Friday, January 31, 2014

Super Bowl XLVIII

Much has been made of Richard Sherman’s continual penchant for opening his mouth and saying something that makes Twitter blow up and hits the back page in local tabloids in newspapers all over America.  Such is the frenzy of drama that ensues upon the conclusion of Championship Sunday and kickoff of the Super Bowl.  There are two weeks to break down every angle possible to this one football game.  Two weeks to talk about what this game means to Peyton Manning’s legacy as an all-time great.

As we’re closing in on 48 hours from kickoff, I figured I would chime in with some of my own thoughts.  Richard Sherman has done a lot of talking, and there has been a lot made of how this game will define Peyton Manning in comparison to some of the other legendary quarterbacks. 

                                                       Jeff Roberson/ Associated Press
Sherman smiles at Super Bowl media day.
My instant reaction after Richard Sherman broke off into his rant after breaking up Colin Kaepernick’s pass in the end zone intended for Michael Crabtree was very skeptical.  Why would Sherman talk trash and put the spotlight on him when his team just clinched a trip to the Super Bowl and there’s still one more game to be played? 

Granted Sherman’s play backs up his talk but what exactly was it accomplishing?  Now all the pressure is on Sherman to shutdown one of the game’s elite receivers Demaryius Thomas, who’s been rather quiet about the match up.  Sherman’s going to have to do just that if his Seahawks are going to win.  I can’t see Russell Wilson keeping up in a shootout with Peyton Manning. 

Seattle’s defense is going to have to turn in one more outstanding performance to get over the hump.  Offensively, Seattle isn’t built to score lots of points.  They like to run the ball with Marshawn Lynch and occasionally Russell Wilson will make plays but they win because their defense always plays well enough where they don’t have to score a bunch of points.  It’s a tall task for Seattle’s defense on Sunday going up against the best offense in the NFL.

From Denver’s perspective, obviously they need to score points.  It’s what they do.  While lots of conversation has been made about Denver’s offense against Seattle’s defense and how the two teams are mirror images of each other and have gotten here in different ways, Denver’s defense has played well in the postseason.

                                                            Chris Humphreys-USA Today Sports
Peyton Manning is in search of his second Super Bowl ring.
Tom Brady never really got going against the Denver defense, nor did Philip Rivers in the divisional round.  Now while both New England and San Diego don’t boast running backs of Marshawn Lynch’s caliber, ideally that won’t really matter for Denver.  It comes back to Denver scoring points.  If Denver can move the ball on the Seattle defense and score points then that’s going to force Seattle to do the same thing which will probably make the Seahawks throw the ball more than they would like.

Who knows what Seattle will get out of Percy Harvin through the air in this game, but the bottomline is that if Denver can play with a lead and make Seattle throw, I can’t see Seattle winning this game.  Ultimately, I think Peyton Manning has too much to play for.  I think he wants to silence the critics that believe he comes up small time and time again in the playoffs.  A motivated Peyton Manning should be a scary Peyton Manning for the Seattle defense.  If there’s a defense that can slow him down enough for their team to have a chance, it’s Seattle.  I think Seattle will slow them down to a degree and I don’t see Denver putting up video-game like numbers offensively, but enough to hoist the Lombardi. 

Prediction: Denver 28, Seattle 20


Monday, January 13, 2014

Recapping the 2013 Eagles and looking ahead to the future

As we watched the divisional round unfold this weekend, it’s tough knowing that the Eagles could still be playing and we wouldn’t be evaluating the season and looking ahead to next season right now.  But, when you put it all into perspective it’s very impressive that the Eagles were even able to host that home playoff game nine days ago against New Orleans, especially after winning just four games last season.  They won 10 games and the NFC East with two different quarterbacks, a defense that entered the season projected to be one of the worst in the NFL, and most importantly a brand new coaching staff headed by a man right out of the college ranks.  Chip Kelly was doubted by many as an NFL head coach.  No such cynicism now after the 2013 season.

                                             USA Today Sports
Nick Foles was exceptional upon
winning the starting quarterback job.
Offensively the Eagles had an outstanding season in 2013 and are in great shape for the future.  They appear to have found their franchise quarterback in Nick Foles, and have perhaps the best rushing attack in the NFL.  LeSean McCoy won the rushing title this season and figures to win another one in the future if he can stay healthy with Chip Kelly calling the plays and the offensive line of the Eagles opening up holes.  Desean Jackson had a strong season, Riley Cooper emerged as a viable secondary receiver, and the Eagles used tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz effectively in the passing game.  Not to mention what the possibility of re-signing Jeremy Maclin can bring to an offense that didn’t have him all season.

The defense overachieved in 2013 but there are definitely some bright spots for the future and now it seems like the Eagles need to tie up some loose ends on defense as opposed to bringing in lots of new personnel.  Starting up front, down linemen Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, and Cedric Thornton are all young and on the rise.  Linebackers Demeco Ryans, Trent Cole, and Connor Barwin bring some experience to the defensive unit and the young linebacker Mychal Kendricks appears to be a real nice find in the second round of the 2012 draft.   The secondary is where the Eagles need to improve this offseason.  Cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams showed flashes at times and Brandon Boykin certainly looks like a nice nickel corner but there was some inconsistency on behalf of the entire secondary including safeties Patrick Chung and Nate Allen. 

I’m not sure how the Eagles plan on addressing these needs as there are an abundance of good corners that are in this upcoming draft and you would have to figure one would be available at 22 when the Eagles pick in the first round.  There are a few solid safeties as well in the draft.  The Eagles have been linked to Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd who is going to be a free agent this offseason.   Byrd played for Chip Kelly at Oregon and would probably be a good fit.  In addition to help in the secondary, the Eagles could use a pass rusher who can generate more pressure on quarterbacks as they struggled particularly in the second Dallas game and the playoff game in getting to quarterback.
                                                                      Associated Press
Chip Kelly had a lot to smile
about during the 2013 season

While it may seem crazy after the Eagles are just one year removed from a 4-12 season in 2012, they are not far from a Super Bowl.  Now of course they need to stay healthy, and they’ll have to get a few good breaks here and there, but if they can make the additions they need to make on defense, we’re looking at a really talented and young football team.  The Eagles are back.  And they’re here to stay.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

Eagles Talk with Ray Didinger

Who would have thought that we would ring in the New Year with a home Eagles playoff game?  In a season in which seven or eight wins would have been viewed as a success, instead of arranging tee times, the Eagles are preparing for the New Orleans Saints in these first few days of 2014.  I caught up with Hall of Fame writer Ray Didinger to talk about the 2013 regular season and preview the New Orleans game on Saturday.

Didinger said there are a lot of factors that have contributed to the Eagles qualifying for the playoffs in a season that saw a six-game improvement over the previous season.  But above all he attributed the success in the regular season to Chip Kelly.  “I think he came in and changed the whole culture.  He changed the way they do things, brought in a lot of new ideas, and I think the team needed that.  I think it was clear that what [Andy] Reid was doing had gotten a little stale,” Didinger said.  He said that while you can point to other individuals and reasons for the Eagles winning the NFC East, all of those have grown out what Kelly brought to the table upon his hiring.

                                                        Associated Press
Chip Kelly has quieted the doubters and is
a viable coach of the year candidate.
What’s particularly amazing about this year’s Eagles and the job that Chip Kelly has done is that when he came into the NFL there were lots of doubters as to how he would fair.  “There were some people that thought it was going to be a disaster and doomed to fail.  I didn’t say that.  But I was a little skeptical.  I think Kelly handled it really well.  He didn’t get indignant about it or lash out he just kind of went to work.  He knew there was going to be a lot of people asking questions.  He knew it didn’t matter what he said.  What mattered was what he did and he took a four-win team and turned them into a ten-win team and won the division,” Didinger said when asked to evaluate how he felt about the Eagles’ hire.

The biggest key when it comes to Kelly’s up tempo offense in Didinger’s opinion is converting third downs.  That way a three-and-out in the span of a minute or less doesn’t happen and prevents the defense from getting gassed and spending too much time on the field.  However the criticism of Chip Kelly has dissipated win after win and with good reason.  “It’s at the point where you really can’t offer too much criticism for a guy that’s made the improvements he’s made from top to bottom,” Didinger said.

Now, the reason the Eagles are in this position to host a playoff game is because of their victory in Dallas on Sunday night to clinch the NFC East.  Most were expecting the Eagles to roll against Dallas without Tony Romo and Didinger said he was surprised the game stayed as close as it did.  “I thought the Eagles would score more points.  The Cowboys defense was so bad I thought the Eagles would score well up into the 30s.  But looking back on it was a divisional road game and it’s kind of silly to say ‘oh they’ll blow em out’” Didinger added.

When looking at this New Orleans game, one of the things that jumped out to me that the Eagles need to improve is their pass rush.  They struggled to get to Kyle Orton and I think it’s safe to say if they can’t wreak havoc for Drew Brees he may be able to sit back and pick the defense apart.  Didinger said that part of the reason the Eagles did not get tons of pressure on Orton was that Dallas did a good job designing a game plan that included Orton getting rid of the ball early before the rush came.  He added that Brees does a good job of finding his targets quickly which poses a challenge to Billy Davis and the defensive unit that, if you take away Minnesota, have played well since the Denver game in week four.

                                              Associated Press
LeSean McCoy  will have to turn in another stellar
performance to keep the Eagles season alive.
Offensively for the Eagles, Didinger said that the Eagles have to do what they do best and run the ball with LeSean McCoy.  The Cowboys were able to get to Nick Foles more than expected and made it hard for him to make some of the throws that he’s been making throughout his run that’s seen him throw 27 touchdowns to only two interceptions and also forced a Foles fumble.  Didinger noted that while New Orleans is known primarily for what they do offensively with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham, their defense is quietly having a very nice season ranked fourth overall in total defense.

So Didinger expects New Orleans to be able to generate a pass rush and noted two key players to look out for on the New Orleans defense.  Defensive end Cameron Jordan is fifth in the NFL in sacks with 12.5 on the season and right behind him at sixth with 12 sacks this season is outside linebacker Junior Galette.  This perhaps explains why Didinger believes the Eagles win Saturday with a lot of Lesean McCoy.  “Luckily for the Eagles if there’s a weakness in the Saints defense it’s on the ground.  I think the Eagles will win the game but whenever it’s not worth getting overconfident about.  It’s a postseason game and your going up against Drew Brees,” Didinger said.

Home field and the weather certainly may play to the Eagles advantage on Saturday night as New Orleans went 8-0 in their Superdome but only 3-5 away from home and looked lost at times in road games against the Jets and Rams.  It will certainly be a fun game Saturday night.  But it’s important to realize that the fact that the Eagles are playing in this game is one hell of an accomplishment.