Defending the Fans

To the outsider, there are several oddities to this year’s NBA All-Star Game. Most notably: Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson as starters. There are certainly some decent arguments against their selections. The most obvious one is that both players have missed significant playing time due either to injury (Garnett) or not actually being a starter for much of the season (Iverson, who also has switched teams this season). Additionally, and especially for Iverson, neither player has really had the statistical season that would merit selection the All-Star Game. And yet, despite these arguments, it is perfectly reasonable for these two players to play in the big game.

The reason they deserve to play is because the NBA All-Star game is not for the players, it’s for the fans. There’s no stakes to the NBA All-Star Game like there is to the MLB All-Star Game. No home-court advantage is on the line, so there’s no objective reason why the All-Stars need to actually be the best the NBA has to offer. The NBA All-Star Weekend is a spectacle for the fans, with events ranging from HORSE to the Slam Dunk Contest. The big game is just the culmination of the weekend. If the game doesn’t matter, shouldn’t what the fans want be the only criterion that matters? The fans are paying for the tickets, so shouldn’t they have the final say? If the fans want to see Kevin Garnett and Allen Iverson play, there’s no reason they shouldn’t.

Purists will argue that fan voting diminishes the honor of being selected to an All-Star game. This might be true. However, maybe the nature of the All-Star game has changed, and purists need to accept that. Perhaps selection to the All-Star game should not be considered as big a deal as it used to be. It’s changed from the best players in the game to the most popular players in the game. Why is that a bad thing? The only argument is that All-Star selection is a factor in deciding who gets into the NBA Hall of Fame. This is a fair argument, but selection to the Hall of Fame should be taking far more into consideration than just All-Star games (and I’m sure it does). Statistics, championships, and rankings among current Hall of Famers are all more useful ways to decide the Hall of Fame validity of a player. If the All-Star game’s validity is diminished, so what? Sports must change to meet the changes in society and its fans, or they will become relics and get replaced by something else.

There are those who will argue that the game itself will be of weaker quality because the players are not as on paper as they could be. This is true. But if sports teach anything, they teach that on any given day any player is capable of playing above and beyond his on-paper abilities. On any given day, anyone can be an All-Star. Perhaps Allen Iverson will return to his golden years and play out of his mind. Perhaps Kevin Garnett will key an Eastern Conference defense that is utterly impenetrable and make a statement to other teams about his health and ability. Or, perhaps they will both under-perform and there selection will truly be deemed an error. But in a game that has no objective meaning, the only thing that should matter is popularity. Purists are getting plenty of great players who truly represent the best the NBA has to offer. The fans are getting the players they want to see compete. Everybody wins.

Favre’s Future

With the Saints winning the NFC Championship game, ending the Vikings’ season, there is an inevitable question that we must ask: Is this Brett Favre‘s last year? To be sure, he proved he can still play at the professional level, leading a talented team nearly to the Super Bowl (“nearly” being the operative word). And yet, it is difficult to look at this season and see it as anything but the swan song for an aging quarterback. It was good, but not good enough to merit return next year.

Looking Back: The 2009-2010 Season

When it comes down to it, wins and losses are really all that matters. The Vikings went 12-4 under Brett Favre’s command this year. And he really did command. He was more than a role player on this team: he was a leader. The stats- 4200 yards, 33 touchdowns, a QB rating of over 107, and just 7 interceptions- back up this claim. Brett Favre proved this year that he could rise to the challenge the Vikings put before him by offering him $12 million to come out of retirement one more time. He had a phenomenal season, avoided injuries, and led his team to second place in the NFC and a first-round bye for the playoffs. He looked terrific against Dallas, but then everything went to mush against the Saints.

Against New Orleans, Favre through for 2 interceptions and muffed a handoff that resulted in a lost fumble. The second interception was by far the more costly. The Vikings were already inside the kicking range of Ryan Longwell, and they had a time out. On the Vikings’ last play in regulaton, Favre was flushed from the pocket and rolled to his right. He did not have a man open, but when he got to the line of scrimmage he opted to try and jam a pass into double coverage. New Orleans read the play, undercut the throw and picked it off. While this did not lead to a score, it cost the Vikings a decent shot at winning the game.

Analyzing the NFC Championship

Favre made the wrong decision, it’s as plain as that. Faced with a choice, Favre thought he could jam the ball into a double-covered receiver and pick up a few more yards, making it an easier kick. Had he tucked the ball and opted to run, he probably would’ve picked up nearly as many yards. But if he decided not to run, he should have just tossed the ball out of bounds. Hindsight may be 20-20, but there’s no way to look at this play and not question Favre’s decision-making skills. The risks (interception) of that pass far outweighed the potential rewards (6 yards) of it, not to mention that same yardage was available if Favre had just run the ball. Like so many other playoff games, Favre fell back on old habits and regressed to the inconsistency that has plagued him his entire career. Favre-lovers call him a “gunslinger.” This is just a kind way of calling him inconsistent and not-clear thinking. No other elite quarterback, given that situation, would have made the choice he did. Not Drew Brees, not Tom Brady, and not Peyton Manning.

Moving On

The passing game has changed since the 1990s. It’s now o.k. to throw the ball away in lieu of making a bad pass, and every other quarterback in the league knows when to hold it and knows when to fold it. Brett Favre still has not learned that yet. He still doesn’t quite get it. And as long as that’s the case, he will continue to throw interceptions in key situations, as he has during so many playoff games throughout his career. The game has passed Brett Favre by, and it’s long past time Brett Favre called it a career. He can no longer win a championship, not with decision-making skills as poor as his. Were he to come back, I fear it would be as bad as his season with the Jets. So I say, so long Brett, it was fun while it lasted!

Pierce, Rondo Clip Los Angeles

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers met up Monday night at the TD Garden. When last they met, Baron Davis stunned the Celtics by hitting a last-second shot to give the Clippers the victory. Heading into this game, Boston had lost three of four games, whereas Los Angeles had won three of four. The first half was marked by poor shooting by both sides, but the Celtics turned it on in the second half, erased a nine-point deficit, and won, 95-89.

The Celtics on Offense

Tonight saw the return of the balanced attack that has been the Celtics bread and butter all season. Four starters scored in double figures tonight. Paul Pierce led all scorers with 22 points. Rajon Rondo was his usual self, putting up yet another double-double, this time with 16 points and 12 assists. The only starter not to score in double digits Monday night was Kendrick Perkins. He did however contribute heavily to the defense, putting up 15 rebounds to go along with his 9 points and 2 blocks. While they lost the rebounds battle tonight (this is becoming a major concern for this Celtics team), they once again won the assists battle, putting up 21 to the Clippers’ 18. Overall, the Celtics first half offense was poor but it turned itself around in the second half. The team began playing with more poise and more energy, and their passing became much crisper. They minimized turnovers, found open looks, and started putting the ball in the basket. This allowed them to control the pace through most of the second half.

The Celtics on Defense

The Celtics bench, while not contributing much to the offense, did a spectacular job on defense, particularly in the fourth quarter. The starters did well too, although their defense seemed to decline a little bit as their offense picked up. They allowed too many easy layups for Boston College’s own Craig Smith. They didn’t crash the boards defensively as well as they could have (they gave up five offensive rebounds). And they didn’t protect against the three-point shot very well (they gave five treys while just scoring four, however several of the Clippers’ three-pointers came in the last two minutes of the game, when they were desperate to make up the score). The defense is still finding itself with the return of Kevin Garnett, learning how to protect the outside because they know they have KG and Perk to help out inside. In any event, the defensive star of the game was Rondo, who did a great job on Baron Davis and stole the ball four times, contributing to the 16 fast break points Boston put up.

The Game in Review and the Games in Preview

After the Celtic’s overtime win against Portland, it was important for this team not to backslide into the inconsistency that plagued them during Garnett’s absence. Tonight they succeeded in avoiding that. This is certainly a team that still needs development. The Celtics have not been completely healthy in quite some time, and this has affected everything from defense to team chemistry. With the slow return of players to the active list, we should see this team continue to grow and flourish. Their next three games are against Orlando, Atlanta and Los Angeles (the Lakers this time). This will most definitely put this newly reformed squad to the test. Hopefully they can continue to build momentum and roll through these upcoming teams as well as they did against their last two.

Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century”

The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, edited by the late David Halberstam, is a phenomenal collection of sports essays dating as far back as 1921. The book runs the gamut of professional and collegiate athletics, with articles on baseball, football, basketball, hockey, boxing, and more. There’s something for everyone in this “best of the best” collection, and anyone with even a passing interest in sports journalism would benefit from the breadth of styles of writing found in this book.

Fans of Boston sports will have plenty to enjoy in this collection. There are several articles on Ted Williams found here, including a character study by Richard Ben Cramer and a depiction of Ted Williams’ final game at Fenway by John Updike. The latter contains this wonderful sentence: “There will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future” (315). This sentence prefaces Williams’ famous last at-bat home run, and it epitomizes what it means to be a fan and to root for your team’s success.

My favorite article, while not about a Boston sports figure or team, will resonate with any longstanding fan of the Red Sox. “‘A Very Solid Book,'” by Mike Royko, is a book review of Keith Hernandez’s story of the Mets’ 1986 championship season. Royko, a Chicago Tribune writer and Chicago native, doesn’t really read the book: he abuses it. The entire article, a scant two pages in length, is about how he throws the book at his wall, jumps on it, rips out the pages, and eventually lights the whole thing on fire. The reason, as any baseball fan will understand, is that it is impossible for him as Cubs fan to read about a championship that has eluded his team for so many years. Any Red Sox fan will understand the heartache, frustration, and anger associated with being a fan of a losing sports team. And considering Hernandez’s book is about the defeat of the Red Sox, Boston readers will draw additional pleasure from reading about Royko’s trashing of it.

My two other favorite articles were Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” and Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” The former is a ridiculous story about Hunter S. Thompson’s failed attempt at covering the 1970 Kentucky Derby. As with most things Hunter S. Thomspon, it quickly devolves into drunkenness and assault, as he spends most of the time getting hammered and then threatening (and sometimes more than threatening) to mace the various people he encounters. It’s a fun story that makes a point about the degree to which the sports journalist not only covers the story, but actively CREATES it in doing so. The latter story is the short-story accounting of Krakauer’s disastrous 1996 attempt at scaling Everest. It eventually got made into a full-length nonfiction novel. It’s a riveting and powerful tale that captures just how dangerous mountain climbing can be.

This is not to say every article is golden. The only thing more boring than fishing is Thomas McGuane’s accounting of it. And for all his gravitas, Normal Mailer’s account of the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing match was one of the worst written articles I’ve ever read. Every sentence is a run on, every paragraph is too long, every idea is too complicated. I found myself rereading section after section, and it became more frustrating every time. I could not wait to finish this article, sandwiched in the middle of several other articles about Muhammad Ali, making it not even a fresh subject for reading (not that that’s Mailer’s fault).

But the majority of stories are wonderful character studies and first-person narratives. George Plimpton’s “Medora Goes to the Game” is an adorable accounting of Plimpton bringing his young daughter to the Harvard-Yale football game, only to have her like Yale better because of their color and cuter mascot. Stan Fischler’s “A Rough Time on the Road,” the story of Boston Bruins’ defenseman Eddie Shore harrowing attempt to catch up with his team after missing the train for a road game, is a fun little story about the lengths a player will go to be with and contribute to his team. And Mike Lupica’s “A Brother’s Keeper” is the touching and tragic expose of Boston Red Sox outfield Tony Conigliaro and the steps his family took to take care of him after his career-ending injury.

For those interested in sports, and especially for those interested in sports writing, this is a terrific resource to have at your disposal. As an aspiring writer, I found it greatly helped me to see the broad spectrum of writing styles and subjects that are out there for the adventurous storyteller to find and share with the world. While younger sports fans may find they can’t relate to many of the figures in this book, anyone with a sense of sports history will find at least something to love in thisexcellent collection of sports writing that truly spans the entirety of the last century.

Late Penalty Aids in Bruins Loss

I don’t go to a lot of hockey games, for a couple of reasons:

1) There’s not a lot of “poetry.” Low scoring sports like hockey and baseball need to have something beautiful about the gameplay to overcome the slower pace when compared with basketball and football. Baseball has its intellectualism, but hockey has nothing. It doesn’t have quite the passing grace of basketball, nor does it have the scripted execution of football. In short, I find it to be the most boring while simultaneously chaotic of the four major sports.

2) It’s too hard to root for four teams. I’m not sure how other people do it. For me, sports fandom is a huge emotional investment, more than just a passer of time. And I can’t invest myself so much in four different teams.

So when I went with some friends to watch the Bruins take on the Columbus Blue Jackets Thursday night, I didn’t expect much from my team. And that’s exactly what I got: not much. There were some cool moments in the game, such as the goals by Michael Ryder and Patrice Bergeron, but overall I wasn’t too impressed with the Boys in Black. Columbus is a terrible team this season, and yet they were the ones usually beating the B’s to the puck. The Bruins had plenty of chances to score, taking nine more shots than the Blue Jackets, but they just couldn’t seem to put it in the net. Too many times did they seem to be just pussy-footing around with the puck near the opponents’ net instead of taking actual shots. They missed at least one open net shot that probably would’ve iced the game for them. Instead, they kept giving up leads to a Columbus team that was hungrier for the win than Boston was.

I also was not particularly impressed with our backup goalie, Tuukka Rask. He seemed out of position most of the night, leaving the net too often to get stray pucks. His sense of positioning and his reaction time is not nearly as good as Tim Thomas’s. He needs time to develop into an NHL-caliber goalie, but until he gets that experience I fear he may lose a lot of games.

As for the game, the Bruins held leads of 1-0 and 2-1 before giving up tying and eventually the go-ahead goal at the tail end. Milan Lucic was called (questionably) for high-sticking, and it put the Bruins in a short-handed situation for the remainder of the game, during which time the Blue Jackets scored their game-winning goal. The Bruins kept the puck in the Blue Jackets’ end, but they were unable to punch it in even after they pulled their goalie. In the end, the Bruins effort was just a little too lacking and they lost a game they could have won. As I understand it, closing out games has been a major problem for the Bruins this season (although I could easily say that about EVERY New England sports team these days).

Despite the loss, I still enjoyed my time at the Garden. The crowd was relatively rocking, with lots of chanting in the stands and good energy in the air. The pee-wee hockey league match during the first intermission was absolutely adorable. And the burrito toss was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. So all in all, I give the game a 4 and the experience an 8.5. Not bad for $40.

Poor Second Half Dooms Celtics in Detroit

The Boston Celtics traveled to Detroit to face the Pistons Wednesday night. The Celtics were coming off of a tough loss to the Dallas Mavericks. In general, the Celtics have seemed mired in a mid-season quagmire as they face injuries and what is only now becoming an easier schedule. The Celtics played well in the first half, forcing turnovers and making shots, but the Pistons switched to a zone defense in the second half. The Celtics could not come up with a way to penetrate the new defense and, combined with no help from their bench whatsoever, became so frustrated that they lost all control of the game. Hot hands for Pistons turned the score the other way, and Boston lost, 92-86.

The Celtics on Offense

There were certainly some bright spots in Wednesday’s loss. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo each scored 21 points. Rondo also chipped in seven assists and eight rebounds, getting close to the triple-double he is always close to. However, Pierce’s and Rondo’s performances were just silver linings to a very dark storm cloud of Celtics offense. They played well in the first half, forcing turnovers and scoring on fast-breaks with relative ease. But they could do nothing against the new defense the Pistons put in place in the second half. Worse than that, they let the defense get in their heads. They shot poorly, they passed poorly (a rarity with this Celtics team, win OR lose), and they played without any energy. From the first half it seemed like the Celtics could run over the Pistons at will. Against this new defense they slowed down and started jamming passes to doubly-covered teammates. It led to Boston turnovers that Detroit turned into easy fast-break points.

The Celtics on Defense

The biggest problem with the Celtics defensively tonight was rebounding. The Celtics gave up 13 offensive rebounds on their way to getting out-rebounded 45-35. Giving teams with scorers like Detroit’s second-chance shots like that is a surefire way to blow leads and lose games. And when they DID rebound, too many Celtics turned and sprinted up-court without making sure the rebound had been secured. Several Celtics rebounds ended when a Piston would just steal the ball from the rebounder and score again. The Celtics defense played with the same lack of energy that they offense did, and in the second half it cost them. The Pistons were able to run circles (quite literally, sometimes) around Celtics defenders. They penetrated when they wanted to, kicked it out to the corners when they wanted to (only four three-pointers, but they were all big ones, including one to ice the game with 55 seconds left on the clock), and played with far more heart, energy and rhythm than the Celtics did.

From the Sidelines

The Celtics deserved to lose this game Wednesday night. They played an awful second half that lacked any passion or force. It raises the question of whether or not the Celtics care that they are underachieving as badly as they are. Injuries and instability on the front line can be blamed for SOME of this malaise, but this is a Celtics team filled with veterans and leaders. Someone has to step up and get this team going in the right direction again. The Atlantic conference is weak enough that they should make the playoffs with relative ease. But for the Celtics to DO anything once the playoffs start, they will need to find their passion once again. The Celtics, like the ad says, are definitely “reloaded.” The question is: are they “rejuvenated” enough to win?

Calling the Conference Championships

OK, so apparently I’m not as good at playoff predictions as I thought I was. So far, I’m a combined 3-8 for the first two weeks. So you may be asking yourself, should I bet with this guy or against him? Frankly, I don’t bet on sports, so I couldn’t care less what you do. But since you’re here you may as well read my predictions for the NFC and AFC championship games.

New Orleans vs. Minnesota: Both of these teams looked incredibly impressive in their wins this past week. New Orleans executed brilliantly on offense, just like they did against the Patriots and most of the other teams they’ve faced this season. Drew Brees did a magnificent job, throwing for three touchdowns without tossing an interception. And Reggie Bush was a force on the ground, racking up nearly 200 all purpose yards. There’s no denying New Orleans’ ability to put up points. But Minnesota looked equally impressive. Brett Favre passed for FOUR touchdowns without an interception. The Vikings put up 34 points without getting a good game from Adrien Peterson or really any of their talented corps of running backs. And defensively they held Dallas to just a field goal. This is where I think Minnesota has the advantage over New Orleans: defense. New Orleans defense is good, with Darren Sharper leading the way, but Minnesota’s is better. Their pass rush, led by Jared Allen, is better than New Orleans’. And their secondary can hang with the Saints wide receivers. While the Saints and Vikings are about a wash at quarterback and running back, defensively the Vikings have the advantage. If they can out-gain New Orleans on the ground they can keep Drew Brees on the sideline. The less he passes, the better. While home field will be a big factor, I think Brett Favre’s experience will balance it out. Look for a shootout where the Vikings defense makes just one or two plays more than the Saints D does. My pick: Minnesota.

Indianapolis vs. New York: First off, congratulations to the Jets. They’ve far exceeded anyone’s expectations of them this postseason. They played phenomenally against Cincinnati and San Diego, and they’re playing with house money, which makes them dangerous. Having said that, this should be an easy win for Indianapolis. The reason: Darrelle Revis is a cornerback. This is dangerous when your offensive weapons are wide receivers, like with the Bengals or the Chargers. But the Colts power lies in its Pro Bowl tight-end, Dallas Clark. And Revis won’t be covering Clark, he’ll be covering one of the wide receivers. This means Peyton Manning will still have his best weapon to throw to on a regular basis. The Jets can stop the run, but they won’t be able to hang with the sheer power of the Colts wide receivers and tight ends. And Peyton Manning is the most accurate quarterback there is (sorry Brady, maybe when you get healthy again). No matter how good the Jets’ coverage is, they won’t be able to defend some of the passes Manning will make. And I question whether Mark Sanchez will crumble or not when he faces the twin pass rushing power of Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney. My pick: Indianapolis.

So there you have our next Super Bowl: Minnesota vs. Indianapolis. The best quarterback of the nineties taking on his heir apparent. It should make for a terrific game. I’ll have more to say about the Super Bowl after next week. Until then!

71 First Half Points Power Celtics Past Nets

The Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets met up Wednesday night in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Celtics were in the midst of a four games in five nights series and had just suffered a difficult loss to the pesky Atlanta Hawks. Playing the hapless Nets, they of the 3-34 record, was just what they needed to rejuvenate themselves. The Celtics shot 66% from the field in the first half, built up a 36 point lead, and then played their bench for most of the second half. While the shooting and defense diminished greatly because of the loss of the starters, it didn’t matter, as Boston coasted to an easy victory, 111-87.

The Celtics on Offense

The Celtics had seven players score into double-digits Wednesday night: all five starters, plus Tony Allen and Glen Davis. Rajon Rondo, trying to boost his credentials for the All-Star Game, put up yet another double-double, contributing 14 assists to go with his 11 points. The top scorer of the night was Paul Pierce, who had 24 points to go along with 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and one steal. The Celtics offense tonight worked like engine pistons, constantly moving in and out of the paint. Somebody, usually Rondo or Pierce, would penetrate into the weak New Jersey defense, then kick it back out to the perimeter for an easy bucket. The Celtics put up six three-pointers tonight, but it was not as if they just were perimeter shooters. They put up 56 points in the paint, half of their total score. This means they split their time between the perimeter and the paint. And they put up 30 assists in total to go with their 43 total shots. All of this points to a balanced attack that the Nets were powerless against. In the first half, they didn’t even look like they were trying to compete, constantly getting out-hustled by the Celtics.

The Celtics on Defense

The starters played phenomenal defense, but the bench did not. Hence they limited the Nets to just 35 points in the first half but gave up 52 in the second half. Their first half defense was stifling. Every player covered his man to near-perfection, and the Nets were rarely able to get open long enough to take shots. Every shot was contested, every rebound was fought for. They won the rebounds battle 47-36, rebounding better on both sides of the court. When they went to the bench, things got a little sloppier. Instead of contesting shots, Boston played overly-physical. They committed too many second-half fouls and gave the Nets too many free throws. While this did not do much to get New Jersey back in the game (except in the third quarter, when they outscored Boston 29-19), against a better team this could prove costly. The starters have proven themselves, now it’s up to the bench to do the same.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Honestly, this was like playing a team from the NBDL. The Nets are a joke of a team, lacking the outside shooting, defense, and general energy necessary to compete in the NBA. If they go on to become the worst record in NBA history, I would not be at all surprised. This was a nice warm up for the Celtics: a chance to get an easy win, build some momentum, and then get their starters (especially Rondo) some much needed rest. They will have a much tougher game versus Chicago tomorrow. They played for 24 minutes and change tonight, then turned it over to the youngsters to finish off an easy team. Thursday they will have to play 48 minutes if they want to win.

Predicting the Playoffs, part 2

Well, after going 1-3 for wildcard weekend I’m just glad I didn’t bet any money. But I definitely learned some things about all of the teams that won when I thought they wouldn’t. Darrelle Revis is a far more talented cornerback than I was giving him credit for. The Ravens defense and running game are likewise much stronger. And Arizona has far more than just Anquan Boldin for receiving options, making them very dangerous against bad pass-rush defenses. With all that in mind, here are my thoughts on each of the divisional-round playoff games.

Cowboys vs. Vikings: Despite everything, including being a legitimate Packers fan, it’s hard for me to root against Brett Favre. Part of me genuinely wants him to win this game. And I think Minnesota definitely CAN win. They have a good pass-rushing defense that can rattle Tony Romo. They have the best running back in the game in Adrien Peterson. And they have a more than competent quarterback in Brett Favre. I actually think Favre is still the stronger QB when compared with Tony Romo. Favre has the advantages of experience, a better receiving corps, and home field. The latter may play into this game the most, as Vikings fans will be going crazy for the first legitimate shot at the Super Bowl they’ve ever seen. My pick: Minnesota

Arizona vs. New Orleans: This is a tough one to call. On the one hand, Kurt Warner proved last week that he can hang with the best of them when it comes to quarterback shootouts. His receivers are good and his front line does a great job protecting him. The problem is that as good as he is, Drew Brees is still better. New Orleans will light up that weak Cardinals secondary like the Fourth of July. It’s just a question of whether or not Kurt Warner will answer every time. We saw how weak their defense is, not to mention their inability to close out games. Against a team that plays hard all four quarters (like the Saints) the Cardinals may find themselves too worn out to continue to score the way New Orleans can. And again, they won’t have the benefit of so many early turnovers to give them early leads. My pick: New Orleans.

San Diego vs. New York: This game seems to be the most lopsided, at least on paper. Mark Sanchez pales in comparison to Philip Rivers, as does his receiving corps compared to the Chargers’. San Diego also of course has LaDainian Tomlinson, who despite injuries in the last few years is still a more dynamic playmaker than anyone on the Jets offense. The Jets don’t stop the run as well as they stop the pass, and the Chargers’ have a good enough running game that the Jets won’t be able to expect the pass every time like they did against Cincinnati. All of this points to a quick exit for New York against a far superior Chargers team. My pick: San Diego

Baltimore vs. Indianapolis: You have to remember with this game that the Ravens played the Colts once already and only lost by two points. This week they’re rolling in with plenty of momentum on their side. Plus the fact that no one is picking them to win will be a huge motivational factor in their favor. They proved against the Patriots that they have a stout defense and a strong running game. This is usually what you need to win a playoff game. I expect Baltimore to pound it up the middle. All it takes is for a Peyton Manning off-day (he’s due for one, and it IS the playoffs), and the Colts are looking at a major upset. While Indianapolis has the better quarterback, I think Baltimore has both the edge on defense and on the ground. Plus, the home team can’t win EVERY time! My pick: Baltimore.

Slow Start Dooms New England to Early Playoff Exit

The New England Patriots began their playoff run against the Baltimore Ravens Sunday afternoon in Foxboro. The Patriots had already defeated Baltimore once this season and were looking for a repeat performance. Unfortunately, the Ravens turned the tables on New England, scoring four times (three touchdowns plus a field goal) in the first quarter. One touchdown came at the hands of a Ray Rice 83 yard rush. It was the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage, and it was a sign of things to come. New England never recovered and wound up losing, 33-14.

New England on Offense

Three factors contributed to New England’s offensive woes during this game. The first was their lack of a running game. The Patriots rushed for just 64 yards all game. Being unable to run the ball in any meaningful way, New England was forced to go to its passing game almost exclusively. This led to the two other problems the offense suffered from. The Patriots front line could not protect Tom Brady (154 yards, 2 touchdown passes, a whopping 3 interceptions), as he was sacked three times, once leading to a fumble that Baltimore recovered. Additionally, the Patriots’ wide receivers were constantly taking hits from the Ravens’ defense, never making serious plays after the catch. No one on the Patriots had a good day receiving, not the wide receivers, not the tight ends, and not the running backs. The Ravens’ gave up the short pass, then quickly swarmed the receivers and hit them… hard. The Patriots wide receivers were bruised and beaten by a more physical Ravens secondary. Combine all of this with the turnover problems the Patriots suffered from, and you have the makings of a difficult offensive game for New England.

New England of Defense

The one thing the Patriots defense had done successfully all season was stop the run. Unfortunately, they could not do it again during their game Sunday afternoon. They gave up 234 yards on the ground despite allowing just over 110 yards a game during the regular season. Every time the Ravens rushed, their front line beat the Patriots’, forcing the tackles and linesmen backwards, making it easy for the Ravens’ backs to gain almost half the needed yardage on every rush (4.5 yards per carry average). This led to numerous third-and-shot situations, as opposed to the Patriots, who were usually in third-and-long situations. And on third down, the Patriots just couldn’t get stops, giving up 10 conversions while just gaining 3 themselves. While they only gave up six rushing touchdowns all season, today they gave up four, including two to game MVP Ray Rice, who ran for 159 yards. The Pats couldn’t stop Rice or any of the other Baltimore backs, and it cost them the game. The Ravens rarely went to the pass, not really needing to, so the Pats’ success against the pass Sunday afternoon is kind of an empty stat.

Looking Back and Looking Forward

This past season could best be described as a work in progress. The young New England defense needed an entire season to learn how to play defense together in the NFL. Tom Brady needed a season to get himself physically and mentally back into the swing of things after missing the entire 2008 season. And the offensive line needed a season to learn how to protect Tom Brady. Add to that the sheer number of injuries sustained by various Patriots this season and you have a season of “almost.” Next season the Patriots should return healthier and more experienced. They will be a far superior team next year, better able to defend, protect the QB, and play on the road. But for now we’re left with the sour taste of a season plagued by inconsistency and frustration.