Mike Shanahan channels Brady Hoke, Falcons hang on to win 27-26

redskins-falcons 2013As reported, I was on hand to watch the Falcons host the Redskins (Monuments?) yesterday afternoon, and it was everything you’d hope a late-season pairing of three-win teams would be. Atlanta’s offense was boring but effective in the first half, relying primarily on Steven Jackson, back in action after an early season injury, and Tony Gonzales, who in the second half became just the fifth NFL player ever to tally 15,000 receiving yards. On the other side of the ball, Kirk Cousins’ performance was a mixed bag. Against Atlanta’s soft defense, Cousins posted better passing numbers than Robert Griffin III– spotted wearing warmups on the sideline– has this season, but a couple of interceptions proved costly. Washington nevertheless was in a position to take the game to overtime, or win it outright, thanks to a late touchdown that ran the score to 27-26. Opting to go for the regulation kill on the road, Mike Shanahan made like Brady Hoke and called for the two-point conversion, which failed. Atlanta recovered the sloppy onside kick to seal the one-point win.

Having read about far more NFL games than I’ve attended, the game experience was a bit odd. Even taking into account Atlanta fans’ reputation for lacking a feverish commitment to their teams, the vibe was beyond mellow in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. The noise level was somewhere between a Braves game and the Masters. One fan in our section who caught a free t-shirt used it as a pillow to rest. Another took a nap without similar support. And these weren’t alcohol-induced rests– the only even semi-drunk person we saw was a mom indulging in too much smuggled adult fruit punch– it really was that quiet. Our entire row, and most of our section, including the man pictured above who stood with his back to the field and wouldn’t get out of my picture even though I didn’t ask him to, left before the end of the third quarter, when the Falcons led by only four.

We didn’t find any of this upsetting, and our people-watching experience was further enhanced by the skilled camera operators feeding the nice video boards with fun fan shots. (The ushers probably could stand to lighten up a bit, though. 3-9 vs. 3-9 in December deserves a lighter touch from the regulatory folks.)

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ALDLAND goes live to Redskins-Falcons

The biggest NFL story of the past week is Washington head-coach-for-the-moment Mike Shanahan’s decision to bench healthy starter Robert Griffin III in favor of backup quarterback Kirk Cousins. The Redskins are in Atlanta to play the Falcons today at 1:00, and ALDLAND will be there. I am excited to take in my first NFL game since a few Lions games at the Silverdome in the early 1990s. Most Falcons fans are hoping their team will lose out so as to ensure a high draft pick (Jadaveon Clowney is their preference), but I’d like to experience a home victory. I also am looking forward to seeing MSU-grad Cousins in action. I don’t know whether some or any of Cousins, Griffin, or Shanahan will be in Washington next season, but Cousins has a big professional opportunity to make the case that he deserves to be an NFL starter next year.

Stay tuned here and on twitter for updates from downtown Atlanta this afternoon.

Predicting Boise State vs. Michigan State

In less than three hours, Boise State will take on Michigan State in a Top-25 battle in East Lansing. Playing a ranked opponent in the first game is a risky proposition, especially when it’s Boise State. Just ask Georgia. Still, the Michigan State team that won a share of the Big Ten championship last season (and should have gone to the Rose Bowl as a result) is without quarterback Kirk Cousins and offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, and their strengths– defense and the running game– are somewhat diminished. This isn’t the same Boise Broncos team either, though, especially in the absence of quarterback Kellen Moore, which is why I think MSU will handle their visiting opponents tonight. (Field color may also be a factor.)

As my favorite ESPN.com feature illustrates, the rest of the nation, and indeed the world, agrees with me. By now your eyes have been drawn to a few exceptions, of which there are two kinds. The first is less interesting for sports purposes. These are usually low-population states, and their apparent bucking of the trend usually is the result of a near-even split of a very small number of participants. Here, those states are Alaska (23), Vermont (20), and Rhode Island (45). Social scientists probably have something to say about this interactive map as a tool to measure things like local awareness of broader issues and the availability of internet access.

The second sort is more interesting for sports purposes. These are the states where participants reject rational objectivity and choose the team they want to win the game, rather than the team they think will win the game. Their team could be a 7.5-point dog on the road and they’d still pick them. The overall vote could be two-to-one against them, and they’ll swing even harder in the opposite direction. (Yes, there are some remote reasons why people in Idaho, Montana, and Utah might rationally believe Boise State will win tonight, but please be quiet Mister Social Scientist.)

The truth, of course, is that all voters are of the second type. Or, at least, we all approach the extreme of the second type in positive correlation with the strength of our emotional connection to at least one of the teams involved, and I’m really ok with that. In fact, I love it.

Big Monday

Today really isn’t a big day, and most of the weekend’s football games were duds, but there were a couple notable exceptions.

Saturday day was pretty slow around the college football world, but things picked up Saturday night, when two unbeaten teams, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, put their perfect records to the test and failed to preserve them. In East Lansing, Michigan State made it two in a row against the Badgers. Wisconsin dominated early, but the Spartans seized the momentum and the lead, which they held for most of the game. In typical MSU fashion, though, their attention lapsed and Wisconsin was able to tie the game at 31. With no time on the clock, QB Kirk Cousins threw a Hail Mary (or “Rocket” pass in Dantonio terminology– we always seem to learn the names of his game-winning plays) to the endzone that bounced off B.J. Cunningham’s face and into the waiting hands of Keith Nichol, who muscled it across the goal line for the walk-off score:

That game finished in time to watch Texas Tech complete its victory over Oklahoma, a game the Red Raiders mostly dominated, although the Sooners threatened to make it interesting late, after most of their fans had left. (Vanderbilt wrapped up a homecoming win against Army before both of these games.)

All of which caused me to miss a dominant performance by Albert Pujols in Game 3 of the World Series.

On Sunday, the Lions dropped their second straight game and looked a lot like their old selves. Speaking of which, I saw former Lion QB Dan Orlovsky on the sidelines in Indianapolis during their loss in New Orleans, which made me think that, of the three defeated NFL teams– Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Miami– the Colts may actually be trying to lose all their games. Orlovsky has to be a better option than Curtis Painter. He certainly was a serviceable player for the Lions last year, and Painter is not that. The Rams are suffering from critical injuries at QB and RB, and the Dolphins, who need Andrew Luck most of these three, really just are that bad. But Jim Caldwell’s decision to go with Painter over Orlovsky supports the notion that Indy is tanking this, although they really are pretty bad all on their own too. On the topic of rookie quarterbacks, Cam Newton turned his record-breaking stat parade into a win for Carolina, and Tim Tebow did what Tim Tebow now does, apparently, in his first start for Denver, coming from behind to beat the aforementioned and still hapless Dolphins in Miami.

In hockey, the Washington Capitals dealt the Detroit Red Wings their first loss of the year in a 7-1 Capitals home win.