Monday, March 27, 2017

30 Things I'm Looking Forward To in the 2017 MLB Season (Part 1)

I'm looking forward to....

... watching the Cubs and their fans slowly turn into the post-2004, pink-hat wearing Red Sox. The Cubs great run to the World Series was amazing. It was nice to see octogenerians sobbing with their children in joy after they won. That's all well and good. Now that the curse and all that is in the past, they can take their rightful place next to the Red Sox. I'm very sure the Cubs are going to monetize every last cent out of this ring - as is their right - but with that comes the very real endpoint of pink-hat wearing Cubs fans that couldn't name anyone from the 2003 team that last ripped their hearts out.

... enjoying the defensive wizardry of some of the games best, whether on, or Vine, or twitter or anything else. Already my juices got flowing for this with Javier Baez's insane no-look tag on the World Baseball Classic (which was fantastic up until the dud of a final), one that was so perfectly performed that Baez started celebrating and pointing to Yadier Molina before the ball even reached him. Along with Baez are great defensive wizards like Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons at shortstop, Kevin Keirmaeir in the outfield, and so many others. I'm sure fans of the Ozzie Smith days would disagree, but this seems like the best defensive era in MLB history.

... tracking if home runs continue to go up. One of the more famous stories of the 2016 season was the sudden spike in home runs. This actually started in the 2nd half of the 2015 season and was reported on a small scale at the time. 2016 upped the trend and got a lot of theorists out there. The most commonly accepted theories seemed to be a slight change to the ball and a change in swing path (more uppercut) around the league. It has to be something slight as overall offense was more or less the same, but home runs were way up. If it is was the ball, I'm interested to see if that continues on into 2017.

... Seeing if Mike Trout can make it 6 for 6 in being the best player in the AL. At some point the general public will wake up to the fact that we have a Willie Mays / Mickey Mantle level supernova on our hands, a guy who is every bit as good as the pre-steroid Barry Bonds. Trout could, if not should, have five MVPs right now (though I hold that it is quite easy to argue for Josh Donaldson winning in 2015) from his five full seasons in baseball, and in only one of those seasons, 2015, was he not the MLB leader in WAR (Bryce Harper was that year - more on him in a bit). Trout's team is bad, though has some strange sleeper buzz, but he himself is appointment TV. At some point he may get hurt, or get slightly worse, or get passed by one of the young superstars, but there is a path where this continues for ten more years and he is rightfully seen as the heir to Mays/Mantle as the best all-around player we've ever seen.

... Compiling evidence of the continued shift in pitching strategies. It's been a few years now that the baseball analytics cognoscenti has hailed the idea that a starting pitcher should never pitch the 4th time through an order. That has been whittled down to teams going with 3rd time through the order, with teams like the Rays and potentially Rockies jumping on board. Coupled with that is the rise of the super reliever, which seems to have reached national prominence with the way Andrew Miller was used by the Indians. There are enough super reliever types out there to get this going leaague-wide. Certainly, it will be sad to see starting pitcher stats fall off in a volume perspective, but seeing the rise of these super relievers, like Miller, or potentially guys like even Matt Harvey (if he's slow to recover from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery) would be a great journey to follow.

... Counting down the 58 more hits Adrian Beltre needs for 3,000. I guess I'm supposed to be anti-Rangers given they are a manufactured division rival of the Astros, but I can't help but love Adrian Beltre. His whole career has been so strange. He was a good but not great player for a number of years, then had an insane 2004 season with 48 HR and 9.5 WAR and immediately went back to being the 3-5 WAR player he always was. Of course, then in 2010 he went to Boston, had a 7.8 win season, and has been between 5.5-7.5 ever since. He's now a sure-fire first ballot hall of famer, with numerous joyful plays including some insane defensive stops and throws at 3rd. The 3,000 hits milestone may be passe in 2017, but to me it is still cool to see someone so damn good reach this mark.

...  Seeing which division race actually gets competitive. Each of the six divisions have a clear favorite in Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Washington, Chicago (Cubs, obviously), and Dodgers. Some are more clear than others, with the Cubs and Dodgers being heavy favorites, and the other four just moderately strong favorites. There seem to be known challengers as well, but baseball is never that easy to predict. Someone we don't think of will make a run. Very often that team ends up falling off around August, but still, if Arizona, or Milwaukee, or Miami, or the LA Angels, or Tigers or Rays make a run, the sport will be better off for it.

... Watching the Mariners be relevant. Now, they were somewhat relevant last year when they won 87 games, but the Mariners enter this season with significant wild card buzz from the baseball pursists and stat-heads alike. The trade for Jean Segura gives them three all-star caliber infielders in Segura, Cano and Seager. The outfield centers mostly around defense, which is needed in that beautiful but cavernous stadium. Their pitching always looks better on paper because of the home field, but this is an aggressive strategy to compile a bunch of #2-3 guys (sadly Felix is this now), but it should work. The Mariners have a beautiful ballpark, great uniforms, and baseball will be better off if October baseball returns to the Pacific Northwest

... Identifying what crazy thing that one of the bad teams throws at the wall sticks. Baseball is the sport that has their teams try more analytically-driven crazy tactics than any others. The Astros were the first team to start shifting like crazy back in the days when they used to suck hard. The Rockies went with a 6-man rotation a few years back. My favorite random idea was when the Reds went with all rookie starting pitchers in 2015 to see if any of them could stick. One of these bad teams is going to try something, and it will be great

... Saying goodbye to the early-to-mid-2010s revivals. The early part of this decade saw the rebirth of the Pirates and Royals, two franchises that had been bad for a good 20 years before they made the playoffs in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The Pirates were the top wild card team three years straight. The Royals made it to back-to-back World Series. Let me repeat: the Kansas City Royals won the AL pennant two years in a row. Both started their drop back last year and it may continue this year. Reports are the trading of top players for prospects may begin in both places, with guys like Andre McCutcheon and Alex Gordon on the market. It will be sad, but we'll always have those memories.

... Tracking the Mets pitching path to fit six pitchers into five slots. The Mets still have a bevy or ridiculously good, ridiculously cheap pitching talent. Now, pitching talent is always a gamble, and while the got blackjack in 2015 when they made it to the world series by winning an NLCS by sweeping the Cubs on the back of their pitchers, in 2016 all of their top guys got hurt at some point in time. On the face, the Mets have two of my favorite pitchers to watch in Syndegaard (probably ready for a huge breakout) and DeGrom (who might be my favorite pitcher to watch). Add to that hopefully healthy Matt Harvey and Steven Matz and you get the core that dominated the Cubs. Now add Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman and you get a team with legitimately six starters ranging from precocious prospects to potentially best pitcher in baseball (Thor). The Mets upside is so high, and if they hit it, it will be so fun to watch it happen

... The progression of the White Sox, Yankees and Braves prospects. These three teams are seemingly the owners of half the Top 50 prospects in baseball, and all have ones that may come up this year and flash something. The White Sox got a ton back for Chris Sale (deservedly) and we may see Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech (he of the 105 MPH fastball) this year. The Yankees stockpiled to the hilt last year and while their top guys may be further away, getting a full year of Gary Sanchez would be fun. Finally, the Braves are terrible but are maybe 2-3 years away from being really good and the first signs of that will be this year.

... Watching Madison Bumgarner face off against Clayton Kershaw. I'll have a specific one about Kershaw in part 2, but let's just say any start of his is worth watching. But add in Bumgarner, who seems to take special pride in going up against Kershaw, and you get must-watch baseball. Shout-out to the Giants and Dodgers for figuring out a way to lineup their rotations to get these two against each other fairly often. Kershaw and the Dodgers have had the upper-hand, but it is close, and Bumgarner's twirled a few gems in their head-to-head. Also, this matchup has the added advantage of watchign Bumgarner bat against Kershaw - he's hit a HR off Kershaw two straight years. Kershaw is the best pitcher of this generation and an all-timer. Bumgarner is not at that level, but he could be a HOFer (he's just in his age-27 season). Let's enjoy these while we still can.

... Seeing if Bryce Harper can rebound. Bryce Harper has seemingly been on the MLB landscape for 10 years now, ever since he was on the cover of SI as a 16 year old. For the most part, he's fulfilled the high-end projection if anyone were to guess where his career would be at this point. He's won an MVP, in a ridiculous season where at age 23 he had the best relative to league average batting season anyone has had since peak-Bonds. He had a 198 OPS+, with a .460 OBP and .649 SLG. The only guys since Bonds that sniffed these numbers were peak-Pujols and Miggy, who at their best were all-time great hitters. Of course, he surrounded that 10.0 WAR season with two years that combined 2.6. Career trajectories aren't always linear or static. Most people that have 10.0 WAR seasons don't have those again. But most don't drop to 1.6 either. Harper still had the plate patience and still has all the physical gifts. He's good enough to have had a season where he legitimately was better than Mike Trout. Baseball would be a lot better off if he got back to that level, even if most of that is because he's a perfect lightning rod anyway.

... Watching the growing superstars continue to grow. The league has maybe never been this stocked with such good, young talent. Obviously, Trout leads this pack - and he's still young at just 26. But then you get Harper (24), Bryant (25), Machado (24), Nolan Arenado (25), Francisco Lindor (23), Corey Seager (23), Javier Baez (24), Kyle Schwarber (24), Mookie Betts (24), Xander Bogaerts (24) and Carlos Correa (22). This crop of players already are really good if not MVP-level great. The league is so well stocked right now it is crazy. By the way, my favorite part of that list: the youngest guy is Carlos Correa.

Monday, March 20, 2017

10 Thoughts Ahead of the Sweet 16 in 2017

1.) It makes perfect sense that after a disaster of a 1st round, with few upsets, even fewer competitive games, and the fewest opening day(s) drama that I've ever seen, we get an uber-competitive second round full of well played games (if again few dramatic finishes) and a nice set-up for a Sweet 16. I've long said that a great tournament is so rare to get from start to finish. There have been numerous great opening rounds with top seeds falling everywhere. We didn't get that here, with all sixteen Top-4 seeds getting out of the first round, but we got a few nice upsets in the 2nd round and a lot of fun ahead.

2.) Quick continuing tip of my cap to the NCAA for reducing the shot clock to 30 seconds two years back. The game is just immeasurably better with the reduced shot clock. So many games with scores into the 80's if not even higher. Maybe this is a confluence of a few different events, such as a lot of offense heavy teams still being alive but the tournament has been offense first and the teams themselves have executed with more sense and planning than normal.

3.) The East Region was shaping up to have a great finish, with a potential Elite 8 matchup of the defending champs at the #1 seed, and Duke at the #2 seed, battling it out in Madison Square Garden. Of course, both of those two teams get knocked out and we are left with absolute madness. Wisconsin after for years disappointing with Bo Ryan, is now a run of Final 4, Runner-Up, Sweet 16 (as a #7 seed) and Sweet 16 (as a #8 seed). A year after knocking out #2 seed Xavier, they played so well to knock off a team I really thought was impervious to an early upset. Wisconsin is really good (the Big 10 as a whole had a great first weekend), but now they get Florida (who just held a decent Virignia team to 35 points, and then get the winner of South Carolina (we'll get to Duke's killer in a bit) and Baylor, who continues to be the least respected team to make a handful of good tournament runs in recent years. I have no idea who will escape this region. I would favor Florida, but really, who knows?

4.) The West bracket is chalk city with the #1, #2 and #4 seeds all alive (Gonzaga, Arizona, West Virginia), and the only intruder is Xavier, who was a #2 seed last year and is the definition of a live dog. By the way, one of these four will be in the Final 4, and if you combine these four with the four I just mentioned in the previous point, one of them will play for the National Championship. If ever there was a year for either Mark Few's Gonzaga or Sean Miller's Arizona to break out, it is now when they have a clear path to not only the Final 4 but likely the Title Game. Even Xavier actually would be a great 'Cinderella' story for one of the most well respected programs to finally make the Final 4 as a disrespected #11 seed.

5.) I still can't get over both Villanova and Duke going down. For Duke, it was not an unfamiliar loss, as it had many similarities to their loss to Arizona in the 2011 Sweet Sixteen, when Duke got run out of the gym by a more athletic unit. The one difference is that team had a monster in Derrick Williams (before he turned into an uber-bust). I still can't fathom Duke giving up 65(!) points in teh second half. Frank Martin has done a really nice job building that South Carolina program. Duke had a clear path to another Final 4 with Villanova out of the way, and screwed it up. For a guy who has won 5 titles overall, and two in the last seven years, Duke has had a litany of early flameouts, not making it past the first weekend in: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and now 2017. As for Nova, their one year respite of not being early seed losers is gone, but I still found that the most surprising loss by the #1 overall seed since Kansas got stunned by Northern Iowa in 2010. This Villanova team was deep, experienced and so solid, and for them to get picked off in the 2nd Round still shocks me.

6.) That midwest region is well set-up for Kansas, but if anything that's when they've really struggled in the past. Louisville is gone, and the #3 seed in the region, Oregon, is missing one of their best players in Chris Boucher. Michigan is fine but still a #7 seed. Purdue is big and is an analytical-favored darling, but still, this should be Kansas's region to lose. Now, it was easily their region to lose in 2013 when Michigan picked them off in OT in the Sweet 16 (Michigan would end up in the National Title Game). That year, their #2 seed in the region (Georgetown) lost to Florida Gulf-Coast in the first round. In 2011, Kansas was the #1 seed with a #12, #11 and #10 in their region, and the #11, Shaka Smart's VCU, blitzed them from deep in the Elite 8. More about Kansas later, but while this draw looks really enticing, it never is as easy as it seems for them.

7.) This is probably year five or so of the Turner/CBS coordinated broadcast of March Madness, and I appreciate it more and more every year. Getting every game available live is just such a treat. Sure, it gets annoying juggling four channels and having to figure out where TruTV is each year, but you know what was worse? When you had to depend on CBS deciding to switch to the game that was best for you to watch as we did for a decade or so before this. The announcing teams are generally great (even if I still pour one out sadly for the Verne-Raftery duo). The halftime/pre-game/post-game teams are good - especially now that Charles and Kenny give 10% of a shit instead of zero. I'm all for this continuing for years and years and years.

8.) My word, that South Region just loaded up with blueboods, huh? Sure, Kentucky, and to a point, UNC, escaped in the 2nd round, but here we are with a mouthwatering Sweet 16 game of Kentucky vs. UCLA, with the Lonzo Ball and Friends show up against an always entertaining Kentucky group. And who does the winner most likely get? The one team that would like to run as much as either Kentucky or UCLA in UNC. The over/under for these games has to be 170 or so. Now, if a half-decade back taught us anything, it is to not disrespect Butler, and it is great to have them a live sleeper again, but the world wants Ball vs. UK and then Ball/UK vs UNC. Just give us this, please!

9.) As someone who has tertiarally followed Kansas for a while, this is the strangest brew yet. FOr years, they have plaed the tournament in a skittish, try-not-to-lose variety that was infuriating. In so many games they start out slow and cold and depend on their great defense to eventually wear teams out. This entire season has been something very different, a Kansas team defined by their guards, their tempo, their offense and not their defense, and they are looking like it through two tournament games. 190 points total. Bombing away from three. The combo of a potential Player of the Year in Frank Mason III and a top one-and-done prodigy in Josh Jackson is a title-winning combination. Kansas has easily been the most impressive team through two games, something very foreign for them, and while past Kansas teams have shown that can turn in any given cold five-minutes, this vintage just seems different.

10.) The Picks:

(4) Florida beats (8) Wisconsin
(3) Baylor beats (7) South Carolina

(4) Florida beats (3) Baylor

(1) Gonzaga beats (4) West Virginia
(2) Arizona beats (11) Xavier

(2) Arizona beats (1) Gonzaga

(1) Kansas beats (4) Purdue
(7) Michigan beats (3) Oregon

(1) Kansas beats (7) Michigan

(1) UNC beats (4) Butler
(3) UCLA beats (2) Kentucky

(3) UCLA beats (1) UNC

Final Four
(W2) Arizona beats (E4) Florida
(M1) Kansas beats (S3) UCLA

(M1) Kansas beats (W2) Arizona

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

15 Thoughts on March Madness 2017

1.) Let's start out with me admitting that my knowledge of college basketball is incredibly limited, more so than usual as I probably watched only one game fully all year long and only bits and pieces of a dozen or so others. That said, the bracket seems to be fairly well balanced. There seems to be a consensus weakest region - the West where we have both the team seen as the weakest #1 seed (Gonzaga) and #2 seed (Arizona), but there does not seem to be a clear-cut strongest bracket. The South with UNC, Kentucky and UCLA probably takes that distinction, but none of them seem far tougher than the others. Each has a few premier programs, like Villanova and Duke out East, Kansas and Louisville in the Midwest, and the aforementioned trio in the South. There are some mouth-watering potential matchups.

2.) That said, we enter this tournament with arguably our best chance at a repeat since it last happened with Florida ten year's earlier. The last defending champ to enter the tournament with a #1 seed was Duke in 2011, but that was a very different team that probably didn't even deserve a #1 seed. Villanova was wire-to-wire one of the best teams in the country, returns their best players from last year's team, and went through this season with a singular focus that was very reminiscent of that great Florida team. I am excited about the prospects of them going for their place in history, especially with a potential Elite 8 matchup with Duke on the way.

3.) I think the world has to be excited that three of the most fast-paced teams in the tournament are all grouped together. The mouth waters at the prospect of a UCLA-Kentucky Sweet 16 matchup, and then the winner getting UNC, a team never known to avoid a shootout if needed. College Basketball had grown really slow and plaid but the decision to reduce the shot clock to 30 seconds did wonders, and started unshackling the teams. These three probably would have run in the old system anyway, but the tempo's been pushed around the nation and all three are leading the charge.

4.) There doesn't seem to be a lot of ballyhooed potential Cinderella's this year. The most talked about seem to the #10 seed Wichita State (also in that area with Kentucky/UCLA/UNC) but this is a team that made the Sweet 16 as recently as 2015 - the year after they entered the tournament undefeated - the year after they made the Final 4. Apart from that, last year's darlings Middle Tennessee State are now a 12 seed, which always seems like a good seed to make a run from. Anyway, the best Cinderella's are unexpected anyways. In recent years, we've seen a decent number of #14 seeds beat #3s and even a string of #15s beat #2s dating back to 2012. If we get one of those, even better.

5.) I still can't believe Northwestern had never made the tournament until now. I had heard of that stat previously, so it wasn't like it took me by surprise, but still to think of all the random podunk schools that had made the tournament, and that Northwestern had not. Honestly, the only thing separating Northwestern from a place like Duke is Coach K. Had someone like Coach K gone to Northwestern all those years back, maybe it is Duke who never makes the tournament. Anyway, maybe this is the start of something special for the Evanston school.

6.) Again, as someone who didn't really follow the sport too closely this year, there are some really interesting seeds. Minnesota as recently as last year was garbage, now they are a #5 seed? Seton Hall is somehow a #9 seed at-large team? Or how about South Carolina getting a decent seed from an SEC that most people think is a two-team conference (or maybe I am the only person who thinks that). The soft middle of the college basketball world truly is a fluid place.

7.) It is odd to see Xavier down at a #11 seed. For such an incredibly consistent program these past 15 years, including a trip to the Sweet 16 just two years ago, I was surprised to see them down at #11. They are up against a Maryland team that I've seen called overseeded, and also a #3 seed that at the very least Jay Bilas thought was way overseeded. Much like Syracuse last year as a #10 seed, I just had an immediate reaction when seeing the #11 by Xavier's name that they are still long for this world in 2017.

8.) I'll say this, we see time and time again how coaching matters more in college basketball, how the best coaches (or to be more skeptical, best recruiters) are the one's that keep winning. Well, if seeds hold and we get #1-vs-#2 in all four regions, we get the following coaching matchups: Jay Wright vs. Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Few vs. Sean Miller, Bill Self vs. Rick Pitino and Roy Williams vs. John Calipari. Three of the four matchups have coaches that have both won titles. In five of their cases they've been finalists as well. Few and Miller are probably the two best coaches nationally who haven't mad the final four. Coaching matters, as always.

9.) Another year, another Big 12 regular season title for Bill Self, and another #1 seed. This is the 7th time Kansas has gotten a #1 seed since 2007. In their previous six, they've lost in the 2nd round once (2010 - arguably their best team aside from 2008), the Sweet 16 once (2013, blowing a game they would lose in OT to Michigan), the Elite 8 three times (2007 to UCLA, 2011 to VCU and last year to Villanova), and then once winning the title. Yes, on the course of history, Self's Kansas teams have underachieved in March, but he gets another chance here to right that wrong. This is a good Kansas team with a great mix of veteran guards (a strong focus of the 2008 Title winning team as well), one great talent in one-and-done Josh Jackson, and some good role players. The team is easily good enough to win. Will they? I'm not sure, but I will likely pick them (those are coming in a minute).

10.) The fellating of the ACC continues, with UNC getting a #1 seed and Duke getting a #2 seed and most ESPN-ites complaining that Duke didn't get a #1 seed if not picking those two to meet in the Title Game (both Jay Bilas and Jay Williams did so). Of course, should we talk about how by record they are the worst two teams that got a Top-2 seed? That so much of their resume seems to be built off playing each other and a conference that is trumped up for no great reason? I get these are two blue blood programs, both with teams good enough to win the title, but it is sad to see year after year the bar for both of them to get as high a seed as possible is just lower than it is for other teams in the field.

11.) Picks for East Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Villanova beats (4) Florida and (2) Duke beats (6) SMU
Elite Eight: (1) Villanova beats (2) Duke

12.) Picks for West Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Gonzaga beats (5) Notre Dame and (2) Arizona beats (11) Xavier
Elight Eight: (2) Arizona beats (1) Gonzaga

13.) Picks for Midwest Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) Kansas beats (4) Purdue and (2) Louisville beats (6) Creighton
Elite Eight: (1) Kansas beats (2) Louisville

14.) Picks for South Bracket:

Sweet Sixteen: (1) UNC beats (4) Butler and (3) UCLA beats (10) Wichita State
Elite Eight: (3) UCLA beats (1) UNC

15.) Picks for Final 4

Semifinals: (E1) Villanova beats (W2) Arizona and (M1) Kansas beats (S3) UCLA
National Championship: (M1) Kansas beats (E1) Villanova

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ramblings about Flying

I've been traveling on business to the Netherlands (Leiden, about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam) and Bangalore the past couple weeks. Travelling for business in and of itself is different, but I've been able to long-haul on a few different airlines, different planes and in a different way (more about this in a minute), so I think it is time I give some little feedback, especially since I have a few (many) bones to pick:

* Despite their seeming omnipresence on so many routes globally, I've been on Emirates just once and never through Dubai, until now. I flew them from Amsterdam to Bangalore, getting a chance to go on their A380-800, B777-300ER and spend a lot of time in Dubai International. On the whole, I am thoroughly unimpressed

* For the second time on Emirates, I had the incredible joy of waiting 90 minutes after takeoff to get my food on an overnight red-eye. The amount of time they took to start serving (I was in the second row so it wasn't like I was waiting a while after they did start) is absurd. This is a 6-hour flight overnight. You cannot start serving a quarter into that flight. This lended itself to them putting the lights off in the cabin a good two-and-a-half hours into flight. Really pathetic for a flight that most people would probably try to get some sleep on

* The two aspects I found the best of my previous Emirates flight (New York JFK to Milan) were fairly bad this time around. Their food service was at an incredibly high level in terms of both amount and quality - neither was true this time around. Then, their beer service was incredibly uninspired. Having just Heineken, Amstel and Budweiser is ridiculous. Even the shitty US airlines have started serving decent more mainstream craft beer. Then, their movie selection was a disaster. Maybe it's that I'm unimpressed with the current selection of 'new releases' but the other options were a dozen or so random selection of movies from 1980-2010, and a near complete set of Marvel movies. I resorted to attempting to watch Valkyrie for the first time I saw it in theaters before giving up halfway and decided to watch Season 3 of Silicon Valley instead

* Finally, let's get to Dubai's airport, which has some redeeming qualities. I'll get to their irredeeming one in a minute, but the airport was grand, well laid out, impressive and had some nice restaurants, including a Shake Shack for fucks sake! That was an incredibly welcome site, even if I didn't partake. The airport too had barely more than Budweiser, Heneiken or Amstel - but they did have Tiger on tap.

* Actually, I forgot maybe the most reprehensible part of Emirates' service. I was placed in 'Group F' for boarding - the last group. They seemingly group passengers by location in the plane from back to front, so this wasn't surprising. I was expecting a long wait. What I was not expecting was in Dubai for the order to go 'First & Business (Group A-B)', Group C, Group D, Group E and then go back to the beginning. After Group E seemingly finished and we were left with the ~20 of us in Group F, they announced First and Business class again, not once but twice. I'm sorry, no one in First or Business class hasn't boarded. If they have, too bad, they should not benefit from their abhorrent laziness. Then, more shockingly, they announced Group E again. This was outrageous. Us Group F-ers did not have some steerage class ticket, we were not economy basic. We had Group F because we were in the front, not because we deserve to have classes that already had ample time called again without us being able to board.

* OK, let's move on from Emirates to some better experiences (though one last gripe). Somehow, I was able to finess my way onto Singapore Airlines as part of my trip to Amsterdam, as they fly the New York to Frankfurt leg before continuing to Singapore (I did that sector the other way on way final trips of my Round the World trip in 2013). The experience was every bit as good as the first time. Great food, with thai beef salad along with Malaysian Pork curry for dinner. Great drinks, with ice cold Singha beer along with a well made Singapore Sling. The plane was empty allowing me to stretch out over three seats. They had fine movie selection, nice menus, and a perfectly temperate towel to refresh yourself at the start of the flight. Singapore Airlines truly is beyond anything else.

* Quick aside before I get to my point about airport lounges, but I am a total mileage hoarder. I've gotten every credit card imagineable, taken advantage of any discount, getting the chance to build up a fortress of miles across myriad airlines and hotel chains. My white whale, though, was the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which was an amatuer mileage compiler's delight. I was one of the people who got declined for their 100,000 mile bonus due to having opened too many cards too recently. Not only did I not get the miles, or the travel credits, I didn't get the accompanying Priority Pass allowing access into hundreds of lounges. My two friends who I went to Peru with both had it, lording it over me every time we entered an airport. Well, I impulse got the Citi Prestige card which comes with the same Priority Pass, and after using it three times, I'm kind of over it.

* The club at JFK Terminal 4 was great. Nice seats with outlets at basically all of them. Decent selection of snacks to eat at dinner time. Good selection of liqour and cold, refrigerated beer both mainstream and craft. Very impressed by the JFK lounge. Not so much in both Amsterdam (somewhat surprising) and Dubai (very surprising). Amsterdam's was truly bad, despite being at peak departure time in the night bank, their food selection was invisible and the only beer they had was Heneiken. With Dubai, it wasn't the best time (morning), but their food selection was equally bad, and the place wasn't even well air conditioned (it was open air on the 4th floor of the departures area). I understand in most cases these are lounges not affiliated with any one airline, let alone hub airlines (KLM for Amsterdam and Emirates in Dubai) and those would have better lounges. But I would not have expected to say that the best lounge I've seen so far is in JFK, what with our terrible airports. Very Sad!

* Finally, Frankfurt. My transfer in Frankfurt was so strange. The walk from my arrival date through to security to the departure area was seemingly three miles long despite the fact the two concourses (where I arrived and departed) are fairly close to each other. Then, for the first time ever, I was scolded for not putting my liquids in a plastic bag and leaving them in my bathroom case. During security, they pulled my handbag aside, swabbed it and then the guy went through my bag. He pulled out my case, opened it up and placed each small liquid container into a plastic bag and put it all back in. I went on my way, but in retrospect I should have just ripped open the plastic bag and put the liquids back in my case. I don't play like that.

* I have two more flights left. First a relatively short hop from Bangalore to Doha in the middle of the night (3:50 depart, 5:50 arrival), and then a 14-hour haul back to JFK. I am excited for it as I get to take Qatar Airways for the first time. I don't get to take their A350-900 as that operates on the other Doha-JFK flight, but I do get to finish off the ME3 and get to make a real comparison. Emirates is squarely in 3rd, and I don't foresee Qatar being worse.

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.

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.