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Offensive Line Weakness The Key To Super Bowl 49

The New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are without question the two best teams in the NFL. This isn’t a case of teams who just got hot at the right time in January. These are teams that earned #1 seeds in their respective conferences and then validated that standing in the playoffs to get to Super Bowl 49. But it’s a common weakness of both that’s weighing on me as we get closer to kickoff on Sunday night in Phoenix.

rp_SuperBowlTrophy-224x300-224x300.jpgNeither team has a very good offensive line. Seattle has survived because…well, if you’ve ever watched Marshawn Lynch run, you know he doesn’t need all that much help. And Russell Wilson is at his best when he’s on the move in any case. New England has survived because Tom Brady gets rid of the football so quickly and precisely, and because he has Rob Gronkowski, who can pile up yards after the catch.

Now each offense has to go against a well-coached defensive unit. The reputation of Seattle’s “Legion Of Boom” precedes them. New England has played defense with a toughness much more reminiscent of their championship teams from 2001-04 then of some of the softer units of recent vintage (notably 2011) that came up short.

It’s hard to see either offensive line miraculously having a good game against this caliber of opposition. Therefore, that means the winner of the Super Bowl is almost certainly the team that can somehow manage to move the ball in spite of a lack of blocking.

Based on pure talent, the edge goes to the Seahawks. Lynch is the most physical runner in the league, and while New England’s LeGarrette Blount isn’t far behind, anyone would take Lynch if the contest is about who can drag a pile of bodies with him the longest. Wilson’s mobility and improvisational skill give him the edge over Brady.

There’s a case to be made for New England. The Seahawk offense is often unimaginative, and if the Patriots find a way to keep Wilson in the pocket and neutralize his legs, the edge then shifts to the veteran Brady. He’s rarely had a top wide receiver throughout his career and has become a master and picking the open man among 3-4 receivers running within ten yards of the line of scrimmage and doing so in a split second.

The scenarios for both teams are reasonable, a good reason this game is still a Pick’em in Las Vegas on Friday. I give the slight edge to Seattle. There’s been a strong trend in recent Super Bowls that have favored young quarterbacks—not since 2002 has a quarterback over the age of 30 won the Super Bowl (Brad Johnson for Tampa Bay). Peyton Manning won he was 30 on the nose, in 2006.

And in this case, it’s no ordinary young quarterback. Wilson already has a championship ring, has already led a stunning NFC Championship Game this year and already commands respect as a winner. It doesn’t have to be a choice between the spry young quarterback and the veteran who’s a winner—because the younger guy is both.

There’s no denying Brady’s immense toughness and savvy, and I’m rooting for New England. But the recent track record says football, at least by this point, is a young man’s game, and I’m picking Seattle, 20-16. And if I was a betting man, the Under 47 is where I’d put my money.

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Why I’d Vote For J.J. Watt As The 2014 NFL MVP

The 2014 NFL MVP award winner will be announced on Saturday night, as part of a two-hour awards show (9 PM ET, NBC), and it’s expected that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will win his second MVP trophy. But before we do the easy thing and anoint the top quarterback, let’s look at the good arguments that exist for Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.

I want to begin with a core premise that among “conventional” candidates, which is to say primarily quarterbacks with the occasional running back considered, Rodgers is clearly the best choice.

I respect the case for Tony Romo in Dallas, but he had Demarco Murray running for him. I love Tom Brady, but he had a better offensive line and better defense to work with than Rodgers did. If the Packer quarterback is going to be denied the MVP, the only credible alternative is Watt.

The case for Watt is simple—he dominated his position at a level far beyond what any other player in the NFL did, and he lifted his team into contention. The website Pro Football Focus grades every player in the league in every game and the level at which Watt outperformed the rest of the league is simply stunning.

PFF’s grades for each play run a spectrum of (+2.0) to (-2.0), with each play being added up through the course of the year. Rodgers was the top quarterback and sixth-best overall with a sharp grade of 40.4. The players in the 2 thru 5 spots saw the grades ascend to the mid-50s. They were Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda, and linebackers Khalil Mack (Oakland), Von Miller (Denver) and Justin Houston (Kansas City). Then comes Watt.

Watt’s grade was 107.5. He graded out more than twice as good as any other player in the NFL! That’s called domination. The Texans’, playing without a consistent quarterback, still lifted their record from 2-14 to 9-7 and stayed in playoff contention to the final week of the season.

There are two common arguments against the Watt case, one of them good, one of them foolish. The good one says that the NFL is a quarterback’s league and the primacy of the position means that they should get the overwhelming benefit of the doubt in any MVP discussion. The foolish one says that Houston missed the playoffs so Watt can’t qualify.

I’m going to dispense with the stupid argument quickly. The logic “they missed the playoffs with him as easily as they could miss without him” was obviously invented by fans of teams fortunate enough to be consistent playoff contenders. There’s a world of difference between a season like Houston had and the ones the league also-rans lived through.

I root for the Washington Redskins. If bringing J.J. Watt to town could ensure the following—I would be in a good mood more often than a foul one by late Sunday afternoon, that I could approach every game with a realistic hope of winning, and that I could spend the entire regular season thinking about playoff scenarios rather than internal drama, I’d do just about anything to make that happen. Watt is the reason the good people of Houston at least have that much, rather than living through what we in Redskins Nation endure each season.

Now let’s move to a better argument and it’s that the NFL is a quarterback’s league. That’s undeniably true and the reason I respect the argument. But it can be flipped on its head—is it possible that the NFL has become so obsessed with making life easy for its quarterbacks that they’ve drastically reduced the comparative value the great ones have?

To pick a couple examples from the Redskins season, RG3 threw for 336 yards in the season finale against Dallas, a game he was mostly mediocre. Colt McCoy threw for 392 yards in Indianapolis, a game he was mostly mediocre. Passing has become so easy that the stat lines can make mediocrity look great. But if everyone is great than no one is great.

That’s an extreme analogy and there’s certainly a big gap between Rodgers and the quarterbacks on the bottom of the league. But how big is the difference between Rodgers, and say Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Romo, Brady, Peyton Manning, etc? The very fact that the NFL is a quarterback’s league could mean that the real differentiation at the highest level has to come from other positions.

And that brings us back to Watt’s dominance at his position. He graded out as far and away the best player in the NFL and did it from a defensive end spot that can dramatically impact the game, while also providing real separation between himself and others at his spot. He was the difference between his team being lousy and being a contender. That’s why I’d vote for him for the 2014 NFL MVP.

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Are The New York Islanders Stanley Cup-Caliber?

It’s been a long time since the first-place New York Islanders were relevant in the push for the Stanley Cup. This is a franchise that produced a dynasty in the 1980s, winning four straight Cups from 1980-83. They reached the Finals in 1984, losing to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers and since then have fallen mostly off the end of the earth.

The Islanders haven’t advanced out of the first round since 1993 and they’ve only made the playoffs once in the last seven years. Now though, New York is atop the Metropolitan Division as the post All-Star break phase of the schedule gets rolling.

They’re leading teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, perennially the most explosive team in the Eastern Conference and the New York Rangers, who reached the Finals last year. They have an MVP candidate leading the way. Are the Islanders good enough for a deep postseason run this spring?

John Tavares is playing outstanding hockey at center, with 21 goals and 24 assists. I have him atop my own personal ballot for the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP. Tavares gets the nod over Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, because the Islanders rely on offense and the attack is top-heavy reliant on Tavares.

It’s not that there aren’t other productive players on a team that has produced the second-most goals in the NHL. Kyle Okpos has 30 assists, and is 15th in the league in points, although it was just reported on Monday that Okpos will be out up to eight weeks. Brock Nelson is steady, with 15 goals/15 assists and Ryan Strong is a good passer, with 25 assists. But when it comes to lighting the lamp, Tavares is the most important player on this team.

New York is getting solid team defensive play, with Johnny Boychuk, a veteran of the Boston Bruins’ 2011 Cup run, leading up the defenseman. The Islanders rank second in the NHL in shots allowed. When you get a lot of shots on goal and prevent the opponent from doing the same, that’s a pretty good formula for winning.

But the NHL is a goaltender’s game, and that’s even truer in the playoffs. And here’s where the problems come in for the New York Islanders. Jaroslav Halak’s save rate of 91 percent isn’t going to cut it.

91 percent might be good for shooting free throws, but not in a league where one percentage point on the save rate is a big deal and rivals like Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers and Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals are all a full point higher.

To say nothing of Atlantic Division leader Tampa Bay and their outstanding goalie Ben Bishop. Or Boston’s Tuuka Raask, who hasn’t played up to par this season, but was the NHL’s best goalie a year ago. Those are the teams that stand in the Islanders way of a playoff run.

Halak’s poor play is the reason the Islanders rank 22nd in goals allowed in spite of being second in shot prevention, a gap almost impossible to grasp. It’s the reason the Islanders are 28th in the league at killing penalties.

All of these flaws are fatal come playoff time. Not just for winning the Stanley Cup, but winning a single series. That’s why, in spite of how good a story this Islander resurgence is and how good a player Tavares is, the Islanders are a prime candidate to flame out early in the playoffs.

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Taking Stock Of The Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are going to be in the national spotlight this week, with all three of their games on national television. It starts with a big test at Golden State tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), and then moves on to the Thursday night TNT stage at the Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 PM ET) and concludes with another 10:30 PM ET tip on Friday, this one against the Phoenix Suns on ESPN.

So it’s time to take stock of this Chicago Bulls team, to see if they can meet preseason expectations and at least reach the conference finals and perhaps finally make the NBA Finals for the first time since the Michael Jordan era ended.

Chicago BullsChicago is 29-17 and in fourth in the Eastern Conference. They are part of a group of three teams jousting between the 2-4 spots, including the Toronto Raptors and Washington, so the Bulls are closer to moving up two spots then they are to moving down one. But the team in the rearview mirror is the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James’ team has gotten a roll recently, so there’s not a lot of room for error for Chicago.

The success for the Bulls starts with Jimmy Butler, the two-guard that’s averaging 20 ppg and become the big-time scorer that this team has so often lacked in recent seasons in the playoffs, especially with Derrick Rose injured. And speaking of Rose, he’s quietly played 35 games and is averaging 18 points/5 rebounds and 3 assists per game.

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We only hear of Rose when he comes out of a game early or sits down, so it’s worth pointing out that he’s playing and producing. Whether he can stay healthy enough for that continue will be a subject of reasonable doubt until he makes it through a full regular season and postseason again, but for now everything is fine with the man who has to ultimately eclipse Butler as the biggest star on the team if Chicago is going to reach the NBA Finals.

Thursday night will be when Pau Gasol returns to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, where he helped the Lakers win championships in 2009 and 2010. The Lakers felt Gasol was done at age 34. The Bulls thought otherwise. The Bulls were right—18 points/12 rebounds/2 blocks per game and another offensive threat that Chicago is not used to having.

The Bulls rank eighth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, thanks to the emergence of Butler, the availability of Rose and the acquisition of Gasol. What’s surprising is that it’s the defense that’s under some scrutiny.

Chicago is still a good defensive team, ranking 12th in the league in efficiency. But we’re used to seeing the Bulls of head coach Tom Thibodeau rank among the NBA elite on defense. For all the offensive improvements, they’re going to need to be a great defensive team to get by the other contenders in the East.

It’s been speculated that perhaps this veteran team—Gasol, Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy are all 34-years-old, and Rose has to pace himself as well—will turn up the intensity as the season gets closer to April. That’s well possible and certainly not without precedent in the NBA. I’m giving Chicago the benefit of the doubt until March or so. That’s when I want to see Joakim Noah in the post and the rest of this team play the kind of smothering defense that we’ve become used to seeing.

Chicago is a 10-1 shot to win the NBA title, ranking behind only four other teams, including Cleveland. On its face, the odds sound reasonable, although I don’t know that the Bulls are that much better than Washington, who is a 35-1 shot. What it boils down to is that oddsmakers still believe in the Bulls and with the national stage this week, Chicago can demonstrate that the confidence is not misplaced.

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Will This Year’s Duke Basketball Team Add To Coach K’s Legacy?

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski took another step into college basketball history yesterday when he won his 1,000th career game against St. John’s. Coach K is already the all-time wins leader and just keeps expanding his lead with this unprecedented milestone.

The question we’re going to ask here today is in the “rain on the parade” category a little bit, and it’s this—can this edition of Duke basketball be the one that will reverse what’s been a modest decline in recent seasons. With this week’s schedule showing road trips to Notre Dame on Wednesday (7:30 PM ET, ESPN2) and Virginia on Saturday (7 PM ET, ESPN) there’s no time for victory parties or historical reflection in Durham.

Coach K has set some almost impossible-to-hit standards, so even just churning out really good teams, as he continues to do, can still short of this program’s expectations, which are defined by championships. Here’s the rundown on Duke’s current droughts…

*They have not won the ACC regular season title outright since 2006, when J.J. Redick was leading the way. Coach K has won ten outright ACC crowns and shared two others in his tenure, and it’s shocking to realize it’s been nearly a decade since they won their league.

*Duke has not won the ACC Tournament since 2011. A less alarming trend, but people in ACC country live to win this event and for the conference’s pre-eminent program—who has won it 13 times under Coach K– to go three straight years without a title—at a time when North Carolina has also been down a bit—raises some eyebrows

*And the stage that college basketball fans care the most about, March Madness, has not been kind to the Dookies since Coach K won his fourth national title back in 2010.  There were a couple modestly respectable runs to the regional weekend in 2011 and 2013, but both ended in decisive losses, to San Diego State and Louisville respectively. More important, there were two stunning first-round exits, to Lehigh in 2012 and Mercer in 2014.

Duke is essentially the New England Patriots of college basketball. There’s no denying their greatness in the big picture and not even any denying their excellence in recent seasons. But the numbers above for Duke are a little bit like considering the Pats haven’t won the Super Bowl in a decade. So what do prospects look like for this year’s Duke team?

The Blue Devils are currently 17-2, with both losses in ACC play. They trail Virginia by two games in the conference, and are one back of Notre Dame. Duke is tied in the loss column with Louisville, Syracuse and Miami. But Duke has quality non-conference wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin, and consequently are projected as a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi in an updated bracket released today.

Jahlil Okafor, the outstanding 6’11” freshman center has gotten most of the attention and he deserves it. Okafor gives Duke an imposing presence in the middle, something they have often lacked. He’s averaging 19 points/9 rebounds per game, along with 1.5 blocks. He gets help on the glass from Amile Jefferson, a 6’9” junior who gets eight boards a night.

Okafor is just one of three freshmen playing a huge role for this year’s Duke team. Tyus Jones is an important element in the backcourt, leading the team in assists and Justice Winslow is a key wing player and double-digit scorer. The lineup is rounded out with senior Quinn Cook, good for 14 ppg a night and the main three-point shooter.

Normally good inside play has been the key to determining how far Duke will go. They won their 2010 title when Brian Zoubek consistently grabbed 9-10 rebounds a night. That was a case of role player stepping up. The best Duke teams—those that won back-to-back national titles in 1991 and 1992 had a great college player in Christian Laettner. With Okafor and Jefferson on this year’s team, the Blue Devils would seem to have both a star and a grinder in place.

The problem is, the defense has not always been there, and team rebounding has been up and down, even if Okafor individually has not been. Duke was significantly outrebounded by Michigan State, but won because they shot 54 percent. The Blue Devils shot the lights out in Wisconsin, hitting 65 percent of their shots.

In the recent two-game losing streak in ACC play, Duke first failed to hit their shots against N.C. State, and lost by 12 in spite of Okafor going for 23/12 and Jefferson getting eight rebounds. Duke lost at home to Miami because they allowed 52 percent shooting. In the two games combined, Duke gave up 177 points.

It’s that lack of defensive focus that’s difficult to understand, given the presence of good interior personnel. Duke is 50th in the country in defensive efficiency, a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo so faster teams aren’t penalized. That’s not terrible, but it’s not the stuff of a great team either. By contrast, the offense ranks 5th.

What this suggests is that Duke will look really good when the shots are falling, but be unable to grind out ugly wins. And you need ugly wins to win conference championships and make Final Four runs in March.

Of course the other side to this is that it’s still January, and this freshman-laden team is still learning to play together defensively. Some of the previous Duke teams that came up short simply didn’t have good talent in the post and that became exposed. This year’s team does, so perhaps it’s just a question of letting Coach K continue to mold this group and see if their defense improves.

There’s no better time to start than this week. You need your defense to win on the road and if Duke is serious about that first outright ACC championship since 2006—or first shared title since 2010—then trips to Notre Dame and Virginia are the place to get it going.

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