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Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pickuan Underwood League + GOTW: Week 9


In the depressing (for Phil anyway) aftermath of the Wembley game last week came a very solid set of performances all round in our picks league. Phil leads the way at 73-45 along with 2nd City Fanatics and TomTom Sports, with just a 4 game lead over the last placed Until Kickoff.

Entering week 9 certain teams are very much in a "Put up or shut up" state as it becomes harder and harder to dig yourself out of an early-season hole and stake your claim to a playoff spot. And so we bring you our games of the week, featuring those who could use a nice winning streak...

Toby's Game of the Week: Baltimore Ravens (5-2) @ Cleveland Browns (2-6), Sunday 1pm ET

After a fast start for Baltimore, things are starting to look a little shaky. For a team fancied by many to finally make the step up and reach the Superbowl, Baltimore have just 1 win this season by more than 7 points. They've squeaked out a win against New England (no shame there) with a last second "field goal", just held on against Cleveland, failed to score a touchdown against Kansas City and then gave up a franchise record rushing yards while managing to avoid overtime thanks to Dez Bryant drop. All that is fine when you still win the games, but two weeks ago the Ravens were flat-out embarrassed in Houston by the Texans in a 43-13 demolition job.

Since then they've had a bye week to lick their wounds and mull things over. They need to get Ray Rice more invovled in the game, after getting just 17 & 14 touches in their last 2 games. Baltimore seem to have gotten caught up in the "Passing league" talk and have been taking the ball away from their best player, which is a cardinal sin. On defense, they were able to give Terrell Suggs some limited action against Houston, and he looked good given such a quick turnaround from a partically torn achilles. The bye week will have given him time to regain some conditioning and explosiveness and hopefully mean he stays on the field for an already injury-ravaged defense. His presence on the edge on the front 7 is much needed both against the run and pass if the Ravens are to work themselves back into an "elite" defense.

As for Cleveland, well they're playing much better than I think anyone would have expected. 2 wins (vs. Cincinnati & San Diego) in their last 3 games have come off the back of improvements from most units. Brandon Weeden is showing big improvements week to week, Trent Richardson, while a little banged up already, continues to be very productive, and the emmergence of rookie wide receiver Josh Gordon (a 2nd round pick in the Supplemental Draft) has given Weeden a reliable big-play target.

The Browns made a game of their first meeting on Thursday Night Football in Baltimore in week 4, coming a hail mary attempt away from forcing overtime. Now at home, with the confidence of some wins under their belt and a less confident Ravens team this game has the potential to be a lot closer than people think.

Phil's Game of the Week: Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) @ New York Giants (6-2), Sunday 4:25pm ET

There are so many reasons that this is an interesting and important game. The matchup has significant playoff implications and could almost seal the NFC East for the Giants with a W, the Steelers RB situation hots up with Mendenhall potentially returning to challenge Jonathon Dwyer, and the Giants will have a new starting MLB for the day in Mark Herzlich, something that coaches, doctors and family members never thought possible.

When Herzlich was a standout junior at Boston College, he always looked liked he would be an NFL starter one day. He was named to the Butkus and Lott trophy watchlists prior to the season, and through his play earned First-team All-American and the ACC Defensive Player of the Year awards. After leading BC with 110 tackles and recording six interceptions, eight pass break-ups, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries, he was projected as a potential Top-15 selection in 2009 NFL Draft if he declared early. Instead, Herzlich decided to stay in school for his senior year.

Prior to starting his senior year, Herzlich received shocking news, that threatened to not only end his football career, but his life. He was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma in his femur, a rare and aggressive bone cancer, and doctors told him that the key was whether the cancer had metastasized to other areas - he faced a 70% survival chance if it hadn't, and only a 10% chance if it had. Following numerous scans and biopsys, doctors told him the cancer was still localised in the femur, and they could see no small fractures in the region that would allow the cancerous cells to seep out. Whilst this was good news, meaning Herzlich would be able to keep his leg, the doctors told him his athletics days were over.  Mark undertook a very strong course of chemotherapy, one that many patients not in his physical shape would be unable to survive, and his body responded well.

Herzlich makes the tackle at Giants training camp in August 2012 (Photo: Mike Carey)

The tumour shrank to such an extent that doctors were able to reassess his status, and gave him an option: surgically remove a section of his femur to almost certainly eliminate the cancer (but also end his playing career), or continue with the chemo, add in a course of radiotherapy, and attempt to save his leg in tact. Herzlich opted for the more risky second option, knowing that there was only a 50% chance the cancer would be eliminated this way, but his drive to not just survive, but to play football again, were too much to put aside.

On September 29th 2009, Herzlich announced that his treatment had been successful, and his cancer was now in full remission. He did need surgery on his femur, to insert a strengthening titanium rod into the bone, but following the end of his chemotherapy treatment he was able to get into physical rehab, and start training again for what he hoped would be a successful return to football.

In 2010, Herzlich returned for his senior year at Boston College, and started in all 13 games, recording 65 tackles, 2 FF and 4 INTs. Remarkable numbers for a cancer survivor just one year removed from devastating chemotherapy, but he was still not done, and wanted his shot at the NFL.

Despite being invited to the NFL Draft as a guest in 2011, Herzlich went undrafted, as teams were concerned about his durability with the titanium rod supporting his leg, as well as the chances that his cancer would return. He was, however, seen as a priority UDFA, and fielded offers from the Eagles and Ravens before signing with the Giants. Now in the NFL, Herzlich's fight has continued. He earned his was onto the Giants 53-man roster for 2011, and made his mark as a special teamer. By week 11, however, injuries to the Giants LB corp meant that Herzlich was next man up at MLB, and he got his first NFL start vs the Eagles. Sadly, after just 2 starts, he suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him out of not only the remainder of the regular season, but also the entirity of the post-season, and the Giants eventual Superbowl victory.

However, the fact that Herzlich got his chance to play in the NFL at all is remarkable, and this week he'll get to start again. The Giants starting MLB Chase Blackburn injured his hamstring last week against Dallas, and looks to be out for this week's game. Herzlich was pushing Blackburn for the start in the preseason, but was limited by a hip pointer, handing the role to Chase. Now, with his chance to start again, we'll get a chance to see just how strong this guy is.

Even if you're a Steelers fan, you have to hope Herzlich does well Sunday. He's a guy who's impossible to root against, and frankly one you'd be stupid to bet against. He continues to defy the odds.

Gur's Game of the Week: Miami Dolphins (4-3) @ Indianapolis Colts (4-3), Sunday 1pm ET


I gotta say, I never would have guessed that, half way through the season, I'd be picking the Dolphins/Colts game to be my game of the week. Then again, if I were to ask you, if the playoffs started today, who the 5th and 6th seeds would be, would you have guessed that it would be the Dolphins and the Colts respectively? Because, as strange as it might seem to say, that's exactly what would happen.

It's a bit redundant to say that, in the lunar calender of American football, this has been, in many ways, Year of the Rookie Quarterback; you all already know this is the case, especially if you've been reading Toby's excellent series following the signal calling rooks throughout the season - but could there be a better game to showcase how these two have come along than this matchup? As the #1-overall pick, and the kid who for the past two years had been anointed as the most NFL-ready quarterback since Peyton Manning, or even John Elway, plenty of attention has been paid to Andrew Luck so far; but, since Hard Knocks wrapped up, there hasn't been much said about Ryan Tannehill. Quietly, Tannehill has been putting together a very nice season, and he gets a great opportunity to show that he deserves to be given as much praise as Luck or the other QB taken ahead of him, RG3.

Stepping away from the quarterbacks, this ought to be a bit higher-scoring than you might perhaps expect - this game matches strengths vs. weaknesses for both sides of the ball. The Dolphins have one of the best run defenses in the league, third in most rushing yards allowed and tied for first in yards-per-carry allowed, but the Colts don't have much of a run game this year (when have they ever?). On the other hand, the Colts' passing attack is doing reasonably well under Andrew Luck, with Reggie Wayne in particular having his best year in a long time - and the Luck-Wayne connection is unlikely to be severely tested by the leagues' 8th-worst passing defense. Flipping it around, it is Tannehill who has the tougher ask of the two QBs, as he'll have to contend with the NFL's fifth-best passing defense; unlike Luck, however, Miami's rookie quarterback has a running back he can rely on in Reggie Bush. Bush has started to regularly show flashes of the Bush we saw in college, the Heisman-winning one-time second-overall pick, who is a major threat to gash the Colts' 7th-worst run D, which will take the heat off Tannehill and allow him to take on a supportive rather than a starring role - a role he has shown he can carry off with great aplomb, and one which, as long as Bush can get it going, could well equate to a win for the boys from South Beach.

More than anything, with these two teams currently leading the pack in the hunt for an elusive wildcard spot, this game is a great opportunity to see if the teams, and their records, are legit - or if they are merely the beneficiaries of an easier schedule or unprepared opponents, more likely to be spending January on their couches than on the field playing playoff football. We may not know the answer to that question until December, but this matchup should give us a good early indication - and that's what makes it my game of the week.

Guest Game of the Week: Dallas Cowboys (3-4) @ Atlanta Falcons (7-0), Sunday 8.20pm ET
By Conor Philpott, v2journal, (@v2journal)

I talked about the Cowboys last week in an article for the v2journal, and a brief summary would be: not effective in the passing game, defence gives up too many points (but not a lot of yards), rushing game is decent but not used often enough (they are often faced with relatively big deficits as we saw last Sunday). Overall, the feeling was the Cowboys are an okay team but not an incredibly good one. They have problems at the safety position on defence and the absence of Sean Lee has also hit them hard. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were getting catches but not getting the yards, averaging only 10.5 and 9.7 yards a catch prior to last Sunday. Witten had a great game on Sunday,  making an astonishing 18 catches, for 167 yards (9.3 yard average),  the length of Dez Bryant's fingers (on the final drive, Bryant makes a catch in the endzone but his fingers were out of bounds) meant the game went the way of the Giants but the Cowboys lost that game due to their inability to keep the ball, losing the ball a staggering 6 times on offense (4 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles). The Cowboys turnover ratio was  pretty poor prior to Sunday (15th) it is now the second worst in the league, only the Kansas City Chiefs rank worse than the Cowboys, I think it's fair to say that being above a team who hasn't led at any time in regulation during the season isn't exactly something to brag about.
The Cowboys have some great talent on both sides of the ball, their receivers aren't getting the necessary separation and their Offensive Line could probably help out Tony Romo  a bit more but they are not playing well and will more than likely miss out on the NFC East title this season, and I would also guess their playoff hopes are all but gone. 


My colleague James talked about the Falcons last week, the only undefeated team in the NFL this year. There are various differing opinions on the Falcons, some feel they can finally go far into the post season while some still question if their soft underbelly which has been so ruthlessly exposed in the last two year's playoffs is still there.  The old adage that "you can only beat what's put in front of you"  is valid for the Falcons in my opinion. They have only faced one quality team in my opinion, in the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. I may be biased being a Bucs fan, but I think if the Falcons faced Manning now as opposed to in week 2, we might have seen a different story. The Falcons are grinding out the wins, often winning by scores and some say the ability to win those tough encounters is the mark of a top team. I'm inclined to disagree with that this time around, I could realistically see the Falcons winning 13 or 14 games but even then I would wonder can they beat the top teams. Have they made any big changes? They upgraded their secondary be trading for Asante Samuel but then lost Brent Grimes. Curtis Lofton was lost to New Orleans and his designated replacement in Lofa Tatupu won't see the field this season anyway.

The Falcons offense is a well oiled machine. They have a decent line who can give "Matty Ice" (or if you are one of those people "The Mattural") good time in the pocket. Their weapons in both the passing and running game are enough to scare the best defences in the league. When talking about the league's best receivers the names Roddy White and Julio Jones will pop up, when talking about Tight Ends, Tony Gonzalez will get a mention,, Michael Turner may be getting on a bit, but he is still pretty useful to the team, his 3.8 yard average would suggest he is no longer able to carry the load of the offense (he isn't by the way) but he is still able to get the hard yards for the team and he will hopefully help bring through the next crop of running backs in Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers (as an aside, that may be the best name in the NFL). The Falcons seem to have some holes however, they can be attacked in the rushing department (they lie 26th in run defence), the Falcons have a super pass defence, and more importantly they don't give up too many points, they rank 6th in points given up per game, they manage to keep the score down and if they hadn't conceded some points in garbage time against the Eagles last week they could be in an even better position. My support of the Bucs may blinker me somewhat here but I still don't think the Falcons have enough to beat the top teams like the Giants, Packers and 49ers in the middle of January.


Prediction: Falcons win by 13 or so, the Cowboys simply aren't very good and the Falcons are a fair bit better in my opinion

Bold Prediction: Julio Jones to catch for over 150 yards and two Touchdowns.



Toby
Phil
Gur
KC @ SD
SD
SD
SD
SD
SD SD

SD
DEN @ CIN
DEN
DEN DEN DEN DEN DEN

DEN
BAL @ CLE
BAL
BAL
BAL
BAL
BAL BAL

BAL
ARI @ GB 
GB
GB
GB
GB
GB GB

GB
CHI @ TEN
CHI
CHI
CHI
CHI
CHI CHI

CHI
MIA @ IND
MIA
IND
MIA
MIA
MIA MIA

IND
CAR @ WAS
WAS
CAR
WAS
WAS
WAS
WAS

WAS
DET @ JAX
DET
DET
DET
DET
DET
DET

DET
BUF @ HOU
HOU
HOU HOU
HOU
HOU
HOU
HOU
MIN @ SEA
SEA
SEA
SEA
SEA
MIN
SEA

SEA
TB @ OAK
OAK
TB TB
TB
OAK
TB

TB
PIT @ NYG
NYG
NYG
PIT
NYG
PIT
NYG

NYG
DAL @ ATL ATL ATL
ATL
ATL
ATL
ATL

ATL
PHI @ NO
NO
NO
PHI
NO
PHI PHI

NO
BYES: NYJ, STL














BYES:
NE, SF














 Last week
9-5
9-5
9-5
10-4
11-3
10-4
8-6
 Total
71-47
73-45
70-48
69-49
71-47
73-45
73-45

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