Friday, January 30, 2015

Super Bowl Story Lines, Thoughts, And Game Predictions

We’re just two days away from the Super Bowl, and like every other season, there are about a zillion story lines floating around this game. Before I make my prediction, I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few of the biggest and juiciest ones.


I know I know, you’re probably just as tired of hearing about this “story” as I am. The media noise and fan outrage seems to have really turned down a lot this week, as people eventually threw their hands up and got tired of being upset about deflated balls. I remember hearing about it on the Monday after the AFC Championship Game, thinking to myself, “Oh, well that’s interesting, and it sounds like something Lane Kiffin got in trouble for (you suck) when he was at USC. But is it really that huge of a deal?” Apparently, it was, because we were bombarded with national media coverage from places like CNN and Fox News, who acted like this was the biggest and most controversial story in the world, deserving of hours and hours of outrage. That, more than anything the Patriots allegedly did, was the most ridiculous thing about this entire saga.

Now I’m not completely absolving the Pats here. If they intentionally did anything nefarious here, then they should be punished, something I ultimately believe will happen, even if the NFL just has to say, “Well, we can’t directly tie you guys to this, but solely because your organization has a pattern and history of wrongdoing (Spygate), we’ll fine you heavily, and take away a second round draft pick”.

There’s no way Brady or Belichick are going down for this though, even if they were the ones directly responsible. I knew last week that this controversy was going to be blamed on a “rogue ball boy”, who, with no direction from anyone else, decided he was just going to risk everything, on the off chance that it would give New England an edge (much like the Kiffin story). That doesn’t sound reasonable to me. But, of course, magically this week, it was reported that a Patriots’ locker room attendant is a “strong person of interest” in this case. I wasn’t surprised at all. Someone like that was always going to fall on the sword for this story.

Beast Mode and Skittles

Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch has either been the most or least entertaining interview at the Super Bowl this week, depending on how you look at it. He’s basically said nothing except, “I'm just here so I won't get fined”, or his bizarre statement he made to the media yesterday.

It’s clear he’d rather have all his fingernails removed with pliers than sit in front of reporters and answer questions, and that’s been obvious all season, as evidenced by the multiple fines that have been levied against him for not making himself available to the media during the season.

After his interview yesterday, some ESPN talking heads were talking about how they thought the league should adopt a policy that allows a team to make one player, someone like Lynch, who apparently gets anxiety when talking to multiple reporters, exempt from talking to the media. I don’t think that’s a terrible idea, but I’d argue it’s largely pointless. As long as Lynch is making himself available to the media (which he did every time this week) for the required amount of time, I’m fine with him saying basically whatever he wants. And if he doesn’t want to say anything, that’s fine too. Bill Belichick has basically spent his entire career mumbling things like, “We're on to Cincinnati”, dodging questions, or being divisive with the media, and largely, no one has had an enormous problem with it. Frankly, I’m not sure why anyone even tries to get a sound bite from Lynch at all. You know he’s not going to give you anything substantial or earth-shattering, and you certainly aren’t going to get any inside information from him. Plus, with as many guys as Seattle has that love talking (Richard Sherman, Doug Baldwin, Earl Thomas), why would you ever need to go to Lynch? Those three alone would give you a whole season of quotes after just one game.

Here’s a better question: why do players and coaches have to make themselves available to the media as many times during the week as they do? It’s not like most guys aren’t just spewing cliché after cliché, and it’s not like that many reporters are asking really good, insightful questions either. Most of them boil down to stupid things like, “Hey coach, how are you going to slow down (insert player name) this week?” or, “How does it feel to win the championship?”. How many times can a coach or player here those questions before he answers like this:

Reporter: Hey coach, how are you going to slow down Kevin Durant in the second half?
Coach: I don’t know, and if I had any idea, he wouldn’t have already scored 37.

The G.O.A.T.?

There’s been some talk this week about, “If New England wins, is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback of all time?” and, “If Seattle wins, are they the greatest defense of all time?” It’s so hard to compare the eras in football, because guys are bigger, faster, and stronger than they’ve ever been, and the rules have legislated out a lot of violence and physicality, and opened up the passing game like never before. I certainly think Brady, with a win on Sunday, clinches the “best quarterback of his generation” title though. Here are his numbers compared to Peyton Manning (assuming he wins on Sunday):

Brady: 4 Super Bowl Wins, 6 Super Bowl Appearances, 9 AFC Championship Games, 21-8 playoff record, 160-47 regular season record, 53,258 passing yards, 392 passing touchdowns, 143 interceptions, 63.5% completion percentage, 95.9 QB Rating

Manning: 1 Super Bowl Win, 3 Super Bowl Appearances, 4 AFC Championship Games, 11-13 playoff record, 179-77 regular season record, 69,691 passing yards, 530 passing touchdowns, 234 interceptions, 65.5% completion percentage, 97.5 QB Rating

Everything in the regular season points to Manning, who tore the “Greatest Regular Season Quarterback” championship belt out of Dan Marino’s hands a few seasons ago. The difference between these two is Manning's multiple, embarrassing playoff failures, compared to Brady’s lack thereof. Brady was always great in the regular season, but his ability to elevate his level of play in the postseason is why he'll surpass Manning on an all time scale if New England wins on Sunday. Manning has had some great playoff games, but they've been few and far between, particularly compared to Tom. Plus, Brady is the obvious answer to the timeless, “If my life depended on this game, who would I pick to quarterback my team” question. I wouldn’t even consider Peyton.

But greatest of all time? I don’t know if I can go that far. He certainly passes Manning in the pantheon of great quarterbacks, and gives us a nice Unitas-Montana-Brady top 3. I have no idea where to go after that. Johnny U put up incredible numbers in the defensive-backs-can-mug-and-knife-receivers era, and Montana was basically his generation’s Brady. Deciphering between those three is like trying to pick between Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders; I’d take any of the them and be extremely happy with the results.

However, if Seattle wins on Sunday, I could be talked into saying they’re the greatest defensive unit in the history of the league, even if they don’t have their individual talent at each position isn't superior to some teams of the past. How many teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls based almost entirely on their defensive talent alone? The ’85 Bears didn’t, and neither did the 2000 Ravens or ’02 Bucs. The Steel Curtain repeated as champs, but they had multiple Hall of Famers on the offensive side of the ball (Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth), something this Seattle team doesn’t have. Plus, the Legion of Boom has had staying power, as they’ve led the NFL in scoring defense the last three seasons. They’re the perfect defense for this era (elite secondary play, and the ability to consistently generate a pass rush), they’re intimidating, and they’ve got a great nickname; “Legion of Boom” isn’t on the level of “The Steel Curtain”, but it’s a respectable second.

They, in the salary cap, 32 team era, will never be able to compete position-to-position with some of the great defenses of the past, because the talent is so spread out, but as a unit, they could become historically unique force, and maybe, just maybe, the greatest ever.

And now, my prediction for Super Bowl 49…..

The lack of highly skilled and explosive playmakers on the offensive side of the ball for both teams, and the unusually high number of hyper-competitive, super-athletic, ultra-phyiscal defensive players, is going to cause this game to be a low scoring, defensive, 17-14 slugfest, with lots of hard hitting, sloppy play, and high emotions. There aren’t enough games like these anymore, and it would be refreshing to see one like this play out on the NFL’s biggest stage.

At the beginning of the season, I picked the Seahawks to defeat the Chargers (whoops!) in the Super Bowl. Normally, I defiantly and demonstratively stick by all my predictions, even if it becomes increasingly obvious that they could never happen. Why do I do this? Because I’m an idiot. But this time around, I’m flipping the script, and changing my mind. Why not? What I’ve been doing all season hasn’t been working, or I wouldn’t have whiffed so greatly and embarrassingly on my week-to-week football picks.

I’m picking the Patriots because I have more faith in New England’s offense to generate points when they need them than I do in Seattle’s. The Seahawk offense has no one that terrifies opposing defenses (the Pats have Gronk), and Brady is definitely a superior quarterback to Russell Wilson. Belichick will bust out some crazy formation or trick play that scores a touchdown or goes for a huge play, and the Pats will probably be able to get at least a little bit of a push up front, which will enable their running game to getting going. It will be extremely close, but on Sunday night, New England will leave Glendale, holding the Lombardi Trophy, for the fourth time in the Brady-Belichick era.

Super Bowl 49

Patriots 17 Seahawks 14

Enjoy the Super Bowl on Sunday. You deserve it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NBA Power Rankings: Part 1

Here we are, in the last few days of January, or in other words, Super Bowl week, which is annually the biggest and grandest time period in the NFL. So naturally, I decided it would be a good idea to do power rankings on all 30 NBA teams, and see where everybody is at what is basically the midpoint of the season. But rest assured, I haven’t forgotten about the NFL, and I will have something Super Bowl related, including my pick, up on Friday.

The last time I ranked the NBA teams, all the way back in October, it was mostly just guess work. That was before we knew things like, “Lance Stephenson and the Hornets are the worst marriage since O.J’s” or, “Memphis and Golden State are the two best teams in the West” or, “The Knicks will run the worst iteration of the triangle offense in the history of the NBA”. Actually, who am I kidding? Everybody knew the Knickerbockers couldn’t run that offense, and were going to suck.

So, without further ado, much like at the beginning of the season, let’s rank these teams, from 30-16 (I’ll have the top 15 up next early next week), and group them together with the teams around them, while giving each group names that capture the sense and feel of the team at this point of the season.

The Single Digit Win All Stars

30. Philadelphia 76ers
29. New York Knicks
28. Minnesota Timberwolves

Just lots and lots of terrible, unwatchable, mind-numbing, and excruciatingly-bad basketball. A few thoughts:

  • Remember early in the season when “The Kentucky Wildcats would beat the Philadelphia 76ers” was an argument being made by multiple idiotic ESPN talking heads? (I’m looking right at you Jemele Hill) I know I do. I felt the same way about that ridiculous argument then as I do now; no college team, in any sport, would ever be able to win a serious game against professionals. I know the Sixers are terrible, and are in the midst of a second straight season of taking a dump on their fans and the rest of the NBA by tanking so hellaciously that it’s disconcerting to watch, but this is still a team full of guys good enough to make an NBA roster. Yes, even guys no one has ever heard of, like Henry Sims. Kentucky is a great college squad, but there’s no way every single member of their team is going to have a cup of coffee in the Association. The Harrison twins would get torn apart by the Michael Carter-Williams, and Nerlens Noel would be, by far, the best big man in the game. Plus, don’t forget that the Wildcats secretly, at times, suck on offense end. You can’t have multiple lapses, or struggle mightily with teams like Texas A&M, Ole Miss, and South Carolina, and expect to be taken seriously as a team that would beat a collection of pros. So can we please, forever, but this argument to bed? It’s silly. Then again, the fact that people made this argument just goes to show just how much the 76ers stink. Dang. Get it together Philly.
  • Andrew Wiggins seems to have figured it out, at least a little bit, since the start of the new year. He’s had a few explosive scoring nights since the start of the New Year, like 31 on January 18th, or 23 just two days ago against the Thunder. In fact, the last time he failed to score in double digits was all the way back on December 21st. Is he the best rookie in the league right now? I think he might be.
  • The Phil Jackson era in New York literally couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. He failed to hire a real gem like Stan Van Gundy or Steve Kerr, and instead had to settle for Derek Fisher, a guy with no coaching experience on any level who will definitely be sent on a one way train out of town as soon as the season ends. The triangle (not surprisingly) hasn’t worked at all, the roster is old and bad, and they committed $124 million to the most overrated player in the NBA, Carmelo Anthony, who will be on their team taking terrible shots, stopping the flow of the offense, and playing zero defense for the next four seasons. Can we please stop saying this guy is the “best scorer” in the league? Like forever? He’s an inefficient, career 45.5% shooter from the floor, who just happens to have a few nice, flashy scoring moves every once in a while. So what? Who cares? It’s never led to anything except missed shots, alienated teammates, and early playoff exits. I don’t care that ‘Melo can score from anywhere on the floor, I care about what he consistently does. Sure, maybe Kevin Durant can’t score in as many ways as Anthony does, but the Durantula scores his points in a more efficient way (he’s a career 48.1% shooter, and is currently in his third straight year shooting over 50%). Let’s take a look at some more numbers. Here are their points per game averages and shooting percentages since 2007-08 (Durant’s first year in the league):

Durant: 20.3 PPG, 43% FGs
Anthony: 25.7 PPG, 49.2% FGs

Durant: 25.3 PPG, 47.6% FGs
Anthony: 22.8 PPG, 44.3% FGs

Durant: 30.1 PPG (won scoring title), 47.6% FGs
Anthony: 28.2 PPG, 45.8% FGs

Durant: 27.7 PPG (won scoring title), 46.2% FGs
Anthony: 25.6 PPG, 45.5% FGs

Durant: 28.0 PPG (won scoring title), 49.6% FGs
Anthony: 22.6 PPG, 43% FGs

Durant: 28.1 PPG, 51% FGs
Anthony: 28.7 PPG (won scoring title), 44.9% FGs

Durant: 32.0 PPG (won scoring title), 50.3% FGs
Anthony: 27.4 PPG, 45.2% FGs

Durant: 25.6 PPG, 51.9% FGs
Anthony: 24.1 PPG, 45% FGs

So, as you can see, the Slim Reaper has, over his entire career, consistently scored more points per game while also shooting a higher percentage from the floor. Durant, when healthy, is the best scorer in the NBA, and has been for several years now. Plus, there’s no way KD would ever play for a team that was 8-37, like the Knicks are right now.

Now, I’m not completely blaming ‘Melo for everything that’s gone wrong in New York this season (or last season, for that matter). The roster is horrible, and he’s saddled with one of the worst coaches in the league. Plus, he’s dealt with a few lingering injuries during the season. But he can’t escape all culpability for their embarrassing play. He’s the best player on the team, the trend setter for the franchise. He’s the leader, and everything runs through him. And that’s led to them being 29 games under .500. Let’s just go ahead and bury the “Carmelo Anthony is a superstar” label forever. Thank you.

Dang, I wish I could scream THIS IS SPARTA!!!! and kick this guy 300-style into a bottomless pit so we’d never have to see him again

27. Los Angeles Lakers

That is the dream of every player in L.A. locker room right now. They all wish they could kick Kobe Bryant square in the chest. Fortunately for them, they got their wish (sort of) as the Black Mamba is having surgery on his torn rotator cuff, and injury that will keep him out for the rest of the season. Thanks for the memories in 2015 Kobe. I’ll never forget your alarming ball hogging this year, or your 37.3% field goal percentage for as long as I live. Or how you blamed your injury on passing too much. Yeah, that’s exactly what happened. What a joke, and the perfect thing to say as you end a season where you unapologetically and defiantly hogged the rock. I’m tired of old man Kobe saying dumb things. Can he please go away?

Are we ever going to be good again?

26. Orlando Magic
25. Sacramento Kings

This is the third straight season of Orlando’s rebuild (since they lost Dwight Howard), and it doesn’t feel like they’re any closer to competing than they were when they started this. What’s going on in Disney? One huge problem is that they’ve got one of the worst/clueless/inept/Wade Phillips-esque coaches on the sidelines, Jacque Vaughn, who decided recently that it would be a great idea to bring Tobias Harris (17.4 points per game) off the bench, despite the fact that he’s a versatile scorer who has happened to nail like a zillion enormous crunch time shots for them this year. They gave Channing Frye $32 million last off-season, and so far, he’s averaged just 8 points per game on 39.6% shooting. What a waste. Nikola Vucevic is a solid player, and his numbers (19.5 PPG, 11.2 rebounds per game) would suggest that he’s a borderline All Star, until you remember that he’s basically Kevin Love without three point range. He’s not a good post defender or rim protector, and Orlando doesn’t have a guy like that playing next to him to hide that fact. In fact, there really isn’t a guy like that on the roster. I’m intrigued by rookie Aaron Gordon, though he’s only played 16 games because of injury. And the Victor Oladipo-Elfrid Payton backcourt is an interesting one going forward, but they only have a combined 111 starts between them. Plus, I’m not sure they’ve been able to draft a legitimate potential NBA superstar yet, because I don’t see one on this roster. Unlike OKC, who lucked into drafting three in a row, Orlando seems to have landed on a bunch of really nice, potential All Stars, but not someone who’s capable of being the best player on a championship team. That may be the reason why this rebuild will ultimately be remembered years from now as unsuccessful and extremely frustrating. But despite that, this team should still be better than it is. It might be time for a coaching change.

Sacramento’s owner, Vivek Ranadive, is the classic example of, “I just bought this team, and because of that, I want to be extremely involved, and do extremely dumb things like throw Nik Stauskas into trade rumors after he’s played half the year, or fire our coach, Mike Malone, after 24 games, because we struggled while we were missing our best player, Boogie Cousins”. Nice job Vivek.

Speaking of Boogie, he’s quietly having an awesome year, averaging 24.2 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. Cousins is a terrific athlete, and he can basically go around, through, or by anyone he wants. There aren’t 12 guys better than him in the league right now, but the amazing thing is that he might not even make the All Star team, because his team sucks so much, or at least they do compared to the loaded West.

Honestly, what’s the plan?

24. Denver Nuggets
23. Brooklyn Nets

The Nuggets need a fire sale. There isn’t anyone on that roster that they should be holding onto like they’re a winning Power Ball ticket. It was a nice run with this group of guys, but George Karl is gone, and trying to grasp anything from those teams are fruitless. Trade Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Arron Afflalo, and whoever else you can for whatever you can get. Tank so flagrantly that the Sixers get embarrassed. Actually, don’t do that. Not that badly.

I’m sure every Nets fan has thought this over the last year, but honestly, Brooklyn is screwed long term. Boston destroyed them so violently in that KG and Pierce trade that it reminded me of every Steven Seagal fight scene (and I don’t have to tell you who Seagal is), and they’ve still got a ton of money committed to Deron Williams and his bad attitude, Joe Johnson and his overrated and declining skills, and Brook Lopez and his bad feet. No wonder they’ve spent the last few months trying to trade those guys. The lesson, as always: never hire Billy King to be your GM. Only bad things can happen, like trading three future first round picks for old, declining, former superstars.

We’ll be intriguing…. hopefully next season….
22. Indiana Pacers
21. Boston Celtics
20. Detroit Pistons
19. Utah Jazz

Indiana is horrible, and watching them on the offensive end causes my brain to start hemorrhaging. They need the off-season, and the return of Paul George, to become really interesting again.

Boston won’t be a serious threat for anything the next few years, but they do have an extremely bright future. They’ll have all those picks they amazingly tricked Brooklyn into giving them, a bunch of potential solid NBA players (Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger), and one of the best coaches in the league, Brad Stevens. Keep an eye on the 2017 Celtics. You might really start to see something then.

Has there ever, in the history of the Association, been a team that took off so miraculously after releasing just one player? I can’t think of a situation where that’s happened so visibly like it did in Detroit. The Pistons were tired of Josh Smith consistently chipping paint off the rim from three point range, throwing stupid passes, and just making boneheaded decisions in general, so, rather than keep him around, he got the boot. And Detroit sprouted wings almost instantly, recovering from an abysmal 5-23 start to go 12-6 in their last 18 games. No player benefited more from the releasing of Smith than Brandon Jennings, who instantly began playing the best basketball of his career, averging almost 20 points and 7 assists a game in January, including a 24 point, 21 assist game on January 21st. Unfortunately for the Pistons, Jennings ruptured his Achilles on the 24th, ending his season, and maybe Detroit’s hope for the postseason. They might be able to sneak in, solely because the bottom of the East is so bad, but it’s not going to amount to anything besides an early playoff exit. Honestly, I’m more intrigued about next year with this team. It will be Stan Van Gundy’s second season in the Motor City, meaning he’s had a full year to instill everything he wants to do. He seemed to have the magic touch when it came to Jennings, and he’ll have the freakishly talented/athletic Andre Drummond still on the roster. Drummond didn’t quite take off this season like I thought he would, but the potential is still there, and could be realized at any moment. Watch out for the 2016 Pistons.

The best thing about this Utah Jazz season has been the sudden and rapid emergence of Derrick Favors, who appears to be finally be figuring out that, “oh my gosh, I’m a super athletic monster, and I should be dominating these guys way more than I am”. He’s averaging a career best 15.7 points per game, and a solid 8.6 rebounds per contest, all while shooting 54.2% from the field. But don’t forget about the French-born Rudy Gobert either, who introduced himself to the world with blocks like this on Pau Gasol in this summer’s World Championships. He, despite playing just 21.6 minutes per game, is averaging 7.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Plus, there’s an extremely fun nickname race going on with this guy right now. “French Rejection” is decent, but it can’t hold a candle to “Stifle Tower”. Dang... that one’s awesome. We need more great nicknames in sports!

Our season feels like one giant Lance right to the face

18. Charlotte Hornets

I’m not going to completely blame Lance Stephenson for the struggles in Charlotte this year (Al Jefferson’s recent injury, and no Josh McRoberts, who was surprisingly crucial to their success last season), but he might be the worst and most disappointing signing of the off-season. I had my doubts about this one working out before the season even began, because he wasn’t exactly a model teammate in Indiana (he, along with the departure of Danny Granger, might be the main reasons for the Pacers shockingly and unexplainably collapse last year), and unfortunately for MJ’s team, those preseason fears have been realized. It’s never a good thing when you’re averaging more shot attempts per game (10.6) than points (9.8), or shooting almost 11% worse from the floor this year (38.5%) than you did last year (49.1%). Giving him $27 million over the next three years is basically like taking $27 million and flushing it down the toilet. Though, to be fair, that actually might be a better use of that money, because at least the toilet won’t hurt your team.

Who are these guys and when did they suddenly become legitimate NBA players?

17. Miami Heat
16. Milwaukee Bucks

Miami’s Hassan Whiteside and Milwaukee’s Brandon Knight are the two biggest breakout players of this NBA season. Before this year, Knight’s most famous NBA moment was this poster he got put on by Deandre Jordan, but he’s doing his best to make that a distant memory (he’ll never be able to, but still) with his impressive campaign this year. He’s been one of the best point guards in the East this season (behind John Wall and Kyle Lowry), averaging about 18 points and 5 assists a game, and is the major reason the Bucks are in playoff contention, and have stayed afloat, despite Jabari Parker’s torn ACL and Larry Sanders’ constant insanity and zany antics. Here’s an interesting question: if Knight and Kyrie Irving switched places, would Milwaukee still be 23-22? Considering Kyrie, before this season, had never played on a team above .500, I’d say they wouldn’t be. And what would the Cavs record be with Knight? They’re 26-20 right now; is it unreasonable to assume they’d be 30-16 instead? Knight doesn’t hog the ball or over-dribble like Irving, and he actually encourages ball movement. Give me Brandon Knight all day, every day.

As shocking as Knight’s rise has been, there isn’t a more “who the bleep are you” guy than Hassan Whiteside, who literally came from nowhere (he played one year at Marshall, and spent time overseas playing in Lebanon) to become a major contributor in the Heat lineup. His 14 point, 13 rebound, 12 block performance on Sunday has to be the most improbable and random triple double in the history of the NBA. Lucky for me, I scooped him up about two weeks ago out of free agency for my fantasy team. He’s paid off more than I ever imagined.

As mentioned above, I’ll be back with my top 15 early next week. Also, stay tuned for my Super Bowl thoughts and prediction on Friday.

Friday, January 9, 2015

How Do You Win On The Road In The NFL Playoffs? My Divisional Round Picks

It’s Divisional Playoff Weekend in the NFL, and we’re fresh off an exhilarating set of Wild Card games that saw Arizona manage a jaw-dropping and how-is-that-even-possible 78 yards, another prime example of a “Big Game Andy” performance in Colts-Bengals, and an abysmal call in the Lions-Cowboys game that’s gotten way too much credit for the Dallas victory.

In terms of this round though, I’ve got a dirty little secret for you: one of the four road teams (Baltimore, Carolina, Dallas, and Indianapolis) will leave their friendly confines, overcome the odds (none of them are favored), and win. Seriously, It's going to happen. History is on that side, because it’s occurred at least once every year since 2005 in the Divisional Playoffs. In fact, since that season, 14 of the 36 road teams have entered this weekend and left victorious, an average of a little more than one and a half teams per year.

So who are the most likely road winners? The teams that win away from home (or win, in general) in the playoffs typically fall into a few of these categories:

  1. They’re hotter and healthier than their home counterparts
  2. They have an elite, game-changing, championship-winning skill (they’re great at rushing the passer, can control the clock with the running game, etc.), while the home team they’re facing doesn’t
  3. They’ve got the best, hottest quarterback on the field
  4. They’ve got the best coach in the game
  5. They’ve traditionally been a tough match up for the home team they’re playing

So which team traveling this weekend is most likely to win? Let’s look at the matchups.

Baltimore at New England

Hotter and Healthier
Edge: Ravens

The Patriots won three games in a row from Weeks 14-16, before losing to Buffalo in their finale, a game where they virtually rested everyone. I know I basically took a crap on everything Baltimore last week, including their less than impressive end to the season, but they looked better than anyone in last weekend’s Wild Card games, as they absolutely dismantled the Steelers, one of the hottest teams in the league. Also, keep in mind that New England hasn’t played a serious game in two weeks, which is a bigger deal than you realize. Think about this: they’ve been grinding as hard as they possibly can every week since August, only, all of the sudden, that sense of urgency was ripped right out from under them the last two weeks, because they really haven't had to prepare for, or be focused on, an opponent. It makes you wonder if they’ll have lost a little bit of an edge by kickoff. And it’s not like this would be the first time resting guys in Week 17 and then having a bye week came back to bite someone. Remember all of Peyton Manning’s early playoff exits? How many times did they have everything locked up by the final week of the season, so they rested everyone, and then had a bye in the Wild Card round, which was immediately followed by a lackluster performance against an inferior opponent in their Divisional Game? They just seemed like they'd lose their edge in those two weeks without football. Baltimore has been all about football for the entire season, and just last week, they got back their elite defensive tackle Haloti Ngata from his suspension for performance enhancing drugs.

Elite, Championship Winning Skill
Edge: Draw

Baltimore might have the best front seven in the league; New England has like a zillion strong, fast, athletic freaks, as evidenced by their complete and absolute demolition of San Diego’s offense in Week 14.

The Ravens’ weakness, their terrible secondary, is almost as debilitating as the Patriots’ lack of weapons. The Pats have one skill position player on their roster that scares me, tight end Rob Gronkowski. Besides that? There’s a lot of nobodies and people no one has ever heard of.

Best, Hottest Quarterback
Edge: Draw

Tom Brady could be the NFL MVP this season, but don’t forget that Joe Flacco, after last week’s victory, has now won SEVEN road playoff games in his career. SEVEN!!! That’s crazy, and more than all but five TEAMS in the history of the league. Flacco is money is the postseason, and it’s just another reason as to why I’m an idiot for not only picking against, but also summarily dismissing, them last week.

Best Coach
Edge: Draw

Both Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh are among the five best coaches in the NFL, though I think Belichick has probably gotten too much credit for the success of the Pats, while Harbaugh hasn’t gotten enough praise for the job he’s done in Baltimore. Plus, John has been there for all seven of Flacco’s road playoff wins. He’s got to get some credit for that right?

Has Baltimore been recently successful against New England?
Answer: Yes

Since Flacco and Harbaugh arrived in Baltimore, the Ravens are 3-4 against the Patriots, including two road playoff wins, the 2009 AFC Wild Card Round, and the 2012 AFC Championship Game. They’ve always been a tough match up for New England, and I expect the same on Saturday.

Prediction: Patriots

I think New England wins close, but it won’t be easy. I think their two week layoff is a bigger deal than anyone realizes, and I know they’re going to have an extremely difficult time keeping Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil out of Tom Brady’s face. However, unlike years’ past, the Pats can also cause Baltimore the same type of problems with pass rushers, and they have the best cornerback tandem outside of Seattle. This, since October, has consistently been the best team in the NFL, and it just feels like their year. It’ll be a great game, but the Pats will win, barely.

Carolina at Seattle

Hotter and Healthier
Edge: Seahawks

Carolina, after not winning a game for seven weeks in a row, have now ripped off five straight victories…. over New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Arizona. Not exactly a Murderer’s Row, but still somewhat impressive. Seattle, on the other hand, got Bobby Wagner back and instantly won six games in a row, giving up an average of just 6.5 points a game during that stretch. I love what Carolina has done, but nobody was hotter than Seattle down the stretch.

Elite, Championship Winning Skill
Edge: Seahawks

I’m not sure what Carolina’s elite skill is exactly, and I don’t think anyone who is 7-8-1 is even capable of having one. They run the ball decently well, the defense comes and goes, and they’re pretty physical, but are they “elite” anywhere on the field? I don’t think so. Seattle’s pass rush and secondary is humming just like they were last season, and the offense is good enough, despite the fact that they’ve got the worst skill position players in the playoffs. They just need Russell Wilson to make a few plays here and there and they’ll be fine.

Best, Hottest Quarterback
Edge: Draw

I don’t think QB play will ultimately make a difference in this game, and if we’re being honest, what does Russell Wilson give you that Cam Newton can’t? I can’t think of anything. Wilson is a great athlete, but Newton is an absolute monster. He’s got Roethlisberger’s body, Michael Vick’s legs, and Aaron Rodgers’ arm, and if he ever figured out how to put it all together, he’d be really special. Plus, if these two switched places, would these teams’ records have changed at all the last three years? I feel like they wouldn’t. Both teams rely heavily on their defense and running game, and they only need their quarterback to make a few plays a game to be successful.

Best Coach
Edge: Seahawks

I don’t think either of these guys are geniuses, but Pete Carroll does have a Super Bowl ring, and Ron Rivera doesn’t. I’m not really sure how to compare these two other than that. Like a lot of NFL coaches, there’s a few smart guys (Belichick, Harbaugh), a few morons (Wade Phillips), and everyone else is somewhere in the middle. The coaching match up really only matters if you’ve got a clown like Jim Zorn going on the road to play a smart guy like Tom Coughlin.

Has Carolina been recently successful against Seattle?
Answer: Yes

These teams have played each other the last three seasons, with each game taking place in Charlotte. Seattle has won all of them, but each contest has been an all out war. Here are the scores:

2012: 16-12
2013: 12-7
2014: 13-9

Those results are really the only reason I have any hope that this game will be competitive. The Panthers are one of the few teams that can physically match up with the Seahawks, and they never back down from their challenge. Then again, they’ve never played them in Seattle, with the 12th man screaming like a bunch of nut jobs for three hours.

Prediction: Seahawks

I want this to be a close game, but it feels like it could get ugly quickly, and look like every other Seattle game the last six weeks, where the score always looks like it’s in reach, only you know it’s really not, because the Seahawk defense just keeps murdering every offensive series put forth by the opposition. This just seems like a 19-3 type of game.

Indianapolis at Denver

Hotter and Healthier
Edge: Draw

Neither of these teams exactly tore it up down the stretch, though the Broncos really haven’t impressed me since October. Indy didn’t beat a really good team all year outside two victories over Cincinnati, and Manning’s arm looks dead, and has gotten progressively worse over the season. None of these teams are really banged up, but it feels like these are the only two playoff squads that have gotten WORSE as the season went along.

Elite, Championship Winning Skill
Edge: Broncos

The Colts have the worst roster of everyone in the playoffs. Take Andrew Luck off that team and they probably win four games. Seriously. It’s terrible. The defense isn’t any good, the offensive line seems like it’s held together by clothespins, and the only thing I can compare to their running game is Lil Wayne’s musical talent (which is non-existent). It’s Luck or bust every single week for this team. That’s good enough to get to the Divisional playoffs, but I doubt it’ll ever be enough for anything more than that. At least Denver has a top three defense, and mysteriously began to run the ball effectively at the end of the season (C.J. Anderson is averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and 108 yards per contest over the Broncos’ last six games). Plus, if Manning can get the ball to them, they’ve got some of the best playmakers in the NFL.

Best, Hottest Quarterback
Edge: Colts

What Manning am I going to get? He hasn’t been able to throw the ball down the field all season, even in warm weather with no wind. Why would I trust him to be able to do that now, on a day with a high of 45 and light winds? That doesn’t sound horrible, but don’t forget that Peyton’s ball had trouble cutting through the relatively warm San Diego air in Week 15. I don’t have any doubts about Luck being able to power the football through the conditions. I can’t say that about Manning.

Best Coach
Edge: Draw

To me, their isn’t any perceptible difference between Chuck Pagano and John Fox. Both are smart guys, and I’d be happy with either of them as my head coach.

Has Indianapolis been recently successful against Denver?
Answer: Yes

These teams have met twice since Manning moved on to Denver, and Luck arrived in Indianapolis. The Colts won the match up in Lucas Oil Stadium in 2013, and Denver narrowly escaped victorious in this year’s game, which occurred all the way back in Week 1. Unlike the Baltimore-New England and Carolina-Seattle games, I don’t feel like the previous meetings between these teams will really be an indication of anything. Peyton just doesn’t look like he’s even close to being the same guy he was back in September, and because of that, this Bronco team plays and feels completely different.

Prediction: Broncos

I flipped back and forth on this game a zillion times before finally throwing my hands up in the air and siding with Denver. I just can’t see a team with Andrew Luck and a bunch of scrubs playing in the AFC Championship Game. They really need to do a better job of improving that roster that’s one Luck away from being the Tennessee Titans. Even if Manning plays poorly, the Broncos still have enough on the defensive side of the ball to give the Indy offense some problems, and the Colts’ D shouldn’t put up all that much resistance against the newfound Denver rushing attack.

Dallas at Green Bay

Hotter and Healthier
Edge: Cowboys

Dallas has won five games in a row since getting embarrassed at home by Philly on Thanksgiving. Green Bay, after winning nine out of ten games from Week 4 to Week 14, had a less than stellar finish to the season, as they got dismantled by Buffalo, and struggled more with Tampa Bay more than they should have, before knocking off Detroit in Week 17. Plus, they’re dealing with Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury, which was reported yesterday to be both a strain and tear. Not good. How much will he be affected on Sunday? I have no idea, but it certainly won’t help.

Elite, Championship Winning Skill
Edge: Cowboys

Both of these teams have great offensive lines, but Green Bay never quite figured out how to run behind it this season like Dallas did. That might be where Demarco Murray comes in, and the Pack don’t have a back anywhere close to his caliber. The Cowboys, solely on the strength of that running game, could win the Super Bowl. It controls the clock and keeps their suspect defense on the sidelines and out of harms way.

Best, Hottest Quarterback
Edge: Packers

I have a lot of respect for the way Tony Romo played this season. I never thought I’d say this, but incredibly, at some point this season, he won me over. But compared to Rodgers? Please. I’d take him even with his calf injury. How is it possible that this guy hasn’t thrown a home interception since 2012?

Best Coach
Edge: Draw (maybe)

It’s not a draw if “I’m An Idiot” Jason Garrett shows up, meaning the guy who abandons the running game after the first quarter, a common theme for Cowboy teams during his tenure. But if the other Garrett arrives in Packerland, the guy who smartly allowed his team to run the ball 508 times this season, then the coaching match up is basically a dead heat. I like Mike McCarthy, but is he any more brilliant than “I Don’t Feel Like Continuing To Stick My Head Up My Butt” Jason Garrett? I don’t think so.

Has Dallas been recently successful against Green Bay?
Answer: No

The Cowboys haven’t beat the Packers since 2008, and lost their most recent meeting by a point last season in Jerry World. But much like the Denver-Indy game, I don’t feel like their recent meetings will really tell us anything about the game, mostly because Dallas plays completely different now than they have at any point during the Romo era. They’ve never run the ball like this, and been committed to doing it.

Prediction: Cowboys

I can’t believe I’m picking Dallas to win this game. I really can’t. But they’ve got the makeup of a team that’s capable of going into Lambeau and winning. Weather shouldn’t be too much of a factor, because they’ll pound the football the entire game. Plus, they’re the only team in the NFL that went undefeated on the road, and Rodgers’ calf injury gives me just enough pause to think that the Cowboys might actually do this.

Dallas seems to have turned the corner, and are no longer, in the words of Screamin’ A. Smith, “an accident waiting to happen”. Last week’s game against the Lions illustrated this perfectly. They trailed from Detroit’s opening possession until Terrance Williams’ late TD. If this was any Cowboy team from the last 15 years, they would’ve eventually folded their tents, and gone back home with their tails tucked between their legs. But strangely, and very un-Cowboy-like, they kept fighting. The defense amazingly dug in, and Romo stepped up and made some enormous plays down the stretch. Dallas is a better team than Green Bay, and they’ll prove it on Sunday.

And, like always, the minute I declare that the Cowboys are back, they’ll get blasted 45-7. Just watch. But if Dallas does win, and there's the inevitable shot of Jerry Jones's box, my Angry Old Man just wanted everyone to know that he'll break his TV if he sees Chris Christie's fat butt in Jerry's box. He's, in his words, is "tired of loud-mouthed, jock-sniffing politicians always hanging around sports teams!" And, solely because of that, I hope Christie is in Jerry's Box. I really do. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ohio State Topples Alabama, And NFL Wild Card Weekend Picks

Yesterday was a historic day for college football, one that will be remembered forever in the hearts and minds of everyone who loves the sport, as the first ever playoff games were held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. It was a great and exciting day for the college game, and both games were, at times, highly contested. And at the end of the day, we ended up with the unexpected championship game of Oregon and Ohio State.

Ohio State? What? They, with a third string quarterback, knocked off Alabama?

Buckeyes Overcome The Tide

For me, this was one of the most surprising results of the college football season. It wasn't because I was under the false impression that Alabama was great; I just thought that any time you give Nick Saban a month to prepare for a third string quarterback, Cardale Jones, who isn’t overly accurate (he was 18-35 yesterday) making just the second start of his career, there’s a pretty good chance that this one could get out of hand pretty quickly. And when ‘Bama led 21-6 in the second quarter, I thought we’d reached that point. But, surprisingly, Ohio State mustered a huge drive that ended with a 3 yard touchdown run by Ezekiel Elliot, and then cut the lead to 21-20 just before halftime on a 13 yard touchdown pass by wide receiver Evan Spencer.

At that point, the momentum had flipped, and OSU came out of the locker room like gangbusters, scoring the next two touchdowns (including an interception of Blake Sims that was returned for a touchdown), capping off a 28-0 run that put them ahead 34-21.

Alabama would add a touchdown late in the 3rd quarter that cut the lead to 34-28, but as the 4th quarter wore on, the Tide just couldn’t push through. After one of the worst punts I’ve ever seen by a college punter, ‘Bama started their possession at the Ohio State 23 yard line. And on the first play of that drive, Sims dropped back to pass and threw his second interception of the game.

Late in the 4th quarter, as the Buckeyes held the ball deep in their own territory, clinging to a 34-28 lead, my Angry Old Man asked me what I thought was going to happen. Honestly, at that moment, I thought Alabama would stop them, force a punt, get the ball back, and take it down the field for the winning touchdown. That program has been in this spot a few times during the Saban era, and besides a few rare cases (like the Kick Six), they just seem to always miraculously pull these games out. And when they do lose close games, it always feels wrong, like it wasn’t supposed to happen.

Well, incredibly, and strangely enough, literally on the play after I announced that I thought they’d win, Ezekiel Smith, thanks to a few great blocks, sprung for what was virtually a game-winning 85 yard touchdown run.

Alabama got the ball back and quickly scored to cut the lead to 42-35, and then, after a failed onside kick, stopped Ohio State, and started their do-or-die possession deep in their own territory with just over a minute and a half to go. Sure, driving the field in that little of time would be unexpected, and incredible, but they wasted so much time on the drive, and were only able to advance the ball just past midfield. Sims’ desperation bomb to the end zone on the last play of the game was intercepted, and it was over.

I still can’t believe it. I’ll give the Buckeyes’ defense a ton of credit for locking down in the second half, but I also thought the Tide offense, when they were in tight spots throughout the game, went away from their best asset (and the reason they’ve won 3 national titles), that physical, pounding rushing offense. Sims threw the ball 36 times, which doesn’t sound like all that many, until you realize that Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon had only 23 carries combined. Amari Cooper is a great receiver, and if I’m Alabama, I’d want to target him as many times as possible, but the passing attack isn’t the strength of this team. I know Yeldon was banged up a little bit, but this game was for your entire season. Why change strategy right now, in the biggest contest of the year? They were never far enough behind in the game, besides late in the 4th quarter, when they had no choice but to completely abandon their rushing attack, yet they spent a large portion of the game doing that very thing.

Those decisions, along with Sims’ turnovers, the poor tackling, particularly on Ezekiel Smith, who had 230 yards on just 20 carries, and the terrible time management at the end of the game were all very un-Alabama-like things that caused them to lose. I don’t want to take any credit away from Ohio State, because they were definitely the better team yesterday, but it seems like every time the Tide have lost under Saban, the game is always full of plays like that. The “Game of the Century” against LSU in 2011 was full of turnovers, and  also included one of the worst kicking displays I’ve ever seen in a college game. When they blew their huge lead in the Auburn game in 2010, the Tigers benefited from a rare Mark Ingram fumble, and another possession that ended when Alabama coughed the ball up in the red zone. In this year’s Ole Miss game, the Rebels returned a fumble for a touchdown, and made an amazing interception on a Sims' throw into the end zone late in the game. In the game against Texas A&M in 2012 that put Johnny Football on the map, the Tide were on the doorstep of taking the lead when A.J. McCarron’s 4th down and goal pass was intercepted in the front corner of the end zone.

These are just some examples of games they lost, but I’d encourage you to go back and read about any of their losses since 2008. They’re full of this well-oiled, highly efficient team not executing like one. And because they do everything so perfect almost every week, it’s even more evident when they don’t play that way, and when they make enormous, game-altering mistakes.

Ducks Trample Seminoles

Oregon, with yesterday’s performance, showed why they’ve probably been the best team in the country over the last two months of the season. Don’t forget that Florida State was in the game at halftime, with the momentum, trailing just 18-13, before they committed four enormous, game-changing turnovers that all led to Oregon touchdowns, including the fumble by Jameis Winston that basically clinched the game for the Ducks. It was amazing how quickly the game flipped in that third quarter, and it all started with that defense. I never thought I’d come away from an Oregon game praising the play of the defense, but in this case, they were the reason Oregon won by 39. Sure, Mariota was great (26-36, 338 yards passing, 62 yards rushing, and 3 total touchdowns), but the defense, with those turnovers, kept giving the offense short field after short field, something the Ducks’ are pretty much always going to capitalize on. This is the best Oregon team I’ve ever seen, and it’s because of the defense. They’ve always been unstoppable on offense, and their quarterback play has been great, even before Mariota arrived, but this is the best and most physical defense and team they’ve ever had.

The Best Day In The History Of The Big 10

Ok, that’s not true, but yesterday was a great day for that conference, one that everyone had been trashing all season, including me. I’ll stand by everything I said and wrote about that league this season, because I still think they were terrible for much of the year, but they certainly scored some huge victories yesterday. Baylor collapsed, much like TCU did against them, and allowed Michigan State to make some gigantic plays down the stretch in their improbable comeback win. Melvin Gordon gashed Auburn all day, and of course, there’s Ohio State, who pulled off the biggest win of the day.

Maybe, instead of saying “Wow, the Big 10 is great!” why don’t we say, “Hmmm…. Maybe the SEC just wasn’t that good this year”. Why is that a problem? Half of the defenses in the conference sucked, and the other half were somewhere between “pretty good” and “we get torched once every two or three weeks”. I mean, when was the last time you saw a Big 10 team just absolutely push around an SEC team? It happened twice just yesterday! Auburn couldn’t be bothered to even touch Gordon, and OSU, at times, looked faster and more physical than ‘Bama. And don’t forget New Years’ Eve, when Georgia Tech burned Mississippi State for 452 yards on the ground, and TCU, who made Ole Miss look like a terrified JV team play against the varsity.

I still think the SEC is the best conference in the country, and one bad bowl season can’t change that, but maybe, just maybe, everyone else is quickly and quietly closing the gap. Frankly though, getting pushed around like that in multiple games should be the most concerning thing for this league going forward. Sure, the SEC would lose bowl games in the past, but it wasn’t because they got punched in the mouth so many times that they just couldn’t fight anymore. But that reality was evident, at least at some point, in almost every one of their losses the last two days. It’s been a nice, decade long run of dominance for them, but it might be over sooner than they ever dreamed of. We’ll see what happens next season, and in the years beyond that.

Now, onto my Wild Card Weekend picks for the NFL (Home team in CAPS)…..

PANTHERS over Cardinals

I can’t believe I’m taking Carolina in this game. I really can’t. This is literally the toilet bowl of the NFL playoffs, because I couldn’t see myself picking either one of these teams against anyone else in the playoffs. Unfortunately, someone has to win, and I went with the Panthers for three reasons:

  1. I’m never picking a team quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley to win a road playoff game. That’s about as smart as bloodletting, which is basically attaching leeches to your body to get rid of disease, a common medical practice that occurred up until the late 19th century.
  2. Carolina, winners of four in a row, is the hotter of the two teams entering this match up, even though they didn’t beat anyone in those games with a winning record. It’s ok though, because here’s the number of points Arizona scored in their last six games: 3, 18, 17, 12, 6, and 17. That’s, for those of you not doing math at home, an average of about 12.2 points per contest. Not good.
  3. The last two times a team .500 or below hosted a playoff game in the Wild Card Round, they won. In 2008, San Diego, winners of the AFC West at 8-8, defeated the Colts, and in 2010, the 7-9 Seahawks, winners of the NFC West, bowled over the Saints, thanks in large part to this Marshawn Lynch TD run. So, stupidly enough, history is on the side of the crappy division winners hosting a playoff game.

It’s a shame the Cards’ season is going to end like this. If only Carson Palmer didn’t get hurt. It’s just a lost season, and one that could’ve ended with Arizona hosting the Super Bowl in their own stadium.

STEELERS over Ravens

I’m not sure how glad I am that we’re getting this game again. It is one of the best rivalries in the NFL, but just how good is Baltimore exactly? They only have two impressive wins all season; their domination of Pittsburgh all the way back in Week 2, and a 15 point victory in Miami in Week 14. And then you look at their last three games; a hotly contested eight point victory over the lowly Jaguars, a loss at Houston, one of their worst-played games of the season, and a ten point victory over Cleveland, one the Ravens were actually trailing in at the start of the 4th quarter.

The only concern for Pittsburgh is that they’ll be without Le’Veon Bell, who accounted for 35.4% of Steelers’ yards this season. That’s a huge blow, and an enormous obstacle, but it’s not like they don’t have more than enough playmakers, particularly in the passing game, to overcome basically any injury, particularly against a team like Baltimore that has it’s own issues. Plus, the last time these teams played, Pittsburgh won on the strength of Ben Roethlisberger’s arm (he threw six touchdown passes), and the pass rush generated by their front seven. As far as I can tell, both of those things will still be around tomorrow night.

COLTS over Bengals

Really, all I need to say about this one is, “I’m not picking Andy Dalton to win a road playoff game, because that’s about as smart as nailing a board to your head”. Seriously. Who has faith in Cincy this week? I know I don’t. Throw in A.J. Green’s concussion (who knows how well he’ll play this weekend?), and I’ve basically got enough evidence to go completely the other way. As talented as the Bengals roster is, they reek of, “We never step up in big games”. That’s what happens when Marvin Lewis is your head coach, and you’re quarterbacked by Big Game Andy. Lewis is 0-5 in the playoffs, and 0-3 with Dalton, who has completed a paltry 56.91% of his passes, while throwing six interceptions with just one touchdown. I’ll believe Cincinnati can win a playoff game when they actually do it.

DALLAS over Detroit

Having Ndamukong Suh’s suspension for stomping on Aaron Rodgers’ leg should help Detroit, because they’ll need him to be great all game if they’re going to have any hope of slowing down the Cowboys’ ground attack. The most surprising thing about Detroit’s season has been their lack of offensive firepower, something I never thought I’d say. They scored over 30 just three times, and averaged just 20.1 points per game, 22nd in the NFL, and 11th of the 12 playoff teams (only Arizona scored less per game). And since I don’t have any faith in them slowing down the Dallas running game (they’ve gashed everyone this season), they’ll need a great performance from Matt Stafford and that offense, something I’m not sure that group is capable of mustering, even against the mediocre Cowboy defense. The worst case scenario for the Lions is, unfortunately for them, what I think will happen; Dallas will churn up a zillion yards on the ground, control the time of possession, get a few nice throws from Tony Romo, a touchdown or two from Dez Bryant, and leave Jerry World with a comfortable, double digit victory.

So, like always, enjoy football this weekend. You deserve it.