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January 30, 2006

Dodzie's Recent Trip to England

I'm glad you're unharmed, Dodzie:

Museum visitor trips, breaks Chinese vases

January 23, 2006

The 2006 NFL Season For Dummies

Courtesy of Lee Sabow, a primer for understanding what we've seen so far this year. There are only two parts to the guide:

  1. A bad year for exciting games. (NFL only)
  2. A bad year for kickers. (NFL and NCAA football)

That's all you need to know. Go forth and prosper.

January 22, 2006

End of the Road

Not much to say about today's Broncos v. Steelers debacle. The Steelers picked apart the Broncos' secondary, particularly by hammering the ball repeatedly at whatever receive was being covered by Dominique Foxworth. The Steelers escaped three possible turnovers on their first drive, forced a fumble, protected the ball well the rest of the game, and benefited from two unforced Jake Plummer interceptions. All week long I bristled as I listened to experts and Steelers' fans predict the return of "bad Jake" in this upcoming game without providing any reason for the prediction. Well, they were right, and the reason was clear (to me, at least): The Broncos were forced to play catch-up ball. Plummer is not built to lead heroic comebacks, and when he tries to, he often fails to read the defense's soft zones and ends up chucking the ball into coverage. Bad, bad Jake.

The Broncos ran the ball much more successfully than the Steelers, but little good that did as the Steelers dominated the passing game and capitalized on all of the turnovers. Not a very exciting matchup, at all.

The Broncos face significant salary-cap problems this coming season, and the critics on Plummer's back will be harsher than ever this offseason and next season. Doesn't bode well for a team seeking to overtake the 49ers for the best win-loss record since 1979.

Onwards! The Winter Olympics will provide some diversion as the sports world creeps towards the NCAA Tournament. Harvard is forecast as a legitimate contender for second place in the Ivies, but they first have to face four straight road games before they return home for the dreaded Penn/Princeton weekend. As always, I'll be cheering them on that weekend at Lavietes Pavillion.

The Mets seem to be trying to round out their offseason this weekend, as they supplemented a winter of solid moves with the questionable-at-best trade of Kris (& Anna) Benson for fading reliever Jorge Julio and unproven reliever John Maine. At least Benson's with the Orioles now, so maybe he'll notch some victories against the Yankees and Red Sox. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month.

January 18, 2006

Broncos v. Patriots: The Debriefing

What a strange, strange game that was. The journey surprised me, yet the outcome thrilled me. I've got some comments on the game, and then a look at some of my predictions going into the game.

  • The pass-interference call. At the time, I thought it was a textbook-correct call that should not have been made in that situation. Having had time to grow intimate with the official NFL rules concerning pass interference, however, I've decided that it was definitely a bad call. More on the ramifications after a bit of edification. From the above link, "actions that constitute defensive pass interference include but are not limited to:"
    1. Contact by a defender who is not playing the ball and such contact restricts the receiver's opportunity to make the catch. Samuel's contact on Lelie did not physically restrict Lelie from making the catch. Plus, Samuel was clearly playing the ball.
    2. Playing through the back of a receiver in an attempt to make a play on the ball. Didn't happen.
    3. Grabbing a receiver's arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass. Didn't happen.
    4. Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball. Didn't happen.
    5. Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball. This is the one that I thought (still do) that the refs were calling. Samuel clearly initiated contact with Lelie when Samuel's route caused him to run Lelie off of his route. However, at the time, Samuel was clearly looking back and looking up to play the ball, and thus pass interference does not apply.
    6. Hooking a receiver in an attempt to get to the ball in such a manner that it causes the receiver's body to turn prior to the ball arriving. Didn't happen.
    So, the call was a bad one. But how much did it matter in the end? Not a whole lot, I'd say. First of all, consider the situation: the play occurred on first down with the ball already at the New England 40-yard line. It's not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that even had the ruling been an incomplete pass that the Broncos would have had a good chance of scoring either three or seven points. If they score at all, they kick off; if they kick off, Hobbs fumbles. Nothing—or not much, at least—changes. Furthermore, this occurred at the end of the first half when the teams were separated by less than a touchdown. To argue that it trumps, say, five turnovers in contributing to the eventual outcome is ludicrous. (Yes, I've read (online) and heard (on WEEI) Patriots fans claiming exactly that.)
  • Field goals. The broadcasters astutely noted that Vinatieri's first field goal flew low to the ground because his foot bounced unforgivingly off the hard turf. This observation was confirmed minutes later when Elam's 50-yard attempt barely cleared the crossbar after coming in at a surprisingly low angle. Could worry over the hard turf have affected Vinatieri's failed attempt at a 43-yard kick in the fourth quarter? Probably not, but it's an interesting thought.
  • Champ's interception (the good). Wow! According to a regular poster on the Broncos Usenet newsgroup, Champ Bailey and Darrent Williams had been discussing a particular play that the Patriots had been running in which two receivers lined up near one another and ran routes that almost—but not quite—resulted in a pick against the defensive backs. To counter this, Bailey and Williams discussed staying at home when the play was next run, rather than following their man into the almost-pick. This scheming combined with a successful blitz on the fateful third down, leading to Champ being in perfect position to snag the pass and rumble 100 yards downfield...
  • Champ's interception (the bad). ...except at the end of the run, Champ slowed up, and—even worse—safety-turned-blocker Nick Ferguson failed to check his right before tailing off his pursuit, allowing never-say-die tight-end Ben Watson to race across the field and punch out the ball a yard or two before the pylon. Replays were clearly inconclusive (yes that makes sense), but I'd guess (based on how far out-of-bounds the ball appeared to land) that the call on the field was correct. Any idea why a fumble through the endzone results in a touchback? That rule has always seemed awfully draconian to me. For a particularly bizarre and inaccurate account of this play, check out the last paragraph of this week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

I didn't make many explicit predictions in this space last week, but I did cast out a few general observations. First, I noticed that the Broncos' health had improved since the regular season matchup along with that of the Patriots', particularly Champ Bailey. Plus one in that category, as Champ siezed the game-winning interception. I lauded the Broncos as a more well-rounded team than the Patriots. While the Patriots outplayed the Broncos in between the 20-yard lines, the Broncos dominated the key plays in the red zone and on special teams. I'll call this one a wash as I expected the Broncos offense to be more effective against the Pats D than it was. I worried about the Broncos rookie cornerbacks, and they had an average game but did keep their Patriots charges under control for the most part. Zero. Finally, I pointed out the bootleg, which proved to be the game-sealing play as the Broncos used it to connect for a 42-yard Plummer–to–Smith completion with eight minutes left in the ball game. Plus one on that observation as well.

I made some more details predictions in an email that I sent to two of my Pats-fan poker buddies. To them I opined:

Unless the Patriots jump out to more than a 7 point lead, the Broncos will most likely keep Dillon and Faulk under control. The Pats ran well against Jacksonville, but the Jags barely showed up to play, and Denver averaged 20 yards less rushing per game against in the regular season then the Jags did. I'll be surprised if the gameis close and the Patriots end up rushing much more than 20 times.
New England's running backs ran for 80 yards on exactly 20 carries. Not horrible, but pretty much inline with my prediction here. Plus one for me. Next I said:
I expect the Patriots will be successful, as usual, throwing the ball. Brady rarely makes any mistakes, so any success the Broncos have defending the pass (as opposed to "defending [Patrick] Pass") will have to be of their own making. I'd expect Champ to effectively take Deion Branch out of the game, but that doesn't hurt the Pats too much (evidence: Watson, Benjamin) as they have plenty of outlets for Brady to deliver the ball to.

In particular, I think Brady can pick on the Broncos safeties (Lynch is great but has lost a step due to age, Ferguson and Brandon at SS have had a solid year, but are not NFL-elite players.) and perhaps even more on the linebackers. Now, the Broncos have a great LB corps, but a lot of their speed and talent goes towards stopping the run. Teams have had success with drags, hitches, and other routes in the middle of the field which the LBs have to defend. In particular, Jason Witten (TE, Cowboys) picked the Broncos LB pass coverage apart on Thanksgiving Day. That said, it would be unusual for Bellichick to go with a TE-heavy strategy two weeks in a row, but that might be the most productive option for the passing game, and it worries me. The CB opposite Champ is Darrent Williams who's a rookie (or Dominique Foxworth if Williams is injured, but he's also a rookie). He's been great... but he's a rookie. I expect most of the time he'd do a great job covering the Pats' #2 receiver (Givens), but given that it's the playoffs, he's facing Tom "Playoffs" Brady, and he's a rookie, it wouldn't surprise me to see him get burned once or twice in the game.
Hmm, there's a bunh there. Brady made a lot of mistakes, including several badly thrown balls and the game-changing interception. But he also had a fair amount of success, amassing 341 passing yards on 20 of 36 passing. Champ lined up against different receivers throughout the game, and as such Branch and Givens both earned good, solid numbers. (Branch's Steve Smith-esque 153 receiving yards are half due to his single 73-yard reception in the 4th quarter.) Tight-ends? Non-factors. Daniel Graham had one reception; Fauria and Watson had none. I'll take a big ol' minus one on that prediction. I next speculated on the Broncos' offensive chances:
They'll run, and I'll be surprised if they don't run successfully. The two-headed approach of the hard-hitting Anderson and the speedy Bell has been successful against all teams all season.The best way for the Pats to stop the run is to get a lead. Otherwise, the Broncos rushing game will get its yards one way (4-yard chunks) or another (big run by Tatum).
Well, they did run (25 times) and they weren't particularly successful (88 yards) and I was surprised at the Pats' excellent rush-stopping play. The line couldn't open any big holes, and until the fourth quarter, the Broncos were unable to rely on the rush for much. Minus one in this prediction, although Mike Anderson did an excellent job of earning some first downs in the fourth quarter to help eat up the clock. Oh, and his run eight-yard run to the New England 4-yard line immediately before the touchdown pass to Rod Smith was a thing of beauty; especially the part where he ducked under the arms of two engaged linemen to scamper for a few extra yards. Finally I wrote:
When the Broncos pass, it's all play-action and bootleg. Pressuring Jake doesn't buy much on the play-actions when he's rolling out, but when he stays in the pocket I expect Richard Seymour and the rest of them will make it pretty tough on Plummer. In the meeting earlier this season, the Broncos completed two huge pass plays (50+ yards) against the Pats' secondary -- I don't see that happening at all this week. (1) The Pats secondary is much healthier than it was then -- it still is the weakest part of the defense, but not like it was earlier this year. (2) I don't think the Broncos will *try* to burn the Patriots deep more than a couple of times in the game. I think they'll be ball-control on offense, and try to control the clock. Broncos haven't turned the ball over much, that needs to continue for the Broncos to have a chance in this game.
Hit-or-miss. I wasn't totally accurate in my assessment of the Broncos passing game this year, as Jake has really learned to be a bit more of a pocket passer, though that is still the weakest part of his game. The Broncos did play ball-control for the most part, and did not connect on the two or three times that they threw the ball deep (one such attempt led to Plummer's only interception on a badly underthrown ball). Samuel played a great game at CB and prevented any big plays.

Finally, a few days before the game Dodzie and I exchanged some more specific thoughts on how we saw the game evolving:

Category My Prediction Dodzie's Prediction Actual Outcome
Winner Broncos Patriots Broncos
Final Score 21–17 27–24 27–13
Rushing Yards, Broncos 135 (80 by Anderson, 45 by Bell, 10 by Plummer) 125 96 (69 by Anderson, 19 by Bell, 8 by Plummer)
Rushing Yards, Patriots 75 (40 by Dillon, 35 by Faulk) 100 (30 by Dillon, 70 by Faulk 80 (57 by Dillon, 23 by Faulk)
Passing Yards, Broncos 200 200 197 (not bad, eh?)
Passing Yards, Patriots 300 280 341
Sacks, by the Broncos 1 2 0
Sacks, by the Patriots 5 4 2
Turnovers, Broncos 1 2 1
Turnovers, Patriots 2 1 5
Offensive Star, Broncos Mike Anderson (80 yards, 2 TDs) Ben Hamilton (um, ok Dodzie) Rod Smith (96 yards, 1 TD)
Mike Anderson (69 yards, 2 TDs)
Offensive Star, Patriots Givens Brady Brady? (20/36, 341 yards, 1 TDs, 2 INTs
Deion Branch (8 catches, 153 yards)
Defensive Star, Broncos Ian Gold no opinion Champ Bailey
Defensive Star, Patriots Richard Seymour (3 sacks) Richard Seymour Seymour? (4 tackles, 1 sack)
Ty Warren? (8 tackles)
Goat Ben Watson Jake Plummer Vinatieri? (missed FG)
Brady? (INT in the endzone)

In addition, I predicted that the Broncos scoring plays would be an eight yard run by Mike Anderson, a three yard run by Anderson, and a twenty yard bootleg play-action pass to Rod Smith. For the Pats I predicted a 30 yard reception to Givens, a two yard pass to Vrabel, and a 39-yard field goal by Vinatieri. In actuality, the scoring plays were 32- and 40-yard Vinatieri field goal, two one-yard runs by Anderson, a four-yard rollout pass to Rod Smith, a four-yard pass to Givens, and field goals of 34 and 50 yards by Jason Elam. All in all, I'm relatively impressed with my predictions, and you should be too.

So, this coming Sunday at 3pm ET the Broncos host the Steelers. After the dismantling that the Steelers handed to the Colts (bad calls against both teams notwithstanding), I'm nervous about the matchup. Both teams feature one speed runner (Bell, Parker) and one power runner (Anderson, Bettis). Both teams feature hairy quarterbacks. Both teams feature speedy linebackers and a dominant safety (Lynch, Polamalu). Both teams feature a deviously skillful primary wide receiver (Smith, Ward) and a speedy second receiver (Lelie, Randle-El). Both teams feature deeper-than-usual pass-catching tight-end threats (Putzier, Miller). Broncos have home-field advantage and, I believe, a coaching advantage. I'll take the Broncos by a touchdown: 23–16.

January 13, 2006

Video Game Fans, Rejoice!

For there are plenty of like-minded souls out there with way too much time on their hands. My three favorites that I've come across recently:


January 9, 2006

Impending Matchup

I have many blog enries on backorder, but sometimes the present takes over and forces your hand. In this case, with the Patriots heading out west to play the Broncos for the opportunity to play in the AFC Championship Game, I am nervous. While it's early in the week, I have already heard the same "expert" analysis of the upcoming game from four different talking heads (ok, fine, so one of them was Rodney Harrison, but still):

  • The Patriots are much more healthy than they were when the Broncos beat them earlier this season
  • The Patriots only lost that game by a touchdown
  • Tom Brady
  • Dynasty
  • The Patriots defense will expose "the old Jake Plummer"
  • Ergo, the Patriots win

All four picked the Patriots to win. Vegas sees the Broncos as a home-field (3 point) favorite. I, for my part, am nervously optimistic. The Broncos—while not nearly as banged up in the original contest a few months ago—are also healthier than back then, particularly with the extra week off and particularly Champ Bailey. While the Broncos do not excel in a passing offense as the Patriots do, they are a more well-rounded team who can score points in all facets of the game. Both teams are battle tested, though the Broncos have some rookies (particularly at cornerback) whose talent glut may be tempered by their playoff inexperience.

Plus, the Broncos have the bootleg.