Top Games of the 2013 NFL Season

19 04 2013

 

Guest writer: Josh McSwain

 

15. Minnesota at Green Bay — Week 12
Good old fashioned rivalry game, but the reason it makes the list is because Greg Jennings will make his return to Lambeau Field. They booed Brett Favre when he returned in purple. Jennings will get booed for sure.

14. Carolina at San Francisco — Week 10
This game features two of the most dynamic dual threat QBs in the game. Cam Newton has been brilliant at times and not shaky at others through his first two years, he must become more consistent to get Carolina into the playoffs. Who better to see him against than a top defense? Colin Kaepernick is out to prove last year was no fluke and that he’s the man in San Francisco.

13. Kansas City at Philadelphia — Week 3
Pretty simple on this one. Andy Reid returns to Philadelphia after fourteen years and numerous playoff appearances. We also will get to see Chip Kelly‘s new offense.

12. Washington at Minnesota — Week 10
Simple star power here- RG3 will be healthy by this time (assuming he doesn’t get hurt again), and Adrian Peterson for Minnesota. Both of those guys have suffered recent ACL injuries. ACL bowl?

11. Denver at New York Giants — Week 2
Pretty simple here- Manning Bowl III.

10. Atlanta at San Francisco — Week 16
Rematch of the NFC title game, on Monday night in a game that could be crucial in determining playoff position.

9. Green Bay at Detroit — Week 13
How does Detroit get up here? Well, it is a Thanksgiving game, and the Lions have this guy, who’s kind of a big deal. I also think Detroit will be much better this coming season after having a down year in 2012.

8. Dallas at New York Giants — Week 12
This could be a pivotal game in the NFC east. Not to mention these two have developed a pretty intense rivalry in recent years, and the Romo-Eli comparisons will never end.

7. New Orleans at New England — Week 6
If you like passing offense, this one is for you. Two bad secondaries and two loaded passing attacks. Kicker here- Tom Brady could tie Drew Brees‘ record of 54 straight games with a TD pass if he throws one in this one (assuming he throws TDs in each game until this one).

6. Houston at Baltimore — Week 3
Ed Reed coming back to Baltimore will be the headline in this one. But these two teams are powers in the AFC and this game could have early playoff implications.

5. Atlanta at New Orleans — Week 1
The rivalry in the Deep South should be enough to get it on this list. But think about the rest this game has to offer. It’ll be Steven Jackson‘s first game in a Falcons uniform. It’ll be Sean Payton‘s first game back from suspension and Rob Ryan‘s first chance to trot out his reconstructed defense.

4. Denver at New England — Week 12
Peyton vs. Brady again, and now Wes Welker is going to be catching passes from the former instead of the latter. Not much needs to be said.

3. San Francisco at Seattle — Week 2
Forget the big markets on the East Coast, these two staged the signing war of the offseason. Seattle added Percy Harvin, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Antoine Winfield, among others. The 49ers countered with Anquan Boldin, Glenn Dorsey and Nnamdi Asomugha among others. The 49ers also likely remember the beatdown they took in Seattle late last season. Early chance for some revenge.

2. Baltimore at Denver — Week 1
I don’t care that the Ravens lost a ton of guys. This is the season opener, a rematch of one of the best playoff games ever, and a chance for the Ravens to show that they will still be a contender this season. This would be number one, except for…

1. Denver at Indianapolis — Week 7
The Sheriff goes back to the house that he built. I don’t think there will ever be a warmer reception than the one he will get on that day. For the first time Peyton will get to play against the guy who Indianapolis chose over him in the 2012 offseason.

 

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Same Ol’ Giants; Same Ol’ Eli

16 09 2012

Just when you thought the reigning Super Bowl champs were about to face a 0-2 start to their season and consequently cause many to question how well they are going to defend their title, Manning and his Giants reminded the nation just why they have found a way to be a middle-of-the-pack elite franchise the past six years.

The New York Giants took down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 41-34 and they did so in a wild and unorthodox manner.

Eli Manning sometimes look like one of the top quarterbacks in the league while other times he looks like he’s on the level of Brandon Weeden. How else do you explain the always-changing confused faces he displays during games? He is one quarterback that is difficult to figure out.

On Sunday afternoon, he gave fans a taste of two types of Eli.

Through the first half of play, he allowed his team to get in a 24-13 hole as he handed his opponent three easy interceptions – one returned for a touchdown – which would increase to 27-13 after the Bucaneers’ first drive in the second half. He looked nothing like the player that had nine touchdowns and only one interception through four 2011 playoff games.


Then, it happened. Eli pulled an Eli. He came out when his team was down and scorched the Tampa Bay defense by throwing for 295 passing yards in the second half – the eighth most all-time. But when you narrow it down to just the fourth quarter, his play was even more baffling. Outscoring the Bucs 25-7, Manning put the team on his back with four scoring drives on four possessions consisting of big throw after big throw. Even though the other Manning brother has the habit of making his teammates look better than they really are, he did just that in this comeback. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz ended with 378 receiving yards (164 of them being in the fourth quarter) and 21 catches. All of this gave Manning a career-high total of 510 passing yards. 510. Whoa.

The Giants absolutely needed this win. Since conferences were expanded in 1990, facing an 0-2 hole gives your team an 11.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. In a division with the griffining Redskins, undefeated and determined Eagles and dangerous (maybe?) Cowboys, those odds would probably be even lower.

Well, Giants nation doesn’t have to worry about that number because these Giants just can’t seem to get out of this certain groove – for better or for worse.

Looking simply at the game level, the Giants and Manning play best in the fourth quarter – no question. Since their Super Bowl season in 2007, Manning has 17 fourth quarter comebacks (seven last year) and 19 game-winning drives (eight last year). There is some switch in his football system that clicks once the last 15 minutes of the game are upon him. His passes become tighter and his decisions become wiser. No matter how he has played through the first three quarters of the game, Tom Coughlin can still have hope for a W.

Once you take a step back and look at this situation from a seasonal level, this odd sort of differentiation between level of play can still be applied. Going into both the 2007 and 2011 playoffs as a wild-card team, they didn’t look to be the best team. In fact, they didn’t even look to be the “hot” team that has recently won so often in professional sports. In 2007, they finished the season 4-4, including a loss to the Patriots in the last week of the season. In 2011, they finished the season 3-5, which was compromised of four straight losses from Week 10 to Week 13. No signs pointing to Super Bowl ready.

You know what? They didn’t care. They went into the playoffs with the attitude that they could beat anyone and a quarterback with a clutch gene unlike any other, resulting in two different sets of expensive rings.

So we come full circle back to the second week of the 2012 NFL season and it feels like déjà vu. It’s a risky game to play this way, but it has obviously worked out for a mostly mediocre Giants team the past decade. They know how to turn that mediocrity into superiority right when it’s ready to change.

Can they do it again this year? We’ll just have to wait…

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NFL Preview 2012: NFC

5 09 2012

Co-writer: Josh McSwain

 

NFC east

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)

Offense — (B+).       With a healthy Michael Vick, they clearly possess one of the most lethal and deep offenses in the league. The problem is this is an enigma of a request; he is hurt a lot of the time, missing several games in the last two seasons. He may be praised for his diverse skill set that always keeps defenses scrambling, but it always seems to hurt his team in the long-run with his absences. LeSean McCoy is one of the best running backs in the game – he is a scoring machine. Last season he led the league in touchdowns with 20, failing to score a touchdown in only three games. DeSean Jackson returns healthy and motivated – we think – this season to lead a deep receiving corps with Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Riley Cooper and tight end Brent Celek. The issue is, as it was last season, how will the offensive line perform, which is even more important now with the season ending injury to Jason Peters, their all pro left tackle.

Defense — (A).      Don’t let what the media said about this defense early last season fool you. This is one heck of a unit with multiple playmakers. Jason Babin and Trent Cole form the best 4-3 pass rushing duo in the league, and the DT position was fortified with the addition of Fletcher Cox from Mississippi State. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans gives them a legitimate rock in the middle of the defense, but he has had issues with injuries throughout his career as well. Outside Akeem Jordan, Brian Rolle and others will compete for the starting spots, solid players and depth will be there. That’s the key here that many others don’t have – depth. This could prove to be a huge advantage as they should be able to fight off any form of adversity. In the secondary, Asante Samuel is gone, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha form a very good duo of cornerbacks. These two should be put in more man coverage rather than zone, which they struggled with last season. Safety Kurt Coleman will be able to hold his own and Nate Allen is rapidly becoming one of the best safeties in the league. This secondary could become very opportunistic similar to the Saints defense from their championship run a few years ago.

Special teams — (B).      Chas Henry had a decent year in year one as he took over the punting duties, averaging 42.9 yards per punt. Alex Henery replaced David Akers about as well as anyone could, making 24 of 27 attempts last season. DeSean Jackson is always a threat to take it back while returning punts, but the kick returner spot is still up for grabs.

 

2. New York Giants (9-7)

Offense — (B).      Eli Manning has finally cemented his status as one of the top QBs in the game, and he has a bevy of weapons at his disposal with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, rookie Rueben Randle and his tight ends. Finding a running game will be the challenge. They were the worst in the league at running the ball last season – but obviously found a way to win when it mattered most… to the extreme. Ahmad Bradshaw will return to carry the load, with David Wilson, the first rounder out of Virginia Tech, contributing as well. The aging line is another concern that could hold these Giants back from respectfully defending their title.

Defense — (B-).      Their defense was among the worst in the league during the regular season last year. Outside of their pass rush, most of the unit was pretty dreadful. Getting CB Terrell Thomas back from an injury that kept him out all of last season will help, and the continued development of Prince Amukamara could give them not just a duo but a good trio of corners. They will need that to be successful in a division with three talented quarterbacks. The safeties are still subpar, and the LBs are patchwork with Mathias Kiwinuka, Michael Boley and perhaps Keith Rivers starting.

Special teams — (A).      Lawrence Tynes is one of the more efficient kickers in the game, and Steve Weatherford is one of the most unhearlded punters. With Domenik Hixon and Jerrel Jernigan as options at returner, they will be fine there.

 

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8)

Offense — (B+).      If they stay healthy and all get on the same page, they could be a dangerous team. However, that has been the case since Romo began his time in Dallas, and that has only produced one playoff win. DeMarco Murray showed that he can be great when he is healthy and be the opposite of Marion Barber by picking up substantial yards per carry. Durability has always been his achillies heel, dating back to college. Tony Romo is a fine QB with bad luck. Last year, he had the fourth best passer rating (102.5), third best passing percentage (66.3) and a joke of a reputation. While he has come up small in some games, they don’t compare to all the games in which he plays well. His luck is already turning against him this year, with Miles Austin and Jason Witten having injuries and Dez Bryant having embarrassing off the field issues. Losing Laurent Robinson will hurt as well. He was Romo’s go to guy last year, so it is unknown who will be getting the majority of the throws early on this season. But over all of this, the most glaring problem is the front line. Will they finally protect Romo and give him the time any elite quarterback needs? We will soon find out.

Defense — (B-).      Not sure exactly where to rank this D. If they play up to their potential with a defensive coordinator like Rob Ryan, they could be one of the better units in the conference – maybe even league. I have a feeling a lot of this will depend on Morris Claiborne. They traded up to get the former LSU shutdown corner, and brought in Brandon Carr from Kansas City to be their No. 2 cornerback. What might have been a weakness last year now may be a strength, and since Ryan does his magic best with quality cornerbacks, it could be a huge strength. But who will play at safety alongside Gerald Sensabaugh is still a question. Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher and Marcus Spears are a relatively good line, and DeMarcus Ware has clearly established himself as a force at rushing the passer year in and year out. Getting Anthony Spencer to play up to his potential is key. This team has been waiting for that to happen. Sean Lee looks as if he will be taking on more of the leadership this year and will be solid on the inside.

Special teams — (C-).      Dan Bailey had a good year last year, but when was the last time any Dallas kicker had any sustained success? The fact that the Cowboys practically let long-time Cowboys punter Mat McBriar simply walk over to the Eagles is foolish. Just because the punter doesn’t get much attention doesn’t mean he can’t play an integral role in the team’s success. Now, the team has Chris Jones – an unproven punter. Who will take care of the returns? Felix Jones? Dez? They need to find a guy they can rely on. Soon.

 

4. Washington Redskins (7-9)

Offense — (C).      RG3 is a name. While he already seems like a professional, it will take some time for him to get used to the pro game just as is the case with almost every college quarterback. But the guy has all the talent in the world. Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Santana Moss, Leonard Hankerson and TE Fred Davis give him a lot of options. Unfortunately Davis is suspended for 4 games, as is OT Trent Williams. Their line is weak. RG3 better be ready to run.

Defense — (C+).      I feel like they could be better than this, but for now I just don’t see it. Not until they prove everybody and their perception wrong. Barry Cofield is a solid NT in their 3-4 defense, and Stephen Bowen will be a force. DE Adam Carikker has been a bust at the pro level which isn’t looking like it will change anytime soon. They better hope Jarvis Jenkins grows quickly and can replace him. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan are as good as they come with 3-4 outside rushers, but they need to be utilized more often. Their secondary remains an issue with DeAngelo Hall still giving up as many big plays as he makes, and Brandon Merriweather making as many dumb penalties as big hits. Josh Wilson should be respectable and Reed Doughty and Madieu Williams, whomever wins the job at the other safety spot, is just a stopgap.

Special teams — (B).      Their kicker situation is a nightmare. Graham Gano needed to be replaced, but Neil Rackers wasn’t good enough, so they settled for Ravens castoff Billy Cundiff. Somehow I don’t see that ending well. Saverio Rocca is a serviceable punter. Finding return guys will be their biggest concern, something that shouldn’t simply be ignored.

 

 

NFC west

1. San Francisco 49ers (10-6)

Offense — (B).      All the pieces are in place. Alex Smith must show he can deliver. He doesn’t have to be a superstar quarterback; he just needs to fit into Harbaugh’s system. They have an SEC like stable of running backs with Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Brandon Jacobs and Anthony Dixon. Wow. At WR, Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, and first rounder A.J. Jenkins will give Smith his best group of wideouts yet. On top of all of them, they have the best TE in the league in Vernon Davis. This guy has the power and speed that any QB would want in his TE. He is simply a monster when he gets the ball in his hands.

Defense — (A).      What a unit. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and others lead a DL that shuts down the run and still can apply pressure on the QB. Aldon Smith was a terror his rookie season, and Parys Harrelson complements him very well. Inside Patrick Willis is second to none, and Navarro Bowman is a wrecking ball. Their secondary was the only chink in the armor last season, with Tarell Brown being exposed at times. Carlos Rogers was a pro bowler at the other corner, though. At safety, DaShon Golston and Donte Whitner form a very good duo. There is no reason this defense that didn’t allow a rushing touchdown in the first 14 games last season shouldn’t be commanding once again.

Special teams — (A-).      David Akers and Andy Lee are the two best at their position in the NFC. Kyle Williams likely won’t be back returning punts again. Hopefully for them, Ginn stays healthy and they can have a very good returner for punts and kicks, as he does both.

 

2. Arizona Cardinals (7-9)

Offense — (C+).      They have all the pieces to be a very good offense except the most important one – QB. While I have believed for a long time that John Skelton (5-0 at home last season) was better than Kevin Kolb, particularly in the leadership department, and will start, it looks like the coaching staff is finally starting to see it. He will have the luxury of throwing to Larry Fitzgerald. He is the best in the league at making any QB look better than he is. With Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams in the back field, they will have a very good run game that they can rely on. Finding a LT is crucial, particularly with Levi Brown potentially out for the season with injury.

Defense — (B+).      They were one of the pleasant surprises of the second half of the season. Darnell Dockett is still an excellent player, and Dan Williams from Tennessee will come back from injury this season, and Calais Campbell is 6’8″ of hell. O’Brien Schofield and other LBs really were what drove the sudden improvement. The secondary is fine with Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, Patrick Peterson and Greg Toler starting.

Special teams — (B+).      Jay Feely had a down year, kicking under 80% last season. Dave Zastudil has a huge leg and should be just fine at punter. Patrick Peterson is always a threat to take it all the way back, and Larod Stephens-Howling has made his share of highlight returns.

 

3. Seattle Seahawks (6-10)

Offense — (C).      Marshawn Lynch is a great back who has really taken off since coming over from Buffalo. They will need to lean on him big time again this season because they are running a who’s who of WRs, with Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate and others competing for time with an inexperienced quarterback in Russell Wilson. The offensive line will need some time to gel. Unger, Okung, Moffitt, Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy are all young and talented, but need to develop chemistry and an understanding of each others strengths.

Defense — (A-).      One of the most underrated units in the league – no doubt.  Brandon Browner, Richard Sherman and others lead a no-name secondary that rivals the best in the league. Earl Thomas will be great – the next great safety after Ed Reed is gone. Brandon Mebane, Red Bryant, Alan Branch, Chris Clemons and first round pick Bruce Irvin lead a deep and formidable D-line.

Special teams — (B).      Leon Washington is a premiere return man. He doesn’t get quite as much attention as some of the other guys like Peterson, Hester or Cribbs, but is still always a threat. Steven Hauschka is a serviceable kicker but nothing special. Jon Ryan is a good punter, averaging almost 47 ypp last season.

 

4. St. Louis Rams (6-10)

Offense — (C).      They could have a really good offense if Sam Bradford can stay upright. Danny Amendola comes back from injury, and Steven Jackson is still Steven Jackson. The problem remains with the offensive line. Roger Saffold needs to step up at LT and protect Bradford’s blind side. With this type of protection, Bradford has the change of leading this team have a more respectable season. Jason Smith was a bust on the right side, so they sent him away for a guy who looked just as bad in Wayne Hunter; he will battle Barry Richardson for the job. The interior of the line is decent with journeyman Quinn Ojinakka, ex-Packer Scott Wells and the road blocking Harvey Dahl.

Defense — (C+).      Chris Long is a great, young talent. When put beside Robert Quinn, those two form a good pass rushing duo. However, the interior of their line is weak and teams gauged them with the run last season as they ranked second to last in rushing yards given up (2433). They will need to hope Michael Brockers and free agent acquisition Kendall Langford can fix that. James Laurinitis is a serviceable linebacker, but they need to improve around him. Rocky McIntosh could do just that. Adding Cortland Finnigan will help the secondary, but around him the rest of the secondary is uncertain. Quintin Mikell is not what he was in Philadelphia, Darian Stewart and Janoris Jenkins are young guys they are hoping do well. This team had the chance to add some quality defensive pieces in the NFL draft, but kept trading down and missed many opportunities.

Special teams — (C).      Greg Zuerlin comes from Missouri Western University all the way to the big stage. Johnny Hekker is a rookie from Oregon State who takes over the punter spot. Danny Amendola returns from injury and Isaiah Pead is an explosive rookie who can help out the return game.

 

 

NFC north

1. Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Offense — (A).      Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the league (along with the fantasy league), and has excellent WRs at his disposal. Jennings, Nelson, Finley, Cobb, James Jones… I think I’ve made my point. Donald Driver has most likely reached the end. Adding Cedric Benson could be one of the more underrated pickups of the offseason if he runs anything like he did in Cincinnati. He gives them a tough runner that can get them 1,000 yards. After an embarrassing loss at home in last year’s playoffs, this offense and team will be ready to establish themselves as the best team in the league once again.

Defense — (C+).      They upgraded their unit with a defense heavy draft, getting Nick Perry to upgrade the pass rush, Jerel Worthy to upgrade the line (a steal in the second round) and Casey Heyward to upgrade the secondary. Charles Woodson will shift to safety, but either way, they need to upgrade a secondary that was historically bad last season, being dead last in passing yards given up (4796). Getting another pass rusher to go alongside Clay Matthews (hopefully Perry can provide that) will certainly help. If they want to get back to the Super Bowl, some solid defense will need to come along with them.

Special teams — (A).      Mason Crosby has a very strong leg, and Tim Masthay has gotten better ever since he started for the Packers two seasons ago. Randall Cobb is another guy who can take one the other way at any given moment.

 

2. Chicago Bears (12-4)

Offense — (A-).      With Brandon Marshall finally giving them a true #1 receiver, they will be good. Considering Marshall has previous experience with Jay Cutler in Denver, they already have the experience that will make them lethal early on. That would be enough to carry some teams to the top of their division. But then opposing defenses have to deal with Matt Forte, one of the best multi-purpose running backs in the league. It will undoubtedly be a handful. As long as the offensive line holds up, they could be one of the best offenses in the league and make some noise once the playoffs roll around.

Defense — (B+).      They are getting older, but they might have one last run in them. Urlacher and Briggs can still hold their own, and Peppers can still rush the passer with the best of them. They might not be in their prime, but they certainly know this system and how to turn this into one of the top defenses. The key will be how well the DTs, led by Stephen Paea, Henry Melton and others, play. The secondary, led by veteran corner Charles Tillman, will need to play better than 28th best if they are going to try to slow down Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Tim Jennings, Major Wright and Chris Conte will be under the microscope this season.

Special teams — (A).      Hester is still great, and can flip field position at any time. Robbie Gould, who made all six of his field goal attempts from 50+ yards last season, has been one of the most underrated kickers in the NFL for years. Adam Podlesh is a solid kicker, averaging 44 ypp over each of the last 2 seasons. The fact that this team has a solidified special teams could be the difference in how far this team can go – which is far.

 

3. Detroit Lions (7-9)

Offense — (A-).      Matthew Stafford was great last season, but he needs to prove that he can stay healthy over the long haul. This has stunted many young quarterback’s growth early on and could be the case with Stafford.  They still need a running back. Jahvid Best has not stayed healthy, Kevin Smith is nothing special and Mikel LeShore needs to find a way to lay off the drugs. Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew are two of the best at their position in the league. But can Johnson avoid the Madden Curse? Can the line hold up? Questions still linger for this unit as they could very easily head in the wrong direction this season.

Defense — (C).      Ndamukong Suh had a sophomore slump last season (at least by his standards), and an embarrassing moment where he couldn’t seem to control his emotions on the field. He needs to be sure that he can get back to the level at which he played during his rookie season. They have a great defensive line with Suh, Corey Williams, KVB, Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and last year’s first rounder Nick Fairley. Their back seven are somewhat of a concern. The linebackers are serviceable with Tulloch, DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant, but they are going to need a makeover in the secondary to compete in this pass happy division. Louis Delmas will need to stay healthy for that to have any chance of happening.

Special teams — (B).      Jason Hanson isn’t what he used to be, but he is still a solid kicker. The Aussie Ben Graham is a solid punter, averaging over 44 ypp. Stefan Logan and Titus Young will split the return duties, and both are explosive.

 

4. Minnesota Vikings (3-13)

Offense — (D+).      Christian Ponder looked very average last season, though, with all due respect, he didn’t have anyone to throw to besides Percy Harvin. Kyle Rudolph is a young TE who has potential to grow, and John Carlson will be an upgrade. Adrian Peterson will have to get back, but in the meantime Toby Gerhart will carry the load. He is a solid runner. Matt Kalil will improve the line, and the line needs to improve if Ponder is to have any chance of not becoming the next David Carr. This team might be fighting for the top pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Defense — (C-).      They long had one of the premiere D-Lines in the NFL, but without Pat Williams and Ray Edwards, those days are over. They did lead the NFL in sacks, with Jared Allen being the sole owner of 22 of them. Nearly half. Nobody else had more than eight. Jasper Brinkley has now taken over for E.J. Henderson, and Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson on the outside form a solid trio. But the secondary remains an issue, as it has been for years. Winfield is continuing to get older, and with Chris Cook gone, things only figure to get worse. Raymond and Sanford need to get really good quickly to give them any chance.

Special teams — (B-).      Rookie Blair Walsh takes over for the departed Ryan Longwell. Chris Kluwe has long been a solid punter, averaging almost 46 ypp. Harvin is another one of the guys in the NFL that could take any kickoff back the other way.

 

 

NFC south

1. Atlanta Falcons (12-4)

Offense — (A).      All around, this is one of the most explosive units in the league. Matt Ryan has always been a solid QB, and now there are no more excuses for him not to win a playoff game. The weapons are there. He has deep threat Julio Jones, good all around receiver Roddy White, one of the best TEs of all time in Tony Gonzalez and Michael Turner in the backfield. The line is still a work in progress (as seems to be the case with many elite teams), but it should hold up well enough for Matt Ryan to take that long awaited next step and win a postseason game.

Defense — (B).      I think they are better than most people give them credit for. Jonathan Babineaux is one of the most underrated DTs in the league. But they need for Ray Edwards to become the complementary rusher they need alongside John Abraham. Kroy Biermann is a good third end, and they better hope is doesn’t have to start by default. Sean Weatherspoon is a rapidly improving LB, and Stephen Nicolas and Akeem Dent are serviceable starters. They have a very good trio of CBs with Grimes, Robinson and Samuel. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are good safeties and veteran Chris Hope will provide leadership as well.

Special teams — (B).      Matt Bryant is one of the best kickers in the league, missing only two FGs last season, but Matt Bosher struggled in his rookie season, averaging less than 43 ypp. Losing Eric Weems may hurt their return game, but Jacquizz Rogers and Harry Douglas have what it takes to make up the difference.

 

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

Offense — (B-).      Josh Freeman looked like he had arrived in 2010, as did Mike Williams. But they both regressed in 2011. Freeman should be better this season, and with Dallas Clark in the fold it helps Freeman that much more. Vincent Jackson gives them the necessary deep threat they have lacked for so long. Now they can take advantage of Freeman’s big arm. Picking up Doug Martin in the draft to push LeGarrette Blount for playing time. Losing Davin Joseph along the offensive line will certainly hurt. But they should be a much improved unit.

Defense — (C-).      These aren’t your dad’s bucs. Ten years ago they were led by Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Derrick Brooks, and others. Among those others is the only player still on the team from the Super Bowl 37 team, Ronde Barber. But they have used a lot of early draft picks on defense over the last three seasons, with Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers (if he ever plays), Mark Barron and Lavonte David. Those guys need to stay healthy, and come of age quickly. If they do and the offense performs up to their potential, they could be yet another NFC south worst to first.

Special teams — (B-).      Connor Barth is a fine kicker. He made 26 of 28 FGs last season, almost 93%. Michael Koenen was an expensive free agent acquisition at punter before the 2011 season, but he averaged 45 ypp. Preston Parker averaged almost 10 yards per punt return and 22 yards per kick return. Those numbers need to be better.

 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-9)

Offense — (A-).      Drew Brees. One of the best QBs of this generation. But without the play calling of Sean Payton, how will Brees be affected? Will there be a major difference? Little difference? No difference? I think it will be at least somewhat of a factor that Payton isn’t there. I do imagine Brees having a very good season though- mainly because they will be behind a lot and have to throw a lot. He has very good weapons with Darren Sproles, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, etc. Remarkably, they do have a running game, even without a #1 RB. But they get it done.

Defense — (D+).      They are really going to struggle this season. The negative stigmas hanging over the team will affect them, and losing the QB of the defense, Jonathan Vilma, for the year, will do them no favors. Steve Spagnuolo will take over this unit, but I don’t know if he will have the talent up front to duplicate the success he had with the Giants, particularly with Will Smith out for four games.

Special teams — (B).      Garrett Hartley is an average kicker. He only made 80% of his attempts last season. Thomas Morestead though, is one of the finest punters in the league. Darren Sproles is one of the most consistent returners in the league, not as explosive as guys like Hester, but very consistent and versatile.

 

4. Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Offense — (B).      Cam Newton had an excellent rookie season, but will he be able to avoid the sophomore slump? That remains to be seen. With him, Stewart, Williams and Tolbert, they have four productive runners. Unfortunately, they only have one ball. Also, will Steve Smith have the same production this year? Newton will struggle throwing if he doesn’t. For an again WR with his injury history, I wouldn’t bank on it.

Defense — (C+).      Getting Jon Beason back from injury will be a tremendous boost. Adding Luke Keuchly in the draft to hold down the middle so Beason can play outside will also help the unit as a whole. But questions still remain if the linemen can play at a high level. Charles Johnson needs to play better to live up to his contract, and they need to find a solid second starter, whether than be incumbent Greg Hardy or someone else. The secondary is led by Chris Gamble, and they need to play better themselves to make the team championship level.

Special teams — (C).      They are not looking good in this area. Justin Medlock failed in KC after being drafted relatively high for a kicker, and Brad Nortman is their new punter. Will they have beginners luck or become a liability for the team?

 

 

 

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Eli Delivers… Again

5 02 2012

For the second time in the past five years, Eli Manning has shown Tom Brady how to win on the big stage.

In Super Bowl XLVI, the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots, 21-17, giving Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin their second championship.

This game started off as oddly as possible. After the Giants punted on their first drive, the Patriots had to go 94 yards in order to score a touchdown. However, on the first play, Tom Brady took a three-step drop into his own end zone and slung the ball down field to… well, no one. Welker ran right and Brady threw left. Because of the pure emptiness around this ball’s landing spot, the referees called intentional grounding, resulting in a safety. This put the Patriots in an early hole that restrained them from breaking this game open when they outscored the Giants 17-0 during the middle of the game.

Throughout this battle, it became apparent that Ron Gronkowski was not himself. His injury did impact his play. Compared to his previous two playoff games, he had 86.7% fewer catches (2 receptions) and 88.8% less yards (26 receiving yards). The Giants defense did affect Gronkowski, but his injury played a larger role tonight.

By the time the fourth quarter had arrived and local commercials started to show up, America found itself feeling some deja vu. In 2008, New York faced a 14-10 deficit with 5:12 to go. In 2012, New York faced a 17-15 deficit with 3:46 to go. In 2008, Eli led the Giants 80 yards to take a 17-14 lead. In 2012, Eli led the Giants 88 yards to take a 21-17 lead. Even though Brady has one more ring than the younger Manning brother, Manning has twice out-dueled him in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl.

Awkwardness ensued on the last touchdown scored by Amare Bradshaw. After he broke through a suspicious hole leading to a clear path to the end zone, he attempted but failed to stop his momentum right before he entered the end zone, almost as if he realized the Patriots were giving him this touchdown so they could get the ball back with more time. This might have been the first time I’ve seen good, smart defense from a football team by giving up a touchdown.

Ahmad Bradshaw decided to take a seat in the end zone.

With 57 seconds left in the game, Tom Brady and the Patriots had one last chance to take this game away from the Giants. It couldn’t have started on a worse note. After two dropped passes from Branch and Hernandez, the Giants blitzed Brady and sacked him for a 6-yard loss. Brady did in fact convert this 4th-and-16, but just didn’t have enough time to make significant progress down the field. Once Brady threw a hail mary that was almost caught by Gronkowski off of a tip, the Giants officially became NFL champions.

Eli Manning received the Super Bowl MVP award. He finished the night throwing 30-for-40 for 296 yards and a touchdown. Even though Eli doesn’t have the standard demeanor of a franchise quarterback, his ability to take his play to another level when the game is on the line can not be debated.

The Giants now stand as the only team since the league went to a 16-game format in 1978 to win the Super Bowl with less than 10 regular season wins. (The only exception is the 1982 Washington Redskins (8-1) who only played 9 regular season games due to a lockout.) They won their 2008 Super Bowl in a very similar fashion, going 10-6 in the regular season and then scorching their way through the playoffs. As a Cowboys fan that has seen many mediocre and successful seasons go down the drain due to bad play in crunch time and important games, I respect the Giants ability to play their best when it matters most. (It also frustrates me, but I’ll keep those feelings to myself.)

This championship concludes the year of the “hot” teams. First, the Dallas Mavericks came together at just the right time as they took down the Lakers (the apparent favorite in the West) and the star-studded Heat on their way to a championship. Analysts still today don’t consider them to be the best team from last year’s playoffs – they simply “caught fire” for a few months. Then, once fall came around, the St. Louis Cardinals heated up. They finished the regular season on a 15-5 sprint to make it into the playoffs on the last day of regular season play. Right out of the gate, they defeated a Phillies team that had 102 wins coming into the playoffs. Other than the fans in Missouri, not many out there believed this could be done with the Phillies phenomenal pitching. They eventually went on to take down the Rangers in the World Series. The Giants simply followed suit with the way the three main American sport champions have attained triumph.

Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have now cleared up any doubt whether their first championship was a fluke or not. Answer: it wasn’t. Manning made the right throws that needed to be made at the right time in the game while Coughlin made the right calls at the right time. Now, whether or not Eli is better than his bigger brother Peyton remains as a discussion for another time and another post.

These next few days will be special for the Giants executives, players, coaches and fans. Well-deserved celebration can begin as the stress of playing and watching football can come to a temporary close. Congratulations to the Super Bowl XLVI Champions – the New York Giants.

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A Kick to Rule Them All

24 01 2012

In both the NFC and AFC Conference Championship games, a field goal attempt determined which teams needed to pack their bags for Indianapolis. One made. One missed. A Kyle Williams fumble on a punt return has also inundated the media world. Even though all of these situations provide an easy way to focus on just a few minutes of each game, it can’t be forgotten that NFL football lasts for 60 minutes. Here are some key plays and factors from each game that haven’t been given their rightful attention.

 

AFC Championship

  • Stephen Gostkowski made three field goals where Billy Cundiff couldn’t. He connected on 29, 35, and 24 yard field goal, missing none of his attempts. Even though these didn’t come in crunch time, without these 9 points, the game would have been in an entirely different place by the end of the game.
  • The Patriots defensive line came to play this past Sunday. That line and the rest of the Patriots’ defense held Ray Rice to 78 total yards – only 12 yards short of his season low. This forced Flacco to throw the ball much more than he is used to, translating to some poor throws in the fourth quarter.
  • Instead of wrapping the ball up tight, Lee Evans began to turn around after catching a potential touchdown pass from Flacco. As he began to rotate, the ball was easily knocked out of his hands by Sterling Moore, setting up the missed field goal from Cundiff two plays later. Why turn? I understand momentum plays a factor, but once you have clearly crossed the goal-line, gather yourself, and hold on to that football.
  • After Baltimore just recently had a playoff game without a single penalty, the Patriots decided to take a page from the Ravens’ book by playing an efficient football game. Other than an illegal contact penalty early on in the second quarter, the Patriots successfully had a penalty-free afternoon.
    • Even though the Ravens only had 6 penalties for a total of 33 yards, one of them had a major impact on the game. Facing a 2nd and 6 at the Baltimore 16, BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for one yard, potentially putting the Patriots in a tough third-down situation with the score still tied. However, Dannell Ellerbe had an obvious face mask, leading to an automatic first down. A touchdown was scored on the very next play.
  • No team led by more than a touchdown throughout the entire game. By the time the fourth quarter came around, only 4 points separated the two teams. This closeness helped Tom Brady, who finds ways to get the job done when the game is on the line. His fourth quarter touchdown drive made up the only points of the quarter.

 

NFC Championship

  • Alex Smith’s fourth quarter and overtime inefficiency made it difficult for the 49ers to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. Discounting the last play of the fourth quarter where the Patriots backed off to avoid the hail mary and gave up about a 20-yard play, here is Smith’s final five drives.

    C/ATT YDS
    4th 2/3 8
    0/1 0
    0/3 0
    1/1 3
    OT 1/2 11

    The 7-year Niner connected with receivers not named Vernon Davis one time the entire game. He has been playing wonderful football this year, but his play in crunch time of the AFC Championship reminded me of the Alex Smith I’ve seen from the previous six years.

  • *Eli Manning did it again, elevating his gameplay to another level during a playoff game. Manning completed 32 of 58 passes – franchise post-season records for both attempts and completions – for 316 yards and two touchdowns, proving his toughness. Just as basketball coaches tell their shooters to keep shooting no matter their percentage for a particular game, I felt as though Manning had a similar mentality. He kept slinging that ball around the field and didn’t care how many came up incomplete.
  • With all the attention on Vernon Davis, it can’t go unnoticed that ex-Raider Michael Crabtree all but disappeared in the biggest game of his life. One catch. Three yards. That is the makeup of Crabtree’s line for the NFC Championship game. It seemed on some plays that Crabtree didn’t even have a desire to have the ball thrown his way. When was the last time Crabtree could only muster up one catch for an entire football game? November 13th against the New York Giants.
  • The Giants effectively kept the 49ers and their offense off the field. Eli finished off plays by connecting on 17 third down conversions through the air. This also frustrates the opposing defense since they work so hard for two straight plays only to be beat on the third time. Ending up with 11 more minutes of possession and not turning the ball over, New York handled the ball very well and avoided any game-changing interceptions or fumbles.

 

*Even though Eli Manning has proven his greatness yet again this year, I think much more will need to be done on his part before he should be proclaimed better than his brother. If entire career’s are compared at this point in time, Peyton has to be the better quarterback.

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Wild Card Weekend

9 01 2012

Atlanta 2, NY Giants 24

Key Player: Eli Manning. Standing as one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in the league, Manning worried the New York fans. Many didn’t know what they would see from the one-time Super Bowl Champion. The Giants go as Manning goes – for better or for worse. On Sunday, Manning came up huge for the Giants, connecting on 71.8% of his passes, racking up 277 passing yards, and completing three touchdowns. He played very efficient football, putting the ball right where his receivers wanted the football. It is difficult not to notice the similarities with Manning’s current play compared to his play during his 2007 championship run.

Key Play: Giants hold the Falcons on a 4th-down attempt – twice. Both of these stops epitomize what it means to make a big play. With the score still at 0-0 after the 1st quarter, the Falcons faced a 4th and 1 at the Giants 24-yard-line. They could have kicked a reasonable field goal and taken the first lead of the game. Instead, the Falcons called Matt Ryan’s number and called him to run a QB sneak, which the Falcons stuffed right at the line. Midway through the 3rd quarter, the Falcons had Deja Vu as they faced a 4th and 1 at the New York 21-yard-line. With the deficit standing at 10-2, a field goal would still keep the Falcons a touchdown away from taking the lead; however, a game in which points were scarce (since a safety put the team’s only points on the board) suggested to the Falcons coaching staff that a field goal should be attempted. Mike Smith didn’t think this way and went for it again. The finally healthy front line for the Giants stopped the Falcons yet again and established themselves as one of the strongest defenses in this year’s playoffs. Pierre-Paul and Umenyiora  will both play a crucial role as the Giants try to recapture the magic that led them to a Super Bowl victory against the undefeated Patriots.

 

Pittsburgh 23, Denver 29 (OT)

Key Player:Do I even need to say his name? Even though he completed less than half of his passes, the throws he did complete were huge. Ginormous. Averaging 15 yards per throw, he racked up 316 yards, 2 touchdowns, and had a 125.6 passer rating. During regulation time, Tebow ran for one touchdown and passed for another. Both of these touchdowns came within 3 minutes of each other in the second quarter, but it was enough to push this game to an eventual overtime. Once the Broncos won the toss, Tebow decided to toss the football for an 80-yard winning touchdown. Wow. It doesn’t what happens the rest of these playoffs, Tebow should (for now) not be considered an unconventional quarterback. He should be considered a clutch quarterback. No matter whether you like the kid, the way the media reacts to his play, or think it is odd that he had 316 passing yards – the number he writes under his eyes – Tebow’s will to win cannot be denied.

Key Player (Honorable Mention): Ike Taylor. This 9-year veteran looked like a Dallas Cowboys secondary player with all the chasing he went threw. Taylor’s face being posterized as he was stiff armed by Thomas on the game-winning touchdown gives a good picture of how his (and the rest of the Steelers secondary) entire night went. This slant route wasn’t intended to be a big time play for the Broncos, but because of Taylor’s inability to keep up with the Denver wide receiver(s), he gave the Broncos their destined victory.

Key Play: John Fox’s challenge in the 2nd quarter. Yes, I know – how could I not choose the play that will be plastered on televisions for the next week? I believe the less flashy challenge on Big Ben’s 52-yard bomb played a huge part in the Broncos win. If this play had not been challenged, the Steelers would have gone all the way to the Broncos’ 28-yard-line with the deficit only being 7-6. A field goal or touchdown seemed very likely after this pass. Momentum obviously would have been in favor of the 2011 NFL Champions. However, Fox and his staff made a great decision to challenge the Mike Wallace catch and reverse the play. The Steelers went on to go three-and-out, punt the ball, and eventually fall behind 20-6. Pittsburgh did find a way to tie the game up by the end of the game, leading to Tebow Time in overtime, but without this challenge, the clock might have struck twelve before Tebow even had a chance to step up for his moment.

 

Cincinnati 10, Houston 31

Key Player: Arian Foster. With Matt Schaub’s Lisfranc injury placing him on the injured reserve after Week 10, Foster immediately became even more vital to the Texans success from there on out. Because of a nagging hamstring injury, the 25-year-old fantasy football beast was inactive for the last game of the regular season against the Titans – which they lost, giving them a three-game losing streak to finish the season. How would Foster respond after all this in the Texans first playoff game? He provided Houston with 153 big-time rushing yards and two touchdowns, including a 42-yard touchdown run that showed off both his quickness and strength. Having a prolific running game eases the quarterback pressure from the defense, and with T.J. Yates’s recent subpar play, including against the Bengals, the rookie quarterback will need Foster’s excellent play as they moved on to the next round.

Key Play: J.J. Watt’s 29-yard interception return for a touchdown. In a fairly back and forth game up to this point in the game, the 6-5 rookie leapt up at the line for a athletic interception. (Elias Sports Bureau made this interception even bigger by informing the NFL fandom that Watt became only the fifth defensive lineman in the last 30 seasons to return an interception for a touchdown.) After this play, the Texans never looked back, scoring the rest of the game’s points. When lineman can make huge plays such as this interception, it adds another dimension to the defense that puts the entire team on a different level. The Texans will need solid defensive production next week when they travel to face Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens.

 

Detroit 28, New Orleans 45

Key Player(s): Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory. This match-up consisted of two quarterbacks that collected over 5,000 passing yards during the 2011 NFL season. Everybody knew bombs would be thrown and points would be put up. The way the Saints got an edge came with their running backs on the ground and through the air. Other than Kevin Smith’s 21 rushing yards, no Lion had double-digit rushing yards. Thomas, Sproles, and Ivory provided the Saints with 164 combined rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Thomas, specifically, averaged a whopping 8.3 yards per carry, including a 31-yard burst in the first quarter. Already having an abundance of wide receivers to throw to, Brees connected with Thomas and Sproles 10 times through the air for 89 yards. If the New Orleans Saints can get this kind of versatile production from their running game throughout the playoffs, I see them as a very difficult team to take down – no matter if they’re in the Superdome or not.

Key Play: Darren Sproles 3-yard run on 4th down. With the Saints holding a slim 24-21 to start the fourth quarter, it was still either team’s game. Sean Payton faced a difficult decision sitting at the Lions 40-yard-line. Punting doesn’t really do much good and a 57-yard-field goal is a little bit out of reach. So, as Payton has shown year in and year out, he took a risk and called on Sproles. Sproles pushed the ball outside and as blocking did effectively their job, Payton looked like a genius yet again as the 5-6 running back picked up the vital first down. If New Orleans had been unable to convert this 4th down, there could have been a completely different finish to this game and Calvin Johnson might be receiving a little more attention for his monster game (211 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns). The Saints would go on to score, putting the lead at 31-21 – a hole too much for the Lions to climb out of. For the Saints to be successful for the rest of January and possibly February, New Orleans will need more of these risky, but crucial calls from Sean Payton.

 

*Every single divisional winner won this weekend, marking only the third time for this ever to occur.

*The Atlanta Falcons became the first team in NFL history to score only 2 points.

*Tim Tebow’s 80-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas is the longest overtime touchdown the NFL record books have ever recorded.

 

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Lassoed Cowboys

2 01 2012

I don’t think this fan knew at the time how relevant his poster would be for such a long period of time.

After grabbing a 21-0 lead on the Cowboys yesterday, the New York Giants easily finished their last game of the season with a 31-14 victory to become the NFC East Championship. All of a sudden, the Giants have gone from an inconsistent has-been to a championship contender – similar to their transformation during their push in 2007 when they won the Superbowl.

What about the Cowboys? Well, they have found a way to once again fall short in the biggest way possible. In the past 15 years, the Cowboys have been to the playoffs eight times. How many of those games have they won? One. How many of the past seven Monday Night Football games have they won? Zero.

Similar to this year’s pathetic ending, the 2008 season could have ended somewhere in the playoffs, but that Dallas team had other plans. They allowed the last regular season game of the year –  a 44-6 defeat to the Eagles – finish their year. (At least Tony Romo was able to go to Cancun with Jessica Simpson prior to the beatdown his team took.)

Unlike in 2008, the Cowboys didn’t just sit back and give up (something Wade Phillips had a knack for letting his team do) in yesterday’s game. However, are the renowned ‘Boys to the point of taking moral victories when they used to simple get victories? For a team that won only one game against a football squad with a winning record, I would have to say yes.

How many more chances will Tony Romo get as the Cowboys quarterback?

There is more that worries me about this team than simply mediocrity. In the past six years, I have never seen a football team before find such creative ways to lose so many football games. From Garrett’s icing of his own kicker to the season opener giveaway to the Jets, Dallas keeps finding ways to surprise me with their losses. Out of their eight losses this year, they led during the fourth quarter in five of them. Whether there are bad calls or dumb plays, fans have had to expect the unexpected when crunch time comes around for these Cowboys.

Out of all the frustration being spout out by so many Cowsheep, I feel most for Tony Romo. The Cowboy’s quarterback finished the season with 4,184 yards, 31 touchdowns, and only 10 interceptions. Romo joins Aaron Rodger, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford as the only quarterbacks this season to have a touchdown/interception ratio of more than +20. This team allowed one of Romo’s best seasons to go down the drain. Romo has had his fair share of finger pointing right at his #9 jersey, but this season, those fingers have to be pointed elsewhere.

When Rob Ryan joined this Cowboys organization and spatted trash talk towards the Philadelphia Eagles, many had high hopes his toughness could turn this dreaded defense around. The only thing Ryan turned around was Newman as he watched receivers run by him. Ryan instilled a defense that heavily blitzed, which gave opposing offenses chances at big plays. As Victor Cruz’s 74-yard touchdown from last night epitomizes, the Big D’s secondary could not handle this pressure, giving up big play after big play throughout the season. Since a new defensive coordinator can’t get the job done, hopefully Jerry Jones can get the message that this defense needs a facelift. No matter the amount or length of contract current defensive players have, Jerry needs to make some drastic changes to adjust this D. Now.

Many look towards the Cowboys five rushing touchdowns this season as a big problem for the rushing game and the front line. However, there has to be an asterisk next to this statistic since Marion Barber went to the Bears, DeMarco Murray broke his ankle, and Felix Jones missed some time due to a tight hamstring. Once the ‘Boys get Murray and Jones back to 100%, they might finally have a consistent running game.

With the emergence of the young Lions and 49ers joining the already elite Packers and Saints as the top teams in the NFC, the Cowboys have a long way to go. To add on to that, the Eagles finished their regular season strong, looking to improve greatly next season. Even though every single Cowboys season seems to have high expectations attached to it, unless a major signing takes place, the bar should be lowered. Reality needs to settle in about this squad and Super Bowl bound doesn’t need to be attached to this franchise right now. At least this loss to the Giants shot any hope that this current team has what it takes to go all the way.

As the Cowboys go into the offseason with yet another disappointing ending, hopefully America will realize this squad as it is might not have what it takes to bring the franchise their sixth Superbowl.

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