Monday, February 6, 2017

The Acceptable Loss 3.0

Note: This is not about the Patriots win in Super Bowl LI, a horrifying evening that started like a dream result - a Falcons unexpectedly comfortable win - and devolved into a slow nightmare that willl haunt me for years to come. No, I'll address that, and my general thoughts on football going forward at a later time. Probably reconnect it back to my piece right before the season started titled 'Learning to love the NFL without Manning'. This is about the other tough loss my sports fandom had to endure the past fortnight, Rafael Nadal's crushing defeat to Roger Federer.

Twice before, I've written about the concept of acceptable losses. First was when the Spurs lost to the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, after choking away Game 6 and the ability to win a 5th title against the best of the LeBron-era Heat teams. The second was two years later, when the same Spurs lost a Game 7 to the Clippers in an incredible back-and-forth affair. What made the first loss acceptable was the respect the Spurs effort engendered them to with the NBA and sports public. What made the second loss acceptable was more or less the same, plus the additional bonus of what happened the year in between - the Spurs winning the NBA Title 4-1 against the Heat, capping it off with maybe the best three-game stretch of basketball ever played.

**Quick note, a few other acceptable losses in my lifetime as a sports fan: the 2012 Devils Stanley Cup Final loss to the Kings, as they beat the Flyers and Rangers with Marty Brodeur having one last turn-back-the-clock playoffs. The Raiders playoff loss this year because the future is so bright. And in a very hindsight is 20/20 way, the 2012 Broncos divisional round loss to the Ravens, as I should have just been happy to have a healthy Peyton back in my life, and the Ravens at least made good and beat the Pats and won the Super Bowl, giving Ed Reed the ring he so rightfully deserved**

For a third time I will write about an acceptable loss, but if anything what is more special is not the fact this is an acceptable loss, but the fact that I can consider it that when I saw my favorite tennis player lose to his long-time rival up a break in the 5th set, squandering any realistic chance to catch that rival in all-time career slam wins, and basically end once and for all the debate of who the best tennis player is. Yes, Rafael Nadal's loss is very much acceptable, and what made that match so much more special is that if Nadal was able to maintain his one-break edge in teh 5th set and take it home, my friends that are Federer fans would probably say the same thing.

I don’t know whether it was a more mature understanding of sport, or a secret admiration for Roger Federer developed over time, or just an acceptance that rooting for the 2nd best player isn’t all that bad, but I was more or less fine with that result. If I rewind 5 years, let alone 10, that match would have horrified me (Note: arguably even more so than the Super Bowl would a week later). My guy didn’t play all that well, but came up huge in big moments. The match was, in terms of the scattershot nature of the play, somewhat similar to the 2009 Final they contested. In that match, Federer was probably the better player in the first four sets, but Nadal just wouldn’t go away. Ultimately, he broke Federer early in the 5th set, ran away with a 6-2 finish, and emotionally broke Federer – reducing him to tears in the postmatch speech. Eight years later, Nadal was outplayed but not deterred, and broke Federer early in the 5th set. It was all set-up. A script we’ve seen so many times before, where over time Nadal just breaks Federer’s will. Instead it didn’t happen. And I’m OK with that.

That men’s final (and a quick shout-out to the Williams’ sisters final creating an incredibly nostalgic tournament)  was a four-hour celebration of the sport, of these two rivals, of two players whose time passed them by fighting back in a way only Champions know how to do. The idea of Nadal, a man who hadn’t so much made a Major Semifinal, let alone win a major, since the 2014 French Open, or Federer, a man who had made finals somewhat recently, but hadn’t won a major since 2012 and had missed the last six months of 2016, making a run would have been a legendary story. For both to do it? Pure elation. As a Nadal fan, it was somewhat comforting seeing Federer on the other side of the net, seeing the rivalry that carried Men’s tennis to its highest point ever, on the center stage.

You could see it in the way Federer spoke about the match after he won. Roger Federer was never all that conceited, but hid his much deserved arrogance behind a sweet demeanor, but he spoke beautifully. You really felt when he said that he wished tennis had draws so he could split the trophy with Rafa that he meant it. This tournament wasn’t just about #18, but about turning the clock back to when he ruled the sport, before Djokovic passed him, before Murray passed him, before his own countryman in Stan Wawrinka passed him. Playing Nadal in a major final was just a sign for Federer that all was right in the tennis world. Better for him he won it this time.

For Nadal, you can say the same as well. Ever since he won his 14th slam in 2014, ending a period where he won three out of five slams, making a final in one of the other’s, he was on top of the world. If anything, he fell farther, quicker than Federer did. Long a man who did his best in the slams, where he would grind player’s will over 5 sets, he started tensing up at big moments, losing winnable 5-set matches to Andreas Seppi, Fernando Verdasco and Lucas Pouille in the last three hardcourt slams he played. Nadal was unfortunate in that his peak overlapped with both Federer and Djokovic’s peaks. Federer had that 2003-06 period before Rafa became an all-court threat and Djokovic was just a prodigy to be to lock up 9 majors. Similarly, Djokovic has had the last three years when Nadal and Federer were either too injured, too old or both. Nadal never had that stretch, and more than anything it was just a joy to watch him play for a major again.

Over the last two years as a Nadal fan, with it seeming increasingly more likely he may never win a major again, it became, for the first time, easy to accept my fate of rooting for the guy who would never be the best. Sure, Nadal had Federer’s number head-to-head, and had a resume that makes him an easy argument as the 2nd best player ever, but he wasn’t the first best. And he shouldn’t be. Federer was better, Federer was more peerless. Federer was both an emotional artist in his beautiful play and a robotic genius in his ability to stay healthy, stay active and stay so darn good deep into his 30s. Federer is the greatest player in men’s tennis history. His highs were higher than anything we’ve seen. His longevity will likely be better than anything we’ll ever see. I’m fine admitting that. I’m fine admitting Nadal isn’t the best. I’m fine because Nadal has done enough to hold his place so easily at #2, has provided the sport a lift when it most needed it (a Nadal-less Tennis would have faded mightily in the mid-00’s if, say, Federer won 11 straight majors). Nadal was a part of probably the two best rivalries in men’s tennis history. Rafael Nadal had written his history already, but the coda was missing, and while I wouldn’t be surprised at this point to see him win the 2017 French Open, even if the 2017 Australian Open Final loss is the last great moment, it was sure great. Made even greater with Federer being across the net.

More than anything, this was a great celebration for the rivalry that made the sport. More than anything, it proved that rivalry may not be the right word. Rivalry has a hidden tinge of malice, or tension between the two combatants, like the Ravens-Steelers, or even, for an individual example, the Serena-Sharapova rivalry back in the day. Nadal and Federer surely have played enough great matches for it to register as a rivalry. The most notable was the 2008 Wimbledon Final, at this point more or less accepted as the Greatest Match in Tennis History. Right behind it was the 2009 Australian Open final (Federer actually said in an interview he considers this match to have the highest level of shotmaking of any Roger-Rafa match). But if anything, that match ended the truly malicious or tense part of the rivalry.

This was the match Federer accepted Nadal as his equal as a legend of the game, and we can poetically point to one singular moment. When accepting his trophy, Federer broke down on the stage, crying uncomfortably as a stunned crowd applauded. He receded back to gather himself, and Nadal was called up to accept his trophy as the Champion. Nadal accepted his trophy and instead of starting his speech, immediately went back to Federer and put his arms around the still-crying Federer, embracing him in a moment that should be cemented for life.  I have witnessed two incredible displays of earnest sportsmanship by one of my favorite players in my lifetime as a fan. The first was Peyton Manning’s short message to Bill Belichick after last year’s AFC Championship, “This might be my last rodeo, so I want to say it sure has been a pleasure.” The second was Nadal embracing his biggest competitor. Instead of exalting in breaking Federer’s will and spirit to inconceivable levels, he embraced the fallen comrade instead.

These were the two greatest competitors of their era, and Nadal took his time to console Federer. Eight years later, Federer got his chance to pay it back with him saying he should split the trophy. He meant it. The two greatest players in tennis history competed in a great five-set final, with drama, with shotmaking, with strategy, with everything anyone could have hoped for. And at the end, they got to show what great class acts they are, what great ambassadors they were, and while the tennis world may be split in two distinct camps, the two players aren’t. And neither am I anymore. They were happy to play each other, and we all, including me, a die-hard Nadal-ite, were just as happy to witness it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Novak and Age

Novak Djokovic's greatest asset was his consistency. His peerless, endless consistency. He was a technically perfect player, with groundstrokes that seemed to be constructed in a lab to never miss. It wasn't the power or past players, or the power of Rafael Nadal, or pure magic of Roger Federer. Djokovic's greatest asset was that he wouldn't miss. Novak Djokovic was unbeatable because he was unbreakable - a machine. On Wednesday, he broke.

Novak Djokovic's career crested last May when he finally won the French Open, completing his career slam and also his own personal Nole-slam (winning four straight majors). He did it after so many years losing to Rafael Nadal at the French (five times). He did it a year after finally beating Rafa, but only to lose to Stan Wawrinka. He was on top. And that seems to have been, seemingly, the beginning of the end.

First, it was Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, a shock 3rd round upset to a Top-30 player. Then it was a series of, for Djokovic, relatively poor results at the end of the season. Then came his US Open Final loss to Wawrinka, and his year-end Final loss to Murray to cede the #1 ranking. In that time came multiple murmurs and statements of Djokovic's mental state, of him losing his joy, part of his drive. Of him just having crested, but even then, no one could have expected this.

Novak Djokovic is the one player you would never think would lose to a #117 player in the world. Djokovic didn't just lose, though, he got outplayed without playing too badly himself. Novak Djokovic seemed untouchable because he was more consistent than anyone else, with more flexibility, more durability and more consistency. But we have to ask if that Novak will ever come back. As a player without a huge serve, or overpowering groundstrokes, with a game more built of technical precision than power, if age may catch him more quickly than we realized.

Lost in all of this is Novak Djokovic is turning 30 in May. He won his French Open, his 12th overall slam, a couple weeks after turning 29. Roger Federer turned 29 in August, 2010. He won 16 slams before his 29th birthday, and has won one since, the 2012 Wimbledon Title at 30. He hasn't won a slam since turning 31 (admittedly, he's made three finals since).

Rafael Nadal turned 29 during the 2015 French Open, a tournament that saw him lose to Novak Djokovic. He hasn't won a slam since. In fact, his last came the year before when he turned 28 in the 2014 French Open. Even in an era where more older players are playing longer and better, 29 still seems like a strong cut-off point. It happened to Federer, who's issues post-29 have not generally been injury but consistency, and Nadal. It may just happen to Novak also.

The mental games that Novak seems to be fighting in his hide can't be forgotten either. On one hand, two weeks before the Australian Open started, Novak beat Andy Murray in the finals of the Doha tournament, a big win given Murray's recent success against Novak and #1 ranking. So it wasn't like this what Novak entering a tournament out of form. On the other hand, though, Novak is a player who early in his career was seen as something of a over-dramatic semi-headcase.

Djokovic broke out in 2007-8, making four straight semifinals at 20 years old, capping it off with winning the 2008 Australian Open. He wouldn't make a Final until the 2010 US Open. In the period in-between, his results were almost always strong (tons of QFs and SFs in Slams) but outwardly it was an interesting time. He was criticized for retiring in too many matches, for always seeming to have some medical issue that bothered him, for not putting away easy matches, for never winning close sets against Federer or Nadal, for bouncing the ball too many times before he served. Djokovic was a weird guy.

Suddenly, it all clicked for him. He has openly expressed it was a move to a gluten-free diet in 2010, or different training regimens, but from his run to the 2010 US Open Final onwards he was a different player, a more confident player, and that confidence transferred itself to performance worthy of one of the best players ever. But slowly after the French Open win, the old Novak has started to creep out.

There were veiled references to his mental state or his 'personal issues' (to the public his family life seems fine). There has been quite a lot recently written about his split from coach Boris Becker and widening gap between his longtime personal coach Marian Vijda as he starts to work more with a strange fitness-nut in Spain who talks about how love is connected to the body.

Djokovic is at a career crossroads it seems. Just like Nadal did in 2014, there was a brief moment where Djokovic seemed like a player who would make a spirited run at Federer's record of 17 slams, and that could still happen, but for right now Novak is teetering close to the edge of becoming another tennis great who stalled at 29-30, and the more he inhabits the traits that made him a mecurial prodigy in his early 20s, the more stark the contrast between 2014-16 Djokovic and the current iteration seems.

Monday, January 16, 2017

8 Great Aspects of Championship Sunday 2016

8.) Offense, offense, offense. Last year’s Conference Title Games and Super Bowl were defined by the Denver and Carolina defenses. It was a defense-heavy end of the season, with the Broncos and Panthers anhillating the Brady-led and Palmer-led offenses they faced, and then did the same to each other. That won’t happen in 2016. This season is an anomaly. The best defense, and more exactly, the best pass defenses, all missed the playoffs. The Patriots have the #1 scoring defense,  but that’s a mirage built off of playing a truly pathetic lineup of offenses – by far the easiest opposing offenses in the NFL this year. The Packers and Falcons both have major holes at all levels. The Steelers arguably have the best defense playing on Sunday, and they themselves are probably on the edge of the Top-10. This will be an offensive end to the season. Strange, in a way. Scoring was down – very slightly, but still. More telling, total offense and passing offense dropped for the first time in years. On the whole, this wasn’t a great offensive season, but the best offenses are alive and will duke it out.

7.) James Harrison, Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers: I don’t know if they are the three oldest defensive players in the league, but they are probably all in the Top-10. They’ve all seen better days (especially Freeney). But still, these are guys who dominated the previous decade of NFL football still playing big roles. Freeney is a bonus for the Falcons, but he had moments in the Divisional Round and can be key for a team that needs to get some rush on Rodgers. Peppers and Harrison are instrumental to their teams defenses and chances. Peppers is a modern marvel who is still within a standard deviation of how good he’s been ever since he left Carolina, but Harrison had a huge bounce-back season. The Steelers gave him his first second chance in 2007, so it just fits they’ve given him his second second chance.

6.) Le’Veon Bell: What Bell has done the last two games, rushing for 150+ each time while toting the rock 30+ times seems like overcompensating for him missing the playoffs the last two years. Bell was so good in 2014 but got hurt in the season finale (to be fair, it was not a meaningless game). Last year was more or less a write-off. Finally healthy, and he has been incredible. The Patriots rush defense is better than either Miami’s or Kansas City’s, and his patient style seems far less likely to work against the Patriots, but maybe it can. Keeping their drives long and having the ball for 35+ minutes will be key. It was the formula the Steelers used in their only recent win in the rivalry – their 25-17 win in 2011. The game was not as close as the score (the Steelers outgained the Pats 2-1 and held the ball for 40 minutes). That game was defined by Roethlisberger. This will have to be Bell.

5.) Experience vs. Innocence: The Falcons have a coach and a QB who have never won the Super Bowl. The Patriots, Steelers and Packers have coaches and QBs who have all won the Super Bowl, combining for 7 total for each. I can’t off-hand name the last time we had a Conference Title Game matchup where three of the four starting QBs had won the Super Bowl. For coaches, the last time was actually just two years ago (McCarthy, Carroll and Belichick), but that too is quite rare. Does experience matter? The Falcons as a whole barely have players that were around in 2012 when they lost the NFC Championship Game. I’m sure people will write about how the Falcons are the debutantes, how they don’t have the experience, how they’ve choked before. I don’t think it matters, but I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it a lot.

4.) Aaron Rodgers’ in the playoffs = Amazingness All Around. With his two wins in these playoffs, Rodgers is now 9-6 in the playoffs. That is pretty good (though had he lost the Wild Card game, he truly would have inherited his place as this generations Peyton Manning). What is better is out of those 15 games, the average level of enjoyment has been ridiculously high. He’s played now five just classic playoff games: both of his losses to Arizona, the loss to Seattle in the ’14 Title Game, last Sunday’s win, and the loss to San Francisco in the ’13 Wild Card Game. I would say there’s been three other very entertaining games: the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh, the 26-21 divisional win over Dallas in 2014, and the 45-31 loss to San Francisco – Kaepernick’s shining moment. Out of the 15, I only truly count one awful game, a pointless 24-10 win over a Joe Webb led Vikings team in 2012. Aaron Rodgers has generally been a source of some breathtaking playoff football.

3.) Revenge Potential: One of the hidden joys of Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl run last year was that he finally got the chance to get one back at Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Pittsburgh’s 2005 Divisional Win was probably the most painful loss of Manning’s career, a shocking end to what had been the best team he had played on. 10 years later he got his chance. For both Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan, they get their shots at revenge. Roethlisberger’s incredible rookie season ended with a home Title Game loss to New England, a slightly embarrassing 41-27 loss that wasn’t as close as the score. For Ryan, the low point was a 48-21 thrashing that the Packers laid on them in the 2010 Divisional Round, the worst loss ever by a #1 seed in a Divisional Game. In Ben’s case, he was a rookie. The Steelers won the Super Bowl the very next season (and again three years after that), and to my knowledge Roethlisberger and Brady are the only two players from that game who are playing this weekend (Belichick, of course). For the Falcons, they haven’t won a Super Bowl. There are similarly few players remaining (Matt Ryan and Jordan Babineaux are the only two I can name off the top of my head), but they have a chance to right a terrible wrong.

2.) The Patriots: I’ll regret writing anything positive about that team, but my God, let’s just realize this is their 6th straight title game appearance. That’s bananas. The hater in me would point out they are 2-3 in the previous five, but still. The further hater in me would point out the hilarious string of divisional round opponents they’ve been lucky enough to draw, including the Texans twice, and a Tim Tebow led Broncos team, but still, six straight title games is just bonkers. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the team that were previously tied with New England for the record were the 1973-1977 Raiders, who actually won just one of the five title games (1976), but the teams they lost to are among the best ever, not one year wonder Super Bowl winners like Baltimore and Denver (or a Denver team who would then lose the Super Bowl 43-8). That all said, this is truly an incredible achievement. Sure, I would rather not have the final true football game of the season (non spectacle of a game that is the Super Bowl) is in Foxboro, which to date has still never provided a great playoff crowd, but decades from now, when hopefully the Patriots are mired in a 2003-2016 Browns-like slump, we can look back with less tinted glasses at just how incredible the Brady & Belichick Patriots were.

1.) Matt Ryan’s Moment: At this point, it seems very likely that Matt Ryan will win the MVP. He was by far and away the 1st team all pro at QB, and there has never been a QB MVP that was not been the 1st team All –Pro. That all said, Aaron Rodgers is easily the most hyped player coming into the NFC Championship Game, what with his brilliant play since the ‘run the table’ remarks. And while the Packers have run the table, guess who has the best passer rating in the NFL since Week 12 (the week that started the Packers win streak)? It is Matt Ryan. Matt Ryan was the best QB in the league in the beginning of the season, he was the best at the end of the season. He’s been the same record setting QB all year long. Three QBs playing on Sunday have won the Super Bowl. Matt Ryan has never made a Super Bowl. This is his time. This whole year has been. In 2011, it was Eli Manning. In 2012, it was Joe Flacco. 2016 has been the year of Matt Ryan in full, and if he does lead the Falcons to the Super Bowl, it will start by knocking off the team that is led by the person people think is playing the best at QB.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Finding Joy in the Madness

Yesterday's epic National Championship Game ended about as good as any college game could. It was a fantastic game, full of dueling incredible storylines, the birth of a legend, the final piece of a long 5-year quest at Clemson, and either a momentary lapse, or the beginning of the end, of the sports great modern dynasty. That game had everything. Of course, if not for all the ills of college football, it would have been so much worse.

Alabama's offense consisted of waiting around for a 40+ yard play to occur. They had such variance in their offense. Either a run for 10+, or a deep bomb completed, or incomplete passes sprayed along the field coupled with runs for nothing. Clemson had a rhythm, but also wasted precious time running east to west and ridiculous read option plays against a team whose defense figured that stuff our three national championship games ago.

The game ended as fantastically as it can, with a game-winning TD with one second left. Of course, if not for some puzzling at best, awful at worst, clock management by Dabo Swinney and Clemson on that last drive, it would have been far less dramatic. College Football is not perfect. As a hardcore NFL fan, the quality of play alternates between inspired and awful, with way more falling on the awful side - particularly on offense. Of course, this game a day after one of the most listless NFL playoff weekends in recent memory, with four games all decided by 13+ points, and few dramatic moments at all. Sure, all eight teams in terms of quality were far superior (including the Connor Cook led Raiders), but after seeing what Alabama and Clemson put on display, maybe imperfect isn't that bad.

I had a quick group chat conversation with a couple friends on whether that was a better title game than the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC, memorably won late by Texas. That game had a few similarities, including the overall theme of an upstart team led by a dual threat QB coming back from behind all game to beat a team looking for a dynasty. I argued yes. Here the game was closer, featured multiple lead changes on bananas play, and had the final TD scored even later. My friend who is the most hardcore college football fan in my group argued no, mostly centering around the quality of play - and more directly, quality of players in that game. I get that argument (even in a game where the perceived talent didn't translate to the NFL), but maybe we can overlook that for the sheer audacity of a great college game.

Weirdly, we had a Title Game in college rather recently that could match this one for drama, as we are less than a year removed from Villanova's incredible walk-off win over North Carolina with a last second buzzer beater. That game was incredibly well played. In quality of play, that more closely resembled NBA Basketball than this game resembled NFL football. But that doesn't necessarily mean it was better. In basketball in many ways, the flaws are more pronounced. The mindlessness of most college basketball offenses are so glaring, so jarring, it is hard to ever look past. College can get closer to the real product, and when you couple that with the drama of Clemson ending an all-time run by Alabama, you get something close to perfect despite its imperfections.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

NFL 2016: Wild Card Weekend Picks

(A5) Oakland Raiders (12-4)  @  (A4) Houston Texans (9-7)
Saturday, January 7th, 4:30 - ESPN
Line: Texans -3.5

State of the Teams: Obviously, this game turned into a disaster when Derek Carr went out. The game is now essentially a fight for who gets to be the Patriots (or Chiefs) whipping boy in a week. Derek Carr's loss turns the game into a complete toss-up. The Texans of course have their own QB issues, turning back to Brock Osweiler a week after ceremoniously benching their $72MM man. The Raiders are largely healthy outside of Carr, with their O-Line at full strength and the return of Karl Joseph. Adding a rookie safety back into the fold may seem like a small victory, but when he was healthy the Raiders had a surprisingly good pass defense by advanced metrics (tops in the league by QBR, for what that is worth). The Texans are also relatively healthy, but they've already lost JJ Watt for the year back in Week 2. While they've been able to make up for a lot of the drop-off with the rest of the defense - including a siliently great Jadeveon Clowney season - taking a step-up, there still is something missing with Watt out. Let's move on before going too far into this. As I said, this is merely an exhibition. Neither team is really any good at the moment and is merely a lamb being fed for slaughter next week.

The Matchup: Again it is so hard to break this game down. Not only because there is no desire to, but I have no idea what the Raiders offense will be with Connor Cook. Given who he was playing (still the best pass defense in the NFL), Cook wasn't awful, but he is a rookie with no real playing action. The Texans themselves were in this situation five years ago, with 3rd-string TJ Yates having to start playoff games. Yates was serviceable in the Wild Card win, but even he had a few games in the regular season and the 2011 Texans may have been the best team in the NFL before Matt Schaub went down. On other other end, who knows what we are getting from Osweiler. Both teams will likely try to lean on the run, and neither rush defense is very good (Texans are 17th in DVOA, Raiders 18th). The home team has a slight advantage because however bad Osweiler is, he is probably better than a guy who has never started a game in the NFL before. 

The Pick: Raiders 13  Texans 20  (HOU -3.5)

(N6) Detroit Lions (9-7)  @  (N3) Seattle Seahawks (10-5-1)
Saturday, January 7th, 8:15 - NBC
Line: Seahawks -8

The State of the Teams: The Lions are coming into the playoffs as cold as possible, losing three straight games. Very few teams have ever made the playoffs losing their last three games. The last team did so after starting 13-0 (the 2009 Saints). Worked out pretty well for them, but it is different when you don't need any of those games. The Lions offense has never been the same after Matthew Stafford broke his finger against the Bears. While they won that game, the Lions have not been close to the same, with Stafford spraying passes high way too often. The offense is still designed well, but they may have to resort to their ultra-short passing game that somewhat worked in 2015. The Seahawks are also entering the playoffs cold, with a 2-3 finish to the season that knocked them out of a first round bye. Just like we have a key turning point with Matthew Stafford, we have a clear turning point for Seattle with Earl Thomas. The first time he missed games in his career the Seahawks defense went down the drain. The worst performance was their 10-38 loss to the Packers, but overall their defense has given up way too many big plays, way too many sustained drives on 3rd down completions, and worse red zone performance. The OL remains a disaster, but not as bad as it was early in the season. Wilson will need to raise his game, as his form dipped along with the defense.

The Matchup: The last time these two teams played, Kam Chancellor knocked the ball out of Calvin Johnson's hand at the goal line to save a victory. The Lions showed in that game, a loss during their 1-7 start to the 2015 season, that they don't really fear playing in Seattle. The Lions defense is not as good this year, mostly due to drop-offs from Ezekiel Ansah and Tahir Whitehead, and while their secondary is very strong, their rush discipline was very poor against Green Bay and the more-mobile Russell Wilson may expose that even more. The other side of the ball can go either way, but I don't think that Stafford is healthy enough with that finger to expose the issues Seattle is having so much trouble defending the deep third but with Stafford's inconsistent accuracy deep right now that shouldn't be as big of a problem.

The Pick: The Lions rarely get blown out. This is a high line for a team that struggled to put away the 49ers last week. There are issues with the Lions for sure, and you can foresee a situation where they tank early after blowing the division last week, but the Lions are a well-coached, fearless team that I don't think will wilt in the Seattle energy. The Seahawks are still better, at home, and their weaknesses don't match-up with the Lions strengths, but I do think the Lions keep it closer than expected.

Lions 17  Seahawks 23  (DET +8)

(A6) Miami Dolphins (10-6)  @  (A3) Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
Sunday, January 8th, 1:00 - CBS
Line: Steelers -10

State of the Teams: Stop me if this sounds familiar. An AFC team playing in Wild Card weekend has serious questions at QB?! Matt Moore is likely getting the start - I think it is basically confirmed at this point. Now, Moore has way more history than, say, Connor Cook, but most of that history prior to these last four games came in 2011 and 2009. Moore is decent, probably the best backup QB playing this weekend, but still this is not Ryan Tannehill. The Dolphins as a whole had nothing to play for in Week 17, but before that had gone 9-1. Now, most of those nine wins came against bad teams (or teams with injured QBs like Roethlisberger), and their one loss was a disaster, a incompetent 6-38 loss to Baltimore, but that still is nine striaght wins where both sides of hte ball look good throughout. Of course, one of the few teams who can rival the Dolphins' recent success, it is the Steelers, winners of 7 straight. Those seven wins weren't all that impressive either, but did include a 10-point win over the Giants, and a great win over Baltimore to seal up the division. The Steelers are more of a concept than a reality. We still think that if Ben, Bell and Brown were fully healthy all at once they would be unstoppable, but they have been more or less healthy for most of that seven game win streak and were never nearly as unstoppable as we would have wanted.

The Matchup: We can throw a lot of their earlier meeting this season away. Ben Roethlisberger got injured early and hobbled his way through a dreadful performance. Ryan Tannehill was the starter for the Dolphins. However, there are a few things we could learn. That earlier game was Jay Ajaye's breakout, and the Steelers have been susceptible all year long to running backs. The Dolphins did a great job dominating the Steelers OL, which is tough to do, but the Dolphins do have the talent to repeat that performance. As a whole, the Steelers are a better team, playing really well, and they have that tantalizing potential that everyone still loves, but the Dolphins are, for the first time in a long time, well coached and have a capable backup QB to aid in not allowing the Steelers to load the box on Jay Ajaye.

The Pick: The line is high, no doubt about it. I think Moore is well-regarded enough the line would only drop to around -7 had Tannehill been playing. The Steelers line has to be built off of the hope that it all comes together. The best Steelers performance is still either Week 1 (rout in Washington on MNF) or Week 4 (rout over KC at home on SNF). This is a not a team that has lived up to their potential and has rarely blown out teams. They have at very few times where they've covered a 10-point line. With that in mind, and a sleepless 1PM type start, I'm leaning towards the underdog covering.

Dolphins 17  Steelers 26  (MIA +10)

Giants 21  Packers 17  (NYG +4)

Monday, January 2, 2017

Who can make the leap?

Generally around 50% of NFL teams that make the playoffs one year don't make it the next. This year was the same, with the Broncos, Bengals, Panthers, Cardinals, Vikings and Redskins dropping out. Normally it is around 6, at times drops to 4, on rare occasions will go up to 7-8. So, with that in mind, let's look ahead at the 20 teams that didn't make the playoffs this year and which have the best chance, and what the path is, to making the playoffs. Obviously, we don't know how free agency will change things, or the draft, or a Romo-trade, but I'll take a few guesses and assumptions.

No Chance in Hell

20.) Cleveland Browns
19.) San Francisco 49ers
18.) New York Jets

Saying anything in the NFL has no chance in hell is a strong statement, and sure I'm openly being somewhat hyperbolic, but I really would be surprised if any of these three make it. The Browns are at least keeping their coach (the Jets might too, but that could be a disaster if things go south early in 2017). The Browns are a year into a multi-year rebuilding phase with no real plan to win anyway in 2017. The 49ers are basically entering where the Browns were a year ago with cleaning house and getting rid of Baalke and Chip Kelly. The Jets need to do what the 49ers and Browns have started. Their cap is a mess, their drafting strategy has been rudderless, they have no real QB, and their best players are all either free agents, locker-room cancers, or over 30. Just a mess. Hard to believe this team entered Week 17 last year needing to just win to make the playoffs.

A lot of things will have to break right

17.) Jacksonville Jaguars
16.) Los Angeles Rams
15.) Chicago Bears
14.) San Diego Chargers

Three of these teams have coaching vacancies. I applaud the Bears for sticking by John Fox. That team was better than 3-13, probably more of a 5-11 team based on performance and this is with a ton of injury issues. As for the Rams and Jaguars, their only real path probably doubles as their largest, systemic failing: their issues at QB. I guess we should give Jared Goff a pass, but he was brutal in limited action. If he improves a ton, and similarly with Bortles if he finally takes a step, those teams can navigate a path. Good coaching hires can do wonders for both. The Bears probably need a new QB, but they showed some really good signs late in the season, including a running game and a defense that played well despite missing 3-4 starters. The Chargers have the QB (though Rivers quietly did throw 20 interceptions) and if they can just stay healthy they can make a real push. What hurts them is the strength of the division they are in, and the sneaking suspicion Rivers himself may have started his decline in full.

More likely to stay in mediocrity

13.) Buffalo Bills 

The Bills have a lot of nice pieces that they put out on display the past two seasons under Rex Ryan. From Tyrod's surprising competence, their NFL-best running game this year, and their ability to be good on offense without getting full seasons from Sammy Watkins. What was not one of these things was their defense, which was a Top-5 unit when Rex Ryan came in. My skepticism going forward is it seems pretty clear Tyrod Taylor is gone, and I don't know who they should replace him with. Their defense is also further and further away from the Top-5 unit it used to be, with aging players and few real game-changers. The Bills have enough talent to drive right back to a 8-8 campaign, but the path to getting the two wins they would need is far blurrier.

12.) New Orleans Saints

The Saints have been very consistent the past few years. This was their 3rd straight 7-9 campaign (somehow, Sean Payton has escaped any Jeff Fisher jokes, despite going 7-9 or 8-8 five times despite having Drew Brees), and their 4th in 5 years (the first was in the year Payton was suspended). The Saints cap is still a mess, and what is the hope they'll be anything different in 2017? Especially with renewed uncertainty around Sean Payton's future, the offense may not be as good in 2017 as it has been the past few weeks. The Saints showed some signs on defense late in the season, but I'm put off by the coaching issues and the general malaise of 7-9 they seem resolved to never leave.

Hold your horses a bit

11.) Washington Redskins

Did the Kirk Cousins era peak in that win over the Packers? This was the game where after Rodgers gave his soon-to-be-historic 'run the table' remarks. Out of the game the Redskins were 6-3-1 and fairly safe bets for the playoffs. Now, with a 2-5 finish, losing a game against a team that had nothing to play for, and with Cousins' contract about to become a divisive issue again, it is far to ask if this is the best we will get. The division is tough, and the Redskins have depended on a lot of free agents. Now, that has often been Scott McLoughlan's way of starting off rebuilds, and his drafts may turn out to be great, but so much of their short-term future is wrapped up in the QB decision. They could easily make the playoffs again, but I think it is fair to wonder if 9-7 and 8-7-1 is as good as it will get with Cousins.

10.) Baltimore Ravens

They will look back at losses to the Giants and Jets, both games they could have easily won, as what cost them their playoff spot. Of course, had they tackled Antonio Brown they may have even beaten Pittsburgh just last week. I still believe in the coaching staff and the defensive personnel which all took a collective step up. There are some age concerns, but the Ravens drafting on defense has been solid the past couple years. A lot of it will come down to who Harbaugh picks next for OC. They've gone through a litany of them in Flacco's career. The good one's have worked wonders with Flacco (Cam Cameron in 2008, Jim Caldwell in 2012, Gary Kubiak in 2014), but the most recent set never did. The end of the season was incredibly disappointing, and it is now three out of four years out of the playoffs, but the Ravens still have a strong core.

9.) Philadelphia Eagles
In the end, it comes down to Carson Wentz. He was never as good as the player that was way too lauded during their 3-0 start, and he probably wasn't as bad as the one who fell apart in the second half of the season. The Eagles have a very good defense that should be around as good next year. I would foresee less Special Teams luck, but in reality it will come down to Carson Wentz. I think he still needs more than an additional year of maturation. The Eagles may be a year more away. I hope they stay by Doug Pedersen, as I liked a lot of what he brought to the Eagles team - he had an almost Jim Harbaugh like presence there. Goal #1A should be Wentz, but #1B should be to get Wentz some good players to actually throw to and work with. AN offense structured around Zach Ertz has only such high of a ceiling.

8.) Minnesota Vikings

I feel like I broken record saying all of these come down to what happens at QB, but for the Vikings there is more questions than maybe anywhere else. Sam Bradford was not the problem. I don't think the Vikings would have been any better this year with Teddy Bridgewater. That said, I still question how high the ceiling of a Bradford-led offense can be even if they have competent blocking. The defense is still good, but there are some age concerns there. The Vikings are a good team, but I have no idea who their QB will be next year.

Solid prospects to turn it around

7.) Cincinnati Bengals 

The Bengals are one of the best 6-9-1 teams out there. This is a team that was hammered by injuries, but still had a positive point differential, and a long track record of success. They still have a QB who if he is kept upright can be very successful. You have to imagine more health next year for AJ Green, more seasoning on their young pass catchers. My only concerns with Cincinnati are age on defense (DL) and offense (OL). Their offensive line was a strength throughout their 5-year run but fell apart at times this season. If that is a one-year anomaly, this can easily be a return to the playoffs. If not, there are more structural problems.

6.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5.) Tennessee Titans

Grouping these two teams together because of how similar they are. They will be linked because their QBs were picked #1-2 in 2015, and both had massive improvements in 2016. The key is getting them to be even more consistent in 2017. The Buccaneers are becoming something like the Giants or Panthers lite. A high-powered but inconsistent offense, and a strong defense that will have 4-5 games a year when they are amazing, and an equal amount with poor play. The Titans 'exotic smashmouth' worked for the most part, but they hvae to analyze what the hell happened against Jacksonville in Week 16. Both teams have bright futures, have done well in the draft (and the Titans have a host of picks coming their way from the Rams) and will be perennial contenders for years. Not sure if it is enough for 2017, but I do at least hope the Titans, if not the team to come, push the Texans out of the playoffs.

I hope this as much as I believe this

4.) Indianapolis Colts

I think Grigson is gone. One of the two have to go. In all honesty, they both have to go, but I think Pagano saved himself with that last win. I have no idea why. The team is a disaster. They went 8-8 with a healthy, and on the whole well-performing, Andrew Luck in a bad division. That is unacceptable, or at least should be. Anyway, there were signs of progress late in the season. The defense got a little more pressure than normal. The OL solidified nicely. Other targets outside of Hilton (who quietly led the NFL in receiving yards) stepped up. The foundation is good, but the gameplanning and the game-changers on defense need serious work.

The Returnees

3.) Carolina Panthers

The next two teams also were playoff teams in 2015 that dropped out. I was shocked about all three, but for all I think there is a great case it is a one-year anomaly. The Panthers are anyway up and down, and had some awful injury luck in 2016. The team foundation is still rock strong. They have tons of cap space to sign free agents (and re-sign guys like Kawaan Short). The OL is the key. Getting improvement there can get them closer to the 2015 Panthers offense. I still believe in everything I've written about the Panthers before. That team was amazing in close games in 2015, and then dreadful at them in 2016. They anyway had the underlying performance of an 8-8 or so team, so jumping back to 10-6 is not too far away.

2.) Denver Broncos

I will drop them a lot of Wade Phillips is let go, but the path back up is so clear. Their defense is tremendous, but if they can improve their rush defense and OL, they should be ready. If they can somehow swindle a trade for Tony Romo, they probably become AFC West favorites. Losing Kubiak hurts, but as long as Phillips is there and that pass defense remains the best in the NFL, they should be able to get another win or two easily next year. The foundation is very strong still.

1.) Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals really should have been a playoff team this year. Their point differential was good enough. Granted, they would still have been a disappointing 9-6-1 or something, but the Cardinals are still a strong defense. The defense was great (led the league with 48 sacks - quietly Carolina finished 2nd with 47) despite injuries. Their young pass rushers gave them a dimension they didn't hvae. Carson Palmer still had his moments late in the season, and if they get some good growth out of their WRs (and get John Brown back - they were never the same after he got hurt), the offense should be good enough. It is pretty clear the peak Arizona was 2015, but they can easily replicated the 2013-14 Cardinals that went 10-6 and 11-5.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Patience, Oakland, Patience

In one play, one second, one moment in time, a season went from one of the great stories in recent years to one of such loss and heartbreak. All it took was one play, one mistake from the tackle, one play when the QB who gets rid of the ball so quickly doesn't do that. From the second it happened, he knew it was over. Soon the team did as well. Derek Carr's season ended last Saturday, on Christmas Eve, a sullen lump of coal for all the silver-and-black clad fans that made Oakland rock again.

I'm a Raider fan. I was a Raider fan when I first started watching football. I was a Raider fan when I followed their 2002 Super Bowl team week to week. I was a silent Raider fan as they went through the roughest 7-year stretch (2003-2009) of any team nearly ever. I was less silent during their brief 'renaissance' in 2010-11 when they went 8-8 twice. I was even less silent as the rebuild went slowly at first, but there was no need to be silent this year. The Raiders are good, the Raiders are a playoff team. It's a cruel irony when they finally get back it will be without the one guy who can eventually make them great.

The 2016 Raiders were not a great team. There is no reason they should be 12-3 right now, full off of crazy wins, comebacks and two-point conversions. They really are about 10-5 good, but willed out two extra games. This was not a season that should end in a Super Bowl win, but they had a chance with Carr. They had a chance with an offense that could score anywhere (except against the Chiefs, apparently). They had a fearlessness that the late Al Davis would have admired. They breathed life into that hollowed-out stadium they still have to call home. It was a season of such joy, such amazement, such intrigue, washed away on one play. For us Raiders fans, that was the cruelest part, but now we must look forward, as that is still just as bright.

Climbing the ladder as a franchise to the ultimate goal is rarely a linear rise. There are generally periods of uncertainty, of falls down, and none is bigger than this. The Raiders future is bright, arguably when you look at a 5-10 year outlook, they may have the brightest future of any team, with two 25-year old superstars. One at the most important position (Derek Carr, who should only get better, as he has done every year) and the other at, arguably, the second (Khalil Mack). They have other very good to great young players, headed by Amari Cooper. They have so much cap space to spend still, and have drafted really well in the past couple years. The future is not any less bright, but sometimes the future is still only a concept. What's tangible was now, and now there is nothing.

If the Raiders went 10-5, or 9-6, and were in position to be wild-card fodder, I would not have cared nearly as much for Carr's injury. Going from 7-9 to 10-6 would have been natural. Instead, the Raiders cheated and jumped a few wins a year early, put themselves in decent positions to steal a weak AFC (this is not a great Patriots team, 14-2 or not). They had a shot, and Trent Cole took it away. It is never so easy, never such a smooth ride. 

The Raiders have gone through this rebuild with such steely focus and patience. Reggie McKenzie is getting a lot of plaudits as a GM, but we should probably direct some of that praise to the man above him. Mark Davis showed extreme patience when they went 4-12, 4-12 and 3-13 in the first three years. Mark Davis didn't blink, understanding just what McKenzie was planning and doing. A few good draft picks later and few teams are positioned any better than the Raiders. We just have to now hope that the fans (including myself) have as much patience.

If the future plays out like it should, and like all the crazy Raiders fans expect, we will look back at the 2016 season as the start of somethign amazing, but the ultimate tease of a season. And maybe that is not so bad. Suffering is good. A team that wasn't as good as its record anyway probably should get hurt a bit to keep that fire going, to keep the ship dead-straight ahead. The Raiders will hopefully be better off for having to suffer their first playoff season without their leader. Learning patience is so important, and if both the fans and the team themselves can do it well, the future will be incredibly bright.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

My Top-15 TV Shows of 2016: #5 - #1

5.) Game of Thrones  (Season 6 - HBO)

When I was doing this list, I starting getting surprised at how well I thought the latest season of Game of Thrones stacked up. Let's face it, the shows had a rough two years, specifically with having to defend scenes showing/dealing with rape. But season 6 moved past those issues, showcased and grew great, strong female characters in an organic way, and drove the show forward in a way the last two or three seasons have not. If anything, Season 6 was a redemption season, with two of the Starks finally getting back together in Jon and Sansa's arc, to us finally getting some payoff on the Arya and Bran solo acts. Having pairs of people finally together, especially the Tyrion/Danaerys pairing, created an energy in the show that was lost. Seasons 3-5 were more about moving pieces around, while 6, the final full-length season, really set the stage nicely. It also had some of the most powerful, well constructed, scenes in the shows history, whether it be the death of Hodor, which of course also served as an origin story, to the bananas beginning of the final episode and melting of King's Landing, to finally the confirmation of R+L=J theories. Even while some of these had been more or less spoiled (that and Jon's reincarnation), it all played out nicely. Game of Thrones has the ability to hit higher highs than any shows given its budget, and we saw that in even the lesser seasons - particularly with Hardhome last year, but in this year, if anything their showcase episode (Battle of the Bastards), was not close to their best. The storytelling, plot speed and character development was its best in years, despite being the first season to move fully past George RR Martin's books. Maybe that was the key, afterall?

4.) Narcos  (Season 2 - NETFLIX)

I had Narcos ranked quite highly last year, and while I agree with some of the criticisms both of this season and the show overall (at times on-the-nose plot devices and the narration), I think they add to the brilliance of what Narcos became. Season 1 was built around Columbia itself and the American DEA, and the growth of an empire. It tried to be The Wire, cover all bases at once. Season 2 was more like a Breaking Bad season, an intense character study of the downfall of Pablo Escobar played out over 10 hours. It still had good work on the DEA (and even more CIA) front, showing the complexity of fighting the drug war, but it was a Pablo focused season, and man was it amazing. Wagner Moura's portroyal of Escobar is amazing. Native speakers will criticize his accent (Moura is Brazilian), but beyond that it is hard to criticize anything he did. The story itself of Pablo's slow crawl into an isolated monster, never knowing how to stop, was just as stirring, to me, as Walter White's, which is particularly impressive since this was based off of real history. The point-by-point view of his empire falling, his influence dwindling, and his energetic fury boiling was great storytelling. The cinematography remained brilliant, as did the acting as a whole by most of the cast. I have doubts on the show post-Pablo as Season 3 will turn its sights on the Cali Cartel, but this era of the show was every bit as good as it could have been.

3.) OJ Simpson: Made in America  (ESPN)

Spoiler: this is not the highest ranked show that centered around OJ Simpson - which says more about just how incredible that trail was. ESPN's seven-hour, five part documentary was absolutely incredible in every way. From the slow burn of starting it showcasing OJ's career contrasted with race relations decaying in Los Angeles, to ending it with a walkthrough of OJ's current legal issues (which was to me, the only forgettable part of the documentary), it was obvious the documentary was going to go into everything. Of course, the best parts centered around the parts that focused on the trail itself. I'll put aside my thoughts on the verdict itself, but I think the program did a fair job of showing why OJ was almost definitely guilty, but also why it is not a lie to say the LAPD and LA DA botched their investigation and trail. The best of the show really was how well the interview footage played. Both in showing how those close to OJ were as polarized as everyone else, and how bad Mark Fuhrman comes across even all these years later. I don't think the documentary would make anyone rethink their view of the verdict, but would definitely make people better understand why this trail captivated America - especially those like me who weren't alive for it. The doc did an unbelievable job of showing how the trail impacted the country, from footage and interviews of LA residents, both black and white, to comparing it to other racial issues across the US. This was a true uncompromising look at the Trail of the Century, and how and why it attached itself to all of our consciences. For ESPN's first try at long-form documentary storytelling, this was note perfect. The 30 for 30 series has done an incredible job in so many of its standalone stories, but this was a risk, and one that paid off so damn well.

2.) Stranger Things  (Season 1 - NETFLIX)

So often, the shows we never expect to take hold just do. NETFLIX didn't really hype up the release of Stranger Things, certainly not as much as many of their other shows. The show featured pretty much no known actors apart from XXXXXXXXX. Unexpectedly, for NETFLIX, it caught fire online, hitting all the right notes to attach itself to the influential TV writers that grew up watching similar shows in the 80's. Word of mouth worked, drew me into watching something I generally would not have, and allowed me to take in the spectacle. It is hard to imagine that a show that was such a call-back to the 80's in style, design and plot, would work so well in 2016, but maybe enough time has passed for it to be rightfully retro. The best part, really, was the acting. All the kids and teenagers were casted so well, especially Natalia Dyer (Nancy), Millie Bobbie Brown (Eleven) and Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin). All the kids really were incredible in their roles, putting such energy and joy into the show. The show itself did such a good job of putting in all the right elements. There was just the right amount of sci-fi mystery, just the right amount of teen angst, just the right amount of childhood fun, and just the right amount of small-town, small-stakes drama. I found the show so good, so perfect, that it became one of the rare shows I would hope would not come back. I thought the same thing about Fargo, but there they had the benefit of being an anthology show and changing everything anyway. This doesn't. Im optimistic given how good this first season was, and how much young talent they have to work with, but I doubt anything will be better than the small mystery of hunting down the demagorgen.

1.) American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson  (FX)

The first time I did a list like this was in 2014, when I put Fargo at #1. To me, that was an easy call. It was the show that best defined television in 2014, that best showcased the medium - and ultimately it was a wholly surprising given how hard it was going to be to pull off, to create a TV show in the same universe with the same tone as a beloved cult film. In many ways, The People vs. OJ Simpson was so similar. Nothing was more memorable about TV in 2016 than this, and nothing was more surprising. Unlike the other OJ piece, this was not a documentary, this was scripted, original material. This was a show with actors playing the part of real people - people that themselves became celebrities during the OJ ordeal. This was such a daunting task, I was skeptical from the start. The skepticism went away quickly, and was replaced by sheer joy.

One of the links between Fargo and The People vs. OJ Simpson (and so many other great shows including my #2 this year), was just how much fun they were to watch. I don't know if any show was as good as this in that regard. Like all shows it starts with the acting. Everyone was great. Few shows have such a star-studded cast, and, putting aside Travolta's Shapiro for a minute, while most of the big names got smaller parts they were all amazing, like Nathan Lane's F. Lee Bailey. Of course, the stars were Courtney B. Vance's amazing portrayal of Johnny Cochrane, and Sarah Paulson's great, complicated view of Marcia Clark. While the documentary focused on the larger picture, The People vs. OJ Simpson focused in on the trail and the main players, and did an incredible job. The courtroom scenes were great. The emotional arcs of Chris Darden and Clark were great. The infighting in OJ's circle was so well scripted and played. The largest flaw people seemed to have was Travolta's portrayal, but even that I thought hit the spot given how larger than life Bob Shapiro considered himself. My main takeaway from the show ended up being just how incredibly entertaining it was. The hours flew by, and after each one I left my chair with a large smile on my face. Nothing was better, few were even close, to The People vs. OJ Simpson in 2016.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

NFL 2016: Week 16 Power Rankings & The Rest


The 'Better Luck Next Year Boys' Quinto

16.) Cleveland Browns  (0-14  =  220-408)
15.) Jacksonville Jaguars  (2-12  =  260-359)
14.) New York Jets  (4-10  =  242-358)

There are actually fewer teams in the AFC totally out of it than in the NFC, but the AFC teams feel far less hopeful about their future. The bottom three are shaping up to be disasters. The Browns are on their way to a well deserved 0-16, but at least they have a bevy of picks. They really have to avoid whatever inclination they may have to trade for Jimmy Garrappolo. The Jaguars finished the first half of their two-part reset by firing Gus Bradley. How quickly they can move on comes down to what happens with Blake Bortles. For the Jets, I'm really not sure. They aren't as bad as 4-10, but they weren't close to as good as 10-6 last year either. Bryce Petty was decent last week, but if we have to get a Hackenburg appearance, the upcoming game in New England can get really ugly, quick.

The 'Debating whether to hit the re-set or not' Duo

13.) San Diego Chargers  (5-9  =  366-366)
12.) Cincinnati Bengals  (5-8-1  =  288-293)

Both teams were supposed to be better. By point differential, both teams are a lot better. Injuries have hit each, whether it is to AJ Green on Cincinnati, or everyone who can catch a pass on San Diego. Both will have to face some really tough questions this offseason on their future. Both will face questions on their coach, with McCoy and Lewis on the hot seat. I have a sneaking suspicion Marvin Lewis stays. The Chargers and Bengals aren't far away but what hurts is the division they are in. Even the current iteration of these teams would be reasonably competitive in the AFC South, but alas they aren't there. I'm glad it isn't me making decisions on the future direction of the franchise.

The 'Playoff Fodder' Quatro

11.) Houston Texans  (8-6  =  250-294)
10.) Buffalo Bills  (7-7  =  358-314)
9.) Indianapolis Colts  (7-7  =  362-339)
8.) Miami Dolphins  (9-5  =  315-314)

All of these teams have shots at the playoffs. The Texans have a pretty easy path. All they have to do is beat Tennessee in Week 17 and they are in (honestly, they could consider resting their guys against Cincinnati). The Dolphins also are more or less one win away with a clear shot at that this week against the Bills. The Bills and Colts need a lot of help, but are alive. Of course, the Bills and Colts are probably the two best teams of the four. I have no idea how the Texans are possibly 8-6. I have a larger idea on how good Tom Savage is, or is not. The Colts will have gone from mightily overachieving to 8-8 last year to underachieving their way to 8-8. In a way that is better, but for any Colts fan you have to be hoping a late season push does not cloud the fact that Pagano and/or Grigson needs to go.

The 'I Mean, the 2008 Cardinals made the Super Bowl' Quatro

7.) Tennessee Titans  (8-6  =  340-323)
6.) Baltimore Ravens  (8-6  =  306-263)
5.) Denver Broncos  (8-6  =  299-258)
4.) Kansas City Chiefs  (10-4  =  319-274)

The Titans, Ravens and Broncos are pretty easy to group together. Teams with good enough strengths to potentially go on a run (yes, even the Mike Mularkey-led Titans), but with obvious holes that could easily keep them out of the playoffs all together. I'm putting the Chiefs here despite the fact they are essentially assured of a playoff spot. To me, they are, very underratedly, not that good of a team. They have lived off of defensive and special teams TDs, and won a handful of games they had little to no business winning (@CAR, @DEN, @ATL). This Chiefs team is nowhere near as good as last years group. The Ravens have a clear path in. Win out and they win the division. The key will be the upcoming game against the Steelers, obviously, and they get a chance for a reverse-2008 scenario where they can steal the division with a win in Pittsburgh. The Titans also have a clear path. One of the two just might get it done.

The 'If one of us don't make the Super Bowl, call this January Madness' Trio

3.) Pittsburgh Steelers  (9-5  =  341-276)
2.) Oakland Raiders  (11-3  =  377-336)
1.) New England Patriots  (12-2  =  365-233)

I'm putting Pittsburgh up here as that team has quietly won five straight and started to right itself on both sides of the ball. They are 9-3 in games that Roethlisberger plays and finishes. The Raiders may still fall to the Wild Card, but to me they still have a far higher upside than the Chiefs, with a more sustainable model of not needing ridiculous Special Teams TDs to win games. As for New England, let's just move on. If they had just regressed like they should I would be wholly supportive of this NFL season.


The 'Better Luck Next Year Boys' Trio

16.) San Francisco 49ers  (1-13  =  264-434)
15.) Chicago Bears  (3-11  =  248-320)
14.) Los Angeles Rams  (4-10  =  197-328)

The Bears are by far the best team of this trio. Yes, the team with the old, conservative coach and the team starting Matt Barkley at QB. At least they can point to injuries as an excuse. What exactly do the 49ers and Rams have? The 49ers tried the whole 'stockpile draft picks' plan and then forgot that for it to work you actually have to draft well. The Rams tried the 'trade all the picks for a QB' plan and, admittedly through just five starts, that QB is a disaster. The Rams are already looking for a new coach, and you have to imagine the 49ers might be as well. It is amazing how quickly the best division in the league was gutted.

The '2017 isn't too far away, guys' Quatro

13.) Philadelphia Eagles  (5-9  =  316-299)
12.) New Orleans Saints  (6-8  =  406-392)
11.) Arizona Cardinals  (5-8-1  =  340-325)
10.) Carolina Panthers  (6-8  =  337-352)

All these four teams can at least start to get excited about a potential run in 2017. The Eagles still have a positive point differential, and a QB who had some good moments. All they really need is more weapons for Wentz and a better health at the o-line. The Saints defense has also had its share of moments, and Drew Brees, when not throwing INTs a lot, is quietly having another fantastic season. Finally we get to the two teams that met in last years NFC Championship Game, going a combined 28-4 last year. Neither is having close to the season it expected, but the Cardinals probably won't be as hurt next year and the foundation is still solid. The Panthers are still the organization I wrote about so glowingly. Consistency is needed at some point, but for now they have a great foundation to build off of for next season.

The 'Playoff Fodder' Trio

9.) Washington Redskins  (7-6-1  =  345-343)
8.) Minnesota Vikings  (7-7  =  264-259)
7.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers  (8-6  =  313-322)

Right now all three are on the outside looking in, but still have a shot at the playoffs. The Redskins really blew it on Monday Night and now need a ton of help to get there. I think they were all a little overpsyched by the Josh Norman revenge-ness of the game and didn't seem all that prepared. Also, I have a feeling Kirk Cousins is playing himself out of a lot of millions at this point. The Vikings will be one of the few teams to achieve the 'last unbeaten team in the league' distinction and then miss the playoffs in a long time. As for the Bucs, the future is really bright, but consistency will always be a concern with both Jameis and a defense that seems to vary in their pass rush and coverage discipline a lot. These are fixable issues, but I don't know if Jameis will ever really be all that consistent.

The 'I mean, the Giants (or if the Giants, 'We') won the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2011' Trio

6.) Detroit Lions  (9-5  =  301-285)
5.) Green Bay Packers  (8-6  =  363-339)
4.) New York Giants  (10-4  =  272-250)

I happen to think the NFC is quite a bit more open than the AFC, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if any of these three teams make the Super Bowl. Now, none are all that great, but each have had enough quality wins to be taken very seriously, whether it is the Lions going to New Orleans and winning, or the Packers routing Seattle, or the Giants beating the Cowboys twice. At this point it seems inevitable we are getting Packers @ Lions, Week 17 Sunday Night, which would be fantastic. Less fantastic would be if both are making the playoffs anyway at the start of that game.

The 'If one of us don't make the Super Bowl, call this January Madness' Trio

3.) Seattle Seahawks  (9-4-1  =  298-235)
2.) Atlanta Falcons  (9-5  =  469-358)
1.) Dallas Cowboys  (12-2  =  366-258)

Honestly, Atlanta has quietly been one of the best teams in the league, but their five losses will make people overlook them. Some of that is deserved, I mean there is still a non-inconsequential chance they don't win the division. They will really rue the few games they absolutely blew, especially both of their home losses to the Chargers and Chiefs. They should have won the bye, and even more those losses will probably keep Matt Ryan from an MVP award he so rightfully deserves. As for Seattle and Dallas, they keep chugging along and will get all of us (not to mention FOX executives) wet at the chance of a showdown in Jerryworld in January.

Playoff Projections


1.) New England Patriots  =  14-2
2.) Oakland Raiders  =  12-4
3.) Pittsburgh Steelers  =  11-5
4.) Tennessee Titans  =  9-7
5.) Kansas City Chiefs  =  11-5
6.) Miami Dolphins  =  10-6


1.) Dallas Cowboys  =  13-3
2.) Seattle Seahawks  =  11-4-1
3.) Atlanta Falcons  =  11-5

4.) Green Bay Packers  =  10-6
5.) New York Giants  =  11-5

6.) Detroit Lions  =  9-7

Looking Ahead to Next Week's Games

16.) San Francisco 49ers (1-13)  @  Los Angeles Rams (4-10)  (4:25 - FOX)
15.) San Diego Chargers (5-9)  @  Cleveland Browns (0-14)  (1:00 - CBS)

I call it "Amazingly there are only two of these disasters" Saturday, as we only get two games between teams that are completely out of it, which is a nice surprise this late in the season. That first game is an absolutely trainwreck of epic proportions. The second is slightly intriguing as it represents the Browns last chance of conceivably getting a win as it is hard to see them beating the Steelers in a game in Pittsburgh in Week 17 that they will likely need.

14.) Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1)  @  Houston Texans (8-6)  (8:30 Sat - NFLN)

I call it "One of these things is not like the other" Saturday, as this is by far the worst of the primetime games this week. Because of the weird Christmas Eve / Christmas Day competing games, there are five games that are in standalone windows. Three are great games (spoiler: my top three). Thursday night's is decent. This is a disaster. The Bengals are just depressing given they should have been so much better. The Texans can honestly punt this game as win or lose they have to win Week 17 in Tennessee (technically, a Titans loss to Jacksonville and Texans win gives them the division - but that is not happening).

13.) New York Jets (4-10)  @  New England Patriots (12-2)  (1:00 - CBS)
12.) Washington Redskins (7-6-1)  @  Chicago Bears (3-11)  (1:00 - FOX)
11.) Tennessee Titans (8-6)  @  Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12)  (1:00 - CBS)

I call it "No Chance of a Spoler" Saturday, as we get these three games with one potential playoff team (in NE's case, obviously playoff-bound) go up against three teams that are completely out of it. I can't imagine the Jets or Jaguars pulling the upset. I guess the fighting Matt Barkley's have a shot at officially ending the Redskins season, but even there I can't imagine the Redskins laying another egg when fighting truly for their playoff life. What I wouldn't give, however, for the Patriots to have a repeat of their memorable 2004 loss to the 4-12 Dolphins.

10.) Miami Dolphins (9-5)  @  Buffalo Bills (7-7)  (1:00 - CBS)
9.) Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1)  @  Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1)  (4:25 - FOX)
8.) New York Giants (10-4)  @  Philadelphia Eagles (5-9)  (TNF - NBC)

I call it "Far better chance of a spoiler" Thursday and Saturday, as we get three inter-division games where teams currently in good playoff positioning have to play rivals that are at least live spoilers. The Bills are arguably plain better than a Matt Moore-led Dolphins team and this is just the type of game Rex Ryan would get up for (sidebar: I know his defense hasn't been good, but I don't get the rush to fire Rex). The Cardinals have been in this position before, beating the eventual Super Bowl Champion Seahawks in Week 16 in Seattle in 2013. The Eagles gave the Giants a great run in the first matchup and still have the defense to stay in the game. I feel like one, if not two, of the lesser teams spoil here.

7.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6)  @  New Orleans Saints (6-8)  (4:25 - FOX)
6.) Atlanta Falcons (9-5)  @  Carolina Panthers (6-8)  (1:00 - FOX)

I call it "Better get that spoiler warning loaded" Saturday, as the NFC South takes center stage. The Saints and Panthers are both proud teams, and the NFC South has some underrated rivalries going on. The Bucs embarrassed the Saints to some degree two weeks ago, and the Saints now get a chance to show them that life is a lot different in the Superdome. The Panthers also get to show that life is a lot different not in the Georgia Dome. I actually think the Falcons are pretty safe bets, but Carolina is a proud team that would like nothing more to end their season on a nice run to set them up for 2017.

5.) Indianapolis Colts (7-7)  @  Oakland Raiders (11-3)  (4:05 - CBS)
4.) Minnesota Vikings (7-7)  @  Green Bay Packers (8-6)  (1:00 - FOX)

I call it "Let's just have fun" Saturday, as these two games look fun for no real reason. The Colts last two road games were wins of 41-10 and 34-6. Two ridiculous ass-kickings. The Raiders are a different challenge than the Vikings and certainly the Jets. The Colts are the type of team to really give the Raiders a run though. With the Vikings, they obviously have had a crushing last 9 games (2-7), but they still have some matchup advantages against the Packers that they can exploit.

3.) Detroit Lions (9-5)  @  Dallas Cowboys (12-2)  (MNF - ESPN)
2.) Denver Broncos (8-6)  @  Kansas City Chiefs (10-4)  (8:30 Sun - NBC)
1.) Baltimore Ravens (8-6)  @  Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5)  (4:30 Sun - NFLN)

I call it "Let's just have all the standalone primetime games all the time" Sunday and Monday, as we get some weird scheduling, but the NFL hit gold this time. I don't think the NFL could have flexed any of this, but they didn't have to. I have no idea why we have two Christmas Day games, but we get two great ones. My top ranked game is easily the game of the weekend, with the winner getting the clear road to the AFC North Title. I feel a lot of people are expecting Pittsburgh to win, but the Ravens have a peak level this is definitely high enough to beat them. The Broncos have to win out and hope for help, but a good start would be to get back a game against the team that stole one from them (and really started them down this downward spiral of poor play. Finally, Detroit and Dallas is a great game, one ESPN couldn't have imagined would fall into their lap this way come Week 16. Both teams need the game (the Lions obviously more so - a win here pretty much assures them a playoff spot), and should be a great capper to what looks like an excellent Holiday weekend of football.

Monday, December 19, 2016

My Top 15 TV Shows of 2016: #10 - #6

10.) Orange is the New Black  (Season 4 - NETFLIX)

I've alternated hot and cold with Orange is the New Black. I really enjoyed the first season, less so the second season as I never really cared about Vee. I was lukewarm on the third season, where I got a little bored of the current set of prisoners and tired of the flashbacks. Yet, in Season 4, I thought the show found a new sense of direction, diving headfirst into the idea of the privatisation of prisons in the US. The show really did well by the staff, who were often underserved in early seasons beyond Caputo and Healey. Bringing in an entire new batch of prisoners also brought a sense of newness to a show that was getting slightly stale. The entire season long storytelling arc, simmering with just the right amount of labor vs. management and racial tensions capped off perfectly with the accidental death of Poussey which should have amazing ramifications for future seasons. I'm very much back on board with the show after this season, especially if they continue with storylines outside of the prison, whether it be the staff, or released inmates that we grew to know and love on the inside.

9.) Better Call Saul  (Season 2 - AMC)

My consideration of both Vince Gilligan and his team's talents and the superb cast made me honestly slightly disappointed with Season 2. Of course, I still found it an amazingly alluring and appealing show that I never considered not watching. My largest issue with the show was Season 2 split far more into two separate shows that lived in the same universe. One was Mike's turn into crime to support his family (ironic, since that's what got his future nemesis and killer into crime), and the other with Jimmy slowly breaking bad realizing his life as a lawyer is not really all that fun if Jimmy can't add a bit of 'Slippin' into that life. Of course, my issue with teh show is while these two parallel stories are both incredibly well crafted, at this point the Mike version is much more compelling. I have high hopes for the future as the end of the season, particularly the very end when we realize Chuck was taping Jimmy's confession, may drive the show forward and ultimately veer towards his turn to Saul, but until then, I can continue to watch a show that masters every part of the medium, if being slightly disappointing because it is nearly an 'A-' instead of an 'A'.

8.) Veep  (Season 5 - HBO)

Veep was my number 1 show last year, and while I think this ranking rightfully recognizes a drop in quality, let it be known that this is due to more to the overall quality of a lot of shows this past year. Also, when seasons get this far along in their path, especially in comedy where plot is less of a driving force as in a serialized drama, it is hard for them to keep being as amazing. Only so much of any dropoff do I actually write up to Armando Ianucci leaving the show. First off, he left behind most of the writing staff and the new main production team was his own. Second, the main criticism I heard about Season 5 was that the characters were far more caustic than it past, which is simply not true. Overall, I just cared less about the plot which seemed a little more serialized (Selina's chances in various recounts) than in past when the show was a little more expansive in its critique on Washington. Still, Veep remained an incredibly funny show with as many memorable one-liners as ever. I am also excited about where the show will go now with Selina out of office, a welcome move given that real US politics is doing a good enough job satirizing itself. At this point, Veep is just adding icing on top of the cake of an all-time great sitcom of this era, but at a quality that is still incredible high.

7.) Silicon Valley  (Season 3 - HBO)

Silicon Valley remains a great show, but I'm very surprised at how well they were able to navigate a tricky situation. In the tech world, there is definitely a few paths you can take. You can either fail badly, or grow rapidly. The former would have had serious implications on the show, and the latter would have quickly made the characters, and the problems they would face, a lot less relatable. Instead, they showed brief periods of success, showed how badly some characters reacted to that success, and ultimately were able to hit the re-set button on the plot without it seeming like a deus ex machina to keep the show going. Add to all that how funny the show remains, and how well they are now doing with non essential characters. Gavin Belson's animal-fueled-apology tour and ultimate demise became my favorite little part of the show each week and I can't wait to see what they do with him now away from Hooli. I still am not sure how long it can last given the need to drive plot to a conclusion and the immense talent of its cast starting to hurt the show (actors will eventually get more lucrative opportunities) but for now Silicon Valley has, slightly, overtaken Veep as HBO's flagship comedy in my mind.

6.) Bojack Horseman  (Season 3 - NETFLIX)

Bojack Horseman was my highest rated comedy last season, and it remains so this year as well. The (far too) unknown gem in Netflix's original content stable, Bojack Horseman remained every bit as cutting and brilliant in satirizing Hollywood, modern culture, but this year took it to another level in delving really deep into psychology of how people perceive success. The show itself might not have been as consistently great as in Season 2, but it hit higher highs. Episodes like the all-underwater episode presented with nearly no dialogue was a masterpiece, showcasing the medium for all its glory and showed how emotionally brilliant animation can be. The ultimate quest for an Oscar may have failed for Bojack, but was a gold-mine for the show. All the other characters remained as good as ever, but even there we saw deeper looks at Todd, Mr. Peanutbutter (an incredible arc with his family backstory), and Princess Carolyn. It was less 'funny' than before, but more emotionally relevant and in the end just as good. I can't imagine it going more than 1-2 more years, but it still pulls down incredible names to do voices, and there seems to be a lot more to mine out of these characters.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.