hope, the BCS leaves fans disappointed. Putting talk of the system aside – you can find plenty of those columns online – the games themselves have failed to deliver the goods.

This year’s bowl season has actually been exciting overall. Of the 29 games played so far, 17 have been decided by 7 points or less. But the average margin of victory in BCS games this year has been 21.5 points.

Shouldn’t the biggest games be the best games? That’s certainly what fans hope for and are led to believe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always pan out that way. In the nine-year history of the BCS, the average margin of victory in the championship game is 15.3 points. Only four games were decided by less than 10 points.

LSU-Ohio State’s blowout-ability

Personal allegiances aside, everyday fans of football want a competitive game Monday night. But LSU and Ohio State both have a recent penchant for bowl blowouts.

The Buckeyes lost last year’s BCS championship 41-14 against Florida. The year before that, they dominated Notre Dame 34-20. The year before that, they pounded Oklahoma State 33-7.

LSU’s last two bowl performances? A 41-14 romp of Brady Quinn and Notre Dame in last year’s Sugar Bowl and a 40-3 annihilation of Miami two years ago.

To be fair, both the Buckeyes (31-24 in 2OT vs. Miami, 2003 Fiesta Bowl) and Tigers (21-14 vs. Oklahoma, 2004 Sugar Bowl) have won the BCS title in close games within the past five years, but that doesn’t mean this game will be an instant classic.

The Buckeyes had just two games all season decided by less than 10 points. Meanwhile, the Tigers played a number of close games within the SEC, but they also had four wins by 40 or more points.

Explosive offense meets stout defense

If there is a reason to suggest this game stays close, it’s the matchup of LSU’s high-powered offense and Ohio State’s tenacious defense. LSU scores more than 38 points a game. The Buckeyes surrender just over 10 points per game.

Ohio State allowed more than 20 points just once all year – in their lone loss of the season, 28-21 against Illinois. On the flip side, LSU’s two losses came in triple overtime, which inflated the score. But their score at the end of the fourth quarter in those games was 27 and 28, respectively.

If the game is played in the teens or below, the Buckeyes will feel right at home. If it gets into the 20s, they may still have a shot. But if scoring gets into the mid-30s or higher, the game is LSU’s for the taking.

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Out, Damned Wild Card Spot: Assessing the shortcomings of every NFL team playing on wild card weekend

It’s safe to say that Shakespearean scholars and football fans are not often mentioned in the same sentence, but the NFL’s wild card weekend will feature enough fatally flawed football to appeal to both demographics. The eight teams playing during the first week of the 2008 playoffs are more likely to meet the fate of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth than that of Super Bowl legends (Jack) Ham or (Joe) Montana.

Not since the early-90’s 49ers and Cowboys can I recall such a division between the elite class of the NFL and the second tier playoff teams. The four teams with first round byes – New England, Indianapolis, Dallas and Green Bay went a combined 55-9, including week 17 losses by the Colts and Cowboys while they rested their starters.

Sure, eight other teams qualified for the playoffs, but just as indecision eventually led to Hamlet’s demise, each of the teams in action during wild card weekend will be exposed and fall long before their Super Bowl dreams are realized.

So dust off your old English Lit books, or your SparkNotes, as I assign a character from Shakespearean tragedy to each of the eight pretenders and explain why they will make an early (first or second round) playoff exit. The teams are listed in order from the most flawed to the least flawed.

1. Tennessee Titans as Cleopatra from Antony and Cleopatra

Like Cleopatra, the Titans seem to have a flair for the dramatic. They sneaked into the playoffs by edging a Jim Sorgi-led Indianapolis Colts team resting many of its starters in week 17. In 2006, Tennessee closed the year by winning six of their last seven, and Vince Young was league’s hottest young star. But Young struggled throughout the 2007 campaign, finishing as the 26th rated passer in the league.

Still, Young remains in the spotlight. Just like Cleopatra, Young has the physical tools to leave fans in awe, but his superstar potential tends to overshadow his teammates around him. Like Cleopatra, Young’s charisma and natural leadership ability are evident, but he doesn’t fit the typical NFL quarterback mold. Young will have to disprove skeptics who bring up his shortcomings as a pocket passer.

The running game features LenDale White, who led the team with 1,110 yards and 7 touchdowns. But their receivers accounted for just 8 touchdown catches all year. Defensively, Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch lead the league’s fifth ranked defense. But they will not be enough. Tennessee gets a taste of the playoffs, but a win is asking too much too soon for Young and the Titans.

2. New York Giants as Brutus from Julius Caesar

The New York Giants are back in the playoffs again. It is the Giants’ third straight year qualifying for the playoffs. They lost in the wild card round each of the past two seasons. Playing in the Big Apple, the Giants are a public figure. Much like Brutus in Julius Caesar, they are a conflicted team confounded by their idealism.

To quote Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” The Giants began the season 6-2 and finished 4-4. They beat just one playoff team (Washington), and that was back in week 3. Four of their six losses came against the NFL’s elite: New England, Green Bay and Dallas twice. They’re mediocre just like the past two seasons.

Coach Tom Coughlin is a perennial hot seat coach, and another first round exit will fuel that fire-the-coach fire in New York. The fact that they played the undefeated Patriots tightly in week 17 in a game that meant nothing in the standings for the Giants is nice, but it’s still a loss. They left the field banged up, and Eli Manning threw another late game interception. And like Brutus, the Giants let their noble idealism get in the way of their real goal: playoff success.

3. Washington Redskins as Juliet from Romeo & Juliet

The Redskins were forced to grow up in a hurry due to real life tragedy, the Nov. 27 shooting death of Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor. In Romeo & Juliet, the 14-year-old Juliet begins as a timid, naïve child before growing into a self-assured, loyal young woman.

When the Redskins lost their top defensive back, they also lost a teammate and friend. But following a gut-wrenching last second loss to Buffalo, the Redskins rallied to win their last four games to qualify for the postseason. Juliet’s final act of suicide is tragic, but it is an act passion. Washington needs to worry about taking itself out of the playoffs by riding too high on emotion.

They’ll put their trust in veteran quarterback Todd Collins, who has gone 4-0 as a starter this season. The problem for Washington is that while Collins is 36 years old, he has less playoff passing attempts than every other quarterback in the playoffs except Vince Young. Collins went just 1-of-4 for 7 yards in a 1996 playoff appearance for Buffalo against Jacksonville. They will go down honorably, but inexperience will be the downfall of the Redskins.

4. Seattle Seahawks as King Lear

The Seahawks are an illusion. They are NFC West champions for a fourth straight year, but champion is a bit of a misnomer. Outpacing the Cardinals, Rams and 49ers, three teams that combined for as many wins as the Patriots had on their own, is no major feat.

King Lear valued appearance over reality. Perhaps he reigned in Seattle, where the Seahawks’ best win came way back in week 1 over Tampa Bay. It was their lone victory against a playoff team – not that they faced many. In fact, the Seahawks’ had the easiest schedule in the league, and half of their wins came within the aforementioned weak competition of their own division.

Like Lear, the Seahawks are an aging king. Their 2005 NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander ran for a career low 3.5 yards per carry this year. After scoring double digit touchdowns for five straight seasons, he’s scored a combined 11 times the past two years. As Alexander’s production has slowed, the team has become a predictably pass-happy team that seems doomed to a flame out during a frosty January road trip to Lambeau Field.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers as Hamlet

This is not your father’s Steelers football, or is it? Under first year coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers are enigmatic much like Hamlet. Sometimes they are indecisive. They aren’t sure if they should play smashmouth football the way they played in the days of Franco Harris or even the more recent days of Jerome Bettis.

In other games, they want to feature Ben Roethlisberger and choose to air it out. The end result is an up and down season. They won six games by 17 points or more. They also lost games against the lowly Jets, Ravens, Broncos and Cardinals. While the Steelers are capable of taking down a team or two along the way, their inability to carve out an offensive identity will be too much to overcome.

The Steelers were asking themselves what to be or not to be on offense even before the playoffs. Now injuries make the Steelers problems even greater. Starting running back Willie Parker and tackles Max Starks and Marvel Smith are all out with injuries. Should the Steelers try to grind it out, Najeh Davenport will carry the load. If they try to go through the air, Big Ben will have to try to regain his form. After starting the season strong, he cooled down the stretch, throwing just 12 touchdown passes in his final eight games. Hesitant to commit either way, the Steelers will fall short.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers as Titus Andronicus

After a last place finish in 2006, Tampa Bay responded with a 9-7 record in 2007 to win the NFC South. But their winning won’t last long in the postseason. They have a solidly built team, but not a championship team.

They’re rooted in the tradition that defense wins championships. After all, their 2002 Super Bowl unit was built on a strong defense. But the goal isn’t to rebuild the 2002 championship team. They need a team fit to win it all this season. They simply do not have the offensive firepower to compete with the likes of the Patriots, Cowboys, Colts, or Packers. Those teams had the four best records in the league, and they were also the top four scoring teams in the league. They each averaged more than 27 points per game whereas the Bucs scored less than 21 per game.

Titus Andronicus was lauded for his reverence for traditions before it led to his downfall. At some point it simply becomes stubbornness and refusal to change. Tampa Bay should know better than to rest on its laurels from postseasons past. Caretaker quarterback Jeff Garcia is not enough to win the big one. Case in point: Garcia is 2-1 in the wild card round and 0-2 in the divisional round in his playoff career. Expect similar results from him wwith the Bucs this year.

7. San Diego Chargers as Macbeth

Like Macbeth, most people are familiar with the story of the Chargers in the playoffs, even if they don’t really understand them. Last year they went 14-2, grabbed the number one seed and promptly lost their home playoff game against the Patriots. They fired their coach and hired Norv Turner. He led them to an 11-5 record, good enough to win a depleted AFC West and claim the third seed. Yet San Diego is supposedly more poised for a championship run this year. Cue the Macbeth comparison. The Chargers’ ambition to take down the big dogs of the AFC combined with their self-doubt (“We fired our coach and won three less games?”) makes them a shaky pick against anyone.

On the plus side, they have the best all-purpose running back in the game, LaDainian Tomlinson, and he seems to have run right out of his early season slump. On the negative side, quarterback Philip Rivers had a miserable QB rating of 55.5 in his playoff debut last year. And this year, his regular season passer rating dropped 10 points.

Macbeth’s penchant for self-doubt also carries over to the Chargers sidelines where coaching questions are bound to follow Norv Turner. Brought in to replace Marty Schottenheimer and help the Chargers take the next step, Turner is desperate for playoff success himself. In ten years as a coach, this is just his second playoff appearance. The Chargers franchise hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’94 season. Their coach hasn’t won a playoff game since the ’99 season. Sounds like all that self-doubt may be warranted for San Diego.

8. Jacksonville Jaguars as Othello

Everyone seems to be riding on the Jaguars bandwagon these days. Wins against the Titans, Chargers and Steelers in the second half of the season make them the most dangerous team playing on wild card weekend, but that still doesn’t mean they’re going to beat the Colts or Patriots. The Colts beat the Jags twice, and the Patriots haven’t lost a game all season.

Like Othello, Jacksonville is an outsider. They were an expansion team just over a decade ago. They jettisoned their franchise quarterback in the offseason to make room for David Garrard, a move that appears ingenious after Garrard threw just 3 interceptions all season. The man they released, Byron Leftwich, threw two picks while playing in just three games for Atlanta.

Othello is also marked by jealousy, even as he denies it. Similarly, the Jaguars are also jealous of the elite teams, though they’d never admit to it. Despite an 11-5 record, no Jaguars were named to the Pro Bowl. The problem extends to the coach as well. Jack Del Rio has compiled a 45-35 record with Jacksonville, but he’s failed to lead the team to a playoff victory. Meanwhile, Del Rio’s predecessor, Tom Coughlin, took Jacksonville all the way to the AFC Championship game in the franchise’s second year of existence. Jacksonville has enjoyed success before. Championship football is what they crave. They feel they belong in the discussion of elite teams, but they’ve yet to prove it on the big stage. After all, all life’s a stage come playoff time in the NFL.

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Holding Myself Accountable: Reviewing my NFL predictions)

With the NFL playoff picture now complete, it’s time to assess my preseason predictions. I managed to stay above .500, correctly predicting seven of the twelve teams qualifying for the postseason, including five of the eight division winners correct (New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, Dallas and Seattle).

But since my preseason Super Bowl pick of the New Orleans Saints failed to qualify for the playoffs altogether, it’s hard to give myself anything better than a C for my preseason picks.

In the NFC, I correctly placed Washington in the sixth spot, even matching them against Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. I also had Dallas as a division winner. But I badly underestimated Tampa Bay, Green Bay and the New York Giants. And I was much too optimistic about the 2007 season for San Francisco, St. Louis, Chicago and Carolina.

In the AFC, I expected a good year from the Patriots, but not 16-0. I had them winning the division, but I actually had San Diego pegged to go 15-1 as the best in the conference. Instead they went 11-5, which was still enough to win the AFC West.

I was on target with my pick of the Colts to win their division. I also had Pittsburgh in the playoffs, although I thought they’d sneak in as a wild card with Cincinnati winning the division. The Bengals finished 7-9 behind both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. I was way off on the Browns and Jaguars, picking them as cellar dwellers in their respective divisions.

However, I was close on the woeful Dolphins. I predicted two wins for Miami. As the worst team in the league, they managed just one victory this year.

With my Super Bowl champion gone before the playoffs even begin, my postseason picks will have to be taken with a grain of salt, but for those interested in my playoff predictions, I have a first round column coming later this week.

Until then, happy New Year and enjoy the bowl games!

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One Week Later: My thoughts from Lakers-Cavs 12/20/07

Last Thursday, along with my brother Mike, my dad, my best friend Colvin and his dad, I traveled to Cleveland to watch the Lakers take on the Cavs. It was my first NBA game since 1998. That game was also Lakers-Cavs, though both teams bore little resemblance to their ’98 counterparts.

The only thing I remember about that ‘98 game is Mario Bennett, who scored a career high 21 points and pulled down double digit boards for the Lakers in an otherwise unremarkable 105-93 victory.

After looking at that old box score, it turns out Derek Anderson of the Cavs was actually the leading scorer in the game, not Bennett. And Shaq had 26 points to pace the Lakers, but he did so on 11-of-23 shooting.

Did you know three players from last week’s game also played in the ’98 contest? Derek Fisher, Zydrunas Ilgauskaus and some kid named Kobe Bryant.

As for the Cavs 94-90 win over the Lakers this time around, I have several observations:

  • The loudest ovation of the first half, and arguably the entire game, was the introduction of the newest Iron Chef, Cleveland restaurant owner Michael Symon. No offense to the chef, but you would think the fans of the reigning Eastern Conference Champions would be a bit more excited, especially for LeBron vs. Kobe. Also, piping in chants of de-fense – not very impressive.

  • There were at least two or three occasions when the Lakers used a halfhearted hug technique to foul LeBron on drives to the hoop, allowing him to get his shot up on the rim for the “and-1” opportunity. Part of that is LeBron’s strength, but you have to be able to commit a clean, hard foul in those circumstances to prevent the three-point play. You coach that in high school.

  • Poor Larry Hughes. It’s not his fault the Cavs signed him to a ridiculous contract, but he looked overmatched by everyone in a purple uniform. My brother actually apologized to the Cavs fans sitting next to us that they had to have Hughes on their roster. I think he was only half joking.

  • From the second quarter on, I kept saying, “It feels like we should be winning by a lot more than we are.” The Lakers enjoyed a double-digit lead for about 20 seconds late in the third quarter, but they had several key turnovers to stifle their own momentum throughout the game.

  • If you ask me, the game was lost in the first two and a half minutes of the fourth quarter when Phil Jackson went with a lineup of Trevor Ariza, Sasha Vujacic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jordan Farmar and Andrew Bynum. The Cavs turned a 78-75 deficit into an 83-78 lead in less than three minutes before Jackson reinserted Bryant into the lineup. I actually like what each of those players brings to the Lakers team, but as a unit, they brought the offense to a screeching halt.

  • After LeBron hit two free throws to put Cleveland up 92-90 with 1:44 to play, the Lakers had five chances to tie or take the lead, including two shots from Kobe. I’ll take those chances every game. This game, however, the shots simply didn’t fall.

  • Early in the season, when Kobe trade rumors were swirling, I proposed a four-team mega deal that I e-mailed to Bill Simmons, who calls himself the Picasso of ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine. At the time, you could make a case for all four teams, but I said the Cavs would be first to say no when it came to dealing LeBron. Fast forward to today, and the Heat and Knicks are dying for this sort of deal. But I think the Lakers are now as hesitant to deal Kobe as the Cavs would be to deal LeBron.

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2007 College Bowl Pick ’em

This year, I’m trying my hand at a college football bowl pick ‘em. I cannot believe that it’s taken me until age 23 to latch onto this idea. After all, I’ve been known to fill out dozens of NCAA brackets in March for college basketball.

My earliest memory dates back to first grade. Cootiful girls (this was many years before hormones detected any female as beautiful on my radar) wondered aloud why I was drawing rocket ships all over my notebook. Had any of the girls accurately identified the “rocket ships” as tourney brackets, I may have been the first to ever find a first grade soul mate. Instead, the cooties lingered for another four years or so.

Back to my point. A college FOOTBALL pick ‘em?! How had I missed this until now? I mean, let’s face it: matchups like TCU/Houston and Nevada/New Mexico are not the sexiest sells. Even for serious football fans like myself, it’s hard to get psyched for something known as the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. But ask me to predict the winner of this game, which I propose should be renamed the San Diego C-CUP Bowl for marketing purposes (I told you the cooties issue was a thing of the past), along with the other 31 bowl games, and suddenly, I’m personally invested. Add to that the power to rank my confidence in my picks in descending order from 32 (most confident) to 1 (least confident), and I’m hooked.

Throw in the option to compete against friends and/or complete strangers online at places like ESPN and Yahoo for free, and I find myself salivating at the mention of the bowl. And if, hypothetically, I lived in a state where gambling were legal and I could win money based on the success of my picks in a bowl pick ‘em office pool, I might even go gaga over the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl.

Just like that, the BCS becomes Bowl Craziness Season. LSU/Ohio State may be for the national championship, but if I chose to give it a confidence of 1 (I didn’t), it would mean that game could mean less to me than Connecticut/Wake Forest. Take that, Buckeyes!

If you haven’t hopped aboard the bowl pick ‘em express, hurry up. Bowl season begins Dec. 20. And you’re going to need a reason to tune in when 6-6 Alabama battles 6-6 Colorado in the PetroSun Independence Bowl on Dec. 30.

My picks are in bold with my confidence in parentheses. (Remember, 32 is my most confident pick and 1 is my least confident pick. Each game is worth as many points as the confidence indicates. So, for example, my 14 confidence pick is worth 14 points.)

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Thursday, Dec. 20
Utah (19) vs. Navy

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Friday, Dec. 21
Florida Atlantic vs. Memphis (7) Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
Southern Miss vs. #22 Cincinnati (23)

New Mexico Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
Nevada (28) vs. New Mexico

Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
UCLA (12) vs. #17 BYU

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Sunday, Dec. 23
#24 Boise State (30) vs. East Carolina

Motor City Bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 26
Purdue (27) vs. Central Michigan

Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 26
#11 Arizona State (11) vs. #19 Texas

Champs Sports Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
#14 Boston College (20) vs. Michigan State

Texas Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
TCU (3) vs. Houston

Emerald Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
Maryland (15) vs. Oregon State

Meineke Car Care Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
#25 Connecticut vs. Wake Forest (10)

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
Mississippi State vs. UCF (5)

Valero Alamo Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
Texas A&M vs. Penn State (14)

Petrosun Independence Bowl, Sunday, Dec. 30
Colorado vs. Alabama (9)

Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Air Force vs. California (8)

Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Fresno State vs. Georgia Tech (13)

Sun Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
#21 South Florida (22) vs. Oregon

Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Florida State vs. Kentucky (21)

Insight Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Oklahoma State vs. Indiana (6)

Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
#15 Clemson (4) vs. #23 Auburn

Outback Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#16 Tennessee (17) vs. #18 Wisconsin

Cotton Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#6 Missouri (26) vs. Arkansas

Capital One Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#12 Florida vs. Michigan (1)

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#20 Virginia vs. Texas Tech (25)

The Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#7 USC (32) vs. #13 Illinois

Allstate Sugar Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#5 Georgia (29) vs. Hawaii

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Wednesday, Jan. 2
#4 Oklahoma (16) vs. #9 West Virginia

FedEx Orange Bowl, Thursday, Jan. 3
#3 Virginia Tech (18) vs. #8 Kansas

International Bowl, Saturday, Jan. 5
Ball State vs. Rutgers (24)

GMAC Bowl, Sunday, Jan. 6
Tulsa vs. Bowling Green (2)

Allstate BCS National Championship Game
#1 Ohio State vs. #2 LSU (31)

There it is for all to see. Check back throughout the bowl season to see how my picks are holding up, and feel free to comment about where you agree and disagree with my selections. Happy bowl season!

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Bowl Season Breakdown

Chanukah has eight nights. Christmas has twelve days. And this year, bowl season is 32 games and 19 days long. So put your dislike of ridiculous sponsorship and lack-of-a-playoff related frustration aside because those battles will have to wait.

We have sponsors and bowls galore, and unless you’re planning to stage a coup, you might as well embrace what college football has to offer: games, and plenty of them. The bowl season provides college football fans with the opportunity to watch 32 games giving 64 teams one last chance to end their season on a winning note.

Everyone knows what’s at stake on Jan. 7, but what about the other 31 games leading up to LSU and Ohio State in the Allstate BCS National Championship game? For those involved in a college bowl pick ‘em poll or those simply looking for an excuse to feed their football hunger throughout the holiday season, here’s a quick look at each game leading up to the championship.

Jump to: Dec. 20-26 Dec. 28-31 Jan.1-7

San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Thursday, Dec. 20
Utah vs. Navy

Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in 44 years this season. Their quarterback, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, gives fits to both spellers and defenses, helping the Midshipmen put up numbers rivaling the letters in his name. Meanwhile the Utes are riding a six-game bowl winning streak.

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, Friday, Dec. 21
Florida Atlantic vs. Memphis

Florida Atlantic’s football program is younger than your average kindergartener. Their program began in 2001. Memphis battled back from a 2-4 start and the tragic shooting death of defensive lineman Taylor Bradford in October to become bowl eligible. Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
Southern Miss vs. #22 Cincinnati

A tale of two coaches in this one: Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly was named Big East Coach of the Year in his first season with the Bearcats. On the opposing sideline, Southern Miss will be playing its last game under Jeff Bower, who resigned Nov. 26, and may have been forced out by the school.

New Mexico Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
Nevada vs. New Mexico

New Mexico lost in the inaugural New Mexico Bowl last season. Nevada, who boasts a top-20 scoring offense, suffered two point losses to each of the WAC’s two best teams, Boise State and Hawaii.
Pioneer Las Vegas Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 22
UCLA vs. #17 BYU

BYU is playing in their third consecutive Las Vegas Bowl. Last season they defeated Oregon 38-8 in the game. The Bruins topped BYU 27-17 on Sept. 8, but finished the season winning just four of their final ten games. UCLA is also the only bowl team who lost to Notre Dame this season.

Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Sunday, Dec. 23
#24 Boise State vs. East Carolina

This is only the second year since the bowl’s inception in 2002 that Hawaii will not play in the Hawaii Bowl. Boise State will make a rare return trip to Honolulu. The Broncos lost to Hawaii 39-27 in November. Most teams would welcome two trips to the Aloha State, but the Broncos are disappointed after they wowed the nation with a Fiesta Bowl upset victory over Oklahoma last year. East Carolina is looking for their first bowl victory since 2000.

Motor City Bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 26
Purdue vs. Central Michigan

Purdue finished with a 3-5 conference record but the Boilermakers are still playing in a bowl game. Their opponent is a Central Michigan team looking for revenge. Purdue handled team 45-22 on Sept. 15.

Pacific Life Holiday Bowl, Wednesday, Dec. 26
#11 Arizona State vs. #19 Texas

The Sun Devils’ only two losses came against a Dennis Dixon-led Oregon Ducks team and the Pac-10 Champion USC Trojans. Texas is 1-2 all-time in the Holiday Bowl.

Champs Sports Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
#14 Boston College vs. Michigan State

The Eagles were ranked as high as number two this season before dropping three of their final five. Quarterback Matt Ryan’s Heisman hopes were vanquished along with BC’s shot at the BCS. Ryan’s final collegiate game comes against a Spartan squad making its first bowl appearance since 2003 under first-year coach Mark Dantonio.

Texas Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
TCU vs. Houston

Houston is fourth in the nation in total yards, but they will play the game without their coach, Art Briles, who left for Baylor. TCU won their last two games by a combined 36 points in order to secure bowl eligibility.

Emerald Bowl, Friday, Dec. 28
Maryland vs. Oregon State

Both of these teams made noise this season by knocking off high-ranked opponents. Maryland defeated tenth-ranked Rutgers and later eighth-ranked Boston College. Oregon State beat number two California and state rival, number 17 Oregon.

Meineke Car Care Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
#25 Connecticut vs. Wake Forest

Emeka Okafor and Tim Duncan will not be in uniform for this one. Neither will Ray Allen or Randolph Childress. It turns out these schools play football this time of year, too. Despite skidding to a 1-2 finish, UConn finished as co-champions of the Big East. As for the Demon Deacons, they managed to overcome an 0-2 start to earn back-to-back bowl berths for the first time in school history.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
Mississippi State vs. UCF

Sylvester Croom has coached Mississippi State to its first winning season since 2000. The school’s reward is the Liberty Bowl where they’ll meet Central Florida and the nation’s leading rusher, Kevin Smith, who has rushed for 2,448 yards and 29 touchdowns on the year.

Valero Alamo Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 29
Texas A&M vs. Penn State

The legendary Joe Paterno brings an underachieving Nittany Lions team to the Alamo Bowl. Penn State beat just one ranked opponent all season (Wisconsin). They lost badly in a showcase game against number one Ohio State and also missed opportunities to move up in the conference with losses against Illinois and Michigan. Texas A&M finished its season on a high note, knocking off Texas to end a three-game conference losing streak.

PetroSun Independence Bowl, Sunday, Dec. 30
Colorado vs. Alabama

This is a Jekyll and Hyde game for you. Colorado beat Oklahoma but lost six games, including a 47-20 drubbing versus Kansas State. Alabama also went 6-6. They beat Tennessee, played LSU tough and then lost to Mississippi State, Louisiana-Monroe and Auburn to end the season.

Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Air Force vs. California

After beginning the season 5-0 and being ranked number two in the country, it’s safe to say Golden Bears fans were not dreaming of a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl, but their season began to tailspin after a loss to Oregon State. They won just one of their final seven games. At 9-3, Air Force had its first winning season since 2003.

Roady’s Humanitarian Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Fresno State vs. Georgia Tech

The Yellow Jackets’ best win was a 13-3 victory over Clemson back in September. Fresno State’s best win? Probably a 49-41 victory over Nevada on Oct. 6. Needless to say, both teams would like to go out with a bowl victory.

Sun Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
#21 South Florida vs. Oregon

The Ducks have been anything but mighty since losing Dennis Dixon. Oregon was 8-1 and ranked number two in the country when they faced Arizona on Nov. 15. Dixon went down with a knee injury. The Ducks lost 34-24 and proceeded to drop their final two games as well, looking like a shell of their former selves. Without Dixon, and now unranked, the Ducks meet another team who rose to number two this season, South Florida. Their rise in the ranks also fell with a three game skid, but they rebounded to win their final three games, averaging 48 points per game in the three wins.

Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Florida State vs. Kentucky

Kentucky was another basketball school making news on the gridiron this season. Their three overtime defeat of LSU was undoubtedly the signature moment of the team and quarterback Andre’ Woodson’s rollercoaster season. After throwing for 36 touchdowns this season, Woodson will likely face an FSU team decimated after being caught in an academic scandal.

Insight Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
Oklahoma State vs. Indiana

The last time Indiana played in a bowl game, quarterback Kellen Lewis was five years old. This year he led the team to wins over conference opponents Minnesota, Iowa and Purdue. Oklahoma State Coach Mike Gundy reminded everyone earlier this season that he’s a man, he’s 40, so he may actually remember Indiana’s last bowl appearance. His team will look to rebound from their last game, an embarrassing 32-point loss against Oklahoma.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Monday, Dec. 31
#15 Clemson vs. #23 Auburn

Clemson went 4-3 against bowl teams this season. They won five of their last six and are very familiar with Auburn. These teams have fought 45 times since 1899. Auburn’s season included a victory against Florida and a 35-point loss to Georgia, but it won’t be complete without a bowl victory. Auburn has won four of their last five bowl games under coach Tommy Tuberville.

Outback Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#16 Tennessee vs. #18 Wisconsin

The Vols rebounded after losing two of their first three games this season to win the SEC East. Wisconsin will hope a healthy P.J. Hill can run wild against Tennessee. Hill ran for more than 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 217 carries this season.

Cotton Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#6 Missouri vs. Arkansas

No one took a more dramatic fall during the final week of the regular season than Missouri. After losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, Missouri dropped from number one in the nation to number six and missed out on a BCS bowl bid altogether. They’ll have to settle for the Cotton Bowl where they’ll meet Arkansas. As a subplot, Heisman trophy finalists Chase Daniel and Darren McFadden will go head-to-head in this game.

Capital One Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#12 Florida vs. Michigan

One year ago Michigan fans griped about Florida’s inclusion in the BCS Championship instead of them. After the Gators dominated Ohio State and Michigan fell to USC, those complaints were forgotten. Now many of the main pieces of that Wolverine team, including coach Lloyd Carr and running back Mike Hart get their shot at Heisman trophy winner Tim Tebow and the Gators, in what will be their final game for the maize and blue.

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#20 Virginia vs. Texas Tech

Texas Tech makes the New England Patriots offense seem tame. Exaggeration? Not really. Quarterback Graham Harrell has thrown for 5,298 yards and 45 touchdowns while completing nearly 73 percent of his passes. Leading receiver Michael Crabtree has caught 125 balls for 1,861 yards and 21 touchdowns. Needless to say, Chris Long and the Cavalier defense will have their hands full in this one.

The Rose Bowl Game presented by Citi, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#7 USC vs. #13 Illinois

Illinois has not been to the Rose Bowl since 1983. USC was there as recently as 2005 when it lost a 41-38 thriller against Texas for the national title. For Illinois, this game is a reward for a surprise season that featured an upset of number one Ohio State. For USC, it’s a consolation prize after being knocked out of the national championship picture by unranked Stanford way back in October.

Allstate Sugar Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 1
#5 Georgia vs. Hawaii

This is the biggest game ever in the career of Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan. Oh, it’s also the biggest game in the school’s history, playing a top-five opponent in a BCS bowl. The undefeated Warriors earned this spot. Will the Bulldogs, winners of six in a row, become victim to the underdogs from the island, or will Goliath squash David this time around?

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Wednesday, Jan. 2
#4 Oklahoma vs. #9 West Virginia

The Sooners thought they played their way into the BCS championship with a win over number one Missouri in the Big 12 championship game. West Virginia played itself out of that game by losing the season finale to unranked Pittsburgh. They still have a dynamic offense led by Pat White and Steve Slaton but will be without recently departed coach Rich Rodriguez.

FedEx Orange Bowl, Thursday, Jan. 3
#3 Virginia Tech vs. #8 Kansas

The Hokies only lost twice this season, but one of those losses was a 41-point beatdown against LSU. The Jayhawks lost just once but played just two ranked teams all season. Needless to say, several teams are unhappy that the Jayhawks received this invite.

International Bowl, Saturday, Jan. 5
Ball State vs. Rutgers

Playing after New Year’s Day usually means big things, unless you’re in this game. In the second edition of the International Bowl, teams that combined to go 14-10. But Rutgers coach Greg Schiano did make headlines when he proclaimed he was staying at Rutgers rather than going to coach Michigan. The Scarlet Knights have their coach’s support, if nothing else.

GMAC Bowl, Sunday, Jan. 6
Tulsa vs. Bowling Green

This BCS championship appetizer should feature plenty of excitement. Both teams rank in the top 18 in the country in passing yards. Tulsa’s Paul Smith will look to add to his 42 passing TDs.

Allstate BCS National Championship Game, Monday, Jan. 7
#1 Ohio State vs. #2 LSU

(For Matt’s picks of all 32 games, check out his bowl pick ’em blog post)

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