Crunch Time

by Bert Bartlett

In about five weeks, we will know who is going to the Super Bowl.  Unless the Seahawks somehow beat Atlanta this weekend, which would be quite a Christmas present from Seattle, it appears the Saints will have to travel the hard route, via 3 regular season and 3 playoff games to get there,  all but one of them on the road.  The Saints can hang with, and extinguish any team in their conference, or in this  league. But will they have enough energy to do so? Extra doses of Vitamin B-12 should be packed in their suitcases. 

It would be nice if several of the remaining games resemble last Sunday’s against St. Louis. Their beast of a running back, Steven Jackson, ripped a 20 yarder off left tackle, only to get stripped of the ball, and fumble for first time in 562 carries (!).  The Saints never let the meek Rams in the game after that,which is what good, veteran, superior teams should mostly do.  The strip has been  a lucrative dance for the Saints defense this season. Next?

 The Baltimore Ravens have played the saltiest defense in the NFL this millenium. When they smothed Kerry Collins and the New York Giants almost a decade ago, defense had never been used so overwhelmingly to get to, and win a Super Bowl. Not only did the Ravens stop thier opponents, they made them feel like wimps.

Their offense was nominal in relevance, and the starting quarterback, Trent Dilfer,was considered so pedestrian, then head coach Brian Billick didn’t even want him back on their team the following season. But Billick outsmarted himself.  The Ravens never got back to the big game. Buddy, don’t be such in a hurry to dump a Super Bowl quarterback. Billick is now a television analyst.

Ray Lewis garnered lots of attention at the time, in part because of his involvement in a shooting that resulted in murder outside a nightclub in Atanta.  But on the field, Lewis was an example that  passion was every bit a requiremnt as physical ability to be great at middle linbacker. His memorable pre-game ritual included the rant, What Time Is It?  Game Time!  The position has all but become extinct in thi era of  liberal substitutions and myriad defensive formations, like the 3-4. At his advanced age, Lewis has become a dinosoaur, and is only about 75% of what he used to be. But 75% of Ray Lewis is still better than 75% of the linebackers in the league.  The best LB on the Ravens is Terrell Suggs, a tall, strong, rangy type who looks and plays every bit as invitingly as a brick wall. Louisiana is represented in their defensive backfield by Hall Of Famer Ed Reed, and Dewon Landry.

Pro football players have to condition year round, and at this stage of the season, those that haven’t been able to stay in shape for whatever reason generally play their way into it.  The Ravens were in Houston on Monday night, comfortaby ahead 28-10, and a peculiar thing happened.  They got gassed.  The Texans consummated long drive after long drive to tie it up and send it into overtime, only to lose it on a short interception return for a touchdown. But rarely do you see pros turn into jelly doughnuts  like the Ravens did – and in December! These guys were so bowled over they could barely keep their hands on their knees.  If Baltimore coaches saw the same thing, there were extra wind sprints run after practice this week. 

Points are points, and the team with the most of them at the end wins, but perhaps Sean Payton’s game plan for the Saints offense this  week should inlcude Take Your Time at the top. Don’t try to overpower them, or big play ’em, as much as  – keep them on the field. Move the chains, baby. And maybe they’ll turn into wind suckers again. Cutting pie is easier than steak. 

Joe Flacco is an ascending young quarterback, but takes awhile to set up, wind up, and throw. The Steelers have used safety and corner blitzes to cause him into game changing turnovers to beat the Ravens. There is nothing immoral in the NFL at this time of year to copycat game strategy. Flacco’s Blind Side is protected by the adoptee in the movie, the real life Michael Oher. Flacco has  veteran receivers to throw to.  Their tight end, Todd Heap, runs crisp routes and catches as good as any.  At running back, Ray Rice has been a Fantasy Football favorite, for his ability to shake loose and score.  He’s dangerous.

 All in all, it’s a tall order, the first of 6,  for the Saints to go up there and win in Baltimore on Sunday. But it can be done. And it won’t hurt the cause if Santa Claus commences his continental U.S. sleigh ride – in the Pacific Northwest.

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