Monday, December 15, 2008

Monday's Starting Five

1. Al Harrington. I know most of you don't care about Al. You'd rather read a paragraph about the Falcons/Bucs or the Giants/'Boys game but that's not what you're getting. You're getting a steady dose of Al Harrington. Just like anyone who plays the Knicks right now. Big Al (at least until a better nickname emerges) scored a game-high 33 points in leading the Knicks to an easy-peasy road win over the Kings on Saturday. After being exiled from the Warriors, he is eager to prove he wasn't just a disgruntled jerk in Oakland. Named Eastern Conference Player of the Week (and outscored every player in the East during that span), Harrington is flourishing in Coach D'Antoni's up-tempo attack and really taking to his expanded role. He may have never been the best player on a team before but he clearly wants to be now. I'm very, very pleasantly surprised by how good he really is.

2. Tavaris Jackson. When Vikings coach Brad Childress benched Jackson prior to Week 3 he told reporters that the benching "does not need to be a death knell for Tavaris Jackson." And, those words proved prescient as Jackson tossed three first half (and one second half) touchdown passes to lead the resurgent Vikes over the Cardinals in the desert in Week 15. Jackson got his shot at redemption because the man who replaced him, Gus Frerotte, needed replacing because of an injury. After throwing just one TD in his two starts early in the year Jackson was criticized for his lack of aggressiveness but played yesterday like a house-afire, throwing two 40+ yard scoring bombs. Of course, it might have helped that the Purple Jesus ran for 165 yards. That usually helps.

3. Abram Elam. In the upper deck at the Meadowlands yesterday it felt like the sky was falling. In the lower bowl it felt like the upper deck was falling. Until Elam came charging in from J.P. Losman's left side and knocked the ball free. And then everything changed. Sean Ellis bobbled and then secured the ball en route to the end zone. The sky, as it should be, was again the limit for the Jets. The only thing falling on the people in the expensive seats was thunderous applause from the upper deck. Before the play, though, things couldn't have seemed as bad to Elam as they did to the those of us in the stands. After going undrafted out of Kent State and being twice waived by NFL clubs, I'll forgive Elam if he still felt like he was on top of the world as he approached Losman's blind side. After all, he playing key minutes in the National Football League. Besides, one lost game (even if it would have meant one lost season) couldn't have seemed like the end of the world to a guy who has been through as much as Elam: Three of his siblings, two brothers and one sister, have been shot to death, with one of the brothers being killed just this past May. So, maybe he was the only guy in zip code capable of making the season-saving strip sack because he was one of the only ones who wasn't afraid of losing.

4. Matt Cassell. Young Hamlet lamented how "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!" in the wake of his father's death. And, he was right. Such a loss can make all that glitters seem fit for the gutter. Especially when it's your dad. Part of the appeal of Hamlet is that the play lays bear such extreme expressions of sorrow and self doubt. In fact, the play and its main character revels in them. And the nefarious doings of the wicked uncle justifies those feelings. Ultimately, though, Prince Hamlet's story is tragic. He doesn't overcome. He avenges, yes. But, the country is in more of a state of disarray at the play's conclusion (Norway has assumed control of Denmark) then it was when the murderer Claudius sat on the throne. Hamlet failed in returning any normalcy to his family (and by extension his country). Well, in his own way, Cassell did just that on Sunday. Days after his father passed away, the perennial backup QB looked every bit the All-Pro that he replaced, throwing four touchdown passes against a Raiders secondary that is much better than people think (top ten in NFL in yards allowed and INT). He did overcome and he did provide inspiration. And, even though he did it in a Patriots uniform there is no denying that it was special.

5. Week 17. Virtually every fantasy football league structures its playoffs around the fact that Week 17 is a meaningless frame in the NFL season. We assume that the best quarterbacks will be throwing back drinks on Saturday night and resting on Sunday and that the best ball carriers will run along the sideline waving towels as their backups pile up meaningless yardage. This year, however, is shaping up to be different. Just about everything that went down this past weekend keeps us on track for an intense final week of the regular season. The AFC East is on track for a de facto playoff game between the Jets and Dolphins (complete with Pennington revenge factor). Chicago is hot on Minnesota's heels for the NFC North. Atlanta and Tampa Bay are still chasing Carolina in the NFC South and both are in the mix (along withe red-hot Eagles and Cowboys) for the NFC Wild Card spot. The woeful Chargers still actually have a chance to catch the less-woeful Broncos in the AFC West and those two teams play in Week 17. 12 out of the 16 games scheduled for that week look like they will have implications for division titles and playoff seeding. And, 5 of those 12 games features two teams angling for playoff berths and/or seeds.

Benched. Every coach at the Meadowlands yesterday. While Dick Jauron's inexplicable playcalling in the waning moments of the Bills/Jets tilt at the Meadowlands grabbed the headlines (my favorite was "DICK MORON"), there was arguably worse decisions being made across the field from Jauron. After all, Jauron had his team in a position to win the game when one boneheaded call blew it whereas the Jets coaching staff spent an entire game making calls that put their team in a position to lose to an inferior foe before one aggressive call worked out and gave them the victory.