Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The 10 Trips I Want to Take

10.) Brazil
My interest and desire to go to Brazil has waned slightly over time. I used to be really interested to take a river-boat down the Amazon, and probably still am, but the more I read about the dangers and ills of Brazil’s primary two ports (Rio and Sao Paulo), the less I want to go there. I still would love a trip to Brazil, to experience that fun culture, to eat their nice food, to take that river-boat trip down the Amazon and come across some exotic animals. These are all things I would still do, but when you combine the present dangers and economic crises, and the weather that I am not too much a fan of, there are a few more that have jumped where Brazil would have been had a done this a few years back.

9.) Safari Trip (Kenya/Tanzania/Botswana, etc.)
There is no specific place that I have pinpointed so I just threw three countries that I have heard good things about up there. If price were not an issue, this is probably #1, but now that I understand how much it costs to go on a good safari trip (thinking like 5-7 days), I have to be somewhat reasonable. The allure of roaming around in a jeep and tent among Elephants, Rhinos, Hippos, Giraffes and your odd Predator is obviously alluring – probably nothing would be better on this list, but knowing it cost a months salary (guessing) is less so. I do want to make a point that I know you can go for safaris that are cheaper due to being shorter or in places like South Africa / Zimbabwe – but those places are cheaper for a reason. If I’m doing a safari, I’m doing the real thing. And if I’m doing the real thing, it’ll probably have to wait a while.

8.) The Baltics
The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are next up, and I’m not sure why I want to go there totally, but everything I’ve read about the area seems great. The countries are still coming out of breaking off with the Soviet Union 25 years ago, and are making great strides to modernize themselves. I should probably make the trip rather soon because in the next 10 years or so I’m guessing the Baltic nations may start getting a bit more expensive as they continue to open up their borders to free trade and business. From what I know, they have fascinating histories both good and bad, and great food and more than that beer. It is also a very interesting area of Europe that shares some similarities with the Nordics without being as cold (or expensive).

7.) The Balkans
The Balkans are basically the South Europe version of the Baltics, so slightly warmer, slightly more Mediterranean, and slightly more compelling a trip. These are countries like Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Macedonia and on and on. The food scene is great. The culture is even better. Like the Baltics, these areas are also ex-Soviet (or in many cases, ex-Yugoslavian) and for now a bit cheap, especially compared to the rest of Europe. The Balkans, and this matters now a days, seems a bit far afield of the crises that are infiltrating Western Europe which helps as well. The Balkans are also a way to very quickly add 4-6 countries to my list, which is a nice added bonus as well as I work my way slowly up to the high double digits.

6.) Peru
Quick note: I am actually going to Peru in October/November, but for now this is still a dream. I have never been to South America. I have been to all other inhabited continents other than the one that is, ironically, the closest to North America. Peru has been a place that I would love to visit because of what I have heard of the place. The life among the high plateaus in Lima and Cusco, the brilliance that is Macchu Picchu and the rest of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, all of Peru seems great. The food is also a plus, as whatever experience I’ve had with Peruvian food has been excellent. I’m very much looking forward to popping my South American cherry with Peru later in 2016.

5.) Argentina
Along with Peru, Argentina is at the top of my list for South America. To me, Argentina is a supersized Peru, with more Andes-related stuff to do, more food to eat (Steaks!), more wine to drink (assuming I get around to liking wine by the time I visit Argentina), and more recent history to delve myself into. My parents went to Argentina in 2005 (the first time they took a trip without my Sister and me), and when NYU-Stern divided all Juniors up into three groups during our International Business class, I was put in the Singapore group instead of Buenos Aires (Barcelona was the other option). So I’ve had two close brushes with going there, but it still awaits. The culture of Argentina is really drawing, as is the chance to roam the plains and visit Iguazu Falls and the rest.

4.) China

And of course, China has to be on this list. The problem with countries like China are that their massive size would necessitate 2-3 trips to see it all, but even a chance to see Beijing, Shanghai, the Yellow River, maybe some of the secondary cities is quite the itenirary. Of course we add to that the Great Wall, the Terracotta soldiers, the highlands and everything else. China of course has the other aspects like the cuisine. I have so often heard how real Chinese food from China is so different than what we get in the US, and I'm sure that is true and ready to experience what the real Chinese food is like. It is a fascinating, growing culture that gets more impressive each year, and I really can't wait to experience it sometime.

3.) Egypt
I had a near miss in going to Egypt, as when I first planned my around the world trip in 2013, my initial first destination was Egypt. About three weeks before leaving, I switched it to South Africa after being a little concerned of the danger at the time. The danger has increased since – though Egypt has been pretty calm in recent years. I would still love to go there as few places, apart from the one to come next, can match Egypt in terms of history. I want few things more than to cruise down the Nile, to go to the ruins in Alexandria, to visit the Pyramids in Giza and the Sphinx and the Valley of the Kings and everything else. Add to that a good cuisine and a great culture beyond its history and few places see so alluring as Egpyt to travel to. Technically I did fly through Egypt, and ideally when I get around to going there I wouldn’t take Egyptair again, but I still want to leave the confines of Cairo airport and see what treasures of the Ancient Egyptians still exist.
2.) Israel

Being a Catholic, probably no place has more historical draw to it than Israel, what with it being the birthplace of the religion and housing the site of basically every major event in the history of the religion as well. Beyond the historical significance and sites, there is a lot to see with the other two religions who see this place as a living memorial and even things like the Dead Sea. I honestly have no idea what the food scene is like in Israel, nor do I know a lot about the culture outside of the history and sightseeing, but there is no place I would rather go to sightsee than Israel.

1.) Russia
I almost went to Russia on an High School Orchestra trip in 2007, and while it would have been memorable, I am kind of glad I can go for the first time as an adult. Russia is a fascinating place for me. The people, the history, the beauty of the country is forever understood, hidden behind the rough exterior presence that clouds the country. My parents have been to Russia and raved about it, from the incredible museums and artifacts and culture. Of course, the drinking aspect seems nice as well. Russia also represents a chance to go to a World Cup in 2018 - which given I want go within 2,000 miles of Qatar in 2022 and by 2026 who knows if I'll have kids or, you know, real responsibilities. Anyway, Russia is a place that draws me way more than I could have imagined given all we Americans hear about this country.


Friday, July 22, 2016

NFL 2016: Summer Power Rankings & The Rest

We are officially 50 days out from the start of the 2016 NFL Season. It has come that quickly. The offseason threw us a retirement party for an all-time great. A bong video taking over the draft. And the final end (for all intents and purposes) to Deflategate, a nice 544-days after it started. Yet for all that madness, all the twists and turns and never-ending sense of ‘I don’t care’, we all get a chance to now realize that indeed we do care. The NFL is almost back. Training camps will start this weekend. The Hall of Fame Game will be played in 16 days. This is happening, all over again. And for that, it is time to take stock of all that happened and where I think the 32 teams lie as we begin this journey for the 51st time.

Tier I – The Clear Worst

32.) Cleveland Browns

I don’t think there is really any other choice for 32nd place. The Browns hired a coach I like, and the strength of their coaching staff may pull them into a handful of wins, but the talent is so minimal. They lost key pieces in the offseason, from Geoff Schwartz to recently Desmond Bryant to injury. They are going back to the Josh McCown well. Hopefully they do like the team that used to employ Hue Jackson (Cincinnati) and give the new coach some time, because it will take a while to build up to something good. Hue could probably get them there, but they need the patience to make it happen.

Tier II – Low-Floor Bottom-Feeders

31.) Tennessee Titans

If Marcus Mariota turns into a star, this is going to look silly, because a good QB can cure a lot of things. That said, the Titans match a lack of talent with seemingly absurd coaching decisions / tactics. The Titans seem to be a team lost in time, including benching top WRs, claiming to want to run out of 2-RB sets all the time. Playing a defense that has no real structure apart from ‘being physical.’ Mike Mularkey made his bones coordinating the Steelers when they had Kordell Stewart. He was also there when they had Tommy Maddox and decided to throw the ball all over the place. Sadly, he seems to remember or think of the Stewart days as a lot more successful than the actual.

30.) San Francisco 49ers

I am openly not a huge Chip Kelly fan, but this is less about Chip Kelly and more about to team. It is hard to think so highly of a team that has lost just so many starters over the past two years. The 49ers truly are a shell of themselves, and while seeing Kelly play around with Colin Kaepernick may have a high ceiling, the fact that he has not clearly beat out Blaine Gabbert is a really bad indicator of how he’s doing adapting to the Kelly offense. The defense is not built the way Kelly likes it, and needs an incredibly overhaul. Apart from Navorro Bowman, every other member of their Super Bowl front-7 is gone. Stunning.

29.) Philadelphia Eagles

The team Kelly left is not far behind. I’ll give the Eagles credit for this: they proactively cleaned house of ridding themselves of Kelly. They took steps to remove every piece of Kelly’s personnel mismanagement – of course apart from the QB. Their hydra-monster of QBs in Sam Bradford, Chase Daniel and rookie Carson Wentz is such a peculiar way to manage that part of the roster. It is hard to grasp what even the best case scenario is there. The roster has to depend on some major 2nd year pushes to have anything resembling a passable offense, and their defense, while good, is also really thin and injuries could really ruin them quickly. Brighter days are ahead – of course fewer than one would have hoped given how much draft capital they had to give up to trade up to get Wentz.

28.) Detroit Lions

This may be too low, but we are in the part of the NFL calendar where taking the optimistic approach to all teams is so much easier than the pessimistic approach. And because of that, major negative changes to personnel, such as losing Hall of Fame quality players that are still heavy contributors, really stand out. Calvin Johnson’s surprise retirement will hopefully not set the Lions off into a death spiral like the last time they lost a superstar to a sudden retirement. And I don’t think it will because the nucleus of the team is much stronger than it was in 1999-2000. Still, replacing Calvin is nearly impossible, and the Lions don’t really have the pieces to just pick up his 100 catches and 1,200 yards.

Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the AFC

27.) Miami Dolphins

Speaking of negative indicators, I guess we’re just going to keep on thinking Ryan Tannehill is good, huh? Adam Gase is a very high pedigree QB guru, but we have to see if that translates as well when he’s a head coach and not an Offensive Coordinator as he was for Manning and Cutler. The defense is still talented, and they buffeted that side of the ball with the additions of Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell, overpriced to be sure, but also still effective when healthy. Still, the offense is just so uninspiring, and in perfect Dolphins fashion they seem intent on getting as many 2010 NFL Pro-Bowlers as possible (Arian Foster), instead of actually trying to build around Tannehill for the future.

26.) San Diego Chargers

On the one hand, they have Philip Rivers, who is finally gaining the acceptance from the general NFL viewing public as a scientist of the position years after his play warranted such respect. On the other hand, the roster is finally so bad that even a good, healthy Philip Rivers may lose 10+ games – just like what happened last year. The Chargers offense will still rely on a mix of aging veterans and mercurial young guys (and good ol’ Antonio Gates). The defense is still entirely undermanned outside of Jason Verrett. The team may get better in their win-loss record because it is hard to do worse than 4-12, and because the division is slightly worse this year, but I can’t see the team really doing more than approaching .500 if everything goes right.

25.) Jacksonville Jaguars

One of these years, the Jaguars will break out. You can’t keep drafting at the top of the draft every year and have that not happen. The offense seems set with a  young Bortles and two great receivers, but behind Bortles’ nice stats lies a lot of bad tape against average to good teams. The defense has a bunch of young talent, but for the second straight year their Top-5 defensive pick got injured in the offseason. This time not for the season hopefully, but Jalen Ramsey’s injury is going to hurt in the short term. The team will break out, but I don’t think it is this year, and I don’t know if it will be with Gus Bradley attached.

Tier III(a) – The Soft Underbelly of the NFC

24.) Chicago Bears

There is a sense of optimism around the Bears this year but with losing Adam Gase, should there be? It is hard to have it both ways. The direction and calmness he gave to that Bears offense is now going to Miami. Cutler himself has some interesting weapons to throw too, but I think that team is still a few pieces away on both ends from seriously competing. Long term, they are in a dangerous spot with Cutler’s window being now and going for another 2-3 years in all likelihood. The team as a whole is probably in a further away window.

23.) New Orleans Saints

The NFC South has four teams that you can probably make some sort of case for finishing in all three spots. The Saints, to me, are now the team with the worst chance to end up in 1st place – though probably not the highest chance to end up in last. Drew Brees can get you so far, even if he did see some signs of regression last year even if his overall numbers stayed about where they always are. The defense is still an absolute mess, and now the schedule gets slightly harder as well. Also, I have to wonder if they have just peaked or lost interest with Sean Payton at this point. He himself seemed a bit detached and ready to leave at the end of last season anyway. Overall, it is hard to trust a team with a 38-year old QB and coming off back-to-back 7-9 seasons in a bad division.

22.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Conversely we have the Buccaneers, and while I question the firing of Lovie Smith which seemed really rushed, there is a lot of optimism abound. Jameis Winston really settled down in the second half and his the pieces around him to make it all work. I am not a huge fan of the Dirk Koetter hire, but he did a good job with a young Matt Ryan (then again, so did Mike Mularkey). He has receivers to throw to and a decent o-line. The defense is more of a worry. They were building towards something with Lovie Smith, and while they’ve retained some of his principles, it does seem likely that there may be a stunted growth on that side of the ball. The talent is there, but slightly aging, which is bad given the youth on the offense. Honestly, when writing this I’m reconsidering putting them this high.

21.) Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons had a very quiet offseason, where they basically did nothing to address their biggest weakness (pass rush), other than get a few rotational guys. They re-addressed the secondary, which wasn’t a huge issue, in the draft. I’m not really sure what their improvement path is, but they were already a .500 team. Out of the mess that is Spots #2-4 in the NFC South, the Falcons to me are the team with the lowest ceiling, but probably the lowest floor as well.

20.) Washington Redskins

There is a good reason why the Redskins have avoided signing Kirk Cousins long term, a very good one: he isn’t that good. Or at least there is no clear evidence that he is that good. 7 great games does not make a great QB – Washington has recent evidence of this as well given what happened with RGIII. I like the approach they took, and the quiet offseason they had. I am a little skeptical of Josh Norman outside of Carolina, but it fills a need. My largest issue with not trusting Washington more is I don’t think Cousins was nearly as good as he showed late last season, and the Redskins roster with an average cousins is an average team.

Tier V – High Ceiling Potential Threats

19.) St. Louis Rams

Had the Rams been in any other division, they would have had a clear path to the playoffs. It isn’t an easy path, but it is a clear one. They run the ball with Todd Gurley, sprinkle in some Tavon Austin plays, and hope their young defense takes another step forward and dominates to an even greater degree. If they can mix Jared Goff in there and have him not screw up, a really bright future would emerge. There are a few issues with this logic, of course. First, is this is a bit archaic way of playing football. Second, they still have Jeff Fisher as head coach, a man who knows how easy it is to keep on being employed at 7-9 or 8-8. And third, and most important, they have two of the league’s best teams in their division. None of that helps.

18.) New York Giants

I just know come opening day I’m going to trick myself into picking the Giants to win the NFC East like I always do. There is a chance it happens, because the NFC East will likely not have a 12-4 Champion, but I’m not buying the Giants because I’m not buying the defense even after the upgrades with guys like Jenkins, Harrison and Vernon. Call me a disbeliever in adding three good but not great players to an awful defense and thinking that will result in something more than an average defense. Eli Manning has found a comfort level in that offense, and of course Odell Beckham is still a monster, but I don’t know if they’ll win enough 30-27 games to make a serious push. They could… I’ll convince myself they will… but they likely won’t.

17.) Baltimore Ravens

I think I picked them to go 12-4 and go to the Super Bowl last year. Well, I have been wrong before. I don’t know if I have ever been that wrong. But I have been wrong. The Ravens were rarely blown out last year, and were often actually quite competitive, but they never really blew anyone out in their 5 wins either. Other than their guys getting healthy again, I don’t see much reason for optimism beyond just natural progression towards their true talent level. I like the Mike Wallace signing, but continuing belief in him seems as pointless as my belief in the Giants. The o-line used to be the strength of the team, and through retirement and attrition that even looks like a weakness. I can’t picture the Ravens ever having a sustained period of mediocrity with Harbaugh, but we may be close to that point.

16.) Houston Texans

This ranking was made before I learned of JJ Watt’s injury that could keep him out of the first few weeks of the regular season. An injury like that really changes the perspective outlook of the team. Anyway, this is a selection based on the idea that Brock Osweiler could be good, but he most likely is not that good – his 7-game show in Denver was really iffy looking back at things. The rest of the team has a few holes, like secondary receivers, a competent o-line, and a defense with a suspect back-seven. The Texans took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself after Luck was injured and sat for the year, and while there is an opportunity for them to reclaim their title, things will be slightly tougher this year.

Tier VI – Half the Ball is All That Matters, Right?

15.) New York Jets

This goes up if they sign Ryan Fitzpatrick (I still plan on doing actual predictions at some point before September 7th), but at this point it seems the stalemate is real. While I like a lot of parts of this team, I definitely do not like Geno Smith having anything to do with the 2016 offense (I like the idea of Christian Hackenburg or Bryce Petty even less). Still, I think on offense the 2015 Jets was a high-watermark. It is unlikely that Fitz even if he is back matches that level, and I have to think Brandon Marshall begins to decline at some point. The defense is still really good, however, and makes the Jets a contender to nab a Wild Card spot, or even steal the division if the Jimmy G era goes poorly.

14.) Buffalo Bills

I think with a year’s worth of tape on Tyrod Taylor his effectiveness will be slightly stunted in 2016. Of course, with a year of play under his belt maybe it goes the other way, but to me there is a reason why he was a backup for 4-5 years before getting this shot. I do, however, think the defense improves. There is no evidence of Rex Ryan being a bad defensive coordinator. He took over a Top-5 defense and made them a #15 type unit. I have to think that was an aberration, both with the personnel learning his scheme and the now-axed Mario Williams not trying. I think the defense returns to form and compensates for any potential slippage in Tyrod Taylor’s play.

13.) Indianapolis Colts

Here’s the thing I don’t understand about all the people that hated on Colts management, on Ryan Grigson, on Chuck Pagano, and on their players. Despite not having Andrew Luck for 9 games, and going just 2-5 when he played injured, the team finished 8-8. If any other team went 8-8 with their backup QB (and bad play from their normal QB when he was healthy), they would likely be commended. If anything, it showed that there are some bright spots to the Colts roster, and that team plays really hard for Chuck Pagano. They still have serious talent deficiencies at crucial spots (Get a damn pass rusher already), but having a healthy Andrew Luck can paper over those a lot. People forget how good Luck was in 2014 – and I think he matches that this year which makes them still the clear favorite in the AFC South.

12.) Dallas Cowboys

This has very little to do with Ezekiel Elliott, who may indeed have a monster rookie season and is probably the safest bet for Offensive Rookie of the Year. No, this is more to do with Tony Romo returning from injury. The primary difference between a 12-4 season in 2014 and a 4-12 season in 2015 was Romo (and to a lesser extent, Dez). That’s about it. The Cowboys still have a ton of talent on offense, an O-Line that should protect him, and coaches on defense that can make that unit somewhat passable. Somewhat passable is likely all they’ll need to be a better version of the Giants (offense-heavy), and win the NFC East again.

The VII – The New Guard

11.) Oakland Raiders

Yes, this is somewhat a homer pick. It’s actually a fully homer pick. I am actually quite terrified of how many people are trying to make the case for the Raiders being a team on the rise. The pieces are there, from a QB who played really well for ~12 games last year before failing down the stretch to better teams, to a WR who if he cures his drops could be a Top-5 WR given his brilliant route running, to a OLB in Khalil Mack who is already shaping up to be the next Von Miller. The team nicely augmented to this with the money that they contractually had to spend, and have built competence around the roster, and Jack Del Rio, for his ills, is a purely competent head coach. They can win a division with Manning out of the picture. Will they though? The next team may have something to say about that.

10.) Kansas City Chiefs

The team that ended the season on a 10-game win streak is probably the most primed to jump on the AFC West with Manning out of the way (of course, Manning didn’t really have anything to do with the Broncos 12-4 season last year). The Chiefs will be getting Jamaal Charles back – though you have to wonder about the effectiveness of an older RB who has gone through multiple serious injuries. The Chiefs will be without Justin Houston as well for some portion of the season. They have drafted and developed nicely to fill his (and Tamba Hali’s) shoes, but I don’t know if they wanted to test that out so quickly. The Chiefs are a really talented team, but the ceiling of any team with Alex Smith is probably limited. I can see them pulling a 2011 49ers and going like 12-4, but I can also see this slipping back to 9-7 for a 2nd time in three years.

9.) Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings went 11-5 last year. They started 7-2. They won the division in Week 17 by going into Green Bay and winning 20-13 (it should be known it was hard to tell if either team wanted to win that game, as hosting Seattle was probably worse than going to Washington). The Vikings were already good. Now they get a year more of seasoning for Bridgewater, they give him a few more weapons to deploy, and give that defense another year to fortify further. My only issue with them is the move indoors could hamper that defense slightly, as they seemed to love playing in the outdoor cold of Minnesota. We’ll see how that goes (it’s not like there haven’t been dominant indoor / warm-weather defenses before). The Vikings are still on the upswing and are already good. That’s pretty good.

Tier VIII – The Old Guard

8.) Green Bay Packers

That said, I still think the team they beat for the division is better. With Jordy Nelson back, and a full 12-months removed from the injury, the offense should return to the machine it was, rather than whatever the hell that imitation was the last half of last season. The defense is still good, and the Packers smartly locked up Mike Daniels who is a rising star. The Packers with a healthy Nelson and Rodgers are still the best team in that division, even if strange cracks showed up in that foundation last year when Jordy went down.

7.) Pittsburgh Steelers

I still don’t trust that defense to be anything better than a #10-#12 type unit that will struggle against good teams with good passing attacks. I do, however, trust that offense to be a #1-#3 type unit that will not struggle against anyone (apart from the odd 4-5 times a year some lesser team gets pressure on Ben and gives them fits). Even without Martavis Bryant, the Steelers still have more than enough weapons, including a seemingly healthy Le’Veon Bell returning to the lineup. They went 10-6 with one of the best offenses in the league last year starting Michael Vick / Landry Jones for 5 games. They can do better with Ben for hopefully more than 11 this time around.

6.) New England Patriots

I didn’t drop them too much with Brady out for 4 games, as I think they go at worst 1-3, and more likely 2-2 in that stretch. Honestly, they probably go 3-1 with Brady, so 1 loss is not going to kill them. What matters a whole lot more is their ability to get the #1 seed, as the Patriots have shown a clear inability to win road playoff games – although maybe it is just an inability to win playoff games in Denver (0-3 there). The offense will still be great, but they didn’t do much to upgrade the O-Line apart from getting their guys healthy. The defense traded away their best pass rusher, and while the linebackers are great, they alone won’t make this a Top-5 defense. Of course, it doesn’t need to be Top-5, just Top-15 good, which it definitely is.

5.) Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks have in the last four years won 11, 13, 12, and 10 games, but have consistently been great each year – topping the league in Football Outsiders DVOA each time. Their best team won the Super Bowl. Their two hottest teams entering the playoffs won the least amount of games, and lost in the Divisional Round after falling way behind early to an NFC South team. This year’s iteration has the same strengths and weaknesses of every other Seahawks team – bad o-line, great defense, Russell Wilson. The only change is really the loss of Marshawn Lynch who was already being phased out. They’ll be really good again, and it will, much like New England, come down to if they can nab the #1 seed and make sure they don’t have to play any 1PM EST Playoff Games.

Tier IX – The New Normal

4.) Cincinnati Bengals

For a few years there, everyone said the Bengals had the best roster in the league outside of the QB position. Suddenly, last year, they had the QB too. Andy Dalton was a Top-3 QB last year by any measure before that freak thumb injury that careened the Bengals season away from glory. The Bengals, had Dalton stayed healthy, probably get the #1 seed (they lost it due to an OT loss in Denver when AJ McCarron could not outplay Osweiler). The Bengals lost some of that talent this year, including their latest coordinator to leave for a Head Coach gig, but if Dalton’s 2015 level was not a mirage, they can more than compensate for that. The defense is really good, the offense has a monster in AJ Green, a great in Tyler Eifert, and a top o-line. There are no real weaknesses now that the QB has matched his team’s level of play.

3.) Carolina Panthers

The Panthers outlook comes down to two things: how good were they actually last year given that 15-1 was probably better than their real talent level, and is it a net positive or negative to lose Josh Norman but get back Kelvin Benjamin. Personally, I think they were very good last year. They were an uninspiring 8-0 team, but they were a dominant force 9-1 team that finished the season off, winning most of those 9 games by 20+ points, including playing three of the most dominant halves in recent playoff history (1st half vs Seattle and the whole NFC Championship Game). I have seen them cycle through secondary players and remain a very good to great defense and have full faith in Gettleman / Rivera / McDermott to do the same to make up for the loss of Norman. Benjamin coming back really should help that offense. The Panthers have built something special, and there is no clear end in sight right now.

2.) Arizona Cardinals

Yes, I have the team that lost to Carolina 15-49 one spot ahead, for a few reasons. It was clear that Carson Palmer’s finger really effected him in those playoffs. It was also clear how badly they missed Tyrann Mathieu, and it was clear what their biggest weakness as a team was: their pass rush. They had to blitz more than most teams – and while they did it very effectively on the whole, it got exposed in the Carolina game when the o-line held up really well. The Cardinals addressed that weakness by drafting Robert Nkemdiche, trading for Chandler Jones, and hopefully coaching up Markus Golden even more. If they get a pass rush, this is pretty close to a perfect team here. I expect Carson Palmer to remain really good, Larry Fitzgerald to remain dynamic in the slot, and David Johnson to be better in Year #2. The Cardinals are a great roster, with a great coach, and those two inputs usually return a really great team as an output.

Tier X – Well, The Champs are the Champs

1.) Denver Broncos

Of course, in my rules, the Defending Champs are #1 until they lose – which I suspect could be as early as Week #1. They are probably in that range right with Oakland / Kansas City / Minnesota, but for now they get the spoils of wearing the belt. The Broncos will live and die by their defense carrying a Mark Sanchez offense – but we have seen evidence of that formula resulting in trips (plural) to the AFC Championship Game. The defense will have to compensate for the loss of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevethan, and while the linebacker can be replaced, there is no natural replacement for Jackson’s supreme talent. Still, that is a Top-5 defense, and if Sanchez can replicate Osweiler’s performance from last year they can challenge for the division quite easily.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

20 Thoughts Ahead of the MLB Second Half, Pt. 2

10.) It will be really interesting to see how the Astros handle the curios case of their infield. Here's the deal with them. They have a future superstar in Carlos Correa entrenched at shortstop. They have a current superstar in Jose Altuve locked at 2nd base. They have Luis Valbuena who is having a really nice season. They have prospect AJ Reed just called up, an all-power, no defense 1st baseman. They have, by Keith Law's estimation, the best prospect in baseball in Alex Bregman in AAA ready to be called up, and he's either a shortstop or 3rd baseman. Finally, to add to this mix, they signed Yulieski Gurriel, a 32-year old Cuban superstar, to a 5-year deal and his natural position is 3rd base. This is a lot of juggling to do. What helps is in reality the Astros are still building for the future, and with Luis Valbuena leaving at the end of the year, the math becomes easier. Still, the easiest way out may be to either convert Bregman into an outfielder (where they are developmentally weaker), or maybe even trade him when his value is super high for a pitcher. Either way, it is a good problem to have too few at bats to give to seemingly good player.

9.) The Brewers are in a strange position. They have such an easy plan to execute now. Just trade away Lucroy and Braun and start the rebuild in full. Will they actually do it, though? The Brewers are not good, whether they have Braun and Lucroy or not, but they are more of a draw with those guys. There is value in having those types of players on the field. But they should take a lesson from a former NL Central rival, in Houston, who kept their 'fan draw' players like Berkman and Oswalt too long to the point their value in a trade return dropped. They have a clear window when both players are decent values in both production and contract. In a way, it is a fun position to be in when the roadmap is so darn obvious.

8.) The sad end of the Cardinals and Pirates is going to be interesting to watch as well. The Cardinals and Pirates, by regular season record, have been the best teams in the NL since 2013. They have had a really nice stretch, with nothing but a World Series loss to show for it, and now they are trading winning and losing streaks to just stay in the periphery of the Wild Card race. The Cardinals never have to truly rebuild, given the organizational strength and allure of the team, but they core is aging and the farm is more barren now than it normally is. The Pirates are in a really interesting situation. They waited 20 years for that three year run of success and it seems to have already crested. It will be interesting to see what Neal Huntington does with the Pirates. They have some good trade chips, especially McCutchen, but I can't believe they would pull the trigger on that one.

7.) I want to see some team experiment with something weird in the second half, just to drum up some interest in the 10 or so teams that are already basically out of it. Last year, it was the Reds going with an all-rookie starting rotation. It didn't translate into wins, but it was a fascinating experiment in, well, experimenting. If any team should try something weird, it probably should be the Rays. After a long string of amazing success, the Rays are firmly reaching the end of their run. The lack of production from the draft in recent years is coming back to haunt the Rays. I don't know what they can do, but that is why those people, like Andrew Silverman, are paid a ton of many, to think outside the box. They should do something other than just stand pat and see their awful team play poorly without testing a few things out.

6.) The Indians are testing one of the time tested theories that MLB proponents have. For years, the idea was that teams that are bad that have poor attendance will have their attendance turn around when the team succeeds. Well, the Indians, after a 14-game win streak in June, are way up in their division and have a great chance of making the playoffs. They still aren't really drawing fans. There has been a slight uptick since the Cavs won their title, but who knows if it will last? The Indians poor attendance has to be one small black mark in a bright beautiful canvas that is the MLB's financial health right now, but it does matter. Places like Cleveland should draw well when the team does well. They'll end up selling out the home games in the playoffs when we get there, but the idea was that attendance would rise in July-September as well.

5.) The young shortstops in baseball is just amazing, pumping in a new generation that should lead this game for years. Ask 10 people and there will be no real consensus into which amazing young player will end up the best. Will it be Xander Boegarts, who is finally hitting the way everyone thought he would? Or maybe it will be Francisco Lindor, who has hit better than anyone could have imagined, supplementing his brilliant defense? Maybe it will be Corey Seager, the uber-rookie who already locked up the NL Rookie of the Year. The hidden star is Carlos Correa, who has 'disappointed' to a 130 OPS+ and on the way to a 5.5-6.0 WAR season as a 21-year old and projects to be an A-Rod type. There is no wrong answer. The rightest one is just to sit back and watch these four superstars grow up.

4.) Of course, the next generation of players goes beyond just the shortstop position. Manny Machado just gets better every year and is now a bonafide superstar. Bryce Harper is still just 23-24 and his dissappointing seasons are still incredible. The Cubs have like 10 guys under 27 who are all brilliant, with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo headlining that group. Then there are the sad amazing players stuck on bad teams. We already talked about Mike Trout, but to me even worse is Nolan Arenado. At least at this point enough people know about Trout's exploits, but Arenado sits in Coors Field being amazing at 3rd base and showing offensive power even away from Coors Field. The game is really in a good position.

3.) Remove the AL East, which has three teams separated by two games, and the NL Central, where the Cubs, even after a 6-15 stretch, have a 7-game lead, and you get 4 divisions where one team is between 4.5-6.5 games up on the rest. I feel like some of these will turn into interesting races. The likeliest candidate is probably the AL West becoming competitive, especially with all the underlying metrics (Base Runs, 2nd and 3rd order Win %) thinking the Rangers have far, far exceeded their actual level of play so far. The Astros are an MLB best 30-13 since a 17-28 start, finally righting themselves to a competitive position. If I had to guess any other division, I think it would be the NL East, as I can see the Mets getting on a roll with their pitching at some point and running off a 20-6 type stretch. We had very few good pennant races the lsat couple years, and while the AL East already seems to be a good one in the making, it would be good for some of the other divisions to join them.

2.) I cannot wait for Ichiro to get 10 more hits and reach 3,000. Yes, he's 43 years old, but let's remember his first season in MLB he was 27. In that first season, he had 240 hits and batted .350. Had he been in MLB since 21-22, you could state he would have had a shot at Pete Rose's record. The fact that someone could debut at 27 and reach 3,000 hits is absolutely ridiculous. What is more ridiculous is Ichiro himself is actually having a great season. I just marvel at Ichiro batting .337, walking more than he's striking out, and on pace for a 3 WAR season as a semi-regular. This is not supposed to happen. Ichiro is a modern marvel, and let's treasure him while we can. Sure, I wish he was getting #3,000 in Seattle and not in Miami, but the fact that he is there is just insane.

1.) And of course, let's never forget that 2016 divided by 2 has no remainder. The Giants this time aren't even waiting until October to express their dominance. They've finished the 1st half with the best record in baseball by changing their stripes again. In 2010, they won with a great rotation and an average, veteran offense. In 2012, they won with a very good, young offense and like 2.5 good pitchers. In 2014, they won because of who knows why? Madison Bumgarner happened, I guess. Now? Well, now they are winning just because they are really good. The offense is still incredibly balanced, even showing a little more power than normal. They've turned into the best defensive team in the NL. And of course, Madison Bumgarner is, Kershaw excluded, the best pitcher in baseball and Johnny Cueto himself has a 170 ERA+. Every other year, it just is the Giants world after all.

Friday, July 15, 2016

20 Thoughts Ahead of the MLB Second Half, Pt. 1

20.) Now that the Cubs cooled off (to the degree of having the worst June of any NL team), we can actually assess them rationally. The good is they still have the upside of the best team in baseball, and a degree of power-hitting youth in their lineup that I have never seen. The bad? The pitching may just not be that great. Jake Arrieta has had a troubling month, but his peripheral and indicators are down to the point where it might not be a fluke. Then again, are we that surprised that a player who was middling for five years than suddenly turned into Roger Clemens for 12 months is now back to being a #2 starter? They need some bullpen upgrades quickly as well. The lineup will get them to the playoffs easily. They need more pitching to get anywhere.

19.) I feel so bad for Mike Trout. I realize there is basically no chance the Angels try to trade him, but there is also basically no chance the Angels are good anytime before like 2018. Their whole team is barren, and their farm system is worse. At some point it becomes more important to trade the most valuable asset in baseball. All I know for Trout is that if he was on a good team, he would be on MVP #4 right now, and instead he'll be stuck on MVP #1 for a while. It is sad to see today's Mickey Mantle play for such a bad organization - and even sadder that that organization feels compelled to hang on to him.

18.) I'm interested to see if the trade for Drew Pomeranz trade is the start of 3-4 moves for Boston. Dave Dombrowski has a method. Some may dislike it, but Dombrowski achieved a lot of success by trading prospects for established players. Now, the issue here is Pomeranz, a former #5 overall pick, is not all that established, with 2016 representing by far the best season of his career. The risk on an 18-year old picther (the guy he gave up) is massive, but Pomeranz is not without risk himself. The Red Sox are loaded with prospects that could get great return for a club and GM who wants to win now, and I have to think there is more coming.

17.) Two interesting teams to watch, and two that may take the opposite approach, are the White Sox and Marlins. Both are at or above .500, and both have legitimate playoff chances for the first time in a long time. Both teams attendance have been struggling (obviously, Miami's issue is far larger), and can make well with a playoff push. The Marlins are at the early stages of their new cycle and it makes sense to ride this out. They have a bright future, all things considered, but it will be interesting to see if they load up on guys for the stretch run and mortgage some of that future - something they already started by trading for Fernando Rodney. On the other side, do the Sox pull the Sale trigger? His value will likely never be higher, and they are still a team in need of rebuilding. The hope is this year doesn't do to Chicago what the random 86-win 2008 season did to Houston and make them think they are closer than they really are.

16.) The MVP races should be interesting coming down the stretch. The AL will always be interesting for as long as Mike Trout continues to be both amazing and saddled with a bad team. The difference between last year and this year and when Trout was being robbed by Miguel Cabrera is that there are legitimate other candidates. Josh Donaldson has legitimately been as good as Trout the past 1.5 years. Jose Altuve has been just as good as Trout this year. Both are more likely MVP picks than Trout, and even have various voting blocs behind them, Donaldson the "I LUVZ MASHERS" crowd and Altuve the "SHORT GUYS ARE FUN" crowd. Over in the NL, it really comes down to whether people want to give it to a pitcher again - especially give one pitcher two MVPs in this day and age.

15.) My favorite race to watch down the stretch will be the AL East. The Red Sox had the lead and the best odds by the advanced stats group for much of the year, but as their offense went from 'Top-10 lineup ever' to just 'Best Lineup in 2016' over May and June, that has been replaced by the Blue Jays, who have pitched far better than anyone would have imagined especially after losing Price. Of course, neither of those teams are in 1st place, as the Orioles look to win the division for the 2nd time in 3 years while being counted out all the time each year. The Blue Jays are probably the best team. The Orioles have the best manager and have the advantage of actually being in 1st place. The Red Sox can be the best team if they use their trade chips. Just a old fashioned good race.

14.) Here's one downside of the two Wild Cards: basically all teams that are not currently under .500 are somewhat in it and may either a.) avoid trading players because they could make the playoffs, or b.) avoid rebuilding because they could make the playoffs. There is this whole group that are 1-4 games above .500, with the Yankees, Mariners, White Sox, Tigers and Royals. The worst part for that group, three of whom should have started rebuilding yesterday (Yankees, White Sox, Tigers), is that there are three teams above them with better chances to take Wild Cards (Blue Jays, Red Sox, Astros). Disappointment is abound, but at least 75% of the AL will feel some relevancy in the 2nd half this year.

13.) I love how the adjustments have changed the game into basically a brilliant mix of steroid era power and dead-ball era pitching. Everyone seems in on the idea that the strikeout is not the worst result for a hitter, so pitchers are continuing to pile up strikeouts, while hitters are hitting home runs at ridiculous rates. Really a best of both worlds. Guys will challenge 50 homers this year, and we will see, yet again, a record K/9 rate league-wide. To me, this is a nice medium for the game to be at. It was far too pitching dominated in 2010-2013, and while pitchers are still dominating, so are power hitters.

12.) Speaking of pitchers, can Clayton Kershaw please stay healthy, and can Noah Syndegaard please not be too hurt, and can Jose Fernandez continue to stay healthy. Can just all pitchers stay healthy. Pitching is a dangerous act, an unnatural one. There is a reason pitchers get hurt. But we are at a time of historically good pitching, and the best of those guys keep getting these little knicks and bruises. The baseball-loving world will have a collective panic if Clayton Kershaw has to get Tommy John surgery that I am not sure we will ever recover from. Personally, I just want to see the lefty Pedro Martinez back healthy and pitching, as watching Kershaw and marvelling at his stats on Baseball-Reference has become an every-five-day pilgrimage. Just stay healthy, boys!

11.) Speaking of Syndegaard, the Mets are learning why it is always risky to build your team around starting pitching, despite how damn rewarding it could be at times. The Mets are still in the Wild Card hunt (and I guess division race) and can always make a run if Syndegaard comes back and matches his former level along with DeGrom and Matz, but now Harvey is gone and while Zack Wheeler's return is a nice bonus, a guy coming off of Tommy John is not Matt Harvey. The hitting has picked it up, and seemingly they straight out own the Cubs, but even to get where that could matter, they need to get those horses back and hope they stay healthy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Decade (and Four Years) of NFL Playoffs: Ranking the Conference Title Games. Pt. 2

Tier IV – The Great Games

11.) 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.

10.) 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.

9.) 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.

8.) 2014 NFC Championship - (N2) Packers 22 @ (N1) Seahawks 28

Review: In what was a fascinating game of two teams competing to play as badly as possible, it ended up being the Packers who decided to make a few more mistakes than the Seahawks did. The game itself was a wholly defensive affair, with the Packers defense absolutely confusing a terrible Russell Wilson into four interceptions, and the Seahawks playing the Packers tight and picking off Rodgers twice themselves. Those two QBs had a combined 6 interceptions in their first 16 playoff games. The Packers built a 16-0 lead, but it should have been so much more. Twice the Packers kicked field goals on 4th and Goal from the 1 and 2 yard line, and once more Rodgers was picked off inside the 20. They could have ended this game, and also moved it far back on the list. Instead, they didn't and the Seahawks woke up. The Seahawks first bite back came on a beautiful fake field goal for a TD. Then a normal drive ended in a TD to make it 19-14, but with 1:25 left it was still basically over. Except the Packers forgot to recover the on-side kick, that part of the equation fell through and the Seahawks scored quickly enough to not only take the lead but give the Packers enough time to send the game to OT with a fifth Mason Crosby field goal at the gun. In the end, Russell Wilson finally put together two good plays in succession, with back-to-back 35 yard passes in OT. First to get them out of 3rd and 7, and next a strike to Jermaine Kearse to walk off a winner. It was a frantic game that changed a lot of perceptions about how bad Russell Wilson could play and still win a playoff game, and how many things a team can do wrong, from Drive 0 to Drive N to lose a game.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game could've ended numerous times, but other than the bobbled on-side kick, the real 'agent zero' play was the interception by Morgan Burnett, the 4th pick of Wilson on the day. At the time there was 5:15 left, with the Packers up 19-7. Burnett picked it off at his 40, with open field ahead of him and instead of try a return, he slid to safety. It was understandable, but kicked off a horrific series of events.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Right after that interception, the Packers had a 99.9% chance to win the game. That ties the highest win probability for an eventual loser in NFL Playoff history, and breaks the record for a 4th quarter. The last team to do it, though, was not too long ago. The Chiefs had a 99.9% win probability up 38-10 in the 4th quarter of their Wild Card loss to the Colts in 2013.

7.) 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

6.) 2015 AFC Championship - (A2) Patriots 18 @ (A1) Broncos 20

Review: The last game in the Brady-Manning rivalry played out in a way that was entirely unexpected, and entirely incomprehensible to anyone who had documented and lived through what Brady-Manning meant. For once, it was Manning's side whose defense came to the party, whipped the Patriots lineman, harrassed the QB, forced timely interceptions and wrapped the game up by making one last great play. The last game between these two titans were not about them, but about Denver's historically good defense outplaying the Patriots defense. The Broncos offense started strong marching right down the field for a TD, but after that the defense just took over. They sacked Brady four times, and hit him 18 other times. The total 22 hits was the most any QB took in any game, regular or postseason, in 7 years. The rush was relentless, the coverage nearly as good, as they held Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in complete check. If not for an inhuman game by Rob Gronkowski, who had 144 yards on 6 catches, the Patriots might never have scored a TD. Instead, the game was finally decided by Denver's defense making two straight 4th down stops, both highlighting one aspect of their defensive dominance. The first came on a 4th and 1, when Demarcus Ware didn't bit on the playfake and harrassed Brady into ruining a nice little throwback play. The second was another rush forcing Brady to throw a lob to a triple-covered Gronkowski. What makes this game a true epic, though was the last drive where the Broncos couldn't make 4th down stops. On the Patriots final drive, Brady threw 10 passes, three of them complete, and the other seven almost all plays where the rush forced Brady to throw up a lob that was lucky for not being intentional grounding. The Patriots trump card in Gronk turned a 4th and 10 and a 4th and Goal into positive plays, but on the final real play of the game, one last great pass rush forced Brady to roll and throw against his body. Aqib Talib, finally healthy enough to complete a Championship Game, batted the ball into the waiting arms of Bradley Roby to end it. When it was over, Manning got a 3-2 lead in his head-to-head playoff meetings, one Brady and the Patriots would never get a chance to match, and for the 2nd time in three years, the Broncos knocked out New England in an AFC Championship, this time because of Manning's team finally bringing the hammer.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The game really turned on Brady's first interception, which was thrown in the shadow of his own end zone to Von Miller, who dropped brilliantly into coverage and undercut Gronkowski. Miller was the star of the game, adding his interception to 2.5 sacks.

Interesting/Memorable Fact: Never escaping controversy, the Patriots play in this game spurred yet another rule change. No inquiry this time, but the intentional grounding rules were slightly changed in the ensuing offseason, seemingly allowing Brady's "Toss up the ball to any general direction when being sacked" play an intentional grounding.

Interesting/Memorable Play: It wasn't a play, but a moment, but after the game, Manning basically repeated to both Brady and Belichick the following sentiment, "This might be my last rodeo, so it sure has been a pleasure." Him saying this to Belichick got picked up clearly by the NFL Films mics, but the CBS game mics picked up a softer record of Peyton saying the same to Brady too.

5.) 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.

4.) 2013 NFC Championship - (N5) 49ers 17 @ (N1) Seahawks 23

I can't wait for the 2015 NFC Championship game. The last four times the NFC has had the late title game, they've been classics (spoiler, they rank #5-#2 on this list). This is the only one of the four to not end with a walk-off field goal in OT, but it didn't make it any less great. I still argue Carolina was as good as San Francisco, but this matchup seemed a little predestined. Thankfully, despite getting gutted the last two times traveling to Seattle (losing 42-14 and 26-3), the 49ers showed up and made this a game. They showed up from the first play, with Aldon Smith stripping Russell Wilson. The Seahawks defense held firm early on when Kaepernick looked like the only person on the field who could do anything, running peerlessly through the defense. Kaepernick racked up nearly 100 yards rushing in the first half. Of course, the Seahawks gave up just 10 points in that half. It took Seattle forever to get going on offense, but the Seahawks finally hit a play before the half when Wilson evaded a few sacks and launched a bomb. The 2nd half was a great Greek Play. First was Marshawn Lynch's great run to tie the game. Then a few defensive battles. Kaepernick threw a laser TD to Boldin right over Earl Thomas's head to take a 17-10 lead, but that would be all. A 4th down TD to Jermaine Kearse on a bomb tied it, and then Kaepernick fell apart. Three 4th-quarter turnovers ruined their chances. But still, after a goal line stand, the 49ers had a chance. Kaepernick was driving them. Crabtree was making a few catches. They had 30 seconds and 20 yards to go, and then Kaepernick decided to challenge the best corner in teh NFL. The best corner won, tipping it to Malcolm Smith, ending a classic in front of an awesome 12th man crowd. The best NFL games seem like events from a different world, a strange unique setting,. This was definitely one of them, taking place in the isolated Northwest. What a special game.

Interesting/Memorable Play: The play will be remembered for NaVarro Bowman's scary injury, but the reason the injury will be replayed and replayed was Bowman, after essentially tearing all the knee, recovering a fumble that was not given. The rule changed in the off-season, and the justly the Seahawks were stoned on the ensuing 4th down.

Interesting/Memorable Play 2: The last play was a great individual moment by Richard Sherman, but of course what is more notable was what happened after the interception, with Sherman and Crabtree getting into a little hissy fight and then Sherman's great interview with Erin Andrews. Sherman acted like a dick, but an awesome dick. Thing is, though, Crabtree had a pretty decent game.

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.