Saturday, January 12, 2008

Festive fatigue - Premcorrespondent

It seems fashionable nowadays for England's foreign imports to complain about the amount of football played in our sceptred isle over the Christmas period.

They come here - tempted by riches beyond the dreams of avarice - and then say they are cruelly parted from their families and made to play football.

Well, they should count themselves lucky. In the 11 days between December 22nd and January 2nd no Premier League player played more than four times - that's six hours or 360 minutes. In contrast, I have been forced to spend ten days, 240 hours or 14,400 minutes with the in-laws.

Cliff walks, dinners, breakfasts, lunches, coffees all accompanied by endless present exchanges with second cousin Ennis from Slapton, ex-sister-in-law Enid from Cullopmton, or Uncle Ned from Topsham and their broods - each infant thrusting out its grubby palm out in the expectation of "pwessies".

But there was - as ever - a bright side. Football, lovely, lovely football. 40 games. 122 goals.

Rather than take you thought the whole bally lot (and let's face it, sorting through cousin Ennis' sock draw for receipts to return his own interpretation of what a present should be is more appealing at the moment), I shall provide a team-by-team breakdown for the festive season.

Arsenal: points 10
A good Christmas for the Gunners. Two London derbies dispatched as if they were Derby, Everton swept aside, and the only points dropped against Pompey (the fourth draw in the last five games at Fratton Park for the Mr Wenger - and another joyous trip to the bookies resulting for your faithful correspondent).

But eight goals scored and only two conceded does not tell the full story. Against Everton, Spurs and Pompey the results could easily have gone the other way, and only once did Arsenal score in the first half (in their only comfortable win - against the Hammers).

Worryingly for the rest of the league, Eduardo and Adebayor have found form (with Bendtner chipping in) and a team that can successfully change things around while playing badly is the sort that wins things (see Chelsea in 04 and 05).

Arsenal come out of Christmas top, two points clear. They're going to win it aren't they...

Aston Villa: points 8
When Martin "I resemble a serial killer" O'Neil took over at Aston Villa I thought something might happen. A European Cup winner with Old Big Head as his manager. Making Leicester not only a Premier League fixture, but cup winners and then taking Celtic to multiple titles cups and a European final.

Finally it seemed the country's least ambitious "big" club had found the man to take them to success. And now things are happening in Brum.

Wins against Wigan and Spurs, and creditable draws away to Chelsea (well, 4-4 is more comedy than creditable) and top-4 club Man City, show real potential. Much like many of the young Englishmen in their side.

They're screwed aren't they? (7th in the table).

Birmingham: points 4
Mixed bag covers Birmingham's festive results about as well as a micro-skirt covers a hotel heiress getting out of a limo.

It all began very badly for those on the blue side of Brum, a 3-0 drubbing by fellow relegation candidates Bolton. Things then went from bad to almost exactly as good with a 3-0 drubbing of fellow relegation candidates Middlesbrough.

Having gone 1-0 down to fellow relegation candidates Fulham, they relaxed. In one of the most oft-quoted statistics of the year, Fulham have thrown away more leads than an incompetent dog-walker. At one point they were top of the table if the game lasted 45 mins and in the relegation zone at the end of 90. Needless to say Birmingham recovered from 0-1 down to draw 1-1.

Birmingham - having lost one, won one and drawn one without anyone noticing much - then proceeded to create the talking point of the festive season.

Losing 1-0 to Man U on New Year's Day was unremarkable, but Alex Ferguson getting annoyed about crowd noise in a routine victory has provoked comments every day since. Incidentally, St Andrew's - average decibels 122.7. Old Trafford, average decibels 117.5. Fergie should be quiet; the lack of atmosphere is more likely to unsettle opponents unused to it than his own players.

Birmingham finish two points and two places above the drop zone.

Blackburn: points 7
A good holiday period for a side looking like they are on the up (i.e. soon to hit the glass ceiling). And the way you make it to the top? Firepower. Santa Cruz and McCarthy are good at this and Bentley seems happy to supply ammunition.

A 1-0 win over Sunderland (McCarthy) a 2-1 over Derby (Santa Cruz and Bentley) might not have been too impressive - but were wins. By contrast the 2-2 away to the loud half of Manchester and a slender 0-1 defeat away to Chelsea were impressive performances - but yielded only one point.

Blackburn may be in 9th - but they are just three points of 6th and five behind Liverpool.

Bolton: points 6
Bolton's footballers, like Manchester's boxers, don't travel well.

Two good wins at home against Derby and Birmingham (any win is a good one when you have fewer points than fixtures played) were complimented by losses to Sunderland (plain embarrassing) and Everton (understandable).

Somehow - despite garnering just 20 points from 21 fixtures - Bolton are 14th in the table, three points from relegation, and have just lost their best player.

Chelsea: points 10.
Just when it seems to be a two horse race, Chelsea sneak a win here and a win there and, like Arnie in the Terminator, keep going forward. Despite crazy results like Boxing Day's game against Aston Villa (4-4 goals, 2-1 red cards), the team and its manager still possess all the charisma of a Terminator, which makes them easy to hate with your head (where the money comes from, how it's been spent, the impact on transfer fees etc) but hard to hate with your heart, as there just isn't enough there to get worked up about. I miss Jose.

The three wins came away at Blackburn and Fulham and at home to Newcastle, all by the single goal - Yawn. But in a turbulent season, they are just four points off Manchester United and six off Arsenal.

It's telling too that they have more points away from home than the other three of the Big Four, which shows that they have the stomach for the fight. Expect them to be closer to the top after 38 games than after 21, especially with Anelka filling an African Cup Of Nations shaped hole up front.

Derby: points 1.
Gone, Gone, Gone. But Paul Jewell is already making an impact, securing a point against a jammy Newcastle and succumbing to very late goals at home to Liverpool and away at Bolton.

Jewell's other match saw defeat by the odd goal at home to Blackburn (whose goals were scored by the Premier League's two form players over Christmas, Roque Santa Cruz and David Bentley). Jewell is already planning for the Championship 2009 and I expect him to do very well indeed in the second tier.

Cruel I know, and I wouldn't lose the Boxing Day match for the world, but with players visibly tired after so compressed a fixture list, would the Premier League be diminished by the absence of Derby (and, say, Fulham)? If that's the price for an 18 club League and 4 fewer fixtures with all that implies for the national team coach, the case is beginning to build

Everton: points 6.
Christmas revealed exactly where Everton stand: in the foyer, safe from the cold blast (and chip shop fires) outside, but not yet smartly turned out enough to be offered a seat in the Michelin starred restaurant.

At either end of the Christmas fixtures, Bolton and Middlesborough were despatched by two goals to nil with all the efficiency of an Audi cruising the empty motorways on Christmas Day. In between times, the Blues were more like Virgin Trains: things seemed to be going well vs Big Boys Manchester United and Arsenal, but all of a sudden the Pendolino Express had turned into a relief coach service and you were stuck behind an HGV somewhere near Spaghetti Junction, as United won 2-1 and the new Brazil won 1-4.

For that thank defensive errors by Pienaar vs Manchester United and Jagielka vs Arsenal, but, if truth be told, those clubs have better players and both will beat Everton 8 times out of 10. Everton are sixth which is about right.

Fulham: points 2.
For a man to look sound like Porky Pig may be regarded as a misfortune; to compound it by looking like Porky Pig appears careless. But Roy Hodgson has more than that on his mind as Fulham slip to 19th after a Christmas programme which brought just two points from draws at home to Wigan and away at Birmingham (those match-ups against fellow strugglers "count double" if you win them). Fellow Londoners, Chelsea and Tottenham, made it a miserable Christmas with a 5-1 walloping and a fortunate 1-2 victory, secured by the charming Michael Ballack's penalty after he went down "a little easily".

With two red cards (scary looking Haimar Bouazza and all-round nice guy Moritz Volz) further pressuring his thin squad, Porky has a lot of work to do if Fulham aren't to join Derby in getting detached in the basement.

Liverpool: points 8.
Read the Press recently? Hands up who thought Liverpool had a Ceausescuesque 1989 Christmas? Premcorr did, but there they are 8 points from 4 games and undefeated. But with the dream of a title fading for another season (how hollow are those t-shirts sported by Reds in 1991 with Terry Waite getting off a plane after his release from confinement saying, "What? The Mancs still haven't won the League.") Disquiet grows at Anfield.

The Christmas matches showed exactly why Liverpool are good enough to secure another CL qualifying place, but not good enough for the title, with an easy 4-1 seeing off of top half Pompey, a late goal to secure all three points against doomed Derby and draws against Sven's City and Wigan Athletic FFS. Again goals were a problem, with only Gerrard and Benayoun chipping in to support Torres.

Liverpool finish the period in fifth with a game in hand on fourth place Manchester City. Rafa is a medium term Torres injury away from Liverpool's worst season since the 7th place finish in 1999.

Manchester City: points 6
I always said seedy Sven was a genius - I remember it distinctly. Just like I've been banging on about the genius of Elano for years and saying how underrated he is and that he should be at a top-four side. Just like the rest of the footballing intelligencia.

City come through Christmas undefeated, despite games against three top sides and Newcastle. Draws with Liverpool, Blackburm and Villa were creditable, and showed a reliance that will stand them in good stead later on.

But that also explains why he never cut it as an England manager. Let's face it, three draws out of four games whenever facing a half-decent side was one more than was needed to knock England out of three tournaments. Only Pompey, Liverpool and Fulham have drawn more, If we had penalty shoot outs in the league expect City to be 8th. As it stands they are 4th. Only West Ham and Blackburn have a worse goal difference in the top half.

Manchester United: points 9
Every single year people look at what happened last season and predict that the same thing will happen again. Unless a team is hit by injuries (under performs) or buys in star names (will perform better). So Man U will logically win the league - just like Chelsea did last season and Arsenal went undefeated in 2005.

The problem with predicting success for the successful is that you are right more often than you are wrong, so generally have no idea why you are right and don't understand what's going on when it goes wrong. And yes, I am looking at you Lawro.

9 points is a decent return for Man U - but they were unconvincing against Birmingham, sneaked past Everton, and lost to West Ham. At the same time last year they won the league as an injury-hit Chelsea underperformed. Chelsea and Arsenal out-scored them this year. They are second in the table, they won't finish higher than that.

Middlesbrough: points 3
It is entirely possible Middlesbrough only exist in the minds of other clubs, and this Christmas was not exception.

They were a mere adjunct to the results of others according to most pundits. Everton's 2-0 defeat of them helped the blues edge closer to Europe, Birmingham's 3-0 victory against them moved them out of the relegation zone. West Ham's Ashton and Parker helped state their England credentials while beating them 2-0. And Portsmouth collapsed to a rare home defeat, denting their chances of getting a Uefa spot against them.

I would tell you they finished the festive season 15th - but let's be honest here, no one's reading this, you all skipped ahead to Newcastle.

Newcastle: points 1.
A triple helping of Christmas defeat cost Big Sam his job. Wigan on Boxing Day, Man City on New Years Day, and Chelsea in between all feasted on the black and white carcass. Drawing with Derby didn't help much either.

Plenty of money, international stars on the pitch, a new owner, and nothing changes. So the pragmatic miracle worker at Bolton went the way of the England, Barca, and Ipswich Legend. The same way as the Liverpool and Blackburn legend. And the same way as all others who have taken the job.

So Santa, another new manager? Or how about we check that list and move them to naughty from nice?

Newcastle are in 11th.

Portsmouth: points 4
Soon to be managerless Pompey had a mid-table Christmas.

A win at Reading, a home draw against Arsenal and away defeat to Liverpool. A 1-0 home loss to Boro emphasised the fact that while they can be good on their day, they don't have the consistency to really challenge for much in the league.

8th is about right, but they could freefall with the wrong man in charge. That said, there is not a lot of evidence the man they have in charge is any more than good enough to keep most sides in the top half of the table.

Reading: points 4
Reading are busy playing neat tidy football, comfortably above the relegation zone and nowhere near the European places.

So really, their fans are paying to watch pointless football.

But then if that's the position you are going to find yourself in you want to have fun doing it. 6-4. That'll cover it. A win against Sunderland and a draw away to West Ham and a loss to Pompey were the other results. But let's be honest here, the only one anyone remotely noticed was SIX-FOUR at Spurs.

I sometimes with I was a Reading fan.

Sunderland: points 3
Roy Keane likes to kick things, if he can't get a shot at opponents' legs as a manager it's chairs. The problem is, no matter how afraid of him the player are, most are simply not quite good enough.

Sunderland lost to Blackburn narrowly, Reading narrowly, Man U heavily and beat Bolton comfortably.

Three points from four games is relegation form, and the team finds itself in 18th. But the Maccums may well be saved this season due to the poverty of skill in the bottom half of the table. Sunderland may be in 18th, but there are four teams three points or fewer ahead of them. In fact the whole bottom half of the table is within three games of being in the relegation zone.

Tottenham: points 6
While Ramos was in Spain pundits prized one bet above all else. His games involved more than four goals so often that the occasional loss to the bookie meant nothing.

This Christmas the gift that keeps on giving is at Spurs. Five-one against managerless Fulham was a post-Christmas warm up that helped dull the pain of Robbie Keane's messed penalty in a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal. But there could be no preparation for the big Reading shaped package with the gold ribbon on and a post mark from Bulgaria.

Four goals for both Reading and Berbatov, along with one each from Malbranque and Defoe gave everyone a delight that still had heads spinning when the Lilywhites lost 2-1 to Villa on New Year's Day. Six points from nine is better than the old sock Spurs fans normally get.

Spurs are 12th, one place behind Newcastle.

West Ham: points 7
The Hammers are doing quite nicely for themselves, which is odd, because their players are anything but.

A team with Bellamy, Bowyer and Dyer is not one to be easily loved. Throw in an underwear model (Ljungberg) a Ferdinand brother and an Australian earning £70,000 a week, a foreign millionaire owner funding all the largess and a fan base known for a certain streak of nastiness and it's hard to see why they aren't hated more.

But they're not, and despite a Christmas fixture list containing Arsenal and Man U, they come away with seven points. Well, let's face it, they always beat Man U so that was no surprise. Neither was loss in the Emirates or a win at Boro. The Draw with Reading was more of a surprise.

West Ham are 10th and they should finish in the top half.

Wigan: points 5
Wigan have had a good Christmas under their new manager. But they needed one.

Five points was the second best return in the bottom half of the table, and means they climber out of the relegation zone (albeit on goal difference).

A draw against Liverpool a win against Newcastle and a draw against Fulham are where the points came from. And a 2-1 loss to Villa is hardly a bad result.

It seems making Mario Melchiot captain and Emile Heskey and Kevin Kilbane joint vice captain is what you need to do. Oh, and Titus Bramble scoring against Villa and then again at Anfield helped.

Wigan are 17th on goal difference, on this form they could end up a lot higher.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

NFL Wildcards - the Velvet Bear

And then there were 8. This weekend's wildcard games went pretty much according to the form book, so Saturday will find the Seahawks in Green Bay and the Jaguars in New England, whilst Sunday sees the Giants go to Dallas and the Chargers to Indianapolis. All of which will feel pretty much like a trip to the headmaster's study, with sound thrashings all around being predicted.

The Seahawks ended the Redskins' fairytale ride into the playoffs without really breaking sweat. Washington didn't even get onto the scoreboard until the fourth quarter, when touchdowns from Antwan Randle El and Santana Moss took them briefly into the lead. Unfortunately, Todd Collins then spoilt an otherwise brilliant performance behind a badly beaten line by throwing two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. A 35-14 defeat showed that there is only so far you can ride on team spirit alone. At the start of this week, veteran coach Joe Gibbs resigned.

Over in Pittsburgh, the Steelers and Jaguars played out a classic. The home side, badly weakened by injuries even though star safety Troy Polamalu was fit again, trailed 28-10 going into the final quarter. Three touchdowns should have brought them at least parity, but twice they blew attempts at a two point conversion (where, instead of kicking the ball through the posts, a team tries to play the ball into the end zone again). Had they kicked the points, the game would've been in overtime. As it was, QB Ben Roethlisberger was left to attempt to make over 70 yards with 45 seconds on the clock. Jacksonville exploited the inexperienced Pittsburgh offensive line to force a fumble and kill the game stone dead.

Surprise result of the weekend, such as it was, was probably the Giants' win in Tampa. I say this not because I wanted to introduce some serial Eli-bashing into this piece - which wouldn't be hard to do - but because of the absence of center Sean O'Hara. It is hard to think of a relationship anywhere in professional sport that is as that between a center and a quarterback. The closest is probably in ice dance. Imagine one of a pair being injured a week before a competition and a replacement having to be brought in. They might know all of the moves, but they also would need to know how their partner is going to perform, what their little quirks are and so on. Going into a game that makes or breaks not only your season, but possibly your shaky reputation, with an entirely new center is something which we are all fortunately going to avoid.

From being 7-0 down at the end of the first quarter, the Giants were never headed as their defense took command. Michael Strahan finished with nine tackles and one sack as Jeff Garcia was given a miserable time even though he, David Diehl and Jay Alford all had to spend time on the sidelines recovering from knocks. Garcia's afternoon was completed when Giants cornerback RW McQuarters pulled off a stunning interception catch late in the final quarter. A 24-14 win sets up possibly the juciest tie of the next round.

Finally, the Chargers and the Titans produced a 17-6 borefest. The Titans came out looking as if they were going to make a spectacle of it. On the first play they shifted the offensive line 20 yards across the pitch, only for center Kevin Mawae to make a complete mess of the snap and Justin Gage to drop the final pass anyway. They strolled into a 6-0 lead as Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Van Den Bosch blew holes in the Chargers offensive line, whilst the defense had LJ Tomlinson in their pocket and the Steelers' other star offensive player, Antonio Gates, went off injured. Quite where it all went wrong is anyone's guess, but suddenly the Chargers were on top, Tomlinson and Vince Jackson had touchdowns and the Chargers were dead and gone. One thing is for sure, though - the Chargers will be outgunned by the Colts if they play like that again.

In other news:

- No sooner had I filed last week's piece than the Dolphins fired coach Cam Cameron. After a 1-15 season and the recruitment of Bill Parcells no-one was surprised at all. Word is that Cowboys assistant coach Tony Soprano - sorry, Sparano, is their favoured candidate for the role;

- The Cowboys' Roy Williams will take the place of the late Sean Taylor in the Pro Bowl;

- His almost-namesake, Roydell Williams of the Titans, is out for the rest of the season after breaking an ankle in a training accident;

- This season saw record attendances in the NFL, with the average crowd being 67,738. Eat that, Premiership football clubs;

- Warren Sapp of the Raiders, a legendary defensive player even during his own career, has announced his retirement. Expect him to be elected to the Hall of Fame in five years time, when he first becomes eligible;

- I made a slight mistake last week when I said that Adrian Peterson have been named as the top rookie. In fact, he was top OFFENSIVE rookie. The defensive award when to Patrick Willis of the 49ers. No-one in the league made more tackles this season, although you would argue that no-one but the 49ers defense was so rubbish that they had to;

- Bills QB JP Losman wants away, after losing his starting berth. Chicago may be interested, having announced this week that they were in the market for a new quarterback and running back. Which must make Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Kyle Orton and Cedric Benson feel really good;

- Saints tackle Jamaal Brown copped a $2,5000 fine for deliberately bumping into the referee in their last game of the season. Would that work on John Terry, I wonder? Vince Wilfork of the Patriots ended up $15,000 lighter after being caught poking a finger through the facemask of the Giants Brandon Jacobs;

- The Titans are seeking to have the claim brought against them by the victim of the Pacman Jones incident thrown out;

- Tom Brady was the almost unanimous choice for player of the year. Defensive player of the year was Bob Sanders of the Colts. Bill Belichick won coach of the year, despite his dodgy videos;

- A big hurrah for the Jags Fred Taylor, who has finally made it to the Pro Bowl after 11 years, replacing Willie Parker of the Steelers, who broke his leg in Week 16.

That's all for this week. Back next week, by which time we'll be down to four contenders for the Superbowl.

Monday, January 7, 2008

NFL Week 17 – the Velvet Bear

A few years ago – a few more than I care to remember, actually, as it was 1986 – there was a football match between Coventry City and Everton. It was the last game of the season and was, for some reason, being played so late in May that it was after the FA Cup final. Everton had nothing to play for. Coventry needed a win to avoid relegation. Everton turned up with pretty much a reserve side, Coventry won easily and there was, by genteel English standards, uproar.

In the world of the NFL, this sort of thing happens all the time. Which I forgot when making my predictions last week. The result of which was that the Colts only played some of their star players for half their game against the Titans, which was enough for Tennessee to win 16-10 and edge the Cleveland Browns out of the playoffs. Not a murmur of protest; that teams already in the playoffs will give their stars some down time in the last games of the regular season is almost taken as read.

Not that this made any difference to the Cowboys, who were simply dreadful against the Redskins, even with Tony Romo on the pitch and receiver Terry Glenn playing his first game back from injury. The Redskins ran out easy 27-6 winners, in doing so clinching a playoff spot ahead of the Vikings, who imploded against the Broncos and lost 22-19 in overtime.

Story of the week, though, was that the Patriots didn’t rest any of their stars against the Giants. Good job, too, as they only just won 38-35 – having at one point been 21-3 down. In doing so, they became the first team ever to win all 16 games of the regular season (the previous unbeaten team, the Dolphins in ’72, only played 14 games). Tom Brady beat Peyton Manning’s record of 49 touchdown passes in a season and Randy Moss caught 23 of the 50 to break the record for most touchdown passes caught in a season. They also set the record for most points scored by one team during a season. You’d be mad to bet against them winning the Superbowl now. In 1942 the Bears won every game they played and then lost the AFC Championship one, but there seems very little chance of the Patriots making that mistake.

All of which means that, on Saturday, Seattle and Washington will reprise their 2005 playoff game and Jacksonville will visit a Pittsburgh team that is fast running out of fit players. On Sunday the Giants go to Tampa Bay whilst San Diego entertain Tennessee. For all of these teams, THIS is their Superbowl – you simply cannot see any of the winners beating the Patriots, Packers, Colts or Cowboys the weekend after.

Plenty of other news this week:

- Brian Westbrook of the Eagles set team records for career catches and rushing yards during their last game of the season, but other results didn’t go their way despite a 17-9 home win over the Bills and so their season is over. Marv Levy resigned as the Bills’ general manager after their loss;

- Chicago ended the Saints’ playoff hopes with a 33-25 win that was easier than the results suggest. In the process, Devin Hester beat his own NFL record for kick returns in a season, a 65 yarder taking his season tally to 6 and his career total to 11. In two seasons. The NFL record in a career is 13;

- The Browns beat the 49ers 20-7 but still missed the playoffs. Remarkably, they have announced that Derek Anderson, who set a modern day record for touchdown passes for the team this season, can leave for another club – Chicago lead the running. Which might explain why Brady Quinn finally got some game time on Sunday;

- The Baltimore Ravens beat the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers, who rested a number of key players, but it wasn’t enough to save coach Brian Billick’s job after a 5-11 season;

- Bill Parcells’ shakeup of the Dolphins began when he sacked general manager Randy Mueller after their 38-25 loss to the Bengals, giving them a 1-15 record for the season. Parcells was widely expected to install his own son-in-law as GM, but for some reason he wouldn’t leave the Patriots (where he holds the same post) so he hired Jeff Ireland from the Cowboys instead;

- Small consolation for the Dolphins will be that, after their worst season ever, they will have the very first pick in the 2008 Draft. Unfortunately, they can only choose one new player and not the 45 they seem to need;

- Tennessee QB Vince Young is a doubt for their playoff game on Sunday after tearing a quadriceps muscle;

- Meanwhile, the Jag’s Fred Taylor has already criticised the state of the Seelers’ pitch ahead of their game on Saturday. Nothing like getting your excuses in first, but the Steelers will be missing no fewer than 8 first choice players and have at least another 8 carrying injuries which they probably shouldn’t be playing with, so depite Taylor’s (uncharacteristic) whining, the Jags will be hot favourites;

- The Giants, on the other hand, will just be hoping to win. Neither New York team has won a postseason game since 2000;

- The Panthers beat the Buccaneers (also resting key players for this weekend). Vinny Testaverde took the final snap of the game to end his career (allegedly) in the city where he began 20 years ago;

- An 11 year old boy who has been wearing the same Brett Favre jersey since getting it for Christmas four years ago finally made it to his first NFL game on Sunday. Unfortunately for him, the Old Man hardly played in Green Bay’s easy 34-13 win over the Lions. Fortunately for the rest of us, the jersey has been washed every other day of the 1466 days of consecutive wear it has received;

- Michael Vick’s house is up for sale – a snip at $1.1M;

- Seven people were hurt in an accident on an escalator as the crowd tried to leave Giants Stadium after the game against the Patriots. Three key Giants players – centre Shaun O’Hara, plus defensive players Kawika Mitchell and Sam Maddison – were also injured during the game and are major doubts for this weekend;

- As it it wasn’t obvious from what has been said above, the end of season coaching carnage has begun. If you thought football in England was bad, remember that each NFL team has a head coach, a general manager and about 8 other coaches of various types – think of the England rugby side under Clive Woodward and you’ll get the idea. The Chiefs, Lions and Bengals have all fired people this week and more will surely follow before the month is too much older. A bigger surprise, though, is that the Niner’s coach Mike Nolan (no, not the one from Bucks Fizz) keeps his job after their disappointing season – one in which they have gone through four starting quarterbacks without ever looking like beating anyone;

- Tony Gonzales of the Chiefs set another record at the weekend, beating the mark for number of catches by a tight end. He broke the record for touchdowns by a tight end earlier in the year. How long he will hold either mark for if Tony Romo and Jason Witten continue their love-in in Dallas is anyone’s guess;

- Over in Denver, the lightbulbs had barely cooled on the spotlights before Javon Walker was insisting that he didn’t want to ask for a move, but he didn’t see his future being with the Broncos. Which isn’t asking for a move at all, honest;

- At the other extreme, Broncos veteran Matt Lepsis has announced his retirement after 11 seasons with the club. This was despite having two more years on his contract, so he is passing up $9m dollars simply because he feels he isn’t playing well enough any more;

- One bit of good news for the Vikings this week: Adrian Peterson won Rookie of the Year, despite not really doing anything since about week 11;

- Things that make you go ‘ow’: Titans tight end Bo Scaife will miss the playoffs. He has a lacerated liver;

- Clubman of the year: Bengals QB Carson Palmer, asked this week if he thought the club’s coaches could help them improve on this season’s disappointing 7-9 finish, replied “I don’t think so”. Sometimes you can be too honest…

That’s it. See you after this weekend’s games have sorted out who next weekend’s sacrificial lambs will be

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