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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Los That Links 11-22-2010 (Linking Up with the NFL)

Long time, no Los That Links. In fact, it's been almost three months. The last time Los That Links went up, we acknowledged that Brad Childress had lost the control of the Minnesota Vikings. That was September 10, 2010, after the season opening loss to the New Orleans Saints. The team has won a grand total of three games since then.

Now, it's being reported that Childress has been fired following this weekend's 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers.

It's safe to say that we're geniuses, whose sports intelligence should never be doubted or questioned.

A lot more has changed over the NFL landscape since then. Everything from Commissioner Roger Goodell making mid-season rule changes regarding hard hits, to Michael Vick rising as a borderline MVP lock, to the Oakland Raiders renewed commitment to competency (well, prior to this weekend's 35-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers).

Last night's final Week 11 matchup between the Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers notwithstanding, it's safe to say that there are five storylines worth paying undivided attention to as we head into the NFL's stretch run. Here they are, in reverse order.

5.) Mark Sanchez is the Third Best Quarterback in the AFC

You don't want to believe it. It's bad enough that he's younger and better looking than you. But now he's more than just a game-manager; he's a game winner?

Yes, yes he is.

He's thrown for 2,306 yards, 15 TDs and only 7 INTs. Since the Week 1 10-9 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, he's had 4 games with a passer rating above 100, and he's thrown back-to-back game winning TD passes to Santonio Holmes. He is undefeated on the road (5-0). He has shown the ability to play his best with the game on the line (Four of the past five weeks, he's led the team on fourth quarter or overtime game-winning drives). This weekend, against the Houston Texans, he completed 12 of 14 passes against a 6 man blitz, for 189 yards and a QB rating of 141.

This is the same guy who led his team to within one half of the Super Bowl during his rookie campaign last year.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will be 1A and 1B until they decide to hang up the cleats and make Sketchers Shape-Ups commercials full-time. That leaves Phillip Rivers, Joe Flacco, Matt Schaub, and maybe Kyle Orton as legit competitors to the "Third Best QB" title.

Rivers, the most viable of the competitors, has put up gaudy numbers this season (2944 passing yards, 19 TDs, 102.9 QB rating going into last night), but it hasn't translated into wins. In fact, in crunch time against Kansas City, Seattle, St. Louis, and Oakland, when he had a chance to win the game for his team, he either threw an interception or an incompletion.

Flacco has a better overall QB rating (92 to 82), but only one more TD (16 to 15) and has also shown the fourth quarter comeback-ability (seven in his career). He defeated the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers on fourth quarter drives this season, and he almost defeated the Atlanta Falcons with a TD pass to Todd Heap with 1:05 left in the game. But Sanchez gets the edge for all the superficial reasons (bigger city, better name, "Hard Knocks", USC pedigree).

Schaub and Orton are both playing for sub-.500 teams, and I wouldn't trust either of them leading my team during a late drive over Sanchez.

4.) Surprise, Surprise! Bill Belichick Knows How to Coach

It's Week 11, and the New England Patriots have found themselves in an unfamiliar place; tied for first in the AFC East. See, they're typically the sole controllers of that top spot by this time of the year. Since 2001, when Tom Brady took over as starter, the Patriots have won the AFC East seven out of the eight seasons he started more than one game. The two times they didn't win it, they still finished above .500 (9-7 in '03, 11-5 in '08) yet missed the playoffs.

This season, the Patriots have decided to go back to the formula from their 2001-2004 Super Bowl winning teams. They dumped Randy Moss in October, and went two wide receivers under 5'11" (Wes Welker and Deion Branch) and a rookie (Brandon Tate). They traded former first round pick Laurence Maroney to the Denver Broncos, lost Fred Taylor to injury (surprise) and teamed two running backs with laugh out loud names (Benjarvis Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead) to the tune of 880 yards rushing and 10 TDs. They have the league's worst rated pass defense, but they forced three interceptions out of Peyton Manning last night.

Then of course there is Brady, who is having a career season himself (2,362 yards, 19 TDs, 4 INTs, 100 QB rating). Not only are the numbers great for Brady, but he really worked on his ability to yell at teammates, opposing players, and referees this off season. Guess he was tired of the Justin Bieber jokes.

3.) The NFC Will be Decided by the OB

Seven teams in the NFC (Atlanta, Philly, Chicago, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and NY Giants) have six wins or more. One more team will be given an automatic berth out of the NFC West, even though it's likely they'll be an eight win team at best. That leaves five playoff spots available for the aforementioned squads.

So who makes the cut? It all depends on whose QB you trust the most.

We'll give Atlanta the nod, because Matt Ryan doesn't lose at home (17-1, 13 straight wins). Now we're down to four spots. Philly has proven that even if their starting MVP-caliber QB (Michael Vick, 108 QB rating, 11 TDs) goes down, they have a more than capable backup (Kevin Kolb, 85 QB rating, 6 TDs, 1,035 yards) who can do enough to at least get them invited to the dance, so they're in.

Now we're down to three. Chicago and Green Bay will fight it out for the NFC North, meaning you must choose between Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers. The inclination is to go with Rodgers (95 QB rating, 19 TDs, 2,601 yards) over Cutler (85 QB rating, 12 TDs, 2,064 yards). However, Chicago has the advantage in the head-to-head (the Bears defeated the Packers 20-17 in Week 3). With their Week 17 matchup looming as the game that will decide the NFC North, do we trust Rodgers to come through in a big game?

(Well, over Cutler we do. So the edge goes to Rodgers here.)

Two spots left; New Orleans, Tampa Bay, NY Giants, and the Bears still on the table. Give the Saints and Drew Brees the wild card on the strength of Drew Brees (93 QB rating, 2,969 yards, 22 TDs in what's supposed to be an off year).

So, the final NFC playoff berth goes to (drumroll please)... the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

I believe in Josh Freeman (2,099 yards, 15 TDs, 92 QB rating), and so should you. He's the NFC's Mark Sanchez (all the way down to the curly hair). He has six fourth-quarter comebacks in his young career, four this season (Cleveland, at Cincy, St. Louis, and at Arizona). He doesn't turn the ball over (only 5 INTs). We all laughed at head coach Raheem Morris when he said his team was tops in the NFC.

(As I put the pipe down and realize that would mean three teams out of the NFC South would qualify, even though they all face each other, and Tampa Bay would need a win against Baltimore, New Orleans, or Atlanta, I feel more and more uneasy. The Giants would be the safer bet, even with Eli Manning's inability to slide, and tendency to play catch with the other team. But I'm sticking to my guns, dammit. Believe in the legend of Josh "Catcher" Freeman!)

2.) The Helmet-to-Helmet Rulings Will Cost a Team Their Season

It's coming. Like a blind-sided hit to a defenseless receiver, it's coming. It might be a playoff game, or a game during the stretch run, but at least on team will go down in flames based on a subjective call concerning a helmet-to-helmet hit. It was a bad idea when Goodell made his move six weeks ago, and it looks even worse now.

Let it be known, the rule "emphasis" (it isn't a change; helmet-to-helmet hits have been banned for a long time now) was decided on not for the safety of the players, but for television ratings. This rule is one of many rules that have been made in the offense's favor going back a decade now. Think I'm lying?

The NFL wants points, and could care less about safety. They want the players to allow more catches, which make greater quarterbacks (the marquee position), which drives TV ratings, which puts them in a great bargaining position for an 18-game regular season.

So if your a fan of a hard-hitting team (ie. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Jets, Giants, or Philly) you've been warned.

1.) There is No MVP

In this age of NFL parity, the talk of a league MVP has become an exercise in futility. The clear choice is Vick, but he's missed four games. So the clear choice is Peyton (20 TDs, 7 INTs, 3,000 yards passing), but his team is in second place in the division, and has played poorly on the road. So the clear choice is Brady, only he's lost his head-to-head matchup with Sanchez, and his team is also in second place. So the clear choice is Sanchez, but it doesn't feel right to give it to a guy with an 82 QB rating.

So we drop to the not-so-clear choices like Rivers (a .500 team), Ryan (winning, but not blowing us away with anything other than impressive home numbers), Roddy White (a wide receiver, and not even the best one in the conference), Drew Brees (impressive numbers during apparent Super Bowl hangover season), Troy Polamalu (definite team impact, but not close to his best season), and more names to let you know we've stretched our imaginations way too far (David Garrard, Clay Matthews, "Big" Ben Roethlisberger, etc...).

So enjoy the debate, but don't be too set in a position. Unless some phenomenal performance develops over the next six weeks (which would need to blow Vick's previous six weeks out the water) this is the perfect season for the loathed Co-MVP award.
Parity rules.

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