2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Green Bay at Washington

The Washington Redskins host the Green Bay Packers in the last of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 4:40 p.m. ET on Fox.

What’s the Plot?

If you had asked a football fan who they thought would win between these two teams any time this season before about a month ago, or really anytime in the past twenty years before about a month ago, the answer would have been the same and it would have been confident: the Green Bay Packers. All of a sudden, it’s not so clear. The Packers have had profound trouble on offense in their last few games while the Washington Redskins have slowly but surely improved. It still feels wrong to say it, but this looks like the most evenly matched game of the weekend.

Who are the main characters on the Green Bay Packers?

Aaron Rodgers – Aaron Rodgers is generally thought of as the best quarterback alive. So why is he having so much trouble this year? One obvious answer is that he’s missing his best wide receiver, Jordy Nelson, who injured his knee before the season started and will not play until next year. That might explain it, and it certainly raises the general fan’s opinion of Jordy Nelson if it does, but it doesn’t seem like enough. How can the best quarterback of a generation be stymied by the loss of a single receiver? Watching Rodgers these days is like an optical illusion: because he’s been so good for so long, you expect to see him be remarkable but he persists in being pedestrian. It will be very interesting to see how he plays in this game.

Eddie Lacy – If Rodgers is an illusion, Lacy is a conundrum. It’s difficult to explain such a talented runner having such an up-and-down season. He’s played great one game, poorly the next, and sometimes not at all. He’s been called overweight and unmotivated. Who knows what’s up with him off the field that might explain his performance this year. What we do know is how impactful he can be when he’s on. The Packers will do everything they can to get him on for this game.

Mike McCarthy – Mike McCarthy has been the coach of the Green Bay Packers for the last ten years. That’s a long time in football terms and it’s also Aaron Rodgers’ entire career. Despite having won a Super Bowl in 2010 and returned to the playoffs every year since then, McCarthy is not thought of as a great coach. My guess is that this is due to a combination of Rodgers getting the bulk of the credit and McCarthy making too many obvious time-management blunders at the end of games. In any event, despite the historic patience of the Green Bay organization, McCarthy could be in trouble if his team plays poorly in this game.

Who are the main characters on the Washington Redskins?

Kirk Cousins – Four years ago, the Washington Redskins traded a slew of draft picks to the St. Louis Rams in order to draft a quarterback high in the 2012 NFL draft. That quarterback was Robert Griffin III. Later on in the same draft, down in the fourth round, the team took another quarterback, Kirk Cousins. While RGIII has sputtered, Cousins has thrived. In this, his first full season starting, he led the team to a division title and what’s more important, he’s steadily improved throughout the year. Cousins could always make big plays but now he seems more able to avoid the big mistakes that plagued him earlier in his career.

DeSean Jackson – Wide Receiver DeSean Jackson is the most dangerous player on the field… for both teams. He’s a brash, big play receiver who sometimes has lapses in big moments. He has a history of celebrating touchdowns too early and dropping the ball before he actually scored. Just a few weeks ago, he was returning a punt and ran backwards about fifteen yards before fumbling the ball. For every one mistake he makes, he makes three or four great plays, but even so, fans of both teams will hold their breath when he has the ball.

Alfred Morris – The Washington Redskins featured running back will once again be the dependable Alfred Morris. On the field, Morris is a solid if unspectacular player but it’s hard not to love him for his off-field personality. He drives to work in the 25-year-old car he had before he was a professional football player. That is, he drives it when he’s not biking to work. He gets together before every home game to chat with a group of stadium ushers he’s friends with. He seems like a truly awesome dude.

Who is going to win?

Oh, I guess the Washington Redskins should win this game. They are definitely the team that has played better over the past four to six weeks. That said, it’s impossible for me to truly believe that a team whose quarterback is Kirk Cousins should really win over a team whose quarterback is Aaron Rodgers. When in doubt, go with the better quarterback, and Rodgers is the best. Green Bay will find a way to win.

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Seattle at Minnesota

The Minnesota Vikings host the Seattle Seahawks in the third of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Sunday, January 10, 2016 at 1 p.m. ET on NBC.

What’s the Plot?

By winning their last game of the season, the Minnesota Vikings clinched their division title and guaranteed that they would host their first playoff game. Hosting a game is usually good news for a team’s chances (home teams win 59% of the time in the regular season and 65% of the time in this round of the playoffs) and it’s always good news for the home fans who get to see a playoff game in person. In this case, there’s an enormous dose of negativity mixed in with that optimisim. To start with, the weather is supposed to be freezing. Actually, it’s supposed to be between 31 and 41 degrees below freezing with a steady 10-15 mph wind. That’s enough to bother even hearty Minnesotans! Perhaps even more importantly, winning the division matched the Vikings up with the Seattle Seahawks, a team no one wanted to play. The Seahawks have a lower seed because of a slow start to the year but they’re still the team that went to the last two Super Bowls and a frightening matchup.

Who are the main characters on the Seattle Seahawks?

Russell Wilson – After three years in the NFL, quarterback Russell Wilson had led his team to the playoffs in all three years and to the Super Bowl twice, winning once. That’s a heck of a record for any quarterback, especially one who was thought to be too small to be successful in the NFL. Despite that amazing start, it wasn’t until this season, his fourth in the league, that you started hearing people talk about Wilson as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. With injuries hampering the team’s running offense, it started to rely more heavily on Wilson and he did not dissapoint. It’s largely through his amazing improvisation and accurate passing that the Seahawks are back in the playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Marshawn Lynch – Running back Marshawn Lynch, known as Beast Mode for his brutally physical running style, has missed the last month and a half after having surgery on a sports hernia. A sports hernia is a significant tear in the abdominal wall and muscles and the surgery to repair it is pretty major. Lynch plans on being back for this game, but it’s an open question of how close to his normal self he’ll be able to be.

K.J. Wright/Bobby Wagner/Bruce Irving – Over the past few years, the Seahawks have been known for the strength of their defense. More specifically, they’ve been known for their strong secondary (nicknamed the Legion of Boom) and their aggressive pass rushing defensive line. In this game however, because the strenghts of their opponent are a strong running attack and a mobile quarterback, the most important part of the Seahawks defense may be their linebackers. In K.J. Wright, Bobby Wagner, and Bruce Irving, the Seahawks have three strong veteran linebackers. The outcome of this game is most likely to hinge on their success or failure.

Who are the main characters on the Minnesota Vikings?

Adrian Peterson – Running Back Adrian Peterson has been thought of as the best running back in the NFL since his rookie season in 2007. Even at age 30, (an age many running backs slow down at,) Peterson is still one of, if not the best running back in the league. He seems to get stronger throughout the game, running his best late in the fourth quarter when the defense starts to get seriously tired and sick of tackling him. Peterson has been a problematic figure to root for since his arrest last year for beating his young son.

Teddy Bridgewater – If Peterson is the past and present of the Minnesota Vikings, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the future. This is only Bridgewater’s second year in the league and the Vikings have seemed to be approaching his development slow and steady. Their approach is to run the ball, play good defense, and ask Bridgewater just not to lose the game. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Vikings get down by ten points. I believe that Bridgewater is capable of doing more than he’s been asked to do, but the proof is in the pudding. Let’s see it.

Who is going to win?

Of all four games this weekends, Seattle is the biggest favorite. I suppose that should make me think they’re going to win, but I don’t. I have a funny feeling that between the freezing cold, the early start time (noon in Minnesota will feel like 10 a.m. for the Seahawks), and the vagaries of the NFL, the Vikings will find a way to win. Also, I’ve been rooting against the Seahawks for no reason for the last several years and I’m not going to start now!

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati

The Cincinnati Bengals host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 8:15 p.m. ET on CBS.

What’s the Plot?

This game will be the third of the season between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. This is possible because the two teams are in the same division, the AFC North, and so they always play twice during the regular season. The Bengals won the division and the Steelers qualified for the playoffs as a Wild Card. Luck has paired them together for a third time but the question is, who will it be lucky for? The last time the two teams played, both teams seemed at least as interested in being the more physical team as being the team that scored more points. I’d expect that element of physicality to continue in this game.

Who are the main characters on the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Ben Roethlisberger – At the start of this season, I described quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as “”Giant, raw, and talented in his first few years as a professional, Roethlisberger has evolved into a solid quarterback whose success seems inevitable and effortless.”” That’s pretty good! I’ll stick with it. This year has only confirmed that Roethlisberger’s success. Surrounded by talented wide receivers and leaned on even more heavily by his team in the absence of injured running back Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger has thrived.

Antonio Brown/Martavis Bryant/Marcus Wheaton – As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the most talented trios of wide receivers in the league. Antonio Brown is the leader of the bunch. He’s an all-purpose brilliant wide receiver. He’s good at everything. You can throw him a short pass and expect him to run with the ball or send him deep and hurl the ball to him. He’s deceptively powerful, quick, and reliable. He’s even a dynamic punt returner. Alongside Brown are two young receivers whose ceilings seem limitless. Both Martavis Bryant and Marcus Wheaton are deep ball specialists. They can either run past their defenders or jump over them, but either way, when Roethlisberger drops back and winds up, the expectation is that one of these guys is going to do something spectacular. Bryant is the more exciting of the two — his nickname, “the alien,” nicely expresses how unusual his skills are.”

Who are the main characters on the Cincinnati Bengals?

Andy Dalton – Andy Dalton, the starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, has managed to be both surprisingly successful and surprisingly unsuccessful in his time in the NFL. This is his fifth year and in each of his four previous years, he’s helped his team make the playoffs. That’s a surprisingly successful record for any young quarterback, much less one who was drafted late in the second round. Unfortunately for Dalton, the Bengals have lost all four of the playoff games he’s been involved in, and in many of them, he’s played poorly. The question remains, which is the “real Dalton?” The guy who wins a lot in the regular season or the guy who always loses in the playoffs? This game may be a referrendum on that topic, but Dalton will have to play to make it so. He broke his thumb five weeks ago and as of now is not practicing. Whether he plays or whether it’s his backup, AJ McCarron, Dalton will be a big part of the story.

Giovani Bernard/Jeremy Hill – The Cincinnati Bengals have two very different players at running back. Giovani Bernard is quick, sudden, and small. Jeremy Hill is a battering ram. Which back the Bengals decide to use more often early in the game will give a good indication of how they think they can beat the Steelers. If Bernard is in, it’s a good bet the Bengals think they can outscore the Steelers by passing the ball. If Hill is in, the Bengals either think they can win by being more physical or they are scared of the Steelers and want to shorten the game (running takes more time off the clock than passing.)

Marvin Lewis – Marvin Lewis is the long-time head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Like his counterpart on the Steelers sideline, Mike Tomlin, Lewis has been the beneficiary of a very patient owner. He’s coached through good times and bad times. If the Bengals lose this game, particularly if Dalton plays and they lose, Lewis may finally find his job in serious jeopardy. It’s much harder to change quarterbacks than coaches and five consecutive playoff losses may be too much to take sitting down, even for a patient owner.

Who is going to win?

It’s hard for me to imagine the Pittsburgh Steelers losing this game. Their passing game is so good and so explosive that it should dominate this game. The Bengals will go into the game worried about how they are going to neutralize the Steelers passing on defense and keep up with them on offense. Add the fact that the Bengals will be going with either their backup quarterback or a newly healed Andy Dalton who hasn’t played in a month, and things don’t seem good for Cincinnati. Steelers win.

2016 NFL Wildcard Preview: Kansas City at Houston

The Houston Texans host the Kansas City Chiefs in the first of the four 2016 National Football League (NFL) Wild Card playoff games. This game is on Saturday, January 9, 2016 at 4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN or ABC if you’re in the Houston or Kansas City areas.

What’s the Plot?

The Kansas City Chiefs are an easy team to root for. Full of characters with obvious flaws but even more obvious redeeming characteristics, they came charging back from a bad start to the season, winning their last 10 games of the season to make the playoffs. The Houston Texans are by no means villains, but winning their sorry AFC South division with a 9-7 record doesn’t exactly inspire confidence or a strong desire to see them win in the playoffs. Both teams have close to extraordinary defenses that drag their more pedestrian offenses to success.
“Andy Reid – Head Coach Andy Reid looks like a giant walrus and coaches like one too. What does that mean? Is ‘walrus’ really a meaningful football term? No, it is not. Reid was the long-time coach of the Philadelphia Eagles where he presided over a consistently very good team that came just short of winning a Super Bowl. In Kansas City, he’s had his ups and downs but has mostly been very successful. His specialty is generating offense from teams without any super-stars. His tragic flaw is time management. Late in games, you can almost count on Reid to misuse his team’s timeouts. This is a very visible flaw which sometimes seems to cost his teams victories but realistically, it’s only a small part of coaching.

Who are the main characters on the Kansas City Chiefs?

Alex Smith — Quarterback Alex Smith was drafted number one overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. His story has always been one of moderate success despite two great deficiencies: hand size and arm strength. The importance of arm strength is obvious — if your arm isn’t strong enough to throw the ball far down the field, it’s hard to be successful. When you watch Smith, compare his throws in your mind to others that you’ve seen. You might notice his throws looking not as snappy as other quarterbacks. More likely you can notice what you don’t see — the so-called “”out pattern throws.”” An out is when a wide receiver runs down the field and then perpendicularly to the sideline. The quarterback is expected to throw the ball before the wide receiver turns so it’s there for him to catch. It’s a difficult throw to make because, even more than the longer down-field throws, it has to be made with strength so defenders don’t have time to intercept it. Smith pretty much doesn’t even attempt these throws. What Smith does do, he does extremely well. He’s very athletic, able to avoid defenders trying to sack him and even to make longish dowfield scrambling runs at time. He rarely makes bad decisions that lead to interceptions or fumbles. He’s a solid but unspectacular dude.

Eric Berry — Safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a little over a year ago. He got treatment and was back to playing shape by the time this season started. His play this season has been nothing short of inspiring. He’s back to what he was before the cancer, one of the best safeties in the league. Also, from his Wikipedia page, comes the odd but charming fact: “Berry suffers from equinophobia, a fear of horses, frequently brought on by the Kansas City Chiefs’ mascot, Warpaint. The fear was brought on after a traumatizing childhood event at a petting zoo where a horse bit him while his back was turned.”

Who are the main characters on the Houston Texans?

J.J. Watt — Defensive end J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL. In his four years in the league before this one, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award twice. His team plays a 3-4 defense, which means that there are three players in the defensive line (at the start of each plays, the defensive line crouches directly opposite the offensive line) and four linebackers upright behind them. Most teams that play this formation expect the three linemen to battle their opposites to a standstill while the real pressure on the quarterback comes from linebackers. Watt is so dominant that he’s able to create pressure as one of the three linemen. Doing this is almost like giving his team an extra player to play with. Off the field, he’s in a trillion commercials, including that one for… a cell phone, I think, where he’s chopping wood in a forest.

Deandre Hopkins — Wide Receiver Deandre Hopkins is one of the best wide receivers in the league. This is an amazing feat because he’s not remarkably tall or unusually fast. He must be extraordinary at the less obvious skills for a wide receiver: running precise and deceptive routes, not foreshadowing the moment when he’s going to reach up and catch the ball, having precise control over his body, timing his jump perfectly so the ball reaches him at the apex of his leaping ability. Hopkins is a joy to watch… as long as you’re not rooting against him. ”

Who is going to win?

The Houston Texans were able to make the playoffs despite being forced to start four different quarterbacks during the season. Overcoming injuries to that many quarterbacks and still succeeding is a rare feat but overcoming an injury to the team’s starting left tackle is even more difficult. That’s what the Texans are facing after starting left tackle Duane Brown tore his quadriceps muscle in last week’s game. If you think it’s strange that an injury to a left tackle should be so much more damaging than one to a quarterback, you should read Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side. I’m a believer in the power of the left tackle, so I’ve got to believe that the Kansas City Chiefs will win this game.


A Thanksgiving 2015 NFL football preview

For many people, football is a part of Thanksgiving as much as the turkey, the stuffing, or the pie. For others, it’s a foreign addition to the meal, like corned beef and cabbage or Chinese food (both of which my family has cooked for past Thanksgivings, but that’s another story…) Sometimes, those people sit down at the same table. When that happens, it’s important for the football fans to realize that not everyone shares their passion. Sports fans need to make an effort to talk about other things sometimes. Then again, if those other things are going to be politics, religion, or money… maybe it’s a good idea for the non-sports fans to brush up on their football. For the sake of peace and good will at the Thanksgiving table, here’s what you need to know about the three NFL football games on Thanksgiving Day, 2015.

Philadelphia Eagles at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET on Fox

The Lions are one of two teams that traditionally host Thanksgiving games. Most years, their fans have very little to be thankful for. This year was shaping up to be much the same after the team lost seven of its first eight games. Then the Lions went on the road to Green Bay, where they had not won since 1991. They won! Riding that wave of generational positivity, (yes, even for a 2-7 team,) the Lions won their next game against the Oakland Raiders. That was just last weekend. With the playoffs only the most pipey of pipe dreams, this Thanksgiving game will be the biggest game for the Lions for the rest of the year, simply because of the national spotlight playing on Thanksgiving gives the franchise. Their opponents in this game, the Philadelphia Eagles, are in even greater disarray. Unlike the Lions, the Eagles were supposed to be good this year and to challenge seriously for their division title. They’ve only won four games of their first ten and are hanging on to playoff hopes solely because their division is so bad. The best record in the division is only 5-5. The Eagles have lost three of their last four games and they and their egomaniacal, unorthodox, coach and general manager, Chip Kelly seem to be headed toward a sloppy divorce.

So, yes, these teams are not very good. On the other hand, because of that, the game could go in almost any direction. If you care about either of these two teams — for rooting, gambling, or fantasy reasons — then there’s a lot of suspense to be found here. The Lions could win by twenty. The Eagles could win by twenty. The game could be high scoring or low scoring. It could go into overtime or be over by the time your doorbell rings announcing your first guest. No one really knows. And that makes it kind of fun to watch.

Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. ET on CBS

Alas, the most intriguing game of the day happens in the time least likely to be convenient for watching. 4:30 is pretty much dinner time on Thanksgiving, at least on the East Coast. Both teams, the visiting Carolina Panthers and the host Dallas Cowboys will be trying to do something for the first time ever. The Carolina Panthers have already set a record for the best start to a season their franchise has ever had. At 10-0, they are one of only two remaining undefeated teams in the league. Only 11 teams have ever started a season with 11 straight wins, and the Panthers will be trying to join that group on Thanksgiving. The team is led by three incredible players. Cam Newton is their leader on offense. A 6’5″ 250 lb behemoth, he’s the rare NFL quarterback who has the ability to run the ball almost as well as he can throw it and the build to hold up to the hits he takes when running. On defense, the Panthers are led by two players who are both near the top of their positions: Luke Keuchly at middle linebacker and Josh Norman at corner back. As for the Cowboys, they’re trying to do something which no NFL team has ever done before — make the playoffs after a 2-7 start. There are two things that give them hope in this audacious goal. The first is that all of their losses this season came while quarterback Tony Romo was injured and most while their best wide receiver, Dez Bryant, was injured as well. The second hopeful factor is that they are in the same division as the Eagles — the NFC East — and at 3-7, they are only two wins behind the division leading New York Giants.

One curious feature of this game is that the Cowboys are favored by a point. This means that people betting on the Cowboys need them to win by more than one point in order to make money while people betting on the Carolina Panthers would win even if the teams tied. It’s fairly extraordinary for a 10-0 team to be an underdog against a 3-7 team. This is partially because home teams tend to do a little better than visiting teams and because the Cowboys are notoriously a public team. Whatever the reason for it, you can be sure that the Panthers will use being an underdog as motivation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat the Cowboys soundly.

Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC

The nightcap of the football schedule is a perfect game for sitting on the couch, enjoying a nightcap of your own or even some leftover pie or turkey sandwiches. The Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have played against each other more times than any two teams in NFL history. They are two classic franchises, and watching them play, especially late in the season, is like taking a trip back in time. By the time the game starts in Green Bay, the wind will be blowing around 15 mph, it will be right around freezing, and there’s a 90% chance of precipitation. There’s nothing better than watching football in bad weather… from the comfort of your couch.

As for the football game, the jury is out on whether Green Bay is an elite, championship contender this year. In Aaron Rodgers, they have the world’s best quarterback (with the possible exception of Tom Brady) but the question is how much quality he can wring out of the team’s group of less talented wide receivers. At times this season, the Packers offense has looked as good as ever, but in other games it has had periods of profound helplessness. Profound helplessness is pretty much the norm for Chicago Bears fans. Their team seems locked in an endless cycle of almost getting good and then falling apart again. This season has been a microcosm of that experience. The Bears started the season with three wins. Then they clawed their way back to reasonableness with two wins. Then they lost two more games to place them firmly in a bad place. Then, after their fans had given up a second time, they won two more games to go to 4-5 on the year, one game away from .500. A close loss last week to the Denver Broncos makes this game close to a must-win if the Bears have any hope of reaching the playoffs this year.

I fear that this game may get out of hand early if Green Bay gets out to an early lead. That would really be a shame, because this has the potential to be the coziest, most enjoyable football game of the day.

One line to fool them all – 9.28.15

Sports talk is frequently used as a common language but it’s far from universal. If you’re someone who doesn’t follow or even understand sports, you can find yourself at a disadvantage in common small-talk situations like in an elevator, waiting for a bus, sitting at a bar, or around the proverbial water cooler at work. Even if you are a sports fan, it’s impossible to watch everything and know everything. To help in these situations, we provide lines to use when engaged in a conversation about all of the high profile sporting events of the day, plus explanations of what they mean.

NFL Football

Cincinnati Bengals 28 at Baltimore Ravens 24

Line: Win the Raven, nevermore.

What it means: The Baltimore Ravens were actually named after Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The Raven. This may not completely excuse your mangling of Poe for the purpose of rubbing a little salt in your Baltimore fan friend’s wounds after the Ravens lost their third game in a row, but do it anyway. At 0-3, the playoffs seem like an unlikely possibility at this point for the Ravens, particularly because this most recent loss came at the hands of their divisional opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, who are 3-0.

New Orleans Saints 22 at Carolina Panthers 27

Line: The Saints almost did it without Brees, but they didn’t quite have enough.

What it means: The New Orleans Saints were one of several teams facing an 0-3 start and one of a few teams playing without their starting quarterback. Virtually no one expected them to be able to play competitively with the Carolina Panthers, much less win, but they were surprisingly good. In the end, the Panthers, with their start quarterback Cam Newton who played extremely well, were too much for the Saints to contend with.

Oakland Raiders 27 at Cleveland Browns 20

Line: Let’s hold up on the parade for the Raiders – their wins have come against the 0-3 Ravens and 1-2 Browns.

What it means: Oakland Raiders fans and unaffiliated football observers might get excited by the Raiders first two-game win streak in more than three seasons. Although it’s never wrong to celebrate, it might be wrong to conclude that the Raiders are a good football team, because their two wins have come against teams that seem not to be very good themselves. With the pitiful Chicago Bears coming up for the Raiders next week, it might be another couple weeks before we find out more about how good the Raiders actually are.

Atlanta Falcons 39 at Dallas Cowboys 28

Line: Don’t think the lesson is that the Cowboys can score with Weeden. The lesson is that the Falcons can’t stop anyone.

What it means: After losing starting quarterback Tony Romo, to a broken collarbone last week, the Dallas Cowboys have been forced to go with backup quarterback Brandon Weeden this week and for the forceable future. Without Romo (and star wide receiver Dez Bryant) many feared the Cowboys wouldn’t have enough skill on offense to play competitively. Some Cowboys fans might be comforted by having watched the team score 28 points in today’s losing effort, but I think that’s more of a reflection of how bad the Falcons defense is than anything about the Cowboys offense with Weeden.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9 at Houston Texans 19

Line: Neither of these teams is going anywhere this season but the Bucs are traveling nowhere faster.

What it means: In honor of Yogi Berra, who died this week, that’s my best Berra-esque comment about this game. The Buccaneers are worse than the Texans but both teams are bad enough that casual fans can stop paying them any attention.

San Diego Chargers 14 at Minnesota Vikings 31

Line: I wonder how much of the Charger’s issue this year is Los Angeles hanging over their heads?

What it means: The San Diego Chargers are one of a few teams that are rumored to be candidates for relocation to Los Angeles after this season. A move could be distracting to any team, but particularly one whose veteran quarterback has vocally opposed the move in the press. Connecting the team’s slow start to the relocation issue is not obvious, so get some football knowledge points by suggesting its possibility.

Jacksonville Jaguars 17 at New England Patriots 51

Line: The way the Patriots are playing, bye week can’t come soon enough for the rest of the league.

What it means: During an NFL season, each team gets one week off. That week, called a bye week, is next week for the New England Patriots. This will come as a relief to the other teams in the league, because the Patriots have been unbelievably good so far this year, winning their first three games easily and scoring 119 points (which is a lot!)

Philadelphia Eagles 24 at New York Jets 17

Line: This game is the classic lesson about jumping to conclusions after the first two weeks.

What it means: Coming into this game, the Philadelphia Eagles were 0-2 and people were already talking about firing the coach. The New York Jets were 2-0 and some of their fans might have quietly Googled this year’s Super Bowl, just to see where it was… just in case. After today’s game, both sides are quietly moderating their early conclusions about their teams.

Pittsburgh Steelers 12 at St. Louis Rams 6

Line: What’s the latest on Big Ben’s knee?

What it means: The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger (nicknamed Big Ben after because of his stature and the existence of the British clock, Big Ben), to a knee injury during this game. The injury happened when a defensive player tripped and slid into Roethlisberger’s legs. There was immediate speculation that Roethlisberger could have a serious injury, which might force him to miss the rest of the season. Although the next round of rumors was more positive, we won’t know for sure until the results of the inevitable MRI are leaked/shared tomorrow.

Indianapolis Colts 35 at Tennessee Titans 33

Line:  Eh. I’m not impressed. Win or not, needing heroics to beat the Titans does not show the Colts in a positive light.

What it means: The Indianapolis Colts have been one of the biggest disappointments so far this year. They avoided a 0-3 start by beating the Tennessee Titans, but if quarterback Andrew Luck and the rest of his team want to restore confidence of their being a clear playoff team, they’ll have to beat a stronger team than the Titans. As disheartening as this weekend’s loss must be for the Titans, this season is all about the development of rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, and he continued his promising start in this game.

San Francisco 49ers 7 at Arizona Cardinals 47

Line: We have our answer now, the 49ers are terrible.

What it means: The San Francisco 49ers were expected to be awful this year. Then they won their first game in convincing fashion. That confused most people’s ideas about what kind of team they were going to be this year. Even after a loss last week, people weren’t sure. Now, they are. The 49ers are bad, bad, bad.

Buffalo Bills 41 at Miami Dolphins 14

Line: Is there a more disappointing free agent signing than Ndamukong Suh?

What it means: Coming off a promising season last year, the Miami Dolphins made one of the biggest splashes during the offseason by agreeing to a contract with Ndamukong Suh, the controversial but undeniably talented defensive lineman. So far this season, he’s been a bust in Miami. The Dolphins can’t seem to stop anyone on defense, certainly not the Bills today.

Chicago Bears 0 at Seattle Seahawks 26

Line: Oh well. I was cracking up when it was 3-0 halfway through the second quarter, but eventually all good things must come to an end.

What it means: Unless you are a Seattle Seahawks fan, the prospect of a 0-2 Chicago Bears team, playing without their starting quarterback and best wide receiver, coming into Seattle and defeating the desperate 0-2 Seahawks was a hysterically funny one. The Seahawks are a brash bunch whose success over the past few seasons has engendered a lot of envy, so the longer it seemed possible they would fall to 0-3 at the hands of the hapless Bears, the funnier it was.

Denver Broncos 24 at Detroit Lions 12

Line: It may not be pretty, but so far it’s working for the Broncos.

What it means: The Denver Broncos may be the most criticized 3-0 team ever. The problem so far has been that their legendary but ancient quarterback, Peyton Manning, has not looked half as good as he has for the entirety of his career. Despite much hemming and hawing about his age and health, my theory is that this has more to do with he and his new coach, Gary Kubiak, feeling each other out. In this game, the Broncos played most of their offensive plays from a formation called the pistol, which was new to both Manning and Kubiak. As the result shows, their experimentation seems to be leading somewhere good.

One line to fool them all – 9.21.15

Sports talk is frequently used as a common language but it’s far from universal. If you’re someone who doesn’t follow or even understand sports, you can find yourself at a disadvantage in common small-talk situations like in an elevator, waiting for a bus, sitting at a bar, or around the proverbial water cooler at work. Even if you are a sports fan, it’s impossible to watch everything and know everything. To help in these situations, we provide lines to use when engaged in a conversation about all of the high profile sporting events of the day, plus explanations of what they mean.

NFL Football

New England Patriots 40 at Buffalo Bills 32


What it means: That Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who wasn’t particularly memorable as a quarterback in college, and who was the backup quarterback in Baltimore for his entire career until this year, has played much better than expected so far this year. In this game, he helped the Bills score three straight touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Despite losing to their rivals in this game, Bills fans are pretty pumped about Taylor.

Tennessee Titans 14 at Cleveland Browns 28

Line: I guess Mariota isn’t the next coming of Marino.

What it means: Marcus Mariota is the rookie quarterback of the Tennessee Titans. Last week, he was nearly perfect, passing for four touchdowns and no interceptions. This had Titans fans thinking they might have a new all-time great to root for, someone like the beloved Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marion, who played for the Dolphins in the 1980s and early 1990s. The story was different for Mariota and the Titans this weekend as they lost to the unremarkable Cleveland Browns.

Houston Texans 17 at Carolina Panthers 24

Line: In a game between two teams built on defense, go with the team that has a quarterback.

What it means: The Houston Texans and the Carolina Panthers are both examples of a relatively rare type of team in the NFL – those that emphasize defense more than offense. The biggest difference between the two teams is that the Panthers have an extremely talented and well established quarterback in Cam Newton, and the Texans have already switched between seemingly equally bad options at starting quarterback and this is only Week Two of the NFL season.

Arizona Cardinals 48 at Chicago Bears 23

Line: They are who we thought they were! And we didn’t let them off the hook.

What it means: This refers to a legendary rant from former Cardinals coach, Dennis Green, after his team lost to a Bears team. He had felt that the then undefeated Bears were beatable and his team was well on their way to proving him right before messing everything up and losing the game. This game was the polar opposite. Everyone thought the Bears were going to be terrible this year. Then they played reasonably well in a Week One loss. Not to worry, the Cardinals traveled to Chicago this weekend and showed everyone that they were right in dismissing the Bears.

San Diego Chargers 19 at Cincinnati Bengals 24

Line: Wake me up when Dalton does this in the playoffs.

What it means: Andy Dalton, the quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, has a reputation for winning during the regular season but losing during the playoffs because… well… that’s all he’s done so far in his career. In his four years as the Bengals quarterback, he’s won an average of 10 games per season (that’s very good) but lost in the first round of the playoffs each year. Even though past events don’t predict future results, it’s hard not to feel slightly bored by the Bengals consistently disappointing seasons.

Detroit Lions 16 at Minnesota Vikings 26

Line: I have no idea what happened in Week One, but the Vikings look good.

What it means: The Minnesota Vikings were many people’s pick to be the young, up-and-coming team this year. Then they went into San Francisco for their first game and played horribly. This week, they looked just like the team many people thought they would be.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26 at New Orleans Saints 19

Line: It really looks like it’s over in New Orleans, doesn’t it.

What it means: Starting the season after Hurricane Katrina, quarterback Drew Brees, coach Sean Peyton, and the whole Saints franchise have had a magical decade. Behind a prolific offense, they won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season. After two straight losses to start this season, including this weekend’s dreadful loss versus divisional opponent Tampa Bay, who themselves were coming off an embarrassing loss, Saints fans have to be worried that their run has come to an end.

Atlanta Falcons 24 at New York Giants 20

Line: Ooooph. I can’t wait to see the New York Post’s headline after this one.

What it means: For the second week in a row, the New York Giants lost a game that they seemed to have comfortably won. This time, they were up 20-10 over the Falcons in the fourth quarter. The New York Post enjoys nothing more than when a New York team loses in ignominious fashion so that they can make fun of them, usually with a giant (get it) bad pun on their back page.

San Francisco 49ers 18 at Pittsburgh Steelers 43

Line: I wouldn’t take too much from this game. The 49ers were on short rest and had to fly east for an early game while the Steelers had 10 days to prepare.

What it means: There are a few scheduling quirks that people who follow football think are significant to the outcome of games. Nearly every one of them was present in this game and they were all slanted against the 49ers. Since the 49ers played last Monday night, they had one fewer day to prepare for this game than is normally the case. The Steelers, on the other hand, having played the previous Thursday, had an extra three days. Lastly, people believe that west coast teams have trouble playing on the east coast when the game begins at 1 p.m. because the players’ internal clocks still think it’s 10 a.m. – time for pancakes, not football.

St. Louis Rams 10 at Washington Redskins 24

Line: Classic let-down by the Rams after their big Week One victory over the Seahawks.

What it means: Despite football being a job, people still think that football teams are driven by emotion roughly the way high-school sports teams are. Win a big and emotional game in one week, like the St. Louis Rams against the Seattle Seahawks last week, and people expect to see an emotional let-down, often accompanied by a loss in the following week. The fact that the Rams lost this week to a team most people feel they should have beaten lends credence to that line of thought.

Baltimore Ravens 33 at Oakland Raiders 37

Line: I think the Cowboys vs. Eagles game went through some kind of worm-hole and came out in Oakland. With different teams.

What it means: Everyone, including Las Vegas bookmakers, expected the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles to be an exciting, high-scoring game. Instead, that game was relatively boring and ugly while this game, which most people thought was going to be a pedestrian Ravens win, turned into the best game of the day.

Dallas Cowboys 20 at Philadelphia Eagles 10

Line: I didn’t think I’d ever say this, but I feel bad for Cowboys fans.

What it means: The Dallas Cowboys have won both their games so far this year, but things are distinctly gloomy for their fans. Their star wide receiver broke a bone in his foot during their first game and their quarterback broke his collar bone in this one. It’s hard to imagine they’ll win many of their next eight games or so, while their two best offensive players are out.

Seattle Seahawks 17 at Green Bay Packers 27

Line: I’m glad Green Bay got some small measure of revenge.

What it means: The Green Bay Packers played the Seattle Seahawks in last year’s NFC Championship. Win, and they would have gone to the Super Bowl. They were winning for most of the game but then collapsed in the fourth quarter and lost in heart-breaking fashion. Winning this game was a small measure of revenge for the Packers. It will make them feel better but not good.

2015: USA Sevens Rugby World Series

In 2015 Dear Sports Fan will be previewing the biggest sporting event of the year in each of the 50 states in the United States plus the district of Columbia. Follow along with us on our interactive 2015 US.

Nevada — USA Sevens Rugby World Series

Rugby — February 13-15, 2015 —  on NBC, NBC Sports Network, and Universal Sport.

You know rugby, right? It’s like American football but the players don’t wear pads and you’re only allowed to pass the ball backwards. Also, play doesn’t really stop all the time like it does in football — it’s more of a fluid game, like soccer or basketball or hockey. It’s played mostly by crazy people from Australia and New Zealand. Well, rugby sevens is an exciting version of rugby played with half the number of people on the exact same size field. By reducing the number of players without changing the size of the field, rugby sevens play becomes way faster and higher scoring than it’s full-size counterpart. The sport is growing quickly and will be a medal-sport for the first time in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. One of the sport’s biggest organized leagues is a series of nine international tournaments played over the course of a year. This weekend, one of the nine tournaments will be hosted in Nevada at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. It’s the only one of the nine held in the United States.

Rugby Sevens has an interesting history. Many people believe it is the future of rugby but that doesn’t mean it is a recent invention. It’s current popularity could be said to have started in 1973 when the first international rugby sevens tournament was held as part of the sport’s 100 year birthday celebration. That’s right, the sport began in the late 1800s in Scotland! Over most of its history, it’s been thought of primarily a training ground for players to develop skills that they could use in traditional rugby. Today, this is less true than ever. Sevens is different enough and popular enough that few players cross from one sport to the other.

For a beginner viewer, the sport has some real advantages. It’s simpler to follow than the fifteen person version and it’s very, very fast. A game consists of two seven minute halves with only a one minute halftime break. In the time it takes to watch one quarter of American football, you could watch two whole games of Rugby Sevens. The championship match is a little longer, but even that is only two ten minute halves separated by a two minute half-time. There’s enough hitting to make you feel like you’re watching an extreme sport but surprisingly little of the disgusting bone/ligament/brain injuries that make watching football tough these days. Give it a try!

What’s the plot?

The stakes for this year’s Sevens World Series are high. The top four teams receive automatic qualification into the 2016 Olympics. Countries that don’t get these spots will still be able to get a spot in the Olympics by doing well in regional international tournaments or, failing that, another global qualification tournament. Still, this is the first chance to qualify and it’s a prized one. After four tournaments, South Africa is a surprise first place team, followed closely by New Zealand (which has won 12 of the 15 championships ever), Fiji, and Australia. Australia is trailed closely by the England team who are only two points behind them. The United States is in eighth place. For our team, that’s actually a pretty good showing so far. They’ve never finished better than 10th in a Rugby Sevens World Series. The United States is not a traditional rugby power-house by any means but a good effort in this tournament at home would give them confidence going into the other opportunities to qualify for the Olympics.

The tournament works a little bit like the soccer World Cup. It begins with a round-robin group stage composed of groups of four teams each. Teams play three games in the group stage, one against each of the others in their group, and receive three points for a win, two for a tie, and one for just showing up. At the end of the group stage, the top two teams advance to the next round. The next round begins with eight teams that play single elimination games. Then there are four and finally two left who play for the championship. In this tournament, the groups are as follows:

  • Group A: New Zealand, Fiji, Wales, Samoa
  • Group B: England, Kenya, Argentina, Canada
  • Group C: South Africa, USA, Portugal, Japan
  • Group D: Scotland, Australia, France, Brazil

If you want to follow the United States team, they’ll be playing Japan at 7:22 p.m. ET and Portugal at 10:18 p.m. ET on Friday, February 13 on Universal Sports and South Africa at 3:40 p.m. ET on Saturday, February 14 on NBC. The elimination rounds will also be televised and hopefully the USA will be playing in them. NBC has coverage on Sunday, February 15 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET when NBC Sports Network takes over.

Who are the characters?

Carlin Isles — Isles is the star of the USA men’s Eagles Seven. He’s also representative of how the United States hopes to become a power in this sport — by stealing athletes from other sports. Isles was primarily a sprinter until just a few years ago when he gave up his dream (and a very reasonable dream, it was) of qualifying for the Olympics as a sprinter. Instead, he got interested in rugby and quickly became an extraordinary member of the USA team. With the inclusion of the sport into the 2016 Olympics, he may get his shot after all, just in a different sport than he expected. Rugby players are fast but virtually none of them are as fast as Isles. Once he gets even an inch of space on the field, it’s hard for anyone to keep up with him and no one is going to catch him.

Here’s a highlight reel of great Carlin Isles plays (it’s got a vaguely NSFW Kanye West music, so be warned). Watch for the shrugs of despair from Isles opponents as he turns the corner on them and they realize he’s just too fast:

Grantland did a short biographical video on Isles that’s also worth working:

The New Zealand All Blacks — I mentioned that New Zealand kind of runs this sport, right? They’ve won almost all the world cups but they’re not in first place this year. They’re called the all blacks because their traditional uniform is, you guessed it, all black, and has been since 1905. In addition to being famous for winning, they’re also famous for performing a Maori Haka dance before each match. Here’s a video of them performing it in the rain before a game last year… shirtless:

Who’s going to win?

Oh, who knows. Probably New Zealand. Maybe South Africa or Australia or Fiji. Possibly France. Or, you know what? How about the United States? Let’s do it!!

Who should you root for in Super Bowl XLIX?

Dear Sports Fan,

After weeks of annoying football coverage, it’s time to actually sit down and watch the game. But I have one question left: who should you root for in Super Bowl XLIX? The Seattle Seahawks or the New England Patriots?


Dear Percy,

I am assuming you don’t live in New England or near Seattle. If you do, then the choice is easy. Unless you are a hater of historic proportions, it’s way more fun to root for your local team than against it. So, if you live anywhere Northeast of the Yankees/Red Sox divide (different sport but the principle is the same) root for the Patriots. If you live in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or the Western side of Montana, root for Seattle. If you live in any other part of the country or the world, you’re a rooting free agent. You can choose a team to root for based on a thousand different things: you like one team’s uniform color, you had a player from one team on your fantasy team this season, you have a crush on a player on one team, you think one team is going to win and you like rooting for the winning team. All of these are perfectly legitimate reasons. If you’re a completely blank slate and need help choosing a team to root for, I do think the two teams have a clear philosophical difference that may be interesting to you.

One of the reasons why football is so popular is that it’s an intriguing mix of brain and brawn. All sports rely on brain and brawn but football balances the intellectual with the physical more delicately than most. Football derives this quality from the fact that the game restarts all the time. A football game consists of around 164 plays that each take an average of between four and five seconds. There is a tremendous amount of athleticism packed into those four or five seconds. Players do amazing things with their bodies: make diving catches while controlling their bodies so just the tips of their toes stay on the ground; leaping over someone to tackle someone else; continuing to run forward with four opponents draped all over them. Between those plays, there’s an immense amount of communication from coaches to players and between players. This is where the intellectual side of the game comes in. Each play is choreographed in incredible detail and practiced meticulously beforehand. Football coaches design how their players are going to move and then choose which play they want the players to execute. In every football game, the best athletes in the world compete to be faster, stronger, and better than their opponents. At the same time, the two opposing sets of coaches are competing to outsmart each other.

Which is more important: a great coach or great players? It’s an open question in football. The two Super Bowl teams this year represent opposing sides in this argument. The New England Patriots franchise is built around their coach, Bill Belichick. It’s often said of him that he could beat your team with his players and then switch sides and beat his team with your players. The Patriots are a living testament to this idea. They regularly cut or trade good, veteran players and trade down in the draft to pick more, less regarded players. They are known for designing a new game plan for each of their opponents. They study their opponents, figure out what their weaknesses are, and then design plays to beat them. The Seattle Seahawks are the opposite. They do what they do best regardless of who their opponent is. On offense, that’s mostly running the ball with their powerful running back, Marshawn Lynch. On defense, they play tight man-to-man coverage on their opponents wide receivers with their two great cornerbacks and play a zone defense against everyone else.

The Seahawks players have nicknames like “Beast Mode,” “Bam Bam Kam,” and “The Legion of Boom.” The Patriots players don’t have nicknames that we know of. They’re too busy cramming for the impromptu pop quizzes their coach gives them about world history. Admittedly, this is both a generalization and a gross simplification but it’s also a good way to choose a team to root for. If you want to root for the team that wants to win by playing harder and better than the other team, then root for the Seahawks. If you want to root for the team that’s going to try to win by outstudying, outpreparing, and outsmarting the other team, then root for the Patriots.

Enjoy the game,
Ezra Fischer

Ten things to watch if you're going to watch Super Bowl XLIX

One third of the people in the United States will sit down on Sunday and watch the Super Bowl. Sure, there’s lots to enjoy beyond the game. The commercials are sometimes fun, the food should be great, and the half-time show has mostly recovered from its post-Timberlake/Jackson malaise. Still, if you want to have a really great time on Sunday, it’s a good idea to prepare yourself to enjoy the football game itself. I invited my friend Brendan to record a podcast with me about ten things to watch for if you’re going to watch the Super Bowl.

This podcast should be informative for football fans and casual viewers alike. I hope you enjoy it! You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Joint Health

Seahawks defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas were both injured in the last Seahawks game. Sherman hyperextended his elbow and Thomas separated his shoulder. Both players stayed in the game despite being in fairly obvious and serious pain. Both also say that their injuries have healed completely and will not be an issue in this game but are they telling the truth?

Vince Wilfork

Vince Wilfork’s job as the Patriots defensive tackle is to use his enormous body and unlikely athleticism to push offensive linemen back towards the quarterback and to plug gaps in the defense so running backs have no where to go. Watch for #75 when the Patriots are on defense. If he moves forwards, the Patriots are in good shape. If the Seahawks can push him backwards, they are in control.

Bill Belichick’s brain vs. Russell Wilson’s brain

Bill Belichick has made his name as a coach largely on his ability to confound quarterbacks by confronting them with exotic defensive formations and tactics that they don’t know how to deal with. Russell Wilson is highly accomplished but he’s still early on in his career. Can Belicheck fool him or will Wilson be able to decipher whatever the Patriots throw at him?

Marshawn Lynch

There’s no more divisive or important figure in this game than Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. He’s been constantly in the news lately for his strange behavior. He’s refused to say anything more than a single phrase to the media during recent press conferences and has been grabbing his crotch after scoring touchdowns. The NFL has fined him for both issues but is he being defiant or disturbed? What’s really going on with him? And what if he scores a touchdown in this game?

Which running back will we see from the Patriots?

More than other teams, the Patriots create a game plan specifically designed each week to attack the opposing team’s weaknesses. One way to tell whether they think they can overpower the other team or whether they think they need to outsmart them is which running back they choose to feature. If LeGarrette Blount is out there, that means they think they can bully and bludgeon the Seahawks to a victory. If Shane Vereen is featured, it means they’ll need to trick their way to a win.

Who is covering Rob Gronkowski?

Rob Gronkowski is the only truly remarkable athlete the Patriots have on offense. He’s big, fast, strong, good at catching the ball, and neigh unstoppable once he starts running towards the end-zone. The Seahawks don’t like to modify what they normally do on defense to accommodate an opponent but can they afford not to do plan something special for stopping the Gonk?

Freak on freak

Seattle’s quarterback, Russell Wilson, and running back Marshawn Lynch are both freakishly athletic. Can Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins have a break out performance and neutralize either or both of the Seahawks best athletes?

Who is spying Russell Wilson?

One way to neutralize a quarterback who is capable of running the ball in addition to throwing it is to assign a defender to “spy” him by mimicking his side-to-side movements and tackling him if he tries to run forward. Will the Patriots use this tactic? If so, who will they assign to do it?

Who else?

We’ve talked a lot about some of the biggest stars in this game but the Super Bowl often is decided by a big game from an unexpected source. If it’s not Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, or Rob Gronkowski, who will it be? Could Seattle get a big game from tight end Luke Willson or backup running back Robert Turbin? Might Brandon LaFell or Julian Edelman take the Patriots to the promised land?

The Arrogance Bowl

Both head coaches, Bill Belichick for New England and Pete Carroll for Seattle, are brilliant coaches for whom almost everything has gone right during this year’s playoffs. They both like to try to outsmart and out-coach the other team. If either are going to end up being tragic heroes, it’s pretty clear that their tragic flaw will be arrogance. Will one try something a little too smart for their own good in this game and will it backfire on them?