Super Bowl Game-Changer/ Big Four of the Big East/ Kobe Deflates the Knicks

February 3rd, 2009 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro football No Comments »

Can it be that a game which ended on a balletic touchdown grab with 35 seconds to go preceded by two fourth quarter drives by the opposition to take the lead was really decided by a play which happened two hours earlier? No matter how stirring the performances of Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes in the waning moments, the outcome of this game was written by the remarkable interception and runback of James Harrison for a touchdown at the end of the first half.

Trailing 10-7 with about 20 seconds left in the half, the Cardinals had first and goal at the Steeler one yard line when they called their last time out. Had they spiked it to stop the clock and retained the time out, they would have preserved the pass-run option on the next play. But without a timeout, the Cards had to pass. Harrison fooled Warner by faking blitz and then dropping back, and the 6”0, 262 lb linebacker snatched the errant toss, which was thrown right at him, and began running hard the other way.

He had a slight head of steam and there were blockers in front of him; but when Harrison took off, it didn’t occur that he would take it to the house. First, this wasn’t Ed Reed, with sprinter speed, catching one in the flat with a running start. Harrison is short and squat for a linebacker and is more reknowned for his sack capability than for his speed.

There were no Cardinals in the picture as Harrison tore up the sidelines, where the only early resistance came from Warner, who was bowled over in his earnest attempt to make the tackle. Still protected by his convoy, Harrison lumbered his way along the sideline, at one point doing a dance to stay in-bounds. When the Cardinal cavalry finally did come to the rescue, in the person of wide receivers Fitzgerald and Breaston, Harrison had staggered across the goal line, as time ran out in the half. Following his momentous effort, Harrison remained flat on his back for two minutes to gather his breath.

Why were the Cardinals unable to tackle Harrison during his 18-second sojourn up the field? A careful analysis of the films would probably reveal a lazy effort by the Cardinal speed players who should have been able to stop Harrison had they reacted more quickly. Breaston appeared to get a late break on the play, Bouldin, the intended receiver, did not pursue Harrison. Fitzgerald chased the play from behind where his path was obstructed.

Though the Cardinals came back to lead briefly, they were ultimately undone by this game-changing play, which resulted in a 14-point swing of fortune. Against the Steelers, in the Super Bowl, this was too much to overcome.

If the Cardinals were reaching for another reason for the defeat, they didn’t need to look beyond Roethlisberger, who was magnificent. If John Wayne were a quarterback, he’d be Roethlisberger. More times than the Cardinals would like to remember, Big Ben stood tall in the pocket (saddle), looked one way, then the other, pump-faked, warded off a tackler or two, and then dealt a laser to the hands of his waiting receiver. On the crucial toss, he threaded a needle through three Cardinal defenders to the arm-stretched, tip-toeing Holmes.

Like Big John, Big Ben always gets his man.

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Halfway through the Big East conference season, the Big Four of the Big East have asserted themselves to be the cream of the crop. During the first month of conference play, Pitt, UConn, Louisville, and Marquette have combined to drum Notre Dame, Georgetown, Syracuse ,Villanova and West Virginia out of the conference title picture and may have jeopardized these very worthy teams’ post-season aspirations.

Notre Dame suffered five consecutive losses at the hands of five top 25 Big East opponents. Georgetown also is in the middle of a five-game losing streak. Syracuse and West Virginia are 5-4 and 4-4. respectively, in-conference. En route to a combined conference record of 33-3, the Big Four fattened up on everyone but each other. Prior to last night, Pitt at Louisville January 17 was the only game this season involving Big Four opponents.

Louisville and Marquette have been the primary beneficiaries of the league’s uneven schedule. The Cardinals have Pitt, UConn, and Marquette at home. Marquette will not play a Big 4 opponent until February 25, by which time they may be 13-0 in conference. Three of their last four games are against UConn, Louisville and Pitt. UConn and Pitt are the only Big Four teams to play each other twice, on 2/16 and 3/07.

The second Big Four match up came yesterday with UConn at Louisville, but The Cardinals did not exploit their home court advantage. They were overwhelmed by UConn’s devastating array of slashing guards and dominating big men. Price, Dyson, and newcomer Walker, are perpetual penetrators, and Jeff Adrian and Hakeem Thabeet eat up the middle and block shots. Louisville could do nothing inside. The Huskies’ only weakness is their 3-point shooting, which stands at 36%; but if last night is an indication, they may not need it. They beat Louisville handily without making one long-ranger.

The common denominator of the four squads has been their veteran leadership, with most of the production coming from players in their third of fourth year of regular playing time. But the best player in the conference may be sophomore DuJuan Blair of Pittsburgh, who, at 6’7”, is threatening to become the dominant big man in the country. The highlight of this Big East season will undoubtedly be Blair’s match-ups with Thabeet. The Panthers will need Blair at his best, undaunted by foul trouble, to stay with Connecticut.

To Georgetown, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia and yes, even Providence, we know how good you are. Though your resume, and your seeding, may suffer from the bruises you have received from your Big Four brethren and from each other, it will come as no surprise to this writer if all of your names are called on selection Sunday.

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Just when the New York Knicks were threatening to revive interest in them, Kobe Bryant came along and riveted the attention of sold-out Madison Square Garden on him.

The MSG advertisements labelled this as “Dream Week,” with the suddenly resurgent Knicks scheduled to play the Lakers, Cavs, and Celtics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But within moments of the start of Monday’s game, Bryant made clear that everything that followed him would be a second act. He was brilliant from the get-go, scoring with every type of shot from every distance -34 points in the first half, and 61 for the game, a Madison Square Garden record.

When the Garden crowd runs into a performance like this against the Knicks, as it did in 1995, when Michael Jordan dropped his famous double-nickle (55) in one of his first games back from retirement, it doesn’t cheer the opponent’s baskets, it “whooshes” at them. It’s like a collective sigh, or a stadium size shimmer, but the sound which emerges is closer to a moan than a cheer.

Asked to evaluate Bryant’s performance after the game, Lamar Odom said, “He takes your breath away.” At his press conference afterwards, Bryant was the model of decorum and modesty. He thanked the fans for the standing ovation he received, and expressed his thrill at performing well in the Garden.

Despite the Knicks’ loss, and despite the shifting of attention from the Knicks to Bryant, there was noone in the sell-out crowd who would not have agreed that the feelings were reciprocated.

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Eli Scrambles Giants Fans’ Emotions

February 5th, 2008 sendarama Posted in pro football No Comments »

On the road to immortality, the Patriots hit a speed bump. On the way to becoming just another statistic in New England’s inexorable march to perfection, the Giants made a u-turn. The improbable outcome to Super Bowl XLII left the Pats faithful stunned and embittered and rendered many a Giant fan speechless.

By virtue of one memorable 83-yard drive down four with just over two minutes left, the Giants didn’t just re-write NFL history. They prevented it from being written. What had been a season dominated by the Pats’ pursuit of nineteen straight became, in the flash of a 13-yard fade pattern to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining, a flashpoint for Patriot frustration. Their season of accomplishment morphed in seconds into the Giants’ greatest moment. Giants co-owner John Mara said so himself.

The teams took widely divergent paths to this grand finale. The Pats crushed everyone early with a dazzling offensive scheme with five featured performers: quarterback Tom Brady, rb Maroney and receivers Moss, Welker, and Faulk. They were unstoppable. The Giants hacked and wheezed their way through the regular season, losing five of eight home games, including a late-season blowout loss to Minnesota, in which Eli Manning threw four interceptions, three returned for touchdowns.

The Pats pulled rabbits out of a hat to overcome Philadelphia and Baltimore in December. Then, the Giants gave them a scare in the season-ender in New York December 29th. But when New England engineered convincing playoff victories over Jacksonville and San Diego, few thought the Giants could win. The 12.5 point spread, the third largest in Super Bowl history, reflected the one-sidedness of the affair.

The Giants were energized by a 10-minute drive to start the game which culminated in a Lawrence Tynes field goal. But if anything was clear from the San Diego game, it was that field goals would not do it against the Patriots. As if to emphasize the point, the Pats struck quickly for the go-ahead touchdown, and it remained 7-3 until the fourth quarter.

In the course of getting better, the Giants had changed their look offensively, adding new weapons in rb Ahmad Bradshaw andreceiver Steve Smith. Then, with twelve minutes remaining in the game, David Tyree added his name to the list. Tyree is a special teams player who caught four balls this year, none for a touchdown. The Patriots must have been surprised when he snared a Manning bullet over the middle for a 5-yard TD to regain the lead for the Giants, 10-7.

The Giants had been in Brady’s face all day. But despite enduring five sacks and nineteen knockdowns over the first 55 minutes, the maestro mixed play-action, pump fakes, and pinpoint accuracy for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:42 left. At this point, it appeared that the Giants’ yeoman effort would fall short.

After the kick-off, The Giants took over at their own 17 with a little over two minutes left in the game. A few plays later, they faced a third and five on their own 35 with 1:15 remaining. Manning has never been known for his “escapability,” a term coined by old coach Hank Stram to denote a quarterback’s ability to elude the rush. One of the big raps against him has been his inability to avoid the back side pursuer. But at this moment, Eli orchestrated a facelift to his image.

Running out of the shotgun and looking to go deep, Manning found himself under severe pressure. A sack would create a virtually hopeless 4th and 15 situation. He spun from the grasp of at least three tacklers, one of them clinging longingly to his jersey, and managed to shake loose and square up. He uncorked a 32 yard strike to Tyree, who leaped high between two defenders. Incredibly, Tyree held on, wedging the ball safely with one hand against his helmet before coming to rest at the New England 23.

Eli later called Tyree’s catch ” one of the great plays in NFL history,” but there remained the small matter of getting the ball into the end zone. The Giants were out of time-outs. After a 10-yard pass to Smith, they were set up at the 13 with a full set of downs. In the locker room later, Eli discussed the next move with his brother Peyton. “They finally blitzed,” said Eli, and “when I saw that , there was no doubt that I was going to Plax. And it brought seven.”

Like the Mannings, Giant fans are not unaccustomed to success. After all, the franchise has made 27 playoff appearances, participated in four Super Bowls, and won seven National Football League titles. They just weren’t expecting success now, not with this team against the Patriots, who rarely released a late-game stranglehold. But having witnessed Eli’s mad scramble, Tyree’s circus catch, Plaxico’s touchdown, and the almost unprecedented sight of Brady walking off the field with his head down, Giant fans had no choice but to believe, and to say thanks for the miracle.

In celebration, a show of bravado would not be befitting. More appropriately, one longtime Jints supporter was observed sitting back in his chair, scratching his head in amazement. “Oh my,” he shouted to no one in particular…..”Oh my!”

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For Big Blue, It’s About Tynes

January 22nd, 2008 sendarama Posted in pro football No Comments »

Plaxico Burress caught 11 passes for 154 yards; Eli Manning solidified his seat at the Manning dinner table with a performance worthy of his brother; 33-year old Amani Toomer made a diving, toe-scraping grab along the left sideline which sustained the critical 4th quarter rally; and the defense was a fortress. There was no shortage of heroes Sunday at frigid Lambeau field, but the Giants’ supremacy was not reflected in the scoreboard. 20-20 it was, in overtime.

The New Yorkers’ passion bucket was filled with stirring performances by big-time players; but in an NFC conference title match with more back and forth bounces than a game of pong, it fell to the most unlikely hero of all to propel them to the Super Bowl

His name sounds like the third lead in a ‘40′s film noir. He looks like the eager beaver nerd sitting in the front row. When he bounded onto the field to make the decisive kick from 47 yards after missing earlier from 43 and 36, I was yelling no, no, no! I preferred a 4th and five attempt to the prospect of Lawrence Tynes hooking another lame duck offering in the general direction of the end zone. But then, magically, to the surprise of every Giant fan, and most of the other 70,000 plus in attendance, Tynes booted a soaring right to left missile which could not have more precisely bisected the goal posts so far away.

Who and what is Lawrence Tynes, and where did he come from? First, he was born in Scotland and played there for the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe for two years before being signed by the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was the regular kicker from 2004 – 2006. He’s the parent of 6-week old twins. His nickname, much to the chagrin of long-time Giant followers, is LT.

Early this season he almost lost his job amid a flurry of missed field goals and extra points. He ranked 24th among the league’s 29 regular kickers; and prior to Sunday, he had not been called upon once this season to win a game in the fourth quarter. After Tynes’ two fourth-quarter shanks, who in his right mind would have called upon this errant Scotsman to save the day? If you listen to Tom Coughlin, he didn’t do it, either. At the deciding moment, Coughlin said that he looked for Tynes to read his body language and couldn’t find him. Reason? Tynes was already on the field lining up for the kick.

The Giants’ season was rekindled when they lost a tight game to the Pats, 38-35, in the season finale at Giants Stadium December 29th. In that game, as in others, the Pats’ killer instinct decided the game in the fourth quarter. If the stout Giant defense can interrupt New England’s ability to make the big play, then it says here the Giants can keep it close, and even win.

Other teams have parlayed a late season resurgence into a Super Bowl title. The 2000 Ravens, after enduring a spell of no touchdowns in five games, steamrollered their last several opponents. The 2001 Patriots were late bloomers. The 2005 Steelers were 7-5 after twelve games. It took fifteen games for the Giants to achieve the proper balance of pass and run; and it has taken Eli Manning that long to acquire the patience and discipline to avoid turnovers. In the last four games, Manning has thrown eight touchdowns and only one interception. Prior, he threw nineteen of each and had a bunch of fumbles. On December 23rd alone, against Buffalo, he fumbled five times.

Now, Manning sports the confidence and easy demeanor of his more accomplished brother, Peyton. Following a spate of midseason injuries to running backs Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward, the backfield has regrouped with a healthy Jacobs and shifty rookie Ahmad Bradshaw. Battering ram Jacobs and Bradshaw offer a one-two punch that keeps defenders off-balance. The Jints are among the leaders in the run and in stopping the run, which historically is a barometer of success. They are familiar with the Patriots from their encounter a few weeks ago.

Maybe it’s fools gold to believe the Giants can upset the mighty Patriots. After all, this is a team on the brink of perfection. But the pursuit of perfection exacts a heavy toll. Momentum lies with the Giants. And so does Lawrence Tynes.

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