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Pudge’s Picks – Conference Championship Weekend

January 18th, 2014 Comments off
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Tight end Julius Thomas could be a major difference maker for the Broncos

Picking winners in the playoffs is easier when compared to the regular season. Thanks to having teams that are bit more consistent at the things they do well, it’s easier to evaluate the matchups. It’s also easier since you have a much larger sample size of previous games to evaluate.

Due to that lessened hardship, I had a clean sweep last week with picking all the winners correctly, going 4-0. Did not however get all the spreads right as I went 3-0-1 due to the Seattle Seahawks winning by eight points and pushing. That brings my playoff total to 7-1 picking games straight up and 6-1-1 when picking against the spread.

Before the season in my predictions post, I tabbed the Seahawks to square off against the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. I initially picked the Broncos to win that game, although if that matchup does ultimately come to fruition, I’d probably switch allegiances at this point. For these picks because I had initially expected it, I’m going to pick that Bronco-Seahawk matchup to come true.

I’m personally excited by the potential that I nailed both Super Bowl teams, although I don’t think that particular matchup was that difficult to see coming. The Broncos were far and away the best team in the AFC going into the season. And I suspect most people that didn’t have loyalty to a particular NFC team (like my fellow Falcon fans) picked the team they figured would win the NFC West: Seattle or San Francisco.

But overall, I like the fact that this could make two years in a row in which I got at least one of the Super Bowl teams right. Last year, I correctly predicted the Baltimore Ravens to wind up in the Super Bowl before the season started.

But enough patting myself on the back, here are this weekend’s picks:

New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
Sunday, January 19 at 3 pm ET on CBS

*Line: Broncos (-5.5)

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Most Disappointing Player

January 17th, 2014 Comments off
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Osi Umenyiora

After careful consideration, defensive end Osi Umenyiora was selected as the most disappointing player on the Atlanta Falcons in 2013.

This was the most difficult of these to decide upon because there were plenty of options. As an entire unit, the Falcons were one of the most disappointing teams in the league in 2013. Midway through the season, I selected center Peter Konz. And one could make a very strong argument why Konz still deserves the distinction. But even at that time I thought Umenyiora was a disappointment, but because he had earned the distinction of being the team’s top newcomer thanks to a Steven Jackson injury, I didn’t really mention him. But once Jackson’s play in the second half of 2013 indicated that he had overtaken Osi as the team’s best non-rookie newcomer, the latter immediately became a candidate for this “award.”

The main reason why I didn’t choose Konz is because when you really think about it, there was no reason for there to be high expectations on Konz. He had a good preseason, but he was not a good player as a rookie in 2012. I count myself among those people that are very disappointed with Konz, but outside one promising preseason game against Haloti Ngata this past summer, there really have been little to no indicators in his limited NFL career that suggest he was going to be a good player. Thus the bar was relatively low for him, and even though Konz managed to come in below that lowered standard, the difference isn’t as huge.

Before the season, I indicated the sort of benchmark Osi needed to hit in order to have a good year. I expected him to have 25 or more “positive pass rushes,” which according to my Moneyball review system, are the combined number of sacks, pressures, and quarterback hits. Osi finished the year with 12.5, behind Jonathan Babineaux (13) and marginally ahead of Jonathan Massaquoi (11.5).

Not helping Osi’s case was the drop off in production he saw in the second half of the season with just four positive pass rushes. I also tallied hurries this past year and in the first eight games, Umenyiora had seven but just one in the final eight games. That sheer drop in production over the second half of the year is what earned Osi this distinction as 2013′s most disappointing player, since it’s certainly not an honor.

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Most Improved Player

January 17th, 2014 Comments off

Andrew Weber- US PRESSWIRE

Corey Peters

The Atlanta Falcons’ most improved player in 2013 is defensive tackle Corey Peters, who was my choice at the midway point in the season. Not only did his play continue to merit distinction in the second half of 2013, but no other players really emerged.

There were potentially other options under consideration, including offensive linemen Joe Hawley and Justin Blalock. Hawley entered this year as a utility backup, but exited it arguably as the team’s second-best offensive lineman behind Blalock. Through the previous four seasons of reviewing games, rarely did I ever view Blalock as anything more than a serviceable starter. Blalock is a player that gets the job done competently, but rarely ever stands out on tape. That changed for a long stretch of 2013, where I saw Blalock consistently playing at a relatively high level.

But in the end, Peters is the most deserving because unlike Blalock, I’m not sure Peters had shown this season that he was even a serviceable starter. He was a decent option as a starter, but seemed like a player that would have been a much better fit as a third tackle in the rotation rather than a full-time starter. But Peters improved this past season, and was light years better in 2013 than he had been in any other season previously. His best asset was his ability to plug the run, as the Falcons discovered his ideal role as a one-technique nose tackle in their hybrid defensive scheme. He flashed his pass-rushing skills with five sacks, second most on the team, able to take advantage of weaker centers and guards when he got the opportunities.

Peters is an impending free agent that unfortunately suffered an Achilles tear late in the season. It’s a rough thing to happen to Peters, who was on the verge of really cashing in on the improvement he made. But it might wind up serving as a blessing for the Falcons because there be as many teams trying to sign him away this offseason, thus lowering his potential price tag. If the Falcons are able to retain Peters, there is good reason to believe that once he’s completely healthy again, whether in 2014 or 2015, he’ll pick up right where he left off in 2013 as one of the team’s better defensive players.

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Top Newcomer

January 16th, 2014 2 comments
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Jackson

This award goes to the best non-rookie that is new to the Atlanta Falcons in 2013, and my choice is running back Steven Jackson.

At the midpoint, I gave it to defensive end Osi Umenyiora, thanks largely to Jackson’s early season injury. Umenyiora had some shining moments early in the season, but those became few and far between as the entire year wore on. Jackson’s play down the stretch was somewhat a boost for this offense, and despite modest production, it still outclassed anything Umenyiora did.

But by and large this honor really signifies that the Falcons didn’t get major contributions from their newcomers that weren’t rookies like Desmond Trufant and Paul Worrilow. The only other newcomer that could also be considered for this honor was offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who was middling at best.

Jackson was ultimately among the league’s least effective starting running backs this year, while Umenyiora was the top dog on one of the league’s least effective pass rushes. The improvement that both positions and units were expected to make this year with the additions of both players was minimal at best. Jackson at least gets some extra slack cut his way due to the fact that he was running behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines, making him the better choice for this individual honor.

2013 Year-End Superlatives: Rookie of the Year

January 16th, 2014 Comments off
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

After earning defensive most valuable player, cornerback Desmond Trufant is an obvious choice for Atlanta Falcons rookie of the year.

Not only did Trufant’s season far exceed any and all expectations for a rookie, but it also was a stellar season by veteran standards. He was constantly around the ball and finished the year with an official tally of 19 pass deflections, matching the production of Asante Samuel from last year, and the most by a Falcons cornerback since Brent Grimes had 23 in 2010.

Trufant showed top-shelf ball skills and was able to match wits with some of the league’s premier wide receivers like Vincent Jackson and Steve Smith, even earning the latter’s respect.

Other potential contenders would have been linebackers Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu. Frankly, Worrilow had the sort of season that would be universally considered rookie of the year material (127 tackles, 2 sacks) if not for exceptional play of Trufant.

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Special Teams MVP

January 15th, 2014 Comments off
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Bosher

Hands down the honor for most valuable Atlanta Falcons player on special teams goes to punter Matt Bosher. He was the choice made at the midpoint of the year, and had an even stronger second half of the season to solidify this honor.

Bosher showed improvement this year, showing a lot more “touch” with his punts and being able to flip field position at a moment’s notice. His kickoffs also got better, consistently forcing more touchbacks as well as the fact that he led the NFL with three successful onside kicks.

Other potential choices could have been Antone Smith, who was an outstanding gunner on those punts, helping Bosher pin teams back with his blazing speed. But simply Smith didn’t make enough plays over the second half of the season to leap frog Bosher.

Kicker Matt Bryant also had another quietly solid season, showing that he is still more than capable of making kicks at age 38. Also, cornerback Robert McClain deserves credit for he was very good punt returner over the last month of the season. His year returning punts was statistically the best year a Falcon returner has had since 2010.

2013 Year-End Superlatives: Defensive MVP

January 15th, 2014 Comments off
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Desmond Trufant

My choice for the player most deserving of the most valuable player on the Atlanta Falcons is cornerback Desmond Trufant. Safety William Moore was my initial choice during the first half of the season.

Choosing Moore was difficult back in November since he was marginally the best among an unimpressive group of individual defensive performances. The choice didn’t get that much easier by the end of the year because again there wasn’t too many stand-out defenders in 2013 for the Falcons.

Other players under consideration were defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, who had a very underrated season due to the fact that he only finished with one sack. He was far and away our best defensive lineman over the course of the entire season, but the perennially underrated Babineaux likely won’t get credit for that. Even cornerback Asante Samuel was considered, since I thought he was the better of the two corners when both he and Trufant shared the starting lineup.

But eventually I went with Trufant due to his consistency over the course of the entire season and strong play down the stretch when Samuel was benched in favor of the team’s defensive youth movement. Whatever inconsistencies Trufant had early in the season were largely eradicated over the course of the final weeks where he was far and away our best defensive back. He became the team’s most (and arguably only) reliable playmaker as the season wore on.

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2013 Year-End Superlatives: Offensive MVP

January 15th, 2014 Comments off
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Gonzalez

At the midpoint of the season, I chose quarterback Matt Ryan as the Atlanta Falcons most valuable player on offense. But now that I can look back over the entirety of the 2013 season, I’m going to have to go with tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Part of it is that is that I don’t feel that Ryan played up to a particularly high standard. Part of that is because of the overly high standards I placed on Ryan and another is due to the fact that I don’t think the Falcons coaching and play-calling was really designed to get top-level performances from the quarterback.

I give it to Gonzalez, because for most of the season he was clearly our best offensive player since unlike Julio Jones and Roddy White, Gonzalez played the entire season. He was the player that opposing defenses concentrated on for most of the season as the guy they must stop and contain.

And I also won’t lie, another reason why I’m gifting Gonzalez with this is for sentimental reasons. His impending retirement makes a bit more prone to give him any sort of honors, real or fake, if it comes down to a tie.

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Takeaways from Divisional Playoff Round 2013

January 13th, 2014 Comments off
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A player like Jadeveon Clowney could revitalize the entire Falcons team

If the Atlanta Falcons want to improve their chances of winning games in January, they must improve their defense.

Everyone knows the Falcons sport one of the better home-field advantages in the NFL today. The Falcons have the sixth best winning percentage of any team in the past six seasons (including postseason games) in their home stadium.

It’s then obviously to their advantage if they are able to get a top seed in the playoffs and be able to host opponents in the Georgia Dome come January. But what happens if adversity strikes as it did this past season, and the team is unable to rack up all those regular season wins to get a high seed?

And given an already tough NFC South might have gotten tougher with Lovie Smith becoming the new head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the chances have increased that the Falcons may have to “settle” for more wildcard playoff berths in future seasons. And thus defense becomes their best asset if the friendly confines of the Georgia Dome are no longer part of the equation.

History Shows Strong Link between Road Playoff Success and Defense

All one has to do is look over the past several years at teams that have managed to win multiple playoff games on the road and you see a commonality among them: good defense.

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Pudge’s Picks – Divisional Playoffs 2013

January 10th, 2014 Comments off
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Peyton Manning

With last week’s slate of playoff games, I went 3-1 both against the spread and straight up. It is so much easier picking playoff games, which probably jinxes me to go 1-3 this week.

This week’s games feature several heavy home favorites, although home-field advantage is relatively minor when two playoff teams square off. Since 2005, home teams are 48-36 in the playoffs, for a winning percentage that is about the same as when two eventual playing teams face off in the regular season, about one game above .500.

As usual, this week’s lines are taken from ESPN.com.

New Orleans Saints (11-5) at Seattle Seahawks (13-3)
Saturday, January 11 at 4:35 pm ET on FOX

Line: Seahawks (-8.0)

When the Saints travelled to Seattle in Week 13, they got ran off the field by the Seahawks by a score of 34-7. It was both their worst offensive and defensive performance of the year. A team that averaged over 400 yards of total offense in every other game in 2013, the Saints were limited by the Seahawks defense to just 188 total net yards that week. The Seahawks scored points on each of their first four drives in the first half, opening up a 27-7 lead at halftime and coasting for the remainder of the game.

I don’t expect a repeat of that performance, but I think the Seahawks defense matches up too well with the Saints offense. And while the Saints pass rush is solid, it’s not that fearsome group that has been known to give Russell Wilson problems. Also if the Saints can’t score early, the Seahawks will be able to lean on their rushing attack. In order for the Saints to win this one, Drew Brees and Sean Payton need to respectively play and coach the games of their lives. I don’t think they will, but I don’t think the Seahawks are going to blow out the Saints either.

Spread Pick: Saints
Straight Pick: Seahawks

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