Monday, December 12, 2011

Week 14: Brees, Houston, Tebowmania, and Plenty of Head-Scratching

Just when you thought the NFL could not get any more popular, three things happened: (1) The NBA continues to prove it is miles behind the NFL through never-ending superstar drama, (2) Ryan Braun singlehandedly revives legitimacy questions in baseball, and (3) Week 14 happened. 

One of these days Drew Brees has to win the MVP award, the fact that he hasn’t done so already is shocking.  With Sunday’s most recent passing triumph, Marino’s single season passing record, which has been surprisingly resilient, is almost destined to fall.  Brees is on pace to hit just under 5,400 yards, which would be 300 more yards than Marino.  In additional to the New Orleans quarterback, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and even Eli Manning are all within striking range of the historic mark.  Brady will finish the season as the AFC’s best offensive player and Aaron Rodgers is already contemplating which color tie he’s going to wear for his MVP acceptance speech (green is in the lead).  Brees will need to wait at least one more year to break out his MVP suit.    

For the third consecutive year, Brees has thrown for both 4,000 yards+ and 30 touchdowns.  It will be the third time in four years that he’s gone over 4,600 and 30.  These are numbers that we have never seen before.  Brees blows away his peers, even in an age of passing.  Brady has gone for 4,000 and 30 in the same season only twice (one time being the current season) and eclipsed 4,600 yards only once (he will do it again this year).  Peyton Manning has hit the benchmark six times during his career, but gone for over 4,600 and 30 only once.  Marino went for over 4,600 and 30 twice.  Warner did it once.  Favre?  Never. 
Never mind his Super Bowl MVP award, something has to be done to get
Brees some personal accolades.  
If Brees records a modest 250 yards and two touchdowns per game for the duration of the season, his final totals will be 5,118 (still the record) and 38.  This would make his numbers since moving to New Orleans a gaudy 4,672 yards and 32 touchdowns per season.  Drew Brees will be averaging numbers that hall of famers and future hall of famers have touched only a few times during their illustrious careers.  I’ve considered Brees to be a borderline Hall of Famer, but with one or two more 4,000 yard seasons (that is to say, one or two more season) Brees will be joining the above names in Canton. 

Yet, in the MVP count, Brees is far behind the two best quarterbacks of the past decade.  That gap will probably never close, despite the fact that Brees has transformed a perennial loser into a postseason regular.  It took Kobe Bryant 12 years to win a MVP award.  Brees’ lack of personal recognition is the second most surprising one in recent memory. 

Of course, Brees will never draw attention to his play; it’s about the team. 

With yet another offensive Rembrandt, New Orleans is the no-doubt-about-it second best team in the conference.  I am still unwilling to hand that award to San Francisco.  Without a 100% Patrick Willis I am unsure as to whether or not the 49ers will win their first playoff game, regardless of who they face.  But, against Drew Brees and his 99999999 different weapons, I just can’t come to terms with an Alex Smith led attack coming out on top.  NFL fans were provided with a treat week one when the Saints and Pac faced off in what is still Green Bay’s most difficult win of the season.  Anticipate a rematch in the conference championship.  The Saints are absolutely on fire and only Aaron Rodgers can stop them.    

If the NFC is set, what do we make of the AFC?  For the first time since the preseason, I can foresee a scenario where the conference championship game is not a permutation of last year’s AFC Final Four.  For one, I am still unsure of the Jets’ true identity.  Defeating the Bills, Redskins, and Chiefs is simply not enough to give me any confidence moving forward.  They could easily lose their next three games against the dangerous Eagles, determined Giants, and hot-and-bothered Dolphins.  So who fills the void? 

If I asked you in the preseason to predict the first AFC team to clinch a playoff spot, who would you have said?  If you say the Texans, you are lying.  For the first time in franchise history, the Houston Texans are in the playoffs.  This is the biggest story of the past weekend.  It probably took until week 10 for me to give them any credit for this accomplishment, but their legitimacy is now without question.  Even a Peyton Manning Indianapolis team would be unable to take this division.  Injuries have been a factor for a cornucopia of teams around the league, but nobody has been hit as hard as Houston, who have been without their two best players for most of the season (Mario Williams, Andre Johnson) and, recently, Matt Schaub.  Not only have they survived, they’ve thrived.  How is this possible?
Baring another injury (which really wouldn't be surprising), T.J. Yates will
be the first quarterback to start a playoff game for the Houston Texans
Heading into their week 11 bye, the Houston Texans were 7-3, but only one of those wins (week 4 against the Steelers) was decided by a single score.  All their other victories were by more than a touchdown.  Houston demonstrated they have the fire power to blow away opponents.  But, since the bye, the Texans have proved they can win ugly, competitive football games too.  A combined 15 points have decided their last three wins and no game has been as impressive as this past Sunday against Cincinnati.  With two minutes left, 80 yards to go, and the Texans needing a touchdown to win, T.J. Yates harnessed his inner, well, inner T.J. Yates, the only Texans quarterback to go to the playoffs, and drove his team down the field for a game winning score with two ticks remaining.  Not bad for a third string rookie quarterback.   

The aforementioned Jets proved the last two years that a elite quarterback is not necessary to make a postseason run, so long as everything else is in place.  Houston is for real.  They rank in the top five in rushing yards, pass defense, and rush defense.  Forget their pathetic history; Houston is a legitimate Super Bowl contender and is the type of team that can defeat Green Bay.  In fact, Houston’s embarrassing past actually ameliorates their Super Bowl chances. 

Over the past two seasons, the Jets, Pats, Steelers, and Ravens have been in a constant battle for conference supremacy.  There have been 17 games played between these four teams, with each team player the others two or more times, with the exception of the Patriots and Ravens who played just once (although who can forget the beat down the Ravens handed them in the 2009 playoffs the previous year).  But, the Texans?  Over the same time span, the Jets and Steelers have played Houston once, Baltimore has gone against the Texans twice, and the Patriots are yet to face them.  And, really, the big four have remained pretty much the same for two years while Houston has completely changed their game and made drastic improvements over that period.  There is no established game plan for any of these four against Houston as there is when they face each other.  Enigmatic Houston is a wildcard in this upcoming postseason and nobody wants to play them.  I still like Pittsburg and New England to advance to the Super Bowl, but the Texans have the best chance of any AFC team to win it all.   

So, that set’s it, right?  My AFC playoff teams are New England, Houston, Pittsburg, Baltimore, New York, and… Who am I missing?  Oh, yeah, right, Denver.

I’ve been relatively quiet with regards to the surging Tebowmania that’s spreading across the country.  To be honest, up until this past weekend, I just didn’t have anything noteworthy to contribute.  I was opinion-less; before I could proclaim Tebow the God of all Gods, or, likewise, the most overrated and annoying storyline of the season, I needed to see more from him. 

Denver has faced a schedule of the most average teams in football, not to be confused with the worst teams in football.  If you take away the outlier of 2-11 Minnesota (which will be diluted with New England this week anyways), Denver’s opponents have a current record of 33-32.  The only thing more perfect that this definition of mediocrity is the record Denver has had over that same stretch.   

Football purists have been Tebow doubters from day one, and rightfully so.  An interesting poll would be to find out what quarterback trait better epitomizes ugly: Tebow’s throwing motion or Joe Flacco’s appearance?  There have been scrambling quarterbacks before, but guys like Vick and Young did it with speed, not brute strength and impact running.  Similarly, none of these uncommon specimens entirely altered their team’s offensive strategy and some argue, in the case of Tebow, retarded it. 
People seem to have forgotten just how responsible Tebow was for
Florida's success 
For essentially the history of the game, quarterback play has been an art form of sorts.  Brute strength, intensity, and unconventionality were not important components.  The best quarterbacks are the ones who coolly wait in the pocket and deliver a tight spiral with accuracy and the appropriate amount of velocity.  And that is why the option, single wing, and other college style offenses would never work in the NFL.  Defenders are apparently too fast and intelligent to be defeated by such “simplistic” tactics.  Yet, Tebow’s gritty, downhill running and wobbling, two mile-per-hour passes, paired with a “high school” style offense, have triumphed for six consecutive weeks.  People have been saying it’s unexplainable.  It is not.  

If you bring Pat White or Denard Robinson into this offense would you expect similar results?  Of course not.  This offensive game plan has worked because Tebow is just that good.  He is such an effective runner and scrambling passer that defenses have to respect him at all times.  Run plays, draw plays, play action, simple drop backs, and empty shotgun sets, regardless of the game situation, are all essentially the same in the way the defense must approach them defensively. 

I’ve never been a buyer into the “intangibles” and “game manager” characterizations.  If these are noteworthy parts of a quarterback’s game he probably isn’t very good.  Tebow has these in spades, but he has also made some tremendous plays this season.  His fourth quarter touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, rolling right and throwing across his body was a sensational pass.  His touchdown run against the Jets was as smart as it was physically unparalleled. 

Tebow’s success isn’t about the possibility for other option style quarterbacks to succeed in the pros.  Trent Dilfer and quarterback coaches across the country can still breathe easily.  Have people forgotten the success Tebow had in college while using the same approach? So what if it wasn’t against the pros and so what if tons of players and schools use it?  Florida ran their offense better than anyone then and now.  Tebow was as much responsible for Florida’s success as he is that of Denver.  He is a once in a generation player. 

There are certain athletes whose athleticism, size, coordination, and sports I.Q. would make them superstars at whatever sport they desire.  Think LeBron James, Albert Pujols, and Antonio Gates.  They are all as successful in their approach to their sport as they are unconventional.  Not too many small forwards play the point.  Before Gates, undersized power forwards would have never been thought of as football talents.  Pujols defies his power hitter label and seems as concerned with his average as his RBI count.  Add to that category Tim Tebow, someone who finds just as much success on the football field as he would on the court, the rink, or the diamond.  In any sport, when the score gets tight, the team with the best athlete will usually come out on top.  When looked at in this light, Tebow’s success is anything but unusual. 

If the Tebow talk is already ubiquitous, let’s just pretend, for a second, that the Denver Broncos somehow defeat the New England Patriots.  The mere thought of this is enough to explode Skip Bayless’ head and Chris Berman’s gut.  If they can pull off this upset, get ready for Bill Belichick’s most entertaining postgame comments possibly ever.  After a Denver victory, I will be ready to proclaim the Broncos as the new Super Bowl favorite of the AFC and that is not meant as hyperbole.
Listening to Chris Berman carry on about Tim Tebow is like hearing a
13 year old girl talk about Justin Bieber
This game has two possible directions it could go.  One possibility is that the Patriots and Tom Brady play with a this-has-got-to-be-a-joke-we-are-the-Patriots-and-are-going-to-humiliate-Tebow-so-badly-it-will-destroy-his-spirits anger.  We have seen this from them before.  It seems like every year a team on the verge of the AFC summit must first, and rightfully so, run the gauntlet with the New England Patriots.  History tells us that in these situations, the Patriots play with a tenacity that reflects the fact that they believe they are still the AFC elite.  We saw this last year when the 9-2 Patriots faced the upstart 9-2 Jets, humiliating them 45-3.  In 2007, the undefeated Patriots crushed the chatty, on-a-roll 9-3 Steelers by the score of 34-14.  There is a very distinct chance we see this again next Sunday at 4:15. 

Then again, what about the whole close-game-best-athlete-wins thing?  If the game is not over by the fourth quarter, how can anyone doubt the Broncos at this point?  I mean, honestly, how many times do we need to see Tebow’s end-of-game heroics before it becomes the expectation not the exception?  I don’t think it will get to this point, but I’m taking the Broncos if New England is up by 10 or less heading into the fourth. 

The Saints, Texans, and Broncos represent the weekend’s best.  But what about the worst?  I conclude with three separate occasions this past Sunday that caused me to say, “That is the most pathetic/dumb thing I have ever seen/heard,” (yes, I said the word “slash”) because I just can’t think of a better way to wrap up this article.    

Weekend’s Worst:

With the game basically over, Kansas City attempted an onside kick following a score against the New York Jets.  Everything seemed to be okay, that is, until the ball fell of the tee, was kicked by Ryan Succop, and traveled a total of 1 yard.  A related part of the weekend’s worst: having the last name “suck-up.”   

With just over two minutes to go in the Broncos – Bears game, I was stunned by two different events.  First, and perhaps most perplexing, after the Broncos scored to get within three, despite the fact that they had no timeouts remaining, the esteemed Fox Broadcast crew of Kenny Albert, Moose Johnston, and Tony Siragusa were all in agreement that the Broncos should kick the ball deep and not go for an onside kick.  Siragusa exclaimed, “The Bears aren’t movin’ it ya’ guys, so they just gotta dig in there and, duh, um, defense, defense, defense,” or something to that effect. 
Perhaps all the center and guard head-clubbings have impacted
Goose's football mind
Excuse me?  You do understand that one play would take the Bears to the warning, the second play, which you would estimate takes 5 seconds, would take the clock to 1:55, the 39 seconds between the first and second play would leave 1:16, another 5 second play takes it to 1:11, at which point there would be another 40 second runoff, bringing the time remaining to roughly 31 seconds.  Chicago would take the delay of game, kick the ball high on the ensuing punt, thus removing another 7 or so seconds, bringing the time remaining to about 24 seconds left, assuming there is no return. 

Now, if the onside kick failed to work (which was the case), Denver would be in the exact same situation as if they kicked it deep.  Chicago would never attempt a long field goal so, if they got stopped, they’d punt it anyways, meaning Denver would get the ball back with the same amount of time and, at worst, an extra 15 yards to travel.  Are these 15 yards not worth the risk of recovering the football (which they should have been able to do during the actual play)?  

Of course, once Denver failed to recover the onside attempt, the announcers swiftly commented, “Now all Chicago needs to do is run the ball three times to basically run out the clock.”  So why kick it deep?

Apparently, however, nobody explained how the whole clock-running, basic-math thing worked to Marion Barber.      

Just when I though such failure could not be surmounted, Tony Romo, as usual, came to my rescue.  Early in the Giants game, Romo was under pressure deep in his own territory.  Instead of throwing the ball away or stepping up into the sack, Romo did his best Natalie Portman imitation, pirouetting without control, as he secretly desired the coveted and evil Black Swan role.  Not dissimilar from the film, the performance ended with Romo killing himself, tumbling into the end zone for a safety.  


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