Sunday, November 29, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal Blow Chance to Go Joint Top Again (1-1)

Arsenal travelled to a cold, rainy Norwich City stadium trying to draw even with Man City at the top of the table again, a week after falling to fourth place after the disappointing loss to West Brom. And though Norwich held out firm for the first 30 minutes, with some wonderful saves from John Ruddy, a Sanchez interception led to the opener. After Ruddy passed to John O’Neill following a dangerous back pass, Sanchez jumped the touch and sent a perfectly weighted diagonal through ball to a charging Ozil, who lofted it over a charging Ruddy and into the far corner. Arsenal looked set to build on their lead and win easily, but just before halftime, Gabriel ended up on the wrong side of Grabban, who finished easily past Cech (44’) after an excellent pass. It was his first goal for the club, in his 14th appearance, and was the second league game in a row where the Gunners gave up a first half lead. Against West Brom, it was worse, of course, as they allowed two goals before halftime on the way to a loss that included a missed sitter and a blown penalty.

Just before halftime, Wisdom sent a dangerous cross to the far post that Hoolahan met but sent over, with the mouth of the goal gaping, just missing out on his 50th goal in English football. Norwich’s rugby approach continued in the early going of the second half, with Canaries clattering into Cazorla and Giroud in quick succession without a yellow card to show for their physical approach to the game that included, in the first half, a shove on Sanchez, into the television pit. Arsenal were probing around goal, but without an end product and it was actually Santi Cazorla who garnered the first caution of the game, after a clear dive in the 54th minute. Three minutes later, Gary O’Neill did earn Norwich’s first yellow as Ramsey stormed forward after an interception, leading to an Arsenal free kick that Ozil hit right into the wall. On 70 minutes, a lovely cross almost led to an own goal but for a brilliant save from Petr Cech and Norwich almost made the resulting corner pay with a clip just over the goal. The game was back and forth from here, with the Canaries arguably creating the better chances, but the Gunners had to settle for a draw that felt like two lost points. Three thoughts on the game:

1. Ozil Rising: I suppose I have become one of the biggest supporters/defenders of Mesut Ozil, believing he has been among the best players in the world since he catapulted onto the international stage with his performance at the 2010 World Cup with a young German squad that would, of course, win the competition four years later. After lighting up the Bundesliga with Werner Bremen, he moved onto Real Madrid where he became the key provider to Benzema and Ronaldo. Arsenal signed him two years ago and while he is the recipient of endless criticism from pundits and fans that I do not think really understand the game, Ozil is a genius who is starting to really come into form. He has provided more assists this year than any other player in Europe and is now starting to add goals to his game, including the openers today and on Tuesday in the Champions League.

While he was originally intent on being a provider rather than a finisher, he is suddenly adding that element to his game with clever, sharp runs and taking his shot when it is available. It is exactly what Arsene Wenger was hoping to get out of his record signing and one could make an argument, with the decline of Eden Hazard, Fabergas and Costa this season, the streakiness of Sanchez and the injuries to Silva and Aguero, that he is among the top offensive talents in the league at present, just behind a few strikers and maybe the electric Mahrez. They will need him to continue to contribute every week as they could be without Sanchez for a stretch.

2. Risking Sanchez Could be Costly: before the game there were reports that Sanchez had a hamstring niggle and yet he was still allowed to play the game. One wonders why, though the explanation was that “it was not a good time to rest him.” What the hell that means is beyond me, but it could be yet another costly mistake from a manager that continues to have the worst injury record in the league. On 59 minutes, he pulled up with a clear hamstring injury and could now be out for, one assumes, at least three weeks (if not a lot longer). That comes on the heals of an early injury to Koscielny and the list just keeps getting longer for Arsenal, even as Ramsey was finally back in the fold from the start and Ox came in for the last 20 minutes or so. The only one who will see these mounting injuries as potentially positive news is Joel Campbell, who will now probably have a chance to impress over the coming weeks.

3. Turkey Blues: November has been the worst month for points throughout Wenger’s 19-year reign and it appears to be a trend that is continuing this season. It started with a 5-1 decimation at the hands of Bayern on the fourth, then the disappointing 1-1 draw with Tottenham, a 2-1 loss to lowly West Brom and the draw today. The only win for the Gunners in the five fixtures this month was the 3-0 victory over Zagreb. So, rather than being at the top of the table with some very winnable matches in the next few weeks, the Gunners find themselves in fourth place yet again, two points behind City and Leicester and a point behind a very average United team.
Disappointment does not do justice to the feeling Gooners are feeling today and I wonder if I am not the only one wondering when the hell Wenger is going to retire and allow someone else to take a shot at a title that looks a lot more than three points away at the moment. Norwich fans, on the other hand, must feel a sense of optimism after four points in two games against Swansea and Arsenal and a cushion above the drop zone (though only two points).

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal UCL Future in Own Hands

Arsenal hosted Dinamo Zagreb tonight at the Emirates in a game they needed to win if they were to keep alive their quest to become only the second team ever to emerge from the group stage of the competition after losing their first two games. Job done after a resounding 3-0 win which, coupled with a 4-0 Bayern hiding of Olympiakos, meant they can still make it through to the Round of 16 for the 16th season running. What they will need to do to accomplish that feat is go to Greece and win by 2 goals, or 3-2. Three quick thoughts on the win tonight:

1. Streaky Sanchez Chips In: In the 29th minute, Sanchez sent a beautiful cross to the head of a charging Mesut Ozil, who smashed it past Zagreb keeper Eduardo to give the Gunners the lead. Four minutes later Sanchez scored his first goal since October 17, finishing a nice cutback from Monreal. Then, to put things beyond doubt, he chipped in a second on a wonderful pass from Joel Campbell, playing his best game in the red and white, in the 69th minute. While Sanchez was the player of the year last season, he is incredibly streaky, having only scored in 10 of 41 games with Arsenal. This season he has scored nine goals now, but those have come in only five games. Sanchez is a wonderful player with an unparalleled drive to win, but if Arsenal are to finally win another league title, they will need more consistent scoring from their talisman. On an unrelated note, Ozil actually went a game without an assist, but he was all over the pitch, scoring the all-important opening goal and passing the ball around with flair and real confidence. If he can raise his game to this level going forward, chipping in a few more goals along the way, Arsenal have a real shot at advancing in the UCL and making a sustained title challenge.

2. Petr Cech ... Solid as a Rock: the Arsenal keeper is nearing an incredible 40 clean sheets in the Champions League to go with his 2012 title. He was called into action in the second half here, with a wonder save to stop the Gunners from conceding their second own goal in four days. Luckily his quick fire reaction saved Dinamo from making it a game. Why Wenger sat him earlier in the competition is a question that only the manager can answer, but it is clear, if the Gunners do go on to win silverware this season, that he is the signing of the season. His solidity at the back, since that disastrous opening day loss to West Ham, has already earned the team at least five or six points, and John Terry’s prediction that he was worth at least 15 is starting to look more prophetic by the week.

3. Good News Always Comes With Bad for the Melancholic Gooner: it has been slightly easier to be sanguine over the past year and a half as an Arsenal fan, as they have secured those two FA Cups and, though largely meaningless, two Community Shields as well. The win over Bayern to keep their hopes in the Champions League alive was backed by the professional 3-0 win tonight. And even with some early season struggles, Arsenal are still only two points from the summit of the table, with some very winnable fixtures on the dawn. Yet watching Aaron Ramsey jog onto the pitch tonight in the 67th minute was counterbalanced by news that Coquelin’s injury is even worse than originally thought.

He will now miss at least three months of the season, with the only available backups the aging Flamini and the largely untested Calum Chambers. It is possible that Wenger might put Ramsey next to Cazorla at the back, but that sounds like a dangerous pairing against the more physical sides in the EPL. Instead, Wenger will probably make due with Flamini or Chambers at least until January, when it appears he will have to dip into the January transfer window yet again to address an issue that most thought should have been taken care of this summer – namely, a defensive midfielder that can marshal the back in Coquelin’s absence. There are some worthy options including Carvalho and Lars Bender, among a host of Premier League talent that might be available for the right price.

The good news for the Gunners, and I know this sounds harsh, is that Mikel Arteta was also injured in the West Brom game. Arteta was a useful addition after the fire sale the Gunners suffered a few years ago, losing Fabergas, Nasri and then Van Persie (among a host of others) in two windows, but his time has passed; on top of the reality that he was never really a great defensive midfielder. His own goal before hobbling off on Saturday was a healthy reminder that his presence in the team makes the defense always on the cusp of being shambolic. Flamini is statistically worse in every category than both Coquelin (by a mile) and Arteta (by a more reasonable margin), but I think he is better suited to take on the role necessary for at least the next four weeks.

But the latest injury woes only amplify the contention of many that Wenger is no longer the man to lead this Arsenal side to the apex of the league, or even beyond the Round of 16 in the UCL, and that it is time for him to move on (at the end of the season, of course). That seems unlikely unless the Gunners do win the title, but maybe it is time for the board to nudge the aging Frenchman toward the exit before the team he has built disassembles in despair at knowing they are but a couple pieces away from being among the best in the world. Looking at Liverpool dismantle Man City on Saturday showed the power a forward-looking coach can have on a side and it seems time that Arsenal take a chance on a change that seems 10 years in the making.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Liberal Media Bias? Hmm ...

Three Things: Arsenal Miss Chance to Go Top Again

Arsenal headed into their game at the Hawthorn with only one loss in their last 19 trips there, coming way back in 2005. On the other hand, the West Brom team now coached by Tony Pulis meant that statistical edge abutted against an away record against the “rugby coach” of only one win alongside four draws and three losses in eight trips to Crystal Palace, Stoke and now West Brom. Make that four losses after the Gunners blew a one-goal lead in five first half minutes before Joel Campbell missed an absolute sitter and Cazorla missed a late penalty. It was the second time in their past two league games that Arsenal missed out on a chance to go top of the league, as West Brom held on for the 2-1 win. Three quick thoughts on the game.

1. Gunners Revert to Decade-long Form: Arsenal have won two FA Cups and two Community Shields in a row, so one can’t say this is a team without a spine, but when it comes to the league, they seem to find ways to lose winnable games more often than any other team in the Top 5. Tottenham, for example, has not lost a single game since their opening day loss to United. United, while playing a brand of football few find attractive, are grinding out results as they look for more pizazz up front. And even Chelsea got back to winning ways on Saturday. The Gunners, on the other hand, have had two chances to go top of the table and blown both. First they suffered from Olivier Giroud’s profligacy in front of goal, only able to garner a point against bitter rival Spurs. Now they lost a 1-0 lead on the road with some lax defending and an inability to finish their chances.

The biggest thumbs down has to go to Santi Cazorla, who has now failed to score in any of his 13 league appearances this season and another 14 last season since he last scored on February 21 against Crystal Palace. In fact, except for three goals for Spain and one in a preseason friendly with Lyon, Cazorla has appeared to forget how to put the ball in the back of the net. The situation is even worse for Joel Campbell, who never knew how to score outside of his international work with Costa Rica (and occasionally out on loan). The sitter he missed in the second half would have drawn the Gunners even and given them a real shot at all three points. One wonders if he will still be lining up with the Gunners next season. The third thumbs down has to go to Arteta, who actually used his hand to push the ball past Petr Cech and into the net for what turned out to be the winning goal. He is part of the old guard of Arsenal that were shambolic at the back and gave up far too many goals on errors and the fact we are without the more solid Coquelin through the busy holiday season bodes rather poorly for the Gunners staying in the title chase. I won't count by beloved Gunners out yet, but things are beginning to look dire, and oh too familiar, over the past month.

2. Injury Crisis Worsens: Arsenal are not the only team that suffers through injury crises during any given league season, but they have been the most consistent at seeing their title challenge derailed by a pile up of injuries in at least one half of the season. This is the fourth year in a row when they will probably lead the league in injury time off for presumed starters and they added two names to the list in this game – first Coquelin and then Arteta. The injury to Coquelin will see him out at least two months and, of course, justifies fans concerns that Wenger refused to buy backup to our defensive midfielder. With Arteta also sidelined, this means that Ramsey will either have to move back to pair up with Cazorla, now that the Welshman appears to be back from injury (at least for a game), or Flamini will have to start in that position. It is really an unforgiveable oversight by the most stubborn manager in the Premier League and is made worse by failing to buy another striker, with both Walcott and Welbeck still unavailable. Added to that list are the brittle Jack Wilshire, Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain. These issues were supposed to be addressed when a new medical team was brought in last season, but the same old problems continue to crop up. It appears they need to explore another shift in the backroom staff, to improve the squad players (to give more rest to the starters) and maybe to sign players without long histories of injury.

3. The Case for Giroud: the Downside of Sanchez: Giroud is one of the more mercurial strikers in the world. In one moment, he scores a sublime goal either through a well-placed header, as he did Saturday, or with incredible volleys with his body contorted into Houdini-like poses. Then he goes through a game, or series of games, where he misses three tap-ins or simple headers. Lately, the Frenchman has been both at the same time, blowing simple finishes while scoring a number of spectacular goals. Giroud has 7 goals in 13 appearances this season, with those 7 coming in his last 10 appearances. As previously mentioned, his three misses against Tottenham cost Arsenal two points, but his goal on Saturday probably should have been enough to give the Gunners all three points. His hold-up play has been a little more suspect this term and the fact he has zero assists in 13 appearances means his link-up play is not up to recent seasons, and yet Giroud has the stats one wants in a striker – one goal every other game. Whether he is the best man for the job every week is still open to debate, as the pace of Walcott would be better suited to some opponents, but it is clear that he is the better option against teams like West Brom, that sit back, absorb the pressure and try to score on the counter. There are better strikers in the world, certainly, but Giroud is among the more consistent in the league over the past three seasons, as strange as that is to write.

Sanchez, on the other hand, is often the hardest working player on the pitch, and though he is streakier than Giroud, is arguably the best player on the Arsenal squad. One area where he does not measure up to his peers, however, is in possession. As Daily Mail reported last week, Sanchez has been dispossessed 41 times this season, not counting the game Saturday, good for most in the entire league ( And while he has scored a respectable six goals this season, that is five less than at the same time last time around. He got hot last month, but seems to have reverted to a rather troubling trend that started late last season. Sanchez is great, but needs to find better spaces to exploit the speed of the Arsenal attack and the creativity of Ozil (who, by the way, added his 11th assist in 12 games in a losing effort).

Arsenal now have a make-or-break game against Dinamo Zagreb in the UCL on Tuesday, where anything but a win means they are out of the competition. A loss, while seemingly unthinkable, would actually mean they are not even heading to the Europa League. One assumes they will find a way to win the game, but they also have to hope Olympiakos doesn’t earn at least a draw against Bayern, as that too would eliminate them from the competition. In the league, they have what increasingly looks like must win games against and at struggling Sunderland, before the trip to Olympiakos that should decide their Champions League fate for this season; potentially costing Wenger his record of always making it to the knockout stage of the tournament.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

NFL Week 10 Wrap: Cowboys Season Unravels; Seattle in Trouble; Panthers & Pats Keep on Trucking

The Games

The week got started on Thursday night with the classless return of Rex Ryan and his Buffalo Bills to Met Life Stadium and a matchup with the Jets team that rightfully sacked him after another awful season. Ryan once seemed like a nice guy who had a big mouth but a kind heart; he increasingly looks like a “character” or maybe even “caricature” of an NFL coach. Sure he had the last laugh as the Bills held off a late Jets comeback to win 22-17, but naming Enemkpali as the co-captain (the guy who broke Geno Smith’s jaw) showed the kind of guy Ryan really is. On Sunday morning, two games with big ramifications took place in Wisconsin and Tampa. The Detroit Lions finally ended a 24-year losing streak at Green Bay, winning 18-16 after a last second 51-yard field goal by the Packers fell well short and the Cowboys lost for the seventh game in a row, again ceding a fourth quarter lead to fall 10-6. Dez Bryant appeared to be interfered with on the end zone interception that ended it, but probably could have put up more of an effort to snatch a ball that seemed very catchable. If the penalty had been called, the Cowboys would have had the ball at the one yard line with plenty of time to run at least two or three plays.

The Eagles blew a lead against the Dolphins after their starting quarterback Sam Bradford went out with a shoulder injury and concussion, losing 20-19. Good ole Mark Sanchez came in to “un”save the day (a habit of his as the anti-Super Man), throwing an interception in the end zone when they could have won with a field goal.  The Chicago Bears continued their recent renaissance, crushing the Rams 37-13 behind a big day from Jay Cutler (19 of 24 for 248 yards and 3 touchdowns). Todd Gurley was held to 45 yards on 12 rushes as Nick Foles had another average day, only going 17/36 for 200 yards and a pick. Both teams moved to 4-5 in what is increasingly shaping up as a packed Wild Card chase. Meanwhile the Jags tagged the Ravens for another last second loss, this time on a field goal with no time left to win it 22-20. Flacco had a big day with 316 yards on 34 of 45 passes, but had two picks to undermine his three touchdown tosses.

The Panthers moved to 9-0 after struggling early against the 2-7 Titans, with Cam Newton putting in another efficient performance on the way to the 27-10 win. And the New Orleans Saints continued to confound with their play from one week to the next, getting absolutely demolished 47-14 by a Redskins team that moved to 4-5. Kurt Cousins was the hero, throwing for four touchdowns and 324 yards on only 20 completed passes (out of 25 throws), while Drew Brees had an off day, tossing two interceptions and only completing 19 of 28 for 209 yards.

In the late games, the Giants hosted the Patriots in a matchup that pitted one of the few coaches in the league with a winning record against Bill Belichick; with Tom Coughlin 3-0, including the two Super Bowl rings he stole from his old friend. This was the game of the season so far, back and forth throughout before a 54-yard field goal with 1 second left gave the Patriots the 27-26 win. The Giants (now 5-5) will look back at a few plays that cost them the game, including a sack of Manning in the fourth quarter that cost them a shot at three points, the overturned touchdown catch by Odell Beckham, poor time management that gave Brady plenty of time for the comeback, a missed interception on the final Patriots drive that would have sealed it and failing to stop the Pats on a fourth and 10. It is the third game already this season the Giants could, and probably should, have won. The Patriots, on the other hand, will feel good at 9-0, having essentially already won the AFC East, and having beaten one of their fiercest rivals in the league. But they lost key receiver Edelman in the first half and will hope he doesn’t have an extended stay on the sideline. In the other late games, the Chiefs made it two losses in a row for the Broncos (29-13) as Peyton Manning played one of the worst games of his career before being benched. The Vikings dented the Raider’s playoff hopes with a 30-14 hiding that pushed them a game above the struggling Packers in the NFC North.

The Sunday night game saw Seattle hosting Arizona in a game that would go a long way to determining the winner of the NFC West. Arizona jumped out to a 19-0 lead, but a Seattle touchdown before halftime gave them a sliver of hope. After trading scores, Seattle’s defense stripped Carson Palmer on two straight possessions, scoring touchdowns on each turnover to forge ahead 29-25. Palmer then led the Cardinals on an 83-yard touchdown drive to retake the lead and then scored a long touchdown by Ellington on the next drive to punctuate the win, though they needed to recover an onside kick to preserve the final 39-32 win. Palmer threw for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns, though he also threw an interception and lost two fumbles. Russell Wilson, on the other hand, was 14-32 for 240 yards with a touchdown and a pick, earning a measly QBR of 13.8. At 4-5, Seattle is now in danger of missing out on the playoffs altogether, while the Cardinals have essentially wrapped up the NFC West. Monday night matched the 8-0 Bengals against the 3-5 Texans, and has often been the case in recent years, the Texans upset their Northern neighbors. The Bengals offense suddenly wilted under consistent pressure, only able to muster two first field goals in a dull 10-6 loss, with Bengal’s killer T. J. Yates coming on to lead the Texans on the game-winning fourth quarter drive.

Some thoughts on Week 10

Why Bad Teams Lose (and occasionally win anyway)
The Jets head coach Todd Bowles might want to take some lessons in math. After going for it on fourth down twice in the last six minutes inside their opponents 25, Bowles lost the game 22-17. Last time I checked, three + three = six, and thus a 23-22 win. On top of that was the inability to pound it in from the two or, from a different vantage point, to get the 13 yards they needed to take the lead after a blocked punt. Yet it wasn’t just Bowles decision making that cost the Jets, as Fitzpatrick had a below par game, the defense spotted the Bills a huge lead and a mix-up on fourth down cost them the game late. Detroit did their best to blow their game late against the Packers as well, after going up 8 points with a minute and a half left, their kicker missed his SECOND extra point of the game. The Packers then drove down the field and scored, only to just miss their own two-point conversion. The resulting onside kick headed toward the man the Lions would most trust to hold onto it (Calvin Johnson), though he somehow bumbled it and gave it to the Packers. Their short drive got it into field goal range, but the 51 yarder was side footed and the Lions won at Green Bay for the first time in three decades.

The loss of the day, though, goes to a coach who doesn’t seem to garner enough scrutiny, even as he appears to lose more close games than any other in the league. Jason Garrett has now overseen seven straight losses for a Cowboys team that came into the season as prohibitive Super Bowl favorites. Sure they lost their starting quarterback and best receiver, and then one of their top two running backs, but they have been either ahead or tied in the fourth quarter of six of those seven losses. The team has too many turnovers, too many penalties, too many key mistakes, poor time management, the inability to hold leads, a really average defense and a penchant for blowing games late. Garrett’s record as the head coach now stands at 43-38 and he has played a mere two playoff games, winning won (they probably should have lost) and losing one (they probably should have won). But let’s look more closely at those seasons. In his first three, the Cowboys finished 8-8 and one game out of the playoffs. In each of those seasons, they played an NFC East rival with the chance to seal the division and a playoff birth in the final game. And they lost each of those games. Last year, he did lead them to a division title and a playoff birth, but they were lucky to beat the Lions after a bad call and really should have won the game against the Packers (even as he had no control over “the catch that wasn’t.”). Garrett cannot be fired after all the injury woes the Cowboys have suffered, but I think there is a strong argument that this should be his final season in charge of the underperforming Dallas Cowboys. Given Jerry Jones’ decision making since his ex-friend Jimmy Johnson left, one assumes he will sign him to a lifetime contract after they just miss out on the playoffs by losing the final game of the season.

Is Peyton Manning Done?
Peyton Manning had one of his worst games as a professional quarterback on Sunday, going 5 for 20 for 35 yards and 4 (no, that is not a typo) interceptions. He was also sacked twice. It was such a bad performance Manning earned a quarterback rating (not QBR) of 0.0. It has of course emerged today that he has a plantar fascia issue that affected his performance, but serious questions must still be asked. Overall this season, he has 9 touchdown passes versus 17 interceptions, has a completion percentage under 60 (59.9), is only averaging 6.77 yards per attempt and has a QBR (45.0) that ranks 29th. The truth is, besides the impressive game against the Packers, Manning has been among the most mediocre (or bad, if you like) quarterbacks in the league since the middle of last season. His body is falling apart on him, his throws (which were never tight spirals) are like flailing ducks half the time and he is getting close to doubling his touchdown total with interceptions.

It used to be that teams could win championships with a dominant defense and a passable offense, but those days appear to be long gone. Seattle is the closest we’ve seen, but their dominance over the past few years has owed a lot to one of the better statistical quarterbacks in the league and a dominant rusher in Marshall Lynch. Since that offense’s performance has declined this year, so have their fortunes. The Broncos might have flattered to deceive with their early start, but this does not look like a team that can win a playoff game, much less go to and win the Super Bowl.

Maybe a few week’s rest will allow Manning to come back stronger, but his performance in this game and the late interception that cost them the comeback against the Colts, together with his overall performance this season, fails to give one much confidence that he is doing much else this year besides breaking some more records and, in a small way, tarnishing the tail end of a spectacular career. The solitary Super Bowl victory is the presumptive reason he returned, but I believe that ship sailed two seasons ago in a Super Bowl that was over before it had really begun. On a more positive note, many great quarterbacks from Dan Marino to Dan Fouts to Richard Todd (just kidding) would have gladly taken that one ring and called it a career.

Are these Panthers for Real?
The Panthers now stand at 9-0 and in firm control of the NFC South. If they keep playing like this, they should also take home field advantage into the playoffs. Last year, their 7-8-1 record led many to question whether division winners should even get an automatic spot in the playoffs, before they beat the Cardinals in the Wild Card game 27-16 and gave the Seahawks a scare before ending up on the wrong side of a 31-17 scoreline. And lest us forget, this is the same team that went 12-4 two years ago before losing to the Niners 23-10 in the divisional round. So, are the Panthers now a serious Super Bowl contender? They have had some quality wins, including a 27-23 road win over the Seahawks, a 27-16 victory over the Eagles, a 29-26 win over the Colts and a 37-29 victory over the Packers. But those wins are looking a little less impressive as time goes on and we see flaws in each of those other teams. Their other opponents have been more suspect, but nine wins in a row is nine wins in a row. Looking forward, they face the Redskins (H), Cowboys (A), Saints (A), Falcons (H), Giants (A), Falcons again (A) and Bucs (H). They could easily fall back into the pack if they let up at all, but those are all winnable games.

In total defense, the Panthers rank a middle-of-the-road 11th, the same position they earn in points allowed per game (20.4). They are 12th in total passing yards allowed and 13th against the run. Offensively, they rank 16th in total yards; 27th in passing yards per game (216.6) but tied for first with Buffalo in rushing (142.3 yards per game). Yet even with those yardage numbers, they are fourth in points scored per game (28.5), behind only the Patriots, Arizona and Cincinnati. And that is the number that matters most. One reason they have scored so many points on a relatively average offense is their plus six turnover margin, good for third in the league behind only the Giants and Patriots. The incredible statistic here is they are tied for 17th in giveaways, with 12, but have forced the fourth most takeaways including a league-leading 13 interceptions (tied with two others).

Cam Newton might be one of the biggest reasons for the impressive first half of the season, though one might be surprised to learn that he is having his worst statistical season by just about any measure. His QBR (52.9) is the lowest in his five-year career, his completion percentage is down (53.7 versus 58.8 overall), his yards per carry (4.7) is below his career average of 5.4, and his yards per attempt (7.4), though better than the previous two season, is below his first two years. His TD/INT (14/9) is more or less on par with his career (91-63), though he has yet to lose a fumble this season. The difference then is his leadership skills and ability to play better when the game is on the line. Newton’s number do not put him among the elite quarterbacks in the league, at least this season, but there is still a perception among most football experts that he is now among the best in the league and has the tools to raise his game to the next level.

On the evidence so far, one would say the Panthers are for real, but might not be quite ready for the big time unless the defense improves and Newton plays marginally better going forward. On the other hand, if they keep getting key turnovers, continue to score at their current rate and play defense a little better, they could certainly go all the way.

Playoff Picture
It appears the playoff picture got a little murkier this week. For one, the Packers lost for the third game in a row and seem to be an offense without an identity. That appears to put the Carolina Panthers at the head of the pack out of the NFC, though I still wonder about their ability to get all the way to the Super Bowl, as mentioned above. In the AFC, the Broncos were so profligate offensively that the unthinkable happened – they benched Peyton Manning (after he completed one more pass (5) than interceptions (4) in his first 20 throws of the game). The Bengals finally lost. And the team that has represented the NFC in the past two Super Bowls is now 4-5; Seattle in case you’ve been living in a cave without Internet or cable reception.

The Patriots are still the cream of the AFC and, realistically, of the NFL, and the competition around them seems to be crumbling. Is a second Super Bowl appearance in a row in the offing? The Steelers could still have something to say about it, though I am doubtful Big Ben can carry them far enough on his rather sizable shoulders. The Bengals are still 8-1 after a one-off loss on Monday night, but have never proven themselves in the playoffs. And Denver is not moribund quite yet. One other team to watch might be an odd choice, but the Colts have shown some of their old magic on occasion this season, and are really shooting to finally get past the Patriots and to the big game.

In the NFC, the Panthers are the only remaining undefeated team and, barring a late season collapse, could be playing all their playoff games at home. The Vikings are in the ascendancy as well, and now have a one game lead over the Packers after winning their fifth in a row. With their running game and defense, decent play from Bridgewater should keep them in the conversation for a potential Super Bowl appearance. Meanwhile, the up and down Giants have arguably the best quarterback in the NFC at present and with all of their offensive weapons could be a team to watch, assuming they even make the playoffs. And don’t count out those Cardinals, who have the most explosive offense in the NFC, if not the league.

At present, I still like the Patriots to come out of the AFC and will switch from the Packers to the Cardinals for the moment. There is still a lot of football to go this season, though, and things can change quickly.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

EPL Week 12 Recap: Arsenal and Tottenham Draw; City Held; Chelsea Lose Again

Week 12 of the Barclay’s Premier League opened with an important road win for struggling Newcastle 1-0 over Bournemouth, pushing Newcastle two points above the relegation zone, while the home side was pushed down to 18th. Later in the day, Chelsea suffered a seventh defeat of the season, further solidifying the worst title defense in the history of the Premium League, as they fell one-nil at Stoke. Leicester City came back yet again to claim victory 2-1 over Watford at home with you-know-who scoring yet again to move within one game of the EPL record for consecutive games with at least one goal. Sunderland lost to Southampton 1-0, probably forcing poor Sam Allardyce to wonder why in the world he took on this impossible task that could ruin his record of never being at the helm of a demoted team. Meanwhile, West Ham continued their struggles at home, only able to salvage a point against Everton, while Norwich piled more pressure on Swansea’ Gary Monk 1-0. And though it was not enough to impress all the pundits, Manchester United eased out of their recent scoring drought with a 2-0 victory over West Brom that included a late penalty converted by Juan Mata and a, along with his two main assistants.
Arsenal played Tottenham in the marquis Sunday matchup and after being largely dominated for the opening 70 minutes and finding themselves 1-0 down to a Harry Kane goal, came back to earn a draw, though a win was certainly within their reach (or on Giroud’s head to be more accurate). Both managers can take something from the game, though the Spurs will be disappointed to miss out on two points and Arsenal to fail to take sole possession of first place in the league (you can find my full match report here: That opportunity existed because earlier in the day, a depleted Man City were held to a surprising nil-nil draw at bottom-dwelling Aston Villa. In the final match of the weekend, J├╝rgen Klopp tasted his first defeat as Liverpool manager, as the home side lost 2-1 to Crystal Palace. Heading into the international break, many teams including Arsenal and City will be happy to get two extra week’s rest for their ailing stars, while others will hope none of their key players will come back from their international duties crocked.

Some thoughts on Game Week 12:
1. Chelsea Funk Continues: in what was their best performance in a few weeks, Chelsea still lost a game that they largely dominated and now find themselves closer to the drop (3 points) than the top 4 (13 points). They are an extraordinary 15 points behind co-leaders Arsenal and Man City and have a dismal -7 goal differential. What is perhaps most disturbing is the dearth of goals this year (16) and the extraordinary collapse of what was the best defense in the league last season. Mourinho wasn’t even on the grounds, as he served out his one-match ban for comments he made about the officials earlier in the season. Hazard had his best performance of the campaign, but was still unable to put the ball in the net and has now failed to score in any of his league performances, only chipping in a mere two assists. The defense was more solid, but still let in the decider and the continued profligacy in front of goal makes it all but certain that they will be dipping into the January transfer window to seek answers, with rumors suggesting they are interested in Higuain, Chicharito or Paco Alcacer up front and will go back in for Stones to shore up the defense (you can find my full match report here:

2. A Tough Week for Arsenal: the 5-1 thrashing Arsenal took at the Allianz on Wednesday made their route through to the knock out stage that much more difficult. But given that head-to-head record trumps goal difference, they still have hope if they can beat Zagreb and then travel to Olympiakos and win by at least 2 goals. Neither result is beyond them, though they’ve had some trouble in final games on the road in recent Group Stages. The reality, though, is this could be a blessing in disguise. If they happen to beat Zagreb and then say win by a goal at Olympiakos, or even lose that game, they are likely to head to the Europa League. That is a nightmare to many managers, but Wenger could use that opportunity to blood his youngsters and give some of the fringe players a few more games in the second half of the season. Freeing them of their almost perennial two-game knockout in the Round of 16, which seems to often negatively affect their domestic form as hangover, could free them to focus all their energy on winning the title for the first time in 12 years.

The draw with Tottenham cost them a chance to move two points above City, but it also showed some great fortitude in fighting back for the draw and showed how important the signing of Cech could be, as he almost single-handedly kept them in the game until the late surge. One question that might emerge if they do go on to win the league is whether this is the ideal time for Wenger to hang up his long zippered jacket and turn over the reigns to Pep Guardiola, who seems destined to head to England next summer, either with Man City, Arsenal or, I suppose, Chelsea. With their new fiscal power, a manager like Guardiola could find the perfect challenge in trying to outmaneuver a much tighter league than he currently finds in Germany, and maybe even add another Champions League crown to his bulging trophy cabinet. Unlikely? Maybe. But a Gooner can dream …

3. The Emerging European Battle: At present, the title challenge appears to be a three horse race, with City and Arsenal fighting it out and United just a rung below. No one honestly believes Leicester or West Ham can actually challenge for the title, do they? West Ham just doesn’t play well enough at home, and has some serious injury concerns after their game last weekend and Leicester concede goals at too great a rate (and one assumes Vardy will have some off games going forward). On the other hand, it does appear that the race to the Top 4 and the European places below is shaping up as the best in years. Tottenham are knocking on the door of a return to the Champions League if they keep up this form, Liverpool is starting to learn Klopp’s way and could push up the table, Everton is still in the conversation and then there are the two aforementioned interlopers in Leicester and West Ham. One assumes Arsenal, City and United will make the Top 4, barring some bizarre results, but below them is a real battle for that fourth (or maybe even third) place. On present results, I would favor Tottenham to finally overcome their late season devils and snatch it up. The others might have something to say about it before the season ends, though, and this could bring real excitement throughout the season. And I almost forgot the irrepressible Crystal Palace who are still playing above their weight for Alan Pardew.
4. Dawdling around the Drop Zone: surely Chelsea has too much talent to actually drop out of the Premier League this year, I think, so we are at a good point to have a look at the teams likely to finish in the ignominious bottom three this term. Sunderland still looks like a solid bet, as they appear to lack the talent and will to survive at present, though some of these players were around for the past two great escapes. I think Bournemouth, who I liked before the season began, are now in real danger of heading right back down to the Championship unless they find a way to start scoring goals (made harder without their goal-machine Wilson). Newcastle looked like a good bet a few weeks ago, but seem to be a side on the rise. I have written over the past several weeks that it is possible Leicester and West Ham are actual contenders for top four berths this year and while I think Leicester will have trouble beating their nearest competitors to keep their position in the table, the Hammers are certainly starting to turn some heads with their performance against the top teams. To reiterate, they beat Arsenal at the Emirates 2-0 to start the season, beat Liverpool at Anfield 3-0, beat Man City 2-1 at the Etihad, beat Crystal Palace 3-1 on the road and now Chelsea 2-1 at home. It is their results against some of the lower tier teams in the league – a 4-3 loss to Bournemouth and 2-2 draw with Norwich at home and 2-2 draw with Sunderland on the road – that call in question their credentials to keep up this pace, but it is hard to ignore that record. With a quick counterattacking game and the ability to shift tactics to suit their opponent and situation, this is a team to keep an eye on as the season develops.

5. Around the horn: while Chelsea will hope to prise hot Higuian from Napoli, the latter’s desire to get back to the Champions League or even win the league will make it a tough sale to complete. After their 1-0 win over Udinese on Sunday they sit in fourth place, two points from surprise leader Fiorentina (tied on points with Inter, though ahead by 10 in goal difference). Roma is in third on 26 points after winning their Derby with Lazio 2-0. In Spain, Barcelona continued to cruise without Messi, winning 3-0 over Villareal while Real Madrid were shocked by Sevilla 3-2 on the road to fall three points behind their bitter rivals with the El Classico on the other side of the international break their chance to draw back even. Atletico won 1-0 over Sporting Gijon to stay in third place, a mere four points behind the leaders, with Celta Viga continuing to reside in the Champions League spot for now, one point above Villareal. In Germany, Bayern won again (4-0), of course, but Dortmund beat Schalke 3-2 themselves to keep the champions lead within reach at five points. Wolfsburg, even after losing their best player, are still hanging around in third, though they are already 13 points behind the leaders after losing 2-0 to Mainz.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Three Things: Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1

Tottenham came into their game at the Emirates today unbeaten since the unlucky opening day loss to Manchester United. And they left the game still undefeated in their last 11. After taking a first half lead after some terrible defending by both Mertesacker and Koscielny, Arsenal had the unlikeliest of equalizers, from sub Kieran Gibbs three minutes after coming on. Three missed headers from good positions by Giroud surrounded that goal and the Gunners might feel unlucky not to have stolen all three points, but Tottenham were impressive for most of the game and actually outshot Arsenal 13 to 10 and could easily have put the game out of reach with some good chances in the first 15 minutes of the second half. In the end, it was probably a fair result and kept Tottenham unbeaten in their last four North London Derbies (1 win and 3 draws). Three thoughts on the game:

1. Tottenham are for Real: It hurts to say this as an Arsenal fan that is preternaturally inclined to despise everything Tottenham, but this Spurs team has their best chance to get back to the Champions League since 2012, when they were robbed of that position as Chelsea won an unlikely Champions League crown. The Spurs are the youngest team in the league, with one of its younger managers, but it rarely shows as they have now mastered Pochettino’s style and tactical approach – pressing high up the pitch in numbers and then attacking with speed and precision. They surround the ball and then shoot out to create seams across the pitch. And they are also solid at the back, with Belgians Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen creating one of the better centre back pairings in the league, backed by the excellent goalkeeping of Lloris.

They did capitulate the lead here today, after failing to put the game out of reach with some good possession around the box, but seem like a team poised to stay near the top of the table. Spurs fans are probably awaiting the late capitulation that seems to be their birthrate, but I wonder if this is the year they finally overcome that tendency. They had a lot of early season draws when Harry Kane was struggling in front of goal, but he seems back near his best and was actually a few inches away from a hat trick, just missing the far post on a couple of shots. Given the struggles of Chelsea, Liverpool’s injury troubles up front and the fact that Leicester City, Southampton and West Ham are the closest rivals at present for a Top 4 spot, this could be a team on the rise. This is particularly true when we look at their record against the other teams at the top of the table, including the 1-1 draw with Arsenal, the 4-1 win over City, the road draw with Leicester and the 0-0 draw against Anfield. With this defensive unit and organization, the real question is whether they can score enough goals to turn these draws (6) into wins.

2. Arsenal in the Thick of the Title Race: Arsenal missed a golden opportunity to go top of the table after the surprise draw between City and Aston Villa earlier in the afternoon, but their performance during the last 30 minutes of the game showed a team with more self-belief. If Giroud had finished even one of his three great opportunities to head the ball in the net, Arsenal might have snatched all three points. Yet the draw kept them joint top with City and two of the standout performers of the season continued to impress – Cech with some key saves to keep them in the game and then Ozil, adding yet another assist (he now has 10 and could have had three more if the finishing was better). The concern for the Gunners is a more porous defense that is providing opportunities to opposing teams, the mounting injury troubles (though Koscielny and Arteta were both on the pitch today) and the way they gave the ball away far too easily for the first three quarters of the game. Sanchez also had another below par game, though his goals appear to come in patches and one assumes he will be back to scoring goals soon.

3. Should Mertesacker be Replaced by Gabriel: Mertesacker has had an up and down career with Arsenal, but it is hard to ignore the fact that the Gunners have been among the better defensive teams in the league since their title capitulation two seasons ago, when they were blown out by Liverpool (5-1), Chelsea (6-0) and Everton (3-0) in the second half of the season, before the late charge kept them in the Champions League place. They actually conceded the second fewest goals behind Chelsea last term and are joint second this term with Manchester City, having only conceded 9. On the other hand, Mertesacker has looked below his best in recent games, absolutely awful against Bayern (along with most of the team) and beaten far too often in this game, including a real head scratcher that contributed to the Kane goal. Gabriel brings more pace and younger legs and though Mertesacker is taller and maybe more positionally disciplined in general, one wonders if Gabriel and Koscielny might be the better pairing, particularly when facing teams with pace. I am a fan of the lumbering German, but wonder if his time as a guaranteed starter should come under review.

Arsenal head into the international break at the perfect time, as it give Walcott, Ramsey and Ox more time to recover from their minor injuries. Upon returning, the Gunners have a nice run of fixtures heading to the City showdown, playing at West Brom, hosting Dinamo Zagreb in the UCL, heading to Norwich, at home against Sunderland, to Olympiakos (where they will have to win by at least two goals, assuming they beat Zagreb) and then to Aston Villa. Tottenham have a slightly tougher road, hosting upstart West Ham (who have played better on the road this season, particularly against the top teams), a reeling Chelsea that will really need a win and Monaco, and traveling to FK Qarabag and West Brom.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Should He Stay or Should He Go: Chelsea Lose Again

Chelsea lost yet again, 1-0 today at Stoke, even as they outplayed them for most of the game. It was their third league loss on the bounce, the first time that has happened in the Abramovich era. It was their seventh loss in 12 league games played, more than any Mourinho-led team has lost in an entire 38-game season. It left them stuck on 11 points, with a -7 goal difference, and in 16th in the league; the worst title defense in the Premier League era. And it furthered amplified the debate about whether the “special one” should be sacked for a second and, one assumes, final time by Chelsea. Worst of all, it puts them in a position where even making it to the Top 6 will be a real struggle, as only Aston Villa in 03/04 has ever come back from this few points at this point in the season to finish within the European places.

Mourinho, of course, was not even at the Stadium of Lights today, instead watching from a hotel room to satisfy his one-game stadium ban for comments he made about referees after an earlier loss, a habit for three seasons that is starting to really catch up with him this term. The good news for Chelsea is they created chances throughout the game, played with a resolve that has been missing for most of the first three months of the season, had Hazard playing at a high level again and created a number of good chances to score, though none were converted. They were clearly unlucky, but continue to show panic on the defensive end and paid for that lack of discipline.

Stoke counted on their new goalkeeper Butland, the replacement for that guy across from him (Begovich), saving a fine volley from distance by Ramires (’21), from Costa at an acute angle (40’) and a few other times throughout the game. Pedro hit the post on 77 minutes, after a fine curling shot from the edge of the box was just an inch too wide. In the 81st minute, some impressive passing from the Blues, including two backheels, set Hazard free on the left hand side of the box, but his shot was deflected just wide of the far post. Then in the 85th minute, Remy was set free on goal and appeared to be fouled by a charging Butland, though he skipped over the extended keeper and had the goal gaping before slipping and being unable to finish the chance. If he had just fallen down after the contact, Chelsea are lining up for a tying penalty kick with a chance to win it late. Instead they were held and another three points were gone.

The question that now gains steam is whether Mourinho makes it through the International Break. Abramovich knows that most fans want the iconic manager to stay, clear from the Mourinho masks many were wearing today and the chants they sung even in defeat. Whether the players share the same level of support, however, is unclear. Stories in the British rags last weekend claimed a player in the locker room said he would rather lose than win for Mourinho. Hazard has clearly been affected by negative comments, having the worst stretch of his career to date. The defense has been shambolic and the old leaders either past their prime or simply lacking the swagger and confidence in such clear evidence last season. And many have questioned the Portuguese manager’s tactics, claiming he has continued to play negative football, even against lesser opponents (though one could argue there are few clear ones at the moment).

The most troubling aspect of this collapse is it’s proximity to events at Madrid before he left three years ago. After leading Real to the title over Barcelona, bust-ups with several leaders in the locker room including club icon Iker Casillas, and with the media led to a chaotic season that ended with no silverware. Some continued to support Mourinho, but it seemed unlikely he would have been brought back even if the Chelsea job hadn’t opened up. To make that shift, in fact, he walked away from 17 million pounds in compensation. Mourinho was in constant battles in Spain, with the media, the referees and, most notably, with Barcelona coaches and players. He turned Real Madrid into a circus and it is somewhat telling that it was Ancelotti, and not him, that led the team to their 10th Champions League Final right after the “special one” had left. He left Porto after incredible success, left Chelsea last time after dominating the league in his first two seasons and then left Inter after the treble and before the almost inevitable decline began.

To be honest, without the incredible start to last season, one wonders if Mourinho would have even won the league, so mediocre was their second half of the season. Sure they won the League Cup, but then they were unceremoniously booted out of the Champions League by PSG and largely limped to the title as Costa and Fabergas’ form declined and they took a more defensive tact to winning or drawing games. It was still an impressive double and really an indicator of Mourinho’s genius – his ability to win games by any means necessary. Somehow, the summer brought a sea change in the attitude of the team, the form of its stars and the general confidence of the entire team. But what is behind it?
One could offer a narrative, though it is largely conjectural. To start, the siege mentality Mourinho often institutes can sometimes backfire, as players become aggrieved by every call that goes against them and forget to actually play football. That seemed to be the problem early, particularly for the truculent Costa, who was more interested in wrestling with oppositional centre backs than actually, you know, trying to get open and score goals. It worked against Arsenal, but has otherwise cost the team. Fabergas, on the other hand, appears to be playing a second half of the season in the first half of the season, further solidifying Barcelona’s comfort in letting the ex-Arsenal star leave for relatively cheaply. At the time, they pointed to the decline he suffers in productivity in the second half of seasons. But he has been on a hangover that has lasted most of the past year and one begins to wonder if playing so often so young hasn’t prematurely caught up with the boy wonder.

Fabergas also exemplifies the most surprising element of this Chelsea team. The best defensive unit in the league last season has already conceded 23 goals in 12 games. Last season they let in 32 in 38 (four better than the second best team … wait for it … Arsenal!). Fabergas has never been a great defensive player, but this season either have Chelsea stalwarts like Terry, Ivanovic and Matic. In fact, the entire team has seemed to too often lose their discipline, panicking whenever they are exposed on the counter. Ivanovic and Matic, in particular, have been downright terrible, after being among the best defensive players in the league last year. Mourinho teams are usually among the most disciplined, positionally solid and hard to break down as any in world football. Suddenly, they have all appeared to forget how to defend in unison, like a choir where every singer is at least two octaves off key.

The problems do not end on the defensive end, though, as the team has only scored 16 goals, worse than 8 teams and well below their average of almost 2 a game last season (73 in 38) where many games were shut down after taking the lead (or completely in games against top rivals). Part of that is down to the decline in productivity of Costa and Fabergas, the most breathtaking duo in the league at this time last year, but it also is down to the dramatic decline in Hazard’s performance (one week, he was given a rating of 2 by the Daily Mail). And after a great first game, Pedro has failed to translate his excellent record at Barcelona into the English game. To put it all in perspective, Costa, Ramires and Willian are tied for the team lead in league goals, at two a pop. Falcoa has chipped in one, along with six others, all more than the big, fat zero that Hazard has contributed.

So where does this all leave Mourinho? It appears that his antics and siege mentality have backfired this season and that the team has completely lost its confidence. This was not helped when he sat his captain out after a couple of early results went against them and when he did the same to Matic and Hazard. The first two appeared to react negatively, as did Hazard, who maybe not ironically had his best game of the season with Mourinho nowhere near the sideline. After the dramatic late winner from Willian’s free kick on Wednesday, many believed they could now turn things around. Instead they lost another game where they outplayed their opponent. Can they recover under Jose, or does Abramovich need to make a change to simply salvage the season, and maybe the careers of some players in rather dramatic free-fall? It is hard to say, though the availability of another ex-Chelsea boss, in the form of Ancelotti, who of course succeeded Mourinho at Real, could make the decision a little easier.

Whatever is in quick-draw-McGraw Abramovic’s head, one has to believe time is running out for Mourinho if results do not turn around in very short order.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

MPAA Tries to Kill Another Moore Movie

The MPAA’s ongoing battle with Michael Moore continues to fester as they tagged yet another of his films with an R-rating (The Guardian). The latest is Where to Invade Next, a film that will get a limited release in late December. Like Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and really all of his films, the decision appears to have move to do with politics than any substantive issues with the film.

Moore, of course, released the top grossing documentary of all time with Fahrenheit 9/11, which earned an impressive $119.2 million domestically and another $103 million overseas, despite the attempts by the MPAA to stop it from wide release. That movie was R-rated without any credible explanation but a clear attempt to keep American children from hearing ideas outside the conservative mainstream. And his other films haven’t done so bad either, with Sicko at $10 ($24 million domestically), Bowling for Columbine at #12 ($21m) and Capitalism: A Love Story at #19 ($14m) – each also the recipient of the dreaded R-rating.

With Where to Invade Next, the film was given an R-rating because of “violence, drug use and brief nudity.” The violence is footage of the brutal murder of unarmed Eric Garner by the NYPD. The drug use is a discussion of how Portugal ended their war on drugs 15 years ago. And the nudity is 2 seconds of Germans at spa for a vacation to alleviate stress – part of their socialized healthcare. Moore argued, “It’s amazing how 25 years have passed – we invented the internet, gay marriage is legal and we elected an African American president of the United States, but the MPAA is still intent on censoring footage that is available from any evening network news show.” The organization has always been shrouded in secrecy, well documented in another documentary, This Film is Not Yet Rated (the film was in fact rated by the MPAA, as NC-17 for “some graphic sexual content”).
The rating appears to be just the latest parry in a battle for the hearts and minds of America, being fought with equal vigor by the right and left. Both seem almost equally intent on quashing the voices of any non-believers. We have seen it with the MPAA for decades now, but it is also quiet clear in recent debates among GOP presidential contenders on who should even be allowed to ask them questions. On the left, it exists in protests of respected conservatives invited to give speeches on campus, in trigger warning discourses that want to whitewash history, literature and politics and in once respectful left-leaning publications that have become click bait rags no better than Fox News in their skewed (and uncritical) perspective.

In the upcoming election, we will hear a lot about the perils that ISIS, gays, immigrants, “big government” and the like pose to the country. Yet I believe political insularity and an inability to compromise with, or even listen to, those who hold different perspectives is the most dangerous threat to our collective future.

NFL Week 8 Wrap: Seattle and Saints Get Back to .500; Dallas Crisis Worsens; Bengals, Pats, Denver and Carolina Remain Undefeated

The Games

Many were starting to talk about a Miami Dolphins renaissance after the team won their first two games after axing coach Joe Philbin, but the Patriots brought the expectations back down to earth after absolutely pummeling the Dolphins 36-7, to move to 7-0 on the season. In the early Sunday game, the Chiefs moved to 3-5 after putting an equally impressive pounding on the reeling Lions 45-10. Apparently changing an offensive coordinator hours before taking a flight across the Atlantic is not enough to solve the Lions woes. A series of close 1 p.m. games came down to the final moments, with the Saints, Ravens, Vikings and Bengals all able to pull out nail biters. The Chargers lost on a last second field to the Ravens, who have suffered all six losses this season with a chance to drive for the tying or winning score in their final possession. Both now stand at 2-6 and pretty much out of playoff contention.  The Vikings scored 13 in the fourth quarter to sneak past the 2-5 Bears 23-20 and move to 5-2. The Giants and Saints engaged in a shootout to end all shootouts (more on this below), but some questionable calls by the Giants down the stretch and a costly penalty on a late punt meant they ultimately lost 52-49 on a last second 50-yard kick from a Saints spot kicker making his first attempt for the team.

In Pittsburgh, the return of Roethlisberger was derailed by an injury to running back Bell as the Bengals moved to 7-0 for the first time in franchise history (16-10). In a battle of after thoughts, the Texans moved to 3-5 after beating AFC South rivals Tennessee 20-6. The Niners season continued to stall as they lost to the surging St. Louis Rams 27-6 after another outing to forget for Kaepernick (though he did avoid throwing any interceptions). The Rams got 100 yards from Todd Gurley yet again and Nick Foles was efficient if not spectacular going 14 of 23 for 191 yards and a touchdown. The Falcons, on the other hand, took another step backwards from their early start, losing 23-20 to Tampa Bay in overtime. Atlanta has lost two of its last three and their offensive production has declined rather precipitously. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ran an impressive second half, where they outscored the Browns 24 to 0, to a 34-20 win, and moved to 6-2.

There were only two late games, the Jets at Oakland and the Seahawks at Dallas. The Jets fell behind 20-6 at halftime after losing their starting quarterback, before a late comeback was derailed by several head scratchers from new head coach Todd Bowles, who punted the ball on fourth and 7 with 3:19 left down by 14 points before running a draw on third and 21 in his next possession. However, trying to win with one of the stupidest quarterbacks in all of football is tough and Geno Smith’s performance appeared to be the proximate cause of their ultimate 34-20 loss to the Raiders (even as he went 27 of 42 for 254 yards, with 2 TDs and a very costly INT). Smith was knocked out for a couple plays in their final drive and Fitzpatrick had to come back in with an injured left thumb f before Geno returned to throw three straight incompletes to seal the win for the Raiders, though his final throw at the goal line really should have been caught by Brandon Marshall. The Seahawks and Cowboys played out a surprising defensive battle, given the Dallas struggles on that side of the ball most of the year, with Seattle finally putting together two quality quality drives in a row down 12-10 late in the fourth quarter to take a 13-12 lead with 1:06 left on the clock. The Cowboys were out of timeouts when Cassel started the drive on his own 20, having gone 13 for 22 for under 100 yards against the tough Seattle defense. Besides earning a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, Cassel looked like the backup he is on that final drive, with three poor throws, a sack and a knocked down pass on fourth and 21. The Cowboys are now in real danger of missing out on the playoffs after such high expectations coming into the season while the Seahawks moved back to 500.

Sunday night brought us another marques matchup, pitting the undefeated Denver Broncos and their impressive defense against the undefeated Packers and the best quarterback in football. Defense won this game big for the Broncos, as they cruised to a 29-10 victory, smothering Aaron Rodgers while Manning had his best game of the season. Monday night brought us the last undefeated team in the NFC, the Panthers, versus a struggling Colts team at 3-4, with their star quarterback Andrew Luck suddenly looking incredibly ordinary with the 30th QBR in the league (38.3), completing only 56.2 percent of his passes for a 6.66 average with 11 TDs versus 9 INTs. Rumours claim he might be playing with bruised or broken ribs and maybe that explains the problems, but it has certainly been noteworthy that they have been a better team through the first seven games when he was on the bench. Luck continued his struggles through the first three quarters, only accruing 30 yards in passing offense. Cam Newton was not that much better in the pouring rain of the first half, but two strong drives led the Panthers to a 23-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter. The missed extra point on the last Carolina score gave the Colts a whiff of hope and suddenly Luck came alive, leading the team to 17 unanswered points and overtime. A number of calls went in their favor in the final drive of regulation and Luck was fortunate not to have his final pass before the tying field goal dropped rather than picked off in the end zone.

The Colts won the coin toss and a fine return to the 42 left them with a short field. Luck ran the ball on three straight plays and got them close to field goal range before a fine tackle on third down left them with a 50-yarder to take the lead. Vinatieri put it through the uprights to take a 26-23 lead. Newton then completed a long pass on the subsequent drive before a drop by Ted Ginn Jr. cost Newton and the Panthers a sure touchdown. The drop did not faze Newton, however, as he completed two straight passes on the way to a game tying field goal. On the next possession, Luck’s luck ran out as a deflected pass was intercepted and the Panthers went on to win on a 52-yard field goal. The Panthers moved to 7-0 while the Colts fell to 3-5, though they are sharing the lead in the AFC South.

Some thoughts on Week 8

A Shootout to Remember
In the third highest scoring game in the history of the NFL the Saints kicked a 50-yard field goal on the final play to beat the Giants 52-49. It was the first field goal attempt of a game where Drew Brees threw a record-tying seven touchdown passes for the Saints and Eli Manning six for the Giants. Brees went on 40/50 for 511 (without a single sack) and Manning went 30 of 41 for 350. The game included a number of records, including the seven touchdown passes, the combined 13 touchdown passes and for Brees, who now passed Manning for most games with at least five touchdown passes (10), while he became only the second QB in history to throw more than one 500 yard game. Among the other crazy stats: four running backs averaged over five yards a carry, 17 receivers caught passes, among the 18 accepted penalties, seven gave the Giants first downs, there were 64 first downs, 861 net passing yards and 1,030 combined total yards. For the Giants, it was yet another game they probably should have won – or at least got to overtime. A missed catch by an inexplicably open receiver on first down on their final drive led to a quick three and out and a punt sent right at a dangerous returner, who took it across midfield and then got an additional 15 on one of the costliest facemask penalties you will ever see. On that final Giants drive, after the missed completion and only five yards on second down, a run up the middle might have been enough to push extra time, but the Giants went for it and failed. Together with the two late collapses to start the season, the Giants have missed out on a chance to take control of the NFC East. The Saints, on the other hand, have won four of their last five and are now back in the playoff hunt after looking abject early in the season. It was ironically their tight win over the Cowboys in overtime a few weeks back that appears to have turned their season around, while piling pressure on the Cowboys.

Injuries Continue to Pile Up
The NFL is a physical league and one expects injuries to occur every week. However, as debates about the violence of the game and the potential long-term effects on players of the hits they deliver and receive, several additional injuries stood out this week. Right before halftime in the Seattle Cowboys game, the Seahawks Ricardo Lockett was hit on a punt return and appeared knocked out on the field, before being carted off with in protective headgear (he has ligament damage to his neck). The Jets suffered a huge blow, as their highflying quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was out with a left thumb injury in the first half, replaced by the floundering Geno Smith. Both are day-to-day going forward, though Fitzpatrick will have to have surgery at some point in the future. The Steelers suffered a devastating injury to running back Le’Veon Bell, whose knee was bent back on a tackle by Bengal’s defender Burfict, which tore his MCL (the Bengal defender appeared to celebrate the injury in an ugly footnote to a physical game). Other injuries include Reggie Bush of the Niners (knee), Donnell of the Giants (neck), Bears running back Forte (knee), Haden of the Browns (concussion), Lions standout receiver Calvin Johnson (ankle), Saints running back Khiry Robinson (lower leg) and, in an otherwise heartening afternoon, a torn Achilles for veteran Steve Smith of the Ravens, who might have had his last catch as a pro (moving him to 10th on the all-time list).

The injury roster before this week even began is too long to recount here but includes the Chiefs losing Charles for the season, the Cowboys losing Romo and Bryant for the whole of this losing streak, the Steelers playing without Roethlisberger for several weeks and the Saints being without Brees for a couple of games. Injuries are to be expected, but there have been more to key players this season than in recent memory, derailing playoff teams and piling up the evidence that the long-term future of the sport might require some rules changes to stay viable.  

Peyton Silences Critics in Big Win
Manning is not the quarterback of two years ago, when the Broncos set all sorts of single season records on the way to a Super Bowl they ultimately lost. He might not even be the quarterback of last season who, for all his struggles, finished with 39 TD passes to 17 interceptions and 4,727 yards. And even as he again failed to secure a touchdown pass, and threw a pick, the 7-0 start for his Broncos team owes much to a night in which he completed 21 of his 29 passes for 340 yards (an impressive 11.7 average) and was not sacked. In the winning effort, Manning tied Brett Favre for most career victories at 186, and is certain to surpass that record in the coming weeks. I would still be worried about the overall dip this season, as he is still stuck on 7 TD tosses versus 11 interceptions, has his lowest completion percentage (62.8) since 2001, is on track to be sacked 27 times, has his worst quarterback rating since his rookie year (75.1) and a QBR of only 52.1 (21st in the league at present). But this game will certainly quiet some of his loudest critics, at least for a week.

The Broncos also improved their running game, running for 160 yards on 34 carries. Yet it was the defense that really impressed, holding arguably the greatest quarterback in the league to 77 yards on 14 of 22 passing (with three sacks) and the running game to a combined 90 yards on 21 carries. Yes, 77 yards! Even losing the turnover battle 1-0, they were still able to pull off the convincing 29-10 victory, with the Packers scores coming after important Broncos penalties. With this defense, a decent running game and a more controlled Manning, Denver has to be considered as a team that could surprise everyone and get back to the Super Bowl to give their quarterback a final shot at a second ring.

Separating the Pretenders from the Contenders
There is little doubt the Packers, Patriots, Broncos and Bengals should be teams to reckon with when the playoffs finally arrive. Beyond them, questions start to emerge. The Bengals impressed on the defensive end as Dalton had his first bad game of the year, but was still able to lead the team down the field for the go ahead touchdown on the way to a 16-10 victory over a Steelers team that finally got Big Ben back on the field. One has to believe this Bengals team is one that has real potential to do some damage this year throughout the playoffs. The Steelers, on the other hand, might struggle, even with Big Ben. This is made more troubling by a tough schedule the rest of the way and the prospects of facing either the Patriots or Denver if they want to get back to the AFC Championship Game. The Raiders look like a team that could slot into a Wild Card with some luck while the Jets are suddenly vulnerable after potentially losing Ryan Fitzpatrick for the foreseeable future. The Colts are, of course, still in the mix, as are Miami and Buffalo, given relative parity beyond the top teams. But none of those teams seem to be in the mix to represent their conference in Super Bowl L.

In the NFC, the Packers lost their first game of the season to the stalwart Denver defense, with some questions emerging about an offense that appears to be sputtering in recent weeks, though they might still be the cream of the NFC crop. The Panthers are now the only undefeated team in the division and suddenly become part of the Super Bowl conversation. This puts the Falcons in a precarious position of sorts, as they have lost two of their last three games to NFC South opponents, and their once high-flying offense has stuttered throughout the past three games, including the unimpressive 10-7 victory over the Titans. With the Panthers continuing to look good and the Saints surging, one wonders if the Falcons might be fully grounded before the season is done. The Cardinals look like the team to beat in the NFC West, though Seattle has slithered back to 4-4, giving them an outside shot at actually winning the division. The Cowboys are in real danger of missing out on the playoffs, though the continued inconsistency of their compatriots in the NFC East might give them a shot if they can win their next two before Romo’s return. Meanwhile, the Wild Card race is wide open, with the exception of the NFC East, with the Falcons at 6-2, the Vikings at 5-2, the Rams at 4-3, the Saints and Seattle at 4-4 and a few others at 3-4.

At present, I still like the Patriots to meet the Packers in the Super Bowl, but I think we have to start taking the Broncos and Bengals seriously in the AFC and consider the viability of Carolina or Arizona coming out of the NFC.