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It was a bittersweet week in the world of American sports. The return of the real referees in the NFL and a strong opening to the Ryder Cup brought smiles to many sports fans. Then came Sunday, when the American Ryder Cup team blew a four-point lead to lose its second straight Ryder Cup.
We will begin with the NFL and the four great weeks of football we have had. These first four weeks have included possibly the biggest controversial call on Monday Night Football, the subsequent return of the “Real Referees”, three undefeated teams and the fact that I have only had to watch the Jets’ Tim Tebow for 10 offensive plays.
A review of the first quarter of the season must start with the giant elephant in the room: the NFL just tried to insert cheaper and unprepared referees thinking that it wouldn’t have a big impact on the field. Well, three weeks of blatantly missed calls, constant disrespect from the coaches and players and the disgusting robbery of the Packers on Monday Night Football has proven that to be false. After the replacement referees missed Seattle wide receiver Golden Tate’s obvious pass interference call and ruled that he caught the game-winning touchdown, it was only a matter of time before the real referees were back on the field. With the fans are outraged, current and retired players cursing at the NFL through various social media outlets and the integrity of the game being questioned, the NFL had no choice.
The price the NFL paid to bring back their normal officials (which included bigger pensions, higher salaries, and fulltime employment for referees, among other things) was not cheap, but it was certainly worth it. When the owners who pay the commissioner’s salary and the fans that pay the owners’ salaries are both unhappy, the NFL is sure to listen.
Now that all of that is settled, we can get back to focusing on the teams and players who are making this another intriguing and entertaining season. Only the Falcons, Texans and Cardinals remain undefeated at 4-0 so far. After that, there are 17 teams at 3-1 or 2-2 trying to separate themselves from the pack. As is almost always the case, ranking teams this early in the season can be unreliable and misleading, but the top five overall NFL teams are quite clear.
The conversation about the NFL’s best team starts and ends with that dominating team in Texas. No, not the Cowboys, the Houston Texans. The Texans are 4-0 and are doing it with great balance between their offense and defense. On offense they have scored 126 points and have only allowed 56, which are first and second in the league respectively. Quarterback Matt Schaub is healthy and has a lot of weapons around him including running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson, both of whom have strong arguments for being the best players in the NFL at their positions. The defense lost All-Pro and former first overall pick defensive end Mario Williams in the offseason to Buffalo, but defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is out of the Dallas spotlight and has his boys playing lights out. Linebacker Brian Cushing, who leads the team with 24 tackles, and the multidimensional defensive tackle J.J. Watt, who leads the league with 7.5 sacks through four games, are both emerging stars. Overall, the Texans get the nod as the top team in the land because they have smoked all four opponents and have a very easy road to the playoffs.
The Atlanta Falcons come in as the No. 2 team in the league and are built very similarly to the Texans. Quarterback Matt Ryan is a smart, accurate quarterback who distributes the ball well to his receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones, tight end Tony Gonzalez and his dependable running back Michael Turner. At first look, their defense does not jump out of the stat book, but they certainly pass the eye test. Playmakers like the pass rushing specialist John Abraham, and shut down corners Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson allow the Falcons to run complex zone coverages and explosive blitz packages that have baffled opponents this season, most notably Peyton Manning.
San Francisco 49ers
The 3-1 San Francisco 49ers rank as the NFL’s third best, just slightly ahead of the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. Despite having a worse record, the 49er’s are a much more talented team and have a much more realistic shot at making a deep run into the playoffs. Their one loss in Minnesota was tough, but Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder played the game of his life, and getting run on by Adrian Peterson is nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, this loss has a silver lining because it removes a lot of pressure from the team as they move forward in the season. Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has his team playing with the same mental and physical toughness that led to so much success last year. However, the key to the Niners season is quarterback Alex Smith, who has been a revelation under Harbaugh. If Smith does not turn the ball over and the running game stays strong, the Niners should be in the NFC championship game again and possibly the Super Bowl.
As was just discussed, the Cardinals are only slightly behind the Niners for the simple fact that they have guys like Kevin Kolb and John Skelton playing quarterback for them. I cannot see either of those guys leading this team to a division title or playoff run. However, their defense has played absolutely dominating football this season. They have allowed only 61 points this season, with strong performances in their 20-18 win in New England and in their rout of the Eagles 27 -6. What was once one of the league’s weakest divisions, the NFC West now boasts some of the best defenses and hottest teams in the league. Only time will tell if the Cardinals can withstand the 49ers, Seahawks and Rams.
The Baltimore Ravens round out the top five in the league, because frankly, their future hall of famer linebacker Ray Lewis frightens me and I would not dare pick against him. In all seriousness, the Ravens offense is explosive and is getting better with the continued maturation of quarterback Joe Flacco. He has everything a young QB could want: a great every-down running back in Ray Rice, two good receivers in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin and most of all an intimidating defense. With those weapons, Flacco and his offense are second in the league in yards per game (424) and fifth in total points (121). Defensively, they are tied for 11th in the league in total points allowed with 83, and 23rd in the league in yards allowed per game with 390. They are certainly feeling the loss of Terrell Suggs, last year’s defensive player of the year, but the real problem is that the defense is aging. Perennial pro-bowlers Ed Reed and Ray Lewis can still dominate by all means, but the days of allowing less than 10 points per game are gone.
So there are the top five teams so far this season. That’s not to exclude several teams who are still playing good football and find themselves right behind the top five. The Bears had a good showing against the Cowboys on Monday night, but still have inconsistent play from the offensive line and quarterback that dates back to last year. The Eagles have all the talent in the world, but Michael Vick has nine turnovers and only five touchdowns through these first four games. If he can be more careful with the football and their defense plays like it should, the Eagles will be battling for an NFC championship. As far as the Bengals, Vikings and the Chargers, they are simply not talented enough to make serious noise come playoff time for various reasons. The Patriots will always score points, but their young defense needs to grow up sooner rather than later if the Patriots are to be serious contenders. The Packers and Giants are both in similar situations; they are set at quarterback and have tons of offensive weapons. Their defenses are built upon rushing the quarterback and struggle against the run.
Unfortunately, the joy of watching correctly-officiated NFL games was eventually replaced with shock and utter disbelief at the American Ryder Cup team’s Sunday collapse. The tournament began on Friday with the alternate shot foursomes. The Americans split the morning groupings 2-2. In the afternoon four ball, where each golfer plays his own ball instead of alternating, winning another three points for the Americans, bringing the score to 5-3. Saturday was another promising day for the Americans, winning three more points in the morning and two more in the afternoon. Entering Sunday, the Americans led 10-6, needing only 4.5 more points to win the Cup. Unfortunately, Sunday at the Ryder Cup is a totally different beast. Instead of playing with a partner, 12 golfers from each team play singles matches which are each worth one point. At the end of Sunday, the American team went 3-8-1 and lost the Cup to Team Europe who has now won five of the last six.
So what happened? Well for starters, Tiger Woods went 0-3-1 and was not the experienced leader the Americans needed him to be. Also, American captain Davis Love III has come under scrutiny for his captain’s picks. His choices were Dustin Johnson, Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker and Steve Stricker, all of whom deserved to be on the team, but performed quite poorly. Furyk, Snedeker, and Stricker went a combined 2-8 in their matches, while Dustin Johnson went 3-0. However, the Americans do not deserve this much fault. Team Europe played absolutely brilliant golf on the final day and somehow played better than the sum of their parts. This inspiration to victory was found in the remembrance of Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011. European captain Jose Maria Olazabal was a close friend of Ballesteros and used his image to inspire his team to victory.