Thursday, November 22, 2007

NFL Week 11 - the Velvet Bear

The USA celebrates Thanksgiving this week. On Thursday, the entire nation will take the day off to thank their own personal god for making them American. More quietly, the rest of the world will be thanking him for NOT making them American. What this does mean, though, is that there will be three NFL games played that day, rather than on Sunday. Which in turn means that you get a double dose of me this week.

Traditionally, Thanksgiving week is the week that the NFL turns serious, as teams start either looking towards the playoffs, or begin rebuilding for next season.

The playoffs are, broadly speaking, similar to those which determine promotion at the end of the football season here. The first objective of any team at the start of the season is to make the playoffs, which are in effect a knockout competition which ends with the Superbowl.

Being American, the NFL does make things a little complicated. In case you hadn't sussed it already, there are 32 teams in the NFL. These are split into two Conferences, the National Football Conference and the American Football Conference. Each Conference is then divided into four divisions, split geographically into north, south, east and west. To make the playoffs, a team has to either win their division, or be one of the best two other teams in the Conference. This means it is actually possible for one division to provide three of the six teams each Conference sends into the playoffs.

The reason why Thanksgiving week is important is that it is the twelfth week of the season. All teams have now had a week when they didn't play, so have played 10 games. With 16 games a season, it seems that the eleventh game is significant in telling who will and will not make the playoffs. On average, a side needs 9 wins to get there, so this week particularly marks the time when teams begin to give up and look at some of the fringe players. Oakland, for example, are clearly not expecting to get a win from their visit to the Chiefs this weekend. A defeat will leave them 2-9 and, although teams have reached the playoffs with a 7-9 record, they still have to play the Packers and the Colts, which means that 5-11 is probably the best they can aim for. With this in mind, they have already said that rookie quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the number one pick in this season's draft, will start for the first time in their twelfth game.

Statistically speaking, no team has yet reached the playoffs. It doesn't take a genius to work out that the unbeaten Patriots will be there, though. So will the Packers and the Cowboys, who are both 9-1. The reigning Superbowl champions, the Colts, spluttered back from two straight losses to beat the Chiefs on Sunday and are now 8-2 and should make it, too. After that, it is anyone's guess. The NFC looks particularly wide open, whilst in the AFC West no team has won more than 5 games anyway.

In fact, it is easier to say who won't be going to the playoffs. The Raiders have obviously given up. The 49ers are, frankly, rubbish and lost to the only team in their division, the St Louis Rams, on Sunday. All three sides are 2-8. Joining them in an underemployed new year will be the Falcons and, surprisingly, the Bengals, both of whom are 3-7. The Falcons' troubles we all know about, but the Bengals have one of the best quarterbacks around in Carson Palmer and two of the best receivers around in Chad Johnson and TJ Houshmanzadeh, yet have struggled in every game.

Also not going to the playoffs will be the New York Jets. They are also 2-8 and yet, despite being poor all season, are not bottom of their division, because that contains the Dolphins, who are still winless after somehow blowing a 7-0 lead to lose 7-17 to the Eagles at the weekend.

Theoretically, it is possible for any of the teams with just four wins – Ravens, Chiefs, Bears, Vikings, Panthers and Saints – to get through, but it would be a travesty if they did, as none of these sides is any good.

You might ask, incidentally, what the incentive is to keep playing your strongest side if you make the playoffs so early in the season. The answer is that the two teams with the best records in each Conference get a bye into the second week of the playoffs. The next two teams get to play at home against the 5th and 6th best teams. And the 5th and 6th places are usually up for grabs right up until the last week of the season. Exciting, eh?

This week's news:
- The Patriots score on each of their first seven possessions as they thrash the Bills 56-0. The eighth touchdown comes from an interception and Tom Brady and Randy Moss don't even play the last 11 minutes of the match.

- Tony Romo of the Cowboys throws four touchdowns to Terrell Owens as the Cowboys beat the Redskins 28-23.

- A Mike Nugent field goal in overtime gives the Jets a rare win as they beat the in-form Steelers 19-16.

- It's the battle of the zimmer frames in Wisconsin, as Brett Favre's Packers beat Vinny Testaverde's Panthers 31-17. Testaverde doesn't last the game and the Panthers use three different quarterbacks during it.

- Adam Viniateri atones for last week's miss by kicking the winning field goal with just four seconds left, as the Colts fumble and blunder their way past the Chiefs 13-10.

- An Adrian Peterson-less Vikings beat the Raiders 29-22, thanks in no small part to Chester Taylor, who stands in for Peterson and runs in three touchdowns.

- The Lions lost their unbeaten home record and somehow failed to beat the Giants, despite having two chances to win the game in the last two minutes. On both occasions Jeff Kitna threw an interception instead of a game-winning pass to Shaun McDonald. And for those of you who think that American footballers are soft, the Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka broke his leg on the second play of the game and still walked off the field.

- Absolute chaos at the end of the game in Baltimore. The Ravens thought they had stolen the match when the Browns' Phil Dawson hit the posts with a 51 yard field goal attempt from the last kick of the game. They were walking off the pitch when the referee overruled the call and said that the ball had hit the stanchion at the back of the posts, therefore the kick was good – television replays confirmed this. The players came back out again, the match went into overtime and Dawson kicked another goal to give the Browns a 33-30 win.

- Michael Vick finally went to jail this week, turning himself in three weeks early. Guess he couldn't find anyone to share Thanksgiving with. Possibly joining him will be Cato June of the Buccaneers, who was caught drink driving this week.

- Also this week, a horse collar cost Adrian Wilson of the Cardinals $10,000 – a 'horse collar' being the name for a tackle around the neck of a player.

- Finally, some nice news, seeing as it is Thanksgiving. Kevin Everett came out of medical rehab this week. He is still in a wheelchair, but slowly building up strength and still hopes to walk again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Joy and despair are closer than you think - Byebyebadman

I imagine few people in England would remember the midfielder Ryszard Tarasiewicz. He played most of his career with Slasc Wroclaw in his native Poland before leaving a nation finding its way back to democracy in 1989 and playing out his career in Switzerland and France. He is the joint twenty-fourth most capped player in Polish history, with one solitary World Cup appearance for his depleted national team in Mexico in 1986, where Poland were hammered four-nil by the Brazil of Socrates, Junior and Careca.

And yet rather than be a mere footnote in international football history the name Tarasiewicz could have haunted English football as much as Maradona, Van Basten, Ronaldinho or his fellow countryman Jan Tomaszewski. In Katowice in October 1989, as England and Poland entered the dying seconds of a tense and goalless final World Cup qualifier, Tarasiewicz struck a shot at goal from thirty yards out that had a flailing Peter Shilton utterly beaten. The ball swung in the air, thumped the England crossbar and bounced down and back into play for defenders to scramble it clear. Seconds later the final whistle sounded and England had qualified for the World Cup.

Had the ball gone in then Poland would have taken England’s place at Italia 90, a tournament in which England’s dramatic run to the brink of the Final is credited as being at least partly responsible for the great changes in English football and its subsequent boom in popularity. How different might English football have been? And all for the sake of an inch, a couple of centimetres. As Juan Sasturain remarked when describing the same fractions that denied Rob Rensenbrink and the Dutch the World Cup against Argentina in 1978: “The distance between heaven and hell.”

England will shortly play Croatia in the final qualifier for next year's European Championships, and it does amuse me that large sections of England’s support are perplexed as to why we are in a position where we require a win or a draw to advance to the Finals. We are England I’m afraid, and this is what we do. Only once in my lifetime have England ever qualified for a tournament without requiring a result in the final game, and all too often it has been in jeopardy in the final seconds. Christian Vieri missed a free header in injury time that put England through to the 1998 World Cup, and famously a very late David Beckham free-kick saved England against Greece to qualify for the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. At least on those occasions existed the safety net of the play-offs, but no such get-out clause is in place to save England on Wednesday if they lose and Russia, as expected, beat Andorra. Croatia of course have nothing really to play for - but then neither did Greece.

So don’t be surprised if England enter injury time against Croatia with everything - qualification, McClaren’s job, several England careers, the FA’s finances - still in the balance. And should a Croatian let fly in the manner of Ryszard Tarasiewicz and hit the frame of our goal time will stand still as we wait to see where the ball will land, and joy and despair, two emotions that power football, will never have been in closer proximity.

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