Arsenal, Liverpool Fail To Establish Themselves As Best Of The Rest


Barclays Premier League recap (December 20-21)

A line has been drawn in the Premier League table separating the title contenders from everyone else. Entering this weekend Chelsea owned 39 points with Manchester City right behind them with 36. Manchester United is straddling that line, a six match winning streak had the Red Devils red hot but they would end up being held to a draw at Aston Villa on Saturday leaving them as the last potential team in the race but still a long shot.

So who will be the best of the rest of the pack and land a Champions League place for next season? Two clubs hoping to grab that prize met at Anfield for the late Sunday match as Arsenal traveled to Liverpool. The Gunners entered with 26 points still realistically having a chance at that coveted position; the Reds sat in the top 10 with 21 points, a far cry from last year’s dominance.

Reds manager Brendan Rodgers sent out a 3-5-2 formation hoping that wing backs Lazar Markovic and Jordan Henderson could dominate the flanks and pin Arsenal in its defensive half with possession. Meanwhile Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger continued to shuffle his lineup with injuries along the backline and midfield. Right back Mathieu Debauchy shifted to center back again while Mathieu Flamini and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were paired as defensive midfielders.

Rodgers’ initial plan worked wonders as Liverpool comfortably passed the ball around the park and found success on the left wing with Markovic making runs at an unsettled Callum Chambers guarding the right side of Arsenal backline. The Reds owned 80 percent of possession after 20 minutes while the Gunners played too deep defensively to find any rhythm on offense.

Liverpool opened the scoring following success on the right wing with pressure forcing a turnover from Olivier Giroud which was quickly turned just in front of the box for Philippe Coutinho. The Reds midfielder wasn’t closed down by Debauchy and Coutinho, with some aid from the woodwork, guided the ball into the net with his right foot.

However Liverpool’s deserved lead lasted roughly two minutes. Steven Gerrard gave away a free kick from 25 yards out. The Reds continue to struggle with set pieces and the ball was knocked around twice before Debauchy atoned for Arsenal’s defensive sin heading into the goal on the stroke of halftime.

The biggest action of the early part of the second half was Giroud accidently stepping on the head of Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, who required heavy bandaging and multiple minutes of treatment. His offensive teammates continued their plan from the first half and a short time later Steven Gerrard and Lucas both just missed the target from the top of the box.

Yet it would be Arsenal who grabbed the lead in the second half from an unassuming position. Kieran Gibbs pushed the ball down the left flank finding Giroud. The French forward sent Santi Cazorla wide left in the box and the return pass found Giroud with enough space to shoot between the legs of keeper Brad Jones. For all the possession Arsenal didn’t have and the momentum Liverpool was building, it was the Gunners who had control of the scoreboard after 65 minutes.

Liverpool’s speed continued to be a big problem for Arsenal’s defense as the Gunners backline backpedaled repeatedly with Debauchy providing a couple of vital interventions and keeper Wojciech Szczesny making comfortable stops.

As Liverpool ramped up the pressure on Arsenal, the Reds were feeling the pressure to score as they couldn’t break down the Gunners stubborn defense with the minutes winding down. Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert were brought on to find the equalizer and the Italian forced two saves out of Szczesny in the final minutes of regulation. However Borini’s biggest impact came in the form of two yellow cards in the span of three minutes into extra time leaving Liverpool with 10 men.

There would almost be a period of overtime with nine extra minutes, thanks in large part to Skrtel’s injury. Liverpool relief would come in the 97th minute as Skrtel once again scored from a corner kick and the two teams each came away with a point.

In the end a draw was a fair result as Liverpool continues to have issues defending and finishing when on offense while Arsenal failed to control large portions of the game on the road.

It leaves Arsenal with some big questions heading into to 2015 in terms of how much to invest in the transfer window just to guaranty a spot in the Champions League next season and will the club ever be fully healthy the rest of the season.

Liverpool will have to become more and more comfortable with the notion of the Champions League being a one year fling instead of a regular occurrence and unless the Reds win the Europa League in 2015 they won’t need to renew their passports for next season.

Neither proved to be the best of the non-title contenders as 2014 comes to a close making the race for fourth place and the coveted spot in the UEFA Champions League one of the more interesting storylines entering 2015.

Big Winner: Southampton’s five match losing streak is history after taking down Everton 3-0. The home win was much needed for the Saints as confidence was starting to sink and injury problems pile up. Striker Graziano Pelle continued his fine season by lodging his eighth goal. It was bookmarked by an Everton own goal and Maya Yoshida’s second Premier League tally of his career.

Manager Ronald Koeman will hope the good vibes will continue Friday when visiting Crystal Palace before an interesting pair of home matches against Chelsea and Arsenal to transition from 2014 to 2015.

Big Loser: Alan Pardew has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse in a matter of three weeks. Coming off being named Premier League manager of the month for November, he has now lost three straight matches including a 1-0 defeat at home to hated rival Sunderland.

Pardew became the first manager in the Newcastle United/Sunderland rivalry to lose four straight league matches. The staggering part is that this rivalry, better known as The Tyne-Wear Derby, has seen 151 league games. Not the kind of history Pardew wants to be associated with. A shaky next 10 days could find him back on the hot seat.

Under The Radar: Queens Park Rangers are starting to breath a bit in terms of Premier League survival. The R’s are far from safe but forward Charlie Austin has fans believing. He is third in the league with 11 goals and bagged a hat trick in a 3-2 win over West Brom after going down 2-0.

QPR still has an awful goal differential, minus 12, but is two points out of the relegation zone. If Austin can get to 20 goals this season, it would be big boost for the Rangers and help them avoid being one-and-done in the Premier League this time around.

Pause For Thought: This blog doesn’t celebrate people losing their jobs but the Premier League has yet to have a manager fired this season, Tony Pulis was gone days before the campaign started so that change at Crystal Palace does not count. After matches on Sunday, the league will be at the halfway point so clubs will start to assess what they can do in the transfer market and who could be brought in to change the attitudes of the roster and fan base.

Nigel Pearson at Leicester City hasn’t won in 12 matches and the sand feels like it’s quickly running out of the hour glass with the Foxes having just 10 points this season. Hull City hasn’t won in 10 matches and have failed to score in seven of its last nine outings. While the parody twitter feed of Steve Bruce having fun at weddings is a must follow (Click Here), his life is far from joyous at the moment.

Next Must Watch Match: Tottenham Hotspur @ Leicester City (Friday 9am, NBC Sports Live Extra). The obvious choice would be the early Friday match of Chelsea meeting fourth-placed West Ham but this is an intriguing match. Leicester City needs a spark to ignite a fight out of the relegation zone and this is exactly the kind of game that Spurs traditionally lose. Tottenham is coming off of three wins in the last week and seem to be playing better but an expected downturn could be right around the corner.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

St. James’ Park Again Is Chelsea’s House Of Blues

Newcastle Chelsea blog

Barclays Premier League recap (December 6-8)

The road can be an unforgiving place in the Barclays Premier League especially at certain stops on the schedule. 50,000 fans and screaming support can lift a home team and bring some extra problems for those on their travels. That happened to be the case again for Chelsea when the Blues visited St. James’ Park on Saturday losing 2-1.

Newcastle set up with a counterattacking formation with the speedy Ayoze Perez sent out as the only striker. He would try to make runs behind the Blues backline to stretch Gary Cahill and John Terry to set up quick jaunts forward for the Mapgies. Chelsea was without influential defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic. That role fell to John Obi Mikel.

Chelsea’s first half dominance should have led to a goal. Willian took a pair of shots eight minutes apart that just went wide in the first 18 minutes. Striker Diego Costa was feeling hungry after 24 minutes as he fired a couple of shots, only one on target that goalkeeper Rob Elliot stopped. The Blues defense pressed higher up the defensive third yet started to lose some steam in the final 15 minutes of the first half. It was the exact opposite of the midweek victory over Tottenham were the road win was wrapped up after 22 minutes. 58 percent first half possession ended up being fruitless for the league leaders.

It ended up an unsurprising first half for the Magpies as once again, they failed to score, played strong defense but lacked any real spark. Newcastle has just three first half goals, that’s the fewest in league play and Pardew’s bunch haven’t scored in the first 36 minutes of any league match this season. The Tynesiders best chance was their first of the match. Jack Colback was cleverly played in by Perez with the midfielder’s shot block by keeper Thibaut Courtois in the 32nd minute.

The biggest action for the home side in the first 45 minutes ended up being a substitution between the sticks as 21-year-old Jak Alnwick made his first league appearance for the club as Elliot was forced off with an injury. Newcastle made a much more positive substitution eight minutes into the half with Papiss Cisse coming on for Remy Cabella. The Senegalese striker represented more of a goal scoring threat than Perez who moved to right wing.

It was Cisse who opened the scoring five minutes later from a rather unassuming point of the match. Chelsea was asking questions of Alnwick from a free kick. Newcastle responded with a run on the left from Moussa Sissoko and Sammy Ameobi’s cross eluded three Blues defenders for an easy tap in from six yards. Mourinho’s men allowed a goal for the first time in almost 500 minutes.

Chelsea brought on Didier Drogba after the 65th minute and the pressure mounted on the Magpies. Newcastle continued to be organized at the back but the level of defending in the 70th minute looked like a 90th minute strategy protecting a one goal lead. Alnwick was confident running out to punch crosses away as he found his feet in a very important match.

The counterattacking style paid dividends in the 78th minute. Just after Eden Hazard hit the post for the Blues, Perez held up possession, Colback drove forward playing in Sissoko who smartly passed to an open Cisse after all defenders had been drawn away for another simple goal.

However it would be far from comfortable for the final 15-plus minutes for the hosts. Steven Taylor, for all his commitment to the Newcastle defense, was booked for two silly fouls reducing the Magpies to 10 men. The resulting free kick from Taylor’s second caution was headed home by Drogba punishing Alnwick’s mistake of deserting his line. Knuckles were white but Alnwick denied Diego Costa and Felipe Luiz in the final minutes of relegation and six minutes of extra time failed to see a Chelsea equalizer.

It was quite the way to celebrate Alan Pardew’s fourth year in charge of the Magpies. There’s been enough drama to fit in a decade with what’s happened over the last 48 months on Tyneside but Pardew has weathered lengthy storms and now Newcastle is tied for sixth with 23 points and playing with confidence and cohesion.

For Chelsea, it was the third straight loss at Newcastle United allowing for Manchester City to make up ground on the league leaders. The Citizens trail the Blues by only three points for first place after beating Everton. The Blues first league loss was going to happen eventually and this defeat only means Chelsea will miss out on history, nothing more. Mourinho’s men will expect to get back on the horse Saturday when they host Hull City.

Big Winner: (Those that know me know how difficult it will be to write this part but…) Sam Allardyce picked up an important three points on Sunday as his West Ham side beat Swansea City 3-1 at Upton Park. Andy Carroll scored twice on headers in the box and the Hammers are sitting pretty in fourth place with 27 points.

There are more opportunities to strengthen their position as the Hammers play Sunderland and Leicester City next in the league.

Big Loser: Leicester City continues to fall after a promising start. Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Aston Villa represented the eight straight league match without a win. Back-to-back losses against fellow strugglers QPR and Villa leaves the Foxes in last place with just 10 points from 15 matches.

Manager Nigel Pearson will rue those missed opportunities as the next three league matches are against Manchester City, West Ham and Tottenham. Poor results could force a change of manager entering the new year.

Under The Radar: Sunderland’s four league defeats are the fewest of anyone outside of the top seven yet the Black Cats have only 15 points so far. The men from Wearside have only two victories this season to go with a league-high nine draws.

The latest of those came this weekend, a scoreless affair against Liverpool. Draws aren’t the worst result at this point in the season but wins will need to be had to avoid being dragged into the relegation battle.

Pause For Thought: What is a realistic finish for Arsenal this season? A miserable first half at Stoke City was too big of a hole for the Gunners to crawl out of losing 3-2, cancelling out a positive midweek win over Southampton. Arsenal has failed to win three league matches in a row this campaign, is frail in defensive midfield and will need to find someone other than Alexis Sanchez to score goals.

Arsenal has never finished outside the top four during Wenger’s 18-year reign. Chelsea and Manchester City look like locks for Champions League spots and Manchester United is gathering momentum entering the holiday period sitting in third place. Six points separate fourth from 10th in the league table and that includes West Ham, Southampton, Newcastle United, Liverpool and Tottenham. Could this be the year that Arsenal settles for a Europa League berth or, like the Red Devils this season, watch the European games from home in 2015-16?

Fourth is realistic at this point of the season. That could change by bringing new players during the January transfer window but the Gunners are too inconsistent at the moment to dream bigger than that.

Next Must Watch Match: Liverpool @ Manchester United (Sunday, 7:30 NBCSN). One of the fiercest rivalries in England returns on Sunday. These two clubs expect championships but only United appear to have a chance, even though an eight point gap will be incredibly tough to make up. The Reds need a spark after recent dour displays against Stoke City and Sunderland. United on the other hand is on a five match winning streak.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

Melvin Gordon & The Top Five Badger Running Backs

Melvin Gordon

Where does Gordon rank in the last 25 years?

A Badgers football season that had a severe case of the “Blahs” in 2014 is now bubbling with anticipation as Wisconsin could win its fourth Big Ten title in five years if Bucky can knock off #5 Ohio State Saturday.

The linebacker trio of Vince Biegel, Marcus Trotter and Joe Schobert has been an excellent anchor of the defense this year and the unheralded offensive line is once again proving to be a strength, yet this season can be summed in two words: Melvin Gordon.

The junior’s electric year has been filled with lung-bursting runs as he put the program on his shoulders carrying it to a 10-2 record and injected life into an average first nine weeks of the campaign. Gordon enters this weekend with 2,260 rushing yards, 26 touchdowns on the ground, an amazing eight yards a carry and named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. By the way, that yardage total is now tops in conference history for a season.

This begs the question, where does Gordon rank amongst his running back brethren in Madison’s history? For fairness this blog will consider backs only over the last 25 years, or the start of the “Alvarez Era”. Apologies to some of the greats that came before like Alan Ameche, Billy Marek, Rufus Ferguson and Larry Emery. Your place on this list should be judged by historians, not a 30-year-old fan.

The list takes into account accolades, statistics, great games, consistency and style of play. Here are the ones that missed the cut.

Terrell Fletcher – One of this writer’s favorite Wisconsin backs, Fletcher did everything for Wisconsin, run, block and catch the ball out of the backfield while being a steady balance to Brent Moss. He, along with Carl McCullough, should not be forgotten in the streak of 1,000 yard Badger rushers from 1993-2002. Fletcher ran for 190 yards in the second half (241 altogether) of a Hall of Fame Bowl win over #25 Duke to end the 1994 season, a campaign where he gained 1476 yards.

Brian Calhoun – Michael Bennett may have been the original one-year wonder of Wisconsin backs but Calhoun was the man during the 2005 season and now owns that mantle. The Oak Creek-native transferred from Colorado and carried the mail like few could. That year saw Calhoun have a pair of five touchdown games and run for 155 yards in a home upset over Michigan that set up Bucky to be ranked for each of the last nine weeks of the season. In the end Calhoun gained 1,636 yards and 22 scores on the ground.

James White – White always seemed like the second (or in some cases) third banana in Wisconsin’s offense from 2010-2013 and it is a very unfair view of a running back who racked up over 4,000 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns. That doesn’t tell the story of his talent and skill catching the ball as well. A 1,000 yard running back as a freshman and a senior, he should be remembered a true weapon on three Big Ten title winning teams.

Brent Moss – The one that started the great lineage of Wisconsin running backs, Moss was the very first Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in the school’s history in 1993. The Racine-native was a cornerstone of the 1993 Rose Bowl season. He made an interesting pairing with quarterback Darrell Bevel and powered the way with 1,637 yards and 16 touchdowns. Moss is now more remembered for his off-field problems but he was the first and deserves mention.

Anthony Davis – This was the toughest decision as Davis was the last one left off the list. Thought of as the next Ron Dayne (Davis was even from New Jersey), it was a tag that as a freshman and sophomore he appeared to justify. Davis won Big Ten Rookie of the Year while gaining over 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns combined over his freshman and sophomore seasons. However injuries plagued him during his junior and senior campaigns preventing him from breaking the 1,000 mark in those years and couldn’t live up to the mountainous expectations. He left Madison second in rushing yards with 4,676 (Davis is currently third overall and Gordon is less than 100 yards away from surpassing him) but the question “What if?” will always follow him.

And now the top five.

5. John Clay – As a running back in Racine, Clay was one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. Rugged, strong and fast, it appeared John Clay was destined for greatness once he committed to Madison. However academic issues forced him to redshirt his freshman year and, along with his weight, would be a constant criticism during his time at Wisconsin

Fans caught glimpses of his talent in his first year running for 884 yards and nine scores in 2008 but then took over in 2009. His 1,517 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns made him the first Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year since Ron Dayne. While David Gilreath’s opening kickoff return for a touchdown lives long in the memory against #1 Ohio State in 2010, it was Clay who truly set the table for Bucky’s historic victory with 104 yards and two touchdowns. An MCL injury derailed his Heisman campaign that year but he still finished with 1,012 yards and 14 rushing scores.

Clay didn’t meet everyone’s lofty goals during his entire time in Madison but for a season and a half, he lived up to the hype.

4. P.J. Hill – A seemingly forgotten man by some when this list is usually bantered about; he was the main running back during the start of Bret Bielema’s tenure. The New York-native arrived like a lightning bolt his freshman year joining elite company like Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson to rush for 1,000 yards in his first seven NCAA games. Along with John Stocco’s sure-handed quarterbacking, Hill guided Wisconsin’s offense to a 12-1 overall record in a year where Ohio State won the Big Ten crown going undefeated and Michigan gained the conference’s other BCS Bowl berth.

Hill never could match his 1,569 yards freshman year but continued plugging away with a sophomore season of 1,212 and 1,161 his junior campaign despite sharing time with Zach Brown and John Clay in 2008. He read the writing on the wall with Clay ascending and left for the pros after the 2008 year.

Hill may not have been the most assuming back but his numbers speak for themselves: 3,942 rushing yards, 5.1 yards per carry, 42 rushing touchdowns over three years, Big Ten Rookie of the Year and 20 100-yard rushing games, fantastic and consistent numbers for someone who belongs on this list.

3. Montee Ball – No frills and little flash, just picking up yards by the chunk and getting into the end zone like no one else, that’s probably the best way to describe to Montee Ball. He really didn’t take off in Madison until his sophomore year where he gained 996 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2010 as he split time in the backfield with John Clay and James White.

As one standout player in John Clay departed before the 2011 season, another arrived in the form of Russell Wilson. Ball and Wilson were the two main cogs of an offensive machine that lit up scoreboards around the Big Ten. That year Ball ran for over 1,900 yards and scored 33 touchdowns on the ground. He was crucial in gaining revenge over Michigan State’s Hail Mary win in October by gouging the Spartans for four touchdowns in the Big Ten title game. Ball also won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year that season.

It was more of the same in 2012 accumulating 1,830 yards on the ground and ending his time in Madison with and FBS-record 83 touchdowns. His 2012 season was even more impressive considering Danny O’Brien, Joel Stave and Curt Phillips all took less-than-impressive turns at quarterback putting more of the focus on Ball.

While the other two backs on this list could be considered Kobe beef and an all you can eat buffet, Ball was a meat-and-potatoes running back. He was simple sustenance that the Badgers could use as fuel every Saturday. He never had a run over more than 67 yards during his time in Madison but that didn’t matter, Montee Ball was going to find the end zone eventually.

2. Melvin Gordon – It all began on a cold December night in 2012 in Indianapolis with a stat line that seemed too good to be true: nine carries, 216 yards, 24 yards per carry, one touchdown. That would be the just the first of many incredible performances Melvin Gordon would put up.

Yes, Nebraska had absolutely no answer for Gordon in the Big Ten title game that night but the Cornhuskers can take some solace in the fact that few schools have been able to shut him down. Last year, as a redshirt sophomore, Gordon had eight games where he averaged at least seven yards a carry, totaling over 1,600 yards and 12 rushing scores while bounding through opposing backfields like a gazelle.

The spotlight would be directly on Gordon this year; he wouldn’t be able to sneak up on defenses, everyone was ready for him, even more so as Wisconsin struggled to find any semblance of consistent quarterback play. No matter, Gordon would only break the Big Ten record for rushing yards in a season (currently at 2,260) while finding the end zone 26 times on the ground and averaging a whopping eight yards a carry. Typical Gordon runs saw him getting to the second level without being touched by a defender and streaking ahead for a first down, usually more.

The junior is essentially one of two finalists for the Heisman Trophy but unless Gordon has another borderline historic game he’ll likely finish behind Marcus Mariota. That sentence should sum everything up about Gordon this season; he broke the single game rushing record and will end up as the second best player in college football.

However it is his last two game at Camp Randall that represent the kind of back he is. A human version of the Looney Tunes’ character Road Runner constantly leaving Nebraska in the dust on the way to 408 yards and four touchdowns. He then showed an entirely different side of his talents being a workhorse against Minnesota carrying the rock for 151 yards in a powerful performance as he finally became the complete back he always threatened to be.

1. Ron Dayne – There are some who may try to be hip or clever by putting Ball or Gordon as the top choice but there is no legitimate argument against Dayne. A list of his accolades stand alone: Heisman Trophy, consensus All-American, two-time Rose Bowl MVP.

Yet that doesn’t describe the true dominance Dayne held over the college football from 1996-99. He ran for 2,000 yards in both his freshman and senior seasons. Dayne scored at least 15 touchdowns all four years, 20 in his freshman and senior campaigns. The yardage he racked up is still staggering to this day, 33 100-yard games, 14 of those were for 200-plus. Number 33 carried the ball 1,220 times and averaged 5.8 yards a run.

It’s hard to narrow down the list of phenomenal performances he had. 297 yards came on 50 carries as a freshman to beat Minnesota at Camp Randall in 1996 and spur the Badgers towards a bowl. Hawaii could only hope to throw in the towel in 1996 as Dayne steamrolled the Rainbow Warriors for 336 yards and four touchdowns. UCLA had no answer in the 1999 Rose Bowl with Dayne storming for 246 yards and four touchdowns in the Wisconsin win. Another four score game came at the Horseshoe in Columbus as #12 Ohio State could not stop Dayne in 1999. Later that year #11 Michigan State and #17 Purdue would both yield 200 rushing yards to the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. Ron Dayne ended his college days in style rumbling for 200 yards and another touchdown in the 2000 Rose Bowl taking down Stanford.

He was a bowling ball in shoulder pads; softening up defenses in the first half and flattening them in the later stages. Dayne was never the fastest but had acceleration at the collegiate level that made him even more dangerous. In all the New Jersey-native rumbled for 7,125 yards and 71 touchdowns, still a staggering combination to this day.

Ron Dayne showed that the Badgers were more than just a flash in the pan in 1993, that the Badgers could be a national player capable of a top five ranking. That Camp Randall, amidst all the Jump Around theatrics, tailgate grilling and State Street celebrating, could house the best player in college football. Wisconsin, a state known for its farms, cows and Packers, is a name that would resonate in college football forever more.

That’s why Ron Dayne is number one.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

Liverpool Left Red-Faced Again At Selhurst Park

Premier League logo

Barclays Premier League Recap (November 22-24)

Liverpool returned to the scene of the crime on Saturday, the location was Selhurst Park. Crystal Palace didn’t commit any physical assault against the Reds back in early May, instead it was a case of fraud as Liverpool’s Premier League championship credentials were found to be falsified. Visiting fans could barely believe Liverpool threw away a three goal lead in the span of 11 minutes and a 3-3 draw essentially ended the historic club’s chance at a title.

Six months on and much has changed with Liverpool on the roster and in the standings. The overhaul of players led to disjointed and underwhelming results netting just 14 points and there would be no vindication for Brendan Rodgers’ bunch last weekend against Palace.

The Reds struck early with former Southampton teammates linking up; Adam Lallana providing an excellent chip and Rickie Lambert finishing a two-touch goal just a little over one minute in. The fact that American analyst Geoff Cameron said that Palace’s defense would be “A tough one for Liverpool to break down” just 10 seconds earlier was a cruel case of the “Commentator’s curse”.

However Palace would rebound 15 minutes later beginning with a smart run by Yannick Bolasie in front of Liverpool’s backline crossing up defenders Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren. Bolasie’s shot from outside the box cannoned off the post into the path of Dwight Gale who equalized from eight yards.

Crystal Palace continued to press on with the speed from Bolasie creating problems for Liverpool and chances in the 18-yard box while the Reds labored in midfield failing to amass any real chances to take the lead again. The Pool would end with only one shot on goal.

The left wing was repeatedly open for Palace and as the match wore on Liverpool defensively became narrow. While Joe Ledley scored with a low shot (from a Bolasie cross) between Simon Mignolet’s legs, there were only three Reds defenders in the box with surprisingly no one picking Ledley up; the move started from a Palace throw in. Mile Jedinak sealed the three points for Palace with a beautiful free kick reminiscent of his midfield opponent Steve Gerrard.

It comes back to who will be the spark plug to get Liverpool out of its current malaise? Gerrard may be inspirational and an expert at free kicks but he never scores from open play anymore. Raheem Sterling sets players up to score but fails to tally on his own. Mario Balotelli has flopped as the striker solution and Daniel Sturridge is failing to lose the “Injury prone” tag that’s tied to all of his offensive talent. Rickie Lambert should get a chance to prove himself but he will need help from Lallana (who needs regular appearances), Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson.

Brendan Rodgers has to dig deep and find something that can ignite confidence within the team. The club is in the midst of pressure and embarrassment, pressure on Rodgers to justify his summer spending and embarrassment as last year’s wonderful season now looks like a fluke. For all of the praise that Rodgers has received for his acumen, his club plays like three different positional groups that just happen to wear the same color shirt instead of appearing as a cohesive unit.

The Reds sit in 12th place with 14 points which is a position that they can recover from. However the club is closer to the relegation zone (Four points away) than the coveted last Champions League spot (Five points). Eleventh-placed Stoke City visit Anfield on Saturday and anything other than a win may bring the word “Crisis” into the fold for Liverpool.

Big Winner: Burnley’s Danny Ings scored two goals in two minutes early in the first half and it was enough for the Clarets to claim their first road win of the season taking down Stoke City. It will continue to be a long road for Burnley but the surprising win lifts the club out of the Premier League basement and is now one point away from safety (though their -12 goal differential is tied for the worst in the division).

The victory will restore hope that the Clarets can grind out enough results to finish outside the relegation zone. Fans will need to pick and choose when points will be expected. A home match against fellow strugglers Aston Villa on Saturday represents a must-win.

Big Loser: Undersized and underperforming, Arsenal slumped to another defeat on Saturday as Manchester United won 2-1. The Gunners sit in eighth place with just 17 points while league leaders Chelsea are at 32 meaning that the Blues have almost lapped Arsenal in terms of points before Thanksgiving, realistically ending Arsene Wenger’s hopes of being the title race.

In a matchup of a youthful defense against an experience but thin group at the back, it was Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal that left something to be desired. Criticism has already attached itself to Wenger which will quickly be followed by questions of how much longer he should be in charge of the Gunners.

Under The Radar: Newcastle United’s revival has coincided with a tightening on defense. Four clean sheets during a five match winning streak paired with a 2-1 win at Tottenham have catapulted the Magpies to fifth place. Confidence is running through the club and while Fabricio Coloccini, Mike Williamson, Paul Dummett, Daryl Janmaat and Massadio Haidara won’t appear on any award lists at the end of the season, collectively they’ve played well along the backline with help from the tireless Jack Colback. It’s proof that a strong defense can push any team up the table.

Pause For Thought: Has Everton truly turned the corner? The Toffees are locking down the defensive problems that plagued them to start the season and now have 11 points from their last five league matches thanks in part to the 2-1 home win over West Ham. A repeat of last campaign’s fifth place finish seemed impossible considering the loose backline in August and September but the Toffees controlled Saturday’s match and now 17 points has them in ninth place.

Next Must Watch Match: Manchester City @ Southampton (7:30 Sunday on NBCSN). A top three clash on in the south of England, yet the clubs will arrive with different goals. City cannot let anymore distance come between them it and Chelsea with the gap already at eight points. The Saints will look at Monday’s draw against Villa on the road with some perspective considering they have 26 points through 12 matches and another draw wouldn’t be a bad result for Southampton.

This match will pit the second best offense in the league (City w/ 13 road goals) against the best home defense in the Premiership (Southampton has allowed just one goal at St. Mary’s Stadium). Must watch, indeed.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

Trying To Find Clarity In The NFC Race


Seven teams fighting for five spots over the last six weeks

We’re getting close to the home stretch and every game is important in the NFC playoff race. While those in the south division continue to strive for mediocrity, teams in the East, North and West divisions are slugging it out hoping to find playoff safety in the form of a division title or the worst case scenario, grabbing a wild card spot leading to a long postseason run.

Entering this weekend Arizona, Dallas, Detroit, Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle all have realistic hopes and expectations of postseason football. This blog will try to create a totem pole of the seven teams to truly find out who is the strongest of the group entering the final month and a half. The five statistical and two comparison categories will be:

Overall Record: Teams must be given credit for wins and losses so far. In the end that is what it’s all about.

Offensive Rank: Yards gained per game. Points can be fickle at times in terms of field position and game scenario but generally if you’re gaining yards, you’re putting points on the board.

Defensive Rank: Yards allowed per game. The same as the previous category but on the other side of the ball.

Turnover Differential: One of the biggest stats when it comes to the postseason. Holding on to the ball and stealing from your opponent can make up for numerous mistakes.

Road Record: Anyone can win at home (Well, except for Tampa Bay and Oakland), playoff teams get a shot in the arm with victories on the road.

Best Win: Ranking every team’s best win so far taking into account who, where, when and by how much.

Worst Loss: There are some games that still linger and left teams with a worse record than they should.

MVP Candidate (Extra Credit): Any team that has a legitimate MVP candidate will receive a bonus for having one player that can single-handedly, week-in and week-out tilt the field and win a game.

Teams will be ranked one to seven in each category with the lowest number being the desired result then the scores will be added up and divided by seven. Any team with an MVP candidate will get two points subtracted from its total as way to show how he makes up for the rest of the team’s mistakes; that team’s score will still be divided by seven. Let’s see how this shakes out.


  1. Arizona: 9-1.
  2. Detroit: 7-3.
  3. Philadelphia: 7-3.
  4. Green Bay: 7-3.
  5. Dallas: 7-3.
  6. San Francisco: 6-4.
  7. Seattle: 6-4.

This one is straightforward. Tiebreakers were used in the conference records to rank the teams. No matter how hot Green Bay looks or how dangerous San Francisco could be when it’s healthy, these results cannot be argued with.


  1. Philadelphia: 406 yards per game (2nd in the NFC)
  2. Dallas: 387 yards (3rd)
  3. Green Bay: 369 yards (5th)
  4. Seattle: 366 yards (7th)
  5. San Francisco: 342 yards (10th)
  6. Arizona: 333 yards (12th)
  7. Detroit: 332 yards (13th)

There is little surprise that Philly’s fast-tempo offense is at the top trailing only New Orleans in the conference. While Green Bay is putting up massive points recently, it has benefitted from three defensive touchdowns the last two games. For as dynamic as Colin Kaepernick can be, San Fran is averaging just 218 yards a game through the air. Arizona and Detroit are 30th and 31st in the league in rushing per game, which are dragging down successful passing numbers.


  1. Detroit: 290 yards per game (1st in the NFC)
  2. Seattle: 306 yards (2nd)
  3. San Francisco: 308 yards (3rd)
  4. Arizona: 343 yards (6th)
  5. Dallas: 348 yards (7th)
  6. Green Bay: 377.4 yards (12th)
  7. Philadelphia: 377.7 yards (13th)

Defense may not win championships anymore but it will keep you in every game you play. It’s one of the biggest reasons why the 49’ers and Seahawks are in this conversation at 6-4. The Lions though are tops on the list allowing only 68 rushing yards a game and have 31. Dallas’ resurrection from the defensive graveyard this season has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. Now competent, the Cowboys are a legit threat. Green Bay and Philadelphia’s defenses suffer thanks in part to quick scoring offenses that give opponents more drives and chances to rack up passing yards when trailing.


  1. Green Bay: +14 (1st in NFC)
  2. Arizona: +11 (2nd)
  3. San Francisco: +10 (3rd)
  4. Seattle: +5 (4th)
  5. Detroit: +3 (T-5th)
  6. Dallas: -1 (8th)
  7. Philadelphia: -9 (14h)

It’s been quite a turnaround for the Green Bay secondary. The Packers 14 interceptions this season is already better than last season’s haul of 11. However the real secret to Green Bay’s success is quarterback Aaron Rodgers taking care of the football with just three picks thrown so far. The surprise of this list is Arizona as the Cardinals have had to play backup QB Drew Stanton in five games so far but he has just two turnovers. The Eagles abysmal turnover ratio can be hidden by a successful offense however Mark Sanchez has thrown two picks in each of his two road games filling in for Nick Foles and Chip Kelly’s offense has lost a staggering 11 fumbles this campaign.


  1. Dallas: 4-0
  2. Arizona: 3-1
  3. San Francisco: 4-2
  4. Detroit: 3-2
  5. Green Bay: 2-3
  6. Philadelphia: 2-3
  7. Seattle: 2-3

The Cowboys are the only unbeaten road team in the NFL. Though the away schedule may not be the toughest with victories against Jacksonville (Yes, travelling to London counts) and Tennessee, it can be easy lose focus and slip up away from home (Pittsburgh at the Jets and Denver at St. Louis come to mind). Arizona consistently chugs along with three road wins. San Fran’s win at New Orleans two Sundays ago is one of the most important results of the month. Since there are no tiebreakers for road records, Green Bay, Philly and Seattle shared the remaining points all being at 2-3, which isn’t a bad mark through five games.


  1. Dallas: 30-23 @ Seattle (Week 6)
  2. Detroit: 19-7 vs. Green Bay (Week 3)
  3. Seattle: 26-20 [OT] vs. Denver (Week 3)
  4. San Francisco: 22-17 vs. Kansas City (Week 5)
  5. Philadelphia: 30-27 @ Indianapolis (Week 2)
  6. Green Bay: 53-20 vs. Philadelphia (Week 11)
  7. Arizona: 23-14 vs. San Francisco (Week 3)

You could argue that the Cowboys were the first ones to crack Seattle’s armor handing the Seahawks their only home loss of the campaign. Detroit has been the only team to hold the Packers high-flying offense to single digits this season. The Seahawks endured a late Broncos rally and executed a perfect 80-yard touchdown drive to win in the extra session. It may be hard to believe but a gutsy, gritty 49’ers team is the last one to beat Kansas City this season. Philadelphia trailed by double digits on Monday night to the Colts but outscored Indy by 14 on the road to win. Green Bay throttled the Eagles last week and for the second consecutive game could put its feet up by halftime. Arizona locked down San Fran in the second half of its Week 3 win to really propel the team forward.


7. San Francisco: 28-20 vs. Chicago (Week 2)

6. Dallas: 20-17 [OT] vs. Washington (Week 8)

5. Detroit: 17-14 vs. Buffalo (Week 5)

4. Philadelphia: 53-20 @ Green Bay (Week 11)

3. Seattle: 28-26 @ St. Louis (Week 7)

2. Green Bay: 36-16 @ Seattle (Week 1)

1. Arizona: 41-20 @ Denver (Week 5)

The top three in this category all came at home. San Francisco’s fourth quarter meltdown to Chicago looks even worse with the Bears sitting at 4-6. Despite Tony Romo missing part of the game with a back injury, Dallas’ loss to Washington still is confounding. Detroit has corrected its field goal kicking issues that plagued them against Buffalo. Philadelphia was an underdog going into Green Bay but not being able to stop the Packers once in the first half was frustrating. Seattle dug itself too big of a hole against, granted a resurgent St. Louis team, but lost a key divisional game. Green Bay was expected to lose to the Seahawks who capped off their Super Bowl celebrations on Opening Night. Arizona’s only loss was out of conference, on the road to the defending AFC champions and Peyton Manning, no shame in that.


-2. Green Bay: (Aaron Rodgers)

-2. Dallas: (DeMarco Murray)

Aaron Rodgers is simply on another level at the moment. His 120.1 passer rating is almost 13 points better than everyone else in the league. His 28 touchdowns and just three interceptions makes for the best TD: INT ratio in the NFL as is his 8.78 yards per attempt. He’s the best quarterback in the league right now. Murray may get slighted being a running back but he is also the best in the game in a couple of statistical categories: rushing yards (1,233, 282 yards better than second-placed Le’Veon Bell) and carries of 20 yards or more (10).


1. Arizona: 3.28 average. The Cardinals just keep chugging along at 9-1 however in somewhat ordinary fashion. Their best rankings came in overall record, worst loss and turnover differential, yet the meat and potatoes statistics in terms of yards don’t suggest the club should have the record it does. Arizona has been good and considering its record probably should be at the top of this list however good teams don’t get very far in January.

2. Dallas: 3.42. Top marks in road record, best win and the bonus of DeMarco Murray helps put Dallas in second place. It has been quite the campaign for the Cowboys, humiliated by San Francisco opening week only to follow that up with a six game winning streak. Two divisional slugfests over the next eight days (at the Giants on Sunday, hosting Philly on Thanksgiving Day) will be a sign of where Tony Romo and company will go in December.

T-3. Detroit: 3.71. The Lions just haven’t quite been able to put it all together, yet finishing in the top two in record; defense and best win has the Lions in a tie for third. Their losses have been a bit puzzling; a clunker against Carolina, three missed field goals against Buffalo and gaining only 262 yards against Arizona. It suggests that Jim Caldwell’s group should be better than 7-3. A key three game home stand starting on Thanksgiving against beatable opposition (Chicago, Tampa Bay, Minnesota) could provide the springboard to a division title.

T-3. Green Bay: 3.71. The hottest team going right now looks unbeatable at Lambeau Field; the Packers have scored at least 31 points in all five of their home tilts netting a 5-0 record. Green Bay ended up in a tie for third thanks in part to an impressive turnover differential and Aaron Rodgers. The Green and Gold needs to focus on the road tilt against Minnesota and not look ahead to a game hosting the Patriots the following Sunday. A divisional win carries more weight at the end of the season than a “Potential Super Bowl matchup” against an AFC team that won’t factor into playoff seeding as much.

5. Seattle: 4.14. The old Ric Flair line “To be the man, you gotta beat the man” still applies for the defending Super Bowl champions but all is not well in the Emerald City. Shaky performances on the road leave questions for Seattle as not all games can be played in front of the raucous 12th Man at CenturyLink Field. Statistically the defense is still strong in terms of yards allowed and turnover differential and few opponents will be as adept at rushing the ball like Kansas City. Yet, the Chiefs win on Sunday was in part to stellar offensive line play helping Jamaal Charles dash for 159 yards. The Seahawks also have the toughest schedule left to play (Arizona and San Francisco twice, at Philadelphia, home to St. Louis)

6. San Francisco: 4.42. The 49’ers haven’t been able to be their dominant selves of past three years. San Francisco’s best finish in any of the rankings was third (defense, turnovers, road record). SF’s road losses to Denver and Arizona aren’t bad however the home defeats to Chicago and St. Louis in games they should have won, shrunk the margin of error for Jim Harbaugh’s crew. There are winnable games left to play (Washington on Sunday, Oakland in Week 14) and the schedule is kind to the 49’ers ending with two home games albeit verses San Diego and Arizona.

7. Philadelphia: 4.71. The Eagles receiving a beat down by the Packers may color opinions of the Eagles a bit too much considering the good season they are having. Philly’s previous two losses were by a combined nine points at San Francisco and at Arizona. However Chip Kelly’s speedy offense only has two wins over potential playoff teams (Indianapolis and Houston, a combined 11-9 record). The defense is poor while the turnover differential is shocking considering the team’s record. Philadelphia will look to bank a home win over Tennessee this weekend before embarking on a difficult end to the schedule: at Dallas, home to Seattle and Dallas, at Washington and the Giants.


I understand this isn’t by-the-books science when it comes to the rankings; there are some things that are left out. Philadelphia is ranked last in the final totals however the true contribution of special teams weapon Darren Sproles is basically unaccounted for. It also is difficult to factor in injury situations going forward, like Cardinals QB Carson Palmer being done for the season, the Eagles QB Nick Foles on the shelf and the lack of Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman in San Francisco’s defense. The future schedule also would shake things up going forward. Arguably the biggest factor in all of this is the hope of an objective view in the “Best Win”, “Worst Loss” categories end up being subjective based on opinion and comparison.

My goal was to rank the best teams in the NFC going into the final six weeks without having to rely on the “Eye test”. Would love to hear any feedback.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish

South Park Still Going Strong After 17 Years

South Park blog

Age hasn’t hindered Comedy Central’s flagship program

“Well, who’s not filling a f****** hole, right? – Satan

One of my favorite lines of this television season so far came from, of all people, Satan. Not the biblical, all-evil Satan but the somewhat sympathetic and just a tiny bit human Satan. It came during a heart-to-heart conversation between the giant devil and Stan during last night’s episode of South Park while the two were discussion addiction and the effects it has on humans. Of all people, Satan understood and put into perspective that everyone has some sort of problem that they are trying to deal with on a daily basis that could lead a crutch to become a vice.

Addiction, how people deal with it and its different forms across generations, was the core of last night’s episode “Freemium Isn’t Free” but such a heavy topic was dealt with in the usual South Park style of nuts-and-bolts analysis with a twinge of heartfelt emotion surrounded by satire, parody and rip-roaring laughs. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone found time to lampoon the mobile gaming craze, the alcohol industry’s hypocrisy when compared to other vices and the typical hilarious jabs at Canada.

It was the sixth episode of the landmark series’ 18th season that is showing no sign of slowing down. Once again South Park uses two of its strongest qualities, the stance of no sacred cows exist and an insane turnaround time in show production, to keep the humor coming fast and alarmingly fresh on a level that can only be matched by the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.

However those other shows veer off into other directions before the credits roll. Jon Stewart interviews a mix of current events analysts and celebrities. At times Colbert is painted into a corner due to his right wing news show parody, Oliver and his program do inventive and sobering investigative work and Weekend Update eventually goes into sketch material. Not South Park, while at times it seems like the train is about to run off the track with the creative direction, it stays focused on whoever is in the crosshairs for the entire 22 minutes.

That list over the last six episodes has been incredible. The people and topics that have been skewered by Trey Parker and Matt Stone include (hope you’re comfortable): The Washington Redskins, the NFL, Kickstarter, ebola, gluten-free diets and those that praise them, the musician Lorde (which is must-see), Matthew McConaughey’s new car commercials, the Hummer line of automobiles, Elon Musk, Neve Campbell, Lyft and other alternative taxi services, neighborhood drones, police brutality/abuse of power and the public unrest that follows. Also one of the most pleasant surprises was riff on the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races.

It’s been an evolution since the show began in 1997. Early episodes followed broad topics like social injustice, a loss of innocence (especially with the four main characters) and fitting in/being accepted in society along with satirizing Hollywood, religion and those that take themselves too seriously. Some of those aspects still remain and make no mistake the toilet jokes, swearing and dark humor are all still cornerstones of the program but some of the more general storylines have given way to hot topics.

None of these six episodes will rank among the greatest ever but the freshness of the material, paired with the show’s creativity give each episode a lasting effect through the week at the water cooler until Parker, Stone and company cook up another razor-sharp episode that can go in any direction. The quick turnaround in episodes makes for an unpredictability that few shows (comedy or drama-based) can match. Anything that pops up during the week, a news story, political movement, celebrity gaff or even trending social topic, could be the focus of South Park just days later.

It’s all kept South Park viewers “Feeling good on a Wednesday”.

Follow me on twitter: @TheIrishFish

NFL Mid-season Thoughts

NFL Shield

Picks, reviews and awards as pressure ramps up

The NFL has reached the halfway point with much of the season still wide open. Only one first place team has a lead of two games (Arizona, yeah the Cardinals in the NFC West). Otherwise Denver leads San Diego by one and a half games in part to an early bye and every other division advantage is one game or less. Many schedules have been back-loaded with division games, case in point; Chicago, Arizona and Carolina have only played one division contest so far, which will make those races even more interesting.

This is where the NFL starts to really get fun; every game starts to have heavier and heavier implications, scoreboard watching becomes equally important on Sunday December afternoons and the margin for error gets slimmer by the week.

AFC Landscape

New England, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver all sit on top their divisions once again and appear all could repeat as champions. Last season’s wild cards, San Diego and Kansas City, both have winning records so far as well and could get back to the postseason suggesting another underwhelming regular season in the AFC.

That’s not quite the case this year thankfully. Where as in 2013 any team that was above .500 made the postseason, there should be more than six teams with winning records this year. Last campaign there was a dearth of bad-to-mediocre squads yet there has been improvement in 2014. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are both 5-3 in what feels like a crucial season for both clubs. Houston sits at 4-4 and is in the thick of the playoff discussion on the backs of J.J. Watt’s incredible season and Arian Foster rediscovering his old running ways.

The AFC does appear to be top-heavy but there are more teams that can upset the old apple cart. Cleveland has been anything but a pushover in 2014 beating the Steelers and Saints this year. Buffalo and Miami are 5-3 and 4-3 respectively and while neither seems likely to make a playoff run, they could jump up and bite a couple of teams down the stretch.

There doesn’t appear to be much playoff turnover so far but the AFC North could be a cement mixer down the stretch with the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers going around and around with each other and it could just come down to the last team standing in a war of attrition getting the coveted home playoff game in the Wild Card round.

Oh, and Oakland and Jacksonville are atrocious.

NFC Landscape

The real regular season drama unfolded last year in the NFC with an ugly, yet memorable end to the NFC North, Arizona landing 10 W’s but missing the postseason and the Eagles winning seven of their last eight games to leapfrog Dallas for the NFC East crown. It looks like we can expect more of the same from those three divisions.

The discussion for the best team in the NFC features a carousel of clubs. It all started with Seattle after a Week 1 dismantling of Green Bay but the Seahawks have lost their cloak of invincibility allowing at least 28 points in each of their three losses, including a thud of a defeat in St. Louis. The next reasonable choice would be San Francisco but the 49’ers are just 3-3 in their last six games and were pounded by Denver two weeks ago. Aaron Rodgers rattled off four straight wins after suggesting Packers fans take a proverbial chill pill but Green Bay’s dismantling at the hands of New Orleans will live long in the memory banks. The Cowboys missed out on a chance to be 7-1 by tripping up against Washington at home. Following a victory over Philadelphia (who could have been in this conversation too), it appears that Arizona sits atop the conference mountain with Detroit possibly next to claim that spot when the two teams meet next week.

That’s kind of where the NFC is at the moment; a game musical chairs featuring a number of dangerous playoff teams but no clear cut leader that can claim to be the best. It all makes up for the NFC South which has been pitiful; the division has a combined road record of 2-12-1.

Mid-season MVP: DeMarco Murray

The Cowboys running back has been electric in the first half of the season, already over the 1,000 yard mark and finding the end zone seven times. He’s ran for 100 yards in every game so far this campaign and averaging over five yards a carry. Murray has benefited from an improved offensive line that has also opened up the passing game for quarterback for Tony Romo but Murray’s been the difference maker with incredible pace after the line of scrimmage, power to break tackles and a reliability that has been a big part of Dallas’ 6-2 start.

A few quarterbacks are in this discussion as well with Andrew Luck throwing for 300 yards in seven of eight games, Peyton Manning is having another ridiculous season, Aaron Rodgers got the Packers fan base to relax and racked up touchdowns once again and Phillip Rivers is building on last season’s revitalization to join this group as well but Murray is the answer after eight weeks.

This isn’t an award to say that running back are not a dime a dozen. The value of a running back has been diminished over the last five years with increased and improved passing systems and quarterbacks. However that is precisely why, when Murray is head and shoulders above his contemporaries (his 1,054 yards are 288 better than anyone else in the league and his eight runs of 20+ yards is tops as well) and playing this well, he is the MVP so far.

Mid-season Coach Of The Year: Mike Pettine

Normally coaches who are in last place in their division don’t get COY nods but Pettine has done a fine job so far in Cleveland through seven games. Guiding the Browns to a 4-3 record so far, Pettine’s bunch is in the thick of things in the AFC North trailing the Bengals by the one tie Cincinnati ended up with against Carolina.

It’s a season so far that has turned heads as the Browns no longer appear to be a doormat for the division and rest of the AFC with victories over Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Not much will be expected of the Browns down the stretch and they will be tested playing the Bengals twice, hosting Houston and Indy before ending the campaign at Baltimore. Yet that’s not the point with a mid-season award, the fact that the Browns have matched the franchise’s win total from 2011 and 2013 speaks to where they have come from. Pettine gets extra credit for the handling of Johnny Manziel who understandably is frustrated by not starting but hasn’t been the distraction he could have been.

Outrageous Thought: San Francisco & Seattle Will Both Miss The Playoffs

This is the toughest aspect of the NFC to call. Only five non-NFC South playoff tickets get punched and there are, by this blog’s count, seven legitimate teams fighting for those spots not including teams like the Giants or Bears rattling off a bunch of wins over the last nine weeks. There are going to be a couple of good teams taking, what will feel like, an early vacation.

If the playoffs started today, the 49’ers and Seahawks would be sitting on their couches. It’s hard to believe that both will miss the postseason but it would first require the Cardinals to crumble and losing a grip on the division crown, leaving the other to try to outlast Arizona for a wild card. Some of that will solely be down to Arizona holding its nerve and keeping as many players off the injury list as possible considering the team had to use its bye in Week 4.

If the Cardinals come back to Earth, then it will be a brawl with Dallas, Philadelphia, Detroit and Green Bay to make sure only three of those teams get into January. Two of those playoff berths would be for winning the division but that only makes the task a little easier. Seattle takes a trip to Philadelphia in Week 14 while San Francisco doesn’t see any of those four teams the rest of the season but could hope that the Week 1 win in Dallas will mean something in the end.

File this under outrageous, yet plausible.

Outrageous Dead Thought: The Patriots & Bill Belichick Are Done

Remember that silly storyline after the Patriots were pounded by Kansas City on a Monday night in Week 4? It was laughable then and is even more so now after New England ripped off four straight wins averaging 39.5 points a game and forcing eight turnovers in the process. Belichick’s bunch had to figure out its offensive line issue which appears to be ironed out for the most part giving quarterback Tom Brady enough time to sling 14 touchdowns without an interception.

That outrageous, dead thought was bore out of a need by some “Experts” to be the first one to claim they saw the end of the Patriots dynasty ahead of everyone else. Brady’s mechanics aren’t broken and Belichick isn’t going senile; it was going to take something far more destructive than one blowout loss on national TV to create the end of this fantastic run.

Five Biggest Games From Here On Out

  1. Denver @ New England (Week 9). As if the “Manning vs. Brady/Belichick storyline wasn’t enough, Denver can stamp its authority on the AFC with a win while a victory for the Patriots could lead to a number one seed in the playoffs.
  2. Philadelphia @ Dallas (Week 13). A Thanksgiving afternoon rumble between two very good teams that will set the tone for the NFC East race in December.
  3. Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati (Week 14). A jam-packed AFC North starts to open up down the stretch. An interesting side note for this game. The Bengals will be playing for the 10th consecutive week. Pittsburgh has a bye in Week 12 and will hope to still be relatively fresh following a date with New Orleans.
  4. San Francisco @ Seattle (Week 15). If Arizona keeps up the pace it’s on, this could have the feeling of an elimination game.
  5. Detroit @ Green Bay (Week 17). It could be for all the marbles in the NFC North. Detroit hasn’t won in Wisconsin since 1991. The Lions are hoping to make the playoffs for the second time in four years and might snap the Packers three year NFC North title streak in the process.

Predictions For The Playoffs:


Division Champions: New England, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Denver

Wild Cards: San Diego, Pittsburgh


Division Champions: Philadelphia, Detroit, New Orleans, Arizona

Wild Cards: Green Bay, San Francisco

Follow me on Twitter: @TheIrishFish