Friday, September 30, 2005

Jets Need Bollinger To Come Through At Baltimore

In the wake of a disastrous 26-20 OT loss at home to Jacksonville last week which resulted in Chad Pennington out for the season with a torn rotator cuff and Jay Fiedler (shoulder) also out indefinitely, the Jets (1-2) turn to third stringer Brooks Bollinger Sunday at Baltimore (0-2).

It's a tough spot for the third-year quarterback to make his first career start because the Ravens are one of the toughest defenses in the NFL and will do all they can to win their first game of the season. They're also coming off two losses in which they allowed 49 points, only recording one sack, one fumble recovery and no interceptions. Led by All-Pro Ray Lewis (19 tackles), they should be rearing to go at home off a bye week.

Bollinger has attempted just nine passes in his NFL career, which should change.

While Bollinger attempts to lead the Jets through the air, All-Pro Curtis Martin should have his hands full against the Ravens D. The 32-year-old Martin has run for just 196 yards, a paltry 2.8 average. It's his third worst start in an 11-year career. Unfortunately for Martin, Lewis knows what to expect.

"If I'm the head coach and my starting quarterback leaves for the season, and I have the leading rusher in the NFL last year, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know my game plan," Lewis said.

The Jets offensive line must do a decent job blocking or it could be a long day.

"It was hard enough already, and my guess is that it's going to get a lot harder to run the ball in the immediate future," guard Pete Kendall said.

One Raven the Jets should beware of is Terrell Suggs. He has no sacks this year but over the last two seasons, he had 22.5 sacks. Suggs knows what his D must get back to.

"Whenever we go in there and are playing Ravens-style defense, then teams are in trouble," Suggs said. "We really haven't gotten into that because the quarterbacks have been able to get the ball out. It takes away our aggressiveness."

Bollinger will try to form quick chemistry with leading receiver Laveranues Coles (15 catches-for-151 yards, TD) and also try to connect with Justin McCareins (nine receptions). Tight end Chris Baker (11 catches-for-172 yards, TD) and vet Wayne Chrebet (seven receptions) are two other options.

Most likely with his inexperience, Jets offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will call a low risk game to ease Bollinger into the system.

If he struggles, the Jets brought back Vinny Testaverde as backup. The 41-year-old Brooklyn native once led Gang Green to the AFC title game in 1998 before falling to eventual Super Bowl champion Denver. After losing his starting job to Pennington three years ago, Testaverde started for Dallas last year, throwing for 3,532 yards along with 17 TDs and 20 interceptions.

At the moment though, he will help support Bollinger from the sideline. Something that doesn't phase the former Miami Hurricane.

"I'm excited, happy, nervous, anxious, all those feelings about playing for the Jets again," said Testaverde. "I hope things work out for the best."

"Right now, Vinny is not starting, he is not running out of the tunnel in Baltimore being the starter," said coach Herman Edwards. "He is going to be standing next to me. Brooks is starting. From there, we will see."

Edwards wants his quarterback to just go out there and be himself.

"You tell them to go have fun ... be who you are. You're good enough at who you are to play in this league. You don't have to be anything different," Edwards said.

Meanwhile, the Jets defense has done all they could so far to stay in games. Though they've allowed 60 points, it's a bit misleading. In Week One, they lost 27-7 to the Chiefs. Since, they have tightened up allowing an average of 16.5 points the past two games.

Led by 2004 Defensive Rookie of the Year linebacker Jonathan Vilma (32 tackles), the Jets look to contain Ravens back Jamal Lewis Sunday. The All-Pro is off to a slow start with 26 attempts for just 57 yards (2.2 avg) and no TDs.

With starting QB Kyle Boller out for at least two more weeks with a hyperextended right toe, Gang Green will turn up the heat on backup Anthony Wright. Since replacing Boller in Week One, Wright has struggled, tossing three picks including two that were run back for scores. Leading rusher John Abraham (three sacks) along with Shaun Ellis (sack) and Bryan Thomas (sack) could make life miserable for Wright Sunday.

Baltimore does possess two primary targets in Derrick Mason (16 catches-for-159 yards, TD) and tight end Todd Heap (nine receptions). The Jets secondary led by Erik Coleman (16 tackles), David Barrett (14 tackles, interception) and Ty Law (11 tackles, Int) must keep them in check.

Look for both offenses to have problems moving the ball in a tightly contested low scoring game which might hinge on a field goal.

Giants Look To Bounce Back Against Rams

After starting out 2-0, the Giants (2-1) got a reality check last Sunday night at San Diego, blown out 45-23. It was the most points they had allowed since a 45-7 defeat at New Orleans December 14, 2003. Ironically that was also a Sunday night game.

With much attention on how Eli Manning would perform against the team he refused to play for after being drafted, Big Blue's defense was atrocious. They allowed LaDainian Tomlinson to run wild for three touchdowns and 192 yards. Adding insult to injury, he even passed for a TD. Drew Brees also torched the secondary for two TDs, missing on just three of 22 passes.

Manning acquitted himself well, tossing for a career high 352 yards and two scores. It was the only silver lining on an otherwise embarrassing game.

The Giants return home Sunday to The Meadowlands for a match-up against the Rams (2-1) at 1 PM on Fox. Coach Tom Coughlin sees it as vital with a bye week coming up.

"It is a very important game," said Coughlin. "It would be a great opportunity for us, at home, to win, to finish the first phase of our season in good standing and to be excited and reinforced about the next phase. But because of the timing of this game, being the game prior to the bye and coming off a poor performance defensively last week, it is important."

The Rams come off a 31-27 triumph over Tennessee in Week Three. Marc Bulger was 21-of-28 for 292 yards and three TDs. Bulger's big target is All-Pro Torry Holt, who leads the NFL with 358 receiving yards and has two TDs.

On the ground, second-year back Steven Jackson leads them with 201 yards (4.1 average) while Marshall Faulk has only rushed 12 times for 77 yards. Though he isn't used as much, the former Pro Bowler shouldn't be taken lightly. He's rushed for over 12,000 yards in his career and scored 136 TDs- 100 rush, 36 receiving. Faulk needs 11 rushing yards to pass Thurman Thomas (12,074) for 11th all-time on the NFL career list and also trails Franco Harris by 56 for 10th.

Isaac Bruce (toe) is listed as doubtful for St. Louis. It shouldn't prevent Rams coach Mike Martz from testing the Giant secondary.

The Giants received bad news when Will Peterson reinjured his back, which could sideline him for the entire season if not his career. Peterson, who missed the final part of 2003 with the problem claimed that he played Sunday at San Diego after being advised that his condition would result in pain but nothing more serious. However, that wasn't the case.

"When I originally hurt it, it was a fracture that would just be painful," he said. "That's what I was told. But afterward, it was something that you could hurt more by playing. I'm figuring I hurt it more by playing that part of the game."

With Peterson out, rookie Corey Webster could replace him after missing last week with a quad injury. Meanwhile, linebacker Carlos Emmons (knee) is doubtful.

Regardless, the D needs to bounce back. Michael Strahan (2.5 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (2 sacks) will try to pressure Bulger while Big Blue needs solid games from Will Allen (19 tackles) and Gibril Wilson (20 tackles, interception).

The NFL's highest scoring offense (92 PF) looks to take advantage of a poor Rams secondary that's given up 242.7 yards through the air. Manning along with leading receiver Plaxico Burress (15 catches for 192 yards, 2 TDs) and tight end Jeremey Shockey (13 receptions for 194 yards, TD) will try to expose this weakness. Shockey has 196 catches in 42 career games and with four Sunday, can become the second fastest tight end to reach 200.

Meanwhile, the Rams D has allowed only 67.7 rushing yards-per-game. All-Pro Tiki Barber (205 rushing yards, 2 TDs) should test it. The Giants offensive line needs to contain Leonard Little (3.5 sacks) and Giants must be aware of Adam Archuleta (18 tackles, 1 Int-TD, 1 sack).

Given the way both defenses struggled last week, they'll both have something to prove. But all bets are off with these two vaunted offenses. Expect a shootout.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hard Hits: Fitting Conclusion This Weekend At Fenway

In as unpredictable a baseball season as there's been, the Yankees and Red Sox are still there. Only this time plenty could be on the line when the Bronx Bombers meet Boston for three games at Fenway Park. That's because the Indians have not gone away. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, Cleveland and Boston are tied for the wild card at 93-66. The Yanks lead their archrivals by one game.

It all comes down to this. If the Yankees can take two of three from the Red Sox, not only would they clinch the AL East but potentially knock out the defending World Series champions out of October. It might not make up for last year's historic ALCS collapse but if they eliminate Boston on their home field, it would have to be extra special considering how their year ended in 2004.

The Indians will host the AL Central champion White Sox for a three-game series, knowing that they must take care of business to give themselves a chance. With Chicago clinching at Detroit Thursday, it could help Cleveland this weekend. The Indians have played great down the stretch but lost three of four to Tampa Bay. If they win their games, then the Yankees or Red Sox are in trouble.

There's also this. If all three teams finish tied, the Yanks host the Sox for the division and the loser then plays Cleveland for the wild card. Pretty nervewracking.

How it will shake down nobody can predict. The Yanks are relying on rookie Chien-Ming Wang to get them off to a good start in the opener against ex-Bomber David Wells. A lot could hinge on who wins this game. If Boston can, they could carry momentum over for the weekend. But if the Yanks take it, it puts the pressure on Boston to win out and force a one-game playoff at Yankee Stadium Monday.

The rest of the weekend goes like this: Randy Johnson takes on Tim Wakefield Saturday. If the teams split the first two games, it all comes down to Sunday when Mike Mussina faces Curt Schilling. Could it possibly end any other way?

While it will be as exciting a finish in recent memory, the AL MVP race could also be decided. Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz have been neck and neck all year. Rodriguez has played a Gold Glove calibre third in the second half, which gives him an edge in the field because Ortiz has only played 10 games at first. In the 10 games, he hit .326 with four long balls and seven RBI's.

Both enter tied with an AL-leading 47 homers. But Ortiz has a major league leading 146 RBI's including a tying homer in the eighth and winning RBI single in the ninth Thursday night for Boston's come-from-behind 5-4 win to stay a game back of New York. A night earlier, Rodriguez tied a game against Baltimore with a homer, helping the Yanks win 2-1.

So, who is MVP? Ortiz has now hit at least 20 dingers that tied or put his team ahead. Since his ALCS MVP performance in which he slugged three dingers and drove in 11, Big Papi has been about as automatic in clutch situations as anyone. He is hitting an astounding .348 with seven homers and 90 RBI's with runners in scoring position (RISP). With two outs, he's even better hitting .357 with five homers and 33 RBI's. With the bases loaded, Ortiz has hit .400 with two grand slams and 20 RBI's. To put in perspective how clutch he is, Ortiz is hitting .285 with the bases empty. That's 63 points lower than how he does with RISP.

A-rod has been terrific in his second season in Pinstripes. With his 47th dinger Wednesday at Camden Yards, he eclipsed Joe DiMaggio's Yankee record for most homers by a righty. DiMaggio hit 46 back in 1937.

Rodriguez has a higher average than Ortiz, hitting .320 to Ortiz' .298. Rodriguez is in contention for a batting title. His 129 RBI's place him third in the AL behind Ortiz and Sox teammate Manny Ramirez, who has 138 after hitting a key two-run homer for his 42nd of the year to start Boston's comeback Thursday.

A-rod also has stolen 20 bases. He's done well in key situations, hitting .290 with nine dingers and 77 RBI's with RISP and hit .302 with five homers and 38 RBI's with RISP with two out. Rodriguez has also hit .438 with one grand slam and 20 RBI's with the bases loaded. While he's excelled in those situations, unlike Ortiz, Rodriguez hits 48 points higher with the bases empty (.338) than with RISP.

So, who wins? Some might have A-rod ahead due to his reliable defense at third while others could have Ortiz in front due to his propensity to come up with the big hit late in games. It all depends on who you prefer.

Still undecided? Ortiz also has 11 homers and 28 RBI's in September while Rodriguez has seven dingers and 24 RBI's. Rodriguez also has scored four more runs than Ortiz- 121-117. It's that close.

What should be remembered though is that this series finale is not A-rod versus Big Papi. It's two bitter rivals going against each other one more time, trying to get into the postseason this time because Cleveland could knock one of them out.

Who will come through? Will A-rod, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada be big or will Big Papi, Ramirez, Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek, Edgar Renteria and Bill Mueller be money? Or will the offense come from a secondary source like Rookie of the Year Candidate Robinson Cano in Pinstripes or Boston's John Olerud?

Which starters will do the job? Is this the weekend the Big Unit earns his paycheck or does Curt Schilling recreate another bloody sock image?

Can Tom Gordon and super closer Mariano Rivera be lights out? And who closes for Boston? Mike Timlin, injured Keith Foulke or even the rookie out of St. John's Craig Hansen? How ironic would it be if Alan Embree or Mike Stanton come through for either team? Both started the year on the other side.

It's all on the line this weekend. What better drama could you ask for?

Hitting Back:

-Nobody talks about it but not once have Yankee fans serenaded A-rod with 'MVP' chants like Boston with Big Papi. Funny but last year, Gary Sheffield got those same chants.

-Where would the Yanks be without Aaron Small? He is now a perfect 10-0 and won his fifth straight start Thursday at Baltimore. Who would have thought that before the season Small along with Wang and Shawn Chacon would be the big contributors in the Yankee rotation? Maybe Brian Cashman deserves some credit.

-Nobody talks about it but if A-rod and Ortiz weren't so far ahead, the Indians Travis Hafner would be getting MVP consideration. So too should Mariano Rivera. Without him, it doesn't matter how much offense they have. They would have been finished a long time ago.

-Very quietly, the Mets are having a nice finish to the season. Kudos to Willie Randolph for keeping his young ball club motivated after such an awful beginning to September. David Wright continues to look like a future MVP candidate and Jose Reyes continues to tear up the base paths. The Mets look to have a very bright future.

-To my colleague Mark Healey. Forget bringing in Lou Piniella to Shea. Randolph has done a good job with the Mets. While it's true he didn't always make the right decisions, what manager does? It was his first season. Even with Mike Piazza out for a stretch and no productive first baseman or second baseman on the roster, Randolph's Mets played hard. If you asked a Mets fan before the season if they would take a season over .500, they'd have been delighted.

-Is Giambi still done?

-Piazza has been great for the Mets since he was acquired over seven years ago from Florida. He made the Amazins important again in New York and even given fans some exciting playoff moments. Sunday at Shea, those fans should give Mike a great sendoff as should the ball club.

-On the other side, this could also be Bernie Williams final weekend in Pinstripes. Nobody has handled things better. When it was apparent he didn't have the same legs or glove and the Yanks forced him to the bench, Williams never got upset. Instead, he kept the same approach and turned out to be the best option in center. If Sunday is his final game as a Yankee, nobody will ever forget him.

-When I saw Chad Pennington struggle in the preseason against the Giants, I knew the Jets were in trouble.

-Pennington is a classy athlete who is a great team guy and deserved a better break than reinjuring his bum shoulder last Sunday against Jacksonville. Now, he faces an uphill battle to comeback. No quarterback has ever returned from two torn rotator cuffs. If anyone can do it though, it's Chad.

-Did Herm Edwards ever consider that he should have been more authoritative and not let Pennington return?

-When's the last time a team lost two QBs in one game? But as WFAN's Joe Benigno might point out, it can only happen to the Jets.

-Eli Manning showed a lot of composure at San Diego last Sunday night. Is that why the defense took the game off?

-Coach Coughlin can talk all he wants about how it was important to get points on the board early, opting for a field goal instead of going for fourth and inches. But in this town, that playing not to lose approach just won't cut it.

-Rafael Palmeiro now has less credibility than Barry Bonds and Donald Fehr. Bet you before the season, nobody saw that one coming.

-I love boxing but this Roy Jones-Antonio Tarver trilogy is all wrong for Jones. Jones has nothing to prove and got knocked out by Tarver in the rematch, then was out unconscious by Glen Johnson in his last fight. Does he want to end up like Leavander Johnson?

-So glad to have the Rangers back. What can I say? Pain and torture are things I seem to like.

Inside Blueshirts

In their fourth exhibition game, the Rangers lost 3-2 in a shootout to the Islanders at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.

With a watered down lineup for the second straight game in an attempt to assess which young players deserve roster spots, the Rangers were penalized frequently against mostly Isles starters.

Despite being penalized 12 times for 27 minutes and 10 Isles' power plays, the Blueshirts killed off nine to stay in the game.

The Islanders got on the board first 1:40 in when Petr Prucha lost his backcheck on Janne Niinimaa, resulting in a backhand that Kevin Weekes stopped near the goal line. Despite uncertainty on video replays, Don Koharski's signal for a goal held up. Oleg Kvasha and Tomi Pettinen assisted.

Jaromir Jagr tied it on the power play at 9:15 from Fedor Tyutin. Off a draw, Tyutin's pass sprung Jagr on a two-on-one with Martin Rucinsky. Jagr patiently held onto the puck faking out DiPietro, going glove side.

But just 2:22 later, with Ville Nieminen off for tripping, Trent Hunter converted the Isles' only power play goal of the night. After having a Mike York shot deflect off him, he beat Weekes top shelf to put the Isles ahead 2-1. Brent Sopel had the other assist.

Afterwards, the Ranger penalty killing unit tightened up, blanketing the Islanders on their final seven including twice more in the first.

With Jagr in the penalty box for hooking late in the second period, Ranger special teams came through again to tie the game. Jed Ortmeyer scored shorthanded at 14:22. Off a Darius Kasparaitis clear, Blair Betts and Ortmeyer came in two-on-one. Faking a pass to Betts, Ortmeyer surprised DiPietro with a wrist shot short side. It was the second consecutive game Ortmeyer scored. Betts and Kasparaitis tallied assists.

Early in the third, Weekes came up big against the Isles' big guns to keep it knotted. He made several sparkling saves including a stone job on Miroslav Satan from in close and a blocker save on Shawn Bates. Weekes' (13 third period saves) sharp goaltending allowed the Blueshirts to force overtime.

In the five minute four-on-four, Dominic Moore had a great chance to win it early but the puck slid off his stick forcing him wide.

Forced to come up big due to a Dale Purinton boarding minor giving the Islanders a four-on-three, Weekes stopped four shots including a glove save on an Alexei Yashin one-timer.

With the game undecided, the Isles took the shootout 2-1 to earn victory. After Mark Parrish and Jagr scored, Bates put his team in front when he deked Weekes, beating him five-hole. Prucha's attempt to force another round was denied when DiPietro robbed him on a forehand deke with a left toe save.

DiPietro finished with 23 saves while Weekes turned aside 33 of 35 shots.

For the Isles, it was their last preseason game. The Rangers play two more against Boston and then home for the Devils Sunday.

Players Still Competing For Jobs: During Thursday's game, several young players dressed. Jamie Lundmark centered Rucinsky and Jagr while Betts played with Nieminen and Prucha. Jarkko Immonen was with Ortmeyer and Chad Wiseman and Moore centered Ryan Hollweg and Jason Ward. On defense, Kasparaitis paired with Tyutin while Joe Rullier was with Pock and Jason Strudwick teamed up with Dale Purinton.

Steve Rucchin, Martin Straka, Michael Nylander, Tom Poti, Marek Malik (groin), Michael Rozsival (groin) and Max Kondratiev didn't suit up.


-Weekes was named the team's starting goalie for the season with Henrik Lundqvist backing up.

-Tyutin continued his impressive play on the blueline logging 27:09 with an assist, three blocked shots and a plus-one rating.

-Nieminen left after the first with a groin problem, playing just 7:24.

-The line of Hollweg, Moore and Ward was very effective. It created a few chances off turnovers. Hollweg finished with four shots and three hits in under 10 minutes of action. Ward had one shot ring off the crossbar late with under eight minutes left in regulation. Moore logged 13:02 including 5:40 shorthanded. He also won 10 of 14 faceoffs.

-Betts logged 18:50 including 5:22 on the PK. He and Ortmeyer had excellent chemistry shorthanded all game.

-Ortmeyer wore an 'A.'

-Pock took three minors including a Delay of Game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass. But it wasn't all negative for Pock, who had four hits and blocked four shots in 23:07.

-Playing on the top line at center, Lundmark didn't distinguish himself, failing to register a shot in 17:13. He also lost nine of 15 draws.

-Prucha continued to create chances, registering three shots and had three takeaways in 15:16. But he was suspect in his own zone.

-Immonen was mostly quiet in 11:46 of action with just one shot. His line generated one real chance in the second. He won six of 11 faceoffs.

-Purinton and Strudwick struggled at even strength.

Decisions Coming: With the October 4th deadline coming up this Tuesday, the Rangers must decide if they want 22 or 23 players. They need to assess if they will carry 14 or 15 forwards and eight defensemen. At the moment, Kasparaitis, Poti, Malik and Tyutin are the only givens on D with Kondratiev, Pock, Purinton, Rozsival, Rullier and Strudwick still in consideration. Up front, Jagr, Nylander, Straka, Rucinsky, Rucchin, Ortmeyer, Nieminen and Lundmark should all be on the top three lines leaving Betts, Hollweg, Immonen, Moore, Prucha, Ward and Wiseman vying for jobs.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Rangers Drop Preseason Game To Devils

With mostly a younger roster in their third preseason game, the Rangers fell to the Devils 3-1 at Continental Airlines Arena Tuesday night.

Henrik Lundqvist allowed three goals on 27 shots in his first full game while Martin Brodeur (19 saves) and Ari Ahonen (10 of 11 shots stopped) split duties for New Jersey.

The Devils took advantage early of Chad Wiseman's hooking penalty, scoring first when rookie Zach Parise redirected a Paul Martin shot 2:55 in.

Despite four more Devil power plays, the Rangers killed each to stay within one as the period concluded. In particular, Blair Betts, Jed Ortmeyer and Fedor Tyutin were very effective. Lundqvist also robbed Viktor Kozlov point blank with a glove save and made a couple of other key stops.

The Rangers had just two power plays in the period, unable to convert either. Shots were nine apiece.

In the second, they had plenty of chances on a man-advantage to tie it, with a couple of near misses that trickled through Brodeur just wide. Brodeur also robbed Max Kondratiev on one chance with a nice pad save while sliding across the ice.

Unable to beat Brodeur, the Blueshirts found themselves down two goals when Vlad Malakhov's wrister beat Lundqvist shortside on a 5-on-3 power play at 11:39.

Lundqvist allowed a shaky goal to Alexander Mogilny with 1:01 left in the second when the former Maple Leaf surprised him going short side for a 3-0 lead. Sergei Brylin and Sean Brown registered assists.

In the third, the Rangers scored their only goal when Jed Ortmeyer surprised Ahonen, one-timing a Bryce Lampman feed thru the wickets at 5:35 to make it 3-1. It came just after a power play expired. Tyutin also picked up an assist, making a smart play under pressure to keep the puck alive. That's as close as they got.

Though they fell short against mostly Devil starters, coach Tom Renney had to like what he saw from Petr Prucha. In almost 18:00 of action, the Czech product had five shots and created several chances. He was arguably the best forward for New York. Tyutin was particularly sharp on the blueline in 27 shifts, logging 23:45 and blocking three shots. He also finished with a team high six shots.

Ortmeyer and Betts continued their stellar play and Jarkko Immonen was more active while free agent pickup Ville Nieminen was a pest, drawing a cross checking penalty on Malakhov late. Kondratiev and Lampman also were steady on D.

The Rangers (1-2-0-0) were without Jaromir Jagr, Darius Kasparaitis, Marek Malik, Steve Rucchin, Martin Rucinsky and Jamie Lundmark.

Devils (2-0-0-0) didn't dress Brian Rafalski, Richard Matvichuk, Jay Pandolfo and Grant Marshall.

In the shootout, the Rangers improved to 3-0, outscoring New Jersey 2-1. Prucha scored in his second straight on a deke but Mogilny tied it for his second in as many games. With a chance to win it, Kozlov's backhand deke sailed wide. Martin Straka scored the winner and Lundqvist denied Aleksander Suglobov.

Rangers return to action Thursday night when they host the Islanders at 7 PM. The game will be televised on MSG.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Blackburn Calls It A Career

Ranger goalie Dan Blackburn announced his retirement before Sunday's preseason game against Boston. The former 2001 first round pick ran into some bad luck two years ago at the Rangers practice facility. During a weight training session, he sustained nerve damage to his left shoulder, sidelining him for the entire '03-04 season.

Despite his disability, the 22-year-old Montreal, Quebec native worked diligently to attempt a comeback earlier this season wearing two blockers with a small glove to cover pucks with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL. He played 12 games finishing 3-9-0 with a 3.54 goals against average (GAA) and an .892 save percentage.

Invited to training camp by the Blueshirts, Blackburn was a long shot to make the roster. Already at a disadvantage due to a numbers game involving Kevin Weekes, Henrik Lundqvist, Al Montoya and Chris Holt, Blackburn suffered another setback two weeks ago with a sprained knee.

Facing an uphill battle, he decided that it would be best to retire and take the $6 million insurance policy rather than feel discomfort returning.

"I have a permanent disability and I wasn't feeling comfortable with the way it was going," Blackburn said to MSG's Al Trautwig before last night's game.

"Obviously when I hurt my knee that didn't help things."

It put an end to a once promising career. Originally selected 10th overall four years ago, Blackburn made the team out of camp as an 18-year-old. He went 12-16-0 with a 3.28 GAA and .898 save percentage in 31 games as a rookie. In his second season, Blackburn posted his only career shutout against Calgary, a 1-0 overtime blanking at Madison Square Garden. In 32 games, he finished 8-16-4 with a 3.17 GAA and .890 save percentage.

Blackburn concludes his NHL career with a 20-32-4 record, 3.22 GAA and .894 save percentage in 63 games.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Tomlinson, Chargers Pick Apart Giants

In a game billed as a grudge match between Eli Manning and San Diego, the Giants (2-1) defense laid an egg in a 45-23 blowout loss to the Chargers (1-2).

After Manning led the Giants on an impressive 75-yard opening drive, it stalled at the San Diego five when coach Tom Coughlin didn't go for a fourth and inches, leading to a Jay Feeley 22-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead. It was the only time they led all night.

The Giants couldn't stop the San Diego offense. They scored touchdowns on their first three drives, resulting in 21 unanswered points.

On the Chargers' first possession, they marched down the field in eight plays needing 4:05 to go ahead 7-3 when LaDainian Tomlinson scored from one yard out. It was just the beginning of a nightmarish game, which saw Tomlinson destroy Big Blue for 246 total yards and four TDs. Tomlinson, who rushed for 192 on the ground ripped apart a Giant defense that had given up 103 total rushing yards the first two weeks against Arizona and New Orleans.

After a Jeff Feagles punt, the Bolts went 85 yards in seven plays, finishing it on a Drew Brees 15-yard TD pass to Keenan McCardell to go up 14-3 1:12 into the second quarter.

It got worse on the Chargers next possession. Just 3:33 later, Tomlinson rushed for a three-yard score making it 21-3.

The Giants finally got back into the game when Manning led them to back-to-back TDs in a span of 2:24. With his team in need of a spark, the second-year QB gave it to them on a nine-play drive that lasted 6:01. He completed a five-yard TD pass to Plaxico Burress to cut it to 21-10 with 4:24 left in the first half. Burress, who was late for a team meeting, didn't start the first two possessions of the game.

After a rare fumble by Tomlinson at his own 34, Manning took only two plays to get in the end zone, finding David Tyree for a four-yard score to make it 21-17 at the two minute warning.

After a San Diego three-and-out, the Giants got even closer when Manning orchestrated an eight play 58-yard drive that ended with Feely's second field goal of the night from 40 yards with 15 seconds left in the half. But 21-20 was as close as they got.

When San Diego got the ball first in the second half, they immediately zipped down the field, needing four plays to cover a startling 70 yards in 1:52. It was the Giants inability to pressure Brees, cover or tackle Chargers that was a theme all game. Adding insult to injury, Tomlinson completed a 26-yard TD pass to McCardell for a 28-20 lead.

When Brees hit Antonio Gates for a 14-yard score with over 3:00 remaining in the third for a 35-20 cushion, the rout was on.

Brees missed only three passing attempts, going 19-of-22 for 191 yards and two TDs. Gates finished with six catches for 92 yards and a score while McCardell had four receptions for 80 yards and two TDs.

On a last ditch effort to get back in the game, Manning led them on a gutsy 16-play drive covering 59 yards which included a 12-yard scamper for a first down and a clutch 18-yard third down completion on the run to Tyree keeping the drive alive. Booed all night in a hostile environment, Manning threw for a career high 352 yards and two scores. Feely's 28-yard field goal made it 35-23 with 12:22 left.

It wouldn't matter when like a broken record, Tomlinson scored again from five yards out for his third rushing TD of the game 3:07 later for a 42-23 lead, putting the game out of reach.

Nate Kaeding added a 44-yard field goal with four minutes left in the game for a 45-23 final.

Rangers Comeback To Beat Bruins

In their first game at MSG since the emotional Mark Messier finale on March 31, 2004, the Rangers showed some character in a come-from-behind 4-2 preseason win over Boston Sunday.

Jaromir Jagr paced the Blueshirts with two power play goals and an assist and Martin Rucinsky had a goal and an assist. Michael Nylander added two helpers.

The first period was all Bruins. They outshot a listless Rangers squad 14-2 and controlled play. After Jason Strudwick took acception to a blindside hit by Colton Orr leading to an entertaining scrap which drew an instigator penalty, Boston capitalized when Jiri Slegr's wrist shot sailed through traffic by Kevin Weekes at 6:26. Tom Fitzgerald and Eric Healey tallied assists.

Patrice Bergeron took advantage of a Max Kondratiev giveaway, scoring into a vacant net by a surprised Weekes 9:08 later for a two-goal lead.

But the turning point came just 1:59 later when Zdenek Blatny was denied by Weekes on a penalty shot.

In the second period, the Rangers played much better and took advantage of Boston penalties. Off a brilliant outlet pass by Thomas Pock leading to a two-on-one, Michael Nylander broke in on Tim Thomas, who stopped him but a trailing Jagr stuffed home the rebound for a power play tally at 8:41 cutting it to 2-1.

With under four minutes left, Rucinsky cashed in on another man-advantage when Jagr and Nylander combined to set him up. He beat Thomas with a perfect wrist shot top shelf to tie the game.

In a period which saw the Rangers do the little things right, hustling all over the ice, it was never more evident than on a last second tally by Martin Straka. Forcing a turnover inside the Boston zone, Straka looked at the clock and quickly fired a wrist shot by Thomas to beat the buzzer for a 3-2 lead. It capped off a stanza in which the Blueshirts outshot Boston 12-5, only taking one penalty.

Jagr finished the scoring on a nice passing play with rookie Maxim Kondratiev and Rucinsky for the Rangers' third power play marker with 1:51 remaining.

Weekes had 27 saves in going all the way. Former 2004 number one draft pick Al Montoya backed up.

Rangers also took the shootout 2-1, with rookie Petr Prucha and Rucinsky scoring the winner on a deke.

They take on the Devils in their next preseason game Tuesday night at Continental Airlines Arena. The game will be televised on FSNY at 7:30 PM.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Eli Visits Chargers In Highly Anticipated Match-Up

Much has been made of Eli Manning's refusal to play for the team that drafted him in 2004, the San Diego Chargers. Originally selected number one overall, he forced a trade to the Giants for a monster package that included the Giants' fourth overall pick (Phillip Rivers) and several other picks. Before he even took a snap, the younger brother of Peyton signed a six-year incentive-laden deal that included a rookie record $20 million signing bonus.

In his debut season, replacing vet Kurt Warner halfway thru 2004, Manning struggled in nine games with six touchdowns and nine interceptions and a QB rating of 55.4. He won just one start, coming in the final game against Dallas on a last second audible by the University of Mississippi product, which Tiki Barber scored on.

While Manning and the Giants had problems finishing 6-10 in 2004, Drew Brees led San Diego to a surprising 12-4 record which included an AFC West Division Title. Brees tossed for a career best 3159 yards along with 27 TDs, 7 Ints and a remarkable 104.8 rating.

So far in 2005, it's been a different story. Though Manning hasn't been lights out in the Giants first two wins, he has three TDs and a rating of 76.3. In Monday night's 27-10 victory over New Orleans, Manning was 13-of-24 for 165 yards and one TD. Most importantly, the second-year QB didn't throw an interception after tossing two against Arizona in Week One. Something that wasn't lost on coach Tom Coughlin.

"Well, the opportunity to have a chance to play another in-season football game, to have studied and gained more knowledge about the next opponent, to have executed to a better degree," said Coughlin Wednesday. "To apply again the mental part of the game, which he did a very good job of – he managed the game very well. I just think it is going to keep getting better."

Meanwhile, Brees and the Chargers (0-2) lost by a combined seven points their first two games to Dallas and Denver. Brees has two TDs and already three Ints this year.

In a tough 21-18 loss to Denver last week on a last second Jason Elam field goal, All-Pro Ladainian Tomlinson rushed for two scores, establishing an NFL record with a rushing TD in 14 straight games. But for the game, he had only 19 carries for 52 yards and faces a Giants D that's allowed just 103 yards on the ground.

With Manning visiting what will be a hostile environment Sunday night in primetime at 8:30 ET/5:30 PT on ESPN at Qualcomm Stadium and the Bolts steaming from their first two losses, it should be quite a challenge.

"I think staying focused on what is going to happen on the field against a very, very good football team, a very dangerous football team, that is going to take about all of the energy he has got," Coughlin said. "Hopefully he won’t even know what is going on in the stands."

Manning holds no grudge towards San Diego or their supporters.

"I have nothing against San Diego or the people of San Diego or the players on the team or anything like that," Manning said Tuesday. "Before I made the decision, I had never even been to San Diego....Everything I have heard about San Diego is that it is beautiful and its great weather the whole time and as I was going through this decision, that's what everybody kept saying. So, it was just a matter of it didn't feel like the right place for me.''

The 24-year-old realizes that he can't focus on how the crowd receives him but rather the task at hand.

"I think as a quarterback you can’t be concerned about that," he said. "You have to go out there and keep your eyes down field, try to make throws when they are there and you can’t worry about when you are going to get hit....My focus has to be on getting completions and making good decisions."

Manning will have help from an offense that's scored 69 points. All-Pro Tiki Barber scored twice last week and rookie Brandon Jacobs ran for his second TD. So far, free agent pickup Plaxico Burress has been a target for Eli pacing the team with 10 receptions for 140 yards and one TD. Jeremey Shockey has seven catches and one score.

While the offense has plenty of weapons, Big Blue's D looks to shutdown Tomlinson and put a stranglehold on Antonio Gates. Gates caught 81 passes last year for 963 yards and 13 TDs enroute to his first Pro Bowl. He could be a tough assignment Sunday night.

Led by Michael Strahan, Carlos Emmons and Osi Umenyiora, the Giants will attempt to put heavy pressure on Brees.

Ultimately, all eyes are on Manning to see how he reacts.

Jets Go For Second Straight Against Jags

After rebounding from a Week One blowout loss to Kansas City with a 17-7 win over Miami in their home opener, the Jets (1-1) go for their second straight win Sunday when they host Jacksonville (1-1) at 1 PM on CBS.

Curtis Martin should suit up after an MRI cameback negative on his strained right knee. In Week Two, Martin was a workhorse, carrying the ball 31 times for 72 yards. Always a gamer, the crafty 11-year vet has missed just four games in his career. Having rushed for over 13,000 yards and 85 touchdowns, the 32-year-old knows how to play through pain.

"That's what football's about," Martin said Thursday. "Most of the time you're not going to play healthy, you're going to be in some type of pain. I believe a lot of times your value and your legacy and consistency depends on how well you deal with things."

If Martin needs to be replaced, Derrick Blaylock will spell him. Blaylock, 26, was signed from Kansas City. A former '01 fifth round pick out of Stephen F. Austin, Blaylock ran for a career high 539 yards and eight TDs as Priest Holmes' backup. So far this season in Gang Green, his workload has been light with only two carries for 14 yards. That could change.

Chad Pennington looks to continue his improvement under new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. After fumbling the ball six times (lost two) and tossing one pick in Week One, he rebounded with a 19-of-30, 190-yard effort, tossing two scores and most importantly, no turnovers.

Pennington will face a stingy defense in Jacksonville that's allowed just 24 points the first two weeks. In last week's 10-3 defeat to the Colts, they shutdown two-time MVP Peyton Manning, holding him without a TD and a QB rating of 44.0.

On the flip side, Pennington will see a familiar face in Byron Leftwich. Both QBs starred at Marshall, which should make for an intriguing match-up.

Leftwich took his lumps last Sunday at the Colts, sacked six times and hit a number of others. In fact, he left the field when he was tackled from behind, bent awkwardly. But he still limped back on the field helping put his team in position to tie the game. Though he fell short, nobody could question his toughness.

Upgraded to probable for Sunday, Leftwich expects to play. "I'm not 100 percent, but who in the NFL is 100 percent during the season" the third year QB said Friday. "But I'll be out there playing on Sunday. I won't be limited in any way come Sunday."

Leftwich is up against an equally tough defense that's allowing 17 points-a-game. Fred Taylor (157 rushing yards) could see significant action out of the backfield.

The Jets are hoping for another big game from John Abraham. After missing all of camp, Abraham finished with a sack, forced fumble and four tackles. Abraham will team up with the anchor of the D, 2004 Defensive Rookie Of The Year Jonathan Vilma. Vilma paced all Jets with seven solo tackles and four assists last week.

With two hardnosed defenses and two offenses that haven't scored many points (Jags- 29, Jets-24), it could be a black and blue Sunday at The Meadowlands.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Inside The Blueshirts

With the regular season only two weeks away, the Rangers broke camp and took half their roster to Nassau Coliseum for a preseason game against the Islanders Tuesday night. It was their first chance to play under new NHL rules- tag-up offside, two-line passes allowed, strict enforcement of obstruction and crosschecking, smaller goalie equipment, goalies restricted from playing pucks in the corner, delay of game penalties and shootouts.

Naturally, the new look Rangers struggled with the quicker pace resulting in 11 penalties including four on 18-year-old number one draft choice Marc Staal. Though Staal was penalized frequently, the 6-4 203 pound defenseman was one of the few bright spots on a night the Rangers lost 5-1 to the Islanders.

Just how bad were they? Before 5:22 elapsed, the Islanders converted their first two power plays and scored at even strength on three shots- goals by new captain Alexei Yashin and two by ex-Sabre Alexei Zhitnik. Ex-Carolina netminder Kevin Weekes was victimized on all. Not exactly the kind of debut the 30-year-old Toronto, Ontario native had in mind.

Jamie Lundmark got one back 2:07 later when he came off the bench to one-time a Michael Nylander feed for a power play goal, the Rangers only goal on the night.

After the first of two bench minors for too many men on the ice, the Rangers paid dearly when ex-Blueshirt Mike York setup Jason Blake, who had way too much time thanks to a blown assignment by Tom Poti. Blake made no mistake whistling the puck upstairs for a 4-1 lead.

Weekes allowed four goals on 17 shots in 29 minutes. Swedish prospect Henrik Lundqvist played the rest of the game, giving up just one goal on 19 shots. The 23-year-old Lundqvist is a former 2000 seventh round pick who starred for Frolunda leading them to the championship in last year's Swedish Elite League. If Tuesday's performance was any indication, he could challenge Weekes for the top spot.

Though they gave up only one more goal to rookie Chris Campoli 5:12 into the third period, it wasn't a good start for the Rangers.

Free agent pickup Marek Malik was a step slow all game taking one minor and was on for three goals against. Poti, who changed his number from three to 16 had no luck. He was on for four of five Isles goals. Anders Eriksson fared no better and was on for at least two goals. The former Red Wing defenseman is playing on a tryout basis.

Rookie Martin Grenier didn't play badly on D but was faked out by Isles a few times for scoring chances.

Second-year defenseman Fedor Tyutin was steady in 21:05 of ice-time. He and Staal teamed up to form the most reliable pairing.

While the defense had issues, the top line of Jaromir Jagr, Nylander and Martin Straka didn't get much done at even strength. Jagr in particular wasn't sharp. Straka had one breakaway chance against Rick DiPietro but hit the post. Nylander was the best of the Czech trio, registering an assist and was more assertive. The Rangers need more from this line to be successful in '05-06.

Former 2002 eighth rounder Petr Prucha made his debut playing 10 minutes on a line with Lundmark and Martin Rucinsky. Prucha took a hit earlier in the game but returned later.

Bright spots in the defeat were Jed Ortmeyer and Blair Betts. Both created chances and played well in their end. Ortmeyer was one of three Rangers who wore an 'A.' He hustled back to break up a two-on-one, proving his worth. Jagr and Straka were the other alternates.

Also playing well were Lundmark (goal), Craig Weller and Garth Murray. Weller's hustle forced a turnover and Murray had some clean hits.

Even though they lost, as part of the new NHL policy to promote new rules, there was a 3-on-3 shootout. That's where the Rangers shined on goals by Straka and Nylander beating Garth Snow. Lundqvist denied Yashin and Miroslav Satan to seal it.

Not suiting up on the blueline were Darius Kasparaitis, Max Kondratiev, Bryce Lampman, Thomas Pock, Dale Purinton, Michal Rozsival, Joe Rullier and Jason Strudwick. Up front, Jozef Balej, Nigel Dawes, Jarkko Immonen, Dominic Moore, Ville Nimeinen, Steve Rucchin, Jason Ward and Chad Wiseman didn't play. Goalies Chris Holt and Al Montoya still could see preseason action.

The Rangers left for three days of training and chemistry at West Point Wednesday. They return to preseason action Sunday afternoon (5 ET) versus Boston at Madison Square Garden.

Rangers Sign Staal:
In the wake of his debut, the Rangers signed Staal to a three-year entry level contract Wednesday. If Staal makes the club, he can play the entire season or the Rangers could play him in 10-or-less games before opting him back to Sudbury (OHL).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The NFL Report

Two weeks into the NFL season, there already have been a few surprises. Let's breakdown each conference:


Colts Off To Quick Start:
After a disappointing finish in last year's playoffs losing again to New England, the Colts are one of seven remaining undefeated teams heading into Week Three. After handling the Ravens in Baltimore 24-7, they squeaked out a atypical 10-3 win over the stingy Jaguars in their home opener. With Jacksonville keeping two-time MVP Peyton Manning in check (no TDs, 1 Int), the Colts relied on something they rarely do to win. Their defense. A weakness in past seasons, the D has allowed just 10 points so far. They sacked Byron Leftwich six times- three by Montae Reagor. They also battered Leftwich several times forcing him out of the game with a gimpy knee. But Leftwich bravely returned and completed two passes on the final drive to give his team a chance to tie but the Colts held on. The Colts try to improve to 3-0 against Cleveland (1-1) at the RCA Dome Sunday.

Bengals Early Surprise: After a promising 2004 under then first-year coach Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati has come out of the gate fast, dominating their first two opponents Cleveland and Minnesota by a combined 64-21 score. Though their opening week win at Cleveland wasn't surprising, their 37-8 blowout of the Vikings was. Forcing Daunte Culpepper into a career worst five interceptions, the Bengals capitalized. Carson Palmer continued his progression, going 27-of-40 for 337 yards and three scores. This game was never close. In fact, on the second play from scrimmage, Palmer hooked up with Chad Johnson on a 70-yard touchdown in a game the Bengals never trailed. Rudi Johnson rushed for 90 yards. The Bengals take their perfect record to Chicago (1-1) Sunday.

Big Ben, Steelers Silence Doubters: Many people including myself wondered if Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers would have a downfall after how well they played last year. Losing just once in the regular season before falling to the Patriots in the AFC title game, Pittsburgh had a great 2004. But with Roethlisberger struggling in the postseason, doubts lingered. So far, Big Ben is an efficient 23-of-32 for 472 yards and four touchdowns in wins over Tennessee and Houston. In those games, Pittsburgh outscored its opponents by a combined 61-14. While Roethlisberger has been sharp, second-year running back Willie Parker has come out of nowhere to rush for back-to-back 100+ yard games with two TDs. Undrafted out of North Carolina, Parker signed with Pittsburgh last year. In limited action, he averaged 5.8 yards-per-carry, the same average he has thru two weeks. With Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley banged up, coach Bill Cowher named him the starter this week. Parker and company will have a big test against New England (1-1) at Heinz Field Sunday.

Revamped Chiefs D Paying Dividends: After a very disappointing 2004 which saw them miss the playoffs, Kansas City made changes to their D this offseason. In their Opening Day 27-7 win over the Jets, those newcomers helped sack Chad Pennington three times along with one interception and forced him into six of seven Jets fumbles recovering two. Sammy Knight, Patrick Surtain and Derrick Johnson all played prominent roles. Knight had a sack, forced fumble and seven tackles while Surtain had a 53-yard interception return along with a fumble recovery. Johnson led the way with eight tackles, one sack and a forced fumble. After an easy victory in Week One, the Chiefs followed it up with a 23-17 win at rival Oakland Sunday night. With the Raiders driving late for a potential go-ahead score, Kansas City's D held Oakland at the 10-yard line to secure victory. With both Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson rushing for TDs and Samie Parker becoming a big target for Trent Green, the Chiefs should be tough to beat. They face nemesis Denver (1-1) at Mile High in a Monday Night showdown.

New England Drops To 1-1: After cruising to a 30-14 victory over Oakland in the NFL Thursday night opener, the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Patriots ran into problems Sunday at Carolina. In a rematch of the 2004 Super Bowl in which they prevailed 32-29 on a last second Adam Vinateri kick, this time, fortunes weren't as kind to the Pats in a 27-17 loss in Week Two. Usually cool under pressure Tom Brady turned the ball over twice (Int, fumble) and Corey Dillon was limited to 36 rushing yards. They also committed 12 penalties for 86 yards in a sloppy defeat. While the defense shutdown Jake Delhomme limiting him to 154 yards and one interception, which was returned for a TD by Mike Vrabel, they allowed three rushing TDs to Stephen Davis. Davis became the first back to do that against them since the Jets' Curtis Martin in 2000. The Carolina D sacked Brady twice and rushed him into several bad throws in the second half. Out of synch, Brady let off some steam on the sidelines. The Pats will need a better effort when they travel to Pittsburgh (1-1) for an AFC title rematch Sunday.

Other Surprises: The Ravens are off to a miserable start. Having lost at home to the Colts in a Sunday night opener, they fell at Tennessee 25-10 in Week Two. Having added ex-Titans receiver Derrick Mason to an offense that featured Jamal Lewis and Todd Heap, coach Brian Billick was hopeful that things would improve. But so far, the Ravens have scored only 17 points and starting QB Kyle Boller was knocked out of action by Indianapolis with a hyperextended right toe, which kept him out Sunday and should for another two games. Backup Anthony Wright struggled against Tennessee tossing one touchdown and two interceptions. With Lewis held to just nine rushing yards and 57 total in two weeks, it's not surprising that the offense stalled. Fortunately for Baltimore, their bye comes at the right time.

While Baltimore had trouble scoring, the Chargers came up short for the second straight week. After losing by four to Dallas in their home opener, the Chargers lost a tough one at Denver 20-17 on a last second 41-yard field goal by Jason Elam. A game which San Diego led 14-3 at the half thanks to two LaDainian Tomlinson rushing TDs turned at the beginning of the third quarter when Drew Brees was picked off by Champ Bailey, who ran it back for a 25-yard score cutting the deficit to 14-10. The Broncos took the lead on a Kyle Johnson three-yard score. After how well things went last year, despite losing the first two games by a combined seven points, the Chargers find themselves in a must win situation this Sunday night against Eli Manning and the Giants (2-0). Manning shafted the Chargers at the 2004 Draft, indicating he wanted no part of them, forcing them to trade the number one overall pick to New York. It's the perfect motivation for San Diego to get their first win.

Though the Jets rebounded from an awful opening week loss to Kansas City with a 17-7 win over rival Miami in their home opener, the new offense under Mike Heimerdinger has not exactly made anyone forget Paul Hackett. Returning from offseason shoulder surgery, Chad Pennington has looked average. But after a six fumble (two lost) one interception performance in Week One, he was efficient in Week Two, going 19-of-30 for 190 yards and two TDs. This included a key 7-for-7 drive with a one-yard toss to Jerald Sowell putting the game out of reach. What should be troublesome is that Pennington threw several lolly pops. He still might be getting adjusted to the new system. One positive was he and Laveraneus Coles hooked up for a seven-yard score. Curtis Martin carried the ball 31 times for 72 yards. He strained his right knee but an MRI cameback negative, which is good news for the Jets Sunday against Jacksonville (1-1). If Martin needs rest, Derrick Blaylock will get the call.


Three Teams Are 2-0 And It's Not Who You Think:
The Giants, Redskins and Bucs are all off to perfect starts while Philadelphia, Atlanta and Carolina are .500 after two weeks.

After blowing out Arizona 42-19 in their home opener, the Giants took advantage of an extra home game, defeating New Orleans 27-10 Monday night. Though it was deemed a home game for the Saints due to Hurricane Katrina, Giants fans easily outnumbered Saints fans. The Giants fed off the energy of the crowd and also forced six turnovers including three Aaron Brooks interceptions. Tiki Barber had two TDs (one rushing, one receiving) and Eli Manning tossed for 165 yards and a score. Surprisingly, the Giants have outscored opponents 69-29 and it wasn't because of Manning. But an opportunistic defense and great special teams in Week One that produced two TDs. The schedule gets tougher this weekend when they travel to San Diego for a primetime match-up on ESPN.

In the second game of a special Monday night doubleheader that raised $5 million for Katrina, the Redskins stunned the Cowboys 14-13 in Big D. With 3:46 left, they trailed 13-0 and had yet to score a touchdown in seven-plus quarters. A week before, they snuck out a 9-7 win over the Bears on the leg of John Hall. Facing two critical fourth down situations, Mark Brunell kept the game alive by converting both. On fourth-and-15 from the Dallas 39, he found Santana Moss for a TD making it 13-7. After Dallas punted the ball back, Brunell hooked up with Moss for a 70-yard TD giving Washington the lead. Moss, who was acquired in the offseason for Coles came up big, helping his new team steal a game. Amazingly, it was the first time a Bill Parcells coached team had ever led by at least 13 points in the fourth quarter and lost. Previously, Parcells' teams were 77-0. When the game ended, the Skins mobbed excited coach Joe Gibbs. Despite scoring 23 points in their first two games, they have given up just 20 and head into their bye perfect.

Flying under the radar in the NFC South is Tampa Bay. After upsetting Minnesota 24-13 in Week One, the Bucs manhandled the Bills 19-3 in their home opener. With impressive rookie Carnell "Cadillac" Williams pasting Buffalo for 128 rushing yards and a TD, Tampa Bay cruised to an easy win. Brian Griese was an efficient 16-of-22 with 136 yards and no turnovers and second-year wideout Michael Clayton had six receptions for 84 yards. Short-yardage back Mike Alstott had a one-yard score and the Bucs' defense shutdown J.P. Losman, holding him to 113 yards passing with two sacks including a safety that opened the scoring. Willis McGahee was held to just 34 yards on the ground and Eric Moulds and Lee Evans had only three catches for 20 combined yards. Tampa looks to improve to 3-0 at Green Bay (0-2) Sunday.

Vikings Off To Miserable Start: Much was expected of the Vikings entering 2005. Even with the trade of star receiver Randy Moss to Oakland, many so-called experts picked them to make the Super Bowl. But so far, they have been a colossal bust. It all starts with Daunte Culpepper, who was in favor of the trade. The leader of Minnesota has been awful, tossing a career worst five interceptions in a blowout loss to the Bengals in Week Two. He has yet to throw a TD and has a league leading eight picks. While he's struggled, new number one receiver Nate Burelson has just six catches on the year while Travis Taylor paces them with 10. In the backfield, both Michael Bennett and Mewelde Moore have combined for a paltry 64 yards. Combine this lack of production on offense with a miserable D that's allowed 61 points and there's little to be excited about. Two weeks in, Minnesota desperately needs a win over New Orleans (1-1) Sunday. It won't be easy.

Favre Era Coming To End: Brett Favre has been one of the all-time greatest QBs in the NFL. The Super Bowl winner and three-time MVP ('95-97) could be in his final season. At age 35, he has been the standard for the past decade, throwing bullet passes for touchdowns and showing a desire to be the best. Unfortunately, his career could end without the playoffs. Favre and the Packers lost a tough game to Cleveland 26-24 at Lambeau Field in an emotional home opener. At halftime, Green Bay retired recently deceased Reggie White's number 92. White's 17-year-old daughter Jecolia sang the national anthem before the game. But even all that couldn't lead to a Green Bay victory. Favre tossed three TDs, joining Dan Marino and John Elway in the 50,000 passing yard club. But the Packer D couldn't stop Trent Dilfer, who hit Steve Heiden for a 62-yard score that put the game out of reach. Outscored 43-27 in the first two weeks by Detroit and Cleveland, it's gutcheck time for the Packers this Sunday against Tampa Bay (2-0).

NFC North Could Have New Champ: With Green Bay and Minnesota off to rough starts, the division could be up for grabs. Both Chicago and Detroit enter the weekend .500 but after the Bears' 38-6 dismantling of the Lions in Week Two, Chicago would have to be considered the frontrunner. They intercepted Joey Harrington five times including a 41-yard TD return by Mike Brown. Nate Vasher had two picks and Brian Urlacher added two sacks. Thomas Jones ran for 139 yards and two scores while rookie Kyle Orton was 14-of-21 for 150 yards with no interceptions. Bobby Wade also had a 73-yard punt return for a TD. With Chicago's D permitting just 15 points so far, if the offense keeps turnovers down and contributes, the Bears could be the NFC darkhorse.

Other Surprise: While there haven't been many others, the way Dallas lost to Washington Monday night is the other. As noted earlier, they blew a 13-0 lead in the final 3:46 to lose by a point, giving up two big plays from Brunell to Moss. On both, All-Pro Roy Williams was victimized. Ex-Bill Drew Bledsoe has thrown four TDs and second-year back Julius Jones has rushed for 174 yards and a score. Bledsoe has also renewed chemistry with ex-Patriot teammate Terry Glenn, who caught a game high six passes for 157 yards and a score Monday. They'll hope for that kind of success to continue Sunday at San Francisco (1-1).

Giants Take Advantage In Win Over Saints

In what was billed as the Saints home opener away from the Superdome due to Hurricane Katrina at Giants Stadium, the Giants (2-0) took advantage of an extra home game defeating the Saints (1-1) 27-10 in the first of a special NFL doubleheader Monday night. Dallas versus Washington followed. In an effort to raise money for Katrina, the league held a special telethon that successfully raised $5 million.

Before 68,031 fans with 10,000 seats unsold, the Giants fed off the energy of the crowd and six Saints turnovers in a game they never trailed in.

"They made this seem like the Super Bowl,'' quarterback Aaron Brooks said regarding the NFL hoopla. "We played a team that outplayed us today, but it was way overdone. Setting up a stage, traveling out here, was uncalled for.

``Try not to patronize us next time, traveling us to New York, saying we're playing a home game.''

"We were in the visiting locker room, on the visiting field," added coach Jim Haslett. "It seemed like an away game.''

For New Orleans, it was bad from the outset when on the game's first play, Michael Lewis tried a reverse with Fred McAfee that resulted in a fumble recovered by the Giants Chase Blackburn at the 10. It took the Giants just three plays to capitalize when rookie Brandon Jacobs scored from one yard out for a 7-0 lead to loud cheers.

It went from bad to worse for the Saints on the Giants next possession when Eli Manning tossed a six-yard touchdown pass to Tiki Barber for a 14-0 lead.

The Saints finally got back into it when Aaron Brooks connected with Joe Horn on a 21-yard touchdown on a critical third down. In a losing effort, Horn finished with a game high nine receptions for 143 yards.

"They didn't just beat our butts and drag us all over the field,'' Horn said. "We gave them the ball and they capitalized."

After Carlos Emmons intercepted a Brooks pass for one of three New York picks on the night, the Giants caught a break that kept their third touchdown drive alive. Benefiting from one of the Saints' 11 first half penalties for 72 yards, it was setup by a critical illegal contact penalty on Sedrick Hodge, which negated a third down sack of Manning. When Tiki Barber ran in untouched from 12 yards out for his second score of the game, it gave the Giants a 21-7 cushion.

With the first half winding down, James Butler's fumble on a punt return setup a John Carney 21-yard field goal that cut the lead to 21-10 at halftime.

In the second half, a Brooks fumble led to a Jay Feeley 39-yard field goal that made it 24-10.

After a Saints drive stalled when Carney hit the left upright on a 29-yard try, Feely extended the lead to 27-10 with a 30-yarder.

The Giants D sacked Brooks four times including one from All-Pro Michael Strahan, who played with a sore back. Second-year defensive end Osi Umenyiora finished with a career high two sacks.

"It was supposedly their home game, but we just played like it was our home game,'' mentioned Umenyiora.

"That's one of the loudest I've heard the stadium in a long time, and it wasn't even full,'' Giants tight end Jeremey Shockey said.

"As players, we hear that and it really helps us out.''

Shockey and Plaxico Burress each finished with five catches for 64 yards. Barber rushed for 83 yards and Manning was 13-of-24 for 165 yards, one TD and no turnovers.

Notes: Giants are 2-0 for first time since 2000....The Saints had a five-game win streak dating back to last season snapped. Saints RB Deuce McAllister surpassed George Rogers for first all-time in career rushing yards as a Saint with 4,305. Rogers' mark was 4,258.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Chad, Jets Look To Rebound Against Fish

With high expectations entering the season, the Jets were embarrassed at Kansas City in Week One 27-7. After allowing the Chiefs to score in just three running plays on the opening drive, it went from bad to worse on offense when Chad Pennington couldn't hold onto the football, fumbling six times (2 lost). He also missed Laveraneus Coles for an easy six and tossed an interception.

“You never know what to anticipate on opening day,” coach Herm Edwards said Monday. “There’ll be some teams that lose the first one and still make the playoffs and maybe even win a championship. ... It’s one game and you’ve got to learn something from it, win or lose. We’ve got 15 more and this is an important game for us this week.”

Much was expected under new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. Pennington's listless performance along with a botched snap by All-Pro center Kevin Mawae in the shotgun weren't what they were looking for.

Pennington took plenty of heat all week in the paper and on sportstalk shows. Now he'll have a chance to bounceback in the home opener against the rival Dolphins.

"We'll make sure it doesn't happen again," said the Jets quarterback. "Just focus in. You have to have a little anxiety in your stomach, make sure you come out and play better."

Miami (1-0) comes off an impressive 34-10 win at home over Denver in which Gus Frerotte tossed for 275 yards and two scores along with a Jason Taylor 85-yard fumble return. It made new coach Nick Saban a winner in his debut.

Recently, the Jets have owned Miami, winning 11 of the last 14 including six of seven. Last year, they swept the Fish, including a 41-14 rout on Monday Night Football last November 1. They will look to continue that trend Sunday at the Meadowlands.

Edwards knows how important it is to rebound. “It’s a division game which makes it doubly important,” Edwards said Monday. “We’re playing against a team that played very, very well at home against Denver. They played outstanding defense and made some big plays on offense, so it’ll be exciting.”

He also reminded his team about who they are and what's made them successful in the past.

"We're not some glamour team because we're in New York," he pointed out. "We're a blue collar, hard working team. We do certain things, how we play. When you play that way, you have a chance to win in this league. We didn't play that way."

One positive from last Sunday was the play of tight end Chris Baker. In his first career start, he caught seven passes for 124 yards (both career highs) including the team's only touchdown.

“He made a lot of good catches,” Edwards said. “We used the tight end very, very well. That’s something we can build on offensively.”

The Jets will look for Baker to continue his renaissance and hope for All-Pro running back Curtis Martin to break 100 yards. Last week, he ran for just 57. They'll need a better game from him and Pennington Sunday.

“We’ve got to get it fixed. And that’s the fortunate thing: we can get it fixed,” Edwards said. “We have to play a lot better, coach a lot better, and we’ve got to execute. We have an opportunity again this week to try to get better and go out and win the game.”

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Late Dramatics Make Baby Bombers Champions

STATEN ISLAND-All season long, the McNamara Division winning Staten Island Yankees had the magic touch late in games. In a fitting conclusion to a perfect season, the Baby Bombers used another rally to win their third New York-Penn League Championship in six years at Richmond County Ball Park Thursday night at St. George.

Reegie Corona's dramatic two out double off Paul Phillips scored Joe Burke making the Baby Bombers 2005 champions. Burke, who earlier came in as a pinch-runner for catcher P.J. Pilittere got the ninth started off with a single. After James Cooper sacrificed him to second, Phillips struckout Felipe Garcia setting up the exciting finish.

With two strikes, Corona served Phillips' outside fastball down the left field line for the winning hit. After Burke touched home plate, the entire Staten Island dugout mobbed Corona between first and second, throwing water and whatever else they could find.

"I just went with the pitch," said a happy Corona afterwards. "We played very good. Thank you Andy [Stankiewicz]. Everybody. Good job."

In regards to being champions, he uttered, "Amazing. Amazing!"

"I just tried to get on anyway I could," said an excited Burke. "I was trying to do whatever I could for my team."

On the late game theatrics, Burke noted, "It's just unbelievable. I can't explain it. We do it extra innings, early in the game and then we cruise control it and then we turn it on in the ninth."

"These guys have been doing it all year," said ecstatic manager Andy Stankiewicz. "Unbelievable. The way these guys have played. You just got to tip your hat to these new young men."

"They've been just working hard and it's paid off."

Auburn's Matt Cooksey put the Doubledays in front for the second time when he doubled in Manny Sena off reliever Hairo Solis with one out. After Chris Gutierrez's infield hit put runners on the corners, Stankiewicz went to the bullpen and called on Mike Wagner to get out of further trouble. He induced Sean Shoffit into a 4-6-3 double play to keep the score 2-1. It would be huge.

Having comeback once an inning earlier, Staten Island did it again. Brett Gardner ledoff with a single, then was sacrificed to second by Kyle Anson and made it to third on Jon Poterson's fly to left when Sena bobbled the ball. With two outs, Auburn skipper Dennis Holmberg called on his closer Phillips to get a four out save. But on his first pitch, Kyle Larsen had other ideas, driving it through the middle for an RBI single scoring Gardner to tie the game.

"I've been struggling," an excited Larsen said after the game. "Just try to get something and hit it hard and just hit it hard. Wherever it goes it goes."

On whether he was looking first pitch fastball, he said, "For sure. Fortunately, I got it."

"All year, we're used to this stuff," he said. "We knew we always had a shot at it. ... We were down just one. We knew if we could stick around towards the end, we'd have a chance. Sure enough, we pulled it out again."

After Wagner got Patton for the first out of the ninth, Josh Schmidt recorded the final two outs. After allowing a single to Ryan Patterson, he retired Nick Thomas and Jacob Butler on pop ups. Schmidt improved to 6-1 on the season.

Early on, both starters pitched well. Jim Conroy went five innings of one-run three hit ball, walking two and striking out seven for Staten Island. Auburn's Eric Fowler impressed with six scoreless innings allowing four hits, walking one and fanning six.

The Doubledays got their only run off Conroy in the third. After a one out triple by Shoffit, Cory Patton's RBI fielder's choice to Larsen put them ahead 1-0. After a Patterson infield single, Conroy fanned Nick Thomas to end the inning, retiring six of the last eight he faced.

The Baby Bombers threatened twice but Fowler shut the door. With Eduardo Nunez on third with one out in the fourth, Poterson's scorcher went off third baseman Jermy Acey's glove to shortstop Gutierrez, who calmly tossed Nunez out at home for a 5-6-2 putout. Pilittere popped to second to end it.

In the very next inning, a leadoff walk to Cooper and a Garcia sacrifice put Cooper in scoring position. After Corona beat out an infield hit, they double stole with Gardner up. But on a full count, Fowler struckout Gardner swinging on a curve and then got Anson to ground out to short.
Staten Island tied it in the seventh off reliever Jesse Litsch. After Pilittere doubled to start the inning, Stankiewicz went to his backup catcher Burke to pinch run for Pilittere. After a Cooper fielder's choice put him on third, Garcia's sac fly to right scored Burke. Little did Burke know how involved he would be in making his ball club NY-Penn League champions.

"That's just Joe Burke," beamed Stankiewicz. "He's a bluecollar kid and he never got down. He wasn't getting the playing time he wanted but he stayed positive."

"He's a team kid and because he's got a great attitude and keeps working, he got himself in the position to," before the manager was doused with Gatorade by jubilant players.

"I struggled a lot this year," added Burke. "So I was working my butt off to get back in the lineup and be a part of this and it was unbelievable."

"Petey [Pilittere] did a great job. We've been great teammates all year. I stepped up. He stepped up."

"He's a great player and I'm just happy to get that tying run. You know to help him out. He's not too fast out there. Help him out in anyway. Hold it down defensively and help in any way offensively."

On being champions, Burke said, "It's my first time. I was Big East champs in the regular season and this is something else. Special guys. Special coaches [Stankiewicz]. It's unbelievable."

With fans chanting, 'We're number one,' the team lined up together and took a picture in front of home plate with the trophy.

"This is great," added Larsen. "It couldn't happen to a better bunch of guys. We've worked so hard all summer. For us to come out here and have it happen like this is just awesome."

"I'm happy for the city," Stankiewicz added. "For the city of Staten Island. For our ownership here and for all the great work that these guys did. It was unbelievable."

What could be better.

My Trip To Buffalo

Last weekend, my friend Brian had an extra ticket for the Buffalo Bills game and asked if I would like to make the trip. Having heard many stories before, I couldn't say no. I had always been curious about how different upstate Western New York was from back home here in Staten Island, which is much closer to the city.

And so, we took off last Friday afternoon around 5:30 for the long trip northwest. And what a trip it was. Of course, we ran into traffic in New Jersey that delayed things quite a bit. But by 7 PM, with the sun setting and nothing but darkness ahead, we were on our way. Cruising through the interstate can make you contemplate many things, especially when you still have part of two states to pass through on a seven hour drive. And so, that's what Brian and myself did to kill time. Discussed many different topics ranging from sports to politics to concern about what's happened to kids today. You could probably tell that this wasn't your normal convo.

As we stopped at Scranton, Pennsylvania in the middle of nowhere at McDonalds, it was here that one of the topics took credence. And you could probably figure out why. Especially if you saw the way two young teenage girls were dressed inside. I know that's what a black dude was thinking when he asked if he could join them, to which they turned him down. Hey. You got to give him credit. Where was the harm? There's something troubling here which I know both of us discussed back in the car as we hit the road again. Hint: It's not the guy trying to be cool part.

As we made our way through the long part of Pennsylvania onward to upstate Binghamton, both of us got plenty of calls from family to keep things moving. You need that when you're navigating in pitch black with nothing but two lanes and other cars on the road.

With WCBS AM fading out so that we couldn't make out what John Sterling was saying during an opener of a key Red Sox-Yankees series, we shut it and talked about how the NHL's Eastern Conference would panout. That's when we finally made it to Syracuse and knew we were within striking distance of Buffalo. At our second rest stop, I bought a couple of McDonalds sundaes (one for Brian) and he sipped on some coffee to stay awake.

Brian had been to Buffalo many times before. His Dad lived there for 25 years. So he knew the area well and was driving. I had never been that way before, though once when I played travel basketball, we bused to Syracuse and took in a game at the Carrier Dome back in '88. Even remember all the rabid Orangemen fans continuing the tradition of clapping before their team scored a basket at the beginning of each half. They wound up destroying Seton Hall in the year the Pirates would reach their only NCAA final in school history, losing by two points to Michigan in a screw job.

After splitting another expensive cost on gas, I wondered if there would ever be any kind of normalcy regarding the price of oil ever again in this great country. The sad thought didn't last long as we finally made the final leg of our trip through Syracuse and Rochester.

As both of us concluded that Ottawa and Tampa Bay had the best chances to come out of the East, it took another hour and a half to finally reach our destination of Buffalo. When the clock approached 2 AM, we checked into the Red Roof Inn for the weekend.

Already, I could see and feel a difference outside. It wasn't just how much energy a worker at a tollbooth had when we exited the New York State Thruway. Like you would really see that back home. But just how cool it was and a noticeable change in the air told me all I needed about Western New York.

After getting a few hours of sleep, we got up the next day around 10 AM and Brian gave me a brief tour of Buffalo. As we drove towards where the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team played in a beautiful park, I noticed how small and old some of the downtown really was. It brought a harsh reality to what Brian had warned about the area. Yes, it was small and more relaxed, which wasn't a bad thing. This area had potential to be much better but according to what I was told, a brutal economy and crooked politicians had taken its toll. They didn't have the resources necessary to fix it.

Across from where the Bisons played was HSBC Arena, where you guessed it; the 'big market' Buffalo Sabres play. And right across from the train station is the nostalgic Aude, where a ton of noise used to be made. I could see why. It was a small building built in a fashion you never see anymore. Almost like a small warehouse. Here's all you need to know about Buffalo. You have these three venues all in the same area and right smack in the middle is The Buffalo News.

So, when I hear someone back home complain about this sort of thing, I will rip them to shreds because they just don't realize how good they have it, which really puts things in perspective.

We then drove back and went to the mall, which was another refreshing change from back home. Yes, it's not as many people but the mall itself had everything and when you went into stores, sales clerks were all nice. They treated you with respect, something that isn't always noticeable here.

As I picked up some postcards for family and friend, hockey tape and puck for brother, we walked downstairs into one of my favorite places. The book store. I love going there because I enjoy reading in my free time. I'm a big Jack Higgins fan. Though he specializes in fiction, it's always very believable, which makes it enjoyable to read.

The sales clerk was very nice as well. I inquired about a new work they had in hard cover to find out if it were available in soft cover but it just came in. She asked me something else as I picked out two other Higgins works but I was distracted. This was the kind of person I wouldn't have minded bringing home. Very nice person who looks right at you. Nothing phony.

Unfortunately, we had to go. Being on a tight schedule and budget doesn't leave you much time. Though we were pretty close to Canada, there just wasn't time for everything. If we had a couple of more days, we definitely would have gone.

We stopped for lunch at Quizno's. Believe it or not, it was the first time I ever tried it. Definitely top notch. While on line, a couple of younger girls who probably attended The University At Buffalo were chatting and I said something. One was from Long Island and my one remark was, "It's better than Staten Island," to which they laughed. In all honesty, living here isn't that bad. I guess when you live in one area for almost your whole life minus 11 months in Bristol, Connecticut, it has that kind of effect.

After picking up stuff at Tops Market for the tailgate Sunday, we finally relaxed and watched some U.S. Open tennis. There was Andre Agassi defying the odds once more, winning another five set match against Robby Ginepri. Flipping between that and the Yankees making a washed up Curt Schilling look dominant again wasn't much of a choice. As a Yankee fan, my one thought was, 'How come every other team lights up Schilling and we can't beat him with a bum ankle or now?' Kind of tells you what I think of the Yanks' chances. Brian agrees.

As we flipped between Notre Dame 'upsetting' another overrated college football program Michigan and Roger Federer pulling off more sick shots against Lleyton Hewitt than Alexei Kovalev has moves in his arsenal, I couldn't help but wonder why more people don't watch the genius of tennis. There certainly is enough court movement, hustle, incredible shots for awesome rallies and ridiculous winners which make the crowd 'oooohhh and ahhhh.'

In many ways, tennis and hockey are very similar. Both are niche sports, which cost a lot of money to play and have problems drawing in The States. Both are fun to watch and can bring fans out of their seats. Federer with his running forehand or backhand crosscourt behind opponents or Kovalev with his deke or blistering wrist shot. Agassi with his precision from the baseline resulting in 'how did he do that' winners or Joe Sakic with his patented wrist shot which finds the top of the net. Kim Clijsters with her great hustle on defense to keep points alive or Martin Brodeur with his stack of the pads to deny someone.

Of course, one sport is one-on-one with each combatant trying to adjust on the fly during a match without more than a minute between two games and a couple of injury timeouts if needed. The other sport is team oriented that includes tons of strategy put in by coaches and tons of communication. For some reason, I find myself leaning towards tennis because there's no one there to help you win. It's a physical and mental battle of attrition that can last four or even five hours. But I always come to the same conclusion: Both are great sports which deserve more recognition.

As we went to sleep fairly early to prepare for the early rise for the special Opening Day tailgate extravaganza Sunday morning, I couldn't help but wonder what it was going to look like. Were these Bills fans really as diehard as I had heard?

By 6 AM the next day, we already got up and prepared for the long day ahead, which would include the journey to Rich Stadium and then a long trip home.

Having checked out fairly early, we hit the road for the half an hour ride to the Stadium. On our way there, we stopped at the one and only Tim Horton's for some breakfast. I heard many things about Horton's. Let's just say it lived up to the hype. A perfectly toasted everything bagel with just the right touch of butter and a decaf said so.

As we got closer to our destination in the middle of nowhere (not exaggerating), suddenly to the left was Rich Stadium. Just picture this. You're cruising in a nice small town and then you see an arena on your left. That's Buffalo.

Amazingly, at 8 AM, five hours before kickoff, the Bills pregame show came on the radio and already some dolt was referring to Buffalo quarterback J.P. Losman in his first start as "the next Rob Johnson." For those who don't know who that is, let's just say it was a former Jaguar QB that Buffalo made a big investment in, only to see him unseated by Doug Flutie. Yes. That DOUG FLUTIE.

It was too early for this. 'It's Game One and this troll is making that comparison when Losman has yet to start a game,' I beckoned to Brian. I even pondered calling up as he laughed.

As Brian nervously wondered how we'd find Two Bills Drive, the site we posted on who was setup somewhere already on the lawn, luckily it wasn't that tough to find them thanks to a sign which pointed us in the right direction.

At 8:15 in the morning, what impressed me was how well organized everything was. When they found out we weren't staying after the game, they had us park in front, which would come in handy later. If I remember correctly, SDS (Scott) hosted the event along with Jack, Jay, Cindy and Rockpile. Note: If this confuses you, just understand that we're dealing with a site of diehard fans and trying to give as much credit as possible.

A table was setup in the back where Jay successfully hosted an auction of a classic black road Jim Kelly Houston Gamblers jersey which went for $225 to Tyrone and for a great cause! The money was donated to The Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund. A very noble gesture.

Meanwhile, Rockpile's lovely daughters helped sell raffle tickets for fans interested. Their smiles were enough for me. I bought 13 for the great price of $5. There were many winners including yours truly. A host of Bills items were won including hats, 2004 yearbooks, shirts, etc. I was very pleased to take home a Willis McGahee hat. One of my all-time favorite Miami Hurricanes and already establishing himself among the NFL's elite running backs.

While all this took place, on the side setup were some first class tailgates, which made the day an instant success. Among the best were Rich's buffalo wings, which had the perfect kick in them to wake you up. There were also some excellent sausages, barbecued chicken, jerk chicken, fries and even an assortment of hot peppers if anyone dared try. Being the daredevil I am, I bit into a red one that had me on fire for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, a nice lady came up to me and said, 'The way you bit that, you looked like you had experience.' It had to be one of the funniest remarks I've heard. Yes, it was true. I like hot peppers and have been known to try a few. But just the way she termed it put a smile on my face.

Luckily, there were enough ice cold beers and other assorted drinks to cool me off.

What also was cool was that they chipped in to buy a birthday cake for Scott, the host of the site. He didn't really have any words but the look on his face when Jay introduced him was priceless.

If I got any of this wrong, I apologize.

I'd like to give special props to R.Rich and Blitzburgh. Both were great to meet along with everyone else I ran into including someone from Freehold, New Jersey.

As things wound down, we participated in a group photo to conclude the festivities. All in all, a great time with some hardcore fans. I had to see it to believe it. There was even singing in the background to the trademark Bills touchdown song, the all too familiar Otis Redding's "Shout," spinoff with a "Let's Go Buffalo" chant mixed in.

On to the game. Full of anticipation heading into Rich Stadium, it was everything I expected and more. I came away very impressed. Our seats were all the way up in Section 337 with our hosts, who I thanked for the tickets along with other fans from the tailgate. Full of electricity, over 70,000 strong stood up and cheered loudly as each Bill was introduced. You could feel the energy.

With it being the fourth anniversary of a very tragic day, a moving ceremony took place to commemorate 9/11. I found myself rather emotional as the national anthem was sang. As U.S. Navy planes flew over the stadium in salute, it was the perfect touch on a special day.

The game itself was all Bills. From the very first snap, they dominated every single aspect against a scared Houston Texans squad. At least to the naked eye, they didn't look like they wanted any part of Buffalo. Especially the defense, which turned David Carr into a statue.

In his debut, Losman had a very good game, throwing for one touchdown and most importantly, no turnovers. He showed the pocket poise of a savvy vet, hardly panicking. When the Texans made it interesting near the end of the first half, McGahee took over on one drive, faking out a Texan to get one first down and then running for two more in a statement drive, which resulted in the only Buffalo touchdown.

With his team in command 19-7 at halftime, an amped up Losman went to the fans yelling at them to get up, prompting more cheers. Just from how excited he was to listening to him on the postgame, I concluded that the Bills had a very bright future at QB. So, if he falls apart, you know who to blame.

With the Bills in command 22-7 with 5:00 left, we finally decided to go, knowing there was a long trip home. It was a wise decision. We were able to beat a lot of traffic and made three stops along the way including a final one at Horton's, for a soup, roll combo with coffee and a donut for three and change. Where else can you get that kind of deal? Maybe it's time for Horton's to come to these parts.

After splitting costs on gas, we traveled back passing the country-like Rochester along the way with Binghamton to follow and then Syracuse. As we passed The Carrier Dome in pitch black, it was hard to believe that a trip that began just a couple of nights ago was coming to a close. To kill time, I called up my brother Justin, who was drafting a fantasy hockey team for me. The best part was that Brian also made suggestions and it felt like a real draft, where we were working the phones to choose the guy we wanted. Everyone got their say. All things considered, I'd say we did pretty well. I still couldn't believe the yahoo system didn't have Alexander Ovechkin in it but of course included Sidney Crosby.

As the draft concluded in Scranton where we stopped at McDonalds, I thanked my brother for helping out and we got going. Then another chat reminiscent of the one we had Friday night about what's happened to kids resumed. Both Brian and I concluded that kids today are growing up too fast. I won't get into specifics but I'm sure people can speculate.

It's not just the lack of respect many have for authority today. But it's the lack of discipline which falls on parents. Funny but I don't remember it being this way when Justin or I were younger. It just seems like certain family values and other fundamentals aren't being emphasized enough. Kids are getting away with too much these days. But you can't always put the blame on them. It starts at the top. Maybe if people got back to basics, things would be a lot better for everyone.

As we listened to the end of the Colts 24-7 win at Baltimore on WFAN back for one final gas stop in Northern Jersey, the end was finally near. A trip which began with much excitement had an hour left. When we arrived home past 12:30 AM, about seven hours after really moving along, I thanked Brian (Clements22 to most) for driving and most importantly, for inviting me to Buffalo. It was a worthwhile experience that showed a different way of life.

All these years, I heard all the stories. It turned out he wasn't kidding. Western New York is nothing like here. It's just got its own unique lifestyle. Now that's pretty darn good.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Three Run Third Puts Staten Island A Win Away

In the first game of the best-of-three New York-Penn League Championship Series, the Staten Island Yankees used a three-run third and the pitching of Jason Stephens in a 6-1 win over the Auburn Doubledays to pull within one game of their third championship Wednesday night.

Taking advantage of consecutive two out errors by Auburn first baseman Nick Thomas and third baseman Jermy Acey, the Baby Bombers scored three unearned runs in the third off losing starter Robert Ray (4-4). After Ray retired the first two batters, Reegie Corona doubled to right to keep the frame alive. When Brett Gardner and Monday night hero Kyle Anson reached on consecutive errors, Corona came into score the game's first run.

Eduardo Nunez and Kyle Larsen then followed with runscoring singles to center making it a three run cushion for Stephens. It was plenty for Stephens (5-1), who allowed just a run in the sixth, going five and two thirds of four-hit ball with two walks and five strikeouts.

Peter Pilittere added a solo homer in the fourth for a 4-0 lead.

After Stephens retired the first two in the sixth, Jacob Butler doubled to knock him out of the game. The Doubledays pushed across their only run when Brian Bormaster singled in Butler off reliever Steve Schroer. Schroer got Acey on a comebacker to end the inning.

Schroer, Michael Wagner, Cory Stuart and Josh Schmidt combined for three and a third scoreless relief innings to shutdown the Auburn offense, which pulverized Oneonta by a combined 33-9 in the previous series.

The Baby Bombers tacked on two insurance runs in the ninth on a Gardner two-run double. Schmidt got Sean Shofitt to ground out to Larsen to end the game.

Staten Island will have two chances to clinch their third NY-Penn League championship starting Thursday night at home in Richmond County Ball Park. They won their previous two championships in '00 and '02. Game Three would take place Friday night at 7:05 PM if necessary.