Monday, January 18, 2010

Monday's Starting Five

WWOD's daily Starting Five provides the talking points you'll need each day to confidently interact with your fellow sports enthusiasts (and your awkward boss who only is capable of making small talk with his employees about the Yankees and the Honor Roll status of his children) at the water cooler or impress members of the opposite gender at the lunch counter or post-work gin joint with your extreme mastery of the minutiae of athletic competition.

1. The New York Jets. By 9 p.m. last night, I’d mapquested routes from the Meadowlands to Lucas Oil Field. I'd packed my suddenly very lucky No. 42 kelly green mesh Ronnie Lott jersey and placed my ready-to-go duffel bag by the door of my apartment. Apparently, it’s about a 12 hour drive from here to there, by way of I-78 and West Virginia, out to the home of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. So, who’s coming with me? I know that Mark Sanchez, Dustin Keller, Shonn Greene, Thomas Jones and company will be out there – although they’re flying – because they’ve ADVANCED TO THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME! After upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs, the Jets went on the road to San Diego and upended the Chargers, 17-14, with a dominant second-half performance. Rex Ryan's bunch hit harder. They held on longer. And, they kicked truer. According to Ryan, it was "Jets Football." This run to the AFC Championship Game marks just the fourth time the Jets have advanced to the Conference Title Game. The Jets will take their league-best rushing attack and league-best defense into Indy to face arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play this game. Manning vs. Sanchez. This matchup is largely why the Jets are currently getting 7.5 points in Vegas. I teased the OVER down to 34 and the Colts down to -.1.5 for a few bucks already and am hoping to be able to put some money on the Jets closer to the weekend when all the rubes in the Midwest start wagering on the Horseshoes and pushing the line, hopefully, up to 9 or 10. Well, that's the plan, anyway. Although I don't know if they'll be time when I'm barrelling across state lines on my way to the game.

2. Darrelle Revis. With two highlight reel interceptions in his first two playoff games, there is no doubting that No. 24 is the breakout star of this year’s Super Bowl tournament. He’s added Vincent Jackson (and Antonio Gates, too) to his trophy case. Revis is like a Predator who decided the most dangerous game on this planet is NFL wide receivers. He has systematically skinned them alive and moved on. Quietly. Methodically. Without mercy or animosity. Next up? Reggie Wayne. Yeah, that guy is not likely to make it back to the chopper. In the first meeting of these two teams in Week 16, Revis held Wayne to 33 yards on 3 catches over 7 targets into the third quarter.

(I came across this tremendous image over at but am not sure who created it)

3. Gregg Williams. There’s no doubt that the onetime highest-paid collegiate athlete and perenially underachieving Saints running back Reggie Bush had his long-awaited breakout game on Saturday afternoon against the Cardinals and that Drew Brees' and company moved the ball at will (did they really even need the flea flicker?). That offense is ridonkulous. But the reason that this year's Sainters are competing in next week's NFC Championship is because of what new Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams has done with Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper and the rest of the unit. The Saints got 39 takeaways during the regular season, most in the NFL, with 26 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries. This left them at +14 in the all-important turnover differential statistic after finishing -4 in 2008. Williams' unit specializes in QB pressure and ball hawking, which makes them a perfect fit for the pass-crazy games that this team is usually involved in.

4. Jim Caldwell. Although the Colts’ offense started slowly on Saturday night, letting the Ravens hang around deep into the second quarter, this was a shellacking by the team for whom, should they have lost, the obituary was already written by kick off. Had the Colts not found their footing and won this game then everyone would be calling for the head of the Coach Caldwell and perhaps even the higher ups in the club's front office. Standing at 14-0 entering Week 16 of the season, the Colts had a chance at perfection. They also had the wobbly Jets coming to town and the woeful Bills waiting for them in Week 17. The perfect regular season seemed there for the taking. But Caldwell didn't take it. He didn't want it. He pulled Peyton Manning and other key players in the second half of a close (even though most people ignore this) game with the Jets. Rex Ryan's club seized the opening and ran away with the win and the Colts' chance at perfection. Indignation rose up like a tidal wave around the country at Caldwell's lack of ambition and this wave surely would have consumed him had his team lost to Ray Lewis and the Ravens. Alas, not even the egregious favoritism of the referees can distract from the high-quality game that the Colts played. Yes, Ed Reed's twin picks could have, perhaps should have, kept the game competitive longer, they were never going to put Baltimore over the top. Even without former NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders, the Colts defense was flying around the field, impressing perhaps even more than the club's highly-touted offense. Up next? Those very same Jets that many thought they should have quashed in Week 16.

5. Sidney Rice. Yes, the Vikings' demolition of the Cowboys was the re-coronation of the denim-adorned Gunslinger. It was the validation of Vikings GM and bald-and-bearded coach Brad Childress for eschewing Tavaris Jackson (and, to a certain extent, Adrian Peterson) for the wealthy, self-agrandizing man who would probably give you complimentary jorts for your birthday rather than drop a dime on you. And, perhaps most importantly, the Vikings' run made it clear to me why Prince is the "Purple One" – obviously a childhood in Minnesota gave him a notion of purple as a masculine color that never would have materialized elsewhere. Would he be the Orange One if he grew up in Cincy? But, I digress. Vikings wide receiver Sidney Rice had a heckuva ballgame in Favrespeak. His speed, his potentially-illegal block-fall-fakeout route and his soft hands have made him a bonafide No. 1 option this year. A state champion in hoops and football while in high school, Rice flashed supreme athleticism in reeling in three touchdown catches and 141 yards on just six catches.

Sixth Man. Rex Ryan’s Postgame Address. Aside from giving plenty of well-deserved credit to the Chargers team that he’d just vanquished, Ryan said two things that stood out to me in his postgame remarks to the press. The first was his apology to Jets fans for getting so conservative after taking the lead. This mea culpa gives me confidence about the Jets chances in a tight game in Indy. With a late lead thanks to Shonn Greene's explosive up-the-gut touchdown run, Ryan shut down. Temporarily. His conservative calls on both sides of the ball, reminded me of former Chargers Coach Marty Schottenheimer’s approach the last time these two teams tangled in the postseason. In 2005, Marty kept handing the ball to LT for short gains and his defense went to prevent. Chad Pennington and the Jets kept playing aggressively (well, at least, for them) and won the game in OT. Given his brash personality, I was surprised to see Ryan shrink in the face of his team's lead. But by going for it on the game-ending fourth-and-one play, he ended the game on his terms. And his statement to us fans shows that he really does get it. He went for the win instead of hoping to protect against a loss.

As much as his recognition of his scared coaching was enlightening, the comment that meant the most was “Woo! If that wasn't a New York Jet win right there” to open up his postgame remarks to the press. Ryan and his players have used the phrase "Jets Football" a lot lately. To them it's a proper noun. A style. An attitude. A legacy. And it’s something distinct from the “same ol' Jets refrain that sports radio and the scribes at the tabloids are used to stuffing down our throats. With 18 games under his sizeable belt, Ryan and his staff have changed the culture of this organization. The players believe in ways that they haven't since Bill Parcells was in town. And the fans do, too.

And, if his postgame presser wasn't remarkable enough then there's this video of his speech to his players in the locker room after the game.

Benched. Public Bettors. There are two types of bettors. There are professional bettors who rake in money on college basketball games only shown on ESPNU and put money down on NFL games the minute the lines are set on Sunday night and then maybe once again after the line has moved thanks to the rest of us. Then there are the “public.” This is the rest of us. We’re the ones that bet based on sports talk radio storylines and Q Rating. Most importantly, the rest of us tend to bet heavily on favorites, especially on a handful of “public” teams. These teams include the Cowboys, Steelers, Giants, Patriots and Bears according to Chad Millman, ESPN The Magazine's Vegas correspondent. While the public tends to bet late in the week and on the favorite, the wise guys, or sharps, tend to bet in two ways: They bet the initial spread and then they play against/with the public money that the rest of us lay down.

A look at the fluctuations of the Jets @ Chargers spread this week exemplifies the way this works. Most Vegas oddsmakers opened the line at Chargers -7.5 points. The Chargers were favored by even more points at a few offshore books. The early money from the professional bettors came in on the Jets who were getting slightly more than a touchdown. This early money moved the line down to Jets +7 (which is the same as Chargers -7) points across the board early in the week. The spread stuck at a touchdown for the rest of the week. That’s where it stood on Sunday morning when I left for the gym. When I came back, after I went shopping for ingredients for my gametime chili, I checked and saw that the line had shot all the way up to Jets +9 points in the matter of a few hours. This means that millions of dollars had recently been bet on the Chargers and the odds were becoming even more favorable for the Jets as fans around the country had watched the home favorite run away with wins in all the other games. Now, the Jets just needed to stay within 9 points to cover. Although earlier in the week I'd considered betting San Diego at -7 there was no way I could pass up on the Jets at +9. I wasn't sure they could win outright but I felt like they would surely keep it within 9 points. And, there is also the unwritten rule that whenever the public wagers so heavily on one team late in the week that the other team will come out on top. This is the sort of axiom that Bill Simmons harps on consistently*.
(Which means as often as it's convenient for whatever axe he is grinding at the time.)

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