Monday, January 14, 2008

NFL Link Recap

I have bashed the league for being lame and fantasy football driven, but you cannot argue with the games this past weekend. Essentially all four were good games. Saturday's Packers/Seahawks game was an ode to outdoor football in Green Bay in the winter. Who doesn't enjoy watching Brett Favre's magical season continue yet another week? What about Tom Brady's near perfect performance Saturday night, yet the Jaguars hanging around all game long. (SIDE NOTE: As the Stat Guru said in an email last night, Dennis Northcutt is "The Cooler." Browns fans had flashbacks from the Steelers game in the 2002 playoffs where Northcutt's drop cost the Browns the game when he alligator-armed one). The Colts go down in flames at home despite a completely one-sided officiated game and injuries to Ladanian Tomlinson and Phillip Rivers. The Cowboys proved again that its extremely hard to beat the same team three times in a year and who though Eli Manning would be playing flawless football in January?

Monday Morning QB - Peter King,

Still think it's a good idea to rest your players for the playoffs in Weeks 16 and 17? The Bucs and Colts went to a spa the last half of December and lost to underdogs at home in their first playoff games. That's the second time in three years it's happened to Indy. The Packers barely rested their guys and looked like the '58 Colts in whipping the Seahawks. New England, Green Bay and New York rested no one; they're 4-0 combined. The Giants, in fact, were badly slumping entering Week 17 with nothing to play for. Since then, they nearly knocked off the best team in the league and have won two road playoff games.

Goat of the Week
Jacksonville WR Dennis Northcutt. New England led 21-14 early in the fourth quarter on Saturday night, but the Jags were driving relentlessly behind better-than-expected quarterback David Garrard. Northcutt ran a post between two New England defenders, and Garrard hit him perfectly at the Patriots 2-yard line. You couldn't throw the ball any better -- right on Northcutt's hands. One problem. Northcutt clearly had alligator arms on the play, fearing the big hit from the New England safety, and the ball bounced off his hands, incomplete. Instead of tying the game at 21 and giving the Patriots something too think about down the stretch, the Jags had to settle for a field goal to close within 21-17. They never caught up.

Colts Unravel, All Signs Point to Dungy's Departure - John Clayton,

Some assistant coaches were teary-eyed as they left the RCA Dome. They sensed Dungy could be stepping down. He hasn't even said anything to the coaches who have been around him the longest. They honestly don't know. Two years ago when Dungy lost his son to a suicide, everyone sensed he wanted to continue coaching. He did and the Colts won a Super Bowl last February.

Maybe the thought of losing Dungy short-circuited the Colts against the Chargers. The Colts pride themselves on efficiency, but their offense made many uncharacteristic mistakes.

Once Again, Grant Learns From Adversity and Thrives - John Clayton,

• In 2000, after playing as a true freshman at Notre Dame, his grade-point average fell below 2.0 and he had to sit out the next season. From that experience, he learned to study hard. He ended up graduating from Notre Dame with degrees in sociology and computer science.

• As an undrafted New York Giants prospect in 2005, he had to learn responsibility from then teammate Tiki Barber. Once, he fell asleep in a meeting, and Barber, trying to teach him a lesson, didn't wake him up. Coach Tom Coughlin obviously wasn't pleased, but Grant learned how to be more responsible and attentive.

• In 2006, he almost bled to death when he cut his left forearm after slipping on a wet floor at a party. His arm went through a glass table. The artery, nerves and tendons were damaged, forcing Grant to miss that season. Initially, doctors doubted he would play again. Had he made it to the hospital a little later, he might have died.

From that experience, he decided to tone down his social life. Instead, he worked on rehabbing his injury. It took him time to regain strength in hand. But being an injured, undrafted player, Grant was an afterthought. This season the Giants had Brandon Jacobs, Reuben Droughns and promising seventh-round choice Ahmad Bradshaw.

When the Packers offered a sixth-round choice to acquire him before the start of the season, the Giants didn't blink and sent him to Green Bay.

Turner Speaks, the Chargers Deliver - Michael Silver, Yahoo Sports

Throw in the game's surreal circumstances, and what Turner's team accomplished was nothing short of stunning. Playing most of the second half without his superstar halfback and starting quarterback, seemingly shafted by the officials on a couple of key occasions, and stuck on the short end of what would be a 402-yard passing day from Manning, Turner was the hero in the headset.

"The adversity this year, starting out 1-3 and putting ourselves in a hole, it was a tough road," Chargers owner Dean Spanos said after the game. "And I give Norv all the credit. He stayed the course and pulled us out of it."

• In addition to being a mentor, friend and Sports Illustrated colleague for 13 years (until my move to Yahoo! last July), Peter King has always been the first person with whom I discuss potential NFL playoff assignments. So when the Sultan of Starbucks suggested I join him in a Green Bay/Indy doubleheader for the divisional round, I wasn't a very difficult sell. I could complain about a few elements of the trip – having to endure his rabid popularity among Packer backers, from a divine DePere, Wis., pub to the Lambeau parking lot; the fact that he rented a Kia for the three-plus hour drive late Saturday night from Lambeau to the O'Hare Airport Hilton, the first hour through an intense snowstorm; his dubious decision to purchase three bear claws from a mini-mart after midnight – but we basically had a blast. And though I hadn't planned on it, if I make it through this all-night writing session to which he and few others can relate, it looks like I'll be following him back to Green Bay for more Spotted Cow ales, photo ops and good times. But this time, could somebody please pretend to recognize me?

The End was Sudden, but not Unexpected - Bob Kravitz, Indy Star

Folks, there is no pretty way to say it: The Colts gagged on this one. They fell over their feet.

They blew it. Which, after watching them fall in the playoffs to Tennessee (1999), Miami (2000), the Jets (2002), New England (2003 and 2004) and Pittsburgh (2005), shouldn't come as such a great surprise.

What else could the Colts have wanted, facing a 10-point underdog in their own building, coming in healthy while the opponent was beaten up, coming off a physical playoff opener against Tennessee?

The Chargers arrived here with their extraordinary tight end, Antonio Gates, playing on one foot. Then their all-world running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, got injured and sat out after just seven rushes. Then their young but coming-of-age quarterback, Philip Rivers, injured himself near the end of the third quarter and had to sit out the tense fourth quarter.

You know who beat the Colts in the fourth quarter? Billy Volek. Michael Turner. Vincent Jackson. Legedu Naanee.

It must be said: The Colts have become the Atlanta Braves of the NFL. Five straight seasons of 12 or more victories is absolutely remarkable. But it's also relatively meaningless when you've got just one Super Bowl ring to show for it.

Another Dallas Cowboys Season End on a Sour Note - Tim Cowlishaw, Dallas Morning News

He showed signs of frustration with his teammates, swinging his arm and scolding them.

It was not a typical Romo performance.

But it was, for all we know at this time, a typical Romo playoff performance.

He defended his trip to Mexico by saying he thought it was better than going to Vegas and drinking for a few days.

Didn't realize those were the only two options.

Ultimately, what he did last weekend was irrelevant. It's what he did this weekend that mattered.

Texas Fold 'Em - Mike Vacarro, New York Post

Crazy? The Giants have specialized in crazy lately. They have majored in crazy. They have won in the snow and won in the heat, they pushed mighty New England to the brink. They've been up and down and over and out, and now, at the end of 60 minutes of pulsating football, they watched a football flutter toward the end zone.

“At that point," Antonio Pierce would say, “you've done all you can. You just wait for it to fall and you hope for the best."

“At that point," Brandon Jacobs would say, “you're just waiting to explode."

So was Texas Stadium, all 63,660 of the faithful inside standing and pleading and craning their necks and waving their arms. For a second, it looked like Terry Glenn was open in the back of the end zone, but only for a second. Because now, here came R.W. McQuarters, a blue blur rushing in front of Glenn. A week ago, McQuarters had closed the door on Tampa Bay's season with a late interception.

Now he slammed the trunk on fingers belonging to the whole city of Dallas. Another interception. Another nerve-jangling win. Giants 21, Cowboys 17, etched into the books

Favre Shows He Still Has Postseason Magic - Mike Vandermause, Packer News

For good measure, Favre silenced some ill-advised critics who earlier in the week suggested he had lost some of his edge in the postseason. He merely generated the best quarterback rating (137.6) of his playoff life while completing 18-of-23 passes for 173 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

"That was awesome," said Favre. He was referring to the heavy snow that turned Lambeau Field into a winter wonderland, but he could just as well have been talking about how he guided the offense to touchdowns on six consecutive possessions to bury the Seahawks.

Reality Show Doesn't Faze This Team - Bob Ryan, Boston Globe

Saturday night's game against the aggressive, determined, angry, and very well-coached Jacksonville Jaguars was Game 7 of the actual Patriots' NFL season, the one that lets us know if New England really does have the right stuff, the legitimate makeup of a Super Bowl champion.

Those first 10 games, again with the obvious exception of the Nov. 4 conquest of the Colts, were for the stat people. These last seven games have been for the realists among us.

What we saw at Gillette Stadium Saturday night was a continuation of a scenario that began the night of Nov. 25, when the Philadelphia Eagles, going nowhere and playing without Donovan McNabb, brought honor to themselves and the game by making the Patriots earn a 31-28 decision. Led by backup quarterback A.J. Feeley, the Eagles put a major scare into the Patriots before Brady & Co. were able to restore order.

The Patriots have not had an easy game since, not even against the atrocious Miami Dolphins, who kept them off the scoreboard for the entire second half.

Journey Continues as Team Survives, Subsists, Subdues - Tim Sullivan, San Diego Union-Tribune

Given the Patriots' season-long dominance, this could be another blowout, but it looks like a ballgame. At full strength, or as close as an NFL team gets to it in January, the Chargers bear little resemblance to the unsuspecting squad that stumbled into Bill Belichick's buzz saw in the wrath-filled week after the Patriots were caught spying on the New York Jets.

One obvious difference is that cornerback Antonio Cromartie has since joined the starting lineup and led the league in interceptions. Another is that the October acquisition of wide receiver

Chris Chambers has brought balance to an offense that had been top-heavy with Tomlinson.

With new playmakers on both sides of the ball, and a firmer grasp of the teachings of a first-year coaching staff, the Bolts have hit the homestretch with a furious finishing kick. They are 8-0 since Thanksgiving, pilgrim. They are as talented as the Chargers team the Patriots beat in last season's playoffs, and wiser to the ways of pro football's postseason. And they begin preparations for Tom Brady & Co. having prevailed against Peyton Manning with their biggest names on the bench.

If you're going to beat a team that hasn't lost, building confidence is a cornerstone. The Chargers built confidence yesterday the way Florida builds condos.

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