Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Saucer Pass -- Del Zotto With a Seeing-Eye Wrister

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck. Here is the NHL Goal of the Night for Thursday Dec. 30.

A huge win for the Rangers last night, as they blasted the Panthers on the road, 4-1. The Saucer Pass has chosen the Rangers' third goal of the night, a top-shelf wrister by Michael Del Zotto, not necessarily because it was the prettiest goal, or the most highlight-worthy. We chose the goal because it embodies who the Rangers are as a team.

Check out the relentless five-on-five forecheck from the Blueshirts, in a game that they already led by two goals, on the road no less. Great work by Brad Richards (with some mucking and a beautiful cross-ice feed for the primary assist) and Carl Hagelin (more world-class mucking) to ensure that the Rangers maintained possession of the puck, and of course, awesome job by Del Zotto for finding the net with a gorgeous shot from the sideboards.

The win leaves the Rangers sitting all by themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference, and they are just two points from the overall NHL lead.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Saucer Pass: Stamkos' Sick Deflection Vs. Montreal

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck. Here is the NHL Goal of the Night for Thursday Dec. 29.

Wow. So this is what ridiculously gifted goal scorers do in the NHL. What a beautiful deflection for the NHL's goal scoring leader, Steven Stamkos. With his 23rd goal in 36 games, the Ontario native and former 1st overall pick in the 2008 draft is on pace to score a career-best 52 goals.

With the win, the Lightning crawled into a tie with the Habs for 12th place in the Eastern Conference.

Ah, but let's get back to the deflection. This looks like something out of a video game. The play looks dead before Pavel Kubina whirls around at the blue line and tees off on a blind slapper that is headed about ten feet wide of the net. Then the ever alert Stamkos, with the blade of his stick on the ice, aptly directs the puck into the open side of the net as Canadiens netminder Carey Price stares on in disbelief.

As good as Pavel Datsyuk's redirection goal was against St. Louis earlier in the week, Stamkos's was even better. There are four replays to choose from, but any angle you look at this from, it was sick with a capital S. The puck shot out of the net almost as fast as it went in.

The Saucer Pass -- NHL Hit of the Night: Seabrook Goes Kamikaze on Williams

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck. Here is the NHL Hit of the Night for Wednesday, Dec 28th.

A huge road win for the L.A. Kings last night in Chicago has allowed them to slip past the Coyotes and into third place in the Pacific Division. I suspect that we will hear a lot more from the Kings this season; they've yet to lose a game in regulation since Darryl Sutter took over behind the bench on Dec. 20.

That's all well and good but I only have one question. How is this "hit" by Blackhawks' defenseman Brent Seabrook not a penalty? Sure, it makes for a great highlight, but this is a trip, plain and simple. Seabrook makes his move towards Kings' RW Justin Williams, but when he realizes he doesn't have him lined up, he drops to the ice and takes his legs out with a world-class slide tackle. Whether or not he intended to do it, you can't take out another players legs in any way shape or form in the NHL. I don't know how this doesn't get called.

I do know how it made The Saucer Pass's Hit of the Night: It was awesome.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Saucer Pass -- Goal of the Night: Pavel Datsyuk's Gorgeous Deflection Ignites Wings Comeback

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child Talks Puck. Here is the NHL Goal of the Night for Tuesday, Dec. 27.

There were a lot of highlight-worthy tallies to choose from tonight, including a sweet tic-tac-toe power play goal By Steven Stamkos and a seeing-eye wrister from Vincent Lecavalier in a huge win for Tampa at home over the Flyers, as well as a gorgeous shootout goal by Jarome Iginla that clinched the surging Flames victory over the Bluejackets, but this wicked deflection by Pavel Datsyuk takes the cake.

It all looks so innocent when you watch the replay, until the Versus crew is kind enough to slow it down. Then you can get a view of just how perfect the tip is. Even in super slo-mo, it is hard to track the flight of the puck after Datsyuk alters its course -- imagine if you are Blues Goalie Brian Elliot (not only do you have no chance, you don't even know that you didn't have a chance until you hear a packed Joe Louis Arena crowd screaming).

Datsyuk's 12th goal of the year tied the game, and the Red Wings went on to win after Niklas Kronwall scored 56 seconds later.

The Wings have won eleven consecutive games at home, and they leapfrogged the Blues for 2nd place in the Central Division.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Xmas Gang Tackle: Putting Stafford's Season In Perspective

"It's the kind of stuff that endears you to a city," said Lions play-by-play man Dan Miller in the above Sound FX video from November, 2009, which features Matthew Stafford leading Detroit to a rare win in his rookie season (only the Lions' second in twenty-seven games at the time) just moments after separating his shoulder and telling team doctors to "get the **** off" him.

It wasn't clear what kind of player Stafford would turn out to be after that display of courage, but it was clear that the man had moxie.

More than two years later, Stafford has led the Lions to the playoffs for the first time this century, and he's also broken franchise records for TD passes, completions and Passing Yards, and led the perennially-inept Lions to a franchise record for touchdowns in a single season.

Stafford himself said it best in the waning moments of that telling game against the Browns, "I can throw the ball if you need me to throw the ball." There is no denying that fact now, and more importantly, after a season that has not been without trials and tribulations, Stafford has proven that not only can he throw the ball, he can also lead the team to improbable and inspirational victories, even when they seem to be on the verge of reverting to "same old Lions" mode.

When you take Stafford's accomplishments this season into context, the results are even more impressive. It takes more than a golden arm and a few good playmakers to change a culture. It takes leadership, belief, positivity, adaptability, and courage -- all traits that are emerging in Stafford as this season progresses.

Stafford has led the Lions to four comebacks in games in which they've trailed by 13 points or more, and this season the Lions became the only team in NFL history to overcome deficits of 20-plus points in consecutive games.

Now, after a Turbulent season that featured a fractured finger and three interception-filled games by a gloved Stafford, the Lions are playoff bound. It wasn't always pretty for Stafford, who threw 9 interceptions over 10 quarters while the Lions chances looked to be dwindling, but there was no quitting, no blaming the poor play on the finger, and most importantly, there was the three-game winning streak that has the Lions sitting at 10-5 with one game left to go.

The fact that Stafford played his best first quarter of 2011 in the season's biggest game on Christmas Eve is perhaps the best sign of all for the still-maturing signal caller. Stafford has proven that he can lead his team back from huge deficits all year long, but on Saturday, he proved that he's not foolish enough to rely on that late game magic. Stafford has been a slow starter all season, but not against the Chargers. He was clinical, focused, intense. The effort was reminiscent of Brady and Brees, of Manning and Rodgers, as was the 24-0 halftime lead.

During the 38-10 win over San Diego, Stafford smashed a few more Lions' records before the final buzzer. Going 29-36 with 373 yards, he broke the Lions' record for single game completion percentage for a passer with at least 25 attempts, and his quarterback rating (137.6) was the highest for a Lions' QB with at least 35 passing attempts.

The Lions have won in a variety of ways this season, from a smothering front four to a big play secondary to Megatron's highlight reel freakishness. But Stafford is the straw that stirs the drink in Detroit. In the end, in a quarterback-driven league, the Lions will only go as far as Stafford can take them.

For a franchise that has spent so much time as the league's doormat, the playoffs are a nice step. If Stafford continues to lead this team with the swagger that he has shown in 2011, it won't be the last.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Saucer Pass -- Pouliot Undresses Kulikov During Bruins Rout of Panthers


The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck. Here is the NHL goal of the night for 12/23/11...

The Bruins showed no mercy on the Panthers tonight, but way back in the first period, before Boston's 8-0 drubbing of Florida was an outright slaughter, Benoit Pouliot sent shivers of awe through the crowd with this dipsy-doodle goal.

Pouliot's work of art, his 7th of the season, was pure genius. If it was oil on canvas it'd surely be hanging in a gallery.

How does Pouliot keep his balance when he is all spread out like he's playing Twister, and how does he manage to recover the puck after he has put it through his legs, when he's practically falling?

The 6'3" Pouliot spent time in coach Claude Julien's doghouse early in the season, so he's happy to be out and even happier to be contributing.

"It was tough, I'm not going to lie," Pouliot said in this NESN article. "You don't want to sit games out. Everyone kept talking to me, telling me, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to get back in there.' It's an opportunity for me not to mess it up, just get back, stay in and be a consistent guy on the team. I think right now things are going pretty well."

Julien may be hard on Pouliot, but his teammates are amazed.
"Yeah, Poo, he's sick," Bruins forward Brad Marchand told NESN. "That was an unbelievable play there. I think a lot of people had written him off there and said he had no chance but he's got a lot of skill that maybe he's underestimated for and he breaks it out and that was a beautiful goal."

The Saucer Pass: Stralman's Hip Check Smears Read Into Boards

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck.

Oh, sweet Jesus, this was definitely the hit of the night. Are you kidding me? Check out Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman taking charge along the boards when a helpless Matt Read of the Flyers tries to rush the puck past him in the neutral zone. WHAM!

If that isn't the perfect hip check, I don't know what is.

Stralman, who was cut by the Devils in the pre-season and signed with the Rangers in early November, is clearly hungry to make an impact. He did so with a bang in the first period last night. For that he gets our vote for hit of the night.

The Swede's bone-crusher was the perfect tonic to tilt an already raucous New York crowd into a frenzy. Eventually, the Rangers would go on to win 4-2.

With the effort the Rangers leapfrogged the Flyers for first place in the NHL's Atlantic division.

"Ask me in April, when it matters," said even keel Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers goalie, who ranks 4th in the NHL in save percentage, got his 14th win of the year.

The two teams will meet again on January 2nd in the the 2012 NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Saucer Pass: Goal of the Night -- Eberle Nets his 15th vs. Wild

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck.

The Oilers, badly in need of wins, turned to 21-year-old Jordan Eberle tonight at Rexall Place with the Wild in town. Eberle notched two goals, pushing his 2011-12 total to fifteen, which is just shy of his rookie total of eighteen.

Watch the highlight of Eberle's second goal of the night to see why he's so highly regarded as a scorer in this league. Watch how Eberle keeps his head on a swivel, makes a quick turn after defenseman Corey Potter lets the shot go, scoops up the puck, then makes a quick deke before burying the backhand.

Eberle did what good scorers have been doing for over a 100 years in the NHL: He made it look easy. He was sneaky in traffic, going unnoticed, then when he had the puck on his stick, he was ruthlessly efficient with it.

He was the No. 1 star of the game in the Oilers 4-1 win.

The Saucer Pass: Hit of the Night: Paul Gaustad Crushes John-Michael Liles

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child Talks Puck.

A pretty spirited affair between the Leafs and the Sabres in Toronto tonight, with the Leafs getting a late tally from heralded youngster Nazem Kadri in the final stanza to secure a 3-2 win which moves them into sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

The game-winner was Kadri's first goal in four games this season. Kadri was the Leafs first-round pick in 2010.

Phil Kessel scored his 20th goal during the game, a beautiful tap in off a cross ice feed that put Toronto up 2-1 in the 2nd period.

All that is well and good, but check out the ferocious hit by 6'5" 212-lb Buffalo center Paul Gaustad on Leafs defenseman John-Michael Liles. You don't see a guy get pummelled like this while winding up to take a slapshot very often in the NHL, which is why we're calling it the Bone-Crusher of the night.

It's pretty clear from the play that Liles wasn't seeing the ice very well on the play. He was probably seeing stars after the play, but warrior that Liles is he finished his 21 shifts without incident, helping his team to a much-needed win.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Saucer Pass: Goal of the Night -- Hansen Gets Attacked After Garbage Goal

The Saucer Pass is where The Fan Child talks puck.

Goalies get no respect, and that was made painfully clear to Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres when Milan Lucic got away with running Miller in November. At the time it seemed a no-brainer that Lucic would be suspended by NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan, but Lucic was pardoned due to his lack of intent to injure. To summarize: The NHL thinks that running goalies (those are the guys that stare down 100-plus MPH slapshots with 30 pounds of gear on them) is acceptable, even though they have virtually no mobility to avoid such hits. Even if they get a concussion and they are the best player on their team, the NHL doesn't give a hoot.

Tonight's goal of the night, another wildly entertaining play, also pays little heed to the welfare of the goalies. The scoresheet will show that Canucks' D-man Alex Edler netted his 6th goal of the season, but the replay shows what should clearly have been called goaltender interference by Jannik Hansen, who blatantly crashed into the Redwings' goalie Jimmy Howard after barely getting nudged by Henrik Zetterberg.

How is this a goal? Hansen was clearly on course to ram Howard, whether he was nudged by the defense or not. What was he going to do, jump over the net? How is this not a penalty? What kind of world are we living in?

I just don't get it. The sport I used to know made players earn their goals. Nowadays every Tom, Dick or Harry can just fly full speed into the goalie and hope for the best. It's ludicrous.

That said it makes for a great highlight, and I love Howard's reaction. I wish the linesman would have let him go for it because if Jannik Hansen can get credited for an assist for that junk, the least he could have done is let Howard punch him in the nose.

Editor's Note: There are conflicting views on this goal. Who's side are you on?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Saucer Pass: Goal of the Day

The Saucer Pass is where the Fan Child Talks Puck. Today we look at the goal of the night in the NHL.

The Penguins ended the Blackhawks five game winning streak tonight in Pittsburgh, but they couldn't keep Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg from playing some beautiful tic-tac-toe in the third period. Hossa to Kane to Hossa to Stalberg is one of the prettiest goals you're ever going to see. And if you didn't catch the crisp passing, I encourage you to watch this video over and over for clarity. It is pure passing genius.

The goal, however, was not enough to stop the Penguins, who were led by three assists from Evgeni Malkin. The red-hot Malkin now has six goals and nine assists in the six games since Sidney Crosby went out with Concussion-like symptoms for the second time this season.

Pittsburgh is 6-0-3 vs. Chicago at home since Feb 22nd, 1997, when the Blackhawks last won in regulation there.

The Tuesday Gang Tackle: 49ers Defense is The NFL's Best

The 49ers are putting the "stick" in Candlestick. They are also giving new meaning to the overused term "motor." Some teams have players with high motors, but the 49ers are a defense that has a collective motor that revs higher and runs nastier than any other.

Now, at 11-3, the 49ers are in the driver's seat for clinching the No. 2 seed in the NFC, and they are doing it with an offense that is near the bottom in red zone offense and a quarterback who has yet to throw for over 300 yards in a single game this year.

How have they done it? If you watched last night's rout of the Pittsburgh Steelers you already know. It's just one word and it starts with a capital "D." Oh, and to coin another phrase, it hurts so good.

The 49ers defense is a daunting amalgamation of speed, intensity, athleticism, and pugilism. From their nearly impenetrable front seven, which has now gone an NFL-record 14 consecutive games without allowing a rushing touchdown (the all-time NFL record for fewest in a season is 4), to their punishing secondary which makes receivers think long and hard before they run crossing routes, the 'niners are dominating, with another capital "D."

Even without their pro-bowl linebacker Patrick Willis last night, San Francisco's defense was invincible. Why? Because defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme is built to succeed, and all the defensive personnel that wear the red and gold are coached to excel within that system. Plug in a third-year linebacker named Larry Grant in Willis' place and he looks like a pro-bowler himself. Turn a lanky rookie loose as an outside pass rusher (Aldon Smith) and he breaks the franchise record for rookie sacks. Give credit to Grant and Smith for stepping in and taking advantage of opportunities, but don't forget: Fangio's system is so effective, and the 49ers are so well-coached that the loss of a superstar like Willis won't deflate them.

And the stats don't lie: San Francisco has given up a stingy NFL-best 13.2 points per game, which is more than two points better than the next-best team. Even among elite defenses, the numbers point to San Francisco being the elite of the elite. The 49ers lead the NFL with 35 takeaways, and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 36 games. And to make matters worse for opponents, the 49ers offense and special teams is geared to letting the defense be the focal point of the team. Last night, thanks to ball control offense, zero turnovers, and the almost superhuman punting of Andy Lee (No. 1 net yardage in the NFL and 26 punts inside the opponents 20), the 49ers forced Pittsburgh to start 5 drives inside their own 14 yard line.

It's the perfect recipe for the perfect storm, and the 49ers, well-coached, highly athletic, and edgy, are the perfect unit to take advantage.

This team is a stark contradiction to the 49ers dynasty that Bill Walsh, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice spearheaded, but to 49er faithful, winning with defense is just as sweet as winning with offense.

More than anything else, it's the scoreboard that matters, and the 49ers defense tilts the score in their favor each and every week.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sunday Morning Long Snap: Week 15, Tebow Visited by Jesus

Just about set for the week 15 Sunday battles to begin, so here's a quick Long Snap post to keep you abreast of the haps around the NFL. I'll post some links at the bottom of the page, but before we get to that, I wanted to talk about a conversation I had with a few NFL-loving friends last night over dinner: Can anybody beat the Packers, and, if so, who? I have gone full circle since writing earlier in the season that the Packers porous defense would be their downfall, and now I believe that they are going to become the NFL's first 19-0 team.

That said, there are no locks in life. Even though I no longer believe the Packers will lose, it's still fun to speculate. One buddy said the 49ers were a team that was capable. I've heard others speculate that the 49ers had the right makeup to stop the Rodgers juggernaut. I argued that even if they do, that they need to win against Pittsburgh to maintain home field advantage or they will likely not even make it to the NFC Championship.

Besides, San Francisco ranks at the bottom in red zone offense (they are pitiful), and even if their defense plays a near-perfect game, are four Fred Akers field goals really going to be good enough to outscore the Pack? I think not.

I think Baltimore, and Pittsburgh, if they happened to make it to the Superbowl, would suffer similar fates. No matter how good their defense plays, the glaring weakness of their respective offenses would put their backs against the wall, especially in a dome in Indy.

My best guess at who could really challenge the Packers in the playoffs (I see zero chance of them losing to the Chiefs on the road, or the Bears or Lions at home) is either Dallas or Atlanta. I like Dallas a lot on paper, and if they had one of those games where they didn't make any bonehead mistakes or choke miserably (a big ask, I know), I think they could handle the Pack. Atlanta is another team who is playing its best football and peaking at the right time. They have a great ground game, a well-balanced attack, and a quarterback with the ability to throw the deep ball and run a two-minute drill.

Other than that, I'm out of ideas. I think it's the Packers table to run, and they should run right through KC today.

Here are some must-reads from around the league today:

  • As if things weren't bad enough for the Bears, Sam Hurd got busted for dealing pot and cocaine and was wearing an orange jumpsuit earlier in the week.
  • We knew it was just a matter of time: Tim Tebow and the Broncos were visited by Jesus this week. As Jesus said: "I just go where I'm called the most."

Enjoy the games!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Friday Double Pump: How Should the Packers Play This?

William Faulkner once wrote: "All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible." Though Faulkner undoubtedly had no interest in the NFL, the esteemed author's words properly describe the challenge of going undefeated over the course of a full season. Aside from the 1972 Miami Dolphins, splendid failure has pretty much been the norm for even the greatest teams of the Superbowl Era. In short, the harder they've tried, the harder they've fallen.

The NFL's most heartbreaking version of a splendid failure would be the New England Patriots, who fell just three points short of the impossible dream in 2007. And, of course, the NFL's version of an old fashioned failure (without anything splendid whatsoever to define it) would be the Indianapolis Colts' much maligned decision to rest their starters with a 14-0 record in 2009. They lost their 15th game of the season, and what did it get them? A loss in the Superbowl to the Saints.

Good for them.

Now that the Green Bay Packers (currently 13-0 and looking invincible) are perched on the precipice of oh-so-splendid, there is debate about which path they should take over the NFL's final three weeks. Should they go for it? Or should they rest their star players to avoid possible injury?

When you think about it, there really is no option, unless Green Bay wants to go the cowardly route of the '09 Colts. But the Packers are not the Colts. They are the Packers, who play amongst the ghost of Vince Lombardi, on the frozen tundra of Green Bay. The Packers are old-school, unsissified and virile. They are the Packers who believe in the mantra: Winning isn't everything -- it's the ONLY THING! And, because they are the Packers, only one thing will happen in the final three weeks of the NFL season: They will strap themselves in for a wild ride, and proceed to play with the same reckless abandon that made them an undefeated juggernaut in the first place.

So forget the debate, this is a no-brainer.

If the Packers are who we think they are, they'll go full speed ahead this week in Kansas City (no doubt crushing the feckless Chiefs in the process), then return home for week 16 secure in the knowledge that they are just four home wins away from playing a Super Bowl for all the marbles. And by all the marbles I truly mean ALL THE MARBLES. I'm talking bronze statues, ceaseless endorsements and praise, and gold-plated membership cards with the word "perfection" embossed across the front.

(And let's not forget the asterisk that will forever haunt Don Shula's gang: *16-game season.)

If the Packers are who we think they are they'll tempt fate. They'll let Aaron Rogers continue to drop back and shred opposing secondaries (and yes, take the occasional hit), and roll on towards football's holy grail.

Fear is the only thing that can stop the Packers now. They are clearly the best team, and if they spend these next few weeks trying to figure out ways to be even better rather than figuring out ways to not get injured, their chances for perfection will be that much better off.

The Packers have the talent and they have the momentum. The only thing that remains to be seen is if they have the nerve.

If Clay Matthews words are any indication, the Packers have the nerve too -- at least for now.

"Players want to play, and we're all competitors here,'' Matthews said this week. "We play each and every Sunday to win ballgames. Obviously we've got to be smart, but we like winning. I like winning. I think we're going to try to win some ballgames around here."

That, football fans, should be music to your ears. Apparently, the Packers are willing to die trying.

Even if they die, they will have won our undying respect for doing so.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Flyer's D-Man Timonen Taken Out By Referee

This could be something for the NHL's discipline Czar Brendan Shanahan to take a close look at. Check the video above to see referee Stephen Walkom laying a doozy of a hit on Flyer's D-man Kimmo Timonen during the Flyers 5-1 victory over the Capitals at The Verizon Center last night. The commentators called it a clean hit, but judging from the way that Walkom left his feet to make contact with Timonen, I'm thinking that a suspension could be coming.

Strangely, no penalty was called on the play. How did the other referee, Brian Pochmara, miss that one?

Seriously, this could be one of the top hits of the week here. If the NHL is looking to make their product more TV-friendly now that the NBA is coming back into play, I think letting referees lay random hits on players could be a step in the right direction.

Now, if they could only get the linesmen to throw a few punches instead of breaking up fights...

The Tuesday Gang Tackle: Why Did The Bears Tebow Themselves?

The Tuesday Gang Tackle is lamenting Marion Barber's decision-making, among other things today.

If you are a Bears' fan, here is your worst nightmare, on a platter. Even if you watch the above YouTube video and scream nooooooooo!!!! until you pass out, I don't think you'll feel better. If you are Marion Barber, you can just be thankful that you have a very forgiving coach. Here is what Bears head coach Lovie Smith had to say about Barber's double-whammy (running out of bounds in regulation, and fumbling in field-goal range in OT) on sunday:

"Things like that do happen...he was trying to stay in bounds, he should have stayed in bounds...He's a veteran. He's a football player. That's how it goes when you play ball. I mean, there are going to be some days like this when you just have a terrible feeling deep down inside."

On the NFL Network, newly-appointed talking head Dennis Green thought that QB Caleb Hanie and the Bears inexperience played a factor in Barber's bonehead play.

"I think Marion made a mistake, now it could be as simplistic as run an outside play, and unfortunately a player runs out of bounds. I think you have to run inside there. You have to remind each other: You know, 'Hey man, let's stay in bounds -- everybody.' Quarterback reminds them. 'Hey we're gonna use as much time on the clock as we can.' Now part of it? Somewhat of an inexperienced team, maybe the chatter wasn't there."

Clearly the chatter wasn't there, and clearly, Barber's head wasn't there either. Would things have gone differently with Jay Cutler under center? It's not worth it to go there. Should Barber have even been in the game in OT, given his lack of focus late in the fourth quarter? Another tough question. One thing's for certain: It makes Matt Forte, the Bears offensive MVP, who may be lost for the season due to a knee injury, look even more valuable.

There are a few other things that we can take away from this game:

1. Prevent is a bad idea against Tebow: Look, prevent is a bad idea against anybody. End of story. Defensive coordinators need to dial up some courage and ramp up the pressure against Tebow when the game is on the line. Chicago was up 10 points with 4:34 remaining in this game, they've got one of the best defenses in the league, and what do they do? They play a passive milquetoast form of prevent that ultimately turns a laugher into the nailbiter that ensued.

In a one-score game I can see the fear of the big play, but in a two-score game why not stay aggressive and take your chances with what has been working all game? Note to NFL defensive coordinators: NO MORE PREVENT, unless you are winning by more than two touchdowns with less than four minutes left in the game.

2. Tebow didn't win this game, the Bears lost it. Chicago lost focus, didn't protect the ball when it mattered most, and dummed-down their defense when they should have been going for the kill. Shame on them.

3. Tebow didn't win this game, Matt Prater did. X-large props to Matt Prater, the true hero of this game, who kicked two 50-plus yard field goals in pressure situations to win it for the Broncos. He became only the second player in history to tie a game with a 50-plus yard field goal (59 in this case), then win the game in overtime with another one (51). Prater is 12-16 in his career from 50-plus, and Tebow's mystique wouldn't be the same without him.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Sunday Morning Long Snap

Let's take a peek around the NFL wires, just a few hours before the early Sunday games get underway, then I'll get into making some picks.

Week 14 Picks:

Jets 22, Chiefs 11: The Jets are good down the stretch and the Chiefs have scored two touchdowns since October. Need I say more?
Bucs 19 Jags 17: Two teams that are going really badly right now. Who cares.
Pats 38, Skins 14: The Redskins will be outclassed, particularly at QB.
Falcons 28, Panthers 21: Can the Panthers pull the upset at home? Cam will get them close, but I think Atlanta is starting to peak as a team and will get it done in quarter 4.
Ravens 20, Colts 6: The colts aren't just sucking for Luck. They truly suck.
Eagles 23, Dolphins 17: A very intriguing battle sans playoff implications. Will Michael Vick's return spark a late attempt for the Eagles to save face and Andy Reid's Job? I think so.
Detroit 31, Minnesota 17: Without Ponder and AP, the Vikes are severe underdogs vs. the Lions. My, how things have changed in the NFC North.
Titans 26, Saints 24: Upset special, as the Titans ride CJ2K to 38 minutes possession and a hard-fought win.
Bengals 21, Texans 16: Andy Dalton is better than you think. T.J. Yates is as good as you think. It bodes well for Cincy.
Broncos 17, Bears 14: Who would have predicted that Tim Tebow vs. Caleb Hanie would be the highly anticipated matchup of week 14?
49ers 20, Cardinals 19: The 49ers will be without Patrick Willis, and they need to get their red zone issues straightened out. My guess is that they will win, but not convincingly.
Chargers 31, Bills 18: I think the Chargers will put up a good performance to honor Norv Turner, who will surely be fired after the year.
Packers 31, Raiders 20: The Raiders are desperate to win, but who isn't this time of year?
Giants 27 Cowboys 21: This oughtta be fun. And crazy. And chaotic.
Seahawks 23, Rams 15: Seattle is a solid team, maybe better than their 5-7 record indicates. The Rams, meanwhile, are atrocious. You do the math.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The No-Huddle: NFC Playoff Picture

Let's have a look at the NFC playoff picture as it stands right now, with four weeks left to play in the season. Things look crystal clear at the top, with Green Bay galloping in front of the pack, and the 49ers holding a cozy one-game margin over the Saints that is essentially a two-game margin because they hold all the tiebreakers.

At the lower rung, the Giants basically need to sweep their two-game series with Dallas to win the NFC East, and if they don't they will need serious help to even gain a wildcard. Even further down the ladder, the ailing Bears need to find a way to win some games down the stretch, or they could be in danger of dropping to the last wildcard spot or even worse, out of the playoffs altogether.

Here's a team-by-team breakdown:

1. Packers, 12-0 final 4: Oakland, @Kansas City, Chicago Detroit.

Prognosis: Nothing to worry about except running the table and staying healthy and breaking records and staying warm during their three remaining home games.

2. 49ers, 10-2, final 4: @Arizona, Pittsburgh, @Seattle, @St. Louis.

Prognosis: The 49ers look solid for the 2 slot on the strength of their one-game lead over the Saints, which is bolstered by the fact that they have a two-game lead in conference games and a 1.5-game lead in common opponent games. That said, the 49ers do have the Steelers on the schedule, and if they slip and lose another game, the Saints could leapfrog them.

3. Saints, 9-3, final 4: @Tennessee, @Minnesota, Atlanta, Carolina

Prognosis: As mentioned, the Saints might need to win their final four to pass the 49ers. With a two-game lead over the 7-5 Saints in the NFC South, they look like a lock to win the division, even if they lose to Atlanta at home (keep in mind, Brees and Co. are 6-0 at home).

4. Dallas, 7-5, final 4: New York Giants, @Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, @New York Giants

Prognosis: It's been such a strange year for the Big D, but if they can manage a split with the Giants they should end up winnning the NFC East, even after all of Romo's late-game heroics/ choking and coach Jason Garrett's poor time management. If the Cowboys manage a split with NYG, Dallas' superior conference record (5-3 vs. 3-6) will more than likely be the difference maker. If they are swept by the Giants, they'll have a tough time getting in, given that they've lost a head-to-head game with the Lions, and they will be 9-7 at the very best.

5. Chicago, 7-5, final 4: @Denver, Seattle, @Green Bay, Minnesota

Prognosis: Suddenly the only sure thing on the Bears schedule down the stretch is their week 17 home game vs. the Vikings. Can Chicago, without Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, handle Denver on the road? I guess we'll find out, and the same goes for their chances against Seattle's opportunistic defense in week 15 at home.

This week's game in Denver is huge for Chicago. If they can't beat Denver, the Lions (a 7-5 team on the outside looking in at the moment) will still have a shot at winning an all-important tiebreaker with the Bears: best record against common opponents. Currently the Lions are 5-3 in such games, and Chicago is 6-3.

6. Atlanta, 7-5, final 4: @Carolina, Jacksonville, @New Orleans, Tampa Bay

Prognosis: I think it's safe to say, based on the way they've been playing of late, and their relatively easy schedule down the stretch, that the Falcons will get in as a wildcard. Can they win the division? Maybe, but they must beat the Saints in week 16 to do it, and get a little help. The Saints lost their head-to-head matchup with the Bears, but that might not end up mattering, as the Bears are currently a team in disarray and they should struggle to split their final four games.

Outside Looking in:

1. Detroit, 7-5, final 4: Minnesota, @Oakland, San Diego, @Green Bay

Prognosis: The Lions are close, but they are falling short against the other 7-5 teams in terms of tiebreakers. They lost to Atlanta, so they are essentially a game behind the Falcons, and even though they split with the Bears, their 5-5 conference record isn't helping them at all. The small window for the Lions would be if the Bears lost to Denver this week and Detroit beat both Oakland and San Diego. That would give Detroit a 7-3 record against opponents they have in common with the Bears, and the Bears would lose out to the Lions with a 6-4 record.

The other window for Detroit is to steal a win against Green Bay in the final game of the season. Division record is the first tiebreaker after head-to-head for the Lions and Bears, so if either team can manage a win over Green Bay, then the tiebreaker is probably theirs.

2. New York Giants, 6-6, final 4: @Dallas, Washington, @New York Jets, Dallas

Prognosis: The Giants are pretty much out of options here. Thanks to their brutal conference record, they need to sweep the Cowboys to get in. Well, there are a few other ways they can get a wildcard with a split, but it's not very likely.

3. The Best of the rest: Seattle(5-7), Arizona (5-7), Philadelphia(4-8)

Prognosis: Life Support. Need transplant!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Tuesday Chop Block: Cruz's Salsa, Mild or Spicy?

Where to start? Week 13 is in the books and the playoff picture is piecing together, albeit slowly.

The Rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in both conferences; that was the general and not so surprising trend throughout the NFL's first December weekend. If the season ended today, the Lions, Raiders, Jets, and Titans would all be out. Meanwhile, the dazed and confused Bears and slowly-sinking Bengals would barely make the dance.

In the NFC we saw the playoff picture for the Packers, 49ers, and Saints shift into focus during week 13. But at the bottom we witnessed the beginning of a feeding frenzy for the NFC East crown, and the last two wildcard slots.

The AFC is even less straightforward. The bubble is immensely crowded, with another feeding frenzy brewing at the bottom. Five teams are about to lock horns in a battle for the final two spots, and I'll look at all the possibilities in a separate post later in the week.

For now, let's drop all the scenarios and talk dancing. This is The Tuesday Chop Block after all...

On Saturday in The Gang Tackle, we wrote about Bob Costas' rant on the subject of NFL TD celebrations. How dare he attempt to slander this long and storied tradition of NFL touchdownery? We were remiss in that column when we failed to mention the player who deserves the NFL's award for TD Dancer of the Year. That's Victor Cruz in my book. Check the YouTube video at the top of the page if you can't quite place the name with the a face.

If you don't know Cruz yet, just think electrifying receiver or game-changer. Either would suffice, but both might be more accurate. In addition to talent, Cruz is lovable. He doesn't taunt or seek to bring others down. He just wants to let his family know he loves them each time he scores a touchdown, and what better way to do that than to shake the money maker?

I love Victor Cruz's TD Salsa, because it's got that South American thing. It's got class (something admittedly lacking in many NFL Touchdown dances) and it's got sizzle, and if sponsors aren't lining up at this kid's door right about now, I'll be damned.

Anyway, all this TD celebration talk got me wondering where this Victor Cruz kid came from... Is he a former ballroom dancer from Havana? Is he the next Ricky Martin? Who taught him that kick-ass touchdown dance, and is he ready to sign up for Dancing With the Stars?

I mean, after 13 weeks, 7 TD's (including some stunning highlight-reel-grade ESPY material) and 1,076 yards, shouldn't we know more about this undrafted 25-year-old game-changer?

Of course we should.

Deion Sanders said Cruz needs to do a better job with his hands on the NFL Network this week, but those hands haven't stopped Victor Cruz from amassing over 1,000 yards in his sophomore NFL season. And, in case you were wondering, Cruz isn't from San Jacinto or Havana. He's from Paterson, NJ. It's 21 minutes north and west of New York city.

Oh, and yes, you guessed it, Cruz loves to dance.

"Somebody brought it up to me that I should do some of that in the end zone," Cruz said of his dancing, in this piece by written by Adry Torres for Fox News Latino. "My grandmother, when I was growing up, you know how they would always put that music on during the weekends, she would grab me up and we would start dancing,"

So there is the personal twist to go hand-in-hand with his meteoric rise to the top of the Giants depth chart. Cruz loves to dance and he loves his family. Who doesn't want to get behind that?

***Obscure piece of info from the same Fox News Latino piece: Cruz is of Puerto Rican-American descent, and his mother's favorite singer is this suave-sounding dude.***

If not that, can you get behind this? Cruz is only 16 yards behind Calvin Johnson and Steve Smith for 1st in the NFC in receiving yards, and he's tied for the NFL lead with 6 receptions of 40 yards or more.

With three straight 100-yard games, Cruz appears headed for a nice finish. That's good news down the stretch for fans of the dance like me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Saturday Gang Tackle

The Saturday Gang Tackle is where the Fan Child waxes poetic about the NFL season. Today we will expand upon Bob Costas' Sunday Night Football halftime rant. The rant, which is really quite funny, lambasted endzone celebrations (see video at head of page) and wistfully wished for simpler times, when players like Barry Sanders handed the ball to the ref after touchdowns. In other words, back in the day when players let their football do the talking.

But I'm not so sure we want that anymore. I think that, in this ratings-mad society, we'd turn off the TV if the NFL's stars were a bunch of humble servants to lord pigskin.

I don't think that the celebrations need to be singled out here. The celebrations are fine; the problem is the penalties.

Let me put it this way: If you go out and get a stupid penalty that hurts your team, or you get arrested during the week for firing a gun in a nightclub and end up getting suspended, or if you fumble nine punt returns in a row, you are always going to draw the ire of your teammates, your fans, and the football-watching public.

The message? Don't do stupid stuff to hurt your team. I don't care if you dance, stick the ball inside your jersey so that you look like a pregnant woman, or praise Allah. I only care if you cost me yards on the field. So don't fumble the ball, don't get penalized, and don't get arrested either.

***End of rant.***

In case you haven't kept up with the narrative leading into week 13, here are some of the prevailing storylines:

1. Tebow: We are talking Tebow?? -- of course we are! What did you think we were doing? Read this Atlantic piece on him, if you'd like to read something a little off the beaten path. With Tebow facing the very beatable Vikes on Sunday, don't expect this Tebowmania stuff to die down any time soon.

2. Is Fairley ready for prime time? First-round draft pick Nick Fairley will have to step up in the absence of Ndamukong Suh when the Lions travel to New Orleans this week. Can he? Read this to know more.

3. Where's Kyle Orton? Are the Chiefs really going to let Tyler Palko take a crack at Soldier Field? Really? Are they looking for a higher draft pick? I thought the Suck for Luck thing was over. Here's another Palko post. (P.S. Palko's not that bad, but this is simply too big of a challenge for him at his current level of ripeness.)

4. Sad news for the Raiders: My take on Rolando McClain's arrest? Ideally, you don't put yourself in a position to get arrested if you really care about your team. You just don't. The situation is no longer ideal for the Raiders, but they have been resilient all year. This a team that dealt its future away for Carson Palmer, so they are pretty heavily invested in 2001. But the Raiders have a serious dilemma now. What are the odds of coach Hue Jackson suspending McClain? He is Oakland's defensive signal caller, a pretty important cog in the Raider machine. That said, the details of McClain's trip home to Alabama aren't pretty

5. Brees chasing Marino: On a lighter note, Drew Brees is tearing NFL secondaries to shreds, and with a banged-up Suh-less Lions team coming to New Orleans for Sunday Night Football, he should remain on pace to break Dan Marino's all-time yardage record. With Rodgers and Brady getting all the pub, Brees could end up having the best season at QB.

P.S. the best season is determined by the guy that wins the Super Bowl in my book.

6. More gun news: Getting back to guns (I know, it's sad), the story of Josh Freeman cutting his thumb firing a pistol during his bye week is another shining example of why guns are the NFL's worst enemy. Concussions are bad, but guns are SO UNECESSARY. Freeman hasn't missed any time because of the injury, so there's your happy ending.

7. NFL to make bank, and soon: For those of you that are interested in the business side of the NFL post-lockout, things are on the up and up. With three of the league's massive TV deals set to expire in 2013, the NFL is preparing to cash in. Rankings are good (Steelers-Chiefs beat out Dancing With the Stars last week), so why shouldn't they cash in? Let's just hope the players are poised to profit as well, since they are the dudes truly sticking their necks out on NFL gridirons.

See you next week!

Monday, November 28, 2011

The No-Huddle: The Sunday Report

Sunday had plenty of highlights -- and lowlights -- but Steve Johnson's TD celebration was in a class of it's own. Without any further ado, the No-Huddle will now sum up the madness that was week 12.

The Highlights:

1. Mr. Tom Brady -- Brady threw for 361 and three TD's in Philly yesterday as the Patriots abused the woeful Eagles. Brady's 133rd career win (playoff and reg. season) ties him with Joe Montana, his boyhood idol. Brady reached the total four years ahead of Montana, and doesn't appear to be anything close to done yet. Brady was actually outgunned by Vince Young, who threw for 400 against the Pats, but the Patriots moved to 8-3, solidifying their chances at winning the AFC East.

2. Patrick Peterson, the next Devin Hester? -- Arizona rookie and LSU alumni Patrick Peterson took his fourth punt return for a touchdown yesterday, becoming only the second player in NFL history to have that many returns for touchdowns in his first eleven games. And all four have been for 80 yards or more.

3. Tebowmania! -- Not only is Tim Tebow's refreshingly serious faith helping him become a better football player, it's also helping him make opposing kickers miss in overtime. Did Tebow really have the gall to pray for something so silly as a field-goal attempt? "I might have said that. Or maybe a block. Maybe all of it," said Tebow with a laugh. Whatever he prayed, it worked. And Tebow marched his team down for the winning field goal with under a minute to go in overtime. The 6-5 Broncos are 5-1 with Tebow at the helm, and will face the sputtering Vikes next week.

4. Seabass! -- SI's Peter King wrote a nice blurb about the 2000 NFL draft today in his Monday Morning Quarterback column. In it he talked about the second most successful player in that draft (behind the Pats stealing Tom Brady in the sixth round), Mr. Al Davis. Davis drafted both Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler in that draft. Davis was lambasted for taking a kicker in the first round, but Janikowski is having a Hall of Fame career, and Lechler is the leading punter in NFL history, so I guess he is too. That ridiculed draft payed big dividends for the Raiders yesterday, as Seabass nailed 6 FG's in 6 attempts, and Lechler drilled and 80-yard punt over the head of Devin Hester just when the Bears were threatening to come back and win.

5. CJ2K -- Was that former 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson galloping for 190 yards against the Bucs yesterday? It sure was, and that's the Tennessee Titans, still hanging around in the AFC playoff hunt after a much-needed win over Tampa.

The Lowlights:

1. Steve Johnson -- His post-TD celebration was tasteless (see video at top of page), and the 15-yard penalty he received for it was deserved. Now you can stick a fork in the Bills, who dropped to 5-6 after jumping out to a 3-0 start.

2. Chargers kicker, Nick Novak -- Not only was he spotted peeing on the sideline, he also missed a 53-yarder in OT that would have ended the Chargers losing streak at 5.

3. Suh-Spension? -- Lions' DT Ndamukong Suh finally admitted on Facebook last Friday that he had made a mistake. For Lions brass, who are no doubt getting tired of watching their star defensive player sabotage his own career, that is good news. Most believe that Suh will face a two-game suspension and be required to take an anger management course. As far as the Lions go, they are falling fast, and, for the first time all season, they are on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff hunt. With road games against the Saints, Raiders and Packers in three of the last five games, it's the wrong time for a team with a banged-up QB and a suspended DT to be facing such a daunting road schedule.

4. Hanie throws three picks -- The Bears might be in playoff trouble too, as their first-time starter Caleb Hanie looked pretty poor against a Raiders defense that isn't exactly stingy. The Bears schedule is nowhere near as bad as Detroit's, but if Mike Martz can't develop a gameplan that can hide his green QB (hint, give it to Forte), the Bears could be in for a disappointing December.

5. Houston has a huge problem -- After losing Matt Schaub for the season, it only took another game for the Texans to lose their new starter Matt Leinart to collarbone surgery. The Texans will be forced to rely even more heavily on their defense, with T.J. Yates ready to step in at QB. It will be very interesting to see what the Texans can do down the stretch. Up until now, this has been Houston's breakout season, but it will be tough for them to make an impact down the stretch, even if they are currently the top team in the conference.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quick Take: No Holiday For Lions

It was not a happy Thanksgiving for the Lions, as their playoff hopes took a big hit with their 27-15 loss to the undefeated Packers. There weren't a lot of people who expected Detroit to win today, but that's no consolation for a team who needs wins badly down the stretch, especially at home.

What's worse is that could have been a very winnable game if the offense would have contributed anything in the first half. Even a couple field goals might have done the trick the way the defense was playing. Sadly for Detroit, it wasn't in the cards, and to make matters worse, a Matt Stafford interception gave the reeling Packers offense a 13-yard field to work with late in the 2nd quarter of a scoreless game, and a questionable interference call gave them a first down that eventually let them take a 7-0 lead.

How does that happen? You shut down the NFL's most lethal offense for 25 minutes, and they finish the first half leading 7-0? That was your ball game, and the ball game, which pushed Detroit back to the rest of the pack at 7-4, rested on the inability of the offense to score much-needed points early in this game.

The Lions played near-perfect in the first half. They stopped Rodgers and Co. routinely, and allowed 86 total yards in an awe inspiring performance. But where was the offense? Surely, playing indoors against a pass defense that has been notorious for being the Packers weak link, the Lions could find ways to capitalize?

No such luck. The Lions actually moved the ball effectively on their first three drives, gaining 26, 45 and 36 yards respectively, but penalties marred each drive, and in the end, the offense didn't seem to sense the urgency of getting points early in this one.

On the Lions fourth drive, Stafford's ill-gotten throw was tipped and picked by Clay Matthews and you could feel the life getting sucked out of the Lions. Somehow, after Jason Hanson missed a 47-yard field goal, the Lions had managed to turn 30 exceptional minutes against the best team in the NFL into a 7-point deficit.

The lesson? The Lions have the tools to be an elite team someday, but until they can grasp the importance of taking an early lead, especially at home, they are going to struggle beating quality teams. The Lions had their chances in the first half. The defense set the table for the offense, but the offense failed to get it done.

Last week the same thing happened, but the Lions were able to come back from 17 points down against Carolina to win. Comebacks against Dallas and Minnesota have been similarly sketched. But how many of these type of wins can a team expect? By my count, the Lions have already gotten more than their share. The Lions need to learn that good teams do not blow 17-point leads, they expand them.

You can look at the injuries (Louis Delmas, Kevin Smith and others were injured), the Suh incident (another story for another post), or the insane chemistry that Rodgers has with his receivers, but the real reason the Lions lost this game is due to their first-half offensive ineptitude. It's been a problem all year, and until Stafford and Co. can get it together early, the Lions will forever be forced to play from behind, no matter how lights-out the defense plays. That's okay against lesser foes sometimes, but it's a recipe for being blown away against teams like the Packers.

The Lions are in danger of getting bounced from the playoff hunt unless they start playing four quarters when they visit New Orleans next Sunday.

This could have been a coming out party for the Lions, and the defense certainly did come out. But until the offense joins the party early in the games, the Lions will always be on the outside looking out at the final buzzer.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The No-Huddle: Bears and Texans Facing Huge QB Challenges

It's just two days after the Bears have lost Jay Cutler to a thumb injury on his throwing hand, but there has already been enough internet debate and discussion to keep concerned Bears fans clicking links for days. Go here, here and here for a small sample. Google "Cutler's thumb" for many more.

It's really a shame for Chicago. After a very shaky start to the season, the Mike Martz and Jay Cutler-led offense has been in fine form, and the Bears have reeled off five straight wins, scoring more than 30 points in all but one of them (they only struck for 24 against the Bucs).

With Cutler out for most of the remainder of the season (reports are that they'll get a better idea of the timeline after Wednesday's surgery), the Bears are forced to go with backup Caleb Hanie. Yes, that's right, he of the 14 career regular- season passing attempts.

The Bears will also take a long, hard look at the waiver wire, which now features recently demoted Bronco Kyle Orton. Orton has no experience with Mike Martz's offense, but he did have some success with the organization from 2005-2008, and he'd probably be a better choice than Nathan Enderle if Hanie also went down to injury.

Whatever the front office decides, the real question will be about the cohesiveness of the Bears as a unit, the ability of their defense and special teams to continue to play a huge role in their success, and the ability of Mike Martz to re-tailor his system to fit whomever the Bears decide to plug in.

It will be a huge challenge for Chicago, but they are still very much in the hunt for an NFC wildcard at 7-3 with a very favorable schedule going down the stretch. The Raiders and the Packers are the only teams over .500 of the Bears remaining seven opponents.

With Chicago's well-balanced attack, the existence of multiple weapons in the passing game and a great back in Matt Forte, I think there's a chance that Hanie (or Orton) could keep them in the hunt until Cutler returns (if he returns) -- maybe even if he doesn't.

The same thing goes for the Texans. Houston is in a much better spot in the standings, but they also have QB concerns. The Texans still have a glimmer of hope that Matt Schaub can return from a foot injury, but in the meantime they'll be traveling to Jacksonville to face the 3-7 Jags with 2004 Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart at the helm.

Leinart famously washed out of Arizona after being replaced by Kurt Warner in 2008. He was eventually cut in 2010, and will look to fulfill some of his lost promise as he takes over a Texans team that is enjoying a four-game winning streak, and a two-game lead in the AFC south.

Leinart, who will be making his first start since 2009, will not need to be as good as Schaub was (15 TD's, 6 ints, 96.8 rating) to keep the Texans afloat. Houston's top-notch defense could see four rookie quarterbacks in its last seven games, and with Wade Phillips scheming at the helm, they'll likely make things a lot easier for Leinart.

Injuries are always part of the game. Good teams find ways to weather the storm and some even become stronger. It's hard to imagine the Bears or Texans getting stronger without Cutler or Schaub, but it will be interesting -- and a true test of team character and chemistry -- to see how the fare.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Saucer Pass: This Might Fly In Practice, But...

Welcome to The Saucer Pass, where The Fan Child talks puck. Today we'll keep it short and light. Pred's center Craig Smith is a guy who has already notched seven goals and seven assists this season, so he's probably not going to lose too much sleep over this one. And since the Preds were up by three on the Leafs when it happened, I don't think Barry Trotz found it necessary to strangle him. Still it's a pretty funny play -- enjoy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The No-Huddle: Tebow's Triple Option Vs The Jets = Must-See

Three hours from tonight's kick-off and the excitement is palpable in Denver. Cheerleaders on the field, their cowboy hats blowing off their heads as they polish their routines in front of an empty stadium. And outside the stadium, there he is, the man of the hour, Tim Tebow. He is walking through the tunnel, wearing a casual grey hoodie and listening to his iPhone as an NFL Network camera rolls.

Whether coach John Fox, who said Tebow would be "screwed" in a conventional offense on Tuesday (he later backtracked and made nice), likes it or not, this is his guy.

Fox's Broncos have completely gutted their offense and are now sporting a collegiate-looking Option and/ or triple option, designed to let Tebow do what he does best (run like a horse), and to avoid what he doesn't do so well (throw the ball). Now, at 4-5 (3-1 under Tebow), the Broncos will play their biggest game of the year against the New York Jets tonight. For the Jets it's pretty big too. It may not be must win, but it's definitely MUST NOT LOSE.

At first glance, this Jets-Broncos match-up wasn't exactly mouth watering. But now that Tebowmania has sparked the imagination of football fans everywhere, this is must-see TV.

It has been a remarkable turn of events in Denver from the moment Tebow took over for Kyle Orton in week 7. It appears that everything bad that has been said about Tebow might true (specifically that he'll never be a conventional gun-slinging NFL quarterback), but it also appears that everything good that has been said about him is true as well (that he's an incredible leader and runner).

Tebow became the first quarterback with more rushes than passes in a game that he threw all the passes in a game since 1974 when he threw 8 passes and ran 9 times in a win against Kansas City last week. And with Tebow at the helm, the Broncos have averaged more than 200 yards per game in the last five weeks, leading the NFL during that span.

With the triple option offense in full effect (this is not a package, Denver is fully committed), the Broncos will look to play strong D, get an early lead, and run, run, run against the Jets.

Broncos coach John Fox deserves a lot of credit for making the necessary adjustments and for putting Tebow in a position to flourish. Tebow through 39 times in a head-scratching loss against Detroit in week 8, then 22 in a week 9 win vs. Oakland, and 8 last week vs. the Chiefs. All the while the wrinkles have been added, and Denver has rapidly transformed into an offense that looks more like the Tebow-led Florida Gators than it does an NFL team. The fact that Fox has abandoned all hopes of running a conventional offense through Tebow shows that he is a forward thinker that is unafraid to fail. Suddenly, he finds himself in the middle of a playoff hunt, with an offensive philosophy that many, including Kurt Warner, agree is not sustainable.

"I don't think it's going to work for a career," said Warner, "but the question is, is it the right time to do this? You don't have a lot of team to really develop him (Tebow) in mid-season, you didn't have that off-season, so maybe now's the time to have him go out there and be successful, have the team buy into who this guy is, and then you spend your off-season saying 'okay, now we've got to make this guy into a quarterback that can play both ways -- give us a dimension in the running game, but also be able to win games with passing.'"

And that is precisely why the Broncos are such a fun team to watch right now. Just like the Dolphins were when they unleashed the wildcat offense and went 11-5 in 2008, the Broncos are creating a lot of buzz. With Tebow, who is a polarizing personality for so many reasons, the excitement is now at a fever pitch.

Can Tebow lead his Broncos to another victory against a legitimate playoff-contending Jets squad? Is the triple option sustainable at the NFL level?

Tebow might not be the best at throwing the football, but man can he run. And the magic that coaches have always looked for on the field, that special intangible, mixed with belief and positivity, he's got that too.

"He's just such a great kid," said Warner, "he's such a positive kid. I think we all know the limitations. We all know the things that he's struggled with up to this point, but every question I asked him, everything we talked about, it was always positive."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The No-Huddle: Harbaugh For Coach of the Year?

It's time for non-believers to step to the back of the bus on this one, and while we're at it we might as well wrap up the NFL's coach of the year voting early, because Jim Harbaugh is for real. Not only has Harbaugh guided the 49ers to their longest winning streak in over a decade, he's also got long-suffering 49ers fans thinking he might be their messiah.

For those on the outside it might not seem like such a big deal. With a reputation forged by the legacy of those great Bill Walsh-led teams of the 80's the 49ers have always managed to hang on to a bit of their mystique with the general public. But to locals, those who have groaned through six years of Alex Smith being known for little more than the guy that the Niners picked over Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL draft, it has been pure unadulterated hell.

When the 49ers hired Jim Harbaugh last year, a lot of skeptics took a wait and see approach. Then, when the stubborn former NFL'er decided to stick with Alex Smith instead of combing the free agency market for a more capable quarterback, the groaning continued.

Now, 9 weeks into a the season, Harbaugh looks like a bona fide genius -- and his QB looks like a first round pick for the first time in his career. It may not seem like a miracle to the casual football watcher, but to those who have been calling for Smith to get the axe for 6 years, it sure feels like one.

"I've seen a lot of u-turns," said Yahoo Sports NFL insider Mike Silver yesterday, on KNBR radio. "But what I haven't seen is a guy who was drafted that high, or close to that high, clearly had a lot of chances in one place and washed out, in his case more than once. [He] Stayed there, got another chance, and totally made a u-turn, and that is the coolest thing about the Alex Smith story. I don't know that there's a parallel."

Such is the Harbaugh effect. He is the sprinkler of magic dust, the mad scientist who can create team chemistry with a belligerent post-game handshake. Not only has the first-year coach transformed a gang of athletic but underachieving soldiers into the NFL's second winningest team with a strike-shortened off-season making the task even more difficult, he's completely changed the culture of the locker room, the fortune of the quarterback, the mood of the city, and the opinions of legions of Smith haters in one fell swoop.

How has he done it? He's designed a system around his players capabilities, and in doing so he's proven himself to be a truly versatile coach. And yes, there's the small matter of his decision to bring his defensive coordinator at Stanford, Vic Fangio, along for the ride. Fangio's the name you won't hear nearly as much as Harbaugh's, but it's his defense -- strong against the run, physical, fast, and with playmaking ability -- that is the core of the team.

But credit Harbaugh for having the presence of mind to take Fangio with him, and to build a team around its strengths, rather than building a team around some pre-conceived notion of how football should be played.

"If he's doing this with a beaten-down Alex Smith who was not in a great spot coming in based on what happened last year and before, maybe he could be doing this with a lot of people," added Silver.

He's done it with a team that had stumbled for the better part of a decade, with the same personnel that failed mightily under Mike "my way or the highway" Singletary and Mike Nolan.

Many will say that Harbaugh has "Dilferized" Alex Smith, in reference to the dumbed-down Trent Dilfer, the Ravens quarterback who basically stayed out of the way so that his team could win Super Bowl xxxv with it's dreaded defense, but when the Giants swore that all they had to do to beat the 49ers in San Francisco last week was shut down running back Frank Gore, Harbaugh handed the reins to Smith, allowing him to throw on 11 of the first 13 plays of the game.

It was a clever approach from Harbaugh, one that his team was more than capable of executing. We were surprised, like the Giants, when they did, but maybe we shouldn't have been.

Why? Because this Jim Harbaugh guy, he can coach.