Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Definitive Super Bowl Primer --- updated, re-revised and re-reposted

As we all know, the game can be won or lost long before the kickoff. You can’t afford to get distracted by all the hoopla surrounding the game in the two weeks leading up to it. There will be plenty of time to party after the game is over. The team that is better prepared, better disciplined, better coached and that has the better game plan will win.

But once the ball is kicked off, you can throw out all the notes, the film, and the Xs and Os because it basically comes down to execution. Football is a simple game of blocking and tackling, that is all. Which means neither team can afford to make mental mistakes or have blown assignments. It is all about execution---that is what playoff football is all about, and the team that executes better on that day will win.. If you gotta take it up a notch in the playoffs, you gotta take it up two or three notches in the Super Bowl. As Scrib50 reminded me the last time I posted this, it is important to emphasize that the players don't get caught up in the grandeur of the game and try to do too much... they have to remember to play within themselves. The defenders can't afford to go for the spectacular hit all the time---they have to make the sure tackle. The receivers have gotta make sure they catch the ball before they start turning upfield---you can't score a TD if you dont have the ball. The QB has to be calm even if his team is down---you cannot get it all back in one throw.

And what it all comes down to, every year, is that defense wins championships. The front four on the defensive line has to get pressure on the QB and hurry him, knock him down, disrupt the offensive rhythm, get into his head, send him a message that they will be in his face all day. You gotta stuff the run and you gotta get to the QB. You gotta create turnovers. One thing your defense absolutely has to do is get off the field on third downs.

And on the offensive side of the ball, you gotta make sure you establish the running game. If you can run, that takes the pressure off the QB and opens up the play-action pass, which means the defense can’t just pin their ears back and rush the QB. Plus you can bleed the clock and have the defense sucking wind by the fourth quarter. And of course, you have to convert third downs….which means that you have to have positive yardage on first and second downs….ending up repeatedly in third and long will usually mean trouble for you.

Therefore, particularly in big games where both teams are good and evenly matched, the battle is always won in the trenches. The unsung heroes are always in the offensive line. If the O line can give the QB time to look to his second and third reads, it could be a long day for the secondary. But all the offense in the world is no good if you cannot protect the football. As always, turnovers will kill ya. You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win championships. The team with the better turnover ratio will win. Also, you gotta avoid penalties, especially the stupid penalties that are caused by mental errors.

But protecting the ball is not enough to win; you gotta have great special teams play too. The special teams always play a huge role (or an uuuuuge role, if you’re Al Miracles) in determining the outcome of the game. A blocked punt or blocked field goal, or a muffed punt, or pinning the opponent inside their 5-yard line can completely turn the momentum around. Plus, special teams determine the outcome of that most basic of all football ‘game-within-the-game’ chess-matches---the field position battle. In all big games, field position will eventually determine the outcome of the game. Good field position can lead to an easy score and bad field position can lead to an ill-timed turnover.

You gotta remember that both teams have made it to the Super Bowl not by fluke but because they are good, battle tested, mentally tough teams that know how to win. That is why they are playing for the WORLD championship. So in the end it will come down to who wants it more. Who has the desire, the hunger, the stick-to-it-iveness, the refuse-to-lose mentality? Will the X-factors emerge on the biggest stage? Of course, one can never forget the intangibles.

In the end, it comes down to how the superstars and the play-makers play; great players make big plays in huge games on the grandest stage----that’s what playoff football is all about. The team that makes more plays will win. But all that having been said and done, nobody can contest this fact----when time runs out, the team with more points will be the champion.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

NFL Playoff musings…

I almost feel bad for the Ravens…almost…

They had this game halfway in their pocket. I’m sure the Ravens offense will get most of the blame and they deserve some of it for the key turnovers that changed the game in the third quarter. Flacco will get further heat for “coming up short in big games”...unfairly, I think, because he made two throws that could have changed the outcome. He found Boldin in the end zone and hit him in the chest with the football but Boldin dropped it. And he made a pretty amazing pass to TJ Houshmandzadeh on their last 4th down….4th and forever and he put the ball right on the money for 1st down yardage and TJ dropped it. If Boldin makes the straightforward TD catch, they’d have been up by 4 (instead of tying the game with a FG) and the game may have been lost for the Steelers. With time running down in the 4th quarter, (and especially against great defenses) mounting a successful drive with the score tied is easier than mounting a successful drive while down by 4 pts…in the former case a FG is meaningful and valuable, so the defense has to respect all options on the field and the offense can dictate terms better. If the Steelers had been down by four points, I seriously doubt Ben could have completed that pass to Brown…the safeties would have been sitting on the long routes and cared less about the underneath stuff.

BTW, while Brown made a great ‘helmet’ catch he also made it more exciting than it had to be. I looked at the replay several times online…Ben flings the ball about 60 yds downfield and drops it in just over the shoulder of Brown, in stride….that pass was damn close to perfect…as was Flacco’s pass to Boldin the end zone… but Boldin dropped it while Brown caught it, and I guess it is by such margins that games are won and lost and careers and reputations of QBs are made and broken.

Few things, sports-wise, give me as much pleasure as watching Aaron Rodgers play QB. And not just because of what I think of Brett Favre….Rodgers has been under unfairly intense pressure since day one and he has been great. I thought it was ridiculous that people picked on him for not winning a playoff game when on the only occasion he played in one he led the team to 45 points. But hey, the media is generally too busy making apologies for the Mannings of the world to care or notice…..

What Green Bay, and Rodgers, has accomplished this year is freaking amazing. Every time I feel bad about the Steelers having to deal with injuries on their O-line I remind myself that Green Bay is much worse off….and that they still find a way to kick some ass when it counts. That beatdown in Atlanta last night was sobering….I mean, I thought Green Bay could win but didn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that Atlanta could be dismantled like that at home.

The only thing that sucks about the NFL playoffs is that they go by so fast. But that’s also the beauty of the NFL…even with everyone’s (including their own) efforts to overexpose it, the games largely occur only once a week and the playoffs are single-elimination. This is why it remains so much fun….as opposed to baseball and basketball where the seasons are way too long and even the playoffs are painfully drawn out. The NFL is a great example of “less is more”….of course, the league members (and the networks) are doing everything they can to ruin that state of affairs but that’s another story for another day.