The Patriots are a Hornets Nest the Jets Poke at Own Peril

Ever since Monday, we’ve all been subject to what the media calls the “War of Words” between the New York Jets and the New England Patriots. But is it really a war if one side attacks and the other side doesn’t respond? Perhaps this should be re-named the “Bay of Pigs Invasion of Words,” or perhaps the “Six-Day War of Words.” Hey! There are six days between Monday and Saturday! That kind of works!

This really hasn’t been a back-and-forth exchange of insults and criticisms. Jets personnel would say something inflammatory, and the Patriots would respond with something conciliatory or deflecting. Rex Ryan says this game is about the battle between him and Bill Belichick? Belichick says that it won’t be either of them making the plays. Ryan accuses Tom Brady of relying on coaches to prepare him for a game? Brady says that yes, of course he does. Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie calls Brady some very bad words? Brady: “I’ve been called worse. In fact, Bill Belichick’s called me that. My offensive coordinator has called me that. And I know they like me, so maybe [Cromartie] really likes me.”

So far, there has only been one Patriot to say anything that could be at all construed as even possibly inflammatory: Wes Welker, who 11 times in his Thursday conference used a word related to the foot (feet, step, toe, etc.). Was this a mockery of Ryan? Hard to say. But no other Patriot has come even close to trying to rile up the Jets. In a sport where “disrespect” is the buzzword du jour, used (and often manufactured) by every team to try and give themselves an emotional edge, the Patriots are not giving the Jets anything to work with.

The Jets, meanwhile, run a serious risk with this strategy. The Jets have already seen once how the Patriots, if irritated, can play at a level that not only wins but humiliates their opponent. In the Patriots’ 45-3 victory over the Jets at home, Belichick proved that he has a coaching level that is beyond his regular level, which is pretty darn good to begin with. In that game, the Patriots ran plays never before used in the Belichick era. None was more evident than Brady’s 50-yard pass to Danny Woodhead. That pass began with Brady in the spread and Woodhead in the backfield. Brady hit Woodhead for a five-foot lateral pass, and Woodhead burst through the line, taking advantage of the deep safeties. Belichick saved that play for that game, and it broke the Jets defense in half. If you piss Belichick off, he will take his game to a level that no one else can compete with. He won’t just beat you; he’ll beat you into the ground.

Brady also raised his game against the Jets, clearly miffed at their undeserved publicity. Brady was having an MVP season, and the Jets were getting all the press with little more than an AFC Championship loss to back it up. Was Brady angry? Yes. Did he point at the sidelines? Yes. Did the Jets do anything to shut him up? No. Because Brady is a transcendent quarterback, one of the best of this decade (if not the best), and he too has reserves of quarterback prowess that once tapped can’t be defended or denied. Don’t challenge Brady to beat you, because he can, he will, and he will enjoy it.

Even if the Jets win Sunday’s game (unlikely as that may be), how will they look to the rest of the NFL in their victory? Have they looked charming and fun in their constant attacks on the Patriots? Does this team seem like a happy-go-lucky bunch of youngsters whose swagger comes from their love of the game and their carefree attitude? Or do they look like bullies, picking fights that no one else is interested in just because they like to fight? Does their swagger belie a lack of confidence in themselves? The Patriots are supremely arrogant because they know their system works. The Jets have no such validation, so they replace it with bravado. If they lose, they’ll look like fools. If they win, they’ll look like jerks.

Ryan’s players are talking trash because Ryan talks trash. If the Jets lose, it will be a reflection on the way he runs his team more than it will be on the talent level of his players. Had Ryan backed away, given the Patriots the stock complimentary answers that Belichick and the Patriots always rely on, his players would have played this game just as cool. Instead, these hot-mouthed players are psyching up an opponent that can absolutely play at a level better than any other team in the NFL.

As a team, the Patriots have sometimes come into games not completely focused (their loss to Cleveland this season is a good example). Get them playing sloppy in the beginning, build up a lead, and you might have a chance. But if they come wanting nothing more than to shut you up by shoving your face into the grass, you’re doomed. And talking trash is the most surefire strategy to getting the latter Patriots on Sunday.

The Patriots long ago learned that the best way to make a statement is on the field. Making one off the field just motivates the other team. New Orleans learned the hard way what can happen when a team is constantly belittled. The Patriots are saving their energy for Sunday, but at the rate the Jets are going, they’ll be running on fumes by Saturday.

Triple Play: Twelve Three Pointers Helps End Celtics Losing Streak

For the first half of the game, Paul Pierce was the Celtics’ primary offensive weapon, scoring 21 points to keep Boston ahead of the Sacramento Kings. Pierce didn’t play much in the second half (he finished with 25 points), but he didn’t have to. A 33-18 third quarter built an insurmountable Celtics lead, powering Boston to a 119-95 Sacramento thrashing that snapped a Celtics two-game losing skid while extending the Kings’ road-losing streak to 12 games. The Celtics shot 52.1 percent, shooting 26 more times than the Kings (96-70) and draining twelve three-pointers.

Starters and Reserves Contribute Equally

As the Celtics built their lead larger and larger, Doc Rivers decided to give his bench players extra minutes and extra opportunities. They did not disappoint him, finishing the game with 56 points, just seven points fewer than the starters. Every reserve Celtic scored, and four reached double digits. Nate Robinson led the way, scoring 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter. Robinson also connected for four three pointers, tying Ray Allen (14 points, five rebounds, a steal and a block) for most in the game.

The other three reserves to score in double figures were Marquis Daniels, Semih Erden and Von Wafer. Erden fouled out after 33 minutes of play, a team-high. But Erden’s fouling out was emblematic of his aggressive play, which got him 10 points and nine rebounds, including two offensive boards. In the third quarter, Erden trailed Pierce on a driving layup, which Pierce missed. Erden jumped through defenders to slam it home.

The Incessant from the Fertile Crescent was especially big underneath the basket. After Allen picked off a pass in the second, he passed it to Daniels, who drove into the lane, passing it off at the last second to Erden, who dunked it, putting the Celtics up 37-31.

Pierce also found Erden under the basket for a layup and foul in the first quarter. Erden missed the free-throw, but Luke Harangody grabbed the offensive rebound and found Daniels for the layup, putting the Celtics up 23-19. Harangody had a solid all-around game, scoring two points, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out three assists in 22 minutes. On defense, he stole one pass, blocked one shot and drew two charges.

The starters were led by Pierce and Allen, but Glen Davis also contributed with 12 points and two steals. The Celtics stole the ball 16 times, with every player but Robinson stealing at least one.

The Celtics had no trouble moving the ball around the court on offense. They collected 29 assists on their 50 made shots, winning the assist battle 29-19. They also won the rebounds battle 38-37, most notably by collecting 12 offensive rebounds. The Celtics’ size advantage allowed them to dominate in the paint, where they scored 56 points.

Another Game, Another Rondo Double-Double

Rajon Rondo scored 10 while dishing out 13 assists for the 14th double-double of the season.

Rondo seems far more comfortable passing the ball than shooting it himself, which is fine for an offense that has so many lethal scorers. In the third quarter, Rondo pushed the ball up the court on a fast-break following a Davis steal. Allen trailed him, and Rondo pushed up just enough to give Allen a clear three-point shot, which Allen hit without hesitation. Later on defense, Rondo knocked the ball free, and it rolled to Harangody, who threw a deep pass to Rondo. But instead of scoring an easy layup, Rondo waited several seconds for Daniels to catch up, and Rondo handed it to him for an easy dunk.

Although Rondo passed up that easy bucket, he was otherwise unafraid to take shots. When Shaquille O’Neal drew double-coverage from the post in the third, Rondo cut underneath the basket for the quick pass and easy bucket. When the Kings defense started playing off him in the third, he drained an 18-foot jumper without a second thought. And when time was winding down in the second quarter, he banked a shot high off the backboard for a driving layup with 0.6 seconds left in the game, getting to the line in the process.

When the Celtics are clicking, Rondo doesn’t have to score. They can score from anywhere on the court using their other four starters. O’Neal can body up underneath the basket, backing down opposing centers for close-range layups or dunks. Boston’s power forwards can either post up or shoot the mid-range jumper. Pierce can slash through the lanes, drawing contact and getting to the line even when he doesn’t score. And Allen is either hovering in the corners, or constantly moving without the ball until he can, where he is absolutely deadly. He will finish this season with the most three-pointers in NBA history, needing just 35 to break Reggie Miller’s record of 2,560.

As long as the Celtics continue to be able to shoot from all over the court, they won’t need Rondo to do anything but find the open man. Which is what he does best.

Ten Athletes to Avoid at All Costs

It takes a unique mind to be a professional athlete. You have to develop total recall, the ability to remember every at-bat against a given pitcher or down-and-distance situation for a quarterback, and be constantly adding to that library of information. But at the same time, you have to forget every failure, every strikeout, every interception, every loss as soon as it happens. You also have to forget every hit, touchdown, goal or victory, too. You have to believe your skills are worth millions of dollars, and that they make you qualified to challenge other multi-millionaires. You have to accept that the day-to-day emotions of an entire city, state or region will be based in part on your performance. And you have to balance all of those external factors with the internal pain vs. pleasure argument, whether the joy you take from playing is worth the pain it can cause (this is a bigger deal in football and hockey than in basketball or baseball). All of this can combine to drive a person crazy. The annals of sports history are filled with the lunatic fringe, from the comical to the criminal. But here’s my personal top 10 list of athletes you should never spend time with, and the reasons why.

10) John Rocker: Because he’s an asshole. Rocker’s not particularly dangerous, he’s just a jerk. A racist, ignorant, admitted HGH-using jerk. You shouldn’t spend time with him not because you might get hurt, but because it wouldn’t be any fun. Sometimes racism can be taken to such absurd levels that it becomes comical that anyone could possibly believe this stuff. But then you meet a guy who actually has prejudices, who actually believes certain factors beyond a person’s control make him or her inferior, and you just feel antsy. You don’t want to be around people like that unless you have the same prejudices, and even then that person’s stupidity (independent from their racism) may make you feel uncomfortable because it makes you question yourself. So whether you’re a Commie leftist pinko or a gun-toting redneck sumbitch, avoid Rocker.

9) Ben Roethlisberger: Because he’s a scumbag. How great was it when Richard Seymour punched Roethlisberger in the face? That’s what you get for talking smack! In all seriousness, Roethlisberger is the classic case of an athlete getting special treatment. His first sexual assault charge, regarding a 31-year-old in Lake Tahoe, went away because of a lack of physical evidence. The woman later sued, and a friend suggested she was a gold-digger. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for this one, but the second, against a 20-year-old? Disgusting behavior, and the quarterback was lucky to dodge prosecution. The media exposure got to be too much for the girl, and she backed off. But she never recanted her story, which makes me think it happened. Roethlisberger is a misogynistic piece of crap, and Seymour probably could have dodged any suspension by saying he did it because he has a daughter and he did it for her. Add to this Roethlisberger’s moronic decision to go motorcycling without a helmet, and you have a true douche-bag of the douchiest caliber. He’s not worth your time.

8) Tank Johnson: Because he left a stoner alone with children and guns. Johnson has never actually brandished a gun or fired it on a crowd, so he’s not as high up as he could be. His arrests have mostly been for misdemeanor firearm possessions. But there is the matter of his bodyguard, William Posey, who was busted for marijuana possession at Johnson’s house while Johnson was at practice. Having a stoned bodyguard is probably a bad idea (it tends to slow your reaction time), but the cops found six firearms, including assault rifles, some of which were loaded. Why on earth would you allow someone to get high while around loaded guns? The worst of it is that there were kids home at the time all of this went down. When have you ever read “marijuana,” “assault rifles” and “children” in the same sentence and had it be about something good? Johnson seems kind of stupid in a more dangerous way than Rocker or Roethlisberger. He probably would never actually shoot someone, but his carelessness throws up too many red flags.

7) Travis Henry: Because you might wind up pregnant. Henry is far and away the most virile man in professional athletics. He has fathered 11 children through 10 different mothers. Ten! Lots of people probably won’t sleep with 10 different women in their whole lives, and he’s done it by age 32. Only the Ol’ Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang and Johann Sebastian Bach (the ODB of the Baroque era) have fathered more kids than he has. We’d forgive his indiscretions if he did right by his children, but (gasp!) he’s also a deadbeat. He’s been arrested for failure to pay child support, which totals over $170,000 per year. So if you’re female, and you see this guy coming, grab one of those iron chastity belts from “Men in Tights” and run the other way. Oh yeah, and he’s been arrested for cocaine possession with intent to deal (and that was a plea bargain).

6) Ron Artest: Because he might punch you in the face. Artest’s fight in Detroit (which has been fantastically nicknamed “The Malice at the Palace”) changed basketball forever. The fight made NBA players look like brutal thugs, not top-notch athletes. NBA Commissioner David Stern imposed a dress code less than a year later.  Thanks to the dress code, the NBA image has been rehabilitated, so now we just see players either in uniform or in dress clothes. And man do they look classy! Boy, they look sharp! Thanks, Ron! But beyond his contribution to athletic fashion, Artest’s fight brought much-needed publicity to the world of trajectory calculation. Because after a cup of water short-circuited Artest’s brain, causing him to climb into the stands and beat up the first white guy (and yes, I think it was at least partially based on race) he could find, the all-important question to ask was: “did Artest beat up the right dude?” Trajectory analysts went to work, and soon there was an answer: nope. Not even close. Off by probably two sections and eight rows. The end conclusion: if Artest is mad (you can tell because he’ll lay down on the scorer’s table, apparently to not draw attention to himself), and you look at him funny, he might punch you in the face. He lacks the psychological and mathematical skills necessary to determine the true source of his anger, so he just fights whoever is nearby. The solution: never be near Artest.

5) Delmon Young: Because he’s really accurate. On April 26, 2006, Young was called out on strikes while playing against our very own Pawtucket Red Sox. Disappointing, but not devastating. But apparently, Young didn’t like the call, and voiced his disagreement with the umpire as he walked back to the dugout. Video of the incident gives no clue as to what was said, so I’m sure it was something like, “Golly, I certainly disagree with your strike call, but I am just a minor leaguer and you are an umpire, so I will defer to your experience and good judgment and return peaceably to my dugout. Then I will throw a bat at you.” Seriously, he throws a bat at the umpire after getting ejected. It’s not just the act, but the throw itself, that makes Young so dangerous. That bat flies in a perfect straight line, end over end, hitting the ump square in the chest. The bat flies across the screen, so think how far away Young must have been, and he was still dead-on. It’s so accurate that you almost want to side with Young, because if he can aim that precisely, he must have a pretty good eye. Pitchers should be coming to Young for help with their control. If ninja stars could be thrown that accurately, “Ninja Gaiden” for the NES would have been far easier to beat. The lesson of this incident is that you should probably stay at least three blocks away from Young at all times. Any closer, and he might as well have a laser-sight, because he’s going to hit you.

4) Adam “Pacman” Jones: Because we fear the unknown above all else. And with Jones, you never know what shenanigans you might get into. Maybe you’ll just smoke some pot and chill out. Maybe you’ll go to a party, where Jones will spit on a co-ed. But if he takes you to a nightclub (probably speeding along the way), you’ll be lucky if a spitting incident is all that happens. Jones and nightclubs are like matter and anti-matter: put them together and everything blows up. Maybe he’ll beat up a stripper. Maybe he’ll get in a fight with security. Maybe he’ll bite someone. You just don’t know where Jones’ craziness will take him. And possibly worse than Jones are his friends, who you’ll probably also have to hang out wit. Like the friend who was busted for dealing cocaine. They found Jones’ Cadillac outside his house. Or the friends who were with Jones when he and Nelly went nuts in that Las Vegas strip club. They came back with a gun and shot up the crowd. If they made a movie about Jones and his friends, it would be “Crazy and Crazier.” Bottom line: if you see Jones entering some place, don’t go in that place. If you’re already in that place, leave… quickly.

3) Mike Tyson: Because he’s Mike Tyson. Ever seen “The Hangover?” Remember how when Zach Galifianakis gets punched out by Tyson, and his friends agree that’s punishment enough for drugging them? It’s kind of like that. Tyson poses the dual threat of being a professional boxer and simultaneously bat-shit crazy. One punch could probably give you a concussion, but his weapons don’t stop at his hands. He still has his teeth. Add in the drug addiction, rape conviction and “eat his children” comment, and you have a seriously bonkers dude who could kill you with his bare hands.

2) Marvin Harrison: Because you’d never see it coming, and he has friends in low places. This might seem like an odd choice. Marvin Harrison was the superstar wide receiver of the Indianapolis Colts. Peyton Manning’s go-to guy. And he led a pristine life on and off the field. Never talked trash. Was polite to the press. Never flaunted his money in a recognizable way (mansions, fancy cars, entourages). Gave away turkeys on Thanksgiving. Went back to his old neighborhood and tried to clean it up without appearing self-righteous (opened a high-class sports bar that has zero Harrison memorabilia; ran a car wash that employed locally). But wait until you read this. It’s the strange story of Harrison getting into a shouting match with a Philadelphia lowlife that ends in Harrison shooting him several times. The guy lives, but then he gets shot to death a few weeks later, and the police suspected it was Harrison’s cousin. Only a lack of credible witnesses prevented this case from going to trial, and Philly cops have been pissed about this ever since. This is a guy with a lethally dangerous dark side that you’d never, ever expect. Until it’s too late.

1) Gilbert Arenas: Because he might shoot you.

(As opposed to Plaxico Burress, who’d just shoot himself)

Ten Thoughts from Wild Card Weekend

The bottom of the NFL has been sifted. The unworthy have been ousted. The weak have been terminated. Only the mighty remain. So what did we learn? Here’s the top 10 revelations from this weekend’s games.

10) Picking winners ahead of time is really hard: Without a final-minute interception, I would have gone 0-4 in picking the wild card games. If I go .500 in any playoff, I’m lucky. I’m not sure what it is that allows professionals to do this better than I do. Perhaps they have access to statistical resources that I don’t (I’m basically using ESPN and whatever articles I happen to read). It may be that once your job becomes entirely about watching and analyzing teams, you develop a more nuanced understanding of what it takes to win games, so you start to see factors in teams that less critical eyes don’t. It might be these guys just get lucky. But whatever it is, if I don’t turn this around at some point I worry people are going to start thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about.

9) Turnovers- not that big a deal: There was no consistency to the turnover battle this weekend. The only team to win the turnover battle and the game was Baltimore, forcing five but still committing two themselves. New Orleans and Seattle each gave it away once, and both the Packers and Jets turned the ball over more than their opponents. But the Ravens, Packers and Jets all won at least partially on the strength of their defense, which limited their opponents to a combined 39 points. If a team can avoid turning the ball over deep in their own territory and has a defense that can get stops, the offense can take a few more chances on plays that might produce a turnover but have higher yardage possibilities. You put more pressure on your defense, which can eventually wear down (like Kansas City’s), but a defensive stop after a turnover can kill an opposing team’s momentum in an instance. The true teams are those that don’t get shaken up by the odd turnover.

8) Saints secondary… really, really bad: Watching New Orleans-Seattle, what was most striking was how vulnerable the Saints backfield looked. Most of the Seahawks’ big plays came when receivers simply slipped behind the Saints safeties. Matt Hasselbeck might not be the greatest quarterback in the world, but he’s very capable of floating a pass in front of a receiver who has gotten behind the defense, giving him a clear path to the end zone. The Saints defense also had trouble tackling, especially in their secondary. On the Seahawks’ victory-clinching 67-yard touchdown run, Marshawn Lynch broke five or six tackles, mostly by secondary players, including once by literally throwing the would-be tackler into the ground after stiff-arming him. As the Patriots have shown repeatedly, those extra few yards gained by a receiver dragging a tackler or falling forward instead of backward can add up to points really, really quickly. The Saints could not contain the Seahawks down-field, and it cost them the game.

7) The Seahawks won’t produce the same intensity next week. The Seahawks were the only team to win a home game this weekend, and they finished the season 7-9. They didn’t exactly play well, but they played angry, and in the NFL that can be all that matters. Teams will look for any opponent’s quote or analyst’s criticism in an effort to generate even an extra ounce of motivation. Nobody picked the Seahawks, and that motivated them go out and make a statement against the defending Super Bowl champions. It didn’t hurt that they were playing on their home field, a stadium that averages the most opposing false start penalties in the league. But what’s going to happen next week? Can the Seahawks really generate that same degree of intensity at Soldier’s Field? The Bears play much better defense than the Saints, and the special teams unit is going to have a far harder time with Devin Hester than they did with Lance Moore or Robert Meachem. The crowd won’t be with them, and Chicago’s defense is far smarter, faster and more physical. Seattle justified its crappy season and proved its place as a playoff team by beating New Orleans, but it’s unlikely they do it again.

6) Ravens defense is its key: The dominant defense of the Ravens (fifth-best run defense, third-best scoring defense) is what made their win the only double-digit victory of the weekend. The Ravens held the Chiefs to just 161 total yards, over 150 yards fewer than the next losing team’s. Along the way, they forced five turnovers, including three interceptions. The Ravens rushing game wasn’t spectacular (only one touchdown, just 3.6 yards per carry, less than half their passing average), it was just good enough to take advantage of the good field position afforded them by their defense (average starting spot for Ravens: 37.4 yard line; average for Chiefs: 28.3 yard line). But the Chiefs never managed a drive longer than 4:30, either. If the Steelers can avoid turnovers and extend drives, the Ravens won’t be able to manufacture as many points on offense. Defense can win playoff games, but it rarely wins Super Bowls. Defenses inevitably slow down, which is when the offenses have to come alive and carry the slack. The Patriots beat the Ravens by holding them scoreless for nearly 30 minutes, finally kicking a field goal after the Baltimore defense blinked. Pittsburgh can do the same next week.

5) Quarterback experience matters: Coming into this weekend, Hasselbeck has played in three more playoff games than Drew Brees. Joe Flacco had played in five playoff games, and Matt Cassel had never played in one (beyond a kneel down in 2005). Michael Vick had played in four playoff games and Aaron Rodgers had only played in one, but Rodgers was in the playoffs last year, whereas Vick had not played a playoff game in six years (postseason following the 2004 season), and the specific atmosphere of the playoffs is something that could easily be forgotten with a long absence. Having an experienced leader on the field matters. Now, Mark Sanchez has played far fewer playoff games than Peyton Manning, but Manning’s legacy will always be tarnished by his perpetually .500 playoff record. So if you have to choose between two quarterbacks, go with the more experienced one (that’s one reason why I like the chances for the Packers, Patriots, and Steelers next week). Unless it’s Manning.

4) Running game… not just a cliche: Take a look at this: The Seahawks out-gained the Saints on the ground 144-79; the Jets out-gained the Colts 169-93; the Ravens out-gained the Chiefs 142-108; and the Packers out-gained the Eagles 138-82. In all four games, the winning team had the better running game. This didn’t always translate to more total yards or time of possession, but the old adage that stronger running teams win playoff games is absolutely true. So when people start analyzing the divisional games, the first thing on everyone’s mind should be which teams are better rushers and which teams are better at stopping the run. If the two teams are indistinguishable beyond that, go with that as the deciding factor.

3) Beware the Green Bay Packers: In beating the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers looked like a classic playoff team. The Packers rushed more than they passed (32 rushes vs. 27 pass attempts), which enabled them to sustain long drives (two touchdown drives that each ate up at least six minutes) and control the ball (32:00 vs. 28:00 time of possession). They rushed on early downs and gained enough yards (4.3 per carry) to put them in short-yardage third downs, which they usually converted (8-13). They made few mental errors (just two penalties and two turnovers, one on the first punt of the game). On defense, they shut down the run, usually prevented big plays, and varied their pressure strategies. If rookie James Starks can have the performance he had on Sunday next week in Atlanta, they could absolutely beat the Falcons.

2) Jets Offense- Stop the Run, Stop the Team: I already showed how running contributed to all four victories this weekend. But nowhere was it more evident than in the Jets-Colts game. In every other game, the winning quarterback threw for at least two touchdowns while posting a quarterback rating over 110. Sanchez did neither of those things, throwing for no touchdowns while posting a measly 62.4 quarterback rating. He out-threw Rodgers by just 9 yards to avoid the lowest passing total of any winning quarterback as well. This team won because it got sacks and because it ran the ball. The Jets rushed for more yards than any other playoff team, and they were the only team to rush for more than one touchdown. When they come to Foxborough, it will be imperative that the Patriots stop the run. Doing so will force Sanchez to carry the team, and he still hasn’t proven he can do that.

1) The Jets defense works best against “big play” offenses: Here’s why the Jets beat the Colts, and why they won’t beat the Patriots next week: Darrelle Revis is good enough to cover the best wide receiver on a team, but that’s it. The Colts are a team that likes to go deep, to match their wide receivers in single coverage against the opposing corners and trust Manning to put it where only the receiver can catch it. But Revis is so good at staying tight to his man that he can play any ball thrown his way. So if your offense relies on long passes and features one or two receivers only, Revis and the Jets can shut you down. But with an offense that features two wide receivers, two tight ends and a check-down running back that can all go anywhere on the field, the “featured cornerback” strategy won’t work. And that’s why you have to love the Patriots next week, no matter what the Jets proved by avenging their AFC Championship loss last season against the Colts.

Get Ready for a Wild Weekend

January has few things going for it (other than the 29th, the day I was born). It’s cold, it’s dark, and there are still upwards of two months before it gets any warmer or lighter. Basketball teams and hockey teams have settled into the mires of their seasons, when the games don’t really matter (like they do in the final month), but the shine has worn off (usually right after Christmas). College football has virtually ended, and college basketball is two months away from mattering. Baseball’s three months away. And the movies that come out are always the worst, the projects movie studios have the lowest of low expectations for. January is depressing.

But there is one shining exception: playoff football. The NFL gets sifted from 32 teams to the top 12, who are then pitted against each other in a win-or-go-home style whose brevity endows each game with simultaneous auras of majesty and mystery. The long series of hockey, baseball and basketball make it so that the better team wins most of the time (not necessarily the higher-seeded, but the better in overall talent-level). But in football, a game of shifting momentum, a few good plays by a weaker team can equal an upset. How many times have we seen even a single ill-timed turnover kill a team in the playoffs? That’s how quickly a playoff football game can turn against a team.

Four playoff games will take place over the next 48 hours, all for the right to take on a top-two team on its home soil. How these games will play out is anyone’s guess. It used to be that division winners had a distinct advantage over wild-card teams, winning 41 of 56 games from 1990-2003. But since 2004, the wild-cards have had a slight advantage, going 13-11. Essentially, simple mathematics say each game is a coin-flip (54-46). And the division winners are so close to the wild cards in terms of overall talent that really any game could go any way. With that in mind, here are my picks:

New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks (Saturday, 4:30): Remember how I just said that these games are each a coin flip? Well, here’s where I totally go back on myself. This game isn’t a coin flip. Coin flips have better odds. The Seattle Seahawks are a 7-9 team. They won less than 50 percent of their regular season. It’s a travesty that they made the playoffs and two NFC teams with 10 wins did not. This is the downside to the NFL’s vaunted “parity:” it gives every team a shot, but it perpetuates a cycle of mediocrity. Instead of building a team that is actually, you know, good, NFC West teams only have to build teams good enough to beat the other NFC West teams, who are all worse. There’s little that can be said for the Seahawks. They’re 19th in the NFL in passing and 31st in rushing (more important in the playoffs). Their defense, 21st in opponent rushing and 27th in opponent passing, allows six more points than they score. On top of all of that, they give the ball away twice as often as they take it away, with the second-worst turnover differential in the NFC. These guys, quite simply, suck. And they’re going against a defending Super Bowl champion that won as many games as the second-seeded Chicago Bears. The Saints have the third-highest passing offense in the NFL, and Drew Brees is the most accurate quarterback in the NFL. Brees also leads the NFC in touchdown passes and yards per game. Brees is going to eat the Seahawks defense alive. If that alone weren’t enough, the Saints also have the fourth best passing defense in the NFL. Matt Hasselbeck, the Seahawks lone offensive weapon since they have no running game, only cracks the top 10 in one NFL statistic: most interceptions. The Saints should win this game for the good of the NFL. The thought of a sub-.500 team going deep into the playoffs should sicken every fan not from Seattle. Pick: Saints.

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 8): Rex Ryan has never beaten Peyton Manning in a game that’s mattered. His lone victory came in a Week 17, rest-your-starters game that Manning barely played. When it’s actually mattered, Manning has utterly destroyed these Ryan defenses. The Colts will score points, and the Jets will not. In his last four games played, Manning has thrown nine touchdown passes and two picks. The Colts went 4-0 in those games, bumping up to a #3 seed that means they won’t have to play the Patriots in the AFC divisional round. Mark Sanchez, in his last four games played, threw one touchdown and five interceptions. The Jets went 1-3 in those four games. Manning has simply had the better season than Sanchez, outranking him statistically in every category except for interceptions. Manning is also so good at reading blitzes and defenses that the Jets will have a hard time getting pressure on him. Sanchez has not enjoyed the same protection, getting sacked 11 more times. The Jets lone chance lies in their ability to run the football (fourth overall). But LaDainian Tomlinson has had exactly one postseason game in which he’s rushed for over 100 yards, and Shonn Greene rushed for just 41 yards last year in Indianapolis. Another choke-job seems likely. The Jets may have the better defense (third against the run, sixth against the pass), but they are still pretenders to the thrown, and they will be shown as such on Saturday. Pick: Colts.

Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs (Sunday, 1): This game will be about strength versus strength. The Chiefs have the best rushing offense in the NFL. The Ravens have the fourth best defense. Whichever side blinks first is going to lose this game. The two quarterbacks have had remarkably similar seasons. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco is slightly more accurate (62.6 completion percentage vs. 58.2) and throws a bit more per game (226 yards per game vs 208), but the Chiefs’ Matt Cassel has a slightly better touchdown interception ratio (27-7 vs. 25-10). Their quarterback ratings are nearly identical (93.6 vs. 93.0). The key to this game may lie in the sack differential. Flacco has been sacked 40 times, or 2.5 per game. Cassell, meanwhile, has only been sacked 26 times, or 1.6 per game. Sacks lead to longer-yardage downs, which in turn leads to fewer first downs and more punts from deeper in one’s own territory. The Ravens offense may face more third-and-longs, where they are just a middle-of-the-road team (16th in the NFL at a 39.0 third-down conversion rate), and this may give the Chiefs offense better starting field-position on their drives. This should be a close one, but if the Chiefs can start further up-field, they can grind the ball out with more runs. This will tire out the Baltimore defense, leading to extended Kansas City drives that will eat up clock time while still putting up points. It might come down to the final drive of the game, but the home team should win. Pick: Chiefs.

Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 4:30): This game poses an interesting question: will Eagles quarterback Michael Vick have more sacks in his face on Sunday than he did in prison? On the one hand, the Packers having recorded more sacks than any other NFC team (47.0). On the other hand, it was prison, where the most common hobby is rape. In all seriousness, Vick has had a fantastic season, ranking in the NFC’s top 10 in most statistical categories, including second in the NFC with a quarterback rating of 100.2. Problem is, the guy at #1 in the NFC is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who outranks Vick in several key categories, including yards per game and touchdown passes. The Packers pass better than the Eagles do, but Philadelphia compliments a solid-enough passing game (ninth in the NFL) with the fifth-best rushing game in the league. Usually, stronger rushing teams win in the playoffs, but a strong Packers pass defense (fifth in the NFL, with two shutdown cornerbacks in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson) is going to force the Eagles to run more than they want to. Their best running back is LeSean McCoy, who averages just 72.0 yards per game. Vick has accumulated more rushing yards and more rushing touchdowns. As is always the case, Vick will be the primary rusher as well as passer, meaning he will be at the mercy of Green Bay’s ferocious linemen and linebackers. The sociopathic Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews is going to make sure Vick feels every tackle. The Packers allow the fewest points in the NFC (15.0 per game) because their secondary can prevent big plays and their front is almost impenetrable. Philadelphia’s defense is only 15th in passing and rushing, and 21st in scoring. Vick may be able to manufacture some points, but it’s gonna hurt doing so. The Packers are going to be hungrier than the Eagles for a win on Sunday. The Packers were picked by many before the regular season to go the playoffs, but injuries and mental errors nearly kept them from the postseason at all. Vick, meanwhile, is playing with house money in Philadelphia, having in one season made every fan forget both his own past and Donovan McNabb. If he doesn’t win in his first year as an Eagle, fans will forgive him and start licking their chops for next season. Rodgers, meanwhile, doesn’t have that luxury. Pick: Packers.

So there you have it: two road wins, two home wins. Basically, a coin flip.

Boston Sports, 2010

As 2011 begins, let’s look at back at how Boston’s four professional sports teams fared in 2010. There were no championships, but three teams made the playoffs, and the seeds of the 2010-2011 seasons were laid in the failures of the 2009-2010 teams. Every team’s weaknesses were exposed, and management has set out to fix them, usually succeeding.

Bruins: 39-30-13 (third in Northeast division; sixth in conference), lost in the conference semifinals. The Bruins seemed well on their way to a second straight conference finals appearance in the 2010 playoffs, up 3-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-seven series. They then lost four straight games, becoming just the third NHL team to lose four straight playoff games after going up 3-0. In Game Seven, the Bruins seemed like they were going to dodge that fate, going up 3-0. But the Bruins took their foot off the Flyers’ throats after that third goal, and the Flyers scored four goals to win the game and knock off the Bruins. It was a stark reversal of fortune from 2004, when the Red Sox won four straight games against the Yankees in the ALCS.
The problem with the 2009-2010 Bruins during the playoffs were two-fold: they couldn’t score goals, and suddenly they couldn’t stop them either. In their four losses to the Flyers, they were doubled up in scoring, 15-8. Tuukka Rask, who had been such a monster in the regular season, allowed four-plus goals in three of those four games. No matter how good your offense is, if your goalie is allowing that many goals a game, you’re not likely to win. Luckily, the 2010-2011 Bruins have solved that problem, though Rask has not yet recovered from his meltdown during the playoffs. Tim Thomas has re-emerged after an off-year, leading the NHL in goals allowed average (1.80), save percentage (.945) and shutouts (five). He is also tied for fourth in wins with 18. Thomas has led the Bruins into first place in the Northeast division and third in the conference. The Bruins still aren’t shooting well (no one is in the top 10 in either goals or total points), but with a goalie like Thomas, they don’t exactly need to. The Bruins run their offense fairly efficiently, with two players in the top 10 in plus-minus, a measure of whether a team scores more with the player on the ice (or court in basketball) or not. Right winger Nathan Horton and defenseman Andrew Ference are tied at seventh in the NHL with a 16 plus-minus differential. The team may need to generate more offense down the stretch to prevent a Thomas collapse similar to Rask’s, but as of now the Bruins are at least a lock for the playoffs. Bruins fans are getting desperate for a Stanley Cup, and this might not be the team to do it. But at least they seem back on track after last year’s disaster.

Celtics: 50-32 (first in Atlantic division; fourth in conference), lost in NBA Finals. The Celtics proved last year that you can essentially check-out mentally on the regular season, and it pretty much doesn’t matter. Despite a strong start, the Celtics played .500 basketball over the final two-thirds of the season, favoring rest and relaxed usage of its veteran (old) stars over wins. This led to numerous late-game comebacks by other teams, as the Celtics bench could not hold leads and Doc Rivers did not play his starters long enough to extend them. But apparently, none of that really matters, because the Celtics played fantastic basketball in the 2010 playoffs. They handled the Heat with ease, out-shot the Cavaliers and out-muscled the Magic. Then they got to the NBA Finals against the Lakers and basically ran out of steam. They lost for the same reasons they lost all their other games: they couldn’t rebound, they couldn’t stop fouling and they couldn’t hold a lead. It was the same story all over again. Most Celtics fans were heartbroken over this loss, but the reality is that the Lakers were the better team, and usually in basketball the better team wins. The Lakers had an A-plus player in Kobe Bryant and an A-level player in Pau Gasol. Kevin Garnett still hadn’t recovered from his knee injury, Ray Allen’s shooting went cold after setting a record for three-pointers in Game Two, and an old team finally showed its age against a younger Lakers squad. The Celtics played as hard as they could, and the Lakers just played a little better. If you want to feel bad about that, go right ahead. But the Celtics didn’t lose that series so much as the Lakers won it.

The 2010-2011 Celtics have shown some traits that last year’s squad never did. The addition of Shaquille O’Neal has given them an offensive presence under the basket, one who can use his bulk to back down opposing centers and score easy layups or dunks. O’Neal is also a better rebounder than Kendrick Perkins is and, with the return of a fully healthy Garnett (before his calf strain), the Celtics now have a far better rebounding presence in their starting rotation. This team currently leads both the Atlantic division and the Eastern Conference, despite losing both Rajon Rondo and Garnett to injury (not to mention approximately 60 different centers, forcing the Celtics to start Semih “the Ottoman Emperor” Erden). Rondo is now back, and he’s quickly resumed his role as the best passing point guard in the universe. When Garnett comes back in about 10 days, the Celtics will be back to full strength. They haven’t shown a tendency to blow late-game leads this season, and they look like they’ll finish the regular season with a better record than last season. This will mean an easier path to the NBA Finals this year and, until the Lakers or Spurs prove otherwise, this Celtics squad looks like it can beat anyone in a best-of-seven.

Patriots: Lost in Wild Card game on January 10; 14-2 (first in AFC East, first in AFC) in 2010 regular season. 2010 began with the Patriots getting demolished at home by the Baltimore Ravens in their only playoff game. But the end of that season also marked the beginning of the end of the three-year offensive experiment that began with Randy Moss’ signing in 2007 and ended with his getting traded to Minnesota after Week Four of the 2010 season. The experiment was whether Tom Brady could run a “featured receiver” offense, a more typical offensive package that utilized one consistent deep threat, with the rest of the wide receivers doing their damage in the now-open middle of the field, since safeties would have to double-cover the deep threat. It worked in 2007, with the Patriots going 16-0 in the regular season and breaking essentially every passing and scoring record in the game, and Brady’s injury in 2008 threw that season away (though Matt Cassell and Moss played alright together). But by 2009, defenses had figured out how to stop Moss, and the offense stagnated. The defense, meanwhile, continued to age. In the 2010 playoff game, the defense could not stop Ray Rice or Joe Flacco, and the season ended in ignominy.

But the 2010 Patriots have turned all of that around. Since Moss’ trade, the Patriots have clicked in ways never before seen in Foxborough. Yes, they lack a “deep threat,” since Brandon Tate is still maturing into a starting wide receiver. But Wes Welker, injured in Week 17 last season and unavailable for the playoff loss to Baltimore, looks like he has lost none of his quickness and agility in the middle of the field. The Patriots also have two rookie tight ends- Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski- that are the best tight end duo in the Brady era. Gronkowski has been especially impressive. He can out-jump linebackers in the middle of the field, then use his strength to turn catches into catch-and-runs, usually dragging tacklers for several more yards before going down. This offense has been as smooth as it’s ever been.

The defense, meanwhile, was maligned for its youth and inexperience at the beginning of the season. Most analysts wrote this team off as in a “rebuilding year.” But what’s been rebuilt this year has been the dominant Patriots of the first half of the previous decade. The defense allows a lot of yards, but they don’t allow a lot of points. Vince Wilfork has had a Pro Bowl season, as has Jerod Mayo (NFL’s leading tackler) and rookie Devin McCourty, who has morphed from a pass-interfering defensive liability to one of the best corners in the game. He has the speed to stay with his man and the timing to turn and play the ball. The Patriots have the best turnover differential in the NFL at plus-27, which makes it very, very hard to beat them. Opposing teams might rack up yards, but New England’s propensity for causing turnovers makes it hard to score enough points to beat the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. They finished this season with the best record in the NFL, and they look poised to go to Dallas in February and come home with their fourth Vince Lombardi trophy.

Red Sox: 89-73 (third in AL East), did not make playoffs. The Boston Red Sox looked like they were finally finding their groove by late-June, leading the wild card race and chasing down the Yankees for the division. Then they went to San Francisco, and they never came back. Their 2-1 series victory came at a price, losing several key players to injury, and several more over the coming month. They played just .500 baseball after that, fell apart after the All-Star break and did not make the playoffs. Red Sox fans lost interest, and ratings tumbled. John Lackey did not have the debut season fans had hoped for, Jonathan Papelbon had the worst season of his young career, and Jacoby Ellsbury never recovered from broken ribs, crippling the speed of the offense. The lone bright spots were team-MVP Adrian Beltre, the emergences of Daniel Bard as an elite reliever (and possibly future closer) and Clay Buchholz as a bona fide ace, and Daniel Nava’s grand slam on the first pitch of his major league career. That was it, but Red Sox management responded when the season was over. Since October, the Red Sox have addressed every hole in their team. They traded for Adrian Gonzalez (Kevin Youkilis will move to third) and overpaid Carl Crawford to the point that he had to come to Boston. The lineup is now stacked (except at catcher). The starting rotation will be stronger too, as Lackey will look to have a bounce-back season, and Beckett will be pitching in an odd-numbered year, when he’s always better. The bullpen has been stocked with proven veteran relievers, such as Tampa Bay’s Dan Wheeler, and Terry Francona will have no qualms about moving Bard to closer if Papelbon struggles again. It took the team six months to alienate the fans. It took two months to bring them back.

2010 may not have been the best season in Boston’s history, but perhaps we can see it as a stepping stone, a learning experience. Every team realized what hurt it last year, and they brought in the players who could turn those weaknesses into strengths (except the Bruins, who solved their problems internally). Now these teams are poised for another run of Boston domination. Just one year after Boston went without a single championship, it’s fans could very well enjoy three in 12 months. If the Bruins can score more, maybe even a fourth. Who knows? One year from now, Goose’s Gabs may look back and say 2011 was the best year in Boston sports history. And that would be saying something.

Go Buckeyes! Now Excuse Me While I Puke

I am truly sickened by what I’m about to write. Usually, my sports writing flows smoothly from my brain to my fingers to the screen. But not this. No, this is rising like the bile after New Years. Burns like it, too. I’m choking back these words, hoping that if I resist long enough they’ll subside like a Nicotine addiction. Nope, not working.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but here goes: I’m rooting for Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. Mom and Dad, please don’t write me out of the will!

But before people start soaking me in Badgers blood, please understand the context. The Big Ten has gotten its ass kicked this bowl season. They have the single worst record of any conference (2-5), and even if the Buckeyes win, they’ll still likely wind up with the worst winning percentage of any BCS conference (only the SEC and Pac-10 can finish the bowl season with lower winning percentages, and the SEC would have go 0-4 in their last four games to do it). In their seven games so far, the Big Ten has been outscored 242-167. In their five losses, they’ve been doubled up, 204-102. The only organization who has been creamed worse recently on the national scene than the Big Ten is the Democratic Party.

The two conference wins- Illinois and Iowa- haven’t been exactly legendary either. Illinois’ victory- the only truly convincing victory- was against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, not exactly a football powerhouse or an iconic bowl. Iowa’s victory was the Big Ten’s lone success against a ranked opponent, #12 Missouri at the Insight Bowl (whose older name, the Copper Bowl, was far superior). But the Hawkeyes aren’t exactly the team anyone wants representing the Big Ten. This is the team, after all, whose star running back was just booted off the team for marijuana possession. And both teams went just 4-4 in the Big Ten regular season.

The Big Ten needs a win, especially when you consider the standard practice of splitting Bowl earnings between all teams in a conference. Problem is, #8 Ohio State may not be the team to do it. The Buckeyes are 0-9 against the SEC in bowl games, and they’re facing #6 Arkansas. And four of their players, including “golden boy” quarterback Terrelle Pryor, just got suspended for the Buckeyes’ first five games of the 2011 season (and another was suspended for the opener) for essentially being dumbasses (selling championship paraphernalia and accepting improper gifts). But if the Buckeyes can win, it will be a silver lining to a bowl season in which the Big Ten has been summarily embarrassed. The Buckeyes tied for the Big Ten title and, no matter how dumb some of their players might be, a Sugar Bowl win would show that the best the Big Ten has to offer can still compete against the best of the other BCS conferences.

So I’m voting for the Buckeyes. God, I feel dirty. This is like rooting for the Yankees, Colts, Lakers, or USSR in the Miracle on Ice.

This is the last year of the Big Ten’s current format. Next year it will expand to 12 teams with the addition of the #18 Nebraska Cornhuskers (who also lost their bowl game… to an un-ranked opponent). There won’t be any more ties for the Big Ten title, no more controversy over who should represent the conference in the Rose Bowl. One conference will split in two, with new divisions and moderately self-gratifying names. An extra game will be created to pit the best of each division against each other, and out of that championship will emerge the conference’s Rose Bowl representative (unless they go to the BCS Championship).

The sun will set on the current Big Ten with tonight’s Sugar Bowl, and I don’t want to see it limp off into a corner to die. I want it to go out with a bang. For the conference to retain any national credibility whatsoever (especially after Gordon Gee’s idiotic anti-TCU comments a month ago), Ohio State needs a Sugar Bowl victory. So tonight I’ll be donning gray and red, singing “Hang on Sloopy” and eating a buckeye (or wearing one, or whatever the hell you do with the stupid things).

Then I will spend several hours in the tub in a vain attempt to feel clean ever again in my lifetime.

Pierce and Allen Lead Fourth-Quarter Comeback as Celtics Win at Home

(Nice, 250 posts!)

The Boston Celtics had not had a lead since just under four minutes remained in the second quarter. The Minnesota Timberwolves led by eight points with just over seven minutes left in the game. But the Timberwolves had already lost seven games in which they’d led by at least 10 points this season, and the Celtics finally found an offensive rhythm. An 11-2 Celtics run- highlighted by three three-pointers by Ray Allen (two) and Paul Pierce (one)- over the next five minutes shifted momentum towards Boston, who beat the Timberwolves, 96-93, at home. It was Boston’s eighth consecutive victory over Minnesota.

Veterans Come Alive in Second Half

Pierce had struggled through the first half, connecting on just two of six shots. Allen started strong, sinking two of his first three shots for three points each, but only scored once in the second quarter, a dunk with 32 seconds left that came on a fast-break two-on-one with Rajon Rondo, who waited for Allen to catch up before passing to him for one of Rondo’s 16 assists. The dunk cut Minnesota’s lead to 45-43 late in the second, although two Timberwolves free-throws extended their lead to 47-43 heading into halftime.

But in the second half both players remembered how best they could score, and started doing so. Allen’s scoring started by running more without the basketball. On one play midway through the third quarter, Allen cut out from under the basket, then turned and cut back under it. Rondo quickly passed it to the suddenly wide-open Allen, who scored on an easy up-and-under shot, cutting the Timberwolves lead to 53-51.

Pierce, meanwhile, found his mid-range jump-shot in the third quarter, hitting three of his five third-quarter baskets from between 14 and 19 feet away. Pierce also tipped in a missed Von Wafer three-point shot with 2:20 left in the quarter, keeping the Timberwolves lead at just four points.

Wafer played his best game as a Celtic Monday night, adding six rebounds, an assist, a steal and zero turnovers to his 10 points. He had the highest plus-minus of any Celtic, at plus-16.

In the fourth quarter, Allen once again got open by sprinting cross-court without the basketball, this time hitting an easy three-pointer with 6:39 left in the game to start the Celtics comeback. After a scoreless three minutes of play, Pierce set a pick for Rondo just inside the three-point arc, then broke away when the Timberwolves went to double-cover Rondo. Pierce was now wide open behind the three-point line, and Rondo found him for the easy trey, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 85-83.

On the next Celtics possession, Pierce found Allen for another three pointer, cutting Minnesota’s lead to a lone point, 87-86. Pierce finished the game with 23 points and six rebounds. Allen finished with 20, including four three-pointers.

Rondo hit two floaters in the final 1:35 to give the Celtics leads of 90-89 and 94-91, but Timberwolves power forward Michael Beasley (19 points to lead all Timberwolves) hit four of five shots for eight points in the last 3:30 of the game to keep it a one-possession game. However, Beasley’s final shot- a three-point attempt from 31 feet away with 1.8 seconds left- hit the backboard and nothing else to preserve the Celtics win.

For the Timberwolves, power forward Kevin Love did what he does best- rebound and get double-doubles. He grabbed 24 boards and scored 12 points. Love leads the league in both total and per-game offensive and defensive rebounds, as well as double-doubles.

Love dominated on the boards once again, but Glen Davis used his 30-pound advantage to dominate Love offensively. Twice in the first half Davis backed Love down before spinning and hitting fade-away jumpers. In the third quarter, Davis backed Love down, then spun inside him, sinking the lay-up and drawing the foul. Davis converted the three-point play, cutting the Minnesota lead to 75-73.

Davis finished the game with 17 points, including all three free-throw attempts. His other two free-throws came after Love air-balled a three-pointer with 1:15 left in the game, Allen grabbed it and launched a full-court pass to Davis. Timberwolves point guard Luke Ridnour, who stands just 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, and was the only defender nearby, could only foul Davis, and Davis sank both free-throws, maintaining the Celtics three-point lead late in the game.

Ridnour was then called for traveling after receiving a Timberwolves inbound pass with nine seconds left in the game, and the Celtics ran five seconds off the clock before going to the free-throw line one last time. All that remained were two successful free-throws, a Pierce foul and Beasley’s missed three-pointer, and the game was over. The Timberwolves tried to win on the strength of their rebounding (the Celtics’ biggest weakness), but it wasn’t enough to stop an offense that is far more fluid now that Rondo has returned to its helm.

BenJarvus, Brady, Brian, Brandon, Broken Records: B’s Beat Dolphins with Ease

Time and time again, Bill Belichick has shown that he possesses one of the greatest minds in NFL history. But in Sunday’s  38-7 New England Patriots win over the Miami Dolphins in Foxborough, he proved he has a great heart as well. Facing fourth-and-16 from the Miami 19-yard line and already up 38-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Bill Belichick opted to run the ball instead of kick an easy field goal. His reason: BenJarvus Green-Ellis needed just 2 yards to become the first Patriot to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season since 2004 (the last time the Patriots won the Super Bowl, by the way). Knowing the Dolphins would play their linebackers deeper to prevent the first down, Belichick opted to give up the ball in favor of getting his running back that achievement. Green-Ellis did not let his coach down, rushing for 10 yards on the play, then sitting down for the final quarter. His final numbers: 80 yards and a touchdown for the game, 1,008 yards and 13 touchdowns for the season. It was the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his career, and he tied Corey Dillon for third-most rushing touchdowns in a Patriots season (Curtis Martin rushed for 14 in 1995 and 1996).

Brady Unstoppable… as Usual

Tom Brady exited the game with 11:30 left in the third quarter, but by that point he’d done more than enough damage to the hapless Dolphins defense. In one half plus one drive, Brady completed 62.5 percent of his throws for 199 yards and two touchdowns. His first came on the Patriots first drive of the game, which started at the Miami 47 after Devin McCourty’s seventh interception of the season. On third-and-2 from the Miami 13, Brady hit Rob Gronkowski on a fade route to the back-left corner of the end zone for the 13-yard touchdown pass. Gronkowski’s 10th touchdown set a new record for touchdown receptions by a Patriots rookie and put the Patriots up 7-0 early in the first quarter. The touchdown pass also gave Brady the honor of being only the sixth player (seventh occurrence) to throw a touchdown reception in all 16 games of the regular season.

Brady finished his first drive against the Dolphins with a touchdown, and he finished his last with the same style. He began by taking his team from their 22 to midfield in four plays, including a 26-yard pass to Gronkwoski on second-and-15 from the New England 17. Then, Brady found Brandon Tate for a 40-yard completion in which Tate dodged three Dolphins trying to tackle him at the same time. Brady capped the drive by hitting Alge Crumpler on a delayed route on second-and-goal from the 10. Crumpler caught the ball and beat his man to the right pylon for his second score in two games, extending the Patriots lead to 31-0 early in the second half.

Brady’s performance extended his record-setting home wins streak to 28, his record-setting interception-free passing streak to 335, and his record-setting two-touchdown, zero-interception games streak nine. Brady hasn’t thrown a pick since Week Six against the Baltimore Ravens. He is now tied for 10th all time in touchdown passes. This has unequivocally been Brady’s second-best statistical season of his career. Considering the vast difference in the talent-level of his receivers between 2007 and 2010, Brady’s performance this season might be even more impressive than his MVP season’s. And this season should end with another MVP award, too.

Backups Finish Strong

Brady is an incredible weapon at the Patriots disposal, but he’s not the only one, not by a long shot. For example, take Julian Edelman. With 40 seconds left in the half, Edelman fielded a Miami punt at the New England 6-yard line. Edelman immediately broke through a tackle by Dolphins safety Reshad Jones, then dodged another tackle while moving laterally across the hash marks. Edelman beat one more man as he turned down-field, then broke for daylight. The punter had no chance to catch him, and Edelman cruised into the end zone before jumping into the stands to celebrate. The 94-yard touchdown punt return gave the Patriots a 24-0 lead heading into halftime. It was the longest punt return in Patriots history, tying a franchise record as the ninth non-offensive touchdown of the season.

Despite the record-setting nature of Edelman’s return, it wasn’t even the most exciting play of the game. That belonged to backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. On his first drive of the game, Hoyer led the Patriots from their 15 to the Miami 42-yard line, throwing for 27 yards. Then, on first-and-10, Hoyer ran a double play-action. He faked a handoff to the running back, then faked an end-around to the wide receiver before dropping back to pass. Moments before getting hit, Hoyer unleashed a Brady-esque pass, launching the ball 42 yards into the hands of the diving Tate for the touchdown.

It was Hoyer’s first ever touchdown pass in the regular season, extending the Patriots lead to 38-0 in the third quarter. Hoyer finished the game 7/13 for 122 yards and a touchdown. His QB 111.7 quarterback rating was better than either of Miami’s quarterbacks’.

Closing the Season in Style

For the fourth time in 10 years, the Patriots closed the season with at least 14 wins. They came through their meaningless final regular-season game relatively unscathed (Danny Woodhead left in the first quarter after suffering a head injury on a fumbled run, but appeared to be alright along the sideline in the second half, though he kept his helmet off and did not return to the game), and they set an NFL record with just 10 turnovers all season. The team many wrote off before the season as in a “rebuilding year” will go into the postseason with the best offense and the best turnover differential in the NFL. With the Kansas City Chiefs’ loss today, their road to the Super Bowl has gotten easier, no longer needing to beet both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts to get to Dallas. All they’ll have to do next week is sit back and see who they’ll face in the divisional round of the playoffs. Patriots fans can do the same.

At Least Bucky is Still Cooler

Before delving into the intelligent and nuanced analysis that is expected of Goose’s Gabs, permit me a gripe and a juvenile pop-culture reference. TCU’s “Super Frog” (that’s the actual name) is the stupidest mascot I have ever seen. It would look more appropriate battling Pikachu than rallying the fans at Carter Stadium. The badger, meanwhile, is one of the most vicious animals in the world. Pit the two against each other, and Bucky would eviscerate the Super Frog. TCU’s ridiculous mascot alone should cost it a shot at the BCS Championship. Hopefully Auburn wins the whole thing, if only so that a mascot with some majesty can reign supreme.

As for the Rose Bowl itself, the Badgers’ biggest weakness got exposed. That weakness is their secondary. Wisconsin defensive backs just could not hang with the TCU receivers, and Andy Dalton ate them alive. Dalton completed 65 percent of his passes for 219 yards and touchdown (plus one rushing touchdown). On Dalton’s touchdown pass, Brad Johnson slipped behind the Wisconsin secondary, and all Dalton had to do was hang a floater out there for Johnson to run on to. The Horned Frogs also converted 60 percent of their third-downs, keeping the Badgers defense on the field for longer stretches.

The Badgers also committed six penalties for 41 yards, and they came into the Rose Bowl as one of the least-penalized teams in the league. Two of those penalties were for defensive pass interference, another way in which the Badgers’ defeat lies at the feet of their secondary. Both of those calls were questionable, yes, but a better secondary would have been able to time their hits to knock the ball loose without getting flagged. You know… like TCU’s.

Nineteen points doesn’t seem like much, but the reality of the Wisconsin offense is that it did better than any other team has against TCU. The Horned Frogs led the nation in fewest allowed points, passing and total yards, and they were ranked third in allowed rushing yards. The Badgers scored, passed and rushed more than TCU’s averages. Anyone who came into the Rose Bowl expecting a 70-point victory did not give nearly enough respect to TCU, a far superior team to those of Austin Peay or Minnesota. The offense did as much as it could, and it just wasn’t enough. They ran about twice as often as they passed, Scott Tolzien didn’t do anything to hurt the team, and the Badgers hammered the Horned Frogs at the line until they finally broke down. By the time the offense shifted to maximize John Clay’s power running, TCU’s defensive line was giving up big play after big play.

Which is what makes Bret Bielema’s decision to go with the spread offense on their fourth-quarter two-point attempt puzzling. Three yards on the ground is certainly not a guarantee. The Horned Frogs had shown that on any one play their speedy linebackers (especially Tank Carder, who had a fantastic game for TCU) could slip behind the line and break up a run. But both Clay and Montee Ball (132 total yards) had been averaging at least 6 yards per carry. Even if TCU would be expecting the run, the odds favor running the ball over passing it. At worst, you run play-action and try to hit Lance Kendricks or Nick Toon on a slant-route over the middle (which worked, when the Badgers did it). A coach should have some guts (as Bielema showed with his fake punt), but guts should only help you try a play you think has a high likelihood of succeeding. Whatever play the Badgers wanted to run on the two-point attempt, it never had a chance. Hindsight is always 20-20, but it’s strange that Bielema didn’t go with his best weapon with the game on the line. Tolzien had a decent game (12/21 for 159 yards), but it pales in comparison to the 231 rushing yards that Clay, Ball and James White (who had a very weak game, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry) combined for.

In the end, the Wisconsin offense may have left five points on the table, but it really did as much as could be desired against TCU’s stingy, speedy and shifty defense. TCU’s defense made maybe three more plays than Wisconsin’s defense, and that made the difference in the game. One Wisconsin sack, turnover or stopped third-down conversion might have been enough to turn the tide of the game. Barring any of those, even surer Wisconsin tackling might have swung the game in the Badgers’ favor. The Wisconsin defense had tremendous trouble bringing down the light-footed TCU receivers, as several times throughout the game TCU picked up a first down or extra yardage on their ability to shake Wisconsin tacklers. TCU’s defense, on the other hand, tackled with authority up until Wisconsin’s touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. The Horned Frogs usually brought the Badgers down without giving up extra yardage, and the resulting two or three extra downs gave TCU’s defense one or two more chances to halt Wisconsin before they got into scoring range.

Badgers fans are sure to feel disappointed after this loss, and rightly so. But this is not a team of seniors that will all graduate and leave the Badgers powerless. Clay may choose to play another year to increase his potential draft position (and to show NFL teams he can stay healthy for a season). Ball may do the same. The Badgers will lose Tolzien, but freshman Jon Budmayr has looked impressive in the limited playtime he got this season. The offensive line will lose Jon Moffitt and Gabe Carimi (a first-round draft pick), but the Midwest never lacks for bulky farm boys to play lineman. The biggest losses will be at receiver, where both David Gilreath and Kendricks are graduating. But the only big-name defensive senior is Jay Valai. The Badgers shouldn’t fall too far in the BCS rankings after this loss, and they should still be in great shape to challenge for the Big Ten Title again next year. This year began with a loss, but with any luck next year’s will begin with a win. On Wisc!