Archive for January, 2011

The biggest stage of them all, the Super Bowl. The biggest spectacle in all of sports, it has become just as big of a cultural event on the worldwide stage as it is football game. It has taken on a life of it’s own, and “Super Sunday” is the first big post-New Year’s day of the year. Despite all of the events, advertising, and parties around it, the very heart of it all is still the game. In the NFL there is no more surefire way to achieve legendary status than to do it in February football. Here in the CHEAP.SEATS, I’ll be taking a daily look at a different part of the Super Bowl from my perspective, both in the now and the past. This includes a countdown of the greatest Super Bowls of recent times, the biggest x-factors in this year’s game and eventually a breakdown and pick for who will take this year’s game.

First however, let’s take a look back at who has made this game what it is. Over the next two days, I’ll be breaking down my picks for the greatest Super Bowl team of my time. Now it would be easier to pick one team and pay homage to them, but instead I’m taking the best of the best of all the teams of my nearly 28 years here and placing them on one team, the ultimate fantasy draft of sorts. In part one, we’ll take a look at the defensive side of the ball and special teams picks, and come back with the offensive stars and the coach who’s legend looms largest.

 

Defensive Ends

Reggie White-Green Bay Packers (SB  XXXI): The Minister of Defense is perhaps the greatest pass rusher in the history of the game, and he made good on this honor in his first of two appearance on Super Sunday, as his three sacks set a Super Bowl record and lead helped push the Packers to their first Super Bowl win since Super Bowl II.

White landed 198.5 sacks in regular play, but none were big than his 3 on Bledsoe to win his only championship.

Charles Haley-San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys (SB XXIII, XXIV, XXVII, XXVIII & XXX): Haley featured at both linebacker and defensive end during his record five Super Bowl wins during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Has record for most Super Bowl sacks with 4 and a half.

Defensive Tackles

Darnell Dockett-Arizona Cardinals (SB XLIII): His three sacks for the Cardinals in 2009 tied Reggie White’s single game record, and came against a pretty difficult target to bring down, in the generously listed 250 pound form of Ben Roethlisberger.

Russell Maryland-Dallas Cowboys (SB XXVII, XXVIII & XXX): The former #1 overall pick helped to anchor a strong interior defense for Dallas’ three championship squads along with Leon Lett.

Oustide Linebackers

Mike Jones-St. Louis Rams (SB XXXIV & XXXVI): One play usually shouldn’t count for a career, but when that one play comes on the one yard line with no time left in the game and saves a Super Bowl win for your team, I’ll make an exception. “The Tackle” Jones landed in 2000 is one of the Super Bowl’s great moments.

On team known for its offensive play, no play was bigger than Jones' tackle to save the Super Bowl.

Mike Vrabel-New England Patriots (SB XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX &  XLII): Spotlight linebacker for the Patriots during their dynasty of the 2000’s. He has two Super Bowl sacks all-time, but his role as a goal line receiving option has landed him two crucial touchdowns in SB play as well.

Lawrence Taylor-New York Giants (SB XXI & XXV): The game’s greatest linebacker twice took his team to Super Bowls and walked away with two wins. He landed a couple of sacks and recovered a crucial fumble in SB XXV to setup the game winning field goal.

Middle Linebacker

Ray Lewis-Baltimore Ravens (SB XXXV): Ray turned in perhaps the greatest defensive performance in the game’s history, with his 11 tackles (8 for a loss), 2 sacks and four pass deflections, in route to becoming the first linebacker to win Super Bowl MVP honors.

After leading one of the greatest defenses ever to Super Sunday, Lewis saved his best for last.

Tedy Bruschi-New England Patriots (SB XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX & XLII): The New England tackling machine was a catalyst for a tenacious defensive unit that stopped the historic “Greatest Show on Turf” in 2002, and went on to win 2 more Super Bowls in the next five years, including a sack and interception in a win versus the Eagles in 2005.

Cornerback

Deion Sanders-San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys (SB XXIX & XXX): Prime Time won back-to-back Super Bowls with both powerhouses of the NFC in the early 90’s. He netted an interception for the Niners in ’93 in a route over the Chargers and was as big of a return threat as coverage danger for the Cowboys versus the Steelers.

Ty Law-New England Patriots (SB XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX & XLII): Matched up with some of the eras best wide receivers (Isaac Bruce, Terrell Owens, Plaxico Burress and Steve Smith) as the Patriots top corner during their championship run. His interception return versus St. Louis played a huge role in their upset win in SB XXXIX.

Safety

Dexter Jackson-Tampa Bay Buccaneers (SB XXXVII): His two first half interceptions on league MVP Rich Gannon shorted out a dangerous Raider passing attack and kick started a 48-21 Buccaneer route, and led to him being named MVP of the game.

Ronnie Lott-San Francisco 49ers (SB XVI, XIX, XXIII & XXIV): A standout at free and strong safety, and even cornerback for the 49ers during their dominance of the 1980’s. Lott made his impact felt in coverage, but more so in presence with his devastating hits. One of only four players to suit up in all four 49er Super Bowl wins, and went undefeated on Super Sunday.

No matter where he lined up, the feared Lott played a crucial role in the 4-0 49ers Super Bowl run.

Special Teams

Chris Gardocki-Pittsburgh Steelers (SB XL): In a back and forth defensive matchup, Gardocki averaged over 48 yards per punt for the Steelers in their 2006 championship, giving their impressive defense solid field position in route to holding the Seahawks to 10 points.

Desmond Howard-Green Bay Packers (SB XXXI): The former Heisman Trophy winner made his NFL bones in one night’s work for the Packers in 1997. His 244 total yards, including a 99 yard kickoff return for a touchdown, made his the first special teamer to win Super Bowl MVP honors.

 

The NFL regular season is far in rear view mirror now, but it’s just now coming around time to hand out the accolades for the efforts during it. The All-Pro team has already been announced and the Pro Bowl is right around the corner. However, it’s time for me to hand out the awards as see by I for the season. This year, we’ll do this elementary school science fair style, with Blue, Red and White ribbons for efforts, just so there’s clarity on those that came up short.

Let’s get ready to debate, I’ll go first.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: MICHAEL VICK-Eagles

The Eagles went as Vick did for most of the year, and while they were a good overall team, they were excellent when Vick was. His 400 total yard, 5 touchdown Monday Night Football effort versus the Redskins in week 10 was his trademark effort, but he had great moments all season of this sort. From going from a Pro Bowler, to prisoner, to third-string gimmick player, all the way back to starting the Pro Bowl again, Vick deserves this easily.

 

Vick completed his rise from the bottom back to the top, playing better than he ever had before.

 

 

Red Ribbon: Brian Urlacher, Bears WHITE RIBBON: Wes Welker, Patriots

 

COACH OF THE YEAR: TODD HALEY-Chiefs

In a year where there was a lot of great coaching around the league, Haley takes the cake here barely. He took a Chief team that had been floundering in AFC West for years behind the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, and made them into a tough running club, that took control of the division and held on to it, despite a hard charge at the end of the year from the Chargers. He reinvigorated an entire fan base in the process, and smartly unleashed Jamaal Charles and off set him with an underrated Matt Cassel season.

 

Haley led a revival in football crazy KC, to be the surprise 10-win club of the year.

 

RED RIBBON: Raheem Morris, Buccaneers WHITE RIBBON: Steve Spaguolo, Rams

 

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: NDAMUKONG SUH-Lions

This isn’t much of a race in my book. Suh hit the ground running, and stopped mostly anybody else from doing the same. He quickly became a rock for an extremely needy Lions defense, and proved to be the greatest talent in the 2010 rookie class, as he was predicted to be. He starting the Pro Bowl already, and may be the best defensive tackle in the game already, as his 10 sacks where tops of any defensive tackle in the game.

 

Suh will be a terror from all directions for years to come in Detroit.

 

 

RED RIBBON: Devin McCourty, Patriots WHITE RIBBON: Eric Berry, Chiefs

 

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: SAM BRADFORD-Rams

Not only did Bradford live up, and perhaps surpass, all expectations of being the top pick, he put up a record-setting season for a rookie passer. Of all single player impacts in the NFL this year, the Rams 23-year-old QB’s debut effort deserves as much mention as anybody. With his effort steadying a franchise in a free fall for the last 3 years, Bradford put the Rams within 1 game of the playoffs while taking every snap for the club all year. His season was mentioned among Peyton Manning’s debut in the league in the rookie record books, and if he continues on that trend, there will be a lot longer football seasons on the regular in St. Louis.

 

Bradford's debut in St. Louis led the Rams to more 2010 wins than '07-'09, combined.

 

RED RIBBON: Mike Williams, Buccaneers WHITE RIBBON: LaGarrette Blount, Buccaneers

 

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: CLAY MATTHEWS-Packers

It was a tale of two seasons for Matthews, as he broke out in his second season in Wisconsin with ridiculous back-to-back three sack games to start the season, and totaled 10.5 QBs taken down in the first nine weeks. After that he slowed to 3 over the next seven weeks. However, this isn’t due to a drop in his effort or play, its evident of entire offensive lines and fullbacks being singled out to stop him and his manic rushes to the pocket. In the process his total tackles actually rose as well, helping the entire Green Bay effort even more. The result of this benefited the rest of the Packers defense, and allowed them to play better down the stretch than any other defense in the league. Less was truly more for the He-Man of the NFL.

 

Matthews high energy assault spearhead a shift of the Packers being much more than an offensive air show.

 

RED RIBBON: Julius Peppers, Bears WHITE RIBBON: Ed Reed, Ravens

 

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: PEYTON MANNING-Colts

This seems like old hat, with Manning being eligible for this honor every year. However, usually he takes the MVP instead (of which he has four, compared to one OPOY), but this season was perhaps his most spirited effort of his career. After losing his favorite target in Dallas Clark, and having Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai out of the mix for parts of the season (and sometime simultaneously), he still managed to reach 4,700 passing yards and get in the endzone 33 times through the air with the Colts backups, save for Reggie Wayne. Bottom line is he less to work with than he ever has, and he still finished with 200 more yards than he had ever thrown for in his historically great career. I’m sold.

 

Peyton did more than nearly any other QB, with less than he's ever had before.

 

RED RIBBON: Phillip Rivers, Chargers WHITE RIBBON: Arian Foster, Texans

 

And now, the drum roll please….the best of the best is….

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: TOM BRADY-Patriots

He could easily win Most Hated (at least in St. Louis…still) as well for a variety of reasons, but I see very little rational reasoning why Brady isn’t the league’s best this year. He was the best player on the best team in the regular season. Despite losing his most dangerous target in Randy Moss, Brady had perhaps his best season of his career, including his record re-setting 2007 campaign. He directed his revamped receiving corps to being the most effective offense in the NFL, averaging a league best 32 points per game. The Pats won 14 games on the year, while he didn’t bother to thrown an interception after week six, a streak of over 300 passes which broke the previous NFL record and set yet another record for Brady in the NFL history books with a 9:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (36 to 4) on the year.

 

You can hate him now, but Brady had his most efficient season ever while still leading the NFL in TD passes (36).

 

Add in his 350 yard, four touchdown game on the road against the league’s best defense in Pittsburgh, and a 42 point win over the Jets and the League’s golden boy takes home MVP honors for the second time in his career. As the (temporary) highest paid QB in the game, he earned his pay more than ever before this season.

RED RIBBON: Peyton Manning, Colts WHITE RIBBON: Phillip Rivers, Chargers

 

Due to the terrible St. Louis streets and weather, I didn’t get a chance to make my NFC/AFC Championship post in time. However, I am happy to report that I DID get both right (I’ve got proof of pregame projection over on one of my Twitter feeds to all non-believers) and I’m now up to 5-1 in the last two weeks of NFL Playoff guru-ing. Now with the Super Bowl two weeks off, I’ve got a bit of time before I start dissecting that, and I’ll be doing an appropriate two-week spread, starting here with 3 TRUTHS I learned yesterday:

THE MOST UNDERRATED QB IN THE WORLD: The tendency is to look where we think nobody else besides us is looking to find who is the most “underrated” or “slept on” player, when sometimes it’s right under your nose. Yeah, it may make you look better to have knowledge of what Matt Schaub or Ryan Fitzpatrick does outside the main spotlight, but the league’s most underrated QB played in prime time last night. Ben Roethlisberger is doing serious work in the middle of the biggest stage in the league, yearly, yet is looked past constantly. Perhaps it’s due to his off field headlines having larger print than his stat lines, or perhaps because gets outshined by his own teammates play on the other side of the ball. Whatever it is, I’m not fooled anymore and you shouldn’t be either. While he didn’t have his brightest statistical game yesterday (133 pass yards, 2 interceptions), his ability to keep plays alive and make timely plays that can’t be broken down into just stats. It’s a winner’s quality that matters the most, and he’s got it. He’s also ticketed his third trip to game’s biggest weekend in seven years, with a chance to bring home a 3rd title, which would make him tied for second all-time, with a certain Tom Brady, who is universally considered to be his superior & his era’s greatest winner. While I’m not ready to place him above Tom or Peyton yet, there can be some serious argument made about if there is any other signal caller worthy of the praise over Roethlisberger right now. Winning is what matters and he does that better than most anybody in the game right now.

 

For all the Brady, Manning, Rivers, Brees and Vick talk, Big Ben's achievements in the winners circle are severely underrated.

 

 

“LEG”-ACY IN THE WORKS: Following the praise of the warrior-like qualities of the underrated Mr. Roethlisberger, let’s look at an ill-timed study in opposites also on display yesterday. With his team yet to reach the scoreboard and down at home headed into the 2nd half of the first (and only) big game of his career, Jay Cutler took snaps for one series, and then threw in the towel, or had it thrown in for him. Evidently this was due to a knee cartilage tear and he couldn’t go on. Curiously, he could still stand and smile on the sidelines though when Brian Urlacher, his backup’s backup Caleb Hanie and Earl Bennett played with everything they had to try to pull the Bears back into the game. I’m not here to question if the man got hurt or not, that happens. But I am here to question the man’s heart in general, as a player and as a man. You are an NFL quarterback and by default in the greatest leadership position in all of sports. So to leave a game such as the NFC Championship on anything less than a stretcher is inexcusable. Just by staying in the game alone he could have changed the approach the Packers defense took. His replacements Todd Collins and Hanie might as well-worn “SEND ALL COMERS” targets on their chests, because the Packers sent everything from Clay Matthews to old Wisconsin grandmothers to go all out blitz those two. The result was a 75-year-old Collins shattering into pieces after a few snaps and eventually Hanie throwing not one, but TWO game ending picks in one quarter.

 

In a League where grit and toughness stand among all other values, Cutler is a justified pariah.

 

 

The Bears mortgaged the farm to bring Cutler in to solve their longtime woes at QB and be a leader in such games as yesterday. The best he could offer was 80 yards in two quarters. So let’s rundown the Cutler 3 year scorecard: a summer long whining session to escape Denver, just to bring a two-year “era” in Chicago that started with a near 30 interception debut season, followed by a performance that should land him a lucrative endorsement deal with Charmin. In a familiar Chicago spirit, that’s change you CAN’T believe in.

SURVIVOR BOWL: A quick note that came to me while realizing who is in the Super Bowl yesterday. It is crazy how who the two Conference reps are who they are. This is an up and down NFL season, with the failures of the big name clubs taking the majority of the headlines for their failures. Now in the main event, there are two squads that have gone through more to end up in the Big Game than any other clubs that I can recall recently.

Pittsburgh started the season balancing between Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon and Byron Leftwich, in pure survival mode, while awaiting Roethlisberger to make an uncertain return from a rape suspension. Also, they were coming off a terrible season of Super Bowl hangover and injury, while still being in the most brutal division in the NFL. Now they have beaten two of the two most physical teams in the Playoffs (besides themselves) in back-to-back weeks to be one step away from completing one of the greatest turnarounds ever, and try to take home their second Lombardi Trophy in three years.

 

Under the radar, Mike McCarthy's job of keeping the Packers glued together is nearly as valuable as Rodger execution this season.

 

In Green Bay, it seemed like there was a sniper camped out on the roof of Lambeau all year, with the run of injuries to key elements of their roster. There was no shortage of predictions that placed the Pack at the top of the NFC, and even in the Super Bowl. However, after injuries to running back Ryan Grant, of consecutive 1,200 yard season fame, and explosive tight end JerMichael Finley, they were running thin early. Later on, two concussions to Aaron Rodgers sent them reeling for real, basically contributing directly to losses against New England and a 3-0 shutout loss versus Detroit, of all teams Now, after stretches were they went 1-3 over two separate four-week stints, they are the first six seed to ever make the Super Bowl out of the NFC, and are momentum’s chosen children at the moment.

 

The Western Conference is deep. Like Grand Canyon deep. There are eight teams with 24 or more wins already, with the Lakers and Spurs having passed 30 already. That alone proves the individual talent level available to represent the Conference in LA for the All-Star game next month. But what’s more is that even on the bad teams, there are guys that are playing so well that they deserve to make the trip, for both dominating against the good teams and overcoming their own teammates lack of…um…fortitude. Arguably there could be a team made from those that don’t make the cut (stay tuned for that actually), but for now it’s time to look at the top of the mountain, and those that made the cut to back them up.

Durant and Kobe get to unite for one night only, and have their usual reservations for All-Star weekend

***STARTERS***

G: Deron Williams: 22.1 PPG, 9.5 APG, 1.2 SPG

G: Kobe Bryant: 25.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 4.7 APG

C: Tim Duncan: 13.6 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.0 BPG

F: Carmelo Anthony: 23.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.9 APG

F: Kevin Durant: 28.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.1 SPG

There are a few issues to measure out right away in my process at arriving at this starting five right away, starting in the middle. Yao Ming is going to win the popular vote, despite wearing a suit for the second consecutive season more than a jersey. That’s fine, I probably wouldn’t have voted for him anyway. Instead, I’m putting Tim Duncan in this spot, but not as a bench replacement that’s bumped up due to injury, but as the actual best center in the West. Historically, Tim is listed as a power forward, which is right, because he is the best to ever play the position. In reality though, for the last three seasons or so, he has played more center than anything else, due to decreased mobility and easier assignments on defense. Why the NBA doesn’t list him as such on their All-Star ballot I don’t know, but I took the liberty of correcting it for them. Get it right next year NBA, when him and Yao are in the exact same places as this year again.

Williams has ascended to the becoming the class of the either conference at the point.

As for the other starters, I don’t feel the need to speak to Kobe or Durant’s presence here, so I won’t. They don’t need an introduction anywhere. For Carmelo, it came down to a choice between him and Dirk Nowitzki, but I take Melo simply on the fact he’s in his prime and one a more active rebounder, plus he is flat out more exciting to watch. I want Melo vs. LeBron kicking off my ASG over LeBron blowing past Dirk (although that would be quite exciting still). As for Deron Williams over Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, he’s the overall best option here in my opinion, and while I still like CP3 better as a better pure creator from the point, Williams is probably the best overall player at the spot right now, so he takes my vote.

The bench is where you set yourself up to lose at any rate. No matter who you take, there are at least two to three players that have an equal qualification at every position. The only player that has a definite spot outside the starting five here is Nowitzki. Let the debate rage on for all others, yet here is how I arrived where I did.

***RESERVES***

Monta Ellis: 25.9 PPG, 5.6 APG, 2.3 SPG

Russell Westbrook: 22.5 PPG, 8.4 APG, 2.0 SPG

Dirk Nowitzki: 23.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.5 APG

Kevin Love: 21.3 PPG, 15.6 RPG, 2.5 APG

Blake Griffin: 22.6 PPG, 12.8 RPG, 0.62 BPG

Chris Paul: 16.3 PPG, 9.7 APG, 2.7 SPG

Pau Gasol: 18.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 2.0 BPG

Monta Ellis, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook at guard: With all apologies to Steve Nash, Kevin Martin, Eric Gordon, Tony Parker, and most of all, Manu Ginobili, these are the best options. Westbrook would be the most dynamic point guard finisher in the league if not for Derrick Rose. He’s been on beeline to this point since dominating in the FIBA tournament this summer and contributes across the board more than any other PG in the West. Paul’s return alone has pushed basically the same Hornet roster that finished in the lottery last year to one of the best starts in the League, and has them poised to return to the Playoffs. Monta Ellis was the easiest choice of this group, as he is perhaps the most explosive small guard scorer since Allen Iverson. Plus, he deserved a trip last year and didn’t get it, and came back this season and raised his game again. He’s due.

Monta Ellis will make his past due debut on an All-Star roster this year. He should show out on the big stage.

Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Pau Gasol  at PF/C: Picking frontcourt players was the hardest part. Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay are both putting up numbers in Memphis, yet are on a last place club still. LaMarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom, Al Harrington and Paul Milsap are all major contributors on playoff clubs; yet still don’t make the cut, although they could be argued for. Yet all of these contributors on the best teams in the Conference are on the outside looking in, why? Because two players on bad teams are having such amazing seasons that there is no way they can be omitted. Kevin Love has become a rebounding juggernaut this year, grabbing 15 on an average night, and even snatching 30 down in one game, first time since ’96 that happened. All while putting in 20 points per for a terrible Timberwolves team. As for Griffin, he’s a sensation, bottom line. As a rookie, he has already become the league’s top highlight producer, yet not as a flash in the pan, bench player way. He puts up numbers nightly, and basically refuses to not bring in a “done by the 3rd quarter” status double-double every night. As for Gasol, he simply is the best pure post player in the West and plays for one of its best teams. He deserves the annual nod, unless somebody goes way over the top.

So here you have it, what I want to see on both sides of the court for the 2011 All-Star game. Please list any differences, gripes or perceived slights? Land them down in the comments area down bottom.

The deadline for voting for the NBA All-Star game is in a few days. Nobody is going to make a monumental jump into the contention in the next four days, so I’m ready to cast my ballot now. I refuse to be restricted by the NBA brass to just voting for five players, that’s communist and easy. No, I want the whole shebang, bench and all. That’s where you have to make the critical

Rose won't be waiting long to take the court in this year's ASG, his first as a starter.

decisions, and you have to take a look at a lot more than just the top five scorers from every night. This is where the details come out and you have to look outside Miami, Boston and Orlando, although, in the top heavy Eastern Conference, that is hard to do. Looking at the rosters of those three teams alone you can fill out half the Eastern rosters, with a little help from New York (which is still strange to say again) and Atlanta. Does this mean that nobody else in the Conference is doing anything? Not exactly, however there is a clear divide in effectiveness from the cream of the crop towards the middle, if there even is one.

***STARTERS***

F: LeBron James: 25.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 7.2 APG

F: Amare Stoudemire: 26.4 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.4 BPG

C: Dwight Howard: 22.0 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 2.2 BPG

G: Dwayne Wade: 25.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 4.2 APG

G: Derrick Rose: 24.7 PPG, 8.0 APG, 4.7 APG,

A change is cities has changed LeBron's ASG starting status, nor his presence in the MVP race.

Four of the five Eastern starters work themselves out pretty easily. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have found their combined stride, and have began to turn the Heat into what they were envisioned to be, while still putting up their usual numbers. In Orlando, Dwight Howard is still the top terror in the paint in the NBA, and has even added a scoring touch this season that hasn’t been there before for the rebuilt Magic. Amare Stoudemire has brought the Knicks back from oblivion, and has been one of the premier scorers in the NBA. The only debate that holds some weight is at the other guard spot, where I give Derrick Rose the nod over Rajon Rondo. I make this call on the fact that while Rondo is the league’s leading assist man and the glue of the East’s best team, Rose is the entire world to the Chicago Bulls. The Celtics have shown they can keep going even with Rondo down, albeit not as smoothly. However, seemingly every night it comes down to Rose’s performance that makes the difference for the Bulls, and he is raising his game to a nearly un-guardable level this year.

**RESERVES**

Rajon Rondo (PG): 10.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 13.4 APG

Joe Johnson (G/F): 19.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 5.6 APG

Paul Pierce (SF): 19.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.5 APG

Danny Granger (F): 21.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.8 APG

Kevin Garnett (PF): 15.1 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 0.7 BPG

Al Horford (C): 16.2 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.1

Andrew Bogut (C): 13.1 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 2.8 BP

On the bench, there are a few guys that have spots on reserve here, outside of Rondo. Paul Pierce is a yearly lock, and has done nothing to change that this season. Joe Johnson’s all-around game is lands him my vote again, and stands out amongst a shallow backcourt pool in the East. Danny Granger gets the nod as one of the most quiet, yet consistent producers in the NBA once again. He’d be a big time star if he played in one of the more televised NBA destinations, but the Pacers are coming along behind his top shelf play. They take the nod over other swingmen such as Wilson Chandler, Josh Smith and Gerald Wallace, as well as backcourt contributors Raymond Felton and Ray Allen, who are having great seasons as well.

While he has been a perennial starter for the last decade, KG is still and asset and will be a force off the East bench

However, the front court spots are a bit tougher to separate, as there is a tight group of players that are nearly equally eligible. The space in-between Kevin Garnett, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bogut and Al Horford is tough to separate. Garnett, around his usual set of injuries, is still the toughest frontcourt player in the league and is nearly averaging a double-double for the C’s still, despite a fall off in shot blocking. Bosh has taken a while to find his niche in Miami, but is still putting up numbers superior to most any other Eastern forward or center not named Stoudemire or Howard. Bogut is once again in the league’s elite in boards and blocks, and snatched 27 rebounds earlier this month versus the Heat. In Atlanta, the always just under the radar Horford is the axis that the Hawks work around on both ends of the floor, and is shooting closer to 60 percent than 50 for the season.

 

In the end, I’m going with Bogut, Horford and Garnett from this group, as they each have a more distinguishing role for their clubs and impact in their success. Horford and Garnett are the easier picks, due their status amongst top tier clubs and being big contributors on them. Taking Bogut over Bosh breaks down simply to the fact that he puts up numbers on a team that’s surrounded him with nothing else to make that load easier on him. Plus he’ll be able to go to war with the West’s Kevin Love for anything that comes off the rim. This just proves that being a big talent on a successful team is the only route to recognition in my book (word to Monta Ellis and Tyreke Evans in that regard as well out west).

 

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the Left Coast.

 

KING OUT OF THE CASTLE?: The atmosphere around the St. Louis Cardinals is playing out like an episode of “24” right now. The St. Louis Cardinals Winter Warm Up spectacular this weekend, their franchise cornerstone and unquestioned greatest player in the game was the guest of honor on Sunday. What was supposed to be a friendly weekend of autographs and pictures quickly and eerily began to resemble one of the infamous MLB Senate sub-committee meetings from a few years back. Albert Pujols was pleading his jersey number on repeat, flanked by four media relations guys, about how he can’t and won’t drag out his unresolved contract. This is because the focus wasn’t on what he does at Busch Stadium all summer, but rather will he do it there beyond this summer. The fact that this is even a question is beyond me, although I understand the Cardinals’ position. Last year they had to tie up Matt Holliday, and in the process made him the highest paid player in franchise history (he’ll make a million more than Pujols again this year). So they aren’t just sitting around biding their time completely.

 

The Cardinal front office needs to get Albert's signature on something far bigger than a few baseballs.

 

However, after that crucial bit of undercard business was handled, the main event came up to the plate in getting Pujols made into a permanent resident at first base in St. Louis….a full year ago. So why is it coming to a point where Albert has to set a deadline for him to stay here? I understand that this could very well be the defining contract in Major League Baseball, and it takes time to hash out, but after the talks were stalled last year, this should have been handled with the same emphasis and timeliness of the deals made with Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and all the rest of the big names that are already secure in their new homes this winter. So why is the literal definition of a living legend spending his time at an event geared towards honoring Cardinals, past and present, deflecting questions about whether he will be at this same event ever again?  Hell, he’s already more deserving of one of the statues outside Busch Stadium than anybody not named Musial, Smith or Gibson. Why in the hell does a player of this level have to force the hand of his team to keep him? The Cardinals have made some solid additions to their club this offseason, but this has been looming over the entire organization for two years now, and taking a full offseason to even turn their attention to Pujols is show of negligence to sun in the in entire Redbird solar system. Without the sun, everything dies. And without this one, there would be a quick and prolonged death march in Cardinal Nation.

All I can say is, take care of family business inside the house, before it spills into the streets and everybody else gets a chance to lays their eyes, and blank checks, on it. 32 days and counting to keep that from becoming a grim reality.

HE CAN’T STAND THE REIGN: You have to be living under a rock to not see what Blake Griffin has been doing to rims around the NBA this year. He’s had 33 double-double performances in his first half of the season. His 47 points are the season high in the NBA this year. He’s on borderline walk on water status, when these numbers are taking the Clippers over the Lakers. That’s unheard of in Hollywood, where the Clippers are the biggest stepchildren in all of sports. He’s lived above the rim all year, and has actually made the NBA look like he made the Big 12 look two years ago, even after he missed a year with multiple knee surgeries (where I’m sure he augmented with some RoboCop type machinery). It’s the type of stuff that I haven’t seen since Shaq first threw on the Orlando Magic’s jersey for the first time and made them relevant back in the early 90’s. However, it’s not 22-year-old Shaq he reminds me of. Nor is it Shawn Kemp, who he is most widely compared to. It’s another high flying post player from 25 years ago he looks most like: Moses Malone.

 

Limiting Griffin's comparisons to just being a high wire act like Kemp was is underselling how good he true is, and can be.

 

It’s not because he doesn’t play similar to Kemp, it’s that he’s flat out better than Kemp ever was. Kemp never averaged more than 20.5 points per game, and he did that in a season where he only played 42 games. His high mark in rebounds was 11.4 in 1996. His career averages were 14.6 points per and 8.4 rebounds per game. Kemp gets a lot of credit because he’s recent in memory and was an exciting player in his prime, but the truth is Griffin is out doing these numbers on the regular already. Malone was however, a freak of epic proportions. He jumped higher and finished stronger than any big man in the league in his time, he led the league in rebounds five consecutive years while averaging 14.2 boards a year over that stretch. He averaged 17.6 rebounds in another season, and had eleven consecutive seasons of averaging over 10 boards per game. All of that while averaging 20.3 points a game his career, with a high season of 31 per. Not to say that Griffin is headed to join Moses in the Hall of Fame yet, but to limit him to just Shawn Kemp level already would be a great disservice to his both what he’s done already and what he could be shortly.

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE: All year, the focus has been on a few quarterbacks doing it all to lead their clubs. In the face of non-stop injuries, trades or flat-out sub par on-field company. The names that ran out over these situations reads like the who’s who of the NFL elite. Manning, Rivers, Brady, Vick; all were named to be the boss hogs for MVP honors at some point in the season. However, there was another guy that played with the Red Cross All-Stars all season as well, the only difference is that he is still on the job now. Aaron Rodgers has become something even more special in the Playoffs, in two road dips at that. He took it to another level this weekend in Atlanta, were he missed on only five of his 36 passes, and the 31 completions went for 366 yards, three touchdowns and even ran another one in. All of this while blowing out the top team in the NFC by four scores, at home.

 

Can he do any wrong right now? Rodgers' alone may be enough to push the Packers back into the NFL's top spot these days.

 

The bottom line behind all of these numbers is that they don’t do anything but tell part of the story. Basically, Rodgers has become the most dangerous man left alive in the NFL this year. While all of the attention is thrown at the AFC matchups and the general idea that the Jets/Steelers winner might as well have the Lombardi trophy delivered to them in Pittsburgh next weekend, I’m going to say that’s a bit premature. Rodgers’ presence alone right now is looking like the biggest difference in any game being played, and the Bears haven’t played this version of him yet this year. He’s playing like a man possessed by the spirit of Joe Montana right now. While one those other top guns may walk with the 16 game MVP, Rodgers may be in place to win the one that’s getting handed out in Dallas in February.

After a literally wild Wild Card Weekend opened the NFL postseason, with the upset ruling the land, round two of the NFL’s run to Dallas continues. The “Any Given Sunday” rule was in full effect, with three teams taking to the road and bringing back home W’s on their returns. Matter of fact, the only home team that defended it’s turf was a heavy underdog Seahawks, who brought the worst playoff qualifying record ever, but still managed to beat the defending Super Bowl champs. It was a ‘Wild’ weekend to say the least.

Sanchez pulled a rabbit out his hat last week, but will he even be in the position for such acts in Gillette this weekend?

Now in the Divisional Round, the heavy favorites, teams that took last weekend off, will play host. Will the upset trend become the defining characteristic of the entire playoff scene this year? Or will the true heavyweights of the league bring some balance to the force? The AFC has two tie-breakers between bitter divisional rivals. In the NFC, this is truly round two in both games, with one favorite looking to duplicate their fortune from earlier this year, while the other is looking for some home field revenge.

JETS AT PATRIOTS: Despite playing a tough game and overcoming the Colts on the road, going into New England is a complete different beast. They aren’t shorthanded, and have the knowledge of having beat the Jets 45-3 the last time they visited them. Regardless of the last outcome, this will be no means be a walk in the park for the Pats. With all of the back and forth banter between these teams since training camp, war may be on deck in Boston this weekend. However, all wars come down to strategy, and the planning advantage is tilted towards the host Patriots.

Unlike versus the Colts, who are a minor threat on the ground, the Pats can run the ball, so the Jets cannot sit back in coverage and wait for the ball to find them. They will have to pressure the pocket and hope they don’t leave themselves exposed on the back end. Tom Brady is playing the best football of his life right now, and that’s saying a lot considering his 2007, and after seeing how Peyton Manning took advantage of the Antonio Cromartie’s man matchup skills, he should no doubt look to take a similar attack. In the end, there is too much diversity in the New England attack and with the League’s best conductor orchestrating it, they will hold down the home field and make their game win with the Jets their most meaningful win yet. Winner: PATRIOTS

RAVENS AT STEELERS: If Jets/Patriots is a war, this could turn out to be Armageddon. Baltimore played much better than I thought they would in one of the loudest stadiums in the League, on the road in Kansas City last week, and walked off with a convincing 24 point win. That experience will be invaluable in their second trip to Pittsburgh this year, where they have already won once this season. However, unlike last week, points will be at a premium to say the very least, and another 24 point win (or 24 points total between both sides) would be a minor miracle.

This game could come down to one rare crack in the defense that either Flacco or Big Ben creates.

As always, defense will be the order of the day between these two clubs, the two toughest remaining in play this year. Last week, KC got to Joe Flacco pretty often, but he was still able to make enough plays down field to put the game away. However, the Steeler rush is in a different class than most and they have the X-Factor of Troy Polamalu to wreak havoc everywhere (at once it seems). While the Steelers are vulnerable at corner, the pass rush will get the job done to reach Flacco often enough to keep the big play at a minimum. I take the big play combo of Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace to hook up for a game changing play or two that will set the Steelers up for their second shot at the AFC Championship in three years. Winner: STEELERS

PACKERS AT FALCONS: Atlanta is nearly invincible at home, to the tone of a 7-1 record this year. They have the complete package on offense, especially with the all-important ability to control the clock and ball on the ground with Michael Turner. They have already proven to the Pack that they can hold down their home turf, after edging them 20-17 earlier this year. However, what I saw in that game was a Packer team that was a few plays away from walking a way with a win a few times. Also they have the most resilient player in the entire playoffs in Aaron Rodgers under center. He’ll learn from that first game and come out ready to not make the same errors again.

I’m going against history and going with my, and Rodgers’, gut here to go with the Packers to knock off the top seed, behind a few big plays from the Green Bay secondary on Matt Ryan, and of course Rodgers and his endless receiving corps. Winner: PACKERS

SEAHAWKS AT BEARS: Cinderella is heading into Midway to continue their improbable march towards the big dance, this week in Chicago, where they won 23-20 in week 6. Last week, the Hawks went deep early and often to take out the Saints, burying them early and making the task of pulling even too daunting. While the Bears secondary is nothing amazing, and could be subject to a similar approach, their front seven features a guy that is the definition of amazing, Julius Peppers. The Seahawks have nobody that can even attempt to match up with him one-on-one, so they will have to double up the block on him. This should open up other Bears to make their run on Matt Hasselbeck, so he does have time challenge their corners and safeties.

Peppers is the key to this game, whether is finishing plays at the QB himself, or opening holes up for others.

While Chicago’s defense has to be disruptive, Jay Cutler must protect the ball, yet still look to strike deep. The Bears receivers can best the shaky Seattle secondary, but he has to be patient and wait for the big play to open up. The use of Matt Forte out the backfield in as many ways as possible will be the key to making this happen.

Seattle had incredible momentum at home last week, and underselling the chip they still have on their shoulder would be a mistake, especially with the knowledge they have that they are able to beat this team in the same stadium. However, the playoff atmosphere combined with the home field advantage that fueled them last week will not be there this time, and the Bears will utilize these advantages in their favor to take the win. Winner: BEARS