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$.10 For NFL Wild Card Weekend

Jan 06, 2014 10:08 AM EST

By Jeff Risdon

$.01--A few weeks back I wrote about the best way to watch the Indianapolis Colts. In fact, it’s so apropos for their Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs that I’ll quote it directly:

“Maybe this is what Colts fans need to do to prevent ulcers. Just watch the second half. It’s clear from the box score and Twitter feed that the Colts were atrocious in the first half. Again. This is apparently what these Colts are all about, digging their own grave and then crawling from it triumphantly like some bad Criss Angel stunt. Yet if you ignore the first half as I did with this game, you would see a Colts team which can beat anyone, anywhere. “

I deviated a little from that plan of attack for this game. I caught the first few drives before I was pulled away for a prior engagement. When I left the game, Kansas City had just kicked a field goal to go up 10-7 in the first quarter.

I caught a quick halftime score update of 31-10 Chiefs and sarcastically remarked to one of the guys I was with, “I guess Andrew Luck has them right where he wants them”. Even though he’s the master of the massive comeback, I didn’t think Luck could bring the Colts from that far back against the pretty strong Chiefs defense.

I was still in the dark until my group arrived at what might be the slowest Buffalo Wild Wings in America (44th St. in Grand Rapids). When we walked in, the Colts were driving down to make the score 41-38. Imagine my shock. I can only imagine what the game was like for fans of the teams involved.

Even with the stunning loss, Chiefs fans have to look upon 2013 as a resounding success. From 2-14 and picking first in the draft to 11-5 and being within a Dwayne Bowe shoe of a road playoff win. 

$.02--The New Orleans Saints survived a cold trip to play the Philadelphia Eagles, thereby crushing the narrative that Drew Brees and the domed southern boys couldn’t possibly handle the inclement weather.

They did so by pounding the Eagles defense with a bludgeoning running attack. Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson hammered out almost 150 yards on over five yards per carry, and the Saints beat the Eagles at their own game. They also prevented Philly from running wild. LeSean McCoy netted just 77 yards, including 14 yards on his first seven efforts.

Philly still managed to take a late lead, but there was still just under five minutes on the clock. Plenty of opportunity for Drew Brees.

One of the axioms in football is that when all things are equal, bet on the better quarterback. With the game almost equal, it was time for Drew Brees to demonstrate he is a better quarterback than Nick Foles.

Of course he got a lot of help. After Darren Sproles exploded on the kickoff return, a horse-collar tackle penalty pushed the Saints to midfield before Brees even trotted out. He calmly directed the Saints into scoring position, milking the clock expertly. He whittled the time to leave just enough for replacement kicker Shayne Graham to boot a 32-yarder as the clock hit zero.

They’ll get a much sterner test when they head to Seattle to face the Seahawks next week. Heck, the weather might even be worse than it was in Philly, where it was cold but not windy or wet. Still, they just might have the better quarterback in Brees, and that makes anything possible.

$.03--The one game of the weekend which disproved the whole “team with the better QB wins” hypothesis came in Green Bay. Colin Kaepernick is nowhere near as accomplished as Aaron Rodgers, who is arguably the best signal caller of his generation. But for the second year in a row, he had the better team around him, and that allowed him to prevail.

Not to diminish what Kaepernick did. His third down gallop around left end turned an iffy field goal potential into almost a foregone conclusion. Throughout the game he was the more poised, more effective thrower than Rodgers, who looked cold and rusty early. While Rodgers did a strong job tying the game late, Kaepernick was just a little more clutch.

Throughout the game, the overwhelming sentiment in my mind was that the Green Bay Packers' defense would lose the game. They simply were not talented enough or disciplined enough to handle Kaepernick, and that proved true.

It’s time for the Packers to put Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers out in the cold. He just doesn’t have the wherewithal to comprehend Kaepernick’s dual-threat ability or how to counteract it. Packers apologists will cry, “but what about all the injuries!” Does that really excuse rushing four and dropping into a vanilla zone on just about every third down? Is that enough to mask his glaring inability to teach edge containment to his linebackers and corners, not just in this game but every single time opponents gashed the Packers for almost 6,000 yards this season?

In this case, the team with the superior coaching staff overcame the team with the better quarterback. With that “inferior” quarterback only getting better, the Packers had better raise their coaching quotient before they fall too hopelessly behind.

$.04--The hardest game to watch over the weekend was in Cincinnati. The San Diego Chargers capitalized on yet another playoff meltdown by overwhelmed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.

There really is no nicer way to say it. I could say it the way some of my Cincinnati friends did on Facebook, but there aren’t enough non-letter keys on my laptop to censor the profanity in their anger and disgust with Dalton’s performance.

The national debate over the Cincinnati Bengals' need to upgrade at quarterback will overshadow how well the Chargers defense played. They were on the field all day; Cincy ran 79 plays to San Diego’s 57. It was strong pressure and masterful mixing of coverages that forced Dalton into so many mistakes. Guys made plays when they had to, from Melvin Ingram’s interception to Darrell Stuckey hustling down the field to break up a deep pass to A.J. Green to rookie safety Jahleel Addae breaking up a fourth down pass.

Philip Rivers really didn’t have much to do opposite Dalton. He completed 12 of his 16 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, he didn’t make a single mistake. He was sacked once but didn’t fumble or throw an interception. Rivers didn’t force any bad throws either. The worst decision he made was his hideous postgame wardrobe, as if he was auditioning for a used car salesman in 1980’s Abilene, Texas.

Back to the Bengals for a minute. They have to make a move at quarterback, be it drafting one to bring along or signing a veteran presence to mentor and push Dalton. The latter course is the wiser one, and signing a guy like Shaun Hill or Josh McCown makes a lot of sense. Those guys could school Dalton on getting better but also step in and take over should he continue to wilt under pressure.

$.05--The Houston Texans acted swiftly to fill their coaching vacancy by tabbing Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. They had to act fast because O’Brien was on every team’s short list.

I like the move for that team specifically. O’Brien is a noted QB guru. Beyond his strong work with Tom Brady in New England, he developed Matt McGloin into a NFL commodity and was responsible for the rapid ascension of freshman QB Christian Hackenberg in Happy Valley this fall.

He’ll get his pick of the class with the top draft slot. Some have already linked Central Florida’s Blake Bortles:

Others, notably former Bears GM Jerry Angelo, have intimated the same thought. I still prefer Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, but it’s definitely not a done deal who Houston will take.

If that Texans defense can come back healthy, and find a safety better than Shiloh Keo (which won’t be hard), even a mediocre rookie QB can get them back to at least 8 wins. O’Brien has thrived in far less favorable situations than what he’s inheriting in Houston.

$.06--The Detroit Lions heeded the desire of their angry fan base and fired Jim Schwartz. This was not as much of a given as many wanted it to be, unfortunately. And that’s what concerns me as a Lions fan.

According to credible sources that I’ve spoken to firsthand, as well as the fine reporting of Lions beat writers like Dave Birkett and Chris McCosky, there was indeed a conflict amongst the Ford family. Some did not want to pay Schwartz $12M to not coach the team anymore.

Never mind that the team suffered millions in negative publicity by sending out playoff tickets the day after the team was embarrassingly eliminated in a lifeless loss to the Giants. Forget that the team clearly was never going to get any better with Schwartz. He did a fine job getting the team from 0-16 to competitive, but he could not get them to be winners.

The hot candidate, and one I know a couple of players would welcome, is former Arizona Cardinals' head coach and current Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. It will be interesting to see if the Fords foot the bill for his services, given their reluctance to eat money on Schwartz. Head coaches with Super Bowl experience like Whisenhunt has will not come as cheaply as an unproven coordinator.

However, former Colts coach Jim Caldwell legitimately impressed the Lions in his interview last week. If Whisenhunt keeps winning in San Diego and the Lions get antsy, Caldwell could be the guy.

$.07--I sincerely do not have a rooting interest in college football beyond a sober-eyed rooting for Ohio State and an unapologetic pimping of #MACtion (I’m writing this while pulling for Ball State in the GoDaddy Bowl). I really don’t care who wins the vast majority of games.

Yet I couldn’t help but feel genuine happiness for Michigan State as they beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl. It warmed my heart to watch everyone who slobbered all over Cardinal coach David Shaw as the greatest thing since The Beatles backtrack as MSU’s Mark Dantonio whipped him on the coaching front. Shaw’s baffling conservatism and predictable play calling were almost embarrassing, hardly the work of the next great NFL coach.

Dantonio is one of the best coaches in the country and is finally getting recognized for it. He forged a defense full of good-not-great players, save the great CB Darqueze Dennard, and got them to play together as a cohesive unit as well as any defense in recent years. Sparty deserves the credit, as do their long-suffering fans. Enjoy smelling the roses!

$.08--5 NFL Quickies

1. A lot of people disagreed with my comments last week praising the Browns for firing Rob Chudzinski after just one year. I stand by my assertion that it’s better to own up to making an asinine mistake than trying to smooth it over and make it work. If anyone really believes Chud just needed one more year to lift a team with more All-Pros than six of the eight remaining playoff teams from a 4-12 finish, well, you probably really liked bringing Mike Brown back to coach the Cavaliers too; how’s that working out?

2. I’m glad Lovie Smith is getting a second chance at being a NFL head coach. I’m even gladder it’s not as the coach of my beloved Detroit Lions. Lovie treated Bears fans to three late-season collapses like the one the Lions just suffered, including his final two years in Chicago. Not crazy about Jeff Tedford as his Offensive Coordinator in Tampa Bay, either.

3. Former Saints player Steve Gleason live-tweeting their game was amazing. He’s suffering from ALS and deteriorating quickly, but he’s still bright and putting up the great fight. As someone who lost a second cousin this past week from ALS, it really moved me. RIP Brian Stuckey.

4. The Chicago Bears locked up Jay Cutler to a three-year deal masked as a seven-year deal. The contract says he’ll get $126M over 7 years, but in reality he’ll get $54M over three years. That’s still too much given his durability issues and propensity for ugly turnovers, but the Bears really didn’t have an appealing alternative. It will be very interesting to see if they keep backup Josh McCown, who was clearly better than Cutler this year.

5. The Tennessee Titans fired Mike Munchak after over 30 years with the organization. He was a Hall of Fame player as the longtime center for the Houston Oilers. Unfortunately he was not to that level in a coaching capacity. Weep not for Munchak, however, because all indications are he will be new head coach at his alma mater, Penn State.

$.09--College/Draft Quickies

This is early declaration season for underclassmen. Here are my quick thoughts on a handful of those.

--Marqise Lee, WR, USC--much like Keenan Allen a year ago, Lee hits the draft coming off an injury-plagued season which blunted his impact. People forget how awesome and electrifying he was earlier in his Trojans career. He looked like a legit top 10 pick then, and I’ll grade him as a top 10 pick now too.

--Blake Bortles, QB, UCF--he’s got a good chance to be the #1 overall pick. Really. There is a whole lot to like with Bortles, who has size, agility, intelligence, and moxie. Bortles could be great. Higher bust risk than Teddy Bridgewater, however.

--Storm Johnson, RB, UCF--Bortles isn’t the only Knight leaving Orlando. Johnson is a punishing runner with outstanding leg drive. He looks and plays bigger than his 6’, 215 pound listing. What helps him is that he improved as a receiver and pass protector in his final season. There might not be a single RB taken in the first two rounds (!?) but Johnson could wind up being one of several taken in the 3rd-4th rounds.

--DeAnthony Thomas, OW, Oregon--his positional listing indicates offensive weapon, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. He offers great versatility as a scatback, slot receiver, and gadget play fixture. He might be the quickest player in the draft. But he’s often tentative and is significantly slighter than Darren Sproles, the player to which he is most often compared. If he wows at the Combine, and he might, Thomas could sneak into the second round, but it’s more likely he winds up in the 3rd or 4th.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson--fresh off his scintillating performance against Ohio State in the Orange Bowl, Watkins will sit atop many WR ratings. I have no problem with that, though my personal preference is Lee. His ability to transform quickly from receiver to runner is rare. Top 10 pick.

$.10--As a parent of two kids under age 10, I don’t get a chance to see many movies that aren’t animated or advertised during the eight times a day my daughter watches Bubble Guppies. So it was a real treat for my wife and I to sneak out and see American Hustle.

It’s definitely not for the kids. Thank God. The movie fluctuates between being an oddball comedy, a caper flick, and 70s period piece. It doesn’t always work, either. The first third of the movie drags after a strong opening, too content in building character context but instead talking too much.

The saving graces are the actors. Christian Bale is awesome as a shady, smart con artist with a rather complicated personal life. His presence carries the weaker parts of the film, and the movie as a whole is much better when he’s on the screen. She’s the Dez Bryant, a dynamic presence that you simultaneously love and feel bad for.

Jennifer Lawrence overacts as his wife, but that’s exactly what the role calls for. She breathes color into her scenes. She also coaxes the best parts out of Amy Adams, who plays Bale’s accomplice/muse. At times Adams is fantastic, but other times she drags the movie down with her expressionless face. She’s sort of the Matthew Stafford of the film. This is an upgrade for her, as she was the Mark Sanchez of the most recent Muppet movie.

The biggest injustice in the movie is what is done with Bradley Cooper. His character tries to be complex, but they introduce the complexity too late for it to be effective. It’s hard to buy his demeaning berating of his boss, excellently portrayed by Louis C.K., for such a wildly ambitious climber. It might be true, but it doesn’t work on the screen.

The way it all gets tied up and concluded in the end is impressive. I’m a little too young to recall Ab-Scam, so I didn’t know the story behind the story. It’s worth your price of admission, though if this is the best picture, it must not have been a good year for movies. 


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