Saturday, December 1, 2007

Heated Battle - Pats and Ravens

The free-falling Ravens have lost five in a row and are almost three-touchdown underdogs in their Monday night game against New England.

As dominant as the unbeaten Patriots have been, that's a staggering line given that the Ravens are at home and are less than a season removed from winning 13 games as well as a division title.

This game will probably turn out to be as lopsided as the oddsmakers predict, making the Adalius Thomas-Ray Lewis feud one of the few storylines that bears watching.

The former teammates engaged in a war of words that was triggered by comments Thomas made to Sports Illustrated in October.

In comparing his former team with his current one, Thomas, who signed with New England during the offseason, said the Patriots were a selfless group that put the team before individual glory.

He described the Ravens, to SI, as having a "star-studded system, starting with the head coach (Brian Billick)."

Game on.

At least it was for the outspoken Lewis.

"When you take a shot at men that you claim to love to go to war with, I call those cowards," Lewis said on his radio show. "If you have something to say privately, you don't have to go to a newspaper. If you have something to say to a man, speak it."

Thomas said he is still upset about Lewis calling him a coward and will talk to him about it in private.

But, he added, the two have smoothed over their differences for the most part.

"That is done, over with," Thomas said last Wednesday. "I'll let you figure out if we spoke or not. I'm not going down that road because you guys are going to make it something that it's not."

Talking a big game

Bears defensive end Alex Brown said he didn't want to get Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora "riled up."

Brown, however, probably did just that when he said Chicago's defensive ends are better than the New York bookends that have combined for 18 sacks this season.

"I'm going to start by saying that I respect them so much because I believe they are very, very good," said Brown, whose team hosts the Giants today. "But I think we're better."

The Bears do have one of the better defensive ends in the NFL in Adewale Ogunleye.

He has nine sacks while Mark Anderson, who had 12 sacks as a rookie last season, has 4 1/2.

Brown had just 1 1/2 sacks this season but past success against the Giants may have prompted him to make his rather bold assertion regarding the teams' defensive ends.

Brown had 4 sacks in a game against the Giants in 2004 and two more when the teams met last season.

"I believe our offensive line will hold their own," he said of today's matchup, "and hopefully we can get after their quarterback a little bit."

Many happy returns?

Shaun Alexander is expected to play today when the Seattle Seahawks visit the Philadelphia Eagles.

The question, and one that would have been preposterous a couple of years ago, is this: how much will Alexander help the Seahawks' running game?

Alexander, who has missed the last three games with a sprained knee, has gone over the 100-yard rushing mark just twice this season. And Alexander hasn't accomplished that feat or scored a touchdown since September.

But after practicing consecutive days last week, Alexander said, "I'm like a kid in a candy store right now."

This season has been anything but a sweet one for the 2005 NFL MVP.

Alexander has rushed for just 492 yards and is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, which is a yard lower than his career average.

He had been playing with a cast on his left wrist (he sustained a crack in his wrist at the beginning of the season). But that has apparently been replaced by a heavy wrap, and Alexander said of the injury, "It's definitely something I can play with."

Speak up, dude

Here's hoping reporters ignore Arizona kicker Neil Rackers the next time he makes a game-winning field goal.

With the Cardinals' game against the 49ers tied last Sunday, Rackers missed a 32-yard field goal in overtime. Arizona ended up losing, and the defeat may prove devastating to their NFC West title hopes.

Following the game, Rackers said to reporters, "I got nothing (to say) dude."

After reporters complained to the NFL, Rackers spoke with them the next day.

Way to be a professional, Neil.

Extra points

The Colts only have a one-game lead in the AFC South over the Jaguars, who visit Indianapolis today for a 1 p.m. contest. But history suggests they will be tough for Jacksonville to overtake in the division. Since the AFC South's inception, Indianapolis has gone 26-7 in division games and has led the division in 90 of the 97 weeks it has existed. ... Larry Fitzgerald is only in his fourth NFL season but the former Pitt star is already the Cardinals' leader in career touchdowns (30). ... The team that has done the best job of scoring touchdowns after it has moved inside its opponent's 20-yard line is New Orleans, not New England. The Saints have scored 26 touchdowns in the 35 times (74.3 percent) they have been in the red zone this season. The Patriots have scored touchdowns 72.2 percent of the time they have been in the red zone.

Forgotten man for the Patriots

Chris Hanson would have been the perfect subject for those old American Express commercials.

“Do you know me?”

True story: On Thursday morning, two reporters approached Stacey James, the New England Patriots' vice president of media relations, specifically requesting Hanson's presence during the press' daily access period at Gillette Stadium.

Later that day, Hanson told James he had honored the request, reported to the Patriots' locker room, stood near his locker stall for what the punter estimated to be a good 10 minutes and was never approached.

There really is no reason to doubt the veracity of Hanson's account.

Who would recognize him?

Eleven games into the season, Hanson has been called upon to punt on exactly two dozen occasions, an average of 2.2 times per game.

Modern-day baseball has given us the era of the pitch count.

Perhaps Bill Belichick has Hanson on a punt count.

“We don't want him to punt nine times,” the Patriots head coach said, understating the obvious. “We're trying to avoid that.”

Consider it done.

At this point, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson (1,081) and Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (1,006) have covered more ground rushing than Hanson has punting (981) this season.

Don't even bother asking about receiving yardage.

Dallas' Terrell Owens (1,249), Hanson's teammate Randy Moss (1,095), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald (1,060), Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne (1,041) and Cleveland's Braylon Edwards (1,011) all surpass Hanson's number there.

To put Hanson's, ahem, workload in further perspective, consider that quarterback Tom Brady has carried the ball nearly as many times (22) as Hanson has punted it.

Fortunately for Hanson, who was signed by the Patriots on Aug. 30, two days after his release from the New Orleans Saints, he isn't getting paid by the foot.

“I wouldn't say so,” long snapper Lonie Paxton answered when asked if, given his less-than-strenuous workload, Hanson might be hard-pressed to develop any sort of rhythm. “I would just say we do a lot work on the sidelines, in pregame and in practice.

“Game rhythm is so situational for punters, anyway, that you've got to be ready when called on.”

This nation's football fandom seems to feel that Hanson is answering the call.

In a bizarre development, NFL fans have established Hanson as the leading vote getter among AFC punters — a development made strange by not one, by two facts:

1. Falling shy of the 2.5 tries per game the NFL's official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, requires, Hanson hasn't even punted often enough to qualify on the league leaders' list.

2. Even if he did qualify, with the 40.9-yard gross average he'll carry into the Patriots' next game, at Baltimore on Monday night, Hanson would rank a distant 30th in the league.

Despite that, Belichick insists that Hanson, whose nine-year career includes a Pro Bowl appearance with Jacksonville in 2002 (when he led the league in gross and net punting average with numbers of 44.2 and 37.6, respectively), is doing his job.

And while his gross average may indicate that he has been stubbing his toe, Hanson's net average of 36.8 yards does rank him a more respectable 19th in the NFL. That's nearly a yard better than the 35.9-yard average Todd Sauerbrun, who concluded the 2006 season as the Patriots' punter, has compiled in Denver this year and a shade better than the 36.7 yards Steve Weatherford, the punter who beat him out in New Orleans this season, is averaging with the Saints.

“You know, we've talked about it many times,” said Belichick. “Punting is a lot like golf. It's not like standing on the driving range and hitting all drivers out there as far as you can hit them.

“I'd say probably well over 50 percent of a punter's punts are situational punts, either based on what the return team is doing or based on field position or the game situation that dictates do you want the punt directional, do you want it with hang time, they're rushing (and) you have to kick it a certain way (or) you're trying to kick away from (someone).”

Take Hanson's performance in the Patriots' 38-7 victory over Buffalo at Gillette Stadium back on Sept. 23. Called upon twice, Hanson totaled 59 yards, a 29.5-yard average, but was lauded by Belichick after the game for placing both of his punts out of bounds, thus negating the Bills' Roscoe Parrish's game-breaking ability as a punt returner.

“A lot of it is situational punting,” Belichick said this past week, “like using all of the clubs in your bag that a golfer would do.”

So while Hanson may not be a heavy hitter in the mode of John Daly off the tee …

“I think that Chris is a very good athlete,” said Belichick. “He handles the ball well, he's got good hands, and he does a good job of getting the ball off and placing it and doing the things that we ask him to do from a situational standpoint.

“He's given us some real good kicks in clutch situations where we needed the ball down the field and changed field position a little bit,” said Belichick. “Like last week (in the third quarter of the Patriots' 31-28 win) against Philadelphia, kicking out of the end zone, we had the false start penalty and we were backed up on the 5-yard line and he gave us a great field position punt (49 yards) and Kelley (Washington) gave us a big tackle on that for little or no return (throwing Reno Mahe for a 2-yard loss), whatever it was.

“That was a big play. Sometimes that's what the situation calls for. Sometimes it's getting the ball down inside the 5-, 10-yard line, and Chris does a good job of that. Sometimes it's, like I said, directionally kicking or utilizing some type of wind or return key or whatever it is.

“I think he's been effective for us. Is there room for improvement? Of course. But I think he's been effective for us.”

It's on to the Dome for Patriots

Just when it looked like the upcoming Class A football Final Four would find them at home, Wilcox High’s Patriots instead miraculously earned themselves a trip to the Dome.

And to say they did it the hard way Friday night would perhaps rank as the biggest understatement involving a Wilcox athletic team in years.

Facing a three-touchdown deficit just over six minutes into the Elite Eight battle vs. two-time defending state champion Lincoln County, the Patriots rallied for a shocking 34-24 win over the state’s top-ranked team.

That victory sends Region 2-A titlist Wilcox into a 9 a.m. Friday clash in the Georgia Dome vs. Region 8-A king Athens Academy which earned its slot in that contest by nipping Brookstone, 14-13. Both are now 12-1.

Clinch County, a 26-13 victor over Fellowship Christian, and Emanuel County Institute, a 34-17 winner over Warren County, will play in the other Class semifinal bout at noon. The winners clash the following week.

“I don’t know how we did it,” beaming Wilcox coach Mark Ledford told his jubilant team in a post-game meeting that drew hundreds of well-wishers. “All I know is that Friday at 9 o’clock we’re in the Dome.

“The heart of you guys is like no other. And to the seniors let me say your leadership did it as you’re the main reason we are where we are. There is no one MVP, though, as this team is full of them. Big-time players make big-time plays and tonight several of you came through.

“You guys in the trenches did your job, too, as did all those folks on the sidelines and up in the bleachers. It’s just beautiful.”

There was no early indication the evening would turn out so pleasant for the Patriots, though, as they fell behind 21-0 in the first 6:15 of the hard-hitting contest.

Like piranha gnashing their teeth in a feeding frenzy, the visiting Red Devils appeared ready to devour the Patriots when they capitalized on early breaks to take a seemingly insurmountable lead.

A low snap and resulting punt block by Keestan Wynn gave perennial power Lincoln County the football at the Wilcox 16. Three plays, quarterback Austin Goldman scored on a 1-yard sneak. Vance Tarver tacked on the extra point for a 7-0 edge with only 2:33 gone.

The Patriots had a chance to pull even just over a minute later only to have Alfonzo Dennard’s 76-yard scoring run nullified by an illegal block in the back.

Was Moss Slacking Against Philly?

Or Was Jaworski Just Driving Ratings?

Ron Jaworski, generally regarded as one of the best NFL tape analysts not coaching the New England Patriots, says Patriot wide receiver Randy Moss lived down to his slacker reputation in New England's 31-28 win Sunday night over Philadelphia. Jaworski showed four plays in which he said Moss didn't do everything he superhumanly could do.

Personally, I thought Jaworski's argument was weak. Moss's rep has been that he doesn't go all out on plays not designed to go his way. Three of the plays Jaworski showed were passes that went to Moss. Even if those plays weren't designed to go to Moss (the touchdown pass almost certainly was), Moss has been around long enough and has probably seen and heard enough before he joined New England to know that any receiver can get the ball on any play.

It seems unlikely that Moss slacked off on those plays, and the video didn't really seem to support it. On two of them, he was bumped -- more than once -- at the line of scrimmage. On the other (the touchdown) he was double covered, and it looked like Tom Brady threw the ball away. Really, there's no there there.

I think Jaworski is looking for a story, something controversial, especially since it just so coincidentally happens that Moss and the Patriots are playing on Monday Night Football this week -- oh, and, hey: Jaworski is one of the "personalities" on Monday Night Football.

There no doubt that if any of the Patriots players or coaches thought Moss was slacking, it's been brought up in the locker and meeting rooms. No doubt all 53 Patriot players realize what's on the line in the next five to eight games. No doubt Moss will show Monday whether he's really one of those 53.

Ravens vs. Patriots: Matchups to watch

Wes Welker, Patriots WR vs. Corey Ivy, Ravens CB

It's remarkable how Welker and quarterback Tom Brady have clicked in their first season together. Welker has great hands, acceleration and speed. Working out of the slot, he is a mismatch for most No. 3 cornerbacks or safeties. He has become a top weapon, especially when opponents double-team receiver Randy Moss on the outside. Ivy has had problems at cornerback, and it won't get any easier for him against Welker. Ivy is tough, but he's slow in recognition. If starting cornerback Chris McAlister doesn't play, then Derrick Martin will draw Welker out of the slot. That's not good for the Ravens, either. EDGE: WELKER

Jarret Johnson, Ravens LB vs. Nick Kaczur, Patriots OT

If you want to slow the Patriots, you have to bring pressure off the edge, and Kaczur has been the Patriots' weak link. Kaczur seems to lose focus at times and has trouble with speed guys. The spin move works well against him. Johnson isn't known for his speed, but he is a high-motor guy. He is solid as a pass rusher and could put some pressure on Brady. The Ravens also might move over to challenge Kaczur, and it wouldn't be surprising if Scott rushed more off the edge than usual. EDGE: JOHNSON

Pass-happy New England Patriots face run-stuffing Baltimore Ravens

With Tom Brady's throwing skills, running the ball can seem like an afterthought for the Patriots.

It appeared they forgot all about it last Sunday night for much of their 11th win in an unbeaten season.

So even though Baltimore has the third stingiest run defence in the NFL, New England is bound to rely on the ground game Monday night more than it did in its 31-28 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Patriots called just one running play in the first half and finished with 16 runs and 54 passes.

"We had the ball three times in the first half," coach Bill Belichick said. "We took it down the field and scored three touchdowns every time. One of them got called back. We were in a proactive mode, we were moving the ball, (so we) stayed with it."

The first run was a 12-yard gain by Brady, who dropped back to pass but had to scramble up the middle.

The Patriots finally called a running play on first-and-goal at the one-yard line with 1:38 left in the first quarter. Heath Evans powered across for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

It may have been the first time Evans was on a team that ran 28 of 29 plays in the first half out of a shotgun formation.

"Being a running back, I would never want to be on one," he said, "but now that I'm here, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Laurence Maroney, the Patriots' leading rusher, didn't play at all in the first half. He finally ran with the ball nearly four minutes into the third quarter - and lost a yard.

He said he didn't know why he waited so long to play.

"I'd like to do a lot of things more," Maroney said, "but they don't need it from me right now. Like I say all the time, my time is coming."

As a rookie first-round draft choice out of Minnesota, Maroney shared time with Corey Dillon and rushed 175 times for 745 yards last season. Dillon led the team with 199 carries and 812 yards.

This season, Maroney and Sammy Morris shared the job until Morris sustained a season-ending chest injury in the sixth game. Kevin Faulk, who has played a lot in a receiving role, wasn't on the injury report Friday after missing practice the previous two days with a thigh problem.

The 16 runs against the Eagles were the Patriots' fewest in 23 games, including last season's playoffs. And those plays gained just 48 yards.

But they still have the eighth most running plays in the league this year since they've been able to run the ball more in nine blowout victories.

The Patriots have rushed for more than 100 yards eight times this season, but the Ravens have allowed an average of 77.9 on the ground.

"I think they have the ability to be as balanced as they want to be. They're going in and doing whatever they think they have to do to move the ball," Baltimore coach Brian Billick said. "They're capable, if that fit the game plan, to come out and run the ball 50 times, too."

The Patriots know that their best chance of picking up yards is by Brady throwing to Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte' Stallworth and other receivers.

The Ravens (4-7) have lost their last five games and allowed at least 32 points in three of them. But it can be tough to move the ball against safety Ed Reed, linebacker Ray Lewis and other defenders.

"They challenge you in a lot of ways," Brady said. "They have very athletic pass-rushers. They have a bunch of different packages that they run with different types of (defensive) lineman that have different abilities. Some rush the passer. Some play the run really well."

The Patriots do what they think works best, even if it violates the traditional belief that a successful offence is a balanced one.

This season, they've thrown 400 passes and run 332 times. That discrepancy is greater than they had in their entire regular season last year - 527 passes and 499 yards.

Would Belichick like to see more balance?

"Would I like to see us score touchdowns when we have the ball?" he answered. "Yeah. That's what I'd like to see. That's what the offence is out there for, is to score touchdowns."