Thursday, January 20, 2005

Neil Simon and Chevy Chase

The Ninth would like to know if now, finally, people get what’s going on in Indy. Next winter, when inevitably they find themselves in another playoff game at Gillette, are we at last going to accept that they don’t have a chance? Or is it going to be the same old nonsense about a high-powered offense, an improving defense, and what can Belichick possibly dream up this time? Guys, he always dreams something up, and it’s always smarter than you expected. And Payton Manning’s hands always end up in the air. It’s physics. Until the Colts spend more than 30% of their salary on the defensive side of the ball, they’re not gonna win. And until Tony Dungy, who put up the single worst coaching performance of these playoffs, figures out how to adjust away from what DOESN’T WORK, they’re also not gonna win. How long can you allow your quarterback to audible hot routes against blitzes that never come? I guess for Dungy that answer is 60 minutes. How many times did New England blitz this weekend? According to TMQ, once, and I bet he’s right. How many times did Manning react as if a blitz was coming? Five hundred million. And nobody thought this was a problem. That’s why Indy’s longest completion was 18 yards, because the receivers kept breaking off routes to counter New England blitzes. Oh and how it would’ve worked were they actually blitzing. The Ninth can understand Payton buying the encroaching linebacker bit for maybe a quarter, but he should’ve wised up. As the old saying goes: fool me once, shame on you, fool me all game, fire my coach. Last week I said the Colts were the Red Sox, forever trying to overcome their more skilled rival, but they’re not. Even when Butch Hobson was managing. They’re the late 90’s Texas Rangers. Love hitting the long ball in the temperate June weather, but when it comes to the playoffs, they’ve still gotta throw Aaron Sele and Rick Helling out there and hope for the best. Honestly, it’s a little pathetic.

Ok. That’s done with. Now, on to this weekend. The Ninth’s initial reaction after watching Pittsburgh this weekend was pee-yoo what stinks? Oh right, it’s the Steelers. But that may have been hasty. To be sure, they looked awful against New Jersey, and remember that the Jets backed their way into the playoffs and got Schottenheimered into the second round, so that’s quite a thing. But their defense did not give up a touchdown, and for a good portion of the season they were the best team in football, so we shouldn’t write them off. But here’s the thing, I just don’t see how they’ll score points. Ben Roethlisberger is worse than you think. In fact, he’s worse than everyone thinks. Pittsburgh was second to last in the AFC in passing yards this year. Baltimore was last, and I think they spent most of the season with Walter Matthau at quarterback. Now I will grant that the Steelers were also last in attempts, so the average is ok, but don’t you think there’s a reason Big Ben was asked to do his job less than any other QB? Is it because he’s so good? Roethlisberger gets a lot of pub for being well-poised, and that’s fair. New England had such trouble with him in Week 8 because he was able to calmly side-step blitzes, stay on his feet, and make a big pass. Actually, in terms of pocket presence, he’s an optimized combination of Brady and Bledsoe: great footwork and awareness as well as tremendous size. Sending extra men after him is a mistake, but sitting back and forcing him to hit the open guy – that’s where the money is. (Do not gamble). In the last 4 games, including the NJJ, Benny Picks has thrown 7 interceptions. Yikes. And anyone who watched last Saturday’s game could plainly see that accuracy is a bit of an issue. Is he hurt? Maybe, but frankly, who cares? The fact is there is no way Pittsburgh can be confident about his ability to orchestrate a drive. “But”, you say, “what about the running game”? (It’s weird that you said that right as I typed it). Well sure, the Steelers can run. #2 yards team on the ground in the NFL. But Belichick can take it away. You know he can. He’s the master of selecting one thing he wishes his opponent not to do, and making sure they don’t do it. And he’s got a good running start, as since Week 9 the Patriots have allowed only two 100 yard rushers. And he’s got Ted Johnson, who has consistently been kryptonite to Jerome Bettis’ Superman. Pittsburgh is not going to be allowed to run excessively, and Roethlisberger is going to have to win the game. I’m not sure how he’s going to do that.

But how will New England score? Well, not that easily, to be honest. The Steeler run defense is Capital G Great, allowing the least yards in football, and the Patriots have quietly become a rush-first football team. In fact, only four teams sent their backs more often in ’04. But their passing game should be sufficient, if the offensive line can buy the time. In Week 8, Pitt’s d-line and blitzing backers looked so quick and strong that Barry Bonds was asking where they got their flax seed oil. Brady was sacked some, rushed often, and generally didn’t have much of a chance. But both of his tackles were hurt and Dillon was unavailable. So things should be different. And consider this: New England scored less than 20 points only once this season (Week 7, NJJ), while Pittsburgh did it 6 times. If Dillon can be effective enough to sell the play action, the Pats should be able to score 17-20 points. That’ll be enough to win.

Seems like old times, doesn’t it?

And a quick programming note: The Ninth will be on air Friday in the Boston, and well, anywhere with internet. The boys at Further Review, on 1510 The Zone, are having me over for drinks and sandwiches, so tune in. The plan is around 3 pm. For web stream, go to www.1510thezone.com.
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Friday, January 14, 2005

No Rain

Amplitude Modulation giveth, and Amplitude Modulation taketh away. That’s right folks, the AM radio dial that so warmly welcomed The Ninth earlier this week, has turned the cold shoulder. Til next Friday, at least. I have been bumped from today’s show on The Zone, so don’t try tuning in. If you were planning your day around it, as I’m sure you were, feel free to see what Dr. Phil and Justice, Judy Style are up to. The good news is, now I know what Blind Melon feels like.

But there is some positive news. You see, I was saving a few gems out of my last column. I know, I know, you could tell. It was good, but was it its usual Homeric perfection? Perhaps not. I didn’t want people to hear me on the air, check my website, read what I had just said to millions (hundreds), and realize “hey, this idiot only knows like three things.” But now, I have been freed, and I can share….

- TMQ tells us that since the current playoff formation was adopted in 1990, home teams in the divisional round are 45-11, a .803 winning figure. This of course stands to reason, as all home teams in round 2 have received byes because they’re really good. But it’s important to remember. While it’s entirely possible that there will be three or four upsets this weekend, it isn’t at all likely. In fact, the most likely thing is that road team victors will amount to one or none. Looking to the NFC, I see two games that could go either way, with the Eagles and Vikes seeming the most suspect. Randy Moss should have submarined his team against the Pack, and he didn’t, so who’s to say his sandbox ethics will be a problem now? No one in the world knows if Philly can win without TO, and I’m a little surprised Andy Reid chose the divisionals as the time to find out. If either home team should lose on Saturday, take a look at that .803 winning percentage and sleep soundly through the night. It shall be clear sailing on the morrow.

- The biggest thing, and really it always is, will be turnovers. The standard NFL game features about 12 ball possessions or drives per team. You change that ratio a couple digits either way with a few picks and a fumble, and things can get out of hand, especially with two teams that can score. If Brady misfires a few times and let’s Patyonoverrated work on a short field, New England will lose. They don’t have a lot of wiggle room this weekend, and that’ll do it. But, the same can be said for Indy. So watch that.

- This whole Indy/New England relationship reminds me so much of the Yankees and Red Sox, it’s getting silly. Every year, New York is the favorite. Boston gets a couple new players, goes on a win streak, and declares themselves done with the old Red Sox ways. This year, the dastardly Yankees are going down. And it seemed plausible, you could see how it would happen, but really, comfortably, you could never plan on it. Until New York was beat, they had to be the favorite. That’s just the way it is. And I feel the same way about Indy. Belichick owns them like Park Place. I understand what the Colts can do on offense, I entirely respect them as a football club, but as far as them winning, I’ll believe it when I see it. They could it, but do you really think they’re going to? Nah, me either. And yes, we’re a little like Yankee fans right now.
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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Late Stockings

So far, 2005 has been both kind and unkind to The Ninth. In the unfortunate department, Blogger has mysteriously stopped functioning at my office, suggesting that somehow The Ninth Official Boss has caught on to my screwing off/prize winning journalism. I fear he has noticed my constant (ahem) typing and found a way to block the website from our server. The immutable law of employment: if your workers appear to be trying, something, surely, is wrong. This means that The Ninth Home Office has had to move to my actual home, and the Y don't have computers. I will look into fixing this problem at work, if anyone has suggestions, feel free to email. Failing that, I'll do my best to post from the abode, but really, who wants to do that? Now, onto the good news. It seems that at long last, after a diligent letter writing campaign by hundreds of (simulated) readers, The Ninth has found its way to the airwaves. Originally, a deal was brokered with Sir Richard Attenborough to read old columns on CD, allowing families to hear my wit and insight as they traveled to the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls, and other American landmarks. That fell through however when Mrs. Richard Attenborough discovered that her husband has been dead for three years. So, Plan B was swiftly put into action: calling in to a radio show. I have been asked by The Zone in Boston to dial in on Fridays and chat for a bit about sports, politics, and delightful summer recipes. Mostly sports though. The station is 1510 on your AM dial, and the show is called Further Review. My dashing voice should appear sometime between 2 and 4, and can be listened to on the internet at www.1510thezone.com. If you get a chance, give a listen. And if it's not Friday and you're looking for some solid sports talk, listen anyway. The station is good, and growing. Now, with the housekeeping complete, let's move on to the world of sports.

New England Patriots:

There's a football game this weekend, and for perhaps the first time this playoff season, both of the competitors are actually good. As you are certainly aware, the Colts are facing the Patriots on Sunday, in what might be the most interesting game this season. It's being billed as a classic battle between offense and defense, can the vaunted Payton Manning attack be stopped or slowed by the battered New England secondary? Will the gifted Indy quarterback slice and dice the Ty Law-less Patriots like a late-night infomercial? Well, he might, but if this question doesn't entirely miss the point, it surely does partially. Ty Law won't play, and that's not a good thing for New England, but it's getting overstated. Schemes are what have beaten the Colts in previous matchups, not personnel. Yes, Ty had 3 picks in last year's divisional match-up, but they were all in zone coverage, suggesting that any other player would be just as likely to make such a play. It's not that Ty was all over his man and Payton tried to zip a ball in that didn't belong, it's that New England had deceptively covered the entire field, and Manning made the mistake of throwing into hidden coverage. Would Law help in these situations, of course, but does his presence make them exist, I say no. If Belichick couldn't think on Sunday, I'd be worried, but #24 not being able to run does not bother me so.

This conversation so far has entirely ignored what will be the most factor of this week's game: New England's offense. Brady has torched Indy in each one of their meetings, and, truth be told, out-played the great Manning every time. 27 points, 24 points, 38 points, 38 points, and 44 points. Those have been the totals the five times he's played the Colts. That's, you know, a lot. So why do so many pundits think Belichick will try to control the clock and the ball with Corey Dillion pounding runs? Because they're simple, that's why. The way to beat Indy is to score a lot of points on their crappy secondary, and Tom Brady has done that every time he's tried. In fact, with a little more red zone efficiency, all of the above totals would be above 40, and people would talk a lot less about PM and a bit more about TB. Dillon will certainly be a factor this weekend, but I believe viewers will see a lot more of Brady's right arm than they expected.

One final point: if New England's run has been about anything the last few years, it's been about the importance of team over singular play. Now, all of a sudden, the Colts have the best single player in the league and the Patriots have lost their best single cornerback, and the world believes they're going to lose. Have we not been paying attention? This team's success is based on the strength of the group and the genius of their ideas. If Payton Manning can throw a touchdown past that, then they'll tip their caps to him. Until then, bet on the champs.
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