Thursday, September 29, 2011

MLB Playoffs: Breaking the ALDS's Down


Picture credit to www.mw32.com

So, after that masterpiece on Wednesday night, we have to sit down and look at what lies ahead: October baseball. I'm already stocking up on extra nails to bite off over the next four weeks. Overall, this might be the best field we've had in the playoffs in years. For the second straight year, the fewest wins of any playoff team is 90, and this year we have more good teams then ever. The top three in the AL won 97, 96 and 95 games, and the top three in the NFL won 102, 96 and 94 games. These are all good teams, and other than Arizona, all teams that are not surprises in a way. The AL returns three teams from last years' playoffs, with the Verlanders replacing the Twins. The NL has the Phillies, which was kind of obvious, and the Cardinals, who while a surprise, have been playoff staples over the last decade. The Brewers were my pet team, so I'm not surprised in any way. The D'Backs are a huge surprise, but they were good from the beginning of the season, and then after that 11 game win streak took over the NL West lead and never really came close to blowing it. This is a deep playoff slate, and I'll be surprised if we get any sweeps.

Detroit Tigers (95-67) vs New York (97-65)

The Yankees were the best team in the AL, but the talent difference between these two teams are not that huge. On offense, the Yankees got less than years from A-Rod, Teixeira, and Jeter (who did quietly build his batting average to .297 but didn't even reach 100 on OPS+), but got great years from Granderson and Cano. This might be the changing of the guard, but I'm not sure if that is a good thing. As for the Tigers, Miggy had a quietly great year, again with a .344/.448/.586. Alex Avila went from unknown to very good offensive catcher. V-Mart batted .330, which begs the question why the Red Sox ever got rid of him. Overall offense, the Tigers scored 80 fewer runs, but also played 81 games in an extreme pitchers park. The Yankees team OPS+ was 106, while the Tigers were 110+. They aren't just Verlander and a bunch of nothing.

On pitching, they really are pretty much Verlander and a bunch of nothing. Doug Fister has been brilliant since coming over from Seattle, but didn't really pitch great against any good teams in Detroit. Scherzer really fell off in the second half. The bullpen is good, especially in the back end with Valverde, but I've never had too much confidence in him. As much as the hitting is far closer than most people think, the Yankees have a surprising edge in pitching, The Yankees gave up just 657 runs (3rd fewest in the AL) and the Tigers gave up 711 (8th in the AL) despite having a great pitcher park. Verlander is great, but Sabathia is really 98% as good. A lot of the Tigers perceived edge in pitching is just the way Verlander has been mythologized this season.

Yes, Justin Verlander has been the most exciting pitcher in baseball this year. Yes, he is probably the best pitcher in the AL, but those two things are not the same (Clayton Kershaw had just as good of a year. Kershaw is in the NL, but plays in a good offensive division with Colorado and Arizona, and had better stats in most categories). Verlander's biggest draw is that 24-5 record, but if 2009 and 2010 thought us anything, it is that wins are meaningless. Three of the four Cy Young winners in that period had 13 (F. Hernandez), 15 (Z. Greinke) and 16 (T. Lincecum) wins. Verlander won 24, but really, that doesn't mean much. The rest of his stats are great, and are in all ways better than CC, but would I be surprised if the Yankees win one of the two possible Verlander starts? No, I won't. The Yankees are probably deeper at pitchers #3 and #4 (and Jim Leyland is promising he won't start Verlander Game 4). The Yankees have the far deeper bullpen. The Yankees are the better team.

Odd Stat That Doesn't Mean Much but is Interesting: The Yankees haven't beaten a team in the ALDS other than the Twins since 2001. They beat the Twins in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010, and were knocked out in the ALDS in 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Pick: Yankees in 5.

Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) vs Texas Rangers (96-66)

They met a year ago in the ALDS, in what was a series totally opposite to this one. In 2010, the Rangers were the surprise, winning the AL West for the first time since the 90's with a 91-71 record, and the Rays were already making their 2nd playoff appearance in two years at 96-66. The records are opposite, and so are the teams. The Rangers don't have the offense they did back when it was Tex, Kinsler, Young and Blalock along the infield, but their offense is simply better than that of the Rays. The Rangers were 1st in batting, 2nd in SLG and 2nd in OPS. They are deep, with 9 starters and their top 2 backups having OPSes above .700 and OPS+es ranging from 84 to 171. Josh Hamilton had another great year despite missing six weeks. Their biggest strength might be that they had the fewest strikeouts of any team in the AL.

The Rays aren't built to put up big offensive numbers, and even in 2008 in their apex, they weren't. BJ Upton had a really nice second half, and has shown he can go on power surges. What they all collectively do is draw walks and a lot of them (3rd most in the AL). They also play in a pitchers park that depresses some of their stats. All of them are solid, with their top 11 having seven players with an OPS+ above 115. That all said, it is clear that, and for the 2nd year in a row in this matchup, the Rangers have the hitting edge.

Ironically, the Rangers have the sizable pitching edge as well. It isn't that the Rays are bad, but that the Rangers quietly were really, really good in 2011. They had the 3rd best run differential (+178) in baseball behind the Yankees (+210) and the Phillies (+184), and a lot of that is pitching. Unless the Rays want to pitch Matt Moore as a starter, the Rays will have to pitch either someone on short rest, or pitch Wade Davis or Jeff Neimann, neither of whom are that great. Hellickson, Price and Shields are all good, but Price did not have a great end to his season. On the surface, the Rangers don't look to be better, but they play in an extreme hitter's park. All five starters have an ERA+ over 100. CJ Wilson put up great numbers all year long. Matt Harrison and Ariel Ogando have been solid all year. What makes it better for them is that they have the better bullpen too. The Rangers just have a better team on offense and defense.

Odd Stat That Doesn't Mean Anything but is Interesting: 6 times two teams have met in back-to-back ALDSes since 2001 (The Angels and Red Sox met three straight times, but in this excercise, that counts as two different back-to-backs), and the winner of the first meeting is 4-2 against the other team. The two times it switches was the 2002 Cardinals beat Arizona after losing in 2001, and the 2009 Angels beat the Red Sox after losing in 2008. The 2003-04 Yankees beat the Twins, the 2009-10 Yankees beat the Twins, the 2005-06 Cardinals beat the Padres, and the 2007-08 Red Sox beat the Angels.
Pick: Rangers in 4.


NL Coming Tomorrow

For Just One Night


After it all, the best part was three teams were one out away from winning, and all three needed to be blown for the Cardinals and Rays to clinch the playoffs, and all three were blown.

After it all, the best part is that all those people who said the Red Sox were dead after their 2-10 start to the season were somehow right.

After it all, the best part is the fact that the Yankees were up 7-0 before they trotted out guys named Golson, Romine, Ayala, Dickerson, Nunez, Laffey, Valdez, Brackman, Wade and Proctor.

After it all, the best part is that two of the best closers in baseball blew leads in the 9th inning, and for once, the Red Sox probably wished that Mariano Rivera pitched in the ninth.

After it all, the best part was that literally three minutes after the Orioles walked off with the 2011 Red Sox's scalps, Longoria hit a walk off home run to clinch the Rays 3rd playoff berth in three seasons.

But really, after it all, the best part is that October, a month filled with sacred, chilling, pulsating moments between pitches deep into cold nights, has not even started yet.

People say baseball is dead. People say the "national pastime" is so out of touch with the modern generation that it will soon be the 3rd sport in the US. People can say whatever the fuck they want, but on nights like last night, baseball is the best sport on earth. Facebook and Twitter erupted with baseball related statuses. Most of them were some knock on the Red Sox (whose fans will milk the living shit out of this collapse despite winning a championship in every sport since 2004). However, beneath all the silly jests on the Sox expense, there were many Facebook statuses that rang the same tune; "What a night of baseball!"

It was a night to rejoice in the game famous for having no clock and little action. It was a night to sit and watch three great games simultaneously going on, and all ending in stunning fashion. One of the biggest take-aways from last night was that the 2011 Braves and Red Sox have the biggest September collapses in the history of the MLB. However, even if those two teams hadn't blown huge September leads, and they were just in a daily battle with the Cardinals and Rays, that would have been the greatest closing night in MLB history.

That was a night that only baseball could give you. It is the only sport with rain delays, which allowed a 9 inning 4-3 game to end simultaneously with a 12 inning 8-7 game that started at the same time. It is the only sport where walk-off hits are common occurrences (in hockey, it isn't that common in the regular season, and then playoff hockey is just a different animal), and we got two within three minutes of each other that combined to give the Red Sox fans just one more thing to cry about. It is the only sport with 20 seconds between plays where that time is filled with tension (unlike the 35 seconds between plays in the NFL that is filled with nothing), and the tension was greater than anything I've seen in the regular season. Finally, baseball is the only sport where momentum changes often and that it is ingrained in the body of the game. The Red Sox had 1st and 3rd with no outs in the 9th inning, and didn't get an insurance run. The Yankees had 1st and 3rd with one out in the 11th inning, and didn't get an insurance run. Both teams would pay, or more exactly, the Red Sox would pay in both instances.

The drama in the AL really overshadowed what went down in the NL, and probably allowed the Braves to kind of be off the hook outside Atlanta, but it was as crazy. The Braves all season long have forced their top three bullpen arms to pitch way more than necessary, often to great results. They finally got tired, with star closer Craig Kimbrel blowing a 9th inning lead, just like what happened in Tampa Bay and Baltimore. The Cardinals were the only team to not give their own fans heart attacks, blasting the Astros 8-0 (in this, the Astros now had the worst season in the MLB since the Royals in 2005 - the same year the Astros made it to the World Series). The Braves finished their misery 25 minutes before the Red Sox and Rays decided to play play on two stages, and it was a great, if miserable, opening act.

Dan Johnson, Nolan Reimold and Robert Andino combined to kill a team that this offseason spent nearly 300 million in getting Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Dan Johnson was hitting .108. Nolan Reimold is living off of one good year three years ago. Robert Andino is, well, Robert Andino. Those three wouldn't make the Red Sox roster, and they were the stars of the show. Jonathan Papelbon and the array of Yankee pitchers who decided to make cameos in the most important game for the Red Sox this season were the villains, and what better way to have it, with the Red Sox relying on their closer who had been brilliant in 2011, and the Yankees deciding to everything but openly throw a 7-0 game. It was dramatic, but it was comedic, with one team playing as hard as they could but still losing, and then needing their biggest rival to win, and that rival after taking a 7-0 lead playing as ambivalently as they could and inevitably losing.

The most dramatic part of all of the games was probably the 9th inning in the Red Sox-Orioles game, and that provided the most expansive ending. The best part was its finish, with speedy Carl Crawford messing up in the field and not getting to Andino's line drive. Carl Crawford never really wanted to go to Boston, but he was leaving Tampa, a place that couldn't afford him and had a replacement waiting in Triple A. Carl Crawford, like most mortal men, was won over by money to play for Boston, where he's done nothing but disappoint. In the end, Tampa used him well in 2011, capitalizing on his mis-field. The Rays, it seems, always know just when to get rid of players.

Going into last night, I was hoping for at least one 1-game playoff. All the one's in my time of watching baseball have been incredible. First was the Rockies/Padres 13-inning affair in 2007 where the Padres' Trevor Hoffman blew a 2-run lead in the 9th and it ended with Matt Holliday scoring a run in which he still hasn't tagged home. The next year, the White Sox beat the Twins 1-0 in a great pitcher's duel in game 163. The next year, the Twins closed out the Metrodome in 13 innings against the Tigers. I wanted a one game playoff. That said, I will take what I got last night every single time. I wrote last year that the chance to see Roy Oswalt pitch playoff games again will get me to love baseball again the way I used to when the Astros played back-to-back nail-biting NLCSs in 2004-05. That wasn't totally true, but it was last night. Night's like that, filled with drama and comedy and errors and struggle are what baseball is all about. Nights like that show why baseball is still around, still relevant, and can still captivate a nation of sports fans. Nights like that are why I, and so many others love baseball, because for just one night, anything, like winning when down to one strike, like Red Sox fans rooting hard for Yankee scrubs, like great closers blowing leads, like winning when down 7-0 in the 8th inning in a must win game, anything can happen.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Week 4 NFL Power Rankings

So, after a great weekend of football from beginning to end, I'm back in for the 2011 NFL Season, and this time for good, starting here with the Power Rankings.


32.) Kansas City Chiefs (0-3)

The good news is that they actually looked like a competent NFL team for once, not losing by more than 30. The bad news is they should have lost by 30, and they don't have their best player for the rest of the season, and in a year when passing yardage numbers are becoming the home run numbers of the 2010's, Matt Cassel hasn't passed for 200 yards yet.


31.) Miami Dolphins (0-3)

I don't think they are any good, and for once, it is not really Chad Henne's fault. Brandon Marshall is not good enough to do it alone. Their defense also has become average, which is a big step down. They can't get a good pass rush, and their linebackers are old. Not a good combination.


30.) Seattle Seahawks (1-2)

They won a game, which only matters because now they cannot possibly go 0-16. They got lucky with Arizona suffering through two missed field goals. There was once a time when the NFC West was not horrible. I know it happened at some point. Hell, from 1984-1994, the NFC West consistently had two good teams each year. Now, that is not the case, at all.


29.) Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2)

That win in Week 1 is looking more and more like a mirage. Luke McCown is horrible. Blaine Gabbert looked like a raw rookie, which is no surprise. Maurice Jones-Drew hasn't exactly had a great year. Their defense is surprisingly playing quite well, especially up front, but they need more than that when their offense struggles to cross the 20 point number.


28.) St. Louis Rams (0-3)

Wow, I did not expect them to be this bad at all. But then again, it probably is not a total surprise. Sam Bradford seems to have not developed at all in year 2. His receivers are no better. The reason I don't have them below the teams above them is mainly because I think at some point they'll get better, while I think those teams will all get worse.


27.) Indianapolis Colts (0-3)

That was an awesome performance. I haven't been as proud of the Colts in a long time. They played incredible on rush defense and rush offense. They gave up big plays in the passing game, but more then made it up with the rush of Maths and Freeney. Those two better never get old.


26.) Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)

Andy Dalton looks like what I thought he was, a prospect who because of a run on quarterbacks was overvalued, and QB who because of Mike Brown's paucity, is a starting QB. The defense is good again, which should help them win four games or so, but they aren't doing any favors by losing winnable home games against teams of San Francisco's ilk.


25.) Denver Broncos (1-2)

Denver is a team that if they stopped making dumb mistakes, could've put together a KC in 2010 type run, because they are well coached with a capable QB, and a defense that actually has gameplans. It is amazing what losing a autocratic buffoon can do to a team. They don't need Tim Tebow to save them, they just need time.


24.) Arizona Cardinals (1-2)

Yes, they are 1-2 and a loss to Seattle is disappointing even if it was in Seattle, but I still like this team to get things right and sneak out this division. They lost two road games so far, one by 1 point on a last second field goal against a 2-1 team, and the other a game in Seattle when they missed two makeable field goals. They still have more talent than anyone in that division, and probably the best QB and head coach in it as well.


23.) Minnesota Vikings (0-3)

The Vikings aren't bad, but are honestly the same team they were a year ago, just with a different aging QB. They're defense has played three straight great 1st halves, and three straight bad 2nd halves, which happened a lot last year, just not to these extremes. The Vikings pass rush was incredible in the first half and then couldn't generate much in the second. That's the key to this team.


22.) Carolina Panthers (1-2)

I like Cam Newton, who ironically had his worst game against a bad defense. I never thought he would be a JaMarcus-ian bust just because he seemed totally committed, and I still think that. The other revelations of the 2011 Panthers are that Steve Smith can still designate "the rules and regulations of the game" (ahh, the classic 2009 season. If the Colts just recovered that damn onside kick, that would've really been a perfect NFL season for me).


21.) San Francisco 49ers (2-1)

Somehow, they are 2-1. Alex Smith is still the quarterback. Michael Crabtree is still underperforming everyone's projections for him out of college. More amazingly, they are a great Romo comeback away from being 3-0. If they were 3-0, I think they should just be automatically awarded the NFC West.


20.) Cleveland Browns (2-1)

They are also 2-1, and they've played no one. But look at their schedule. They play no one. Other than set matchups with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, their schedule features a trip to Oakland, and then the entire NFC West and AFC South (other than Indy). They can do exactly what KC did in 2011. Sadly for them, they have Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Those two aren't going away.


19.) Tennessee Titans (2-1)

Two questions? What is more surprising: Matt Hasselbeck having two games that easily could've come out of the 2005 season for him? or that Chris Johnson has yet to cross 100 yards... total? Actually the most surprising is that they are 2-1.


18.) Washington Redskins (2-1)

They blew that game. The Cowboys also blew it, but the Redskins played great defense for 58 minutes, all until that all out blitz on 3rd and 21. Just play freakin zone and make the Cowboys convert a 4th and 9 or whatever. What exactly was the point of that big blitz. Holy God, was that a stupid defensive playcall.


17.) Dallas Cowboys (2-1)

That was the most pitiful performance by a center ever. They stuck to what they do, and although they never got a touchdown, they finally started running the ball near the end, and Romo made some plays. At the end of the day, I can't be too excited about a team that won two games, one in overtime and the other with a last minute come-from-behind field goal against a Rex Grossman QB-ed team.


16.) Atlanta Falcons (1-2)

They aren't this bad, but they have the same problem they had last year: they can't score quickly. You need to be able to do that in 2011. They couldn't really do it last year, but their o-line play was better, so they could at least run the ball all day. Matt Ryan is stuck throwing short throws, and the odd deep ball. The defense really hasn't stepped up either.


15.) Chicago Bears (1-2)

That loss to the Packers was bad, but what was more telling was that the Bears lost the field position all day. They didn't play all that bad on defense, but the Packers just had shorter fields all day long, so they converted it into points. I will say that their o-line has been a lot better, despite giving up 14 sacks, and their two losses are to two damn good football teams. Finally, Brian Urlacher is a hall of famer., He's incredible.


14.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1)

They are 2-1, with a great chance to go 3-1 with Indy next Monday Night, and then a great chance to go 4-1 after a road date with San Fran. It would behoove them to win those two games, since they have two big home games with New Orleans and Chicago next. Other than Detroit, they are the team that has continued their upward trend from 2010 (unlike St. Louis and Atlanta), and that should be less of a surprise than it is for me.


13.) Philadelphia Eagles (1-2)

Thank God for them that Michael Vick isn't missing three weeks, because they would be screwed. Even with Michael Vick, their offense just isn't what it was a year ago, and that probably boils down to Avant not being the same and DeSean not being the same either. Their linebackers need serious work, and for all the money they spent on Babin and Cullen, you would've thought their d-line would be better as well.


12.) Oakland Raiders (2-1)

For the first time in years, they beat a good team without playing their best, and without getting lucky. This wasn't a fluke win, like the time in 2009 when the Bengals fumbled back to back drives, or when Bruce Gradkowski threw three 4th quarter TDs to beat Pittsburgh. No, this was real. That win over the Jets felt like two even teams. If they can even keep close with New England, I think the Raiders are truly serious wild-card contenders, if not in the division.


11.) Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)

Their defense looks old. Of course, it is old, but they really show it. Mike Pollak may be many things, but the sight of him pushing Aaron Smith around was sad to see. James Harrison didn't get any pressure until the Painter fumble. Troy looked good for once, but the team just looks slower. Their offense is still good, but that defense is just not the same.


10.) New York Jets (2-1)

They made a mistake by essentially trading Jericho and Braylon for Mason and Plax. That isn't a winning scenario. The run defense was non-existent on Sunday. Yes, the Raiders are a very good running team, but what they are not are a very good pass-blocking team, and they held that Jets pass rush completely. Also, what is going on with Shonn Greene. All that said, they are still a good team, and if Mark Sanchez can just stop throwing ridiculous interceptions, should be fine.


9.) Buffalo Bills (3-0)

A lot of people are citing the Bills 4-0 start in 2008 as reasons to not believe. Well, here's why that's crap. In 2008, they beat Seattle (4-12), Jacksonville (5-11), Oakland (5-11) and St. Louis (2-14) in those four games (admittedly, the Seattle and St. Louis wins were blowouts). The Chiefs suck, but the Raiders are mediocre at worst and good at best, and the Pats are the Pats. These are legitimate wins. They overcame a 21 point defecit pretty easily.


8.) New York Giants (2-1)

So, they just beat the Eagles without Manningham, Hixon, a good tight end, good corners, and Osi. They were never going to be the 6-10 team some people said, and they might not be the 8th best team, but when they play well, they play really well and they usually string together a nice run. In the past four seasons, they've had a 6 game winning streak (2007), two five game winning streaks (2009, 2010) and a seven game winning streak (2008). This might be the start of a run, especially with some of the calvary coming back.


7.) Houston Texans (2-1)

A lot of the media sang the same tune about the Texans, that "they are not a new team, they haven't grown up". That's all bull. They were just outgunned by a powerful offense in their building. Anyone else loses 40-33 to the Saints and it is probably no big deal. Hell, the Packers came one yard away from blowing a 21-7 lead on the Saints in Lambeau. Their defense isn't good enough to shut down good teams on the road, but if just two of those field goals were touchdowns they are 3-0.


6.) Detroit Lions (3-0)

They are 3-0. Of course, they were down 20-0 to the Vikings, but then again, the other 3-0 surprise team was down 21-0. If the Lions keep Matthew Stafford healthy, they will make the playoffs. Calvin Johnson is a beast. Their d-line has underperformed, and they are still good. That team gets the Packers in their building on Thanksgiving, which will make all those "why the hell do the Lions get to host a Thanksgiving game from now to eternity?" jokes totally irrelevant. They also play in Lambeau Week 17. Should be fun.


5.) San Diego Chargers (2-1)

They are put here more because they are a great "buy" right now. Everyone knows the Chargers start slowly. The funny thing is that they are winning the games that the past Chargers teams lose, like their opener and even last week. They were much more in that New England game than the score indicated. Phil Rivers won't be this pick-prone for too long. The only worry is Gates' injury might be serious.


4.) New England Patriots (2-1)

Their defense sucks. It might be worse than last years. They get no pass rush. For all those offseason acquisitions, it looks like none of them have really paid divedends, especially Shaun Ellis and Mark Anderson. Brady remains on fire (although those picks were enjoyable). The biggest reason I still have them this high is that West Welker is 100% back from that ACL tear. He's gotten back the agility and quick-step that he didn't have in 2010.


3.) New Orleans Saints (2-1)

They lost a nail-biter to the best team in the NFL, then beat the Bears easily, and then made a spirited comeback against a good Houston team. I think they are over that Week 1 loss. Their defense still seems to have taken a step back from last year when they were legitimate top-10, but their offense has gone along fine without Marques Colston, which is a shock. With an easier schedule than Green Bay, I still like them to get HFA.


2.) Baltimore Ravens (2-1)

That loss to Tennessee is a mirage. It happens. Hell, just last year 14-2 New England lost to 5-11 Cleveland. What means more is they have crushed their other two opponents into submission 72-14. They have been great on defense as always, and this Torrey Smith, along with Lee Evans, will stretch the field. Joe Flacco has made the leap.


1.) Green Bay Packers (3-0)

They are still the champs. They are 3-0. They really haven't put together one great game from start to finish, winning by 8, 7 and 10. That all said, they are still the champs and have yet to lose. Jermichael Finley is a beast (on the other hand, Donald Driver looks completely burned out). Aaron Rodgers has thrown 10 tds to 1 int. Their defense has yet to hit their stride. Holy God.


Playoff Projections:

AFC

1.) Baltimore 13-3
2.) San Diego 13-3
3.) New England 12-4
4.) Houston 11-5
5.) Pittsburgh 10-6
6.) Oakland 10-6


NFC

1.) New Orleans 13-3
2.) Green Bay 12-4
3.) New York 11-5
4.) Arizona 9-7
5.) Detroit 11-5
6.) Tampa Bay 10-6


'Till Next Time.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Week 2 NFL Picks

I didn't do these in Week 1, and wasn't even sure on doing them at all. Football just isn't the same without Peyton Manning, for me. Then the Raiders Monday Night game happened, where the Raiders went into Denver and did well what they do well. They ran the ball. They stopped the pass and dominated the line of scrimmage. Sebastian Janikowski kicked a super long field goal. And they piled up tons of penalty yards. The Raiders are back again. They aren't falling back into mediocrity like so many of the "experts" predicted (football outsiders, I'm looking at you. You continue to tell jokes about them when they've had an upward trend for three years now). They got me back into football. Not all the way, so the analysis here will be more curt than usual, but at least they inspired me to do it.


Chicago Bears @ New Orleans Saints (-6.5)

This line is too high. The Bears defense was, other than Baltimore, the most impressive defense in Week 1. That was at home, and this is in the Super Dome, but the Saints usually struggle against Cover-2 teams (like Minnesota the past couple of years, or Atlanta in general). Chicago's offense also looks better than ever. I have a fear I was wrong on them (and I have them staying better than most do). The Saints are also still, in my book, really good, but I worry about their offense without Colston. They need a consistent target against a cover-2 and without Colston they don't have that. In the end, the Saints probably won't go 0-2, but I don't see them winning that big.

Bears 20 Saints 24 (CHI)


Kansas City Chiefs @ Detroit Lions (-8.5)

That is a huge number for Detroit to be favored by, but that seems about right. Kansas City looked awful in every single way, and since Week 1, they've lost Tony Moeaki and Eric Berry. Unless Jamaal Charles goes off, which is always a possibility, I don't see the Chiefs scoring enough to keep pace. I hate trusting the Lions to cover this spread, but there offense looked really good in Week 1, and they have the weapons to exploit the Chiefs without Berry.

Chiefs 16 Lions 28 (DET)


Jacksonville Jaguars @ New York Jets (-9)

The jets usually don't blow out teams like Jacksonville, but I think this is different. The Jets' defense will be upset after not having a good performance in Week 1. The Jaguars are starting Luke McCown. The Jets' defense will be able to start teeing off for the first time against the Jaguars and their suspect o-line.

Jaguars 13 Jets 27 (NYJ)


Oakland Raiders @ Buffalo Bills (-3)

The Bills are not good at stopping the run. The Raiders are good at running. The Bills don't have a good o-line. The Raiders d-line is top-5 in the league. The only thing that gives me pause is that the Raiders are playing a 1 pm game on the East Coast. That said, if the Raiders really want to make the playoffs, then they win this game. They need to win this game if they want to make the playoffs. I think they will.

Raiders 24 Bills 16 (OAK)


Arizona Cardinals @ Washington Redskins (-3.5)

This is an interesting game. Rex Grossman has another chance to have a good game, and the Redskins can somehow be 2-0. The Cards are another team playing a 1pm game on the East Coast. I don't think they match up too well with a Redskins team whose defense was a lot better than I thought it would be. The Redskins at home are in a game they should win, and Mike Shanahan usually pulls these games off.

Cardinals 17 Redskins 23 (WAS)


Baltimore Ravens (-6) @ Tennessee

Baltimore's defense made Ben Roethlisberger look bad. They will kill Matt Hasselbeck, who is playing behind a line that has regressed so much over the past three years. The only thing that gives me pause is that the Ravens' run defense wasn't that great against the Steelers, so Chris Johnson can go off. I don't think he will though.

Ravens 27 Titans 10 (BAL)


Seattle Seahawks @ Pittsburgh Steelers (-14)

This is a really high line in any time. It is extremely easy for a favorite to not cover a two-touchdown line. Then again, Tarvaris Jackson against a defense that will be really jacked up to do anything on defense. That is not exactly a recipe for an upset, or even a underdog cover. The Steelers offense should get it going, but the Seahawks defense looked oddly impotent.

Seahawks 10 Steelers 30 (PIT)


Green Bay Packers (-10) @ Carolina Panthers

Another high line, but this one is lower, and makes sense. Cam Newton will probably have a falling back to earth game. The Packers defense will be something he's never seen. The Panthers defense will probably keep this from being a total blowout, but this looks like a total mismatch. Not much to really say here.

Packers 27 Panthers 13 (GB)


Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Minnesota Vikings (-3)

This is a tough one. Both teams are desperate. The Buccaneers o-line is really good. Detroit barely got any pressure at all in Week 1 against them, and they should do a good job against a Vikings d-line that did a good job in Week 1. The Buccaneers offense is a little overrated though. As is their defense. I think these are two similar teams, so I'll go for a close game, and give the Vikings, since they are at home, a small edge.

Buccaneers 20 Vikings 24 (MIN)


Cleveland Browns (-2) @ Indianapolis Colts

There's no need for analysis. If the Colts can't win this game, then they are going 2-14 or 3-13, and Bill Polian should be fired. Peyton Manning doesn't mean that much. The Colts have to win this game. Take away Manning and they are still more talented. Lost in the Week 1 mess was that when the Colts defense wasn't given a short field after fumbles, they held the Texans to 13 points. Also, the Colts running game was actually present. The Colts get their shit together.

Browns 16 Colts 24 (IND)


Dallas Cowboys (-3) @ San Francisco 49ers

This is a classic Cowboys loss, but the Cowboys already had a classic loss and I'm not ready to give the 49ers a 2-0 start. The analyst in me says that the 49ers rush defense will definitely shut down Choice and Felix. It will be up to Romo, and I think he'll definitely be up to the challenge in this one. The Cowboys defense looked good, but after experience with Rob Ryan through the years, they have about one good game every three. So, I'm not quite sure what to expect this game.

Cowboys 27 49ers 17 (DAL)


Houston Texans (-3) @ Miami Dolphins

The Texans offense is basically as good as the Patriots offense. No, I'm not kidding. That said, what the Patriots did last weekend was one in a million. That won't happen again. Then again, the Dolphins offense played well in Week 1. Chad Henne got great protection. I see a shootout, but when that happens, I go with the better QB, and the team with the great offense.

Texans 31 Dolphins 27 (HOU)


Cincinnati Bengals @ Denver Broncos (-3.5)

I'm not sure I'm ready to have the Bengals at 2-0, but I love Bruce Gradkowski in these winnable games. They won't beat good teams, but they can win these types of games. But then again, I think the Broncos aren't exactly going to sit down. What I did like about the Broncos in Week 1 was their pass rush. Elvis Dumervil looked great, and Von Miller had an immediate impact. Also, Eric Decker looks like a player. I think the line is a half point too high. I think the Broncos win but don't cover.

Bengals 17 Broncos 20 (CIN)


San Diego Chargers @ New England Patriots (-6.5)

Man, is this a great Week 2 game. Rivers didn't look as good as Brady in Week 1 (obviously), but there is no way Brady puts up 516 yards. He's facing a team that gave up just 39 yards in Week 1. Rivers also looked good against great pass rush. The Patriots don't have that type of pass rush. They get free runs every now and then, but they are not consistent down by down at rushing the pass rush. The Chargers defense on the other hand looked great, but that was against the Vikings. The Patriots are a different animal. I don't know who wins, but that line seems awfully high. Other than the 2007 Spygate Revenge game, the Pats-Chargers games have all been close. This one will be too.

Chargers 27 Patriots 24 (SD)


Philadelphia Eagles (-2.5) @ Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons played bad in Week 1, but statistically it was close. A turnover on downs made it a lot less competitive, as did the fumble/touchdown. I don't see the Falcons going to 0-2. This is a great matchup for them. The Eagles are not great against the run, especially against physical runners like Michael Turner. Matt Ryan should be able to complete some passes over the middle to Gonzalez. On the other side, I think Vick will be pressure again. It will all rest on if the Falcons pass rush can get Vick on the ground. I think they can, just enough.

Eagles 23 Falcons 24 (ATL)


St. Louis Rams @ New York Giants (-6)

This is easy. The Rams have a banged up Bradford. Probably won't have Steven Jackson, and Danny Amendola will be out. The Giants still got a great pass rush against the Redskins, but their secondary was awful. That won't be as much of a problem here against a team without any good receivers. The Giants offense should get the running game going. The fact that this is a Monday Night game for the Giants makes it quite simple. If the Giants don't win this then they are in for a much longer game then I thought.

Rams 16 Giants 31 (NYG)


Enjoy the Games.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Nole and The Chase


"I want to first congratulate Nole for a great tournament. You are going to win this trophy [the US Open] and more slams very soon. I am sure of that. I also want to congratulate Nole too for his great attitude in losing a Grand Slam Final. I know how tough it can be, and you showed a great attitude, which is a great example for the kids."
- Rafael Nadal after winning the 2010 US Open,

Rafael Nadal never knew how true those words would be, and that less than a year later, it would be Novak trying to lift Rafa's spirits after beating him in a splendid US Open Final. Tennis is a sport that moves quickly, but usually not this quickly. It was only a year ago when the question "Does Rafa actually have a good chance to be better than Federer?" was a legitimate question. It still is, but there are more pressing issues. Rafael Nadal won the last three slams of 2010. He won the French Open without dropping a set (something he did in 2008 as well). He dropped just one set in his run to his first US Open title, being broken just 5 times in the entire tournament. He was the first man since Rod Laver to win three straight slams in the same season, and the first player EVER to win a slam on each surface in the same year (something that separates Rafa's 3-slam year from Federer's or Djokovic). Rafael Nadal, as he always does when he beats Djokovic and Murray, told Nole that he was sure he would win another slam. That he was too talented. That he was a great champion. Rafa is not #1 anymore, but he at least saw the next guy coming.

A year later, Novak Djokovic is 64-2, winning three slams and five more Masters 1000 events (the next best tournaments). He's 6-0 against Nadal on the year, all in finals. He's beaten him on hard court, grass, and even twice on clay, matches that were ironically the most one-sided of any of the six. Novak has had possibly the best year ever (although he really hasn't had too much better of a year than Federer in 2006). Novak owns Nadal. The head to head in early 2010 was 14-4, and by the end of 2010 it was still 16-7. Now it's 16-13. Now, Novak looks unbeatable, with a good enough serve, a great forehand, a better backhand, and an incredible return. He looks to be a complete player without weakness. Federer had a weakness. He didn't like backhands up high. Nadal could pound that weakness until it he won. Rafa doesn't have any such plan against Nole other than to just outplay him, and for 2011, he, and basically everyone else, could not.

This is really all Federer's fault (like most things in tennis, in my opinion). He created this monster, and he recharged it one year later. Djokovic prior to the 2010 US Open was known as an underachieving young player. Wildly talented, he made five straight semifinals from 2007-2008, at the age of 20-21. He won a slam at 20 (younger than Federer when he won his first). I always thought he was unfairly penned as underperforming, considering he was going up against Federer and Nadal. That said, he did have a penchant to lose close sets and choke at the worst times. The most notable example would be in his three successive US Open losses to Federer from 2007-2009. They played 10 sets. Federer won 9. Six of those sets ended either 7-6 or 7-5. Djokovic lost close sets like it was a disease. Djokovic also had an infuriating ability to retire from Grand Slam matches. All in all, Djokovic seemed like someone who didn't care hard enough about tennis to beat Federer and Nadal.

Then the 2010 US Open semifinal happened. In a match where he lost two of the first four sets 7-5, both times losing the 5-6 game on serve, he was about to choke again. Serving at 4-5, 15-40, Djokovic played two incredible points, mashing two forehand winners. He then broke Federer in the next game and served it out. Djokovic scored his first clutch win over Federer/Nadal in a Grand Slam (his 2008 win over Federer was later marred by Federer's bout with mono), in a match that in my opinion was better overall than the semifinal one year later, especially the 5th set. He held serve, literally, when facing incredible pressure. He manned up and downed a man who had made six straight US Open Finals. I'm convinced that the new Djokovic started that day. Ever since, he's always risen to the moment (save for two matches - the Final against Nadal and the French Open semi).

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The creation of a tennis monster: the 5th set of the 2010 US Open Semifinal

One year later, Federer had the same situation. After playing the best match he's played in years, in my opinion, Federer, after looking old in the third and fourth sets, was on fire in the fifth. He again had two match points, but this time he was serving. When Federer was at his peak, this was the biggest lock in tennis. What Djokovic did next was what Federer at his prime used to do to people. He broke, held, then broke again, and before you knew it it was all over. I'll curse Federer, because I knew Nadal could beat him. Novak was a different story.

The 2011 US Open Final itself isn't interesting to talk about. Djokovic did what he did the previous five times against Nadal. He just played better than Rafa. It is that simple. What I want to talk about next is the state of Mr. Rafael Nadal. Nadal is now definitely facing the biggest test of his career. This isn't just his version of Nadal-Federer. It's worse. Federer at least beat Nadal every now and then in Federer's prime. Nadal has now lost his last 6. It's worse because Nadal's opponent is not just Novak, it is history as well. Rafa has a shot to be named the best player ever. Novak will never get there, but Rafa can. That's why there's more at stake than just not being #1. Rafa tries harder than any other player ever. No player forces a fourth set in that match. No one. Rafa had to exert an incredible amount of energy to win that third set. Rafa will solve this, because it isn't tactical. It is simple really, he just has to play better.

Rafa won six French Open's playing defense. He won his only US Open playing offense. He served over 130 for really his first time in his life. He became the lefty Federer, just standing in the middle and whipping incredible shots. He was dominant. He just wasn't as good this year. Things can change. Hell, Rafa once won six straight against Nole and that didn't stop Nole from turning the table. He'll have to work harder than ever, but I know he will. I know he can work harder than everyone else. I know he will beat Djokovic at some point. I might be wrong, but nothing lasts forever. Just ask Rafael Nadal, circa September 2010.


______________________________________________________

One last thing: I get infuriated by the "Djokovic is to Nadal what Nadal was to Federer." Although it is really one sided over the past year, that is nowhere close to the truth. Yes, the rivalry is really trending towards Novak right now, but if both players retire today, Nadal's the better player, and it isn't really close. Nadal's won a career slam. Nadal's has as many French Open's as Djokovic has Slam Finals. Also, to further the point, Nadal still has the 16-13 edge head to head. Yes, it was 14-4 18 months ago and 16-7 a year ago, but Nadal still has the edge. Nadal still has the edge head to head in slams 5-2. Wins at the end of the career don't mean more than wins in the beginning. If Djokovic never loses to Nadal again, then yes, he is the Nadal to Nadal's Federer, but let's wait and see.


Bonus List: Top Player Season's I've Ever Seen:

1.) Federer 2006 - The year that he was basically untouchable. 92-5. He played 17 tournaments and reached 16 Finals, winning 12 of them. He won the same three majors Novak did, plus making the Final in the 4th - which Nole didn't. That was also the closest he came to beating Nadal in a French Open final until this past one.

2.) Nadal 2010 - The reason I put this higher is because he won a slam on all three surfaces, something done previously by exactly NO ONE. He won a slam without dropping a set, and then won another dropping just one. It was probably the best performance by a player in a year if you just look at the slams, and that gives him the edge in my book over Novak who admittedly did better in non-slam events than Rafa did in 2010.

3.) Novak 2011 - The 64-2 record at this point is scary, but we'll see where he ends up at the end of the season. His year is probably the best year ever when you take away the performance at the slams. I just don't think he's been as dominant in the slams as Federer was in 2006 or Nadal was in 2010.


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Yes, Rafa can beat Djokovic. If he plays like he did in the 2010 US Open Final.

Random Other List (just because I'm in a tennis-y mood and I won't write about tennis until at least the 2012 Australian Open) of the Best Matches I've Ever Seen (since 2005).

1.) 2008 Wimbledon Final: Nadal def. Federer 6-4 6-4 6-7 6-7 9-7.

It's still the best I've ever seen. The hitting was incredible, from an epic first point to the incredible tiebreak in the 4th set, to finishing it out in the last vestiges of daylight. Everything was so beautiful about his match. Tennis has never been more artistic.


2.) 2005 Australian Open Semifinal: Safin def. Federer 5-7 6-4 5-7 7-6 9-7

The 2008 Wimbledon Final was more artistic, it was more about shotmaking. This was more about hitting. Federer never seemed more unbeatable than at the start of 2005. We had never really see a man run through the field like Federer in 2004. This was not only a stunning upset, but an exceptional match between Federer and the only man of his generation that had the talent to beat him when Federer played well. Federer lost a match point after Safin hit an incredible lob in the 4th set.


3.) 2009 Australian Open Final: Nadal def. Federer 7-5 3-6 7-6 3-6 6-2

The 5th set was anticlimactic, but for four sets, the tennis rivaled the 2008 Wimbledon Final. Nadal came up with amazing shot after amazing shot, and this after playing a 5 hour semifinal two nights before. Federer too was playing well, killing the forehand. If you have to watch just the highlights of a match, this is probably the best one.


4.) 2009 Australian Open Semifinal: Nadal def. Verdasco 6-7 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-4

It took five hours and fourteen minutes to finish. They played until two in the morning. Both being lefties, the angles hit in the match were ridiculous. It was really tennis being played at a video game level.


5.) 2010 US Open Semifinal: Djokovic def Federer 5-7 6-1 5-7 6-2 7-5

The match that started Nole's run had arguably the most dramatic 5th set ever. The first four weren't that great, but that 5th set made up for everything. Djokovic saving two match points with ballsy hitting. Federer saving break point after break point earlier in the match. This was the match that would create the monster.


Other matches worth Youtubing the highlights of: 2009 US Open Final (del Potro def. Federer), 2010 US Open Final (Nadal def Djokovic), 2009 Wimbledon Final (Federer def. Roddick), 2004 US Open Quarterfinal (Federer def. Agassi).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

2011 NFL Season Predictions



For these predictions I am assuming Peyton Manning plays at most 8 games, and probably in the 3-6 range if at all. This already makes me sad beyond belief.


AFC East

1.) New England Patriots 12-4 (3)

They're still good, but there is no way their offense can be that good and protect the ball that well again. Their defense still is average, as I don't think acquiring four thirty year old players will make much of a difference.


2.) New York Jets 9-7

I don't like what they did this offseason. Don't understand why they would replace Braylon Edwards and Jerrico Cotchery, with two similar players (Plax and Derrick Mason) who are both older.


3.) Miami Dolphins 7-9

I like their defense, but every day I feel embarrassed that I once said that Chad Henne would be a major player. I haven't been more wrong on anything, other than possibly picking the A's to win the AL West.


4.) Buffalo Bills 5-11

I like their offense, but their defense is still a few years away. In the past, the Bills at least had some intriguing players in the secondary, but even that pipeline has seems to have closed.


AFC North

1.) Baltimore Ravens 13-3 (1)


I'm not sure why I like the Ravens to have the best record in the NFL. Probably because it is statistically impossible for that defense to ever be bad. Also, Joe Flacco quietly had a great year in 2010 and I think he's ready to become an elite player in the NFL.


2.) Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5 (5)

They are still loaded but I am a full believer in the "Super Bowl loser" curse. The Steelers are talented enough and their schedule easy enough that this is considered a step down for a team that has an intriguing offense.


3.) Cleveland Browns 7-9

I like Colt McCoy, and I like their moxie. They are kind of like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of 2010 of the AFC. They play in a really tough division, so it will be hard to match those Bucs' 10 wins, but they are still a good young team.


4.) Cincinnati Bengals 5-11

If they weren't starting a rookie QB, I might have them quite a bit better, because I really like their offensive skill position players. Their defense still needs to improve their pass rush by, how you say, a lot.


AFC South

1.) Houston Texans 10-6

Yes, it is finally their year. The rest of the division is mostly a mess now that the Colts are missing Manning for a long time. The Titans are relying on Matt Hasselbeck, who is basically living off of the Wild Card game. The Texans have, in my opinion, the best offense in the NFL.


2.) Indianapolis Colts 7-9

It is sad, because if Manning missed any fewer than 8 games, I might think they could sneak out a weak division. There is no way Manning is missing less than 8 games however, so the Colts are screwed. I now know how Patriots' fans must have felt in 2008. Except I'm not going to claim all year long that the NFL season is tainted.


3.) Tennesse Titans 6-10

They only reason they will win seven games is because they play in the AFC South. Their defense also has its moments, and CJ is god for about two wins himself.


4.) Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

For the umpteenth year, I'm going to say the Jaguars will suck badly. They cut David Garrard and are going with Luke McCown which has never worked. Their defense is still mostly awful and somehow Jack Del Rio still has a job. I have no idea either.


AFC West

1.) San Diego Chargers 12-4 (2)


They probably won't have the #1 offense and defense by yards. Then again, they won't have a special teams that by itself costs the Chargers two games. Phil Rivers will have V-Jax back plus hopefully a full year of Antonio Gates. They are good. Real good.


2.) Oakland Raiders 9-7 (6)

I can dream, can't I? They have a doable schedule, including two pancakes in their division. They have a good defense that features one of the best d-lines in football. They have a great running game. Jason Campbell won't screw things up. That's a recipe for getting close.


3.) Kansas City Chiefs 5-11

This is going to be a major year after effect for the Chiefs, a team that was already getting exposed late last season. They just don't have the skill position players and I don't think Matt Cassel is any good at all.


4.) Denver Broncos 4-12

I like John Fox. I guarantee they won't lose at home 59-14. I like Kyle Orton. That all said, they still have an atrocious defense, one that is now switching to a 4-3. It will take a few years to rectify what Josh McDaniels screwed up.


NFC

NFC East

1.) New York Giants 11-5 (3)

The Giants are a team that should have made the playoffs a year ago. Their offense is very good, and that was with Eli throwing a flukily high amount of touchdowns. Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, I predict, will become one of the better 1-2 combinations in the NFL.


2.) Philadelphia Eagles 10-6 (5)

The Eagles are not the "dream team" but they are very good. Michael Vick probably won't have that kind of year again, but he won't have to. The defense, especially the pass defense, should be better with the three corners that they have.


3.) Dallas Cowboys 8-8

Yes, Tony Romo is back, but in all honesty Jon Kitna was good last year. I don't know if Romo will make that much a difference for the Cowboys. The Cowboys defense will be a huge question with Wade gone.


4.) Washington Redskins 6-10

Yeah, I believe in Rex Grossman somewhat. He reminds me a lot of Jake Plummer when he came to Denver to play for Shanahan. The only difference here is that the Broncos that Plummer came to were a lot better than these Redskins.


NFC North

1.) Green Bay Packers 12-4 (2)


They are still among the most talented teams in the NFL. I don't make to much of a big deal about Grant and Finley returning. Finley can help, but Ryan Grant is an older running back coming off of a major injury.


2.) Detroit Lions 9-7 (6)

Yup, I'm a believer. I like Stafford. I love Megatron. What I love the most is that front seven on defense. We all know about the d-line with Suh, KVB, CLiff Avril and Nick Fairley when he plays. That said, the linebackers are quite good, especially after the pickup of Stephen Tulloch.


3.) Chicago Bears 9-7

I don't see too much of a drop off. They cannot have that good of injury luck on defense, but then again, I think that the offense will get better in year 2 under Mike Martz. He'll use Forte even more in the Marshall Faulk role, and I like Roy Williams in Martz's offense.


4.) Minnesota Vikings 7-9

Their defense is still very talented. Donovan McNabb is definitely an upgrade over 2010's Brett Favre and Joe Webb. That said, they are depending on Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin as their top receivers.


NFC South

1.) New Orleans Saints 13-3 (1)


I still love this team. Yes, their defense couldn't stop a thing on opening night, but they still had a great chance to win that game (especially considering they were twice stopped on 4th down inside the 10 yard line). Also, that opening game is the biggest lock in gambling. The defending champ is now 8-0 since they started it in 2004.


2.) Atlanta Falcons 9-7


I think they will take a little step back. Julio Jones will need some time to develop and I think Michael Turner is on the edge of being spent. They still have a really bright future, but I think they peaked in 2010 (at least peaking for this current group).


3.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Talk about taking a step back. They don't have as easy of a schedule, and Josh Freeman probably won't only have 6 interceptions again. The Buccaneers are a year away from being legitimate threats and their future is bright.


4.) Carolina Panthers 4-12

I think this team is still a bit lost. Their o-line has really fallen off since their magnum opus in 2008. Cam Newton will take a while to develop. Also, they have no receivers other than Steve Smith, which is basically the same as 2005. However, this time Steve Smith isn't the same any more.


NFC West

1.) Arizona Cardinals 9-7 (4)


Yup, you heard me. Everyone loves St. Louis. I love the Cardinals.... well at least to go 9-7. I believe in Kevin Kolb. More specifically I believe in Larry Fitzgerald to have a monster season. I think their defense is good when motivated, and they will be as they can actually win games.


2.) St. Louis Rams 8-8

People like them a little too much. Sam Bradford didn't really have the greatest of rookie seasons. I get that he didn't have anyone to throw to, but then again nothing has changed in that arena for 2011. Steven Jackson is nearing the end of the line as well.


3.) San Francisco 49ers 5-11

Still going with Alex Smith? Really? I will take this moment to talk about one of my favorite subjects: Michael Crabtree. The Raiders were excoriated for not taking him and he's really been a nothing for two years.


4.) Seattle Seahawks 3-13

Somehow has to be the worst team. Why not the team relying on Tarvaris Jackson and Marshawn Lynch. The team also has few defensive playmakers. I'm probably way underselling them, but its really hard to pinpoint one team to be absolute shit in any given season.


Playoffs

Wild Card Round

Raiders (A6) 17 @ Patriots (A3) 27

Steelers (A5) 23 @ Texans (A4) 24

Eagles (N5) 30 @ Cardinals (N4) 17
Lions (N6) 20 @ Giants (N3) 27


Divisional Round


Patriots (A3) 17 @ Chargers (A2) 31
Texans (A4) 17 @ Ravens (A1) 24

Giants (N3) 28 @ Packers (N2) 24

Eagles (N5) 24 @ Saints (N1) 31


Championship Games

Chargers (A2) 24 @ Ravens (A1) 20

Giants (N3) 24 @ Saints (N1) 27


Super Bowl XLVI

Chargers 31 (A2) vs Saints (N1) 27



Enjoy the season (enjoy it extra, because I'll be enjoying it less).

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The #3 Athlete of the 2000s: Zinedine Zidane


Zizou

I'm writing this a week late, five days and seven years after Mr. Zidane played his final game, and made one final mark on the pitch in international football. Five years have passed since Zinedine Zidane, in which the world coronated four different players as his heir, as "The Best Player in the World." The crown went from Ronaldinho to Kaka to Cristiano Ronaldo from 2005-2008, all three having dizzying heights, especially the first of the three (we are all victims of forgetting just how good Ronaldinho was in his too-short prime). The crown finally landed upon Lionel Messi, and he's had it for three years running. Football has finally found a new heir, but it will take a while before anyone reaches the ridiculous heights that Zidane reached for ten years from 1996-2006. Since this is a best of the decade ranking, here is the short list of achievements that Zidane has that AREN'T included in this decade:

- 1998 World Cup (including two goals in the final)
- 1998 FIFA Player of the Year
- 1998 Ballod D'Or Winner
- 1996-97 & 1997-98 Champions League Finalist (with Juventus)
- 1995-96 UEFA Cup Finalist (with Bordeaux - a one man team)
- 1996-97 & 1997-98 Seria A Titles

Again, all of this is, in the case of this ranking, irrelevant. All of this preceded Zidane v 2.0, the player that made a superstar into a legend. Zidane is the odd player who's prime does not perfectly align with a particular decade. Michael Jordan actually had this problem as his true prime was from mid-80's to mid-90's (luckily for him the rest was amazing anyway). Zidane had five years at the end of the 90's and six years to start the 2000s that were the stuff of legend. Luckily for him, he did enough in those six years to better all but two athletes. Zizou, the man who made millions pour onto the Champs Elyssee, the man who made one of the sickest goals happen, the man who was the richest transfer fee of all time for 8 years and still holds it if inflation is counted, the man, the myth and the legend. Zinedine Zidane is the 3rd best athlete of the 2000s, despite him not playing a minute of the last 4 years.

What Lionel Messi does is easy to explain. He's incredible with the ball and has arguably the greatest left foot ever. He keeps the ball tied to his foot like it was literally tied to his foot. He is nearly impossible to take down and has every shot in the book. That is what Lionel Messi is, nothing more and nothing less. He does it extremely well, but that is what he does. You couldn't truly describe what Zidane did on the field other than saying it was magic. I'll make an effort to try anyway. Zidane had the ability to impact the game without scoring, but then again all defenders have that too. More so, Zidane had the ability to impact the game seemingly without moving, by just getting the ball and passing it off to streaking teammates in advantageous positions. Zidane was one of the most inventive passers in football history. Other than Peyton Manning, there might not have been a better quarterback in all sports.

Maestro is often the word we here associated with Zidane, and in a way it is perfect. He was the master orchestral conducter managing and directing the other 9 players on the pitch (I'm guessing he had no impact on the goalie, but then again if Tom Brady can make his kickers play better...) with ease. He rarely ever missed a pass, ever. What seperates him from modern pass-masters like Xavi Hernandez is that his passes weren't tiki-taka ones that went five feet, but sweeping, looping passes offsetted by back-heels and two-foot combinations. Zidane was everything a central midfielder should be, but limiting him to just that title would be selling Zizou way too short.

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Zidane was also a beast with the ball, as rarely was any player able to strip him of it one-on-one. He didn't do it with the fleet footwork of Lionel Messi, or the galloping strides of Cristiano or the original Ronaldo before him, but with true magic. The magic was that he made the most ridiculous things like his famed spin to aerial kicks look easy and simple. He made the game look easy, like it was something anyone can do, and that is the height of his brilliance. Zidane made what was incredible look commonplace, look ordinary and all-the-more, because what he did that looked incredible was actually utterly insane.

It is still hard to believe it actually happened, and harder to believe how forgotten a moment it is outside of football fan circles. Real Madrid at the final peak of their galactico powers, was tied in the Champions League Final, the cap to the 2001-02 season. Zidane, in his first season in Real Madrid following that 75 Million Euro transfer fee, had already lost two Champions League Finals with Juventus - one to Real Madrid who had won two of the last four before Zidane joined. Zidane needed to make his mark and he did it with a 75 million euro goal. Solari flung the ball airborn in a high, tight arc, into the back of the 18-yd box. The ball was suspended in midair and every player on the pitch awaited its return to earth. Zidane didn't wait but readied himself, and then in one smooth move, swung his left foot (off-foot, it should be mentioned) perfectly into the descending ball, connecting with a sharp volley that slammed into the back of the net. The game was tied no longer.



Zidane had already won another FIFA Player of the Year award in 2000, but this was the real start to his decade. Tragically he got hurt in the run up to the 2002 World Cup and missed France's first two games, which were soulless goalless games. Zidane came back with a vengeance putting together another magnificent season to win the 2003 FIFA World Player of the Year spearheading Real to the La Liga title and managing to be the best player on the field during a Champions League tie with Manchester United, even with Ronaldo getting a hat trick. Zidane then scored the only goal in Real's tough semifinal exit to Juventus. In 2004, Zidane then led France to the late stages of the Euro 2004 tournament with a dramatic brace against England. First was an incredible free kick to tie the game in the 88th minute, a kick so brilliant, goalie David James didn't move an inch. He couldn't, frozen by its brilliance. Then he finished it off with a penalty kick to the collective groins of millions of Englishmen. Later in 2004, Zidane got arguably his most impressive honor.

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In 2004 UEFA did a poll of the Best European Footballers of the Past 50 Years to cap its 50th Anniversary celebration. Zidane topped the poll, nudging out Franz Beckenbauer. Before people cry that there was some recency-bias, it should be mentioned that the next highest placing current player was Paolo Maldini at #10. Of course, this was a European only list, so it did not include Pele or Maradona or Ronaldo, but the message was clear, Zidane was the best European Football of the last 50 years......... and this was before his magical 2006 World Cup.

The French National Team's qualification for the 2006 World Cup was going about as well as the plight of the roid-free Tour de France riders. Zidane, who had already retired from international football, was begged to come out of retirement, to help his country. After Zidane returned on September 3rd 2005, France didn't lose another game until after he retired again (losing in penatlies is considered a draw). France ended up qualifying comfortably, and the 2006 World Cup was set and going in Zidane let it be known it would be his swansong from all football, at what a beautiful coda it was.

The group stage for France wasn't anything great, but the four successive knockout games were an epic all-to-themselves. First against Spain, a team who had the foundation of the same team that would dominate international football for the six years after the World Cup, Zidane controlled the game beautifully, many times showing off his trademark passing and eye for the game. His whipping free kick led to the game winning goal, and then in stoppage time added the capper, with his first goal in the World Cup, a goal that is often missed but Zidane made look incredibly easy. A date with Brazil was next.

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Zidane made his first ever international statement against Brazil, scoring two headers to win the World Cup. In fact, since 1994, the only World Cup game Brazil lost was that World Cup Final. Coming into the game, the Selecao were on a roll and were the favorite. Then again, no one really realized that Zidane had one last breathtaking game again. Difficult made easy. The 2006 quarterfinal perfected that theme as he danced his way around the Brazilians. Pele later called him "the only Brazilian on the field." His free kick again set up the only goal, but Zidane controlled the match (though I should not France's defense was great throughout the tournament), one that was nowhere as close as the 1-0 scoreline.

The semifinal against Portugal was more of the same, highlighted with a picture perfect penalty kick. Eight years after his brace sent millions into the Champs Elysee, Zidane was back again in the World Cup Final, this time against Italy. The Final was marked by three incidents for Zidane. First was his second consecutive penalty kick goal. A kick so sublime, so insane that few would try it. Zidane chipped the ball so perfectly in bounced off the bottom of the cross bar slowly dropping behind the goalline. The second was his last great moment, a flying header that nearly broke a 1-1 tie in extra time. Gianluigi Buffon had to use every inch of his springing frame to knock it over the bar. The final one was the most memorable, the infamous headbutt, Zidane's act of vigilante justice.

The act itself was admittedly disgraceful, but was not really out of character. Zizou played the beautiful game about as beautiful as it ever has, but that grace belied a true temper. Zidane has a lot more bad tempered moments and red cards than most great footballers. His temper is his one true weakness, and it showed at the worst moment, fifteen minutes before the end of his career. But let the headbutt not spoil Zidane's incredible tournament, one that netted him one last award for the best player of the tournament. Zidane's play against Brazil should be sent straight to the Smithsonian, the equivalent of what Manning's insane game against the Jets in last years AFC Championship game was. Zidane was at his magnificent best in the biggest tournament in the world.

Zidane never played again after the headbutt, but his legacy is still set in stone. Just listen to the experts: "Zidane is one of the 5 greatest players in history, a truly magnificent player" (Beckenbauer). "Zidane is the greatest talent we've seen in the last 20 years (1986-2006), and it was an honour to be his manager" (Juventus manager Marcello Lippi who coached Italy in the headbutt game). "Zidane's the best player I've ever seen" (Roberto Carlos). "Technically, I think he is the king of what's fundamental in the game - control and passing" (Michel Platini). "There's never been anyone quite like him, anyone so magical" (Paolo Maldini).

Zizou was a true magician, and his best magic act might have been his quiet disappearance. It is hard to describe why Zidane isn't remembered as greatly as he should, especially since when it comes time for any true expert or football fan blog to do any sort of top-10 list, or have an irrational Zidane vs Ronaldinho or Zidane vs Messi thread, the cobwebs that lie over Zidane's legacy are dusted off and displayed. Maybe it is because it is all too recent. Maybe because Messi is doing splendid things, but Zidane isn't given the Maradona treatment yet. He will because he deserves it. My guess is his high-profile roles in the football business will only help. Zidane was the face of Qatar's bid for the 2022 World Cup. Zidane is now the sporting director of Real Madrid, a job Jose Mourinho wanted Zidane to get, making him the second most powerful man at Real Madrid after Florentino Perez. Zidane realizes that the world has gotten over the headbutt, that it is time to make that legacy eternal.

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I don't want to really get into a Zidane vs Messi debate, partly because Messi isn't done and partly because they play different positions (Zidane vs Ronaldinho makes more sense, but that argument is as dumb as Barry Bonds vs Sammy Sosa but without the roids). That said, here is what I know: Messi has played his entire career with Xavi and Iniesta and that cartel in Barca. Zidane did have great teammates at both Juventus and Real Madrid, but not to the same effect. We haven't seen what Messi can do without those two men, and what evidence we have (World Cup mostly), isn't exactly impressive for Leo. As for Zidane, here are the results that France has put up in major competitions since 1998:

1998: Won World Cup (With Zidane)
2000: Won Euro 2000 (With Zidane)
2002: Lost in group stage (Zidane played 1 out of 3 games)
2004: Lost in Quarterfinals (With Zidane)
2006: Lost in World Cup Final (With Zidane)
2008: Lost in group stage (Without Zidane)
2010: Lost in group stage (Without Zidane).

France has done nothing without Zidane, and everything with him. France had other great players in this era like Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira and Claude Makalele, but none of those guys could do jack without Zizou, without the magic.

In his final game for Real Madrid, his final game in club football, Real Madrid sent him out like a king, with the whole stadium holding up posters of Zidane's shirt and each player having "Zidane 2001-2006" stiched at the bottom of their shirt. Zidane responded with a sublime header, a goal in his final game. The header was tough in actuality, with Zidane lightly arcing the ball off his head, almost placing it with his head rather than butting it, as it flew softly over the goalie. It was difficult but made to look simple, just like everything else in Zizou's magical career.


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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Dismay in the Disaster

No, this isn't a column about the impending loss of Peyton Manning for what will probably be more than just one game because of a mysterious slow nerve regeneration problem. That's bad enough. This is about something bigger. Peyton Manning will return, whether it be Week 2 (highly unlikely), Week 10 (probably close to the real date) or in 2012 (God Forbid). What won't return is what will probably end up being a bigger loss to me than the loss of Peyton Manning for several games. That said, I'll start with Manning. I first saw the news in a closed off bar at the tail end of an exceptionally entertaining wedding weekend for a long time family friend. I glanced over to the TV screen as it was on ESPNEWS. The bottom half of the screen was cut off, so all I could read was "Peyton Manning to be". The rest was cut off. The sound was fully off. I was left in a state of total speculation. I quickly went online to find any confirmation of what could be happening but found nothing. Immediately my mind raced; what was the missing phrase. To me the most likely scenarios were the two ends of the aray of possibilities, one being "to be... placed on injured reserve," while the other "to be... ready for Week 1." It probably was "to be... reevaluated." but I would never find out.

Later that night I looked again online and saw reports that Manning might need another surgery as the rate of nerve regeneration was going dangerously slow. Then I saw a post from my favorite trusted Colts blogger (Nate Dunlevy from 18to88.com) that Manning will indeed have to undergo another surgery. Within minutes I was at a loss for feelings, let alone words. This was the francise going down. This was one year of Manning's career taken away, and with an aging core that probably only had one or two cracks together as a unit (Freeney, Mathis, Wayne, Clark), to lose one of those years was just devastating. Anyway, the Colts said that Manning is just getting another opinion. I have no idea what to believe, but I am sure he won't play Week 1, and probably not for until the Colts are effectively out of playoff contention. My only real hope is that the Jags stay a mess (cutting Garrard really helps), the Titans Hasselbeck experiment fails (which it easily could), and the Texans defense doesn't get much better under Wade (probably unlikely), and Manning returns around Week 8 with the Colts 3-5, and pulls off a 6-2 type finish and sneak in the playoffs.

Either way, as I said, Manning will be back. Life will go on. Manning wasn't going to play without missing a game forever. I just feel that it was cheapened. It wasn't a ferocious hit that got him. It was his own body failing him in the oddest way possible, a man struck down by himself. I hope this is not a recurring injury. Anyway, now with the Manning part of this out of the way, let's get to what really has me depressed (to some extent, as there is no need to worry about my emotional state).

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I was thrust back into the US last week after spending eight weeks abroad and what I found was a lot of change. The Northeast had experienced an earthquake (which I'm sad I missed) and a massive hurricane (I'm okay with missing that one). There was also one more change which I only found out during my "welcome back to being able to drive" drive that I took last Wednesday night. 94.1 WYSP was shutting down as a classic rock station. No more needed to be said, or as it were, heard, for me to become absolutely nonplussed. I grew up with 94.1. As far as music fm stations went, it was my station. It was the station that introduced me to Van Halen (my favorite band), to the beauty of old classic rock; to Zeppelin, to Sabbath, to Floyd, to the Who. To everyone. I'm a huge classic rock fan while also being an inherently lazy one. I'm not one to put in the work to find bands and music hidden under rocks, or as they were called "indie" groups. I'm under the impression that in a market that is already targeted to a slight niche group (rock fans, which is admittedly a large niche), that the bands that had the most success are most often very successful for a good reason. That said, WYSP made me listen to bands I hadn't heard. They made me listen to Blue Oyster Cult, to Megadeth, to Metallica (which are for more melodic and beautiful than I ever could've imagined), to Alice in Chains, to Cheap Trick, and I can't thank them enough.

It all started with Metallica. I had always thought of Metallica as some loud, dirty band that wasn't worth two listens, but that was because I hadn't really heard them before. Then one day I stumbled upon WYSP playing "Fade to Black." I had no idea it was Metallica until they told me when it was over. I was speechless. The song was truly beautiful. The guitar, the melodies, the riffs. The song was incredible, and I was thinking "This is Metal? This is the music the nation was supposed to be scared of along with Gangsta Rap?". Right after Fade to Black, WYSP played "Don't fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult. They were another band I never listened to, this time because of innocent fear of the "cult" part of their name. I again found the song moving, captivating. I listened to WYSP for an hour and was struck by the heavy beauty of all these songs by all these bands that were heretofore unknown.

WYSP's tagline was "the rock you grew up with," and although I wasn't really their target audience for that tag, WYSP was the station I grew up with. It was the station I lived with. WYSP played the music I liked and played it all the time. It was a tad more heavy than the other major "classic rock" stations in the NYC/Philly area (102.9 MGK and Q104.3). It was the only one that played Metallica, that played a lot of Guns 'N Roses, that played Van Halen other than just Jump (Unchained was a WYSP favorite). On the weekends, it simulcasted Eddie Trunk's 'That Metal Show', which as a kid I gobbled up, playing it when I was sleeping on Saturday and Sunday nights. WYSP was my radio home, my radio paradise; an oasis where I could listen to real rock amidst a never-ending Sahara of pop.

WYSP is now gone, the "rock I grew up with" is now the "rock I better get on iTunes because I won't be hearing it on radio again." There probably are other rock stations out there that play metal, but do those same ones play Queen and the Doors with equal frequency? That was the true beauty of WYSP. It wasn't for metalheads. It wasn't really for fans of rock in the 60-70's. It was for anyone who liked rock music (The one major group that was kind of ignored on the station was Nirvana, but that's defensible in my eyes since I was never a big fan). WYSP played everything. Their DJs loved everything. Their fans and listeners wanted everything. It was rock all the time and it was amazing. For whatever reason now, it is all gone.

I searched the internet for reasons why WYSP would lose it's face, why it would switch from the best rock station on the East Coast (my appointed title for them) to a simulcast of Philly's sports radio station. I couldn't find any. There was no other explanation other than a lack of ratings, which I guess is the only reason necessary. I guess in the end ratings will be king and lack of them will always spell the end. That said, I will always remember my time listening to WYSP fondly. It opened my eyes to rock music, to hard rock music, to bands I never would have listened to and to songs I never would've blasted in the car when driving. During long night drives they kept me company. When I couldn't get sleep as a 15 year old, the kept me company. WYSP was like family in a weird sense. They were comforting in an obvious sense. They were home, and now WYSP, like so many of the bands they once played, are gone.

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.