Monday, September 02, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your 2013 Tennessee Titans….Are a What-If Proposition

It’s déjà vu all over again for the Tennessee Titans in 2013. That means a season of  “what-ifs”—and a season of “what-ifs” usually translates to mediocrity. But if the Titans’ defense replicates 2012’s study in incompetence—471 points allowed, by far the worst in the entire league—we may actually be viewing a repeat of last season’s 6-10 finish as a hopeful thing. As it is, it looks like 5-11 is a realistic projection. To surpass that, here’s what needs to happen:
1. Somehow, defensive coordinator Jerry Gray becomes a creative and perspicacious planner and an ace motivator.
Chances are that isn’t going to happen, and the fact that former NFL head coach and Saints DC (and Bountygate co-star) Gregg Williams is hanging around as consultant just seems weird. But maybe most importantly, there are no game-changing upgrades to the defensive personnel. That includes Bernard Pollard, who might have something left in the tank—as a safety, mind you—but has never earned Pro Bowl honors. When local media keep talking about your contribution as inspirational force, it’s time to start looking down the depth chart.
2. Quarterback Jake Locker establishes early on that he’s ready to officially launch his big-time NFL career.
All the signs are positive, but the third-year kid is still an unknown quantity. His backup is former Bills wannabe Ryan Fitzpatrick, who suddenly went from franchise QB with big contract to expendable journeyman in the blink of an eye. Hard to believe the Titans are better off without Matt Hasselbeck, whom they let walk, and now, irony of ironies, hangs his helmet in Indianapolis with the AFC South rival Colts. (Scenario waiting to happen: Andrew Luck gets hurt against the Titans and Hasselbeck steps up in a relief role and saves the day for Indy.)
3. Chris Johnson recaptures the brilliance of 2009.
Hmmm….not likely. He turns 28 on Sept. 23. He may still produce at a high statistical level, but unless the Titans’ air attack blossoms to the point where CJ2K can pace himself easily and function as more of a surprise weapon, he’ll probably have his share of tougher days. Johnson only had five 100-yard games in 2012.
4. The reworked offensive line excels.
Well, it may happen, and if the Titans’ offense has a legit glimmer of hope, it’s that free agent Andy Levitre and rookie Chance Warmack might inject some beastliness into the trenches, thus protecting Locker sufficiently and giving Johnson room to run. Fingers crossed.
5. The receiving corps reaches its long-overdue potential.
This prospect is closely tied to Locker’s performance, of course. Nate (the Great) Washington is one of the most underrated WRs in the league. If newcomer Delanie Walker regains maximum health, the highly touted (if possibly overrated) free agent tight end should provide a stable target. Same goes for TE Craig Stevens. Then there’s talented, injury-prone sorta/maybe head case WR Kenny Britt. This is a make-or-break season for Britt. Wideout Damian Williams has developed into a reliable pro. Younger talent Kendall Wright and rookie Justin Hunter are definitely “what-if” guys, and maybe there’s a monster player there waiting to happen.
Critical Variables
Gray’s skills as a DC aside, there are otherwise just flat-out many question marks about the personnel he’s been handed. The talent falls into three categories: 1) Guys who ought to be good but you can never be sure of (Derrick Morgan, Michael Griffin); 2) Guys who have seen better days (Pollard, Kamerion Wimbley); and younger pros who need to establish themselves as winners (Alterraun Verner, Jason McCourty, Jurell Casey, and the trio of LBs Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy and Akeem Ayers).  Depth is another big what-if.
If the defense hardly improves, the offense, under OC Dowell Loggains, would have to show marked gains to give the Titans a chance to win some 35-34 ballgames. Strictly speculative business, though.
Head coach Mike Munchak: It’s make-or-break for him, as well. “Munch” is a very even-keel personality and seems like a genuinely decent human being. But besides being a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, he projects only a Joe Average energy and a pretty dull charisma. Is he the firebrand leader and strategically perceptive taskmaster who can take this team into the playoffs?
The ultimate arbiter of a regressive 2013? The schedule. Here it is, with predicted outcomes:
Sept. 8 at Pittsburgh—L      
Sept. 15 at Houston—L      
Sept. 22 vs. San Diego—W      
Sept. 29 vs. N.Y. Jets—W      
Oct. 6 vs. Kansas City—L      
Oct. 13 at Seattle—L      
Oct. 20 vs. San Francisco—L      
Nov. 3 at St. Louis—L      
Nov. 10 vs. Jacksonville—W      
Nov. 14 vs. Indianapolis—L      
Nov. 24 at Oakland—W      
Dec. 1 at Indianapolis—L      
Dec. 8 at Denver—L      
Dec. 15 vs. Arizona—W      
Dec. 22 at Jacksonville—L      
Dec. 29 vs. Houston—L      
There are still plenty of “what-ifs” in the schedule.  Maybe the 1-5 divisional projection is too dour. Maybe Andy Reid’s Chiefs squad won’t be that good, after all. Ditto, Jeff Fisher and the Rams.
On the other hand, the Titans have always had trouble with San Diego, so that’s no gimme even if it is a home game. And who knows what could happen in Oakland. The Titans don’t usually fare well on those long western jaunts.  
Fantasy scenario
The offense rises up under an inspired Locker and a killer OL, Johnson runs like a madman, the youngster WRs catch fire and go wild with their YAC stats, and Jerry Gray’s defense totally jells in every phase, thus making 27-10 victories possible every week of the season.
Sorry, Virginia…in fact, there is NO Santa Claus. But it’s nice to dream.
Go Titans!!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Aces Wild: Elite MLB Starters Are Off to Rocky Start in 2013

Distressed that your favorite pitcher kind of sucks this year? Worried that the ace of the staff of your favorite team might have suddenly lost his stuff forever? Yeah, well, there’s a lot of that going around.

While some of MLB’s star starting pitchers—Kershaw, Lester, Buchholz, Wainwright, Lee, Zimmermann—are achieving at exceptional levels, there are some big-name arms out there who can’t seem to get untracked. Either their pitching flat out stinks (Mark Buehrle), or injuries have hit them hard (Roy Halladay), or their teammates haven’t gotten them any runs (Stephen Strasburg). Even the great Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, perennial Cy Young candidates both, have struggled to stay above .500.

Here are the current aces of mediocrity, with their current records. Chances are most will turn things around before the season is out, but for someone like Cole Hamels (left), it’s gonna take a very hot streak to re-enter the zone of elite hurlers. For others, like 33-year-old Josh Beckett (5.19 ERA, with a 1.5 WHIP), the end may be nearer than we know.

American League
CC Sabathia, Yankees, 4-4
David Price, Rays, 1-4
R. A. Dickey, Blue Jays, 4-6
Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays, 1-3
Josh Johnson, Blue Jays, 0-1
Justin Verlander, Tigers, 5-4
James Shields, Royals, 2-5
C. J. Wilson, Angels, 4-3
Felix Hernandez, Mariners, 5-4

National League
Kris Medlen, Braves, 1-5
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals, 3-5
Roy Halladay, Phillies, 2-4
Cole Hamels, Phillies, 1-8
A.J. Burnett, Pirates, 3-5
Yovani Gallardo, Brewers, 3-5
Kyle Lohse, Brewers, 1-5
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs, 2-6
Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks, 2-3
Trevor Cahill, Diamondbacks, 3-5
Tim Lincecum, Giants, 3-4
Edinson Volquez, Padres, 3-5
Josh Beckett, Dodgers, 0-5

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Tiger's Masters Drop-Shot

About Tiger Woods' Friday afternoon 15th Hole misadventure at the Masters:

I think Tiger broke the rules the way he handled his replacement shot. He clearly dropped the ball where HE wanted it to lie, and as he admitted later, he did so because he "needed a couple of yards."  

I have to say that I think he should have disqualified himself, and that another golfer probably would have.  

The actuality of the rule and the spirit of the game dictated that Tiger do it right—and he didn't. I think the Masters committee wimped out when they let Tiger submit his scorecard and then penalized him later, using the sequence of events as an excuse not to throw the book at him and DQ him. This way, they feel "better" about the slap on the wrist and their big media draw gets to keep playing.

I still don't understand why tourney officials aren't readily on site—out on the course—to steer players through the rules appropriately. Or are they, and Tiger didn't want to deal with one? But when they are not there, then the self-policing issue comes into play. 

As for people calling in from TV-Land, that seems totally inappropriate. The Masters officials should be watching everything, but of course they do not watch everybody, especially guys out of contention. 

The evidence is clear. Given his choice to re-hit the original shot—there were other options available—Tiger gave himself an advantage by dropping the ball intentionally further back, to accommodate the shot HE wanted to make. No one gets that benefit on tour. Play it as it lays, and drop it according to the rules.

Unfortunately, this just makes me think that Tiger's arrogance allows him to get his way (officials intimidated?)—and he clearly does not have the integrity to stand up and do the right thing.

To me, it looks bad, and it makes Tiger look selfish and entitled. 

Methinks the game just got a little smaller.   

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is Maria Ready for Serena? Sony Open Final Today

The BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells was held March 4-17. After the U.S. Open, it is one of the more important tennis tourneys on U.S. soil, with a warm California setting and a $5M total purse that includes a $1M payout to the singles winners. 

I missed seeing any of the tourney on the telly this year. But just now, I finished watching a replay of Maria Sharapova's dissection of Caroline Wozniacki in the women's final. Maria totally kicked her ass. I mean, really dominated. I'm not sure I've ever seen her that strong.

Yes, Wozniacki is a vanilla player, but she is dogged and can volley all day. Still, Maria would not make mistakes and she was driving the ball ferociously to the corners. She even uncharacteristically came to the net once and caught up to a well-timed Wozniacki drop shot, then fired her return on a sharp angle for the point. Woz could only watch.

Despite her world acclaim as a tennis star, not to mention her imposing beauty, I never really followed Sharapova with any dedication until 2009, after learning about her physical problems. Namely, in August 2008, Sharapova withdrew from the Rogers Cup tournament following a shoulder injury. An MRI revealed that she had been suffering from a rotator cuff tear since April of that year, forcing her out of all tournaments for the rest of the season, including the Beijing Olympics and the U.S. Open. In October 2008, after a failed attempt to rehabilitate the shoulder naturally, Sharapova had surgery to repair the tear.

Hence, my interest in Sharapova has always been about seeing how she would respond, at the age of 21 and in her tennis prime, to an injury that might devastate her career. It's not that you can't function after rotator cuff surgery. It's: "Can you compete in international tennis against the likes of Serena Williams or Victoria Azarenka?"

Sharapova has made the return to form, for sure, has won one major (French 2012) and has competed quite well in other majors and minors. But she turns 26 on April 19, and that will make the Maria-Watch even more interesting, since—at an age when it might all be downhill from here—she seems to be, finally, at peak physical strength, in shape and fit, fully recovered from the shoulder problem, and ready to put it all together to win another major. 

Yet Serena—now 31, and still looking powerful as ever—continues to stand in the way of Maria's challenge to ladies tennis supremacy, and the two square off at 12 noon EST today in the final of the Sony Open in Miami. 

What to look for: Is Sharapova's power game now at a point where she can wear down the great Williams? Maria will also have to prove that her fit form means an improved ability to move toward the net as necessary. Serena proved in her semifinal victory over Agnieszka Radwanska that a drop shot is not outside of her
varied arsenal. 

Sharapova must also stay away from her occasional habit of

double-faulting—a holdover issue from her shoulder recovery. Based
on the Indian Wells results, it appears that Maria might be able
to simply outmuscle Serena—and that possibility is what makes
the match must viewing. 

CBS broadcasts the match live. 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Confederacy of Dunces: Multiple Storylines Blur Super Bowl XLVII Picture

Now that Randy Moss has opened his mouth and upped this week’s Obnoxious Factor, Super Bowl XLVII has indeed become a confederacy of dunces, a situation made perfect by its setting in New Orleans, where suicidal author John Kennedy Toole set his cult-favorite novel. (A Confederacy of Dunces, for those football fans who don’t know it.)

Toole would doubtless appreciate all the madness going on in the Crescent City. At first, it seemed like the Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh thing would drive us insane. They were interviewing the two coaches’ parents together on a dais the other day. Jack and Jackie. Parents of John and Jim. Football royalty now, I guess. All with a “J.”

Then there were rumblings about the King of Obnoxious, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, being suspected of ingesting a banned substance. I didn’t really grasp all that. (Deer antler spray? Sounds, uh...gamey.) If it stresses out Ray at all, then good, but I doubt the scuttlebutt on this will matter.

Better still were finally some detailed retrospectives on Lewis’ 2000 murder case. His lawyer from back then got some TV face time, and rather chuckled through his explanation that somehow the clothes Lewis was wearing the night he may have been accessory to murder in Atlanta magically disappeared for all time.

Let’s be clear: Lewis was not acquitted. He copped a plea to a lesser charge. So if you still want to lay the “thug” mantle on the guy, go ahead. Besides, this is no time for a kinder and gentler Ray to be playing linebacker. (The 49ers are coming, after all.)

Alas, Randy Moss had to muck with San Fran’s more positive PR with some ill-advised verbiage, mainly, his belief that he’s the greatest receiver of all time. Good, Randy—especially when everyone in Niners Nation (and every other nation) believes that former 49er Jerry Rice is now, and forever will be, the GREATEST receiver in all universal history. “Look at ME,” Randy seems to be saying, the fourth-leading receiver on his team.   

Finally, duncedom reached semi-critical mass this week when 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver became embroiled in an interview circumstance leading him to opine on the 21st century's favorite daily obsession: homosexuality. “I don’t do the gay guys, man,” Culliver said. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff. Nah … can’t be … in the locker room man. Nah.”

Allrighty then! 
Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s focus on the game, for Pete’s sake, ‘cause it should be a good one.

QBs: Colin Kaepernick vs. Joe Flacco
Both these guys keep avoiding the big flop. They look poised and strong, and have sent the leagues’ big-name vet signal callers to the bench this post-season. They are a study in contrast, with the Big K making an art form out of mobility, and Flak going the dropback route. Kaepernick threw only 4 interceptions all season, 1 in the playoff game vs. the Packers. Flacco has thrown no INTs in three post-season games. We’re looking here for signs about who might be prone to make the mistake on which big games can turn. If I had to pick one, I’d say Flacco, if only because he’s known to make mighty heaves down the field. Yet Kaepernick is still a very young player—and who knows what mistakes he's capable of. In case something goes very wrong, the Niners have the better backup, Alex Smith, who helmed his team only nine games ago.
Advantage: Even

Wide Receivers
Both corps are productive and capable of big plays, but the Ravens’ trio of Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith are tall, fast, can really stretch the field—and seem to be improving right before our eyes. The Niners offer Michael Crabtree and Moss, basically—and the loss of Mario Manningham to injury has been a real drag. Moss has caught five passes in the Niners’ two playoff games. It would be a huge boost if the old Randy showed up, but unfortunately the really old Randy might just show up instead. 
Advantage: Ravens

Tight Ends
After slumbering through the latter portion of the regular season, the talented Vernon Davis has come up big in the postseason for the Niners; Delanie Walker has also made some plays. Meanwhile, the previously little-known Dennis Pitta—looking like the second coming of Frank Wycheck—has emerged for the Ravens with 61 regular season catches and 10 in the playoffs. (Pitta has a sore thigh, for what that's worth.) Ed Dickson is also very capable for Baltimore.
Advantage: Slight edge, 49ers 

Running Backs
The Niners’ Frank Gore is a wonderful running back. Tough and determined, one more year like 2012 and Gore will reach the 10,000-yard career rushing mark. He’s averaged 4.7 yards per carry this season and has averaged over 100 yards in each of this season’s playoff games. Gore is 29, however, and this is probably his last hurrah. He hasn’t been a force catching passes out of the backfield as in previous years, but that could be a key role for him in this game, given the Niners’ lack of depth at receiver. The Ravens’ Ray Rice is in his prime at 25, and besides putting up rushing numbers similar to Gore’s, he caught 61 passes this season. Ravens rookie Bernard Pierce has emerged as a surprise backup, gaining 532 yards in the regular season, and 169 yards in the playoffs. Gore gets spelled by LaMichael James, talented and young but inexperienced.
Advantage: Ravens

If you crunch the numbers, these teams grade out pretty evenly on offense. But on defense, the 49ers have a huge edge, ranking 2d in the league in points allowed and 3d in yardage allowed. The Ravens are 12th and 17th, respectively, yet have looked more aggressive in the post-season. Holding the Patriots to 13 points in Foxboro was hugely impressive, and when you throw around veteran names like Lewis, Suggs, Reed, Ngata, Pollard, Kemoeatu, etc., you start to wonder if the Ravens aren't due for one last inevitable thuggish triumph. Their cornerbacks are suspect, though. The Niners’ D is younger and filled with All-Pro talent. Led by the awesome Patrick Willis at linebacker, they are strong at every tier, though they do need a serious game from 33-year-old DT Justin Smith, who's been slowed by a triceps injury. Linebacker Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks in the regular season.
Advantage: On paper, 49ers; but it’s a spiritual tossup

How the coaches scheme this one will have greater implications than maybe other Super Bowls. Latecomer Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell has had things go his way in the post-season, but this should be his stiffest test. The Niners secondary—Donte Whitner, Carlos Rogers, etc.—needs to clamp down on Boldin  & Co., and that should be a huge battle. Flacco needs time. Will he get it? Meanwhile, 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman needs to maximize his limited weapons. That means Crabtree and Davis, probably Gore out of the backfield for short passes, and, of course, Kaepernick continuing to pull off the surprising antics that can keep a defense off-balance. Only two teams have beaten Kaepernick this year: the Rams and the Seahawks, both NFC West foes that play tough defense and held the Niners to 13 points. Kaepernick is the key to a game that has the makings of a classic. If he performs lights out, he could have the Ravens' geezers gasping for air. The bookies are giving 4 points if you take the Ravens, but you might not even need 'em.

Prediction: Ravens 26, 49ers 21  

Thursday, January 24, 2013

They've Been Acting Kinda Mannish for a While Now, Anyway

Sorry, folks, I do not consider this a "progressive" development:

I guess all we need now is a real, honest-to-god ground war, so we can see lots of video and photos—YouTube!— of young women lying on the ground all mangled and bloody and missing their limbs and shit. And not just one or two women—a whole bunch, like 50 or 60. And then later, we can watch "60 Minutes" do a show about all these women who survived and had to get those titanium arms and legs after they lost them in combat. Of course, they'll "spin" it so it's a "feel-good" story about their courage—and their service to our country—and their determination to re-learn how to walk and stuff. Some might  even enter some athletic competitions and be "amazing."

(Well, that's one way Scott Pelley can sell Prilosec for CBS.)

"Women have long chafed under the combat restrictions and have increasingly pressured the Pentagon to catch up with the reality on the battlefield," says this story. Doh! Really? Which women is that? None that I know, anyway.

Tell me, ladies: Are you chafing longtime under combat restrictions?? And if so, why??   

Saturday, January 19, 2013

AFC/NFC Championships Risky Betting Propositions

When the Super Bowl was a lot younger than it is now, the playoffs seemed fairly predictable. Almost always, the better-rested division winners with the superior records advanced to the big game. My perception of recent years, however, is that we’ve had a few notable teams rise up from the wild card ranks, play big games on the road and emerge on top. So things are simply less predictable now, and you have to stay wary about teams who are trending up and appear able to slough off the drudgeries of cross-country air travel, deal with their comparative lack of R&R, and still bring it on conference championship Sunday.

Tomorrow could be an anything-can-happen kinda NFL experience. Or will the chalk quietly win out? On the other hand, can you call it “chalk” when a home team is a 4-point underdog? If I’m the Falcons, I’m at least somewhat insulted. Good bulletin-board material, though, I suppose.

We’re 6-2 so far this postseason, and Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers are my equals: Like me, they’ll be at home watching the action. Savor it—because a great Super Bowl is never promised.

San Francisco (12-4-1) at Atlanta (14-3)
Yup, the Falcons enter practically the biggest game in their franchise’s un-storied history as home underdogs. I can’t imagine when, since the merger, a playoff team with the very best record in pro football has ever been getting points on their home turf. It’s inexplicable. So let’s try to “explic” it:

For all their success, the Falcons just look vulnerable. They needed a near-miracle to oust the Seahawks last week, after blowing a considerable lead and, frankly, looking less worthy than their opponent. Yeah, being lucky is sometimes better than being good, but how long do you want to rely on that truism?

The Falcons are good, but they don’t read as dominant. They got a solid (and overdue) performance out of RB Michael Turner vs. the ‘Hawks, but can he repeat vs. the tough 49ers defense?

The unfortunately named “Matty Ice” seems like a softie where NFL elite QBs are concerned. Yes, he has talent—no one disputes that—and good weapons at his disposal. Moxie? In the BIG game?? I dunno—and clearly the handicappers are skittish.

On the Niners side, a late-breaking legal distraction regarding talented wide receiver Michael Crabtree can possibly be put off to the side for now. Sexual assault allegations? Sheesh…where does this stuff end?

Back to business: The Niners looked strong against the Packers, and as long as Wonder QB Colin Kaepernick keeps playing as he has, that balanced yet shifty offense should cause the Falcons some fits.

I don’t know about that point spread. My fingers are crossed, my money stays in my pockets, and I'm assuming there's no "Crabtree Effect." 

Prediction: 49ers 24, Falcons 20 

Baltimore (12-6) at New England (13-4)
In the AFC tilt, the Ravens are being gifted 8 points by the boys in Vegas. Seems a tad generous, unless the Ravens just totally lose all that heart they exhibited in besting the Broncos in Denver. Of course, the Broncos blew it. (They seemed less able to deal with the cold, ironically.)

Is Flacco for real? He seemed as lucky as the Falcons to me. Like Matt Ryan, he does have some weapons, but it’s a matter of whether everyone shows up. As for the Ravens defense, they hustled and played hard in Denver—then gave up 35 points, 14 against the special teams. This team lost six games in 2012, and there are reasons why. Call them inconsistent. 

The Patriots look like the same old, machinelike Patriots. The emergence of Shane Vereen as an offensive threat is pure Belichick gold, and proof again that a running GAME is more important than a running BACK. Tom Brady will be great so long as he is upright, and the loss of Gronk shouldn’t matter too much.

The defenses will have more to say about this outcome than the offenses, though. Can the Ravens muster one more big physical effort and rattle Brady’s cage? Will the Pats’ D always be alert to Ray Rice’s ground explosions or the size and speed of the Ravens wideouts?   

The more I think about this, the closer it gets.

Prediction: Patriots 27, Ravens 24   

Friday, January 11, 2013

Age Must Be Served: Veteran QBs Should Dominate Divisional Playoff Action

Round 2 of the NFL playoffs actually looks a bit more predictable than the opening weekend, though I certainly can’t eclipse last week’s 4-0 straight-up prognostications. In picking the one road winner, Seattle, I did so against my sentimental favorites, the Redskins. Heart? Meet head!

The Seahawks’ challenge definitely looks tougher this time around, but before we get to that, let’s ponder one big what-if in a year where rookie QBs have astounded. If Denver and New England win their home games, we get graybeards Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game. All will then be right with the football universe, and we can all feel younger—pretending it’s, well, at least 2006.

I’m rooting for the older guys. That includes 29-year-old Aaron Rodgers. But win or lose, their presence adds drama to the scenarios. Here goes nothing.

Saturday, January 12

Baltimore (11-6) at Denver (13-3) 
Who was impressed by Joe Flacco’s performance in last week’s Ravens victory over the Colts? Me neither. But he did average 23.5 yards per completion and he didn’t throw an interception. He was also bulwarked by 172 rushing yards, including 103 by Bernard Pierce. (Who? [A rookie out of Temple!]) Furthermore, Anquan Boldin certainly looked like the great receiver he can be, now that he's out from under the shadow of Larry Fitzgerald. The numbers reveal a balanced attack, but it still took the Ravens a while to slough off the hustling but inconsistent Colts, who racked up 152 rushing yards of their own, plus 267 net passing yards. The Ravens also committed nine penalties. So we don’t mean to rain on their parade, but they bring some underlying questions to the venue in Denver. The Broncos are rejuvenated under Manning, and not only offensively. The defense is fourth in the NFL in points allowed and the team second in point differential per game, including a 34-17 beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore just three weeks ago. The Denver running game is a little suspect but the committee approach has provided adequate yardage to set up Manning’s aerial wizardry (68.6%; 37 TDs; only 11 INTs). Ray-Ray’s last dance? We certainly hope so, but it probably won’t be a romp.
Prediction: Broncos 28, Ravens 17  
Green Bay (12-5) at San Francisco (11-4-1)
Last year’s Packers were 15-1 when the Giants invaded Lambeau Field and put a major hurt on ‘em, 37-20. Then the Giants went on to San Francisco and earned a Super Bowl berth knocking off the 49ers, 20-17. Well, the Giants aren’t around now, leaving these two to duke it out for old-school NFC supremacy. The Packers have their moments where they look like their dominant 2010 selves. Rodgers is as strong as ever under center (67.2%-39-8), and without a marquee runner, the rushing game still gained 1,702 yards. But on defense the Pack still seem suspect. The Vikings team they beat in the wild card round had nothing left in the tank after snagging their playoff berth. They also didn’t have a quarterback to speak of. The Niners counter with mobile second-year phenom QB Colin Kaepernick, good receivers and productive RB Frank Gore, plus the second-best NFL defense in points allowed. This should be a battle, though, and the fact is that the Niners still have some things to prove, even though they did beat the Packers in Week 1 in Green Bay (and, later on, also the Patriots on the road). Will Kaepernick perform in the big game?
Prediction: Packers 28, 49ers 26 

Sunday, January 13     

Seattle (12-5) at Atlanta (13-3)     
As good as the Falcons have looked this year, there still are pundits out there who wonder if it’s somewhat of a mirage. Their QB, Matt Ryan, has impressive numbers that match up with all the elite signal callers. The receiving corps—White, Gonzalez, Jones—is stellar. Yet the running game has proven to be weak, only 3.7 YPA and less than 1,400 yards teamwide. So if there’s an opening for the hyperactive Seahawks, it’s stuffing the run and then getting after Ryan, though he was sacked only 28 times this season. Again, the ‘Hawks have an aggressive secondary, and if they give young defensive-line Turks like Bruce Irvin some time, they could get to Ryan. Then there’s the question of rookie Seattle QB Russell Wilson going on the road again in a playoff situation. And can RB Marshawn Lynch put two great games together in a row? For all their triumph against the Redskins last week, the Seahawks also got beat up, losing two key players, DL Chris Clemons and kicker Steven Hauschka, the latter replaced by longtime veteran Ryan Longwell, 38, who was inactive this year but whose numbers are really excellent in a 15-year career. Longwell was sitting at home in Florida with his 83.2% career FG percentage, then won a competitive tryout on Tuesday. It’s hard not to wonder what criss-crossing the country twice in a little over a week will do to the Seahawks’ energy, and the task ahead of them, while do-able, looks fraught with peril. They have the talent to pull off the upset, but the big plays will have to go their way. (Parting stat: The Falcons’ home margin of victory in 2012 was 7.5 points.)
Prediction: Falcons 23, Seahawks 20 

Houston (13-4) at New England (12-4)     
Is there anyone east of the Mississippi who thinks the Texans can win this game? They did what they had to do last week versus the Bengals, but the early season juggernaut has yet to reappear. QB Matt Schaub really needs to reestablish his preeminence. Failing that, then it’s all up to RB Arian Foster, and it’s a lot to ask him to go to Foxborough and singlehandedly conquer a Bill Belichick defense. Especially when the Texans already tried to do that on Dec. 10 and got spanked 42-14. Pats QB Brady leads the #1 scoring offense in the league, and the defense, which bends often enough, ended up a surprisingly high ninth in points allowed. In other words, it’s business as usual in New England, this despite the fact that almost 20 players have been designated as physically “questionable.” (Does anyone think they won’t all show up?) Unless J. J. Watt knocks Tom Terrific unconscious, Houston is sunk.
Prediction: Patriots 24, Texans 17

Reminder: Catch us on Twitter @BRADY1M 

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Unless There’s Leprechaun Magic, Tide Should Roll in Championship Game

Notre Dame plays Alabama for the college football title Monday evening. The game has been well-hyped and should receive a ton of attention and a high television rating (8 p.m. EST, ESPN). It’s a marquee matchup of two storied programs, yet I am somewhat amazed at how easily everyone seems to accept that this is the matchup.

Alabama, at 12-1, is a no-brainer, for sure. The defending national champions’ record suffered one blemish, at the hands of Johnny Football, but achieved sufficient redemption with a solid win over Georgia in the SEC title game. The Crimson Tide look big, strong and well-fed as ever—the classic amply funded, state-run football behemoth with the lordly head coach (Nick Saban) on his way to becoming a god.

Yet the Fightin' Irish, their 12-0 record notwithstanding, seem suspect.  In fact,   oddsmakers have installed 'Bama as a 9- or 10-point favorite (depending on your bookie).

Why would the #2 team be so solidly favored over the #1 team, you ask? Maybe it’s because ND’s perfect record might not withstand careful analysis. Their competition compiled an 86-68 record in 2012, including bowl games (55.8%). Not bad. But some of the team’s home victories make you wonder: Purdue, 20-17; Michigan, 13-6; Stanford, 20-13, in overtime; BYU, 17-14. You’d think the scores wouldn’t be that close under the Golden Dome on a clear Saturday afternoon in South Bend. For a #1 team, I mean—and contender for the national title.

The Nov. 3 game, versus Pitt, won by the Irish 29-26 in triple overtime, was a real puzzler, especially—given that the Panthers were 4-4, an obvious mediocrity who finished their regular season 6-6 and then got pounded by Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The Irish don’t dominate, then. But they’re a good story, and many college football fans are hoping they’ll show up Monday. That includes myself, of course, though I’ve wondered if maybe Oregon wouldn’t make a better opponent for ‘Bama. The formulas and numbers say otherwise, but one wonders if Notre Dame would've passed the simple eyeball test that basically used to determine these things. 

Curiously, I’ve run into a few people locally who have expressed a kind of automatic animosity toward Notre Dame. But if the Irish were once upon a time a monolithic power that struck fear into heathens with their superstition-rich Catholic heritage and "win one for the Gipper" legendry—"Ru-dy, Ru-dy, Ru-dy, Ru-dy"—they’ve certainly been humbled in the past two decades, compiling comparatively modest records while valiantly striving to maintain their football independence in the face of the super-conference mindset. (And God bless ‘em for that. All the conference folderol of recent years drives me nuts.)

Notre Dame last won a national championship in 1988, and they haven’t otherwise realistically contended for a title since 1993. Now’s their time, and head coach Brian Kelly is the right guy (with the right name) to lead them on to the national stage.

 I don’t see a miracle in the offing, but neither did the folks at Cana. 

Go Irish!

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Lots to Ponder: NFL Wild Card Weekend Offers Tantalizing Matchups and Opportunity for Riveting Television

If the zebras let ‘em play, the coming weeks of NFL playoff football should be great. This is one of those years where it’s even less clear how much separates division winners and wild-card entries, and as the recent past has taught us, home field isn’t always the advantage it’s presumed to be.

There’s a ton of youth on these squads, with six of the 12 quarterbacks either rookies or second-year players (Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick). Meanwhile, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady—old guys who can use their rest—will be couch-potato-ing it for the opening weekend, biding their time and scoping out their opponents for the divisional round.

Here’s how we see Weekend #1 going down. Place your bets accordingly in relation to the point spreads provided by your favorite bookie. (As always, we are not responsible for lame-o, last-minute, outcome-changing pass interference calls or dubious personal fouls.)   

Cincinnati (10-6) at Houston (12-4)
After looking like a good early bet for the Super Bowl, the Texans lost their mojo down the stretch. They dropped three of their last four, and their offense went on semi-sabbatical, including world-class RB Arian Foster, who had a brief, but apparently ultimately irrelevant, heart concern, and gained over 100 yards in only one of his last five games. Meanwhile, after a 3-5 start, the Bengals won 7 of their last 8, including defeating the Giants, Steelers and Ravens, and yielding only 11.7 points per game in victory. Bengals need their running game to step up against J.J. Watt & Co. The trending is all toward Cincy, but...
Prediction: Texans 20, Bengals 17
Minnesota (10-6) at Green Bay (11-5)
A rematch of last week’s exciting playoff clincher for the Vikes. Only now, we’re in an outdoors venue (Lambeau Field, aka Frozen Tundra), and that doesn’t seem like a good deal for the Minnesotans, who are, strangely enough, accustomed to the indoors, climate-controlled comfort of their home dome. The Packers looked plenty competitive in that loss, but Adrian Peterson ran wild on ‘em, and their defense in general still has a lot to prove. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers remains a wizard with the football, and assuming Pack DC Dom Capers can find a scheme to stem the Peterson Tide, the Vikings should freeze up. The game’s at night, BTW. In the open air. In Green Bay, Wisconsin. In January. Who scheduled this?? Game-time temperature: mid-teens. No snow is forecast.
Prediction: Packers 24, Vikings 16

Indianapolis (11-5) at Baltimore (10-6) 
The Ravens are the AFC North’s answer to the Texans: They started 9-2, then crumbled at the end, dropping 4 of 5. If it’s any consolation, they lost to good teams, but they also let Denver dominate them in Baltimore and they simply have looked flat. Ray Lewis announced his impending retirement and maybe that’s supposed to give the team an inspirational jump-start. Of course, their opponent, the Colts, have an equal inspiration with the return of head coach Chuck Pagano from leukemia treatments. The surprising Colts have won 9 of their last 11 games—mostly against lesser teams, yes, but clearly this squad keeps improving. First-year QB Luck is the real deal, and the mostly anonymous Colts defense always hustles. Indy could be poised for the big upset, but the head-over-heart analysis gives this one to Baltimore.
Prediction: Ravens 23, Colts 19 

Seattle (11-5) at Washington (10-6)
Two exciting rookie quarterbacks square off in what could be the game of the weekend. The Seahawks’ season got a highly publicized early lift in Week 3 when an incorrect referee call handed them a squeaker 14-12 over the Packers. They limped around a bit after that, then went crazy wild, winning 7 of their final 8 games, putting up huge offensive numbers and pounding bottom-feeders like Arizona and Buffalo, while also taking it to the 49ers, 42-13, and threatening to wrest from them the NFC West title. The ‘Hawks defense has allowed an average of 12 points in their last five games, and they are a hungry, swarming bunch of young athletes who look hellbent on winning. That goes for QB Russell Wilson, too. He’s too heady for words, in fact. His sharp passes and precocious leadership have made long-distance stars of wide receivers Golden Tate and Sidney Rice, and RB Marshawn Lynch can be a beast, having racked up 1,590 rushing yards. 

The Skins are another hot team, riding a seven-game win streak. They counter with their own brilliant first-year signal-caller, RG3, who’s probably not yet as instinctually aware as Wilson but has incredible physical gifts that make every play an adventure and every positive outcome possible. Even so, the truly unsung rookie of the year is the Washington running back, Alfred Morris, a relative unknown out of Florida Atlantic who has gained 1,613 yards and scored 13 touchdowns. Only 5’9” and packing 218 pounds, Morris runs “big,” has carried the rock a manly 335 times, and has yet to be slowed down. He punishes opposing defenders and chews up yardage and the clock—and has been a godsend to his fellow rookie Griffin. As for the Skins' defense, they play stoutly enough against the run (ranked #5 in the NFL) but are porous versus the pass (#30). They lost first-stringers DL Adam Carriker and LB Brian Orakpo early in the season and have made adjustments under DC Jim Haslett, but of all the teams that made the playoffs, the Skins have yielded the most points. Tough, tough call, especially since the Seahawks have to travel cross-country to the East Coast, where—statistics prove—West Coast teams usually come to die. It’s a case of who succumbs to the jitters, probably—or gets the ball last.
Prediction: Seahawks 26, Redskins 24

We'll be back next week with divisional round sizeups. Meanwhile, we're on Twitter now: @BRADY1M. Join the conversation.