Thursday, November 10, 2011

Week 10 Coin Toss: Rivalry Weeks

Can Brady and Belichick figure it out
in time to beat the rival Jets? (Getty)
Our fraternity brother, Nick Haskell, will be traveling to Las Vegas this weekend and will get a close look at how the football betting world works out there. He's offered to share his thoughts from The Strip to help increase the amount of OXen we have being stubborn on this blog. It should provide a different perspective since Austen and I always base our arguments around the bottom line of wins and losses, while Haskell will focus on the betting lines and spreads that generally ignore the importance of a winning or losing the actual game.

Stally: There are no teams on bye this week. With that in mind, Austen, I made it "Rivalry Week" in our fantasy football keeper league, so naturally, I set the schedule to make sure it was the week we played one another. The NFL seemed to have the same kind of thing in mind.

This week, we'll see the four teams in the AFC West and the four in the NFC North going head-to-head. I've always viewed those divisions, like the NFC East, as a group of four that just didn't like anything about the other three. The Patriots and the Jets will also face off on Sunday night.

However, we'd be hard-pressed to ignore the rivalry we saw on display this past Sunday night between the Steelers and Ravens. Let's talk about these rivalries. Is the Pittsburgh-Baltimore grudge match the biggest in the NFL? From an unbiased standpoint, what other current rivalries rank among the biggest in the league?

Austen: It is hard to rank NFL rivalries because they change every year based on how good each half of the rivalry is. It was only about four years ago that the best rivalry was the Steelers and the Bengals, a matchup we will see this week. Carson Palmer was in his prime and Ben Roethlisberger was an up and coming star. The Ravens have improved vastly with the acquisition of Joe Flacco and more playmakers on both offense and defense, and they have replaced the Bengals in that rivalry. However, I take a shot at ranking the rivalries that I enjoy watching the most.

Since rivalries should be ranked on their history as well as the watchability of their matchups, I think there is none better in the NFL than the Bears-Packers rivalry. No two teams have played each other more than these two and their close proximity adds even more fuel to the fire. Last year, the Bears won the division, but lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship game. The Packers look unstoppable this season, but the Bears seem to be getting better each week. With their second matchup of the season coming late in the season, it could have a lot of playoff ramifications, especially for the Bears and their hopes at a Wild Card spot.

With the Bengals being relevant again, I will just say that the rivalry between the Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens is extremely heated and is a close second to the Bears-Packers. Obviously, the Ravens-Steelers matchup has been a great one over the last few years, but their games are often hard to watch because of the strength of their defenses, and thus the lack of offense. The Ravens-Steelers game this week was great and I'm excited to see how the 6-2 Bengals hang in with an angry and motivated Steeler team in Week 10.

The Jets-Patriots rivalry is new in town compared to these other rivalries, especially since prior to Bill Belichick leaving the Jets for the Patriots, both of these organizations were mostly irrelevant when it came to being playoff contenders. However, the Belichick-Ryan coaching battle is the most exciting coaching battle in the NFL. Belichick is one of the best coaches of all time and Rex Ryan is proving he is one of the best in the league. Ryan's defense against Tom Brady is always an exciting chess match to watch on the field. They seem to always meet up in the playoffs and each team really hates each other. With so many players and coaches swapping back and forth between these organizations, this is the fastest ascending rivalry in football.

The final big rivalry is the Giants-Eagles. These two teams also really hate one another and since the Meadowlands stadium is in such close proximity to Philadelphia, a lot of people in that New Jersey-Pennsylvania area are split on what team they root for. Both have devout fan bases and this rivalry can literally tear families apart on Sundays. Both teams have been playoff contenders almost every year over the last decade and they are part of what has been one of the toughest divisions in football during that time period. The Eagles have been terrible this season, but that does not diminish how hard these teams will play against one another in their final matchup this season.

If you noticed, all the rivalries I mentioned have come from the East and North divisions, and none from the South and West divisions. Maybe I am a bit biased coming from New York, but there simply is not enough history in the South divisions, which have some of the youngest teams in the NFL (Texans, Jaguars, Buccaneers, Panthers), and the West divisions have been so bad over the last decade, their rivalries are not worth talking about.

Stally: Wow! I disagree with a lot of that sentiment!

I think that the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is definitely the strongest right now. The two times they meet each season are probably the only two regular season games that fans across the country circle as a must watch. They play the same brand of football and I think it's hog wash to claim that somehow the defensive battle deters interest. It's old-school smashmouth football and reminds you what makes this sport tough. They grind it out in the trenches and, yet, both offensives still bring enough to the table so we don't end up taking some 9-6 nap into overtime (I'm looking at yo,u SEC, with your self proclaimed [Regular Season Only] "Game of the Century").

I won't argue with your logic behind the Bears and the Packers. However, where I do fall off the pace is that you totally denounced the AFC West. I think that there are a lot of fans of the Raiders, Broncos, Chiefs or Chargers that would take offense that you totally disregarded the deep-rooted battles that go on out there.

I'll also speak as a Patriots fan that we find the Jets an annoyance. I can't remember watching a Pats-Jets game since Tom Brady became the starter that I legitimately felt like the Patriots lost to a better Jets team. Every time we've lost, I look back at a bad turnover or a poor play call on fourth down and think if we hadn't done that, we would have won. We do hate the Jets; I'll agree with that sentiment of disdain. But from a New England standpoint, it's more because they parade around like they think they're better than us. The last time they won the division was 2002! And, it was a three-way tie with a 9-7 record at that. Note to the Jets from your neighbors to the north: Win the division sometime and then maybe you can say you're better.

It's easy to forget about it this year, but one of the more long standing rivalries, and one that New Englanders have cared about far more then the pesky, little-brother Jets are the Indianapolis Colts! Year after year, these teams played each other on the big stage of the playoffs and both knocked the other out in AFC Championship games on the way to Super Bowl wins. Somehow, it also worked itself out that they play every single year in the regular season, even though it's never a guarantee (it's not that coincidental, since both teams won their divisions most of the time). That rivalry is largely based around the Brady-Peyton Manning debate, so the longevity of it is questionable. However, excepting the Colts throw out season this year, that's always been a more meaningful game to New England than one against a team just trying to squeak out a Wild Card, like the Jets.

Austen: I think you are going out of the way to diss the Jets. While the Jets have not won the division in a long time, I believe it was the Jets that caused the seemingly unstoppable 14-2 Pats to once again falter in the playoffs, which in the past had been Tom Brady's time to shine. Say what you want about the Jets but they have won four playoff games in the last two years to the Patriots none. You may see them as just a pest, but when they keep beating you on a consistent basis, especially in the playoffs when it counts, you have to admit these are equally talented teams. Whether or not you think the Jets are better than the Patriots, it only matter who wins the games.

Also, the Pats-Colts rivalry is less of a rivalry and more of a showdown of two players, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. While this is always a fun matchup to watch, this is not a team rivalry, but a quarterback rivalry, which is why I didn't bring it up.

The AFC West rivalries have a lot of history, but since the Chargers have clearly been the best team in that division for about a decade with the rest of those teams fading in and out of relevance, it is hard for me to talk about the importance of any of their rivalries. I mean the 3-5 Broncos are one game out of the division lead right now! It is hard to get excited about watching any of these teams.

Haskell: When I think of rivalries, I think of mutual enmity and even-matchedness. And it's pretty clear to me that at least in this season, no two rivalries have as much of that this season as Pats - Jets & Ravens - Steelers, which are tied at first in my book. Both rivalries feature outstanding, iconic players in at least one position on each team, recent close playoff matchups, and an undeniable sense of animosity. Bears - Packers are a distant third in 2011; the Bears weren't even playing the same game of football as the Packers the last two times they played. I think bitter cold also has something to do with it. For whatever reason, the South and West teams definitely strike me as much more laid back. Maybe practicing with the sun into December instead of bitter frost leaves you with a greater love for your fellow man? There certainly will be a sense of urgency present tonight for the Chargers Raiders game, but I'm not seeing that getting taken off the field.

Austen: Let's get to clearly the most pressing question of the week: what is wrong with the Patriots? Obviously their defense is terrible, but their offense has really been struggling the last two games. Two games may not seem like much to most fans, but I am sure you and the rest of the Pats faithful are most likely freaking out. Do you see this team improving/rebounding quickly? Do you think this defense has any chance of improving? Is there a deep threat that could emerge from this roster? Most importantly, what is wrong with Tom Brady and how many more of his sideline tantrums are we going to have to watch this season?

Stally: Ok, let's start with what's been good for the Patriots: the punting. The net of 42.1 is ninth in the league and the low 6.3 average return is fifth-best. They have two touchbacks to nine inside-20s. So, there is some positive going on in Patriots camp.

Now, here's what's wrong: most everything else. I have to start back with the draft. I didn't get it. The Pats took an offensive lineman they didn't need in the first round, traded a pick they could have used to take Mark Ingram (and that the Saints did) for a later pick to take a lesser running back, drafted two running backs in the second round in lieu of Ingram and a quarterback in the third round. Their biggest immediate needs were on the defensive line and in the secondary. Ras-I Dowling (first pick of the second round) was the only pick before the fifth round that targeted those needs.

Dowling is now on the IR. Leigh Bodden and Brandon Meriweather have been cut. So, the secondary is in complete disarray and the Pats have the worst pass defense in the NFL. Although, that doesn't all fall on the shoulders of the D-backs. The defensive line isn't getting to the quarterback. They're tied at 25th in the NFL with 15 sacks, which is terrible when you figure in how many pass yards they give up and therefore have plenty of chances to register sacks.

I always think defense is something that develops over the season and had remained hopeful they'd figure it out, but that's not going to happen. They officially cut ties with Albert Haynesworth the other day and it's clear that there just isn't enough talent to expect this D to get much better. That puts a lot of pressure on the offense.

Austen said the offense has struggled for two games, it's actually been three. That Cowboys game I went to certainly didn't show off the Pats best offensive skills. Nobody talks about it, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis got dinged shortly before that Cowboys game and has entered the last three weeks listed as "questionable." He's played, but he hasn't been 100%. Everyone thinks of the Pats as a pass first team, which is fair, but the inability to establish a running game has made it easy for defenses to key in on the pass.

I'll go back to the draft again and point out that the Pats took two running backs in the second round despite all the other holes. You'd expect that they could make the ground game a strength, not a weakness, even if the "Law Firm" wasn't filing charges. Seriously, both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen were drafted over the likes of the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray...and Vereen hasn't registered a carry this season!

As far as Tom Brady and the pass game, we all know that Chad Ochocinco has been a huge bust as a downfield threat. He's failed to learn any of the plays and the Pats can't put him out there most of the time. They've hoped that someone like Taylor Price could serve that role, but he hasn't learned the book either. Wes Welker and Deion Branch are both very familiar and reliable targets, but they're both smaller guys that rely on tight rout running to get the ball. That doesn't work when there's no one to pull the defense off of them, because the D can key on them and knock them around so they can't get space to make a catch. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are both big, but they're not fast, so they can grab the ball in coverage but aren't a threat to break away.

The Patriots issues were highlighted best in last year's AFC Divisional loss to the Jets. Rex Ryan had the defense focus on playing in the first 10 yards from scrimmage to shut down Brady's initial reads and brought the rest of the house to get pressure on him. Brady has a lot of skills, but he's a statue back there in the pocket and he's not able to improvise if a play breaks down, which it does when there's no one to keep the defense honest on a deep ball.

Will that change this season? No. If Ocho was going to figure it out, he would have by now. Aside from bringing back Randy Moss and getting the band back together, there's no one on this team to stretch the field. As I say often, defense can be improved over the year, but an offense doesn't usually do so. The reason an offense usually struggles is a lack of personnel, and that's not something that you can change during the season.

To address the issue of Brady's tantrums, that's just who he is. If something goes wrong, he starts yelling and throws back his hair. People have different ways of dealing with frustration. Mark Sanchez starts smiling and throws back a hot dog! Brady's won three rings. He demands perfection. Deal with it!

Austen: I have no problem with Brady throwing tantrums. I actually love when he is screaming and throwing stuff around on the sidelines!

Either way, I think you are depressed over your team's recent struggles and over reacting a bit. Tom Brady is still Tom Brady and he will figure out a way to make the offense work. The reason I think he is probably the best quarterback of all time is that he continuously reinvents himself depending on who he is able to throw to. The Pats offense has changed into an offense that uses a lot of two tight end sets, which is only difficult to defend when there is a threat to run the football. The Law Firm will get healthier and Ridley and Woodhead will figure out a way to be more effective. The offense will get back on track soon, I just hope its not this week against the Jets! However, there is no hope for this defense improving significantly.

The main reason the Patriots have struggled this season is their failure in the draft over the last few years. Can you think of anyone that they have drafted who has become successful besides Jerod Mayo and their two very talented tight ends? Devin McCourty was outstanding last season, but he has been inconsistent this season and he does not have another decent corner to pair with him.

Not taking Ingram was clearly a mistake, but that was not even close to their biggest draft blunder in recent memory. A few years ago they traded away their first round pick to the Packers and allowed them to draft a guy named Clay Matthews. Can you even imagine how good this team could be by just having that one guy? It would probably be the Patriots who would be undefeated and not the Packers had they had just taken the guy who was probably atop their draft board. Belichick continues to build for the future, but his "work in progress" players are not panning out and he is not maximizing all the draft picks he has traded down to acquire.

Also, trading for Albert Haynesworth and Ochocinco has clearly blown up in their face. These were two guys that they were counting on at least providing some sort of spark on their respective sides of the ball. Haynesworth has been cut because he failed to even provide the smallest amount of pass rush that the Pats so desperately need. Ocho has lost his deep speed, which has made him useless as a receiver since he runs sloppy routes and has never had great hands.

Despite all these problems, they still have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, so they will continue to be one of the best teams in the AFC and I cannot see a scenario in which the Patriots do not make the playoffs. Once they are there, anything is possible.

Haskell: Yikes. These East coasters have covered pretty much everything I could say about the Pats. I definitely raised my eyebrows when I heard the Pats had acquired Chad and Albert in the offseason. Both players strike me as "independent" at best and undisciplined at worst - definitely a mismatch with the lockstep attitude demanded by Bill & Tom. I'm still a little blown away by how the defense has completely fallen off a cliff this season. Last year they were seventh in the NFL in points allowed / game.  This year they've plummeted to 20th - right above the stalwart Seahawks. I don't follow the AFC East incredibly closely but it seems they still have a decent core of playmakers on defense - Vince Wilfork, Patrick Chung, Jerod Meyo... Their defense is gonna have to get back on track right quick if they want to stand a chance of winning a playoff game

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