Merely a week ago the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots were crumbling empires, garnering respect solely due to past success but not considered legitimate title contenders this year. Instead the young and vibrant Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Cincinnati Bengals were primed and ready to take up the gauntlet. Oh how things change in a week. The Patriots reclaimed their dominance over the NFC East with a crushing 37-16 victory over division rivals the New York Jets. This was the first time that rambunctious Jets coach Rex Ryan had been swept by their bitter rivals, and it will require much machination on his part for the Jets to have a chance of making the playoffs, let alone avenging their losses. Meanwhile the Steelers edged a nervy game over the upstart Bengals, putting an end to the fairytale start of rookie Andy Dalton with two crucial fourth quarter interceptions. With two losses against the Ravens however, Pittsburgh will probably have to settle for a Wild Card berth in the playoffs. Although Baltimore look determined to be schizophrenic this season, following up their huge victory in Pittsburgh with an embarrassing loss to the 2-6 Seattle Seahawks
Up until this week, the Houston Texans had been the surprise package of the NFL. Notoriously unpredictable in the past, the Texans have been a model of consistency this season, and stand at 7-3, firmly in control of the AFC South and on course for the franchise’s first ever playoff appearance. Even more surprising is that this success has been predicated upon the defence, which has stepped up to the mark in the absence of injuries to offensive superstars Arian Foster and Andre Johnson. However, their title hopes were dealt a blow this week when quarterback Matt Schaub was ruled out for the season, leaving the team in the not-at-all-capable hands of Matt Leinart. Once a star in college at USC, being named the nation’s best player in 2004, Leinart has now become something of a joke in the NFL. Drafted in the first round by Arizona, he had two of this generation’s best wide receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, at his disposal, yet could not win. Instead he was benched for 37 year-old Kurt Warner who led the team to the Super Bowl. Leinart once again has been given the opportunity to flourish in the pro game, let’s see if he actually can this time. I somehow doubt it.
In the NFC, everything is much more plain and simple. The Super Bowl champions Green Bay Packers are the team to beat, and no one has managed that yet as they duly marched on to a 9-0 record via a 45-7 thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night. Aaron Rodgers is having potentially the best season ever by a quarterback and is on course to break records in completion percentage, quarterback rating and touchdowns. The only team who have come close are the New Orleans Saints, who were stopped on fourth down in the dying seconds of the two previous Super Bowl Champions’ games on opening night. The Saints moved to 7-3 and took control of the NFC South with a gutsy overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Led by the transcendental Drew Brees, the Saints appear to be the only team who can stay with the Packers offensively. In terms of defence, there is one team in the NFC who might have a shot at stopping the Green Bay juggernaut. The San Francisco 49ers have conceded the least amount of points in the NFL through nine games, and with their methodical running attack keeping the ball away from Rodgers, they could well have the perfect formula to beat the champs. It seems hard to look past the Packers as the NFC Champions though.
Lockout: Decertification Special!
Talks between the NBA players union and the league have once again broken down. Except this time, things have got a whole lot uglier. It seemed like the two sides were close to agreeing upon a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would allow the season to start only a few weeks late; however, the players rejected the league’s ultimatum offer and went one step further by deciding to decertificate the Union. This is a highly aggressive move as it essentially turns many of the previously agreed upon rules in the NBA, such as the salary cap, into illegal practice under anti-trust laws. Once decertified, the players can sue the union to stop the lockout. This takes the battle away from the negotiation table and into the (legal) courts, turning a potentially quick and painless process into a long, drawn out one fraught with bureaucracy. The owners desire to retaliate to the players’ reactionary move will only exasperate this; it now looks increasingly likely that there will be no professional basketball this season. Everybody loses.
Whilst no side of this legal fiasco comes out covered in anything resembling grace or dignity, it is undoubtedly true that the players have been treated terribly, and that by taking a stand they are doing something inherently noble. The whole process has inevitably been contrasted with the current global recession, one that has badly hit the American middle-classes. Public opinion has been that of shock that the players are willing to turn down any amount of money in a climate where employment is hard to come by, especially the millions they are leaving on the table. But by sacrificing their paychecks to stand up to billionaires’ bullying tactics, the players are clearly on the same page as the unemployed who deride them, putting collective workers rights before selfish gains. While ideologically this is something to be admired, the way the players have gone about it is not. Their leader Billy Hunter has proven to be spineless, more keen on job security and risk-aversion than securing a deal, and the decision to decertify this late in the process, almost certainly jeopardising the season, is an obtuse one.