AFC East and AFC North Preview by Jason King

The AFC North and East have sent six of the last eight conference representatives to the Super Bowl. This year figures to be no different as the Patriots, Jets, Steelers and Ravens are all emergent favorites to play for the Lombardi Trophy.  

AFC East

 The AFC East has been dominated by the Patriots over the last 10 years.  Are the Jets ready to win their first AFC East crown since 2002? Will the Bills or Dolphins be competitive or just easy outs?  All of these questions and more will be answered in the next 5 months.

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Steelers-Eagles: Pre-Season Game Preview and What to Watch For by Jason King

The defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers will be looking to bounce back from a lackluster effort when they host the Philadelphia Eagles in a preseason showdown at the ketchup factory.

Date/Time: August 18, 2011 at 8:00pm

Place: Pittsburgh, PA

Venue: Heinz Field

Playing Surface: Grass

Television: FOX (national broadcast)

The first weekend of meaningless football is in the books, we now head into week two.  The Steelers and Eagles square off in their annual Keystone State battle.

The Steelers starters played only one series against the Redskins last week.  The only positives Pittsburgh can take away from their 16-7 loss to the Washington Redskins was they suffered no significant injuries, they held the Redskins to just one touchdown in five red zone trips, and they only committed two penalties for 10 yards.  They had 186 yards of total offense.  The defense gave up 452 yards.  They were a pitiful 2 of 11 on third downs.

“That’s not the kind of performance we were looking for,” Mike Tomlin said after the game.  “Quite frankly, we got outplayed in just about all areas: blocking, tackling, running, throwing, kicking. That team was better prepared tonight than us. They showed it. We accept that, and I look forward to this group responding to what we put out there tonight. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”

Just having Ben Roethlisberger play for more than one series will help the offense.  The offensive line in front of Roethlisberger is a concern, but those issues won’t be solved in one preseason game.  The Steelers hope to gain their usual continuity and rhythm on offense that was missing last week against Washington.  That starts with establishing the run, which opens the field up for Roethlisberger to improvise in a way only he can.

The Steelers defense isn’t an issue.  Last year they led the NFL in eight statistical categories. They were especially stingy against the run, only giving up 62.8 rushing yards per game.  Pittsburgh’s defense should be even better with the return of Aaron Smith at left defensive end.  James Harrison anchors the linebackers, while Troy Polamalu anchors the secondary.  Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau calls the signals.  The Steelers first team offense and defense should play a quarter, maybe a little more.

The Eagles are coming off a 13-6 win over the Baltimore Ravens last week.  The first team offense and defense played one series each so we didn’t get to see much from them.  They should play more in this game.

The Eagles have a few intriguing storylines as they approach this game.  They have a few position battles going on, the main ones being at center and middle linebacker.  The offensive line could have as many as three new starters.  DeSean Jackson makes his 2011 debut.  These are things to watch in this game.

Jason Kelce and Jamaal Jackson are battling to see who wins the starting center spot.  Since David Akers was let go, Jackson is the longest tenured Eagle.  This game will be a key spot for the rookie Kelce.  This Pittsburgh defense was the best in the business last year.  If he performs well it could go a long way in him eventually winning this job.  If he doesn’t, expect Jackson to start the season at center.

Casey Matthews only played two series against the Ravens.  Expect him to play the entire first half.  Matthews, the Eagles fourth round pick out of Oregon, looked solid in his NFL debut last week.  The two series he played, the defense only allowed 3 points and 59 yards rushing.

Ryan Harris isn’t playing because of a back injury.  King Dunlap is expected to start at right tackle.  According to Andy Reid, rookie right guard Danny Watkins “is progressing every day.”  If Ryan Harris’ injury is more serious than anticipated the Eagles need to see what they have in King Dunlap.  It sounds like you can pencil in Watkins as the starting right guard.  Right tackle, Mike Vick’s blindside, is more troublesome.  If King Dunlap doesn’t perform well, the anxiety for Howard Mudd and Andy Reid will begin.

DeSean Jackson and Michael Vick were a feared force last season.  They will be reunited at Heinz field Thursday night.  Jackson will most likely play a few series as the Eagles try and ease him back into things after his 11 day holdout.  He won’t be fielding any punts but that’s fine for now. The biggest objective is for Vick and Jackson to build that chemistry that made them so dangerous last year.

The Eagles and Steelers both have areas they want to improve on this week. Not all questions will be answered Thursday night, but it will be a good indicator for both teams.

 

Jason King is a contributing writer at Taking It to the House and can be reached at jdk2032@yahoo.com

Super Bowl XLV Preview: Steelers – Packers

Red-Hot QB Aaron Rodgers will lead the Green Bay Packers versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.  The Packers will be seeking an NFL-record 13th title

The 2010-11 NFL season will finish it’s oh-too-fast season with Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas as the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) and Green Bay Packers (13-6) take center stage in the biggest game in sports. It will be interesting to see if Super Bowl XLV ends the ’10 season with a bang or a blowout, which seems to have happened way too much in Super Bowl history.  All week, the Dallas-Ft. Worth region has been covered in uncharacteristic ice, but you can expect the temperatures around the country and in Cowboys Stadium to be “hot” this Sunday. 

“Super Bowl Sunday” is America’s unofficial holiday filled with fellowship, trash talk, and of course eating.  Everywhere you turn, people are talking about the Steelers and Packers locking horns this Sunday.  Even my 80-year old plus grandmother, who usually is not in front of the television on Sunday’s watching NFL gridiron action, will be attending a Super Bowl party.  She and an expected record television audience of 106 Million plus viewers will be watching this Sunday as the Steelers and Packers take center stage.  But no matter how Super Bowl XLV ends, the 2010 NFL Season should be titled, “One Crazy Season”. 

Sure some will boast that their crystal ball registered this match-up in Super Bowl way back in September — hey what do I know… I picked a match-up of the Ravens over the Cowboys. But majority of folks probably were second-guessing both the NFC and AFC representative teams going into the season., especially around the quarterbacks in the game.  Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was mired in a rocky offseason that led to a 6-game suspension (reduced to 4 games) and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, after a loss in his first playoff start in the 2009 Wildcard Round to the Cardinals, was still stuck in the lengthy shadow of former Green Bay legendary passer Brett Favre. But none the less, both teams and their quaterbacks continued on and now they are on the appex of winning the biggest trophy in team sports, the Lomabardi Trophy.

The majority of fans and media that I have talked to are more than happy and excited to see the two teams that will be meeting in the Big Game.  So expected or unexpected, this is the game that the parity-laden National Football League has handed us for Super Bowl Sunday 2011 (February 6th).  I for one am very excited to see this match-up of two of the NFL’s most-storied franchises and a good portion of the country is also excited as Super Bowl hype is at an all-time high. Especially with the threat of potential CBA-Armadegon and “No Football” after March 4th looming over the heads NFL Universe. ESPN Anlayst Tom Jackson said of the match-up, “We have two of the best teams in the league playing really good football, and we’re thinking that we’re ready to see a pretty darn good football game.”

Once the Conference Championships games were completed with the Steelers 24-19 win over the New York Jets and the Packers 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears, everyone tried to come up with a catchy Don King-esque box office selling theme for Super Bowl XLV.  Some slogans that I have heard bantered about have been “The Tradition Bowl”, “The Golden Game”, “The Dynasty Bowl”, “Lombardi vs. Lambert”, and many others.  But I am going with the “The NFL’s Royalty Rumble”  — BTW: Whatever happened to great titles like the “Thrilla in Manila” and the “Rumble in the Jungle”.   All of the current themes that I have pointed out all touch on the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packer are two of the NFL’s most revered and respected franchises.  Between them these two teams are draped in tradition and have combines for 19 NFL Championships including 9 Super Bowl titles.

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell said of the match-up at his recent yearly Super Bowl press conference, “When you look at this match-up, you say ‘Pittsburgh Steelers’ and ‘Green Bay Packers,’ that’s football. There’s no doubt about it, that’s football”.  Goodell added, “These great organizations who have had so much success in the past, it represents the traditions of our game. The fans are tremendous in both of these communities. I lived in western Pennsylvania for five years and those fans, there aren’t any better fans than Steeler fans. Then you look at the Packer fans and they’re the same way. Tremendous passion, they support their team through thick and thin, and it means a lot to these communities. And they’re both national teams. This isn’t just about fans in western Pennsylvania or in Wisconsin, they have national followings, and I think that’s what’s so exciting for this country and our world, to look at this game and say, ‘Wow, that’s real football.’ This is fun. This is celebrating the game that I love and we all love and I think it’s going to be a terrific night.”

The Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s second oldest franchise and are a testament to how the league continuing to thrive in a small-market during the “Big Market” glitz of today’s  media bonanza society.  When you think of the Packers – all-tme record of 664-524-36 in regular season with a league-best postseason record of 28-16 in 44 games — names like Hall of Famers Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Reggie White and Willie Davis instantly come to mind along with that quarterback,No. 4, and the “Frozen Tundra” playing surface at historic Lambeau Field.  Though the Packers have not had the recent “Championship” success like Lombardi’s group from the 1960’s, a new generation of Green Bay players, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, have returned some swagger back to “Title Town”.  Green Bay will be returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since back-to-back appearances in Super Bowl XXXI (January 26, 1997) and XXXII (January 25, 1998).  And Green Bay will attempting to extend their league record NFL Championship number to 13.

The Steelers going back to their inception in 1933 were built by the late Art Rooney, one of the original patriarchs of the NFL, to be a franchise as tough as the blue collar City of Steel that they represent.  And now they are aiming to become the first NFL team in history to win seven Super Bowl titles.  The Steelers all-time record is 541-499-20 with a league-second-best postseason record 33-19 in fifty-one games and they will be making their eighth Super Bowl appearance, tying the Dallas Cowboys for the most all-time. Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney said of the challenge of facing Green Bay in the Super Bowl, “We’re very similar organizations.  We’re similar in the way we operate.  We have great respect for the Packers and we always have.” And the connection continues as the Packers are the first No. 6 seed in the NFC to advance to the Super Bowl since the NFL instituted the current 12-team playoff format in 1990.  The only other No. 6 seed to play in the Super Bowl was the 2005 Steelers, who went on to win Super Bowl XL. 

Ironically Pittsburgh “Home Boy”, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, who grew-up in the town and was a former assistant coach for four seasons at the University of Pittsburgh, will be leading the opposition.  McCarthy (guided Packers to playoffs in 3 of last 4 seasons) said of facing his hometown team, “Pittsburgh is obviously a big part of who I am.  My family is still back there.  This is going to be a very unique experience for everybody.  I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan growing up and they’re my second favorite team.  But we’re preparing to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a football game and that’s what we need to stay focused on.  McCarthy added, “They’re an excellent football team, obviously.  They’ve had a lot of success.  They’re a veteran team and an experienced team.  They’ve been through this experience before and we have not.  We understand that.  But we’re going to stick to our approach and that’s the way we’re going to face it.  Our goal is to bring the Lombardi Trophy back home.”

So enough already with the continually beaten same-old-tired story that many are selling that one team belongs here and the other is just lucky No. 6 seed.  I believe like many Steelers players, who vividly remember last year’s shootout win over the Packers, that McCarthy’s team is a hungry bunch and that should be respected.  Remember that anything that could happen has happened in this crazy 2010 season where “Any Given Sunday” has rung true week in and week out.  Forget franchise histories, Super Bowl XLV should have the moniker, “The Battle of Teams That Do It the Right Way”.  Plain and simple it is a match-up of two teams that are models for NFL success.  However if I were the Steelers, I would do as Chuck D used to rap “Don’t Believe the Hype”, because the former 10-6 Wilcard Packers have been one of the NFL’s hottest teams since the playoffs started. The key for both remaining teams is focusing on their precious opportunity to win a Super Bowl and forgetting everything else that has transpired in the past 20 weeks leading up to the big game.  

Lloyd’s Leftovers for Super Bowl XLV

Being #1 Seed is not what it used to be – Remember when attaining the No. 1 seed in your conference and home field advantage used to mean something back in the day.  But in today’s parity-laden NFL there are no guarantees to Super Bowl entry and this year is no different as the Patriots and Falcons were out in the divisional round.  Since 1990 only 20 of 40 number one seeds in the playoffs have made it to the Super Bowl with only 9 of those teams winning it all.  The last time two No. 1 seeds faced off was in Super Bowl XLIV (2010) with Indianapolis vs. New Orleans.

Not much Trash Talking at this Super Bowl – With the mutual respect between the Steelers and Packers there has not been the obligatory player trash talking. Remember in Super Bowl XL how then Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens made some comments about Steelers that got the dander up of then Steelers linebacker Joey Porter.  This time both teams were complimentary and guarded during media day interviews.  Too bad Porter is no longer on the Steelers, because he is always a good for a rousing soundbite. 

Still watch for everyone’s favorite Super Bowl Ads – Every year one of the bigger events of the Super Bowl is watching the ads.  Thirty-second spots during Super Bowl XLV were sold for $2.8-$3 million.  Of course the king of the advertisers, Budweiser, will be all over your television — exclusive beer advertiser for 23 years.  Bud earlier this postseason locked up its position as the only national beer advertiser in the Super Bowl through 2014. “We wouldn’t have done it if the payoff wasn’t there,” said Anheuser-Busch President Dave Peacock.  For everything to do with Super Bowl XLV’s Ads go to www.superbowl-ads.com

Media folks swapping more than stories – Former Super Bowl MVP’s, ESPN analyst Desmond Howard and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, got into it over comments Howard made about Simms’ son.  For all of Twitter Nation to read, Howard tweeted that Simms said “he wanted 2 take a swing at me” while the two were at the NFL Experience fan festival in downtown Dallas.  Also there was a Philly Twitter Beef between Daily News Writer Paul Domowitch and Radio Personality Howard Eskin over some quotes

Tomlin going for some history — Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, who guided the Steelers to victory in Super Bowl XLIII, can become the first head coach in NFL history to win two Super Bowls in his first four seasons.  He is also can become the youngest head coach in league annals to win two Super Bowl titles (38 years old).  And another milestone that no one is talking about –Thankfully – is that Tomlin could once again join NFL legend Tony Dungy as the only African-American head coaches to lead their team to a Super Bowl victory.  Of all the potential accomplishments surrounding Super Bowl XLV, Tomlin said “It’s special.  There are 32 teams that start this journey and there are only two left.  We are fortunate enough to be one of them.  It’s awesome.”

Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) Vs. Green Bay Packers (13-6), Sunday 6:30 PM, FOX

Broadcasting Team: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Chris Myers (Field Reporter) and Pam Oliver (Field Reporter)

The AFC #2 seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFC #6 seeded Green Bay Packers will square off in Super Bowl XLV in Cowboys Stadium and though this may have not been the match-up that everyone had hoped for, I fully expect a good game. 

 The big story going into Super Bowl XLV has been two “hot” quarterbacks squaring off with the Packers led by former Pro Bowler Aaron Rodgers and the Steelers going with Super Bowl XL and XLIII winner Ben Roethlisberger.  In the last meeting between these two teams (December 20, 2009), Roethlisberger (503 yards) and Aaron Rodgers (383) combined for 886 passing yards in the Steelers’ 37-36 win over the Packers.  It marked the highest passing yardage total in NFL history in a game that did not have an interception. 

But the story of the game to me is a classic match-up of the Steelers NFL top-ranked defense versus the Packers high-powered offense.  Though the usual line is “Defense Wins Championships”, you definitely have to go deeper into this match-up than to immediately dismiss the Packers and hand the Lombardi Trophy to the Steelers.  Like any playoff game, the Super Bowl will be won or lost with keys — Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, and Limiting Penalties.  So far in the playoffs the Steelers and Packers have lived by the keys mentioned especially running the football.  The Packers have even unveiled rookie James Starks and the Steelers after a year of passing the ball have rooted to their roots as RB Rashard Mendenhall has been running the rock.  The two teams have also lived off turnovers, which we know are instant game turners — turnover margin has been good to the Steelers (+17) and the Cardinals (+10) . 

The Packers are always looking for the big down-the-field play, so the Steelers must stay with their coverage assignments and get pressure on Rodgers. Conversely the Packers will need to continue to mix the run and pass to keep the Steelers attacking defense off-balance. The Steelers — just 14.5 points per game — have done a great job on defense so far this season.   But Rodgers when given time has weapons in receivers Gregg Jennings, Donald Driver and James Jones. 

The Steelers front seven led by former Defensive MVP James Harrison, stout nose tackle Casey Hampton, and probably the NFL’s most athletic linebacking crew (James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Lamarr Woodley, and Harrison) will need to get pressure so that big play safety Troy Polamulu (2010 NFL Defensive MVP) can make another game changing play.  Pressure is everything to the Steelers, but Jennings is capable of having a huge day so the Steelers will need 22 eyes on him at all times.   Watch for the Steelers’ veteran secondary led by cornerback Ike Taylor and unsung free safety Ryan Clark to help Polamulu in coverage.   The one thing LeBeau (king of the zone blitz) will need to guard against is getting too blitz happy against Rodgers.  As the young triggerman is very dangerous and can recognize defensive schemes and will audible when needed.  

Watch for an improving Packers’ “D”, who were 2nd in total defense during the regular season. The Packer defense led by LB Clay Matthews Jr has thrived on forcing pressure and creating turnovers.  The Packers will need to get to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, so that the he can’t get the ball to Hines Ward and game-changer Mike Wallace.  The Packers will also need to keep an eye on my X-factor, Steelers tight end Heath Miller.

“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” said Packers CB Charles Woodson.  He added, “Every week, it’s somebody else stepping up.  The guys on this team have been making plays week in and week out.  We have a ton of guys who can just make plays at any time and at any point in the game.  We know how hard it is to get to the Super Bowl.  You want to be able to get there and win it.  It’s all or nothing now.  Hopefully we can go down there and win it.”

LV’s Pick: Now that all of the hype and talk around Super Bowl XLV is almost finished our attentions can turn to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.  The Steelers have been installed as a slight favorite, but I truly believe that the Packers will make this a game.  I expect the Steelers to dictate the pace of the game early with efficient passing by Big Ben, hard running by Mendenhall, and their attacking defense.  But Rodgers and Jennings will hook-up for a Super Bowl moment and they may even temporarily throw a scare into the Steelers.  But in the end, the Steelers Black-and-Gold nation will leave Dallas happy as the Steelers veterans from Super Bowl XL and XLIII will step up.  The Steelers add another one for their second hand and watch for Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Troy Polamulu as the difference makers for P-Burgh. — Steelers 27, Packers 24 

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and Sports Journey Network , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2010 NFL Power Rankings – Pre Training Camp

Even without Big Ben to start the regular season, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin will be looking to get Pittsburgh back in the playoffs in 2010

With training camps set to open soon for most NFL teams, I thought it was a good time to unveil my first ranking for the 2010 season.  The great part about this time on the NFL Calendar is that rankings don’t matter as hope has sprung eternal around the league.

Every team is 0-0 heading into training camp and “Yes” even the St. Louis Rams (1-15) believe they have positively upgraded their roster and drafted well enough that training camp two-a-days can’t get here soon enough.  And why not…since 1996 there have been at least 5 new playoffs teams that had been sitting home the year before – highest total was 8 teams in 2003.

80-man rosters are pretty much set for every team…Sorry T.O… – still need to sign rookies as only Cowboys WR Dez Bryant is the only first rounder signed — so here we go with our rankings of all 32 NFL Teams.

1.  Saints – The 2009 Super Bowl Champions still remain in my top spot until someone knocks them off their perch.  In order to be the man, you have to beat the man…wooo!!  The Saints only lost players that they believe already have replacements on their current roster. Sean Payton’s offensive squad has more weapons than almost every team in the NFL, including an O-line that returns all of it’s starters from the Super Bowl.  However there are a couple things that New Orleans will need to shake out in the pre-season, which are their defense not relying on turnovers too much – produced an NFL best 39 fumbles and INTs plus 8 turnovers into touchdowns.  And the usual Super Bowl winner problems of complacency, money, and injuries.

2.  Vikings – All off-season it had to have bothered the Vikes that they were so close to playing in the Super Bowl (lost in overtime).  Keys for sustaining their success from last season will be veteran QB Brett Favre coming back (already a done deal…trust me), RB Adrian Peterson concurring his fumbling woes, and the Vikings’ defense getting better performances from everyone outside of Pro Bowl DE Jared Allen.  Head Coach Brad Childress has now tasted success, so it is easy to think that Minnesota will be right back at the top of the NFC North, but I think the Packers and Bears might have something to say about that.

3.  Colts – Another season, another 12 wins for Indy (NFL Record seven Consecutive).  The Colts are a regular season buzzsaw, but once again the playoffs, it was a different story.  QB Peyton Manning’s team lost in Super Bowl to the Saints and at some points in the game, the younger team from New Orleans “Out Physical-ed” Indy.  There is no doubt that Manning and his plethora of receivers will continue to put up yards and points.  But the Colts need more of a running game from veteran RB Joseph Addai and 2nd year RB Donald Brown plus their defense needs to get more physical at the point of attack.

4. Cowboys – Maybe the curse of Quincy Carter is over as the Cowboys won in the playoffs for the first time since 1996 by demolishing the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wildcard round.  Unfortunately the Cowboys got a quick taste of reality in the divisional round as the Viking pasted them 34-3.  However owner Jerry Jones obviously thinks that his team has a chance of playing in the Super Bowl in their home stadium so Dallas’ roster pretty much is set.  The keys for Dallas will be QB Tony Romo continuing to make big plays with WR Miles Austin, RB Felix Jones gaining a more prominent role and the Cowboys defense improving in their back four.

5.  Ravens – An already dangerous team just got a little bit tougher this offseason as John Harbaugh’s squad had a very good draft and also obtained quality veterans like WR Anquan Boldin.  With QB Joe Flacco coming off an impressive season (posted a 95+ passer rating in 9-of-16 games in ’09), underrated RB Ray Rice looking like the second-coming of Marshall Faulk and a hungry defense returning just about everyone, Baltimore is a scary bunch.  Expect team leaders MLB Ray Lewis, NT Haloti Ngata, and WR Derrick Mason to show younger players, like Terrence “Mount” Cody, how it is to make a playoff run.  But don’t forget the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and the Bengals should be ready to fight for the AFC North crown.

6.  Chargers – After dominating in the regular season and looking like a strong Super Bowl contender, the Chargers were out-physicaled by the NY Jets in a tough 17-14 home loss.  Fiery quarterback Philip Rivers could do very little as the J-E-T-S pounded the rock and played attacking defense.  Of course, recently jettisoned RB LaDainian Tomlinson will be blamed for some of the Chargers problems.  But in the end, the NY Jets dug deeper and Norv Turner’s team appears to be in need of a spark.  In the 2010, San Diego is hoping an influx of younger players including first rounder RB Ryan Matthews will be what they need, but the Chargers better be leery of the Broncos.  Also they better figure out what to do with unsigned players OT Marcus McNeil, WR Vincent Jackson, and LB Shawn Merriman.

7.  Patriots – Was it just me… or did the Patriots look like an old rusty team in 2009 as the Ravens hammered them out of the playoffs.  Though I am not ready to totally bury the 3-time Super Bowl champs, I do believe that head coach Bill Belichick also saw his team aging and went about give it an offseason makeover.  Veterans Junior Seau, Shaun Springs, Jarvis Green, and others are long gone, leaving a mix of former Super Bowl players and some youngsters.  It will be incumbent on Belichick to lean on former Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and future HOF Randy Moss as the Patriots try to re-tool while holding off the hungry NY Jets.  Of course Brady doesn’t play defense, where Belichick’s unit needs to be better in deep coverage.

8.  New York Jets – Everyone’s pick for the team that won the offseason, the New York Jets, will be trying to catch lightning in a bottle for a second year in a row.  Last year after an up-and-down regular season, Rex Ryan’s team got hot at the right time beating the Bengals and Patriots to make it to the AFC Championship game.  However this year everyone will be gunning for the “cocky” J-E-T-S as there are high expectations on them due to the additions of OLB Jason Taylor, WR Santonio Holmes, L.T and others.  But you know and I know that everything will boil down to whether QB Mark Sanchez is ready to be more than a “Caretaker”.

9. New York Giants – It was a rollercoaster ride for the G-Men in 2009.  They started out like gangbusters as they jumped out to a 5-0 record against some cupcakes, but from there injuries – mostly in their secondary – and big plays against their defense caught up with the Giants.  An 8-8 record just is not good enough in New York City and volatile head coach Tom Coughlin knows it.  Expect a rejuvenated team based around bruising RB Brandon Jacobs, newly acquired veteran LB Keith Bulluck and an attacking defensive line – highest sacker in ’09 was DE Justin Tuck with only 7 sacks.

10.  Cardinals – The Matt Leinart era is about to kick-in out at University of Phoenix stadium.  The Cardinals’ former first round pick in 2006 finally will get his chance to replace veteran Kurt Warner after the future HOF retired.  Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt is preaching that the Cardinals will be a more balanced team on offense, which means 2nd-year RB Chris Wells should be more active.  I will be interested in seeing how their defense plays after surviving a pinball machine against the Packers and being throttled by the Saints in the 2009 playoffs.

11. Steelers – A year after winning the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in 2009 as they finished with a 9-7 record.  Some big reasons for the Steelers fall from grace were inconsistency, injuries (see Troy Polamulu), and a pass-happy offense.  Head Coach Mike Tomlin, who just received an extension, is preaching that his team is going to play “Steelers Football” again i.e. Run the football and play tough attacking defense.  Of course any talk about where the Steelers are as a team begins and ends with QB Ben Roethlisberger who is currently suspended for the season’s first 6 games.

12.  Bengals – It will be real interesting to see if last year’s feel-good team, the Bengals, can get back to the playoffs.  2009’s Beast of the AFC North (swept the division) looked good until the playoffs when the NY Jets hammered them.  Offensively QB Carson Palmer needs to produce more bigger plays and the rest of the unit needs to live-up to loudmouth receiver Chad Ochocinco’s boasts.  Head Coach Marvin Lewis is trying to get an extension so he will need another great season from his defense which is led by CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph.

13.  Falcons – After battling through many injuries in 2009, the Dirty Birds seem to be everyone’s pick to be a rebound playoff team in 2010.  A good reason for optimism in Hotlanta is that this young team has bought into the teachings of fiery head coach Mike Smith and his staff.  The Falcons have the modern version of the quadruplets as they sport a leadership type quarterback in Matt Ryan, a workhorse running back in Michael Turner, a pass-catching tight end in veteran Tony Gonzalez and a big-play receiver in Roddy White.  If their O-line is stable, I am not really worried about their offense.  However their defense needs to rally around big-ticket free agent CB Dunta Robinson.

14.  Texans – You have to hand it to Houston as they accomplished a major goal in 2009 by producing their first winning season since their inception in 2001.  But as nice as it was to be over .500, the Texans still have a ways to go to catch the Colts.  Head coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith were given a half-hearted vote of confidence, but you can tell management wants a playoff contender now.  The Texans will need to lean on the offensive firepower of Pro Bowl QB Matt Schaub and NFL receiving yardage leader WR Andre Johnson. But it will be interesting to see if their defensive unit is better without disgruntled defensive back Dunta Robinson (Atlanta Falcons) and you know that will fall on DE Mario Williams (9 sacks in ’09).

15. Titans – Tennessee is another team stuck in the NFL’s ever increasing middle.  After a disastrous 0-6 start, everything seemed to finally click once Vince Young was named the starting quarterback.  However it was too much too late as they finished 8-8 and their defense was continually beaten deep.  In their first season sans Albert Haynesworth, Jeff Fisher’s team allowed a whopping 402 points and their former 2008 Pro Bowlers in their secondary looked average at best.  With an eye on fixing their defense, the Titans went heavily on that side of the ball in the 2010 NFL Draft. We will see if they have enough to catch the Colts and Texans, but If nothing else the Titans will be exciting with CJ2K running the ball.

16.  Eagles – The winds of change are blowing around the Philadelphia Eagles.  Former veterans like QB Donovan McNabb, CB Sheldon Brown, S Brian Dawkins, and RT John Runyan are long gone leaving a younger team searching for an identity.  The trade of McNabb to the Redskins changed the entire feel around the team and now it is up to first-time starter Kevin Kolb to take the reins of Andy Reid’s young squad.  Kolb will not have to do it on his own as he has Pro Bowlers WR DeSean Jackson, OT Jason Peters and TE Brent Celek to help him, but the defense is the Birds’ biggest question mark (allowed over 200 passing yards per game).  We will see if the Birds have made enough offseason changes to close the gap between themselves and the Dallas Cowboys – outscored 58-14 in last two games of 2009.

17.  49ers – To me last year was a tease in terms of the Niners.  You can clearly see that energetic head coach Mike Singletary had his team playing well at times, but consistency was not there enough – finished with an 8-8 record.  In order for San Francisco to finally pass the Cardinals and make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. They will need to have better quarterback play from Alex Smith, improved O-line play behind their two coveted first rounders and more defensive pressure — didn’t have a single player top 6.5 sacks last season.

18.  Dolphins – After shocking the NFL in 2008 by going from worst to first in their division, Miami came back down to earth in 2009 with a 7-9 record including a 1-4 stretch to end the season.  A lot of change is afoot in South Beach, but the Dolphins are hoping that are is more than just LeBron going to the Heat. Surprisingly the Dolphins biggest problem was their defense that allowed 390 points.  With Football Czar Bill Parcells watchful eyes over head coach Tony Sparano, the Dolphins attempted to fix their woes in the draft by going heavily on defense.  They also brought-in WR Brandon Marshall to help their offense.  We will see if these changes are enough to vault them over the Patriots and NY Jets.

19. Packers  –  There is no doubt that Green Bay and QB Aaron Rodgers have the offensive firepower to hang with any team in the NFL – 461 points scored — but the Packers’ 2010 hopes directly hinge on Dom Capers’ defense.  I know his unit allowed only 297 points in the regular season and they were ranked near the top of the entire NFL.  But against the Vikings –you know who torched them – and the Cardinals in the Wildcard round put up points too (lost 51-45) so they needed more than Defensive MVP, DB Charles Woodson. It should be another fun year when the Pack lock horns with Favre and the hated men in purple.

20.  Bears – The head coaching seat in the Windy City is getting extremely hot and it is incumbent on Lovie Smith to return the Bears to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.  Smith thought that he had solved his Super Bowl loser hangover dilemma by trading for talented QB Jay Cutler, but a 7-9 season in ’09 made the spotlight hotter.  With new offensive coordinator Mike “Mad Scientist” Martz and big-ticket free agents DE Julius Peppers and RB Chester Taylor on the team, it is now or never for Smith and GM Jerry Angelo.

21.  Broncos – Another year and another controversial player was kicked out of town by brash head coach Josh McDaniels.  In 2009 it was QB Jay Cutler (to Chicago) being ushered away and in 2010, it was talented malcontent receiver Brandon Marshall’s turn to leave the Rockies – shipped to the Dolphins before the draft.  McDaniels better hope he is right as his team badly slumped down the stretch of the 2009 season — 4-game losing streak to end the season — and some fans’ patience is running thin.

22.  Redskins – There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is “Mike Shanahan”.  The two-time Super Bowl winning head coach, veteran QB Donovan McNabb and new GM Bruce Allen have been called-in to restore the nation’s capital’s franchise.  Already Shanahan and Allen have brought in over 20 new players with many being veterans (McNabb, Larry Johnson, Joey Galloway, Jammal Brown, and others).  We all know this team will be nowhere near their 4-12 record in 2010, but you have to wonder if all these new faces can jell quickly enough.  All the NFL’s entire eyes will be on Philly for the October 3rd, McNabb-Eagles Grudge Match.

23.  Raiders – For once the Raiders don’t seem like the most dysfunctional team in the NFL.  Yes, they have the league’s worst record since 2003 (24 wins and 72 losses).  But already I have seen some positive moves including the jettisoning of underachiever quarterback JaMarcus Russell, bringing in veteran QB Jason Campbell, a solid draft that produced players like LB Rolando McClain, and the same head coach (Tom Cable) for the second year in a row for the first time in a long while.  Al Davis’ boys should be shooting for .500 this season, which would be a big step forward.

24.  Jaguars – It seems everyone in this organization is fighting for survival.  The team is trying desperately to sell enough season tickets to avoid a proposed move to L.A, QB David Garrard is trying to prove he can play like his 2007 form to justify his big contract and lastly head coach Jack Del Rio is fighting to stay in town after two losing seasons in a row.  Well at least the Jags have one of the NFL’s most dangerous players in RB Maurice Jones-Drew.

25.  Panthers –  If it now or never for head coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney who are both entering the final year of their contracts.  Owner Jerry Richardson is healthy now and he will have a greater say in the Panthers this year, so it is incumbent on the team to continue helping their on-the-hot-seat head coach again – finished 4-1 in 2009.  Expect another great year of the NFL’s best two-headed backfield (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart), but Carolina’s defense must recover from losing DE Julius Peppers. Expect QB Matt Moore (6-2 as a starter) to hold-off rookie Jimmy Clausen and establish himself as an NFL starter.

26.  Lions – Head coach Jim Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew had one of the best drafts in 2010 as they brought in potential difference-makers DT Ndamukong Suh and RB Jahvid Best to continue their rebuilding.  With QB Matthew Stafford firmly at the helm, there is no reason why the Lions could not win 3 to 4 more games this year.  I am going to make an early prediction…watch out for the Lions in 2011, if there is not a lockout of course.

27.  Buccaneers – Some good young building blocks (QB Josh Freeman, TE Kellen Winslow and S Tanard Jackson) are in place for 2nd-year head coach Raheem Morris, but 2010 looks like another rebuilding year for Tampa.  However there still should be hope as the NFC South since 2003 has had 6 out of 7 years where a team went from worst to first including the New Orleans Saints last year.

28.  Seahawks – New head coach Pete “runaway” Carroll has brought in a ton of new faces (over 25 new players) including retread receiver Mike Williams, former NY Jets RB Leon Washington and former Chargers restricted free agent QB Charlie Whitehurst.  But Carroll’s team still has too many leftover players from the Mike Holmgren era (i.e. QB Matt Hasselback, WR Deion Branch, and others) that will need to figure out where they stand before the entire organization can move forward.

29.  Bills – Can you say, “Oh Canada”?  Right now the reality of playing more than two games a year in Toronto, Canada maybe facing this team.  I am not even sure if new head coach Chan Gailey and GM Buddy Nix have any idea of the mess on their hands.  The Bills have 3 quarterbacks competing and I don’t think any of them can be a week-in-week-out NFL starter and whoever is the starter, they will be playing behind on of the league’s leakiest O-lines.

30.  Chiefs – Head Coach Todd Haley and GM Scott Pioli are trying like crazy to make the hapless Chiefs into New England West, but something is amiss.  QB Matt Cassell after finally getting a chance to start regularly put-up even stats of 16 TDs and 16 INTs while the defense couldn’t stop anyone in 2009, letting up 424 points.  There is nowhere to go but up for Cassell and the rest of this young team who are looking like one big rebuilding effort.

31.  Browns – Football Czar Mike Holmgren took over early as he came in during the end of the 2009 season to start evaluating a roster that looked like multi-purpose threat Joshua Cribbs and not much else.  What Holmgren did find was that there were a few talented players (Cribbs, OT Joe Thomas, and CB Eric Wright), but unfortunately he still will need to put on his janitor’s suit as there is much more housecleaning to be done.  It looks like another long year awaits on the shores of Lake Erie, especially with washed-up QB Jake Delhomme under center.

32.  Rams – Just like the Saints at the top of the food chain…I have to start the Rams at the bottom.  However I do believe that head coach Steve Spagnuolo and GM Bill Devaney are making positive changes on this team. Hopefully RB Steven Jackson (back) and first rounders QB Sam Bradford, OT Jason Smith, and DE Chris Long will get some help to move this young team out of the basement. 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and Sports Journey Network , who is also an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

A Glimpse at the 2009 NFL Season according to a so-called expert

Troy_Polamalu

Taking It to the House’s Lloyd Vance is predicting a big year for Safety Troy Polamalu (Defensive MVP pick) and the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers

Once again it is time for me to get out my crystal ball and see if I can prognosticate the upcoming NFL season. As all of my friends can attest to, I have never been totally right or wrong and I have never gotten the Super Bowl match-up or champion completely right.

The 2008 NFL season was evidence that in the league’s almost 90-year history that nothing is predictable. I am still looking for the person that could have predicted events like the long downtrodden Arizona Cardinals going to the Super Bowl led by retread quarterback Kurt Warner, New England Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady getting hurt on the first series of the Pats’ first game of the season and rookie quarterbacks Joe Flacco (Baltimore Ravens) and Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons) leading their respective teams to the playoffs. 

Maybe this year I will be the envy of my doubters — Big V, I am specifically talking to you.  However you know I will probably have to eat some crow later this season from the predictions that I am about to make.

My annual reading of the NFL’s tea leaves is all in good fun, so with the season almost ready to kickoff –Thursday September 10th with the defending Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Tennessee Titans — we can all rejoice and say “Hallelujah” as the 2009 NFL Season is finally here.

NFC

NFC East

New York Giants 11-5

Philadelphia Eagles 10-6

Dallas Cowboys 8-8

Washington Redskins 6-10

NFC North

Chicago Bears 10-6

Minnesota Vikings 10-6

Green Bay Packers 7-9

Detroit Lions 3-13

NFC South

New Orleans Saints 10-6

Atlanta Falcons 9-7

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10

Carolina Panthers 5-11

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals 11-5

SF 49ers 9-7

Seattle Seahawks 6-10

St. Louis Rams 5-11

Division Champions: Cardinals (Bye), Giants (Bye), Saints, Bears

NFC Wild Cards: Eagles, Vikings

AFC

AFC East

New England Patriots 12-4

Buffalo Bills 9-7

Miami Dolphins 7-9

New York Jets 6-10

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4

Baltimore Ravens   10-6

Cincinnati Bengals   6-10

Cleveland Browns   4-12

AFC South

Houston Texans 11-5

Indianapolis Colts 10-6

Tennessee Titans 8-8

Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11

AFC West

San Diego Chargers 11-5

Denver Broncos 8-8

Oakland Raiders 7-9

Kansas City Chiefs 4-12

Division Champions: Patriots (Bye), Steelers (Bye), Chargers, Texans

AFC Wild Cards: Colts, Ravens 

Playoffs

AFC Wild Card Round: Colts over Chargers, Texans over Ravens

NFC Wild Card Round: Eagles over Bears, Vikings over Saints

AFC Divisional Round: Patriots over Colts, Steelers over Texans

NFC Divisional Round: Giants over Eagles, Vikings over Cardinals

NFC Championship: Giants over Vikings

AFC Championship: Steelers over Patriots

Super Bowl XLIV:   Steelers over Giants

Awards

NFL Coach of the Year: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL Offensive MVP: Minnesota Vikings Running back Adrian Peterson

NFL Defensive MVP: Pittsburgh Steelers Safety Troy Polamalu,

NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year:  Minnesota Vikings WR/KR Percy Harvin

**Also keep an eye on Denver Broncos RB Knowshon Moreno and Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford

NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: Miami Dolphins Cornerback Vontae Davis

** Also keep an eye on Houston Texans LB Brian Cushing and Washington Redskins DE/LB Brian Orakpo

NFL Comeback Player of the Year: Pittsburgh Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall

** Also keep an eye on Jacksonville Jaguars WR Tory Holt

NFL Breakout Player:  Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lawrence Timmons

First Pick of the 2010 NFL Draft: Florida DE Carlos Dunlap

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)

2008 NFL Playoffs – Conference Championships Round Review

(Philadelphia, Pa) – The 2008 NFL season themed, “Believe In Now”, continued to roll on toward an oh-too-fast ending. But one thing is for certain when the epilogue for this season is written, it will be titled, “One Crazy Season”.  I don’t think anyone’s crystal ball registered the Cardinals against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII way back in September — remember I picked the Colts over the Saints, so what do I know ;) — however we are now set to enjoy a rivalry game on February 1st in Tampa, Florida between too coaching staffs that know each other very well. 

To me both Conference Championships games were enjoyable and the interesting part from the games’ results is that the sanity of home field advantage was restored with the Steelers 23-14 win over the Ravens and the Cardinals 32-25 win over the Eagles.   With both home teams winning, the playoff history-defying streak of 5 out of 8 road teams winning thus far in the playoffs was ended.  The NFL’s Final Four round produced two games that definitely had two different NFL flavors.  The Philadelphia Eagles – Arizona Cardinals game featured a pinball machine type offensive explosion in a perfectly conditioned indoor dome environment, while conversely the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game was an old-fashioned black-and-blue rivalry game that featured several players limping to the sidelines of cold, snowy, and muddy Heinz Field.

In both Conference Championships our keys to success in the playoffs — Strong Quarterback Play (i.e. Taking Care of the Football), Good Attacking Defense, a Balanced Offensive Attack based first in the Run, Sound Special Teams Play, and Limiting Penalties – were all very prevalent for the winning teams (Cardinals and Steelers).  

  • Super Bowl XLIII will pit two quarterbacks, in the Cardinals Kurt Warner and the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger, that have already won a Super Bowl against each other.  The Conference Championships brought out the best in the two signal callers as Warner was efficient in getting the ball down the field to superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald (see Game Balls) and in picking up the blitz while Big Ben made a key deep throw to receiver Santonio Holmes and did not turn the ball over.
  • The Steelers (+3) and the Cardinals (+2) both won the turnover battle in their games and it was a huge difference.  The Cardinals produced 3 turnovers by the Eagles while only giving the ball up once (defensive player) and the Steelers were a little better producing four turnovers by the Ravens, including Troy Polamalu’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown, to only one giveaway.  The Cardinals and the Steelers also got pressure on the quarterback producing three and two sacks respectively.
  • The Steelers and Cardinals both had more rushing attempts than the Ravens and Eagles respectively (PITT 28 to 25) and (ARIZ 29 to 18).  The key was the final four winners never abandoned the run even when they lost their lead or the other team was within a couple of points.
  • An often overlooked factor in games is penalties, but the Steelers and especially the Cardinals made sure they were not hurt too bad by penalties in their wins.  The Cardinals only had three penalties to seven for the Eagles while the Steelers and Ravens were knotted at six apiece.

Game Notes

Arizona Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25

This year’s NFC Championship Game, titled the “Why Not Us” Bowl was played out in the cozy confines of University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Arizona.  If nothing else, this game between two improbable NFC lower seeded playoff teams was enjoyable.  The Cardinals came out of their locker-room full of emotion as they put their 48-20 Week 13 loss to the Eagles behind them by going on a 80-yard nine play touchdown drive culminated by Fitzgerald bullying his way into the endzone.  From there it was all Cardinals in the first half as they built a 24-6 halftime lead mostly on Warner finding Fitzgerald over and over (finished with 6 receptions for an NFL record 113 first-half yards and 3 TDs) as the Eagles either had to punt or settled for field goal attempts (the Eagles were inside the Cardinals’ 30-yard line three times in the first half and came away with only six points).  The Cardinals even brought out a beautifully crafted flea-flicker 62-yard touchdown pass from Warner to RB J.J Arrington back to Warner then down the field to Fitzgerald.  However the 3rd quarter it was all Eagles as the Cardinals got a good look at why Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is one of the NFL’s best.  McNabb led the offense in scoring 19 unanswered points to erase an 18-point Cardinals lead.  McNabb threw touchdown passes to TE Brent Celek of 31 yards and 6 yards.  But his finest throw was a 62-yard bomb that rookie DeSean Jackson juggled then took to the house giving the Eagles an improbable 25-24 lead.    While the Eagles were scoring in bunches in the 3rd quarter the Cardinals were limited to two three-and-out possessions.  However veteran quarterback Warner and the Cardinals had one more drive left in them.  The former two-time NFL MVP led the Cardinals on a chain-moving 72-yard, 14 play drive that took 7:52 minutes off the clock and culminated with a perfectly executed Warner 8-yard screen pass to rookie RB Tim Hightower.  The rookie from the University of Richmond also had a key play earlier in the drive converting a 4th and 1 play with a tough 2-yard outside run.  For good measure Warner also completed a two-point conversion to backup TE Ben Patrick to make the score 32-25.  Given one more chance, the McNabb and the Eagles moved the ball to the Cardinals 47-yard line.  But on the game’s defining four downs for the Eagles, McNabb could not connect on last four throws (Basket (receiver slipped), Jackson (overthrow), Basket (threw behind receiver), and Curtis (slipped/tripped and dropped pass).  The Eagles defense stopped the Cardinals leading to a poorly executed hook-and-lateral that was intercepted by the Cardinals to end the game.  The Eagles duo of McNabb and head coach Andy Reid are now a disappointing 1-4 in NFC Championship Games leaving many to wonder if this veteran Birds team will get another precious shot in the near future or has their window of opportunity closed. The Cardinals now become the final NFC team to make the Super Bowl in the history of the Big Game and they are the second 9-win regular season team to make the Super Bowl (other team was the 1979 Rams).

Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Baltimore Ravens 14

If you liked a hard-hitting defensive football in bad weather conditions then this was your type of game.  The Steelers, in their NFL leading 14th AFC Championship Game, early on were content to play solid defense and allow their offense to secure three points (two Josh Reed 2 FG’s).  But a 65-yard Roethlisberger to receiver Santonio Holmes touchdown pass broke the game open putting the Steelers ahead 13-0 and sending their home Terrible Towel waving fans into a frenzy.  However the Ravens kept hanging around at the end of the first half as running back Willis McGahee pounded his way to his first touchdown making the score 13-7 at the half.  Even though the Steelers were nursing a 16-7 lead going into the fourth quarter, you never sensed that the veteran team would panic.  The Steelers were never afraid that Ravens rookie quarterback  Joe Flacco (Lloyd’s Lackey) could beat them even when another McGahee touchdown cut the Steelers lead to 16-14.  All of everyone’s apprehensions about Flacco’s ability to lead the Ravens to the Super Bowl were confirmed with less than five minutes left in the game.  The Steelers pass rush caused Flacco into an overthrow that safety Troy Polamalu picked off and zigzagged his way 40 yards into the endzone for the game-sealing score for the Steelers.  The game was not without injuries as this was probably the hardest hitting game, I have seen in some time as Steelers WR Hines Ward tweaked his knee missing the 2nd half, Ravens CB Frank Walker left in the 2nd quarter causing him to not return, and in the game’s scariest moment Pittsburgh S Ryan Clark drilled McGahee causing the former Miami Hurricane to be taken off on a stretcher (later had movement in his extremities). The Steelers are the 12th team since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger to defeat an opponent three times in the same season. And the Black-and-Gold will make their seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most all-time behind the Cowboys’ eight. Kudos should go out to Steelers 36-year old head coach Mike Tomlin, who validated Steelers owner Dan Rooney’s belief in him when the savvy owner handpicked the relatively unknown defensive coordinator as his headman.  Now Tomlin will be able to face the two men, Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm, who thought they had a leg-up on the competition to replace Bill Cowher back in 2007.

 Game Balls

Arizona Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald – The NFL’s best receiver was on display again as Fitzgerald was spectacular against the Eagles.  First he set an NFL record with 113 first-half yards on six catches including 3 TDs.  Then he helped close the game out with two big receptions on the Cardinals game-winning drive.  The former University of Pittsburgh All-American finished with nine receptions for 152 yards and 3 TDs. The Pro Bowl bound receiver also set a single playoff record with 419 receiving yards, surpassing the great Jerry Rice and did I mention that Fitzgerald has one more game left in Super Bowl XLIII.

Honorable Mention

Philadelphia Eagles QB Donovan McNabb –– I don’t care what the McNabb bashers will say (missed some early throws, an interception, fumbled by getting sacked by Adrian Wilson and could not lead the Birds back in the 4th quarter), this man had a great game in the NFC Championship.  McNabb led his team back from an 18-point deficit to take the lead when it mattered and lets face it the defense let him down.  He set a career-high with 375 passing yards and was an incredible in the second-half completing 17 of 28 passes for 266-yards and 3 TDs. His final numbers were 28-47, 375 yards, 3 TDs, and 31 rushing, but I guess that will not be enough for the “Haters” who want the Kevin Kolb era to begin.  To everyone yearning for another quarterback than McNabb, you better take a good look around the NFL because there are not many quarterbacks better than Big 5.  Just image what McNabb could do with some real weapons — Did you see Greg Lewis drop that potential bomb??

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu — Finished with four tackles and led a Pittsburgh defense that held Baltimore rookie QB Joe Flacco to 141 passing yards.  Put the Steelers win on ice sending them to their 7th Super Bowl with his 40-yard interception touchdown return.

Other Honorees: Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed (Drilled 3 FG’s in tough conditions and finished with 11 points); Arizona Cardinals QB Kurt Warner (In going to his 3rd Super Bowl he was spectacular throwing for numbers 21-28, 279 yds, and 4 TDs); Philadelphia Eagles TE Brent Celek (In a game where franchise TE LJ Smith struggled, Celek had a career-high 10 catches, gaining 83 yards and two touchdowns); Pittsburgh Steelers LB Lamar Woodley (The Steelers “D” was stifling against the Ravens and Woodley was everywhere producing 7 TKLs, and 2 sacks);  Arizona Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson (The perennial Pro Bowl safety was spectacular finishing with 7 TKLs, 2 sacks, and 1 forced fumble); Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley (Kept the Eagles Defense off-balance the whole game mixing the run and pass well and how about the 14-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that was a game closer)

Lloyd’s Lackey

Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco – In the biggest game of his career, “The rookie quarterback, played like a rookie quarterback”.  Flacco entered the game with no interceptions or sacks in 45 postseason pass attempts, but he threw three interceptions and was sacked three times by the Steelers.  Finished with terrible numbers 13-30, 141 yards, 0 TDs, and 3 INTs

Other DishonoreesEagles safety Quintin Demps (The rookie safety, was beaten for a 62-yard touchdown by Larry Fitzgerald and he also cost the Eagles 15 yards on a dumb late hit on Kurt Warner); Eagles kicker David Akers (“Just a Kicker Being a Kicker”… lost his consecutive field goal streak on a missed 47-yarder, missed a point-after and sent a kickoff out of bounds right before halftime); Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and the Eagles Defense (Too many blitzes with little results and overall the defense got pushed around…so much for this unit being better than Reggie White’s group.  Gave up 24 first-half points and couldn’t prevent a game-winning 14-play scoring drive at the end.  BTW: Why was two-time Pro Bowl player Lito Sheppard barely on the field); Eagles TE LJ Smith (The franchise-tagged tight end produced 1 catch for 5 yards as backup Brent Celek had a great game);  Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin (Played with a hamstring injury producing four catches for 34 yards, but his sulking and arguments with Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley on the sidelines were bush-league.  Yo Q… your team is going to the Super Bowl, so put a smile on your face and grab a NFC Championship t-shirt and hat).

 

 

Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)