Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Effects of the Lockout are more Long-Lasting Than we May Have Believed

When we look back on the 2011 NFL season, it is imperative that we place it in its proper context.  To say there has been inconsistency would be like saying the NBA season is officially over – no, duh. 

As the NBA continues its march towards imminent doom, I think it is an appropriate time to reflect on the 136 day heart attack that the NFL was somehow able to overcome (in the loosest sense of the word).  This past Sunday confirmed the truth about the 2011 season, the dissolved offseason has had a monumental impact on the league.  The quality of play this year is down, plain and simple.  Year of the quarterback?  Give me a break; it’s the year of the battered, unprepared pass defense coupled with the physically rusty and only-finally-getting-in-shape running backs.  Oh, and did I mention the transition of the NFL to a two hand touch league with players who are too busy catching up on missed preseason instruction to bother to learn and adapt to it?  There is one great team (Green Bay), two terrible ones (Miami, Indianapolis), and twenty-nine mediocre to above average ones (everyone else). 

There is nobody in the NFL playing like Aaron Rodgers -
the reason why the Pack won't lose a game this season.
For the ninth straight week, America was offered a plethora of head scratching performances.  The Patriots, who were coming off a game against Pittsburgh in which they looked totally outmatched, lost consecutive games for just the third time since 2003 and had their first home defeat of the Obama administration.  New England looked ugly start to finish and Brady, who recorded his worst game of the season, looked, at times (gasp!) terrible.  The G-men had his number and he looked legitimately afraid of getting hit, missing wide open targets more often than (of all people) Marc Sanchez.  It’s hard to believe this is the same quarterback who, after the first three weeks of the season, had many ludicrously believing that he would surpass Marino’s single season passing mark.

Meanwhile, the Giants look like the second or third best team in the NFC, but in what season would a team that barely squeaked wins over the hapless Dolphins and Cardinals, not to mention a Bills team that this week looked like, well, the Buffalo Bills, be regarded so highly (although, I have to give major props to Eli right now)?  They’re second best by default.  It’s going to take a seriously intimidating handshake from Jim Harbaugh to convince people that his 49ers are for real.  The Lions still are yet to play the Packers.  The Saints got destroyed by the Rams.  Is there really any reason for teams to be afraid of the Cowboys or Eagles aside from the fact that they should be?  The point is, in any other season, would these be the teams that make up the top five in the conference?  No way.

The AFC might be even worse.  Are any of the three first place AFC East teams for real?  In answer to that question, I pose another one: Would you really feel confident taking any of them over last place Miami?  The Bengals are tied atop the North, but the two best teams they’ve beaten are 5-3 Buffalo and 4-4 Tennessee (maybe the two worst .500 plus teams in the NFL.  Then again, KC, Oakland, and Tampa might have something to say about that).  We all know why the Texans are in the playoffs.  Philip Rivers it playing the best football of any AFC West quarterback. The division may overtake their NFC counterparts as the NFL’s worst.  A 7 – 9 playoff squad is a distinct possibility.

All hail the best QB of the AFC West
Even more curious than the Giants-Pats game is the Baltimore – Pittsburgh affair.  Coming into this game, I was almost ready to announce that Pittsburgh had assumed the role of the AFC’s best and as a legitimate Super Bowl caliber team but, now, that is totally forgotten.  The Ravens are clearly better, especially when we recall the week one ass-kicking.  But are the Ravens really the class of the AFC?  Is this not the same team that played the second ugliest game of the entire NFL season in a Sunday night game against the Jets (the ugliest being the Jet’s performance that same game), scored just one touchdown in a losing effort against Jacksonville, and needed the biggest comeback in franchise history to beat the Cardinals?  If that’s the team the road to the Super Bowl is going to run through, it’s going to be smooth riding for whoever takes it. 

So, what does all this mean?  Obviously this means that I am a football genius and have correctly predicted a 19 – 0 season for Green Bay.  However, if we pretend for a second that this is not the case (but we all know it is), who can challenge the Packers? 

I see four teams that can stand in Green Bay’s way.  Keep in mind, these do not represent the four next best teams, but the ones who matchup best against the God, Aaron Rodgers. 

4. Atlanta Falcons – The one NFC threat, Atlanta, is the only team in the NFL to suffer only “acceptable” losses (week 1 at Chicago, week 3 at Tampa, week 5 vs. Green Bay) and have wins against “quality” opponents (week 2 vs. Philadelphia, week 7 at Detroit, could maybe argue week 6 vs. Cam Newton-ina).  Atlanta can run the football and dominate time of possession, taking the ball out of Rodgers’s hands.  They also have playmakers to match, especially in the form of rookie Julio Jones, who after this weekend’s breakout performance, is showing shades of Mike Wallace.  Once Roddy White awakens from his fantasy-team-tanking slumber the fun will really begin for ATL (expect this to happen next week against New Orleans). 

3. New York Jets – Homer pick! Homer pick!  Think what you will but the fact is the Jets defense probably matches up better against the Packers offense than any other D in football.  Opposing quarterbacks have a 59.4 rating against New York this season, the lowest in the league.  Revis is having the best season of his career, Cromartie looks more comfortable in his role than ever before, and Kyle Wilson is quietly looking like a pro-bowl caliber DB.  If their run game continues to improve, then, much like Atlanta, they can take the ball away from the future 2011 MVP.  Also recall the Jets vs. Packers game from last season in which Rex Ryan and crew held Rodgers to 170 passing yards (his fewest of the season) and the offense to just 9 points (their second lowest number).

2. Baltimore Ravens – I’m hesitant to include them, but, to be fair, their offensive woes are certainly no more insulting than those of the Jets.  Their pass defense ranks in the top five, but a lot of this is due to dominance in the front seven rather than the back four.  Their corners are beatable.  Nonetheless, Ray Rice can keep them in a game and they have shown the ability to win ugly, a skill that may supersede any other in this lockout-altered season. 

1. Houston Texans – Don’t look now but the Houston Texans have a top two pass defense.  They rank second in both yards allowed and QB rating against.  Even more so than anyone else on this list, Houston can compete with the firepower of Green Bay. Schaub has been good, not great, this season but has been without Andre Johnson for some time now.  Meanwhile, Arian Foster is making a serious case for best running back in the NFL. 

Notable exclusions:

New York Giants – Manning has been great late, but inconsistent early.  Rodgers is great all the time.  Unlike Sanchez, Manning does not have the best 3-cornerback scheme (sorry Phili) in football to bail him out. 

New England Patriots – What is pass defense?

Pittsburgh Steelers – The running game must be more reliable.  Rodgers will outduel Roethlisberger (again).

As the second half of the season begins, it is important not to be overly reactionary to recent results.  However, I seriously believe that the top teams in football right now are the same teams that are going deep into the playoffs.  Teams finally have entered a level of preparation and football fitness that they usually have at the start of seasons.  It just took some time for this to happen.  Everything before now has been as much about luck (i.e. avoiding injuries and mindboggling losses from lack of preparation) as it has been about skill.       

In the meantime, here are the results for the Sweet 16 in the WFHCB.  As usual, it was thrilling. 

Busted Gut Region
Mike Munchak vs. Sean Payton
It’s official; there’s a new fan chant/arm display, which is a hybrid of two of the world’s most beloved simple orchestral and action performances.  It combines the famous J-E-T-S chant with the “Florida Chomp” to create a multi-faceted assault.  Behold: “M-I-K-E, (now using the gator chomp) MUNCH! MUNCH! MUNCH!” Winner: Munchak 

Marvin Lewis vs. Pat Shurmur
With his only win over the lowly Tony Sparano, Lewis is yet to defeat a quality opponent.  Meanwhile, trainer Heyton Pillis is still no where to be found for Shurmur.  Nonetheless, Shurmur is able to overpower the boring Marvin Lewis to set up an ex-offensive lineman battle in the regional final. Winner: Shurmur

Ass Kickin’ Region
Jim Harbaugh vs. Jim Schwartz
Last week the Jims were fighting with a purpose for the opportunity to face off against one another in the Sweet 16.  The marquee game of the tournament thus far, Harbaugh is finally given the opportunity to smash in the face of Schwartz.  Schwartz is finally given the opportunity to body rush Harbaugh.  Interestingly enough, Schwartz is none too pleased with Harbaugh’s “poor sportsmanship” in the pre-fight, topless stare-down.  Harbaugh later admits his wrong doing, claiming, “I blinked too aggressively.”  Like most highly anticipated affairs, the actual fight itself fails to live up to the hype.  Harbaugh channels his inner Mike Singletary (I can’t lose to him… CAN’T DO IT!).  Winner: Harbaugh   

Hue Jackson vs. Bill Belichick
Hue Jackman – I mean, Jackson – continues to look as though he was destined for futuristic fighting.  Belichick again comes out very well prepared and during the past week, curiously told reporters, “Hey, at least I don’t wear bright pink, polka dotted short-shorts when I train!” Jackson was obviously confused as to how Belichick could have possibly known this.  Winner: Jackson 

Bone Saw Region
Jim Caldwell vs. Ken Whisenhunt
Coming off his shocking dismemberment of John Harbaugh, Caldwell continued his rigorous training program with Madame Tussauds.  Whisenhunt gets the first jab in this fight, but curiously breaks his hand upon colliding with Caldwell’s face.  Let’s just say it was all downhill from there.  Winner: Caldwell

Jack Del Rio vs. Raheem Morris
Everyone’s favorite underachiever, Jack Del Rio, cannot compete with the agility of Morris.  Winner: Morris

Jersey Shore Ron Region
Mike Tomlin vs. Mike Smith
Tomlin carries his momentum from crushing the librarian, Chan Gailey, into this bout with Mike Smith.  Smith comes out hot, sending Tomlin into series jeopardy of losing.  However, Tomlin harnesses his inner Dr. Eric Forman, self-patches up his wounds, and produces the most dramatic come-from-behind victory of the round. Winner: Tomlin

Jason Garrett vs. Ron Rivera
The six foot, three inch Rivera eats pieces of shit like Jason Garrett for breakfast.  You eat pieces of shit for breakfast? Yes. Winner: Rivera

Updated Bracket:

Round Summary
Much like in the first round, the story continues to be number 29 overall seed, Jim Caldwell, continues to cruise effortlessly through the competition.  Meanwhile, the other top seeds seem determined to win their region.  Caldwell and Hue Jackson are the only coaches left who were originally seeded outside of the top 2.  Prepare yourself for Round 3, where we separate the men from the boys and the heads from the bodies.   


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