Sunday, December 28, 2008

NFC Playoffs

A few weeks ago I predicted on this blog that the Eagles would make the playoffs. I hate to brag and make it sound like I am saying I-told-you-so. Frankly, that's entirely not true - I actually love to say I told you so. Anyway, I saw the Eagles coming on hard and saw the Cowboys fading. I didn't expect the Eagles to lose to the Redskins last week, but I was fairly confident that they would beat the Cowboys at home in the season ending game, which they did. If they had won out they would have made the playoffs in a walk. As it turned out, they needed help from two unlikely sources: Raiders beating the Bucs in Tampa and Texans beating the Bears, but they got the help and got in.

Eagles looked very strong and Cowboys looked awful. Romo is the most overrated qb in football. Calling him overrated doesn't mean that he stinks: he doesn't. But he is touted as one of the best qbs in football and he is far from it. With the skill position players he has on the Cowboys, he can take bad defenses, put up tons of points against them, fatten his statistics and make the opponents look silly. He is the A-Rod of qb's, who hits most of his HRs in games that are already 8-0, against aging middle relievers. But against tough defenses, in big games, Romo doesn't do so well. He is not a great pure passer, is not very accurate, but he can make some snazzy plays on the move and improvises well. Those improvisations all make the SportsCenter highlights, but they don't win you championships. For every one of those sexy, ad-lib, successful plays, there are five other plays that end in turnovers or big sacks because he holds on to the ball too long to try to make that big play instead of getting rid of it more cautiously.

The Cowboys OL is also a bit overrated. I think they are a throwback to the style that was in vogue a few years ago when the strategy for the OL/DL was to get the biggest, most massive bodies you could and punish the other side by roadgrading them. The game has changed with emphasis on the passing game and with an inclination to slightly smaller, quicker and more athletic players in the OL and DL. Cowboys OL can provide good pass protection when the other team tries mostly to bull rush or to use standard rushing techniques. But when the opponents are very quick and when they come with a variety of creative blitzes, which requires the OL to be cohesive and cerebral in their blitz pickups, and requires them to be quick and nimble in moving laterally to pick up a different man than the one who started the play lining up right in front of you, they are not as skilled and effective. I think this is why the Eagles toasted them in the last game of the season and why the Giants did well against them defensively in the playoff game last year, especially in the second half when the overweight Cowboys OL got tired from being on the field so long.

Vikings looked very ordinary against the Giants, even though they won. They needed a last second 50 yard FG to beat a team in a game that they themselves had to win but meant nothing to the Giants and they were playing against mostly subs. I think the Eagles will beat the Vikings and the Giants will draw the Eagles as their first playoff opponent this year. Eagles are a little up-and-down, Andy Reid is not a good game manager or big game coach and McNabb can win or lose any game all by himself, so I am not certain that the Eagles will beat the Vikings. But I think we will see McNabb in the Meadowlands this playoff season.

Interesting observation: there is only one NFC team in the playoffs this year that also made the playoffs last year. That team would be your New York Football Giants. Last year Bucs won the NFC South, this year it was Panthers. The Packers won the NFC North last year, and this year it was the Vikings. The Seahawks won the NFC West last year and this year it was the Cardinals. I don't have to remind you that last year the Cowboys won the NFC East and this year the Giants won it. The wildcards last year were the Giants and the Redskins, while this year it was the Falcons and Eagles, for a 5-out-of-6 team change in the NFC playoff lineup.

In the AFC, the Colts and Chargers are repeat playoff teams while the other four: Titans, Steelers, Dolphins and Ravens did not make it to the dance last year.

All the experts, the analysts and even many of the players in the league itself continue to adhere to the opinion that the 2007 Giants were a good team that got hot and lucky at the right time to get on their Superbowl run. None of them said that the Giants were a good team that grew into a great team because: (1) the qb matured or (2) the many young players that the Giants had on their team from the recent few drafts started to mature or (3) Corey Webster exploded onto the scene and became a star etc. Nobody could come up with those ideas, because it required too much analysis and required the experts to admit that their previous assessment of the team was wrong. They had decided that the qb and the team were mediocre, and it would take a miracle and three acts of congress for an "expert" to admit a mistaken opinion. Even when the Giants showed they were the best team in the conference this year and played consistently and brilliantly for most of the year, the experts jumped on the Giants bandwagon begrudgingly and were not moved from their assessment of last year's lucky run. Coming back after the Superbowl as the ONLY team from the conference to make a repeat trip to the playoffs and the best team in the conference, you would think that some of the experts would reassess the Giants with some retrospection and consider them a team that had come of age last year and had become an elite team. It's not going to happen. Giants are a blue collar team with a qb who has a personality as outgoing as yesterday's leftover pizza. Nobody will pump them up and tout them until and unless they actually win. It's ok with me - Giants are set to be playoff contenders for the next few years.

I sure hope Jerry Jones sticks to his word and brings Wade Phillips back, because he is thoroughly incapable of getting control of his players and turning the Cowboys situation around. As the Cowboys get further and further away from the Parcells era, the influence that Bill had on the character and work ethic of the team and, perhaps more importantly, the influence that he had on personnel decision, they will slowly but inexorably decline.

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