What The Jets Can Learn From The Rangers

What the New York Jets can learn from their city counterparts, the New York Rangers

One of the ways I’ve been able to distract myself from the ulcer-inducing aftermath of the 2011 New York Jets has been to focus on another New York team that I’m extremely passionate about: the New York Rangers.

In case you don’t know (and you might not, since “the worldwide leader in sports” has chosen to bury hockey for the last decade, especially now that it no longer broadcasts hockey games), the Rangers currently stand tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the entire NHL.  Say what you want about the Giants, but the New York Rangers have been this city’s most consistent winner since October.  Still, it was no easy task to get to where the Rangers are, and they really aren’t all that close to the ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup anyway; almost three months of regular season, plus four grueling playoff series stand between them and hockey nirvana.

However, I began to think: maybe the Jets could learn a thing or two from the Rangers, despite the fact that hockey and football are two entirely different sports.  The history of these two teams is not all that dissimilar.  Flashes of past glory, but a tradition that consists mostly of disappointment for a large, passionate fanbase.

For those of you not well-versed in Rangers history, here’s the Cliff Notes version:  They have won exactly one championship in the last 72 years.  For the last two decades, the Rangers have largely built their team by bringing in high-priced free agents with flashy names (sound familiar?), with only one instance of success: 1994.  After Mark Messier, the Rangers inked the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Holik, Pavel Bure, Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, with results ranging from one-and-done playoff appearances to complete and utter disaster.

So, it was time to shake things up.  Sometime within the last six or seven years, the Rangers have instead focused on building their roster through the draft and minor league system.  They brought in a coach with a specific style and personalty and have stuck with him (rather than firing him for missing the playoffs in the 2009-2010 season), allowing the players to mature.  They have supplemented a very young roster with shrewd trades and yes, one or two big-money free agent acquisitions.

Here are five lessons the Jets can learn from the Rangers:

Lesson 1: Patience

When the Rangers hired coach John Tortorella in the winter of 2009 after firing Tom Renney, the organization began to change its philosophy.  The changes were subtle at first, and they would take time to implement.  The first lesson the Jets could learn?  Patience. Tortorella knew that the roster he inherited in 2009 was not one that could win a championship. The goal was, instead, was to simply improve the team on a day-by-day basis, not only in hockey terms, but also in terms of how it was built (read: slowly, and through the draft). “One step at a time” might be the most insufferable sports cliche of them all, but it has become the Rangers’ mantra. Now in 2012, three full years later, they are seeing the results of that approach.

Lesson 2: Leadership

One of the organization’s goals was also to cultivate an internal leadership group among the players so that “the locker room could sustain itself,” as Tortorella likes to say. Sounds like the complete opposite of the Jets, doesn’t it?  One of the most direct comparisons between the two teams across completely different sports is the choosing of captains. Football has even gone so far as to copy hockey and put the letter “C” on the designated player’s uniform.  Tortorella’s choices for captains (one player gets a “C” and two get “A”‘s as alternate captains, for the uninitiated) were easy:

Ryan Callahan, captain – a player who embodies the Rangers’ aggressive yet responsible style of play and leads by example; 4th round pick (127th overall) in the 2004 draft.

Marc Staal, alternate – when healthy (he missed roughly the first half of the season with a concussion and is just getting his feet back under him after about 10 games now), one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL; 1st round pick in the 2005 draft.

Brad Richards, alternate – Richards was the Rangers big free agent splash last summer, but he played under John Tortorella in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.  That team won a Stanley Cup; Richards was the playoff MVP, awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. Tortorella felt that Richards was the perfect veteran role model that some of the younger Rangers needed to show them how to be a professional, on and off the ice.

Lesson 3: Identity

Perhaps what doomed the Jets even more than their locker room squabbles was the loss of their identity as a team that wanted to dominate the line of scrimmage, run the ball, and play great defense. Ground and Pound was forgotten. The Jets were all of a sudden slow at linebacker and were gashed by opposing running backs more than anyone could have predicted.  What could they learn from the Rangers in this regard?  Pick your style, embrace it, stick to it, and build your team around it.

The Rangers have become one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against.  They’ve allowed the 2nd fewest goals in the league.  They are built from their net out, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist providing the foundation that the team stands on. If quarterback is the most important position in football, goalie is that position in hockey. The Rangers are covered there, as Lundqvist is putting together another Vezina Trophy caliber season as one of the league’s best goalies.

The similarities between the teams are more obvious than you’d think. Neither the Rangers defense-first approach nor the Jets “ground and pound” mantra will consistently score style points or entertain the masses. They leave open the possibility of close, late losses, simply because the offense might not generate enough goals or points.  But they are both effective philosophies that, applied over the long-haul, can lead to consistent winning.

Lesson 4: Narrow the Focus

Earlier this week, Madison Square Garden Chairman James L. Dolan made a bold proclamation that the Rangers were “close” to winning a Stanley Cup. John Tortorella quickly fired back, calling that “a bunch of bullshit”. Tortorella wasn’t trying to embarrass his boss, rather, he was trying to keep his team’s focus where it should be: on the next game. Cups are not awarded in January.

Super Bowls are not awarded in June.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Jets often let their focus stray too far down the road.  I’m not saying the Super Bowl shouldn’t be the goal every year, because it should be.  But it might be time for Rex Ryan to shelve some of his dramatic predictions (no matter what their motives actually are) and just focus on winning the next game.  In all professional sports, there’s an element of “grinding” through a long season to get to where you want to be.  The 2011 Jets were not a team that was willing to grind (their losses to the Raiders and Eagles are great examples of this, I think) through the less exciting parts of their schedule.

Lesson 5: The Right Amount of Swagger

There’s a fine line in all sports between confidence and cockiness. A team is in danger though, when it begins to believe its own hype. Part of what made the Jets successful in 2009 and 2010 was their brash, “we can beat anybody” attitude. The other side of that coin is the overconfidence that this cultivates, and results in a season like 2011.

The Rangers are never going to be guaranteeing victories in the media before games (unless Mark Messier laces ’em up again), but the belief in their ability is there.  The team plays with a quiet confidence. Young defenseman Michael Del Zotto has said repeatedly that coach Tortorella urges him to play “with swagger”.  The message is there, it’s just not broadcast.

So there you have it: five lessons that the Jets would be well-served to learn from their unlikely hockey counterparts before they kick off their 2012 campaign.  There are plenty of football-specific moves that need to be made, and will be discussed ad nauseum here and plenty of other places.

In the meantime, I urge even non-hockey fans flip on MSG (provided you’re not subject to the Time Warner Cable/MSG Network mess) and take a look at a team that has been New York’s most consistent winner since October. There’s a lot to like.

TOJ Championship Week Preview

TOJ with a preview of the AFC and NFC Championship Game

It feels like a hundred years ago we were preparing for the New York Jets vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. This year’s version features the two team’s top rivals, as the New England Patriots have reasserted their dominance of the AFC East and the Baltimore Ravens have finally maneuvered further in the playoffs than Pittsburgh.

At first glance, it is hard to convince yourself that Baltimore can win this football game. Yet, you then need to remind yourself that New England hasn’t beaten a team with a better than .500 record all season and that they lost to a similarly constructed Jets team in the playoffs last year. Baltimore has the talent on the defense to disrupt the Patriots mighty offense. The question is really whether the Ravens offense can do enough to pull off the upset?

New England’s defense is garbage but the simplicity and mediocrity of the Ravens offense may not be able to take enough advantage of it to pull the upset. In the end, I think the New England revenge tour continues another week and they knock off the Ravens in a game closer than most expect.

In the NFC, the Giants and their fans have got the match-up they have wanted in San Francisco. I would offer a word of caution from experience however. I remember a New York team and their fans being incredibly hyped after knocking off the consensus best team in the regular season on the road in the divisional round and then being understandably confident against a team they looked good against earlier in the season in the Championship Game, just to suffer a major let-down.

From the sounds of things, the Giants have already punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t sleep on San Francisco in the Mud Bowl that the field should be on Sunday. Regardless, in this year of NFL misery for Jets fans it only makes sense we would have to suffer through a Giants/Patriots rematch, so why pick against it?

Nine Moments When You Knew This Wasn’t The Jets Season

The nine key moments when you knew 2011 wasn’t the Jets season

It was easy to remain somewhat optimistic all the way to the end of the New York Jets 2011 season. Despite their ongoing struggles, they remained viable playoff contenders all the way until the final minutes of their schedule. Yet, throughout the year there were ongoing moments, where you had to say to yourself “this just isn’t our year.”

1. Oh What A Start – Most people forget the Jets season started with Dallas marching right down the field on their defense and scoring a touchdown as Dez Bryant ripped a fade route away from Antonio Cromartie. Their first play on offense was then DeMarcus Ware ripping past Wayne Hunter and nearly killing Mark Sanchez. We should have known right there this defense would be a disappointment and Hunter would be a disaster.

2. Oakland Meltdown – The Jets were in control against Oakland week 3, up 17-7 and looking like they were headed to a 3-0 record. Yet, what followed was a complete meltdown which showed a mentally weak team that lacked character. Missed tackles. Muffed kicks. And just like that a 3 game losing streak was underway.

3. Accept Losing – The way the Jets locker room treated their week 5 loss to New England should have raised red flags. They sounded all too content to have lost a relatively close game. The confidence that they were better than New England was clearly gone.

4. Brady/Tebow – In retrospect, the Jets season was summed up by their two ugly losses in a four day span to New England and Denver in the middle of the season. There was something particularly soft about the way they went down against Denver that really drove the point home.

5. Pathetic Win – Considering how bad the Buffalo Bills were playing before their week 12 match-up with the Jets, it is was kind of embarrassing that they needed a late drop by Stevie Johnson to preserve a win at home.

6. No Show – How do you no-show in Philadelphia the way the Jets did with a playoff spot on the line? Calvin Pace thanked the Eagles after the game for showing mercy because he admitted the Jets had no chance of stopping them.

7. No Tackle – The Jets were in complete control of their game against the Giants until they failed to tackle Victor Cruz on a 8 yard out route that turned into a 99 yard touchdown. If you had watched this team all season, you knew the game was over after that play…and it was.

8. Bubby Brister – Anytime you throw not one, but two interceptions to a defensive lineman, in a single game…you aren’t a playoff team.

9. Quit – Captain Holmes wanted no part of the Jets come back.

New York Jets Locker Room: We Get It…

Like most stories around the New York Jets, the chemistry issue has been beaten to death

In case you haven’t received the memo yet, the New York Jets locker room was an ugly situation this past season.

We have heard the same story reiterated every three days or so since the season ended. Whether it is a current player, an anonymous player, or an ex-player. Everybody has come out of the woodwork to drive home how completely dysfunctional this organization is.

Does it not feel like the Jets went 2-14 last year?

Their locker has been portrayed as having been such a disaster scene that it is mind blowing to think they actually were 8-8. Could you imagine if Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes could move from being 2pac to Biggie to just a couple guys who generally didn’t like each other next year?

The point is that this story, like most surrounding the team, has been beaten to death. Chemistry was a major issue for the 2011 team but there were other problems, notably a lack of talent in certain key spots and questionable coaching.

Plenty will be made out of the Jets going back to Cortland this year as a team building exercise. I am sure Rex Ryan will be talking all the time about he feels the 2012 has improved chemistry and is getting along. You can already see the team motto being “One Team. One Direction” or something like that.

The reality is that unless they improve their safeties and linebackers, they won’t be able to stop New England and won’t win the AFC East. If Mark Sanchez doesn’t improve, along with the protection around him, and his running game, the Jets won’t be a playoff team even if they are having slumber parties and making popcorn together.

New York Jets Top Priority Will Be Sanchez

Mike Tannenbaum’s main focus this off-season will be supporting Mark Sanchez

I wouldn’t bank on Peyton Manning coming through that door, New York Jets fans. What I would bank on is General Manager Mike Tannenbaum doing everything in his power this off-season to prevent his franchise quarterback, Mark Sanchez, breaking in his make or break year.

The last thing Tannenbaum and this organization want to do is be forced to concede after this season that trading up for Sanchez was a mistake and then undergo the task of finding another quarterback to build around. The main priority for this off-season will be adding as much around Sanchez on offense as possible to help him have a productive season.

The hiring of Tony Sparano brings back the mentality of running the football along with a needed emphasis on protecting the quarterback. There is no way the Jets are sending Sanchez out there for another season with Wayne Hunter as a starter. Finding a competent starting right tackle is the first order of business this off-season. The free agent list isn’t crawling with them, which means the Jets may have to get creative in terms of swinging a trade.

Expect the offensive line to receive support through the draft in the middle rounds and for maybe a second veteran to be added for depth purposes. After what he saw last year and with Sparano now in house, Tannenbaum won’t short change himself at this position.

Supporting Sanchez goes beyond protecting him with the starting five offensive lineman. There are some rumors of Dustin Keller not fitting in with the new offense but his chemistry with Sanchez can’t be ignored. Instead look for the Jets to replace the hapless Matthew Mulligan with a quality blocking tight end who could also handle catching 20-25 passes. Keller’s role could be altered as he spends more of time split out or at H-Back than in-line at tight end but expect him back in a Jets jersey this year.

Along those lines, the Jets will likely add another running back and wide receiver to the mix. You can’t Ground and Pound with their current depth chart at running back and you can’t stretch the field for chunks of yardages with their current depth chart at receiver. There isn’t enough proven talent and durability at running back and there isn’t enough top end speed at receiver. Expect a veteran and a draft pick added at each of the two positions.

Finally, Tannenbaum needs to find a veteran to push Sanchez in training camp. Chad Henne makes the most sense on paper or somebody similar to him with recent starting experience.

We all know safety and linebacker are major needs for the Jets but don’t surprised when most of the focus this off-season is building around Sanchez on offense so he can flourish in Tony Sparano’s system.

(Very) Preliminary Thoughts On New York Jets Off-Season

Some very early thoughts on the New York Jets off-season

At this point of the NFL season, it is still very hard to project exactly what type of direction the eliminated New York Jets will go in during the off-season. There are too many variables at play.

In terms of players, it is easy to throw around names off of free agency lists and throw darts at the board to come up with draft picks but it will take a little more time for real options to come into focus. There will be conflicting reports in the coming months about the Jets cap situation. I find a reliable source to be NYJetsCap.com, which is consistent in painting an accurate picture of where they truly stand.

As of right now, let’s look at what we know about the Jets needs in the off-season –

Offense

Right Tackle/Offensive Line Depth – The Jets depth will receive a boost if they get a healthy Robert Turner back. However, we all know they can’t get through another season with Wayne Hunter at right tackle. Based on the structure of his contract, it would be shocker if he wasn’t released. His play wasn’t up to par this year and cutting him will give the Jets some needed cap space. There are no reliable in house options as a replacement and the list of free agents isn’t particularly impressive. The Jets may be wise to bring in a stop gap veteran and draft a tackle in the second or third round to learn behind him and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. They should also bring other bargain basement free agent to provide additional depth, especially if Turner doesn’t come back.

Wide Receiver – Santonio Holmes isn’t going anywhere. It would be too much of a cap hit. He will be back as the Jets number one receiver and promising second year player Jeremy Kerley will be back as the number three. What the Jets need is a split end who can take some pressure off Holmes and create separation between the 20s, which Plaxico Burress couldn’t do. The exciting names on the market are Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, and Brandon Lloyd. I don’t think the Jets will spend that kind of money however. A second tier receiver with potential to grow like Robert Meachem or Laurent Robinson could be a smarter buy, especially if he is paired with a speedy receiver in the fourth or fifth round to develop behind him.

Running Back – I don’t think anybody should be fully confident in a trio of Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight, and Bilal Powell leading the Jets run heavy, Tony Sparano approach. Matt Forte and Maurice Jones-Drew are probably pipe dreams at best but there are some other intriguing veteran options, namely Ryan Grant, Jason Snelling, Tashard Choice, Derrick Ward, and Steve Slaton. I also wouldn’t be shocked if the Jets considered adding Ronnie Brown on a veteran’s minimum deal, with Sparano now heading the offense. Mike Tannenbaum has also drafted four running backs in the past three years, so expect another one.

Quarterback – The Jets need a competent number two to push Mark Sanchez. Chad Henne is the name you will hear the most (outside of Peyton Manning, which I still say has about a 5% chance of happening), but Jason Campbell, Brady Quinn, and Dennis Dixon could be other good veteran options.

Tight End – The Jets will likely use Jeff Cumberland and Josh Baker more after they cut Matthew Mulligan but Tony Sparano may want to bring another blocking option in house.

Defense

Defensive Line – I don’t see the Jets doing much here outside of resigning Sione Pouha. There have been some rumblings about Mike DeVito potentially being cut to save money but I have hard time seeing that happen, considering how well he fits in Rex Ryan’s scheme.

Linebacker – Nobody would argue with Bart Scott or Calvin Pace being cut but the cap hit could be too much to eat. I still wouldn’t be shocked if Scott was cut regardless, but that means the Jets need an inside linebacker along with the outside linebacker they already need. I would expect the Jets first round pick to have a high probability of being an outside linebacker and maybe they can talk Bryan Thomas to coming back on a cheap deal to hold the spot while he develops. Aaron Maybin should be brought back and Jamaal Westerman is on the bubble.

Safety – The Jets probably need two new starting safeties but with all the other previously mentioned needs, how realistic is that? A few early mock drafts have them taking Mark Barron but who knows at this point? If they don’t take an outside linebacker in round one, it will likely be a safety and if they don’t take a safety in round one, they better take one in round two and then another one later in the draft. Have you seen New England’s tight ends lately? Cutting Eric Smith makes sense financially and on the field. Jim Leonhard could come back cheap to provide some veteran stability. LaRon Landry is the most exciting name on the free agent list but he could be too pricey.

TOJ Preliminary Thoughts On Conference Championships: Jets Fan Hell

Preliminary thoughts on Championship Sunday and the ongoing Jets fan hell as 2007 repeats itself

Coming off a terrific 0-4 weekend on Divisional Weekend picks against the spread, I have decided it is time to embrace the reality that 2007 is about to repeat itself Jets fans. Giants vs. Patriots for the second time in five seasons is about occur and all the misery that comes associated with it.

The NFL Playoffs are about getting hot at the right time and the Giants are rolling right now coming off three straight blowout victories. It is nice to continually hear how their late season run started with their victory over our New York Jets. Could you imagine where’d we be at now if Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson could just tackle Victor Cruz on that 99 yard touchdown? Oh well.

That was an epic win by San Francisco over New Orleans but they were able to take advantage of a sloppy game by the Saints, where they were turning the ball over up and down the field. I just can’t see Alex Smith standing up to the Giants pass rush and the 49ers knocking off a team as confident as the Giants must be now after beating up on the Packers in a game they should have won by 30 if it wasn’t for horrific officiating.

For New England/Baltimore, if the Ravens weren’t playing a third-string rookie quarterback they would have easily lost to Houston who manhandled their offense. However, that being said the Ravens will be confident going into New England because they won there before and will now be facing a much worse defense than Houston. I don’t think that confidence will be enough though. It is too hard to see Joe Flacco out-dueling Tom Brady on his homefield.

So buckle up Jets fans, for two weeks of Giants/Patriots coverage and starting back at square one where the Jets were in 2007 in terms of being behind their division and city rival. Hey, they signed Brett Favre that following off-season. So maybe Peyton Manning is really on the way…

NFL Divisional Round: Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On

Justin with a breakdown of the Patriots/Broncos divisional round match-up for TOJ

While everyone from Denver settles themselves in as the sun goes down, Patriots fans are having some serious inner dialogue. What is he going to do? Are they going to play this one conservative? Is Tim Tebow saving the final act for the field where playoff hopes go to die for the home team? What if he starts airing it out all over the place, with the occasional QB draw once he finally gets his 2 deep look?

The problem for the Patriots is not the Broncos defense. It’s the Broncos offensive playcalling, which NO ONE CAN EXPLAIN. Seriously, did anyone think the Broncos were gonna average 31.6 yard per pass? Nope. Not even New England tried that against the Steelers. It was all dink and dunk over the middle, couple of comeback routes and the occasional power run to keep everything close. No one is ready for what the Broncos are going to unleash tonight. Least of all the Patriots secondary. Sure the Pats are going to try some 2 deep zone looks to try and keep things in front of them, but Tebow will bring them closer, if for nothing else but to see if there are still pupils in his eyes.

I keep looking over the sheets of notes I made here, with the name Stevan Ridley popping out at me. That’s what terrifies me most about the Patriots. They can change the pace of a game WHENEVER THEY WANT. They have Green-Ellis to just run up the middle and get blasted a few times for 3 yards a clip. Then there’s the two strangest x factor backs most people have never even heard of. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen may in fact turn this Patriots running game into a strange troika of smoke-screening, with Danny Woodhead ready for a jumbo formation counter play when Brady checks out of the spread as the safeties of Denver begin to have a very serious dilemma. What happens when the 4 wide set is Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, Deon Branch, and Rob Gronkowski? Suddenly Woodhead motions in, and Gronkowski slides left into a bunch formation. Decisions need to be made. Quickly.

Let’s be clear. This isn’t about revenge for Tom Brady. He got his revenge by owning the Jets twice this year. This is about respect. Everyone knows that a playoff loss at home to Tim Tebow is going to set this team back about two years, when everyone was unanimously picking them for at least an AFC championship game appearance. That hasn’t happened in over 4 years, and despite the fact that his supporting cast has become great and awful simultaneously, Brady and Belichick know there are only two faces that will appear on the back of the Boston Herald.

Counterpoint: What may in fact be worse for the rest of the league is that a loss to the Broncos is going to cause a dramatic shift for the Patriots in terms of draft and free agent ideology. As of now, the Patriots have two first round picks, two second round picks, and two third round picks. Which leaves this doomsday scenario. Patriots move up about ten spots in the first round, and move up in the second, while cutting the fat of a few older players with some draft day trades. Two legitimate first round picks on defense, and two more second rounders, one defense and maybe another receiver. There will be serious problems if the Patriots get a pass rush anything near the Giants, and if they have a secondary that can at least be adequate in man coverage, teams are going to have a serious issue on their hands when you’re trying to force the ball down the field because Tom Brady just put up 28 on you in less than 15 minutes.

And what if the Broncos win? ESPN executives will begin to hemorrhage and contemplate a running banner of Tim Tebow tweets from now until the Super Bowl. There will be no escape. Giant slayers. Holy rollers. Brady beaters. No one wants to mention the fact that Mark Sanchez beat Manning and Brady back to back on the road last year, because that’s last year, and it’s been established by his own defense that Mark Sanchez sucks.

Tim Tebow winning in Foxborough will change things. That’s why it won’t happen. Even Ochocinco admitted that Tom Brady has turned into the Tom Brady everyone despises outside of Boston. The guy whose main focus is to put up enough points so that he can sit down in the third quarter and let Ryan Mallet humiliate the Broncos defense to the tune of 51 points. John Elway will be grinning either way. This is modern day football. Have no faith in miracles.

NFL Divisional Round: The Nervous Breakdown That Is Alex Smith

Justin breaks down the Saints/49ers match-up for TOJ

What may be the most diametrically opposed concepts of football is going to be taking place in San Francisco, a city that ruined my psyche with it’s plethora of drugs, bums, and general aimlessness. This weekend will not be aimless. It has already been lamely compared to “objects in motion stay in motion until they hit immovable forces”, blah blah blah. OK. Here’s what this all breaks down to. Alex Smith not getting his head removed from his shoulders. Why in God’s name would Greg Williams have any respect for Alex Smith, or the big boi on slow legs Frank Gore? Sure the Saints might get beat down the middle a few times, but the Saints know for a fact that they can turn around and put up 14 before anyone knows what happened. You’ll see.

You’ll go out to smoke a cigarette, Alex Smith marching down the field with some counters, a little play action, and even a few comebacks out of the spread, ball is on the 30. Then what happens? Saints score 10 points. Huh? Yep. Alex Smith gets sacked on the Saints 20, Drew Brees runs a draw for 20 yards and all of the sudden Jimmy Graham gets loose down the seam because the two linebackers are trying to spy over the middle. Easy stuff.

Where this game may get interesting is when Brees gets into 3rd and long, which will happen less than 5 times the entire game. Mark my words. The Saints are going to keep things interesting, two tight end sets, play action, shovel passes to Sproles, and the occasional power run set. The Saints don’t want to overpower the 49ers, they want to outsmart them. The Saints are fencing and the 49ers want a street fight. You don’t get points for punching in fencing.

If Mark Ingram was in this game, it’s not even close. The Saints would stuff it until someone gets knocked backwards, and then the play action is at it’s deadliest. But he’s not in, and Pierre Thomas isn’t going to try to run into Aldon Smith on a regular basis.

What I fear, and what will probably happen, is that if the Saints get desperate and it’s a low scoring game, then the first down hail mary will rear its ugly head and the Saints will somehow gain 60 yards without a completion. It’s the ace in the hole for Sean Payton, and Sean Payton likes poker. Will it make 49ers fans fume with rage for the next week and a half?

I really don’t know if San Francisco, as a city, cares about this game. I’ve been there. I spent a week and didn’t see a single jersey. Given, it wasn’t football season, but I have a hard time envisioning the Castro aglow with red jerseys and vicious drunks. Which is why the team should be permanently moved to Alcatraz and people should have to swim for their lives to see the game if they don’t want to pay the price of admission. Sure, a few people wouldn’t make it, but those who do would make even Raiders fans weep tears of joy.

Jesus, where have I gone with this. Too many nights spent staring at swirling patterns on my hotel room bunk bed, 18 year old street fights, and general madness. I know I wrote about the breakdown of Alex Smith, and he may in fact sneak out of here alive, but there’s only one chance for that, and it’s turnovers. Multiple turnovers. The 49ers can’t slow the Saints down to a crawl, no one can. They’re gonna have to do a job of disguising plays that makes Rex Ryan’s last playoff scheme against the Patriots look like 3 box play calling in Madden. Screw Gameflow. I’m rooting for the 49ers, and I’d like to see the NFC West raise themselves from the murk and get interesting. And I like linebackers, just not Jonathan Vilma. Because he, like many others, proved the Jets are inept at keeping talent. So there it is, I like the mud of the 49ers and I’m still trying to find reasons to not give up on the Jets for good. I got rid of the Knicks a week ago, and I’m on Step 7 of recovery.

TOJ Divisional Round Picks

TOJ with his divisional round picks

Wild Card Weekend: 2-2

TOJ Divisional Round Picks

New Orleans (-4.5) vs. San Francisco – Thoroughly exhausted of hearing about this game being outside. The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow and unless a rain storm hits, I am more confident in the Saints taking care of business than the inexperienced 49ers pulling the upset in their first playoff game under John Harbaugh. New Orleans has enough of a running game to keep a balanced approach against a tough 49ers defense and San Francisco’s offense simply won’t make enough big plays to win this game.

Denver (+13.5) vs. New England – New England has a way of being disappointing in home playoff games as of late. Can Tebow really win this game? I’m not sure but he will do enough to keep this under the massive 13.5 point spread.

Baltimore (-7.5) vs. Houston – Sometimes these games get over-analyzed when things should come down to something simple like: do you think rookie T.J. Yates is going into Baltimore, where the Ravens were 8-0 this year, and doing enough to beat that defense? I certainly don’t.

Green Bay (-7.5) vs. Giants – This has been a week filled with everybody comparing this Giants team to the 2007 team, talking up the Giants as the only team who can knock off the Packers, Jason Pierre-Paul making guarantees, Antrel Rolle yapping as usual…and not much chatter coming from the defending champions who went 15-1 this year. This is Aaron Rodgers, having one of the best years in NFL history, not Brett Favre. Green Bay isn’t blowing this game.