Monday, August 26, 2013

Ten Italicized Predictions for the 2013 NFL Season

1.) The hegemony of the AFC Divisions is broken, but just once.

For the first time since the NFL's expansion to 32 teams (and 8 divisions), four teams in one conference repeated as division winners. The Texans, Ravens, Broncos and Patriots repeated the feat, all winning their divisions quite easily (the Texans and Bengals won by a game, but had their divisions locked up well before that). They still seem the class of their divisions given the nature of the rest of the AFC. It is amazing how much the balance of power has shifted back to the NFC, but that doesn't mean the AFC is devoid of competitors, just that it is mostly so. I still think the Patriots win the division, despite their lack of weapons for Tom Brady, the Texans win their division, despite the fact that I think the Colts won't drop off to far, and the Broncos win their division, despite Von Miller's suspension. The one that I think falls off is the Ravens. I already didn't like their offense after losing Anquan Boldin and now with Dennis Pitta out for the year I like them even less. Who is replacing them as AFC North Champions? For me, it isn't the team that made the playoffs out of the division (The Bengals - who I think get a wild card, again), but it is the AFC preeminent sleeping giant, the...

2.) The Steelers Replenish in the most Steelers way possible

Steelers. After missing the playoffs going 8-8 and having merely an above average defense for the first time since 2003, there are legitimate concerns in Pittsburgh right now. I personally don't buy any of them. Ben Roethlisberger is still a really, really good QB, and if he doesn't get hurt at the most inopportune time, the Steelers likely make the playoffs in 2012. The Steelers wideout factory is the most underrated personnel pipeline in the NFL, and I like Markus Wheaton in that role. Of course, why I really like the Steelers is their more vaunted defense pipeline. The old guys are out and the new guys are in, and to me, more of the Steelers new defensive players will than not. I really like Anthony McClendon taking over the NT role, and I like the Hood and Heyward combination. Steelers defenisve players need time to learn and perfect that system and I think they have by now. The steelers have missed the playoffs in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and now 2012. What did they do in 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010? Go 13-3, 15-1, 10-6 and 12-4, making a Super Bowl and losing two AFC Championship Games. I think that is the more likely outcome than another season of missing the playoffs.

3.) Like a Season of 'The Wire' the penultimate Week is the most exciting

The Wire was famous for having their most dramatic, memorable episodes be the penultimate ones in each season (deaths of Wallace, Frank, Stringer, Bodie all came in the 2nd to last episode). The NFL is going for that with an absolutely loaded Week 16 slate. There's Denver @ Houston at 1PM (all times tentative), with potential huge AFC Seed implications. There's Pittsburgh @ Green Bay, which, if the Steelers play as well as I expect, could be huge for seeding. There's New England @ Baltimore on Sunday Night, and then Atlanta @ San Francisco on Monday Night. That's right, the two Title Game rematches (in the opposite building) on primetime in Week 16. I really say that all of those games will have playoff implications. Well done, NFL.

4.) College Coaches get Screwed

The NFL is imbued with college coaches right now, as the success of Jim Harbaugh and to a lesser extent, Pete Carroll, have given teams the confidence to hire Doug Marrone, Greg Schiano and Chip Kelly. For years, college coaches failed in the NFL. The last three to do so were Bobby Petrino, who bolted in less than a year, Nick Saban, who waited until year two to bolt, and Steve Spurrier, who failed in two years in Washington. That list contained a Bill Belichick protege who ran a disciplined team, and two coaches who ran gimmicky fast-paced offenses. All failed. Guess what the trio of Marrone, Schiano and Chip Kelly contain: a Bill Belichick disciple and two coaches who ran gimmick offenses. I think all fail. Marrone will probably make it past this year just because it is the first year on the job, but Schiano and Kelly, I think, are in for another rough reminder that the NFL ain't college. Schiano's team started out good last year but crashed and burned embarrasingly, with a five game losing streak that included getting shut out by the worst defense in the NFL (a 41-0 loss to the Saints) and a fifteen point loss at home to the Rams. I still don't like that team. Chip Kelly's offense only works if you can get first downs, as if you cant you are just punting back in 90 seconds of game time and putting a terrible defense back on the field, which I think they will be doing, a lot. As for Marrone, again, that team is a year or two away at best. Coaches that are successful in college just aren't in the pros. Ask Nick Saban, builder of an NCAA dynasty and failure as a NFL coach.

5.) Sean Payton's return to New Orleans won't be too Sweet

The Saints dropped from 13-3 in 2011 to 7-9 in 2012 as Sean Payton missed the season. Without Payton, Drew Brees turned into an inaccurate (for Brees), pick-throwing machine. The general consensus is that with Payton returning, Brees will fix all those problems, the offense will resemble the robotic brilliance that they had in 2011 and all of the Saints problems will be solved. I say bunk. First, there were bigger problems with the Saints offense in 2012 than just not having Payton. The loss of Carl Nicks really hurt that run game, and Drew Brees, more than the other top-flight QBs, needs a run game to be ultra-successful. When he doesn't have a consistent run game, he starts forcing balls and becomes pick happy. This was evident last year, as it was in 2010, when Brees threw 22 picks. The lack of weapons is meaningful as well. The bigger problem, though, is their defense. Steve Spagnuolo was a big mismatch for their talent, but Rob Ryan is, while not a mismatch, a totally overrated defensive coordinator. His defenses never lived up to his hype in Dallas or even before that in Cleveland. He doesn't have many talented players at all on that defenses, and I can't see his schemes really working there. I predict another season of hovering around .500 for the Saints, a team that wasn't all that consistent in making the playoffs with Payton either.

6.) The Broncos, with all their problems, still get the #1 seed

The Broncos had a really good offseason, save for the fax-machine snafu. I liked all of their signings, like Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez to play LG, or Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie to play Corner, or Terrance Knighton. Even Shaun Phillips as the emergency replacement signing for Dumervil was decent (I was hoping for Freeney, personally). That said, the Broncos have had a miserable preseason. Von Miller will miss the first six games. Stewart Bradley is hurt. Rodgers-Cromartie, Bailey and Welker all got dinged up (all are expected back for Week 1). Still, other than Miller who is definitely missing six games, all these problems should sort themselves out. The fact remains that this is still the most talented team Peyton Manning has played for since the 2006 Colts. Losing Dumervil hurts, but he's probably been overrated by the media now that he is gone. The key loss is Miller, but three of Miller's six games missed are gimmes anyway (OAK, JAX, PHI), and while the other three are tough, the worst I see the Broncos doing with Miller out is 4-2. Their schedule is quite easy at the back end, and outside of showdowns with Houston and New England on the road, all remaining games seem like wins. Peyton Manning has been on less talented teams and still gone 12-4 (2003, 2008), 13-3 (2007), or even 14-2 (2009). I'm not worried. What I am worried about is Rahim Moore not knowing what 'safety' means come January.

7.) The Big Cats Come Back

I already said that I think the Bengals make it back to the playoffs, so this is about the other two cat-based NFL teams, the Lions and Panthers. The Lions, like most teams that make a huge jump one year, fell back. Of course, no one envisioned them falling back to 4-12, but they played more like a 6-10 or 7-9 team. They lost five consecutive games where they were tied or in the lead in the 4th quarter. That type of bad luck doesn't happen again. I love their defensive line, and I think they, together, have a monster, monster season. The secondary is terrible, but they can win enough 30-24 type games. I love the addition of Reggie Bush to play the 'Reggie Bush' role in that offense, giving Matthew Stafford a nice move-the-chains option. I think they'll be the big sleeper that makes the playoffs. On the other side is the Panthers, the team that was hyped up coming into 2012 after a 6-10 record. They did get better, going 7-9 and playing more sustainably. They were an underwhelming 7-9, another team that lost a lot of close games. That defense is ready to be really good. They also have problems in the secondary, but their front seven is probably a Top-10 unit. Their offense is still quite good at times and I can't imagine DeAngelo and J-Stew having seasons that bad again. Surprise teams happen each year, and I think they both crash the playoffs party, maybe against each other.

8.) One of these under-the-radar teams in the AFC makes the playoffs (Jets, Colts, Chargers)

I did a similar prediction last year, saying either that one of these three teams would make the playoffs and the Colts will. They are all secondary teams in the three AFC Divisions with clear 'most talented teams' at the top. The Jets and Chargers are being overlooked (with some reason) for sexier sleeper wild card picks in the Dolphins and Chiefs. The Dolphins are talented, but I think Ryan Tannehill's rookie season has been wildly overrated. As for the Chiefs, I have never seen a team that was a trendy wild card pick one year be again a trendy wild card pick the next year when in the year in between they play putridly. Honestly, people were touting the Chiefs as a sleeper Wild Card in 2012, and they proceeded to go 2-14 with everyone healthy. As for the Jets, Colts and Chargers. They all have major weaknesses. With the Jets it is offense, with teh Colts it is defense adn with the Chargers it is rampant mediocrity splayed across that lineup. That said, the positives are there too. The Jets have the most talented defense on paper that they've had since 2010, and Mark Sanchez cannot possibly be worse than he was in 2012. The Colts still have a very good offense, and I expect big things from their weaponry outside this year. The Chargers have an easy schedule and I expect a bounceback Philip Rivers season. For this to be right, only one of the three have to be correct. I like my odds.

9.) The Pistol is Figured Out (to a degree)

First of all, I should say that the pistol was used far less than most people believe. Only a handful of teams even had it as any substantial portion of their offense. The read-option was more prevalent. I'm bundling them together here. Since the QB is actively involved, I think the pistol/read-option won't be as solvable as the Wildcat was, but I think defensive coordinators will pretty much solve it. To me, the key is just make the QB hand it off and play it as a normal run play. Obviously, it isn't that simple, but there are defenses in college that can play it well. The other is injuries. We've already seen RGIII get hurt once. They will pile up. My other solution if I was a coordinator would be to tell my defense to hit the QB every time they do a read-option. Force the offenses hand by repeatedly smashing the QB. Anyway, Kaepernick, Newton, RGIII and Wilson are good enough passers to make it last to some degree, but I don't think this is a long term change in the way the NFL works.

10.) The Great NFC West Race becomes more muddled than Great

49ers and Seahawks. That's what the NFC West should come to, and if you listen to many people, it seems like that is what the NFL in total will come down to. They are seen as the two most talented teams in the NFL. Personally, I think they are both quite good teams, but I think both take a step back. Some of it boils down to my 9th prediction about the read-option beign less prevalent. The other is that while talented, they have holes. The 49ers are really lacking good outside weapons. Crabtree is injured, Manningham is injured again. They are depending on some really underwhelming receivers at this point, and an aging Anquan Boldin who was doing nothing until a mini-rennaissance in the playoffs. For the Seahawks, their pass rush is really overrated, and their o-line is merely good. The Seahawks have more talent, but also a larger propensity to play sloppy and slow in away games. Why I think it becomes muddled is that the division also has a good team in St. Louis and a merely slightly below average one in Arizona. I think the Cardinals offense does a lot better with Palmer, as he's a monumental upgrade from Lindley/Skelton. Their defense is still really good. You know who else has a really good defense? St. Louis. They're another team perfectly built to hang with Seattle and San Francisco (as they did, going 2-1-1 against them last year). I can easily see Arizona and St. Louis going a combined 15-17, which doesn't leave a lot of room for the 49ers and Seahawks to both go 11-5+. In the end, Seattle and San Francisco are still probably the two best teams in that division, but I wouldn't expect the NFC's #1 seed to be an NFC West team.

My Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5-11

Confessions is the title of the episode, but the episode was really about a bunch of lies and the only real confession happened by chance. Jesse finds out about one of the two big horrors that Walt has committed to people Jesse loved, and I feel like that sets this whole thing in motion.

  • Seeing Hank and Marie (who looks great this season, by the way, probably because she has worn colors that aren't purple) stare silently watching Walt's face lying at them, calling Hank out and basically screwing Hank forever was great, but their dinner scene with Walt and Skylar was about as brilliant a scene the show has ever done. There are so many relationships and connections there. First, is Skylar and Marie, who after all are sisters and have been shown to be close. What do they think that one of their husbands has basically been the cause of everything wrong with the other one's husband? Then comes Walt and Hank, who obviously had that confrontation earlier, but the most interesting was the other two, with Hank trying to ply information from Skylar and then the best moment, where Marie repeatedly, calmly tells Walt to kill himself. Unbelievable scene. 
  • Walt and Jesse is the big takeaway from this episode, though they only shared one (brilliant) scene together. The first scene reminded me so much of Hank's first interrogation of Tio Salamanca, who spelled out, in his excruciating ringing-the-bell way, 'Fuck You' to Hank. Here, Jesse answers 'Eat Me' to Hank. Both hate the man that Hank is trying to make them flip on, but they hate Hank more. For Tio, it was just the normal cartel behavior of never working with the police. For Jesse it is because Hank nearly killed Jesse after finding out that he had some part in tricking Hank into thinking Marie got into an accident. Jesse showed, I think, some level of respect to Walt. He didn't spill on Walt out of some form of affection, and not solely because he feared for himself.
  • It would be poignant if Walt and Jesse's hug is the last true moment they share on scene together. Since Walt spent almost all of that episode lying to people, it is hard to read what exactly the hug meant, but I do think it came out of affection for Jesse. Sure, Walt wants Jesse gone because then Hank can't turn him, but he probably does want Jesse gone for his own good as well. Walt knows that Jesse has never overcome the death and destruction they've caused and a trip to Alaska could help Jesse out. Of course, Jesse calls him out (in an amazing bit of acting by Aaron Paul, who plays the vulnerable side of Jesse so damn well), and Walt consoles him. Again, it is really hard to read exactly what Walt is doing there, but if it is the last semi-affectionate moment between those two, it was quite nice.
  • I mentioned Walt potentially taking Saul's identity-change-guy connection to fake his death a while ago, and I think the idea being brought up, even if for Jesse, sets it in motion for Walt to use it later. I still think at some point Walt fakes his death, as the reaction from 'Carol' is one of 'I thought you were dead?!' and not 'I can't believe I'm seeing a drug kingpin', but we'll wait and see.
  • The one knock I have with the episode is the same one I have had with Breaking Bad overall. For such an exacting, calculating show, they've stretched the limits of realism more and more as the show has gone on. Because of this, Jesse immediately connecting the dots when he realized Huell lifted the pot to Walt poisoning Brock is quick and hard to believe, but not out of line with what the show has done. But then I thought, I immediately made the connection. The initial storyling with Huell lifting the ricin, and Jesse realizing it (but then leaving it when he found the fake ricin in the roomba) was two years ago in real time and far less in Breaking Bad show time. If I could connect the dots, I'm sure Jesse could too.
  • I love the episode ending with Jesse throwing gasoline around the White home. Since the home is still standing in the flash-forward, we now that Jesse's plan doesn't succeed. Some may say that knowing that cheapens the ending of the episode, but I argue the opposite. There are still so many answers to the question of: Who stops Jesse? Here are my potential answers:
    • Walt: We've already seeing him leaving the car wash with a gun, and the easy assumption is that he is heading home. Of course, Jesse, at this moment, would probably kill Walt, so I doubt it is him.
    • Walt Jr.: he might be at home. Jesse has been seen to love kids, and I doubt he would follow through on his plan if Walt Jr. is in the house. He might force Jr. to leave, but I doubt it is Walt Jr. either.
    • Hank: this is the option that makes the most sense. Hank was recently tailing Jesse, and we don't know if he actually pulled his guys off of Jesse soon enough. Of course, Jesse hates Walt right now more than ever, and is perfectly vulnerable to agree with Hank and flip on Walt. I think Hank comes to the house and Hank and Jesse put aside their differences for what each sees as the greater good.

Can't wait for next week.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Favorite 25 Foreign Cities

I did this list a long time ago, when I was about to leave Cape Town. I started it slightly drunk on Milk & Honey beer as a way to pass time. I said to myself that I would reevaluate the list when my trip was complete. Well, it was completed two months and three days ago and I still haven't... until now. I decided to make it 25 instead of 20 because I couldn't justify removing cities from the earlier list. Here again are a few points and criteria:

I’m going to rank my top-25 cities to visit that I have been to. Take this more of a recommendation list, as in I would recommend the cities in the following order to someone who hasn’t visited them based on my experience visiting them. With that, obviously, only cities I have visited make the list, and visited means more than two days. I’m rating them on the following criteria: the places to see in the city, the ease of access of the city (public transport – much more important internationally when renting a car is more of a precarious idea – and the city’s airport or entrance system), their joi de vievre (a fancy way of saying ‘how would this city be to just chill out in), their weather and overall appearance, and some other factors. There’s no formula here, though.
This is heavily weighted by the amount of time I’ve spent in a city, and what age I was when I visited there. These rules hurt London, while help Madrid, because I’ve spent all of three days in London as a person of legal age, while spent more time in Madrid. It really hurts some other European cities, like Frankfurt, Zurich, Rome, Milan, places I’ve been to as a kid of 9-11.

Again, these are ranked as cities I would visit (all of them I have visited), not where I would live. I would live in Geneva, but probably not visit again because there isn’t much to do, it is cold, and some other reasons. There are places that I wish I could rank because from what I’ve heard from family/friends that have been there they seem really good, like Moscow, Berlin and Hamburg, and when I visit them, I will update this list. Also irrelevant is the ease of getting to this city. Singapore isn’t hurt because it is the farthest commonly visited location from NYC than any other place, and London isn’t helped because it is 6 hours away.

A city includes sites and destinations that are a reasonable distance away, so Barcelona won’t get credit for the Playas that are 2-3 hours away (and are closer to Valencia), and Athens won’t get credit for Ephesus which is 3 hours away, but London would get credit for Stratford (or whatever it’s called where Shakespeare is from, or Oxford – and Rome gets credit for the Vatican, which for being a different country, is totally part of Rome) which is reasonably close.

I can’t accurately judge Indian cities (save for one) because they’ve never been tourist destinations for me, but visits to family. I can probably better judge them as places to live (I wouldn’t live in any), but I’ve done very little tourism in India, and most of my tourism experiences have been bad (as in, when in you’re in the Taj Mahal complex, it is great, but once you leave, close your eyes or you’ll see real India).That said, in India, I have spent a lot of time in Bangalore and Mumbai, two of India’s top-5 cities. Personally, Mumbai is about 100x better than Bangalore as a tourist destination. 
Bangalore is a mess, a city with many good restaurants, shops, buildings, randomly located amongst uneven roads, unpaved sidewalks, and crazy drivers. Mumbai feels like it is a city, but an Indian one, so it has roads that are well-made, a nice waterfront, sites to see, but is still dirty, and is hard to visit or be in during the monsoon months. Also, I included Canadian cities in my US list (for some reason) so no Canadian cities. That said, I’ve spent a ton of time in Montreal, and it probably would be #4 behind the top three, had it been counted.

25.) Da Lat (2013)

The little hamlet high above the Vietnamese hills, Da Lat was probably the most pleasant surprise of any place on my trip. The city itself is modeled after European cities, with parks, downtown circles and even a model Eiffel Tower. The surrounding areas houses more traditional Vietnamese fair, like temples, Buddhas, waterfalls and even roller coasters, all underneath a cool mountain air. Da Lat's hills hide many nice restaurants, bars and clubs. It isn't nearly as loud or as famous as Ho Chi Minh, Nha Trang or Hanoi, but Da Lat may be the most pure mix of Asia and Europe that I have seen. Also, it has an incredibly nice airport given the just six flights that fly there each day.

24.) Penang (2013)

There are positives and negatives to Penang, and depending how important the positives are relative to the negatives to you, Penang could rise or fall on your rankings. Personally, food and culture are really important to me, and Penang has both in spades. It may be a little overrated with food, but the seafood night markets that litter both Georgetown (the main city) and the beaches (all within an hour or so from Georgetown) are wonderful. The Nyonya food in Penang is far better than that in Kuala Lumpur. There is enough to see, including a nice little trek in Georgetown to some interesting historical buildings (the Cheong Fat Tze is a nice highlight). Of course, Penang is also very crowded, slightly dirty and the beaches themselves are quite barren. In the end, I find this fair for what I still consider a great eating spot.

23.) Hong Kong (2003)

Hong Kong has little to do in terms of historical sights. With a couple countries claiming ownership of Hong Kong, they have done a nice job removing any ties to any country. Still, it has arguably the best skyline in the world (though after the new WTC complex is finished in all its glory, NYC will have a good claim to that spot), and being situated in front of and on a mountain gives it some excellent views. Their airport in universally hailed as great, and the gambling capital of Asia (Macau) is just a ferry ride away. But still, picking a place to be higher than 15th given its total lack of history, or its lack of any particular brand of brilliance other than its propensity to build really tall buildings just feels wrong.

22.) Florence (2003)

I’ll admit that Florence should probably be higher on this list, but it is my list of favorite cities that I would recommend. This is a strange combination, because personal favorites are wholly subjective, while cities that you recommend should be somewhat objective. Anyway, my problem with Florence is I’m not really into art, and if you aren’t than there is little to do in Florence. If you like art, specifically really detailed portraits from the renaissance era, then you will love Florence. If you don’t, then it will be something of a bore to a disappointment.

21.) Munich (2000 & 2009)

I have a strange history with quite a few international cities, and Munich is another one. I had both my 9th and 18th Birthday in Munich (in related news, I’m pretty sure where you can find me on April 7th, 2018). The first during my initial trip to that part of the world, and the 2nd on the penultimate day of our Orchestra’s tour of Austria (we flew out of Munich). Berlin is supposedly a great, modern city, but out of all the cities I have been to in Germany, Munich is by far the best. It is incredibly modern, and getting increasingly so, with modern architecture abound. It is the only European city with a skyline that can compare to those in the US (not a crucial factor, but still nice). The downside is there is little to see and that German food isn’t that good. Either way, Munich will always be the place to spend any birthday that is a multiple of nine, and for that alone, it gets on the list.

20.) Paris (2006) 

There’s obviously a ton to see in Paris, and the city center around the Eifel Tower, on either side of River Sein, is beautiful. Paris is a probably a city that certain people would love, but I am not one of them. Of course, I liked it enough to put ahead of some damn good cities, mostly on the ridiculous amounts of things to see alone. I actually don’t remember much of my Paris trip, which is strange given its relative recency, but I do remember thinking one day in the Louvre was far from enough, and the city center of Paris containing some of the best architecture of any European city. A lot of these European cities are impacted by my like or dislike of footballers from that region (I know, that sounds stupid, and it is), and Paris gets a boost for being the hometown to Zinedine Zidane.

19 & 18.) Prague/Budapest (2000)

These two are kind of blended together for me. I visited them essentially right after each other, both 13 years ago so my memory of each is a little hazy. I remember both for mainly positives. They are both beautiful cities, with lovely rivers running through them. They have some stuff to see, but not a whole lot. They are more affordable than the major cities in Western Europe, which is a plus (but also English –at least then – is not very transferrable to there). Budapest has some great food (Goulash!), while Prague is a pilgrimage for Catholics. 

17.) Phnom Penh (2013)

I lied when I said that Da Lat was the biggest surprise of the trip. Phnom Penh was. I wasn't expecting too much from Canbodia's capital, but the mix of history, good and bad, food, nightlife and surprising urbanity made Phnom Penh a real highlight for me. I really loved Cambodian food, and it was at its best in Phnom Penh, a perfect mix of Malay and Thai cuisine. Phnom Penh itself embraced its own history, not shying away from the terrible acts of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, maintaining multiple areas in the city to pay tribute to those who died. The rest of the city pays tribute to the rich culture of Cambodia that preceded the destruction, with large pagodas in beautiful parks and nice museums. Phnom Penh also has a nice riverfront area that is really, really lively at night. Add into all of this that the currency of choice in the Dollar, and you get a really nice, underrated city.

16.) Panama City (2012)

My highest ranking Caribbean city probably could be higher, but I’ve been to a lot of great European cities so I don’t want to get crazy. I went to Panama with really low expectations, and I was blown away. It has a really impressive skyline, one that holds its own even if you forget that it is a poor latin country. It has great food of different cuisines. It has a ton to see, with the Panama Canal and the rainforest both falling into its sights. Other than Calgary (which I talked about in the last list) I don’t know if any trip I’ve gone on has been such a surprise as Panama, the Caribbean’s only truly modern city.

15.) Melbourne (2013)

Melbourne could be a Top-10 city to spend four or five days in. There is not too much to do, but enough to keep you occupied. If you like sports, which I do, then it is even better. Melbourne tries to lay claim to the Sporting Capital of the World, and when you mix together one of Tennis' four main tournaments with the 2nd most famous Cricket Ground (and most famous Aussie Rules ground) in the world right next door, it is hard to argue. Melbourne's riverfront is a beautiful area, with amazing views of the city around it. It's food options are endless, with really good Asian cuisine throughout the city. The nightlife seemed nice enough. It also has some really beautiful scenery around an hour of its boundaries, with beautiful parks, wine regions and the Great Ocean Road. Add into that Philipp Island, which just hits the cutoff to be included with Melbourne, and you get a solid, Top-15 city.

14.) Tokyo (2013)

As a tourist, I don't care what the work and life culture are of the people in the city, and good thing, because if I did I may hate Tokyo. To see people in full suit in the subway at 11 PM coming home from work is jarring. But this isn't about any of that, it is about Tokyo the city, and it is a really fabulous metropolis. Tokyo is sprawling, in a way that makes New York seem small. There are really bustling regions like Shinjuku, really fun late night spots like Roppongi. There is a ton to see, and great food options. The food may be more corporate than traditional and homestyle in Tokyo, but that isn't all bad. The biggest complaint with Tokyo is just the size. It is so big that it is tiring to navigate at times, getting from one end to the other. Even with the reliability and the local JR Train lines, it takes time to get around. Good thing that most regions have enough to do to spend half a day there anyway. One last point, I thought Times Square was bright, until I went to Ginza.

13.) Vienna (2000 & 2009)

The 2nd time I went to Vienna was on my high school’s Orchestra’s tour of Austria during my Senior year, and much of my high ranking for Vienna is based on that trip. There is a ton of history in Vienna, with the music scene being located there (Mozart and Beethoven’s houses), with the adjoining arts scene with a bevy of theatres. If you like classical music, then Vienna is heaven. I am including the adorable little town of …… where we performed, which was half an hour outside Vienna. The best part of Vienna is how modern it is. The city center has some of the largest streets and public squares of anywhere in Europe, with grand architecture all around. The food isn’t great, but it is no worse than Germany and Switzerland, and Austria is generally less expensive. It took a second trip to get acclimated with Vienna’s charms, but they are there, and plentiful.

12.) Bangkok (2003 & 2013)

Here’s the gist of what I remember from Bangkok: nice Wats to see, incredible food, up all night, eating all the time. Bangkok is a food-lover’s paradise, especially for those who like Thai food. Bangkok is also close to areas where you can do all those Asia type things like ride elephants and see the jungle. The weather is surprisingly decent for a city in Southeast Asia, and from what I remember it is pretty easy to navigate. My thoughts regarding Bangkok have indeed changed with my one-plus day visit. The city is better than I remembered, with sprawling malls, an advanced metro system, and new urban centers. The weather isn’t quite as good, as it is still hard to get to different parts of the city, but the city center of Bangkok is about as good as any I’ve seen in Asia.

11.) Goa (2011 & 2013)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, my initial ranking of Goa was a little ridiculous. It was built off of an admittedly awesome trip to Goa in 2011, but that was a perfect storm. We were staying in the best part of Goa for a first timer who loves food on beaches at 2 AM. I was fresh off of an alcohol cleanse (which of course came after the opposite of an alcohol cleanse), and was greeted with $0.50 beer. Goa still has all those things, but I quickly realized upon my second visit that the area of Goa you stay in makes a huge difference. Stay too far South and you get isolated beaches, which I am sure are nice to some, but they don't have the same nightlife and food options littering the beach. Instead, they have litter littering the beach. Stay in the right part of Goa and it is amazing, the wrong part and it is merely OK. Still, it is unlike anything else in India, and for that it will always be in my part.

10.) London (1999, 2000 & 2010)

I probably should just go to London more, because both my Dad and my Sister, who lived there, swear by London as an incredible city. But again, I’m not ranking this by how livable they are, but how good they are as tourist destinations. London definitely has enough to see, including the nicely compact Royal stuff (palace, parliament, other stuff), and a neatly packed city center (West End, Trafalgar Square, other stuff I’m forgetting), but it is a little too big. It’s subway system is clean, but doesn’t have the expansiveness that it needs (something I give huge credit to the NYC Subway System for, no matter how dirty it is). Of course, it is damn expensive, and the weather is mostly lousy. It may get better with more trips, but I think London is too big for its own good, and a little too confused, as it tries to be both Rome and New York.

9.) Kyoto (2013)

Kyoto is the 3rd biggest City in Japan, but resembles so little of Tokyo (the biggest city) that makes it seem like a different country. Sure, the food options and the bustle is still there, but Kyoto, in some ways, is like a supersized Siem Reap. The real highlight of Kyoto is the ridiculous amounts of Temples and historical Japanese buildings. All of these are encircling the downtown area of Kyoto. Of course, that downtown is quite large, with beautiful malls, tall buildings with summer beer gardens (umlimited beer buffets for $30) and plentiful up-scale food options. Kyoto even has the most expansive Geisha area of Japan. Kyoto is the perfect city to experience what people's idea of Japan is, temples and pagodas and sushi, oh my!

8.) Rome (2003)

Speaking of Rome, history’s most famous city checks in next. I haven’t spent any time in Rome as an adult, but I don’t think Rome is the type of city that would change much from an adult’s perspective. It is good for its history and sites first, and if you like Italian cuisine, the food second. If you include the Vatican, and as a Catholic I do, in Rome, then there is even more to see, as you have two different parts of history, the formation of the Catholic Church in the awe-inspiring Vatican grounds near and inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Roman history which is very well kept up. I can’t remember how their public transport was, and we went in December, so the weather was bad, but I don’t think it is a very big city. And then there is that food. I don’t want personal biases like my ambivalence towards Italian food to sway this. Many do like Italian food, and the city is even better for those people. That said, what hurts Rome in my book is I think it is too dependent on the sites, and if you aren’t there on a religious pilgrimage, I can’t imagine the allure of going to Rome more than once.

7.) Athens (2010)

So Athens is very much like its historical partner, Rome, with a few less sites, a lot less crowds, less expensive, and with better weather. So does that whole equation spit out a better city? In my mind, it does. Part of this has to do with visiting Athens at the perfect time (19, during March) and Rome not (13, during December), but Athens has it all. It has a lot to see, but not so much that sightseeing takes over the trip. It has a city that is hard to navigate by car and by walking, but has an adequate subway system. It has excellent food, and a great environment that bursts with fun and enjoyment. Just a grand old time in Athens, as I’m sure it was 2,500 years ago.

6.) Singapore (2012 & 2013)

Singapore is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed. There is no city any cleaner. There is no city as tightly situated while having enough external attractions. There is no city better built for a short stay. What doesn’t Singapore have? It has a theme park for kids. A bird park (highly recommended) and a night safari for kids and adults. It has a brand new casino for adults. It has a centralized bar/pub/club area near the waterfront. It has a preponderance of food from really, really cheap to really expensive. It has livable weather year-round. It also has the most interesting and enjoyable airport I’ve ever been to (there is a pool and gym that everyone can use for free in it!), and the cleanest, best organized subway system I’ve seen. So why is Singapore only #3? Because there isn’t that much to do, and Singapore’s not cheap enough to just sit around and eat/drink/do nothing. The sights have no historical resonance, and are replicated in other cities. Still, for a period less than a week, there is no better city to visit.

5.) Sydney (2013) 

Take the weather and leisurely attitude of Australia, combine the waterfront facade of a Chicago, add some pub and club nightlife of any city in Europe and you get Sydney, a city that combines the great aspects of every major city I have been too. It doesn't have a true culture of its own which hurts it in my mind. What I really mean by that is, much like the problems I have with England, there are too many similarities to the US. You don't really feel you are in a foreign city too much. Of course, that all changes when you walk towards the Opera House, or go to the night spots with the Australians out partying, or eat great meats. Sydney is a wonderful city, probably the most livable of any in the Top-10 (of course, it is helped by being English-Speaking), but sometimes I would sacrifice livability for uniqueness, which is why it isn't any higher.

4.) Barcelona (2007)

I really want to go to Barcelona again, because it could easily be #1. All the ingredients are there. Pristine weather. A people who don’t care about life, making the tourist experience more fun. Good beaches within reach. Stuff to see. An airport that is easily reachable and a city that is easily maneuverable. My issues with Barcelona (other than my dislike for the Blaugrana) are simple. There isn’t a lot to see in terms of history, mainly because the Catalans want their own history so they destroyed or shunned any Spanish national history. Barcelona is a nice city in terms of seeing the sights for a day or two and then doing nothing the rest of the time, but I do want more from my cities.

3.) Istanbul (2007)

Istanbul is kind of a secret still, but there is really nothing to complain about. It has a waterfront, an easily accessible city center, a lot to see (the palaces, the Bosphuros, the Red & Blue Mosques). Istanbul also has a brilliant food scene, with both Muslim and Meditterannean influences but all sorts of bases (including a ton of seafood). There is little to separate any of the cities this high in the list. My only knock on Istanbul would be the public transport is lacking without a proper Subway (this could have changed since my last visit). Overall, Istanbul combines the palate and affordability of Asia, with the energy and cleanliness of Europe, the best of both worlds.

2.) Cape Town (2013)

I've been wondering whether doing Cape Town first helped increase my perceptions of it. I was at my most curious and excited at the start of the trip. Then, I remember everything amazing about Cape Town, like the incredible scenery and breathtaking views, the active harbor and Long Street areas (for the youngsters among us), the great food of every type and the wine region to one side with the Cape of Good Hope below it. Cape Town is a special place on the total other side of the word (laterally speaking). I've really never been any place quite like it, which is why I want to go back there more than any place in the world.

1.) Madrid (2001 & 2010)

I’ll never forget Madrid. It was where I turned 10 years old, in April of 2001. It was where I saw my first naked woman in real life, as I saw two nude woman near the pool in Madrid (given my age and their age, this wasn’t a good thing). It was where I first traveled alone, and where I learned the inherent joy of visiting a place a 2nd time. Barcelona might be more ‘fun’, but I can’t think of a place that combines everything I want from a city more than Madrid. Madrid has a dependable airport, and a dependable subway system. More than that, the city is small enough in its center that you can easily walk from the Prado side on the East, to the Palace on the West and not break a sweat. It has some of Spain’s best museums. There is more than enough to see. And, of course, you are still very much in Spain. It isn’t as relaxed as Barcelona, but is just as Spanish, with open squares, easy food and drink,  a lot of youngsters (and a lively area for them at night). This wasn’t a criteria, but a lot of people speak English there to boot. Madrid is basically a perfect city. Small enough to walk, with enough sites to not get bored, enough food to not go hungry, and a relaxed, but not too relaxed nature that you won’t ever get tired of doing nothing for an afternoon or two.

My Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5-10

Another interesting, heart-pounding, tense and taut Breaking Bad episode. I can't believe there are only six episodes left of this epic. There are so many unanswered questions and so little time left. I have full faith in Vince Gilligan and Co. to make it all worthwhile, and I can't wait to get there.

  • So far, this season has been about confrontations. Each of the first two episodes have been filled most of the time with one-on-one confrontations. First was Jesse and Walt, with Walt pleading to Jesse to believe his lie that he didn't kill Mike. Then was Walt and Hank, and now the second episode gives way to the other adult in the White family holding her ground against Hank and then Marie. As amazing as the Walt/Hank confrontation was last week, the diner conversation between Hank and Skylar was absolutely perfect. It was so incredibly tense, perfectly acted and staged. I could just see them both calculating what each other knows and what they don't. It is also amazing how many of Walt's bad qualities Skylar has picked up, like the quick calculating ability, the quick-thinking to scream out 'Am I Under Arrest' to get rid of Hank, and then the what could be false-tears in front of Marie. Skylar didn't take Hank's out, she wants to ride this through with Walt.
  • The Marie and Skylar confrontation was far louder and emotional, and despite the fact I should of known, it seemed so jarring to see just how awful Skylar was in her silence towards Hank and Marie. Then, to see Marie try to steal the baby, which was such an great moment, a perfect impromptu idea by Marie. I also loved the juxtaposition of Skylar, who so many times tried to steal her two kids away from the 'monster' that was Walt, having to plead with Marie to return her child from her. Just her face realizing that 'I am a monster, too'.
  • I don't think I'm too much of a fan of Jesse's spiral into a guilt-ridden mess. Aaron Paul is a brilliant actor and he is selling it as much as he can, but Jesse is such a better character when he can, you know, speak words. Jesse has gone through this before, namely in early Season 3 after Jane dies in late Season 2. I wasn't a fan of it then and I am not now. I've gone past the idea of any more Jesse/Walt capers, and I will have to live with the fact that the 'Great Train Robbery' is the last one I will ever see, but I don't like the idea of Jesse being a psychotic, robin-hood.
  • Of course, that doesn't mean I don't want to know if Jesse flips on Walt to Hank. As Hank said, Jesse hates Hank. Jesse's monologue about ruining Hank forever, making him give all his money to Jesse forever, ending with turning him into a 'little bitch' is one of my favorite Breaking Bad moments. Jesse won't forget that. Jesse does hate Hank, but does he hate Walt more at this point. Personally, I think Jesse just fears Walt, but doesn't hate him like the way Tio Salamanca hated Gus (forcing him to turn on Gus to help Walt, who he hated even less). Jesse knows that Walt has pretty much killed every person who has stood in his way, and that fear is more important than anything else. Clearly Heisenberg's identity is known, and it is an easy link to say that Jesse fed Hank the real information, but that seems just too easy.
  • I'll get to the Lydia and Todd part of the episode. I definitely did not see that coming (although I probably should have), and the gunfire going on outside with Lydia, the mastermind, hiding in the underground meth truck, was jarring. The directing and photography of Lydia unearthing herself to see the massacre and bloodshed she just ordered was another "Holy God!" moment. One thing I don't understand (and it feeds into a larger theory I think I have) is how can Todd be the final answer? His quality of meth was 74% (as Lydia stated), which is far closer to the 68% being produced by the now deceased meth group. The Czech deal started at Walt's 90+%, so I'm assuming that a drop to 'just' 74% isn't all that much better than getting 68%. 
  • Which brings me to my theory: Lydia's real goal is to force Walt into getting back into the business, which is part of the reason why Walt goes undercover, and the reason why he is coming back with muy ammo. Lydia knows that Todd won't be able to produce good enough meth either, and that the answer is Walt and only Walt. They are trying to get Walt, and Walt goes away. In the end, Walt returns with guns in tact to take on Lydia, Todd and her gang of neo-nazis. 
Once again, it is amazing how good this show is. It is almost a different show from where it started. The only thing that stayed the same is the tone and direction. Unbelievable. Only six more to go!

Monday, August 12, 2013

My Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5-09

So, Breaking Bad came back last night for its 8th to last episode. I'm already dreading the show reaching its conclusion. Breaking Bad is by far the best TV I've watched while it is going on. In my personal rankings, it isn't quite 'The Wire' but is about as close as any show probably will ever be for me. They do multiple things better than 'The Wire', like cinematography and suspense, but it can't match 'The Wire' in much of anything else. Not a huge knock, really. Anyway, I started watching Breaking Bad late in Season 2, after one of Alan Sepinwall's review headers called it the Best Show on Television. I quickly caught up, and watched the last two episodes of Season 2 live. That seems like a lifetime ago. It really was. Anyway, here are some brief thoughts on the premier of the 2nd Half of Season 5.

  • To me, the biggest surprise of the episode was the last scene, with Walt and Hank having their confrontation in the first episode. I was expecting it in about Episode 3, but I guess there isn't too much time to waste. As for the scene, it was brilliantly staged. Right until Walt pulled out the bug, I really was not expecting the confrontation to come. The calculated dialogue and temperment of both Hank and Walt was perfect. Each trying to figure out how much the other one knew. Walt's plea for silent forgiveness, his plea to Hank to help not embarrass a dying man. All of it felt so real. I could not have imagined the first confrontation between Hank and Heisenberg going any better than that.
  • Of course, this leaves a few questions of what will happen from now until the 'Hello, Carol' moment from the pre-credit scene. We now that Walt's real identity has been found out. We don't know how much, since he is still free well after the police locked up his house, but enough is known that there is a spray-painted Heisenberg on the wall. Considering the hair that adorns Walt's head, it is fair to say he is in quite good shape on the cancer front, off Chemo and possibly in remission. So either he was saved by a miracle, or Walt's plea to Hank was just to by time and another one of his bald-faced lies.
  • Speaking of bald-faced lies, that scene with Hank and Jesse, and Jesse silently, terrifyingly accepting Walter's lie, knowing it is a lie, was unbelievable. I do miss the more congenial Walt and Jesse scenes, but ever since Todd shot that boy, we haven't gotten one and probably won't again. The fun scenes were fun, but these are incredible. Jesse barely said ten sentences in this episode, but Aaron Paul conveyed his emotions just perfectly.
  • The biggest wild card for me that was shown in that episode is the brief Lydia appearance. Walt, for once, didn't seem the least bit interested in going back, even when Lydia told him that the reputation of his once blue-as-the-sky meth was being tainted. The appeal to Walt's pride did not even work. Now, since Walt knows Hank is on to him, I can't see him going back again. The one area that I can see Lydia helping is to help Walt beat Hank, but her appearance definitley raised more questions that a scene that short should have.
  • Breaking Bad remains extremely confident of itself and its space, which I love so much. They still are confident enough to be as inventive and creative with their camera work as ever, using close-up frame shots of cockroaches rummaging around dirt and a 30-second skateboard scene from a POV camera. Also, they're confident enough to keep what was, I'm guessing, a 90-second monologue of Badger explaining his fan-fiction Star Trek world. The scene was absolutely hilarious, but is the type of thing that few shows can get away with. Even Parks and Rec shortened Patton Oswalt's similar Star Wars monologue to about 30 seconds on the show. Breaking Bad has all the balls of its main character.
  • Finally, what is Hank's next move. On one side, this is the case of his life, the case he's been on for the entire length of the show. He was one of the few who thought Gus wasn't 'Heisenberg', that it was someone else. He was finally proven right, he knows who the meth mastermind is. Yet, he is tied by the fact that if he admits that his own brother-in-law is the wanted 'Heisenberg', his career is effectively over (much like his previous boss's was when Gus was revealed to be a meth tycoon). I love these little internal battles inside Breaking Bad. Every move for Hank is a bad one. Every move for all of the characters seems like the wrong one. 
 I already can't wait for next Sunday.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nadal - The Most Important Player

Imagine a world without Rafael Nadal. It isn't too hard, since on multiple occasions over the past five years we have had such a world. Tennis moved on. Andy Murray rose up and finally won a major when Nadal removed himself from the tennis world after the shock 2nd round loss to Lukas Rosol in last year's Wimbledon. It may well happen again, because Nadal always seems to be one slide, one heavy moment, one wrong turn away from another injury. It will probably happen over the next 18 months. Rafael Nadal is not long for this tennis world. Thankfully he was here, because no one, not even Federer, has meant more to tennis than Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal is what tied the Federer era to the Djokovic era (or Murray, or Big Four) together, he was what helped tennis through a time where it could have become a nothing sport. Much through 2004-2007, Federer was so dominant, so ridiculously good that tennis wasn't an alltogether dramatic sport. Federer was rarely challenged, winning 11 of the 16 majors during that span. Only one man could get him, only one man could add any sort of drama to the tennis world. A common what if in tennis is what if Federer never came along, how the careers of Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin, who were Federer's true age-appropriate contemporaries, would have turned out differently. Of course, what if Rafael Nadal never came along?

How many majors would Roger Federer have today. He's lost six major finals and one more semifinal to Nadal over his career, and since the guy who Rafael Nadal beat in the match following his 2005 French Open semifinal win was named Mariano Puerta, we can reasonably assert that Nadal directly cost Federer 7 majors, putting Fed at 24 (double the guy who is currently at #3 all-time). Federer could have won a silly 11 in a row. Tennis may never have recovered from a guy so dominant. This isn't Golf, where Tiger's dominance carried that sport. A Federer dynasty of such endless dominance probably would not have served tennis well.

Then let's look at how Nadal has impacted the rest of the sport. He changed the way tennis was played even more than Federer did, with Nadal's once peerless strength and conditioning. Back in the sleeveless and cargo-pants days of Nadal's career, there was no one faster, no one stronger and no one who could run as endlessly as Nadal. This physical advantage forced Novak Djokovic to redidicate himself to conditioning, and Andy Murray, who lost a terribly one-sided Quarterfinal against Nadal at Wimbledon 2008, to fitness. He's helped the same people who have become his biggest rivals. Rafael Nadal has changed the way tennis is played, changed the way the sport is viewed.

Rafael Nadal has been crucial to the development of tennis as a mainstream sport because of his presence in some of the greatest matches of the past ten years, let alone all-time in some cases. He's been involved in a match considered by many to be the greatest of all time, with his stirring five-set win over Roger Federer at Wimbledon 2008. He just played what some consider to be the best clay-court match with his five-set win over Novak Djokovic at the French Open. He played what was the longest Men's final of all time, another five set thriller against Novak Djokovic at the 2012 Australian Open (he did lose that one). His semifinal win over Fernando Verdasco at the 2009 Australian Open, and the Final against Federer that followed are beloved matches, albeit ones remembered more by tennis fans than the other. For a man with a style many tennis fans - mostly all Nadal haters - call 'boring', no one has been involved in more all-time classic matches.

Rafael Nadal, arguably, is one-half of the two of the five best rivalries in the history of men's tennis. Despite the, because of age increasingly, one-sided nature of the Federer-Nadal rivalry, it is probably the most important, meaningful and exciting rivalry of All-Time. Here you have two players who are basically pure opposites. One a clean-cut Swiss master, the other a brash, cargo-short wearing, fist-pumping gym rat from Spain (the Nadal description would, purposefully, change over time as he got older). One was a righty with a pure one-hand backhand, the other a lefty with a powerful, if erratic, two-hand backhand. One loved quick points, the other long points. It would be a lie to say Nadal brought out the best in Federer, and in recent years, he has started bringing out the worst as they've played some terribly one-sided, boring affairs the last few years. However, Nadal brought out the human in Federer. No one saw Federer struggle back in 2005-2008, but Nadal made Federer fight, Nadal made Federer sweat. Nadal made Federer fight.

Nadal does bring out the best in Djokovic, something he did even before Novak turned into a superman in 2011 (a level of play he, unsurprisingly, has failed to reach since). The pair are one match away from tying John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl for most matches against each other, with Nadal and Djokovic having played 36. Nadal leads 21-15, but so many of the games have been classics. Even outside the slams, they've played some utterly amazing Masters 100 matches, like Nadal's three hour 3-6 7-6 7-6 match in Madrid in 2009, a match both cite as ruining the rest of their years because of how exhausting it was. Even the match this past weekend at Montreal, a 6-4 3-6 7-6 win for Nadal, was another three-set classic. Nadal-Djokovic is a rivalry that should get more play. It will never beat Nadal-Federer in terms of impact, but should exceed it in pure numbers of high-quality matches.

Tennis needed Rafael Nadal to help save it from a tyrannical existence where Federer won everything (instead of him in the end winning everything not on clay). Tennis needed Rafael Nadal to force Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray (who still has yet to beat Rafael Nadal in a slam match since 2010, losing their last four meetings) to be better. Tennis needed Rafael Nadal to kill the boring serve-and-volley era once and for all. There is no knowing how many more years Rafa Nadal will be able to play. I'll cherish him, but I'm a huge Rafael Nadal fan. I just wish more fans would. Nadal has a giant fanbase, second to only Federer's, but while the Federer fans generally value his brilliance (none more so than Federer himself, who recently told interviewers that despite his less than stellar record against Rafa, misses the large matches they played against each other), Djokovic fans don't, and many other fans dislike him for various reasons. He's too boring, he's too OCD (which is true), he hams up his injuries. All those things are fine, but value him for what he did for tennis. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Decade (and a year) of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Championship Games, Pt. 2

Tier IV – The Great Games

8.) 2008 AFC Championship – (A6) Ravens 14 @ (A2) Steelers 23

Review: In the first year of the newly-revived Steelers-Ravens rivalry, the Steelers beat the Ravens for a 3rd time after beating them 23-20 in Heinz and then 13-9 in a smashmouth game at M&T Bank capped with a 92-yard TD drive by Ben. This one wasn’t as close, but the hits were just as many. It started out in (smashmouth) style with two Ravens needing medical attention after the opening kickoff. It featured sacks by the usuals: Suggs, Woodley, Ngata, Polamalu, and great play by everyone around on both defenses. Every score seemed like a minor miracle. Any first down for the Ravens (198 yards in the game) seemed like a large miracle. The Steelers led 13-0 and 16-7, but both leads were answered with Ravens’ TD runs by Willis McGahee, keeping the Ravens in a game they were mostly outclassed in by a defense that was just 5% better. Flacco played like a rookie in a Conference Title Game, throwing three interceptions and going just 13-30, but timely red-zone defense kept the Ravens in the game. In the end, it ended the way any Ravens-Steelers slugfest should, with a dramatic pick-6 as the Ravens were driving for a potential game-winning field goal. Troy Polamalu did the honors, cutting in front of a Flacco pass and weaving his way to the house for the capper in a hard-hitting night in Heinz Field. 

Interesting/Memorable Play: Steelers 2nd round bust Limas Sweed had an interesting two plays. First, he dropped a walk-in touchdown and then, in what is mostly seen as an act of cowardly fright, faked being hurt so he could curry up some sympathy. Two plays later, he laid out Frank Walker with a massive, Hines-Ward-ian block.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The Steelers first touchdown came courtesy of one of the strangest plays you will ever see. Ben Roethlisberger, like he does, escaped a sack and spun and heaved a ball downfield off-balance. The Raven defender overran the ball, and Holmes came back and caught it, and then weaved his way for a 62-yard touchdown. The play really should have been a sack or an interception, but somehow, someway, Santonio Holmes did what he did constantly in the 2008 postseason.

7.) 2008 NFC Championship – (N6) Eagles 25 @ (N4) Cardinals 31

Review: The Colts comeback from 21-3 down in a game still to come on this list was as memorable as any in recent memory, but here, the Eagles came back from a 24-6 halftime deficit on the road and took a 25-24 lead after a 62-yard TD by DeSean Jackson. Too bad for the Eagles, though, as Kurt Warner and the Cardinals put together their only drive of note in the 2nd half just in time, with a 7:40 long, 14-play march to retake the lead for good. The drive featured a 4th and 1 pitch-out to Tim Hightower at midfield and a 3rd and Goal screen pass for a TD to Hightower again. The game itself was a wild affair, with Larry Fitzgerald scoring three 1st half TDs, including one on a end-around pitchback that I alluded to back in the description of the 2005 Wild Card Game between the Steelers and Bengals. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles answered with three straight TD drives of their own in the 2nd. In what was the final NFC Championship for both quarterbacks, McNabb was slightly erratic at times, but threw for 375 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT, while Warner was brilliant, going 21-28 for 279 yards and 4 tds with no picks. Fitz, DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis and Brent Celek all had big games. It was a nice shootout that was never really boring (even as the Cards took that 24-6 lead). A nice precursor to the epic shootout that would be in that stadium 51 weeks later.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game really turned on one brilliant pass. It was the Eagles 2nd drive of the 2nd half (after a fumble and then a Cardinals punt), and with 6:41 remaining in the quarter, still down 24-6, the Eagles faced a 3rd and 18 from their own 31. In what may have been his best pass as an Eagle, McNabb perfectly shot a 50-yard pass to Kevin Curtis, which changed the game completely. If the Eagles won, it might be remembered as one of the biggest plays of the 2000s.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: The Game set a couple records that aren’t exactly good ones. This game marked the first time that both Title Game participants won fewer than 10 games (not to mention the first time since the 2002 AFC Title Game where neither team won 12 or more games), with the Cardinals going 9-7 and the Eagles going 9-6-1. It also marked the lowest combined seeds for Title Game opponents, with the Cardinals being the NFC’s 4th seed and the Eagles the 6th.

6.) 2012 NFC Championship - (N2) 49ers 28 @ (N1) Falcons 24

Review: The 49ers did something amazing in this game. No, it wasn't just coming back from 17-0 on the road to win a Championship Game. That was incredible. What was better was doing it without really stopping the Falcons more than twice. The Falcons punted just twice in the game, and only once was in the half. Matt Ryan turned the ball over twice during the 2nd half, where once was when his receiver slipped and the other was a terrible snap. The 49ers, of course, played quite well on offense themselves, capitalizing on a soft run defense with a great game from Frank Gore, who had 90 yards on 21 carries with two TDs. The Falcons kept Kaepernick in the pocket, but he had his best game throwing of any in the playoffs, going 16-21 for 233 yards and a TD with no INTs. Of course, this wasn't close to Matt Ryan, who went 30-42 for 396 yards with three TDs and one pick. Matt Ryan's incredible statline just underscores what a strange comeback this was for the 49ers, who played terrible defense all day. The game actually mirrored the Super Bowl in that way, with the losing team having a large advantage in yardage (the Falcons outgained the 49ers by 104), but the 49ers, like the Ravens did to them, stopped the Falcons in the red zone with a controversial non-call on 4th down. It is hard to for 49ers fans to complain about the Super Bowl since they saw that exact same story play out two weeks earlier. It didn't stop them from complaining, but it happened.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Another example of how well the Falcons played in a losing effort: against a top pass defense, all three of the Falcons main weapons went off. Julio Jones was the star with 11 catches for 182 yards and two TDs. Of course, Roddy White chipped in with 100 yards on 7 catches, and Gonzalez had 78 yards on 8 catches with a TD.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Another example of how the Falcons stopped the Falcons, and not the 49ers, was what happened a handful of plays before their incomplete on 4th down. Throwing from the 50 yard line, Ryan found Harry Douglas wide open on a wheel route near the 30, with absolutely no one inbetween him and the end zone. What did Douglas do? Fall down trying to catch the well thrown ball and turn a sure TD into a 22 yard gain.

5.) 2011 AFC Championship – (A2) Ravens 20 @ (A1) Patriots 23

Review: This game probably would go in the higher section if either Lee Evans gets that 2nd foot down in time (or holds onto the ball, but if he got the foot down a little sooner what Sterling Moore does becomes irrelevant) or Billy Cundiff makes his kick and it went overtime. Instead, we got merely a great game between the AFC’s best offense and best defense in 2011. The Ravens used every ounce of resourcefulness that they had to stay with the Pats, three times holding the Patriots to field goals and twice picking off Tom Brady (including a sweet pick that Bernard Pollard tipped to Jimmy Smith off of a ridiculously dumb deep pass by Brady to Matthew Slater). Joe Flacco, after a useless 1st quarter, got into a rhythm, and ended up with over 300 yards, largely to both Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin had huge big days. In the end, the Patriots did what they used to do in 2001-2006, win a close game where they were possibly outplayed. The Patriots offense was able to run the ball better than what most would have expected, but their passing game was limited by a Ravens defense that tackled exceptionally well, making sure. The game featured everything, including a classic Brady drive (although it came quite early in the 4th) which ended with a Brady 4th and 1 QB-sneak for the game-winning touchdown, a weird matchup where the Patriots tried covering Anquan Boldin with Julian Edelman on their final drive, and in the end, some kicker-related luck bailing the Patriots out.. If not for that last part of that last sentence, this could have been the 1st of two classics on the best title game day in recent history.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Right before the Ravens last drive, the Patriots were in almost the exact same position they were in five yearas earlier. The Patriots had the ball with 4 minutes to go needing one first down to effectively ice the game. Just like last time, they couldn’t get it. Just like last time, it was a great safety defensing a pass on 3rd and 4. Last time it was Bob Sanders nearly pick-sixing Brady, here it was Ed Reed playing great coverage on Aaron Hernandez. Sad the similarities didn’t perfectly continue in the ensuing drives.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: After the game, Jim Nantz, before letting Tom Brady speak, rhapsed poetic about Brady being the 2nd QB to make it to 5 Super Bowls and basically stopped just short of giving Tommy a Happy Ending. Then, in one of my few favorite Brady moments, Tommy took the mike and immediately debunked Nantz’s shit, saying “I played like crap today.”

Interesting/Memorable Moment 2: One of the few memorable images of the end of the game situation that I like to see is that beautiful picture of Vince Wilfork (who played stellar) with his helmet off and steam rising from the top off his head.

Tier V – The Epics

4.) 2011 NFC Championship – (N4) Giants 20 @ (N2) 49ers 23 (OT)

Review: Other than Lambeau Field, no stadium in the NFL has as much 'mystique and aura' as Candlestick Park, and with the new stadium coming soon, this could easily be the last playoff game played in the 'Stick, and damn was it great. As the rain slowly went away, the game become more and more special, a truly awesome spectacle of defensive football played in a sparkling, dark night by the Bay. Both defenses dominated, with the Giants sacking Smith three times, and the 49ers repaying the favor six times. Justin Smith absolutely killed David Baas, Chris Snee and Kevin Booth. It was just staggering watching Eli Manning drop back 64 times and getting hit repeatedly, but keeping his team in the game just enough. For the 49ers, the story was, once again, Vernon Davis, who had three catches for 112 yards and a pair of scores. Alex Smith returned to mostly what we think of Alex Smith, going 12-26, but much of that has to do with the insane pressure he faced, and the incredible inability of any of his receivers to get open (The 49er receivers combined for one catch for three yards). Still, with the two Davis TDs (one catch and run for 72 yards and one 27-yard deep post), they led 14-10 midway through the 4th quarter. The 49ers forced a Giants' three-and-out capped with an Aldon Smith sack, when Kyle Williams went back to punt. Then, his name forever became etched in San Fran history right next to Roger Craig (at least when it comes to fumbling), as the punt bounced off of his knee. The Giants recovered, and six plays later, Manning fired a 17-yard TD to Manningham on 3rd and 15. The 49ers then proceeded to dominate the Giants offense the rest of the day, sacking Manning two more times, but only put up a field goal to tie the game. They almost got their fumble (in what would have been eerily similar to the Craig fumble scenario), but Bradshaw's fumble was ruled dead as forward progress was stopped. Then, to cap off this play was Act III: OT. The new rules were, again, deemed unnecessary, as both teams couldn't get anything going. But after the Giants second-punt of OT (set up by a Ahmad Brooks sack), Kyle Williams again fumbled, and the Giants recovered. The only drama left was Lawrence Tynes, who has a history of both huge makes and bad misses, but he nailed his 2nd NFC Championship Winning Field Goal in OT in 5 years, ending a game that no team deserved to lose.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Kyle Williams (who I learned later is the son of White Sox GM Kenny Williams) was only the main returner for the 49ers because Ted Ginn Jr. was hurt in the Saints game, and I'm sure he, more than anyone, would've wanted Ginn to play. That said, it was his 40-yard kick-off return that set up the 49ers at the 50 for their game-tying field goal in the 4th quarter.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Before the OT coin-toss, the game ref does a little meet-and-great with the players, telling the rules, giving them the timeout and challenge scenarios, and all that generic garbage. Well, Ed Hochuli decided that instead of being rote, he would take the time to recite Shakespeare, giving us a 1 minute 11 second long introduction to OT. The best part of the moment was the audible groan that came on the crowd at about the 0:40 mark of the speech.

3.) 2009 NFC Championship – (N2) Vikings 28 @ (N1) Saints 31 (OT)

Review: Well, what became maybe the 2nd most famous Championship Game of this era, has now become easily the most infamous. Truthfully, my opinion of this classic is skewed a little because of the events of 'BountyGate', but for this, I will try to forget what I now know. The game itself was a case of the Vikings doing everything in their power to both win and lose the game at the same time. It was a study in drama, with both teams having many moments where their fans must have felt it was all doomed. The 1st half was mostly normal, with the teams trading touchdowns, as the Vikings opened the game with back-to-back TD drives capped off by a 18-yard run by Peterson and a touchdown toss to Sidney Rice. The Saints got their two with a screen pass for 38-yards to Pierre Thomas and another TD pass to Devery Henderson. Then, on a seemingly innocous punt right before the half, the game became a greek tragedy. Reggie Bush muffed a punt. That set off a string of unlikely, and for most Minnesotans, harrowing events. Set up at the 5-yard line, the Vikings gave the ball right back as Favre and Peterson screwed up a handoff. The 2nd half was more of the same, with the Vikings thoroughly dominating play, outgaining the Saints 235-48 in the 2nd half. Yes, you read those numbers right. The more shocking side was the Vikings defense just swallowing up the Saints, forcing four three-and-outs in the Saints 6 possessions in the 2nd half. The Vikings themselves moved the ball right down the field on all but one of their six 2nd half drives, but other than two touchdowns on angry Peterson runs, they ended in infamy. Four 2nd half turnovers, including a fumble by Bernard Berrian at the Saints 5 yard line, and a fumble by Percy Harvin at the Vikings 10, and a interception by Brett Favre (on a play that should've been called roughing the passer) all played a part in the Vikings inability to win a game they absolutely deserved to. They still had a chance, though. After giving their win away, they had a chance to still win, despite losing the turnover battle four to one. On their last drive, the Vikings drove down to the Saints 33 with over a minute to go, when their true meltdown occurred. First, came a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty, and then, on 3rd and 15 and the prospect of a 56-yard field goal, Favre rolled out and tried to make a play, but Tracy Porter undercut the route and picked it off. To OT it went, and a Saints drive that could've ended twice, but after a bad pass interference call gave the Saints a 1st and 10 at the Vikings 29, it was all over. Garrett Hartley nailed the 40-yarder to give the Saints a win they didn't really deserve, but considering the Vikings gave it away, it wasn't as if the Vikings deserved it any more.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Why did the Saints OT drive have controversy? First, on a 4th and 1 jump rush by Pierre Thomas, the ball appeared to be dislodged for Thomas's arm. He did 'recover' the ball, but by then he was back behind the yard line that he needed to get to. A case could be made it should've been a turnover on downs. Two plays before that, Brees (who was only 17-31 on the day - again, just a bad game for the Saitns offense) overshot Colston, but Ben Leber knocked the ball out of Asher Allen's hands. Even in OT, the Vikings had their chances.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: That Favre interception resulted in over-criticism for Favre, because had he just thrown it away, it was still a 56-yard field goal, but I can understand why Favre didn't try to run the ball. He had been battered all day. BountyGate or not, it was a beating that elicited a response of "how mean the Saints are" from my Mom. Favre's ankle resembled a misshapen plum after the game. They beat him down, yet he still went 28-46 for 310 yards. It was, in all honesty, the last great game of Favre's career.

Tier VI - The Games that Defined the Decade

2.) 2007 NFC Championship – (N5) Giants 23 @ (N2) Packers 20 (OT)

Review: For one night, it seemed like nowhere in the world mattered as much as Green Bay, Wisconsin. During a asininely cold night in Green Bay (the temperature stayed steady between -1 and -3 degree, with the wind chill between -20 and -23) the Giants and Packers played out a true epic. The Giants set the tone early, with a field goal march to open the game, highlighted with Brandon Jacobs running over Charles Woodson, a pointed statement to the Packers that this would still be a highly physical fight despite the frozen conditions. The Giants added another field goal on a drive that, much like the rest of the game, featured a lot of Plaxico Burress. Matched up against bump-and-run extraordinaire Al Harris, Burress abused the pro-bowler, with 9 catches and 110 yards in the first half alone. The Packers offense was largely stagnant, but scored a dramatic 90-yard touchdown from Favre to Donal Driver: the longest touchdown in Packers playoff history. Then, despite the temperature still being low enough to make it the 3rd coldest NFL playoff game ever (behind the Ice Bowl and Freezer Bowl), the game itself heated up. The Giants and Packers and Giants again drove for touchdowns in a tightly played third quarter. The Giants first TD drive was the most memorable, as they got two straight 3rd Down conversions via penalties, as Harris was called for Pass Interference, and then Nick Collins called for roughing the passer. All this set up a 4th Quarter with the Giants leading 20-17. The Packers quickly tied the game with a field goal set up by a crazy play where Favre, after eluding a sack, blindly tossed one deep and was picked off by McQuarters, only for LT Mark Tauscher to force a fumble which was recovered by the Packers. From that moment on, the Giants dominated the game, but just couldn't put the Packers away. They stoned the Packers run game (Grant 11-19 on the day), and force Packers punt after punt, but the Giants couldn't capitalize. First, midway through the quarter, Tynes pushed a 43-yarder. They traded punts before the Giants forced another Packers 3-and-out, where the craziness reached its apex. On the punt return, McQuarters was stripped, and three Packers had a good chance to recover the ball around the 50. The Packers were that close to potentially stealing the game (they were outgained on the day 377-264), but Dominik Hixon jumped on the ball. After gaining two first downs, the Giants were in position to win the game, but on the last play of regulation Tynes shanked a 38-yarder giving the Packers one more chance. The Packers did win the toss, but on Favre's final throw as a Packer, he threw behind Donal Driver and Corey Webster picked him off. Three plays later, with the Giants now facing a field goal longer than either of the two 4th Quarter misses, Coughlin called on Tynes one more time. The third time really was the charm, and Tynes just nailed the 47-yarder. The Lambeau crowd that was loud throughout fell into an eery silence. They must all have felt that they waited out four hours of an epic football game in epic weather just to see the Giants come in and end Favre's dream season, and in the end, his Packer career.

Interesting/Memorable Play: Plaxico Burress was just insane. He caught every type of pass against Harris. Quick posts, fade routes, fade stops, crossing routes, deep throws, quick outs. It was just masterful. During the game, after making his 8th catch, he went over the the Packers sideline and shouted "You Can't Cover Me! This Fucker Can't Cover Me!". And the Packers switched Woodson on him for a play, and Burress caught another one. Just an exceptional game.

Interesting/Memorable Moment: Lawrence Tynes would get his 15 minutes of fame, appearing on Dave Letterman the next week. He was, surprisingly, a good guest, quipping that after he missed the 2nd field goal he was "thinking what it would be like to live in Green Bay" in fear of what the NYC crowd would do to him.

Interesting/Memorable Moments: The cold did wreak havoc on the game, and it led to some great moments. First, was Michael Strahan's perfect speech before the game, where he stated "the past is the fucking past. This is the present. Cold is temporary, a Championship is Forever." The cold is probably best remembered, though, for what it did to Tom Coughlin's face, as he became as red and frozen as a strawberry popsicle.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Something that really helps this game was just how aesthetically beautiful. The Packers green jersey is quite brilliant, and the Giants road uniforms (despite, oddly, not featuring blue) are the better of the two. Either way, with the uniforms, the almost white field and the dark, isolating feel of Green Bay, the game itself just looked like you were watching an epic film more than a football game.

1.) 2006 AFC Championship – (A4) Patriots 34 @ (A3) Colts 38

Review: This might just go down as the most famous non-Super Bowl in the modern NFL. It was the game that best personified the Manning/Brady rivalry, as it was the first time both really played well in the same game, and that combined with a little comeback, some crazy scores and a great finish equated two the best Championship Game maybe ever. It all started out so normal for Colts fans, as the Patriots looked like the Patriots from their dynasty days, and the Colts looked like little sheep. After trading punts, the Patriots sandwiched a Colts field goal with two TDs that both featured 4th down conversions during the drive. Then, already up 14-3 midway through the 2nd, Asante Samuel picked off Manning and raced back for what looked to be a game-stopper. The Patriots compounded this dominance by sacking Manning twice on the next drive (although they nearly allowed a 97-yard TD to Marvin Harrison), and driving on their next possession inside the 20, until a little offensive-pass interference pushed that drive back. The Patriots had to punt, and the Colts put together their first real fluid drive of the game right before the half. They had to settle for a field goal, but the game was back to normal pace, and, as many Patriots would later attest, Manning had figured it out. 32 points in the 2nd Half later, that much was obvious. The Colts first scored TDs on back-to-back possessions to start the 3rd quarter, erasing the 15 point deficit in 11 minutes. The Patriots answered with a crazy scrambling TD toss after a long kick-off return by Hobbs. The Colts answered that with a TD drive that included a beautiful sideline post route to Dallas Clark. That score happened early in the 4th Quarter, which would prove to be among the most dramatic quarters in NFL history. First, the teams traded punts and then they traded field goals. The Patriots were aided by good special teams returns, but also didn't get what looked like a pass interference call which forced them to kick a field goal to make it 34-31. Then, looking at 80 yards to potentially change his whole career, with just 3:43 on teh clock, Manning threw three straight incompletions. It was Manning fulfilling so many's worst impressions, as he "failed in the clutch." Luckily for Manning, Brady and the Pats, for what would be the first time late in a close playoff game, choked harder. Needing just one first down to essentially wrap up the game, the Pats were first called for a 12-man in the huddle penalty (something completely forgotten about the game), then after two quick completions, the Pats had a 3rd and 4. Four yards away from another win against the Colts. Four yards away from beating the Colts in their own building, and a date with an eminently beatable Chicago team. The Pats went for the kill, as they spread the field and tried to hit Troy Brown on a route that he's run hundreds of times, but Sanders read it and nearly picked off Brady. Manning got one more chance to perform big in the clutch, and that he did. Against a furious pass rush, Manning completed a quick 11-yarder to Wayne, a deep post for 32 to Fletcher off his back foot and a 21-yarder to Wayne. Then, with 1st and 10 at the 11, the Colts did the most un-Colts-like thing: run three straight times, pounding it down the "physical" Pats. Addai scored on 3rd and 3, finally giving the Colts the lead. The Patriots would go as far as midfield on the next drive, but Brady finally threw a pick at a 'clutch' moment, as Marlin Jackson caught it and slid to the ground, hugging the ball. The RCA Dome exploded like never before, and the rivalry, and league in general (I'll get to this) was never the same.

Interesting/Memorable Plays: Three lineman scored touchdowns in this game. One was the Colts pulling a Belichick on the Pats, with Manning tossing a 1-yard pass to Dan Klecko, but the other two made for an eery coincidence, as both Logan Mankins and Jeff Saturday recovered fumbles by their running back in the end zone for touchdowns.

Interesting/Memorable Player: Reche Caldwell had a notoriously awful game. He had just two catches, and two infamous drops. One was a wide-open drop in the end zone. The other was more infamous, as the play started with teh Colts having only 10 guys on defense, and leaving Caldwell wide open. Caldwell furiously waved his arms trying to get Brady's attention, but never could. By the time the ball was snapped the Colts were racing over the Caldwell, but he dropped a simple catch. Of course, nothing is more memorable from Caldwell than his deer eyes.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: This was the largest comeback ever in a conference championship game, with the Colts coming down from 21-3. The Colts also set a record for most points in the 2nd Half of a Title Game, with 32. From the 2:00 Warning of the 1st to the end of the game, the Colts outscored the Pats 35-13, and outgained them 289-115.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: I'll write more about this later, but this game was arguably the game that started the NFL's paradigm shift to offense-first teams. The previous six teams to win teh Super Bowl before 2006 (Ravens, Pats, Bucs, Steelers) were all defense first teams that allowed under 300 points. Including the '06 Colts, the last six (Colts, Giants twice, Steelers, Saints, Packers) have been more mixed, with four allowing more than 300 points, including the three of the four highest totals for Super Bowl winning teams. The game also signalled the end of the defense-first Patriots that won Super Bowls. Fuming over the offenses inability to put up more points in teh 2nd half, the Pats went out and traded for Stallworth, Welker and Moss and turned into an offensive juggernaut. The modern pass-happy NFL started that night, and all because Brady couldn't complete a simple 4-yard pass to Troy Brown.

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.