Friday, January 22, 2010

Time to Win? Time to Defend

Because Cowboy Quarterback is slapping backsides and just plain having a great time playing the game again, be prepared to be overwhelmed the next couple days (as if we’re not buried under already) with fawning accounts of how a 40-year old’s success in a young man’s game is a truly remarkable thing and that this weekend’s conference title games revolve around the continuing drama of Brett Favre’s quest to be a champion once more.

Please wait a moment while El Hombre wipes the vomit from his chin.

Favre’s play this year has been excellent, especially after his 2008 late-season meltdown in New York, which conspiracy theorists could hypothesize was a purposeful attempt to be freed from Gotham in order to be courted by the Vikings. Favre is healthy and surrounded by some pretty impressive talent in Minnesota, even if Adrian Peterson’s rushing average is shrinking faster than a banker’s credibility. His ability to rein in that wild hair that has so often caused him to think he can fit the football into microscopic areas has meant a lot to the Vikings. And should he lead Minnesota past New Orleans this Sunday in the NFC title game, the mind boggles at the two weeks of sycophantic love letters the media will toss Favre’s way in the run-up to the Super Bowl. It’s possible espN’s Rachel Nichols will be reduced to reporting on Number Four’s teeth-brushing habits (“Floss first, then circular rotations with the brush, followed by substantial gum stimulation”) as game time approaches.

As well as Favre has played, and as impressive as the other QBs – Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Mark Sanchez – have been in leading their teams to the Final Four, each squad has achieved its success primarily because of defense and (with the exception of Indianapolis) the ground game. The NFL is a passing league, and this year more QBs have attempted at least 500 passes than ever before. More have thrown for at least 4,000 yards. And a record amount completed 65% of their passes. And yet, when the winning must be accomplished, the big, nasty people get it done.

In their win over Arizona, the Saints rushed for 171 yards and forced two turnovers. They held the mighty Cardinal attack to just 14 points and just about knocked Kurt Warner into retirement. For a minute, it appeared as if the game was going feature more scoring than a Tiger Woods golf weekend, but after Bobby McCray pole-axed Warner, it turned into a one-sided affair. Later that night, the Colts held Baltimore to 270 total yards, pounced on four Raven gaffes and limited them to a mere 12 first downs. Indy didn’t run it, but then again, with Manning under center you don’t worry about that. One interesting thing about the game was that there has been precious little national outcry about the final seconds of the first half, when the clock operator ran off just two seconds on a Manning pass, allowing the Colts to run another play, instead of going for a field goal before intermission. The resulting TD made it 17-3 and effectively ended the game. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh went bats about the slow clock, but nobody did anything about it, and CBS did not show a replay with a real-time clock on the screen. Hmmm. It couldn’t be that the network didn’t want to expose a crucial gaffe – if a more reasonable four seconds had run off the clock, Indy probably would have tried a field goal with 0:05 to go, instead of going for the TD with 0:07 left – and embarrass the NFL, could it? That might not help things during the next TV contract negotiations.

The next afternoon, Minnesota rushed for 109 yards, held Dallas to a total of 248 and sacked besieged Tony Romo six times, to gain a measure of revenge from the 1975 Drew Pearson push-off game at venerable Metropolitan Stadium. Capping off the Cowgirls’ pathetic performance was Keith Brookings’ crybaby performance. The veteran linebacker screamed at the Viking bench after Minnesota’s final touchdown, a three-yard Favre pass, with less than 2:00 remaining. Were the game played between two junior-high teams, Brookings would have had a gripe about the Vikes’ running it up. Since it was contested between highly paid professionals, Brookings needed to keep his mouth shut and lick his wounds. Capping off the weekend, New York rushed for 169 yards, forced two turnovers and limited San Diego to 4-of-13 success on third down in its upset win. Afterward, Chargers coach Norv Turner reminded everybody of how many games his team has won in December – and nobody cared.

Notice a pattern here? All four of the teams were stingy. They suffocated the opposition and made it easier for the offense to do its job. That’s how you win in the post-season, not with fun and fancy aerial attacks and visionary offensive coordinators. Hunker down and smash some heads. That’s playoff football.

Favre may get all the glory if Minnesota gets to Miami, but he would be smart to direct the flattery toward the angry, oversized men on the other side of the ball. After all, he has to practice against them.

Now a few words about last week: It didn’t happen.

You may not have much faith in El Hombre’s predicting abilities about now, but that’s when you’ll find him to be the most dangerous – in a good way.

Indianapolis (minus 7 ½) over New York. EH was wrong about the Jets. Real wrong. Coach Rex Ryan’s team has been outstanding in the playoffs, displaying a tremendous ground attack and rugged D. Well, you can’t be one-dimensional at this level, and Sanchez isn’t ready to make big plays against the quick Colts defense. Meanwhile, nobody is better at sniffing out crazy blitz schemes than Manning. Colts 23, Jets 13.

Minnesota (plus 3 ½) over New Orleans. When Romo drops back to pass in the Cowboys’ first mini-camp of the coming spring, he’s going to expect a purple-clad defender to be charging at him. The Viking pass rush is relentless, and that’s going to force Brees to keep some extra people in for protection. That’s not good. Meanwhile, Favre, Adrian Peterson and wideout Sidney Rice will find plenty of holes in the Saints defense. Minnesota 27, New Orleans 23.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: By now, many of you have heard about the knuckle-dragger down in Georgia who wants to start a whites-only professional basketball league down South. (Surprise!) Can’t wait to see the wide-wail corduroy warm-up pants. And nothing says basketball excitement than an “alley” without the “oop.” How about those cheerleaders in turtlenecks, monogrammed sweaters and tartan-print skirts? Sexy! The WBL (Whitey Basketball League) – it’s Bland-tastic!...Let’s hear it for Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich, who is back practicing with his teammates after a bout with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare cancer that usually hits young adults. Herzlich is cancer-free and ready to play in 2010. Let’s hope the only obstacles he faces from here on out are angry blockers…You have to love NASCAR. Ratings sag and attendance drops, and how does the left-turn set react? By loosening safety restrictions and encouraging drivers to bump and bang each other around the oval. Genius. What’s next, rules that allow drivers to pack heat? Forget El Hombre suggested that. It’s just the kind of idea that might catch on with that group…The ejection of 11 disorderly Croats from an Australian Open match this week has shined the light on tennis hooligans. Could there be a crazier juxtaposition? What’s next, riots at curling matches? Unruly patrons at dressage competitions? And they say Philadelphia fans are tough.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? On the surface, the Phillies’ decision to lock up Joe Blanton for three years is a good one, because it gives them four starters – Blanton, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ – on the books through the 2012 season. And since Blanton has thrown more than 1,000 innings over the past five seasons, his presence in the lineup almost guarantees 200 IP each season, not bad for a third or fourth starter. But the question we need to ask is whether three seasons of Heavy B trump one year of Cliff Lee. In essence, that’s the deal the Phils have struck by telling us they couldn’t afford $9 to Lee this year but they could pay Blanton $24 mil (7, 8.5, 8.5) over the next three. This appears to be the hallmark of a team that is trying to maintain its perch as a contender without going for the brass ring. If Hamels does not rebound to ’08 levels this year, and Blanton’s arm betrays him from overuse, 2010 could be a mess for the Phils, particularly if the expected troubles at the number five spot in the rotation – neither Pop-Pop Moyer nor Kyle Kendrick inspires – arise. Pairing Lee with Halladay in the rotation this year, even if it meant cutting loose Blanton, would create a dynamic pairing atop the rotation that no other team could match. Instead of doing that, the Phillies are trying to protect their backsides with Blanton’s solid but hardly spectacular work, a sophomore (Happ) who could fall apart easily now that hitters know him, and the mystery that is Hamels. If the staff doesn’t come around as the Phils hope, that lineup had better be ready to score seven a night – and then some.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Tiger Woods’ arrival at a sex-addiction clinic was as predictable as ridiculously low scores at this weekend’s Bob Hope Classic. If you follow the textbook definition of an addiction – risk-taking, willingness to give up your family, career and reputation to feed it – Woods definitely has a problem, as his smaller checkbook, fleeing sponsors and disappearing wife and kids prove. But it’s hard not to see his checking in (allegedly) to the treatment center as the first step in a calculated move back to playing again. One would imagine a sniffling appearance on Oprah will follow, with interviews by handpicked espn and 60 Minutes correspondents on the menu as well. A tightly regulated press conference comes next and finally a return to the links. If Woods has a problem, let’s hope he can be helped. But if he’s just going through some P.R. plan to generate sympathy from the media and fans, then shame on him. Again.


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