Quick Picks: Division Series

While I want to do a whole “Playoff Extravaganza,” I may not have the time, so I at least want to do a quick rundown on my thoughts for the playoffs.

Rangers-Rays, ALDS
I love the Rays.  I love their fireballing young arms.  I love the energy they bring every night to a, let’s just say, less-than-packed house.  I love the athletes that they run out there.  And, while I don’t love their eccentric manager because he, well, really annoys me, I think he might be the best in the game.  And, pitching wins in the postseason.  But, the Rangers are absolutely loaded.  Did you know that this team hit .330 in September?  And, while their pitching doesn’t quite stack up to the depth of the Rays staff, C.J. Wilson, Derrick Holland, and Matt Harrison are much better than their non-household names may otherwise indicate.  Plus, the Rays hit .244 this year, so it’s hard to see them stacking up.  I think the Rangers rattle the rookie flamethrower, Matt Moore, enough this afternoon, and then get to “Big Game James” tomorrow, and head to Tampa only needing one game for the series.  I’ll give the Rays – because I like them – a game at home, but in the end, I’ll go with the Rangers in 4.

Yankees-Tigers, ALDS
Do we really believe in the “aura” of Yankee Stadium in October?  Do we really think that professional baseball players walk into a building and feel intimidated because a couple famous, dead-and-buried men used to play there?  Maybe.  But, whether or not I believe in the “aura,” I definitely believe in offense.  And, the Yankees have it.  And, it’s not the kind of offense that you might see in Milwaukee or even Texas or Philly, it’s the kind of offense that completely wears you down.  It’s the kind of offense that takes just enough pitches to get the starter either tired or out of the game and then they pounce.  And, I think it’s just the kind of offense that is good enough to overcome their serious lack of depth in their pitching staff.  I’ll take the Yanks to do just enough to beat Verlander at home tonight.  Then, I think they’ll split Games 2 & 3, prompting Jim Leyland to bring back his horse on 3 days’ rest.  Even if Verlander comes through, gimme a well-rested Sabathia back at home.  I’ll take the Yankees in 5.

Brewers-Diamondbacks, NLDS
The more I think about it, the more I am glad that the Phils don’t have to face this Arizona team in a 5-game series.  While I’m not thrilled with the Cardinals matchup, there is something about this Arizona team that scares me.  They did win 94 games and can throw out a couple of gamers in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson.  But, the Brewers are really good this year, and I think that their pair of stars in the lineup, solid, deep starting staff, and lights-out bullpen is well-equipped for October.  In a really tough series, I’ll take the Brewers in 5.

Phillies-Cardinals, NLDS
I’m scared of St. Louis, but it would be kind of weird to go into a baseball playoff series not scared of your opponent.  Pujols is the best I’ve ever seen and Chris Carpenter is back to his old self.  But, Carp is out until Game 3, and he still has to outduel Cole Hamels.  I like Jamie Garcia, but apparently LaRussa has decided on Kyle Lohse in Game One and Edwin Jackson in Game Two.  The Phils have to be large favorites to win both of those games and head to St. Louis up 2-0.  Now, I don’t want to jinx the boys, so I’ll give the Cards Game 3 behind Carpenter, but gimme the Phillies in 4.

One for the Memory Banks

Sports is one of those things that is always there, no matter where we are in our lives – what our “joys” and “worries” happen to be at that time.  Sports keep going.  Games are played.  And, memories are made.  Most memories fade away and are lost in a sea of sports recollections.  But others – a select few – mark points in time like signposts and never fade away.  A lot of these “signpost” events are specific to the individual, what team he roots for, where she happens to be at the time.  But, others are independent of outside factors and are unconditionally indelible.  To the true baseball fan, last night – seemingly out of the blue – was one of those nights that will never be forgotten.  It was a phenomenal representation of the wonderful dichotomies constantly permeating through the greatest sport on the planet.  Last night in baseball was, at the same time, wildly unpredictable, yet cooly logical.  It was an intense, heart-racing and dramatic culmination of an eternally long season that demands, above all, perseverence, persistence, and patience.  And, our Shakespearean drama was acted out by quite the variety of players – some with nothing to lose, some with everything to lose, and still others stuck with the cruel task of balancing “the integrity of the game” with their own self-interests and the even crueler task of figuring out which was which. 

What made last night special for those that really let themselves be taken by it was that the human condition was on display.  We watched as Freddie Freeman grounded into a double-play, ending his otherwise excellent rookie season without the playoff appearance that had almost been a forgone conclusion just a month ago.  We watched as another collapse – this one by the highest-paid team in the league – unfolded over five hours in rain-soaked Camden Yards.  In the end, the juggernaut Red Sox left, heads in hands, while the 69-win, last place Orioles celebrated like they had just won the World Series.  We watched as the Tampa Bay Rays – the AL East’s forgotten stepchild that keeps rising up and taking shots at the prodigal sons – erased a 7-0 deficit in 2 innings.  They even had a 2-out, 2-strike pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the 9th to force extra innings against the big, bad Yankees, who basically played their entire AAA team, using 10 pitchers in 9 innings.  And, we watched as our own Phillies won a game in 13 innings that didn’t matter at all to them, yet meant everything to their opponent (with injured and tired guys like Chase Utley and Hunter Pence coming through in a game that they may have been better off sitting out) to secure the best record in the history of the franchise and put their manager alone atop the all-time Phillies wins list.  Oh, and the culmination of all of these stranger-than-fiction storylines came in about a 12-minute span right around the stroke of midnight.

It was absolutely fascinating, and I can honestly say that that was a night that I will never forget…

I Ain’t Worried About Either Side of Broad Street

This seems to be quite a bit of consternation along our favorite sports corridor these days, as both the Phils and Eagles have been, shall we say, less than confidence-inspiring as of late (though the recent impressive 3-game winning streak for our boys in red has tempered some of the worry on the North side.  But, as for Yours Truly, whose optimism in Philadelphia has frequently been unfairly characterized as an attempt at contrarianism, I am not worried about either of Philadelphia’s loaded rosters.

The Phils
Let’s start on the north side of Pattison Avenue, where the 5-time NL East champion Phils won their franchise record-tying 101st game last night, putting them four full games ahead of the next best team in all of baseball and six games better than their closest National League contender.

Their “Slump”
Yes, I know that they got their 98th win, clinching homefield advantage throughout and then promptly lost 8 straight, including 6 in a row to the NL’s juggernauts in Washington and New York.  But, let us be honest, anyone who has ever really competed in anything will tell you that professional athletes or not, elite competitors or not, these are human beings and are vulnerable to the same human foibles as anyone else. 

Think about this:  Let’s say that every day for the next 150 days, you and I are going to go a bar and shoot darts against each other for a relatively small, but not insignificant, amount of money.  Then, all of a sudden, on the 151st day, I say that the next 12 days are not going to be for money, BUT…13 days from now, we are going to restart the money games, only at 100 times the stakes.  How good do you think you’d be in the first 7 or 8 days of “exhibitions?”  I know I wouldn’t.  And, then with 3 or 4 days left before the BIG money, I’d probably start trying to zone in again.  And, to expect anything else from this team is nonsense.  For those that say, “they can’t just flip a switch and turn it back on,” there are countless examples – in all sports, including baseball – of teams that have gone in the tank before the playoffs and turned around and won it all.  Just in the last decade, there were a couple examples of teams not exactly playing their best ball “down the stretch.”  In 2006, the Cardinals went 9-16 in September and almost blew a 7-game lead to the Astros.  In 2000, the Yankees lost 15 of their last 18 games, barely holding off the Red Sox for the AL East title.  And, because both of these teams were in pennant races, they had absolutely no excuses for losing these games – they just weren’t playing well.  And yet, World Series banners fly in both St. Louis for the 2006 season and New York for the 2000 season.

The Lineup
There may even be something good that has come out of this (though, it’s unclear whether this was caused by the slump or would have happened anyway).  When Charlie wrote the “regulars” back into the lineup on Monday, there was an interesting twist to the batting order.  Chase Utley, who has been the team’s #3-hitter pretty much his whole career, was moved to the 2-hole with Hunter Pence sliding into #3, in between Utley and Ryan Howard.  Interesting, and…

He doesn't seem like the same Chase, but are you betting against him?

I love it!  I have been actually saying, for a while now, that come playoff time, the Phils need to split up the lefties any way they can.  I have been trying to find ways to do that for about four years now, even creating ways to do it (hit Werth #3, now Polanco #3, I even said in a blog at the beginning of this season that I wanted Jimmy Rollins to be the #3 hitter in October…hell, I’ve even suggested hitting Ryan Howard 5th!).  Now, with Pence’s emergence and Utley’s power decline, we don’t even need to invent creative ways to do this, it just makes perfect sense.  And, it’s even better than just having the lefties split up.  Utley is no longer a true power hitter.  His slugging percentage is his worst since becoming a regular (though, would anyone be shocked if he hit 7 home runs next month?), but he still gets on base, still runs the bases with intelligent abandon, and still needs to get a ton of at-bats for this team to win.  And, then there’s Pence.  A guy who brings energy and passion to the lineup.  A guy who, let’s be honest, is the best hitter on the team right now.  And, if there is one knock on Pence it’s that he doesn’t take enough pitches – that he is too free-swinging.  So, having him behind Howard, while nice because it did get the big guy more pitches to hit, kind of plays to Pence’s weakness because there was no one protecting him.  Now that he is protected by Howard, Pence is going to get strikes.  I love it.  And, Victorino has had a terrific year, and I have no worries about him in the 5-hole.  In fact, I think it actually plays more to his strengths too because if he gets on base there, he can run at will without the danger of running into outs in front of the big guys.  Plus, with Polanco #6 (a fantastic 2-hitter), it’s almost like the turn the lineup over again at #5.  I think this is the most balanced, all-around lineup that the Phils have brought to a postseason in this recent run.

My One Actual Concern
While the 8-game losing streak hasn’t phased me, there is one thing that has really troubled me in the second half of this month.  What in the world happened to Antonio Bastardo?  Granted, I never expected anything close to the Bastardo we enjoyed for the first 5 months, but I think every Phillies fan in the world would trade those 5 months for someone with any semblance of reliability right now.  After seeming to be on his way to obliterating the all-time record for BA against, he, all of a sudden, can’t get anyone out.  And, this problem is exacerbated even more by the fact that he’s our only lefty.  If he doesn’t straighten things out, the Phils will enter the playoffs without a single reliable left-hander in the bullpen.  And, I don’t have to remind Phillies fans of how essential guys like Javier Lopez and Damaso Marte have been in October over the past couple of years.

This is a Pretty Nice Spot to Be In
All in all, is there any roster in the majors who you would swap for the Phils’ heading into October?  And, if it took you more than 2 seconds to say “no,” then you’re either an ignorant Yankees fan who still thinks it’s 1999, die-hard (and delusional) Brewers fan, or a Red Sox fan who just woke up for a 4-week nap.  Because of the ridiculous unpredictability of the baseball playoffs, a Phils title is not even a probability, let alone a certainty, but there is no doubt in my mind that the Phils have by far the best chance at winning this year’s World Series – and, honestly, what else could we ask for?

No, I ain’t worried…

The Birds
Trust me, no one feels more pain after a loss to the New York Giants than this guy.  I hate the Giants more than any other sports team on the planet.  And, losing to them puts me in a bad mood for at least a month…sometimes longer.  And, I am also keenly aware of how health concerns (particularly at the quarterback position) can quickly derail the season of even the most talented NFL rosters.  But, this team is loaded, but still learning to play with one another.  Their schedule actually screamed 1-2 to me after 2 weeks (granted, I thought they’d be 1-0 in the division, but still), and there is a TON of season left.  The rest of the schedule actually plays out well for the Birds, and, probably most important of all, the NFC East isn’t exactly setting the league on fire right now.

Health
All the “not worried” comments do (and always will) come with a critical caveat – injuries are the almight equalizer.  And, if Vick continues to go down, the season looks a bit different.  If Vince Young stays banged-up, then the season looks a LOT different.  I like Mike Kafka, and he looked great against Atlanta, but he looked totally lost against the Giants.  Without stability at the most important position in sports, all bets are off.

Shady
I have been saying since the beginning of the year that LeSean McCoy has the potential to be a top 5 back in this league – right now.  And, it seems as if the world is starting to agree.  He’s a flat-out stud, my friends.  And, he is so dangerous in all phases of this offense.  When you talk about the Eagles offense, I think you are contracturally obligated to use the term “weapons.”  But, the real jewel of this offense is McCoy, and with a guy like that, this offense will always be good.

He may not be THE best back in the league, but he is putting himself in the discussion rather quickly

The O-Line is MUCH Better than You Might be Led to Believe
Jason Peters is an ELITE left tackle.  Todd Herremans was a fantastic left guard, whose natural position is right tackle, so he may also be elite.  Jason Kelce is a 6th-round draft pick at center who has been pretty solid, considering he’s three games into his NFL career.  And, the guards are still new.  O-lines take time to gel.  Give them some time under the best O-line coach on the planet, and this unit may actually, dare I say it, be one of the strengths of the team.

The Defense
Question marks abound.  Yes.  But, let us not judge this defense quite yet.  The Birds have played three games this year and faced maybe the three most committed, downhill running offenses in the entire league.  And, it doesn’t take a offensive coordinator to realize that downhill running games are bad matchups for a built around small, quick defensive ends and dynamic, playmaking cornerbacks.  When a defense’s weak spots are linebacker and safety, it’s no surprise that teams with Steven Jackson, Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Brandon Jacobs on their rosters could present problems.  But, most teams in this league are not of that ilk.  Which brings us to the next, and probably most important point…

Let’s Look at the Schedule
Like I said, I expected the Eagles to be sitting here at 1-2, with everyone singing that the sky is falling and making “Dream Team” jokes.  But, let us take a look at what is to come:

  • Week 4 – San Francisco at home
    Is there any concern about a bad Niners team coming to Philly to play the 1:00 game, after staying in Pittsburgh all week?
  • Week 5 – @ Buffalo
    All of a sudden, a bit of a tougher game than it may have appeared before the season started, but this is just the type of team that the Eagles are built to stop.  Fred Jackson is a speed-type back that runs on the edge, and Fitzpatrick is good, but can be mistake-prone.  I like the Birds D-line pressuring Fitzpatrick into throwing at our cavalcade of star d-backs.
  • Week 6 – @ Washington
    A bit of a smoke and mirrors start to the season for the ‘Skins has covered what is a somewhat flawed team with clearly inferior talent.  Anything can happen on the road in the division, but this should be a W
  • Week 7 – Bye
  • Week 8 – Dallas at home
    Andy Reid teams never lose coming off the bye.
  • Week 9 – Chicago at home
    Mike Martz’s system of 7-step drops and never running the ball inside the tackles might be the worst system, matchup-wise, against the Birds, who can get a ton of pressure with the front 4, and can cover all over the field.
  • Week 10 – Arizona at home
    Another inferior West Coast team at 1:00.  Sorry, Kevin, probably not a stellar homecoming.
  • Week 11 – @ N.Y. Giants
    This is the big one.  A Sunday night affair with the world watching.  I don’t think this Giants team is all that good, and I don’t see them completing a sweep against a team that might be running on all cylinders by that point.
  • Week 12 – New England at home
    While this doesn’t look great, remember that the Pats defense is not very good, and their offense is predicated on open receivers.  Then again, Belichick is the master at creating mismatches, and there are a ton to be created against this Birds defense.  This is probably a loss, but not definitively, because the game is at home, and the Pats are on a short week, having played the Monday night before this.
  • Week 13 – @ Seattle
    A Thursday night trip across the country just four days after the Pats game is not great, but the Seahawks are really bad.
  • Week 14 – @ Miami
    A road game, yes.  But, against a bad team that will be out of it by then, and they have 10 days to prepare.
  • Week 15 – N.Y. Jets at home
    Another tough game against a team that does enjoy the power running attack.  But, it is at home, and it is winnable.  Oh by the way, this is only 6 days before a Christmas Eve battle between the Jets and Giants.
  • Week 16 – @ Dallas
    Obviously a tough game, but are we sure that the ‘Boys will still be in it?  Though, even if they aren’t, they will be tough to beat on the road.  Still not an impossible task at all.
  • Week 17 – Washington at home
    I can’t imagine that they lose to the ‘Skins at home to end the season.  I just can’t.

So, if you look at the remaining 13 games, there isn’t one game that jumps out at you that would have the Eagles as a serious underdog.  They have their toughest games (NE, NYJ, Chi) all at home, plus they get Dallas off the bye, @Miami off a long week, and the Pats coming off a Monday night game.  They have two losses now, but how many more do we see on that schedule?  Three?  Maybe?  Four, at the most?  That’s 10-6 and should be a playoff berth, if not a division title. 

So, ya, I ain’t worried…

NFL Week Two Quick Hits

Another great week around the league, despite there being NO divisional games for the first time in a very long time (Week Four will be the same, as the league made two weeks this way in case they needed to drop two games because of the lockout, they would just nix these two weeks and it wouldn’t affect divisional play).

This is Who They Are Right Now
The Birds played a pretty thrilling football game Sunday night against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome against a team that desperately needed the win.  And, the Eagles utterly dominated this game.  They moved up and down the field on the Falcons at will, and though people will harp ceaselessly on two or three runs by Michael Turner, the defense actually looked pretty good for 40-45 minutes of that game.  And, the O-line looked really good, actually, against a solid D-line of the Falcons.  But, all of this being said, and the Birds took an L – keeping a 7-year streak alive where they have failed to start a season 2-0. 

But, in this game, you can see what could be so special about this team…and…you could also see the frustrating things that could keep them from getting there.  The linebackers, particularly Casey Matthews in the middle, are hard to defend right now.  I believe they’ll be “good enough,” but right now, they look pretty bad.  Which means that if this team falls behind, opposing offenses may just run the ball downhill against them until the cows come home. 

The long hair and the last name are about the only things that Casey has in common with brother Clay right about now

The good news?  This offense doesn’t look like it is going to be behind all that often.  While the O-line is still a work in progress, how incredibly good have the two tackles been this year?  Jason Peters is absolutely perfect for Howard Mudd’s quick, athletic schemes, and Todd Herremans completely shut down one of the game’s best pash rushers in John Abraham Sunday night.  And, to no one’s surprise, they seem to have “weapons” all over the field in every set.  Steve Smith looked fantastic.  Jeremy Maclin may have showed why I believe him to be the best #2 receiver in the NFL (though, he’s GOTTA catch that fourth down pass).  Even the forgotten Brent Celek got into the mix a little bit.  But, the real story so far this year – preseason and two games in – is the jump made by LeSean McCoy.  This guy is unbelievable.  We may just have a Top 5 running back on our hands, my friends.  While Vick and Jackson and company will continue to get most of the recognition, I’m not too sure that McCoy isn’t the best offensive player we’ve got here. 

So, in not-so-groundbreaking news here, the 10-6 team that added an NFL-record SIX Pro Bowlers in free agency is LOADED.  And, in some more not-so-groundbreaking news, they have some glaring weaknesses that may derail this promising season.  The linebackers have to get better.  The O-line still needs to develop…and then there’s the question marks about our $100 milion man and his ability to stay on the field.  Vick’s concussion…while it doesn’t look like it was that bad, from all reports, it is still a giant red flag.  The good news is that it is not like he made some stupid turn upfield instead of stepping out of bounds.  He stood in the pocket and took a hit that would have sent any QB in the league to the bench.  It wasn’t recklessness, and it wasn’t fragility.  It was just bad luck – bad luck that was tempered with some good luck in that the concussion was a mild one, and he may even be back for the big showdown this week with my most hated team – the Giants.

Okay, Maybe I Overstated That a Bit…
Last week, I said that Tony Romo “loses pretty,” implying he’s not a gamer or a winner.  Well, he kind of proved me (and millions of other people with opinions) somewhat wrong about that on Sunday, as he came back – against doctor’s orders – to play…and win…with a cracked rib and, get this, a punctured lung.  Wow!  Yes, he’s a Cowboy, but hat’s off to that guy for gutting it out with a life-threatening condition.  Wait, what am I saying?  That’s kind of really, ridiculously stupid, no?  Anyway, the dude did show some meddle, so we’ll hand it to him for that.  Hey, legends are made in September, right…?!?

At this rate, Cam's gonna have a lot to smile about in his NFL career

Okay, Maybe I Downplayed That a Bit
I don’t like this “quick hit” give-your-opinion every week kind of thing because it forces me to be accountable and forthright with my opinions, regardless if they turn out right or wrong.  Well, here’s another one I may have totally screwed up last week, but am sticking to, against all evidence to the contrary.  I told everyone to slow down on this Cam Newton hysteria, and what does he do?  He throws for even more yards against a much better opponent.  Newton has looked really good in ways much more impressive than the ability to throw the ball downfield with accuracy.  Apparently, he is way ahead of where he should be in defensive recognition and blitz pickup – which is pretty surprising, considering he only played one year of big-time college ball, and it was not exactly a pro-style offense.  But, also (and this is something I can tell without the all-22 coaches tape), he is surprisingly poised in the pocket.  It’s somewhat impressive when guys inexperienced guys like Matthew Stafford or Sam Bradford are poised in the pocket, but it’s that much more surprising when a guy like Newton does it because, not only is he inexperienced, but he has gotten to this level with a lot of help from his scrambling ability.  I’m sure he was the fastest player on the field for at least 20 years of his life and then probably even most of the games in the SEC.  So, his game has developed as a guy who gets out of trouble with his legs.  But, he hasn’t done that.  Which says that either (a) he’s been incredibly well-coached, (b) he really “gets it” and is prepared for this level, or (c) a combination of the two.  Either way, he looks good…so far. 

But – here comes my steadfast backing of my on-the-record opinion of last week – let’s just slow down on his Canton induction.  Defensive coordinators get paid handsomely in this league to take gametapes to figure out weaknesses.  Newton has thrived in the first phase of being an NFL QB, but let’s see how well he adjusts to the adjustments that are bound to come his way.  Oh, and, the dude has still never won an NFL game…

Of Whom are We Scared?
The NFC East is usually brutally tough.  While it may not look that way in the early going, this year will be no different.  But, the question is – who is going to really push the Birds?  The Cowboys looked good against the Jets, but lost the game.  Then, they didn’t look very good in San Fran, but won.  They played like a 1-1 team and are a 1-1 team.  The scary part is that they played both games on the road and played 3.5 winning quarters against a legit Super Bowl contender.  DeMarcus Ware might be the best defensive player in the league and should thrive in a Ryan defense.  The offense, when healthy (if healthy) can be really potent, especially if Dez Bryant is even 1/10th as good as announcers seem to think (that’s the topic for another post – can we please get off this guy’s nuts?).  But, they are hurt, and they did lose 10 games last year…

The Redskins are 2-0 on the heels of an impressive preseason.  Are they for real?  Granted, they struggled to beat a bad Arizona team at 1:00 in Washington, but wins aren’t always easy to come by in this league.  Shanahan is (or, at least, was) an elite coach in this league, so it’s getting harder to just brush them aside.  That being said, I thought they’d start 2-0 and still finish last in the division – this schedule is gonna get a LOT harder for them.

And, then there’s the G-Men.  I hate them.  I’ve said 100 times that if the Giants played North Korea, I’d be cheering for Kim Jong-Il’s squad.  But, that hatred is (as much as I am loathe to admit it) based completely on respect and fear.  Beat up or not, no matter how many the Eagles have won in a row, this team is always a threat.  And, Sunday is terrifying for me…

So, who is it?  Who do we worry about?  Or, do the Birds just worry about themselves and assume that their talent will win out?  Come on, that’s not the Philadelphia way…

Is Either One a Mirage?

Has a D-tackle (not named Sapp) ever changed a franchise this much in just 2 years?

So, just looking at scores, you have to say that the Chiefs have been the worst team in the league in the first two weeks.  And, looking at the scores, you might say that the Lions have been one of – if not, the – best teams in the league.  But, a lot of that has to do with that one score that involved them both, 48-3, Detroit.  Are the Lions that good?  Are the Chiefs that bad?  Can it be both?  Well, if you ask me, I would say with a lot of certainty that the Chiefs are that bad, particularly now that they’ve lost, arguably, three of the four most talented players on their roster (Charles, Barry, Moeaki – with the other being Tamba Hali).  As for the Lions, I want to say yes because I have always had a love affair with that organization and root for them as strong as I can root for a team outside of Philly.  But, I’m apprehensive.  How can they have gotten this good this fast?  I struggle to see a true sustainable offense because outside of the Stafford-to-Johnson combo, they don’t have a lot else that is proven.  The O-line is still a work in progress and, while the TEs Sheffler and Pettigrew are good, they could use another weapon and a bellcow back.  And, as good as Suh and that D-line is (not to mention the genius of Coach Schwartz), the back seven is still kind of shaky.  It should be interesting this week when they start their divisional season at Minnesota.  Win there, and I’ll be much closer to believing that they can make the playoffs.

This Week Says More Than Anything They Did Last Week
The Week One blowout of the Colts may have been exciting and encouraging for Texans fans, but games like those are not the ones that have held these guys back in the past.  Usually when a team is ascending, they beat up on the bottom of the league, but just can’t get over the hump against the elite.  The Texans were not like that.  They came to play against the Colts and other powerful teams.  But, they would lose head-scratcher after head-scratcher (particularly away from home) and just give games back in the standings and never have enough season to make it up.  Well, this week, the Texans went to Miami – as a favorite – and just took care of business.  It was the standard “business trip” that the best teams in the league (Patriots, Giants, Colts, etc.) make every year.  They went on the road – without any fanfare, glitz, or glitter – and came back with a W.  Back to the grindstone.  They didn’t revel in crushing the Colts last week.  They didn’t show up expecting to dominate a somewhat inferior team in their building.  They showed up, played the game, played it well, and now sit at 2-0.  This is not the Texans I remember.

How Many Does He Have…?
This is only Josh Freeman’s 3rd season in the NFL.  He has only made 27 NFL starts.  And, he already has EIGHT come-from-behind victories.  He has a record of 14-13 as a starter, which means that his team has trailed in an NFL game 21 times in his career…and in 38% of those games, Freeman has come back to win.  THIRTY-EIGHT PERCENT of games his team has trailed, he has led them to a comeback win.  I’m not convinced that this guy is even in the top 5 most “talented” young QBs in the league, but sign him up to play on my team any day.

Speaking of Quarterback Play
Was Luke McCown’s game against the Jets on Sunday the worst QB’ed game ever?  (I’m sure it wasn’t, but hyperbole is too much fun, especially when it’s about someone sucking.)  McCown completed 6 passes to his teammates for 59 yards; he completed 4 passes to JETS DEFENDERS for 76 yards THE OTHER WAY.  Yes, the Jets had more interception return yards (and should have had a TD) than McCown had passing yards…ugh.

Ho-Hum, Another Banner to Wave…

I know, I know, what a relief!  The Phillies finally clinched the 2011 NL East title on Saturday with a 9-2 win over the Cardinals on Saturday.  While it comes to no one’s surprise and is but a single step on the way to a much larger goal, we should still take a minute to step back and think about what it means that this team – our team – will, for the fifth consecutive season, be able to call themselves National League Eastern Division Champions.

While this post hasn’t nearly the room to fit all the ways that the life of the die-hard Phillies fan has changed in this past half-decade, and, regardless, I would never believe myself capable of chronicling them all, but it does bring a wholly unfamiliar joy to my heart when I think about the transformation of the red pinstripes that has taken place in such a short period of time.

Let us flashback, for a second, to September 30, 2007.  It is a day that I honestly will never forget for as long as I live.  Doogan and I were together in a small, lavish Manhattan apartment owned by Stri, one of my best friends, and, oh by the way, a die-hard Mets fan.  While I completely respect Stri and his fandom in every way, that day I threw it out the window (and kind of feel bad).  His Mets were on the verge of the biggest collapse in at least a generation, and Doogan and I had both the Phillies and Mets games on simultaneously – both games in the 9th inning – counting down the outs to a Phillies win, a Mets loss, and the dream scenario of a the first Phillies playoff trip since before the last players’ strike.  The Phils finished off a dream September, made it to October by the skins of their teeth and bowed out in, what felt like about 20 minutes, to the Rockies in a 3-game sweep.  That team was scrappy – and quite a bit different than the team that will represent out city this October.  Brett Myers was the closer because he “wanted to be a rockstar.”  23-year old Cole Hamels got shelled in his postseason debut because “he hated wearing long sleeves.”  Jayson Werth was a part-time player that sat against right-handers.  Shane Victorino was a free-swinging rightfielder because everyone’s favorite Phillie, Aaron Rowand, patrolled center.  Abraham Nunez was the starting thirdbaseman.  And, Kyle Kendrick, a rookie, and Jamie Moyer, still in his early-40’s, were the Phils #2 and #3 starters that postseason with Game Four’s starter still completely up in the air (I think it was going to be Kyle Lohse since Adam Eaton was left off the postseason roster).

Fortunately, unlike 1993, 2007 was only the beginning…

The next year, the Phils actually clinched on the second-to-last day of the season (thanks to one of the best double-plays I’ve ever seen from Jimmy Rollins against the Pirates and another save by offseason acquisition Brad Lidge), allowing them the luxury of not pitching Cole Hamels in Game #162, and saving him for his now-historic postseason run to a World Series championship. 

2009 brought the gigantic trade deadline acquisition of Clifton Phifer Lee, the arrival of Pedro Martinez midseason to slot in as the, get this, Number Two Starter, another NL East title, and another National League pennant.

2010 saw the shocking departure of Lee, but the equally shocking arrival of Roy Halladay.  It also watched as the Phils continued to upgrade their previous upgrades.  Pedro Feliz (a former “upgrade” over David Bell and Abraham Nunez) turned into the much better 3B, Placido Polanco.  Brett Myers (the ace of the staff for the majority of this decade) was shipped out because, well, they didn’t need him.  And, this only a year after upgrading one of the franchise’s long-time cornerstones, Pat Burrell, with the acquisition of the best hitter on in the Pacific Northwest, Raul Ibanez.  Oh, and by the way, they also added one of the best pitchers of our generation at the deadline in Roy Oswalt.  Halladay sparkled a perfect game in the regular season and a no-hitter in his postseason debut against Cincinnati.  While the Phils fell short of their goal, they were still the best team in the NL, yet again.  And, then we get to this year.

Our Phils shocked the world in the offseason by bringing back Mr. Lee to create, arguably, the best starting rotation in the 130-year history of the sport.  When Oswalt showed signs of age, they brought up a kid named Worley, who only led to a Phils win in 14 straight starts.  When Jayson Werth took his .220 batting average to Washington for a 9-digit contract, they filled the hole nicely with a right-handed sparkplug in Hunter Pence.  Injuries throughout the season to Lidge, Jose Contreras, and Ryan Madson didn’t even put a dent in this freight train to 100 wins, as Michael Stutes and, particularly, Antonio Bastardo emerged as dynamic relievers, with the latter even evoking 1996 Mariano Rivera comparisons.

Honestly, it amazes me that a team can come so close for 3-4 years, then breakthrough and win the division followed one year later by putting it together for a World Series title, and THEN, in each of the next THREE years, field a team that is demonstrably better than its predecessor.  Yes, the 2008 team is the only one that reached the pinnacle, but is it even debatable that the 2009 team was better?  And, then that the 2010 team was better than that?  And, now, the 2011 team is easily the best yet…?  It is so hard to maintain excellence over a long period of time in an industry of mostly losers.  We are lucky, my friends, and let’s not forget that.

So, while the end result of this season is still up in the air, and the real treasures are still beyond reach, let us take a moment here and raise our glasses to our team on yet another well-deserved championship.  Oh, and get some sleep now, as it looks like we may be in for another sleepless October.

NFL Week One Quick Hits

One of the main reasons for the greatness of spectacle that is the National Football League is in the simple fact that the entire season is played, essentially, on 17 days.  While other sports’ seasons play out as one long 6-month marathon, the NFL season seems to just be an aggregation of 16 three-hour wind sprints over the course of 17 weeks.  And, this simple difference accentuates interest in the NFL because every week is so incredibly important that aside from “gameday,” even us fans need 4-5 days leading up to an NFL game to prepare ourselves for the upcoming game, and 2-3 days to digest what happened.  While the daily storylines in other sports often seem incredibly over-dramatized, considering the level of true impact on a season that one game actually has, daily storylines in the NFL cannot possibly be so because each game can be (and often is) season-changing.  So, for each week (or each week that I get a chance), I want to run down some of the storylines that caught my interest from the week that was around the league – obviously, with some always welcome Eagle-centricism thrown in from time to time.

It was Unsurprising that the Unsurprising Good Outweighed the Unsurprising Bad
Why not start with our Birds (and a very confusing heading…)?  This team is stacked – there is no question about that.  However, if there were concerns (which there always are in the NFL), those concerns had to be about the linebackers (and run-stopping ability) and the offensive line.  Sunday’s game with the Rams (which I actually thought the Birds would lose) showed that we were all right in worrying about those two things.  The Rams ran all over the Eagles D and did so mostly after losing their bellcow back, Steven Jackson.  If you’re one of those people that went into the game terrified of Casey Matthews & Company in the middle of the field, you certainly didn’t find any relief on Sunday.  On the other side of the ball, the big question was the offensive line.  While “short-armed” Todd Herramans played really well in his first game at right tackle, the O-line gave all its doubters more ammo and more reason for concern about the health of our small, sometimes reckless superstar quarterback.  However, all of these “warts” were totally overshadowed (as many people believed they would be) by the fact that this team is absolutely loaded to the gills with talent all over the field on both sides of the ball.  Michael Vick was dynamic; DeSean Jackson was uncoverable; the three-headed monster at secondary looked extraordinary, despite an uncharacteristic pass interference penalty on the Great Nnamdi; and, the reworked D-line got into the Rams backfield time and time again.  While the Birds didn’t exactly beat the best the league has to offer on Sunday, they did win a game on the road against a well-coached and up-and-coming team.  Not that this comes as a surprise, but I think one of the things to watch for most this season is the Eagles performance in the first quarter.  This defense is completely built for playing with a lead.  When they can turn their ears back and rush the QB, relying on a ridiculous secondary to make plays, they are going to be nightmare to attack.  But, we are still unsure whether or not this team is (or even will be) able to dig in and make a stop against a smashmouth rushing offense working on grinding the clock to protect a lead.

The Sunday Night Game: Two Polar Opposite QBs Doing What They Each Do Best
One thing struck me as I watched the Cowboys-Jets Sunday night game.  Despite having a similar flair for attracting the off-the-field media attention, Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez are pretty much polar opposites of each other as quarterbacks.  Before I really thought about it, I viewed Romo as a terrific quarterback who gets a bad rap.  On the flip side, I definitely saw Mark Sanchez as adequate, at best, and as receiving far too much attention for his on-the-field performance.  But, I figured out Sunday night that that assessment really goes against pretty much everything I believe in when it comes to sports.  Despite the pretty face and the GC photoshoots, everything that Sanchez does on the field is ugly.  Romo, on the other hand, calmly escapes pressure and throws beautiful balls up and down the field to a variety of different receivers.  However, while Sanchez could throw five straight bad balls, he always steps up in the under durress on third-and-nine type situations.  What does Romo do in the fourth quarter of close games?  He fumbles snaps and throws ghastly INTs.  Magnify the moment with the playoffs, and you have even more evidence of this.  Sanchez wins ugly; Romo loses pretty.  Gimme the former to play on my team.

How Scary Good Did They Look?
I know this was almost a week ago now, but if you’re the fan of an NFC team that played on Sunday, how scared are you of the two quarterbacks that opened the season back on Thursday in Lambeau Field?  Rodgers and Brees made running an NFL offense look trivial.  Honestly, I started to think to myself “wow, did the lockout just kill all defensive tactics?”  But, no, probably not.  These guys are just that good.

Not to be Outdone
So Rodgers and Brees were terrific, right?  And, we heard about if for four days, right?  Well, there is one guy that is actually terrific – Tom Terrific – and he kind of made a statement last night shutting up those that actually had the audacity to think that someone else in the league may have caught him.  Nope, the throne is still yours, Mr. Brady, I never doubted it.

Am I the Only One That Think Shanahan Knows What He’s Doing?
I clearly am not a fan of the Washington Redskins.  In fact, I hate everything about them with a passion.  But, I have been a pretty big Shanahan defender since he got there (about everything except the Haynesworth debacle, but that’s another story).  And, I defended his choice of quarterbacks.  I believe that the job of a professional athlete is to win ballgames.  And, as pretty much anyone will confess, the quarterback of a football team has more to do with a team’s season-long success than any other position in sports (considering that a starting pitcher, who admittedly may affect individual games more, only pitches 1 out of every 5 games).  So, why do we all love guys like Matt Schaub and Daunte Culpepper, but can’t stand the Vince Youngs and Rex Grossmans of the world?  I don’t get it.  Grossman is 31-17 as a starting quarterback, including a Super Bowl run.  And, it’s not like he has been throwing to Andre Johnson, Cris Carter, or Randy Moss in any of his various stops (you know, other than the 1 game he started as Schaub’s backup last year).  I’m not saying the Skins are headed to the Super Bowl, but Shanahan may not be the grumpy old man he was made out to be last year.

Let’s Slow Down a Little Here
Yes, Cam Newton just broke the rookie debut passing record held by Peyton Manning.  And, I recognize that no one in their right mind is honestly comparing him to the great Peyton.  And, yes, Cam looked pretty darn good (and poised) on Sunday.  But, let’s not get crazy here.  He did it against the Arizona Cardinals defense that lost their best d-back this offseason.  And, they didn’t even win the game.  Let’s hold off judgement a little bit on Cam’s Canton induction.

Timing is Everything: NFL Preview – Week Two

Week One is in the books, and it was an interesting week that gave us some real surprises.  We will see what Week Two has in store.

Sunday, September 18:
1:00 – Oakland (0-2) at BUFFALO (1-1)
I don’t think Buffalo is better than the Raiders.  But, then again, I don’t think they’re that much worse either.  And, in Buffalo at 1:00, I like the Bills here, without too much hesitation.

1:00 – Kansas City (1-1) at DETROIT (1-1)
I really struggled with this one, actually.  I do like the Chiefs some this year, and I’m not drinking the Lions Kool-Aid.  But, this early in the season, the Lions will probably be fully healthy, and despite a Week One loss to Tampa, the fans of this team are so excited for this team, that I think they can propel their team to a win in the home opener.  This one is tough, though

1:00 – BALTIMORE (1-1) at Tennessee (1-1)
The Ravens are smarting from a home loss to open the season against the Steelers, while the Titans picked up a bit of a hollow win at Jacksonville.  I like the Ravens easily here, even on the road.

1:00 – Cleveland (1-1) at INDIANAPOLIS (1-1)
This game is a lot trickier to pick now that we know that Manning is probably out, but I think that after the initial shock of losing him (and maybe a BIG loss to Houston), the Colts have enough talent (and Collins is a decent enough QB) to rally the troops to beat the Browns at home.  Though, this has become very interesting in Cleveland’s season all of a sudden…

1:00 – Chicago (1-1) at NEW ORLEANS (1-1)
As is the theme of the day, two more teams evening their records after two weeks.  This one is easy.  The Saints have 10 days to prepare for a Bears team that cannot possibly keep up with Brees & Co. on the carpet.

1:00 – Jacksonville (0-2) at N.Y. JETS (2-0)
The quarterback-less Jags on the road against a defense that eats alive even good QBs?  Move along, nothing to discuss here.

1:00 – Seattle (0-2) at PITTSBURGH (2-0)
The quarterback-less Seahawks on the road against a defense that eats alive even good QBs?  Move along, nothing to discuss here.

1:00 – Arizona (1-1) at WASHINGTON (2-0)
A sportsbook in Vegas put out lines on every NFL game every week back in August.  For some reason, they installed the Redskins as a 7-point favorite in this game.  While, I would rush to the window to put money on the Cardinals +7, I still kind of agree that the ‘Skins win this game.  I, honestly, think that this defense is easily overlooked, and…wait for it…I think Rex Grossman takes too much flak.  There, I said it.

1:00 – GREEN BAY (2-0) at Carolina (0-2)
Ten days for the Pack to prepare for the Fighting Cam Newtons?  Easy road win for the defending champs.

1:00 – Tampa Bay (1-1) at MINNESOTA (1-1)
I think the Bucs, who, like most young teams, play much better at home than on the road, might be smelling themselves a little bit after beating an overhyped Lions team in Week One.  And, the Vikings, who are probably coming off a shellacking in San Diego, are probably easy to overlook, particularly if the Bucs look ahead to hosting the Falcons next week.  I cannot wait to take the money line on the Vikes as a home dog in this game.  I think they win this game outright.

4:15 – DALLAS (1-1) at San Francisco (1-1)
The Cowboys are just a better team than the Niners, and I think they finally show it here on a cool September afternoon by the Bay.

4:15 – HOUSTON (2-0) at Miami (0-2)
This is going to sound funny as I keep giving them losses, but I actually think this Dolphins team is decent.  But, on a short week, against a pumped-up Houston team, I think they probably drop this game.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Texans spit this one up like they have a tendency to do, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they honestly haven’t ever earned.

4:15 – Cincinnati (0-2) at DENVER (2-0)
Home against the Bengals is a nice elixir for a short work week, and I think that the Broncos should go to 2-0 here, despite that Vegas sportsbook installing them as a 1-point home dog here in this one.  Maybe they forgot that Carson Palmer retired.

4:15 – San Diego (1-1) at NEW ENGLAND (2-0)
The Pats should watch out here, as they have a brutal matchup on a short week after a road game on Monday night, but they are such a professional team with such a great coach, that I have full confidence that they’ll be prepared.  Then again, I’m sure that they would love to have this game at 1:00 in the middle of December instead of 4:15 on a balmy Massachusetts afternoon.

8:20 – Philadelphia (0-2) at ATLANTA (1-1)
If Week One goes the way I see it, one of the NFC favorites will be 0-2.  And, unfortunately, I think it’s our Birds.  I know it’s Michael Vick’s homecoming, but I kind of think that that might actually favor the Falcons in this one, with the emotion that the fans must feel towards him (not that anyone cares about pro sports in Atlanta), and with the excitement they probably feel about their own team right now.  Throw in the fact that the Birds have the hated Giants next week, and I actually see them starting 0-2, I’m sorry to say.

Monday, September 19:
8:30 – St. Louis (1-1) at N.Y. GIANTS (1-1)
The G-Men, coming off a head-scratching loss to the ‘Skins, return home for their home opener on a Monday night against a St. Louis team that is much better at home than on the road.  As down as I am on this Giants team this year, I think they take care of business against the Rams in prime time.

STANDINGS AFTER WEEK 2:
NFC EAST
2-0 Washington
1-1 Dallas
1-1 N.Y. Giants
0-2 Philadelphia

I’m not sure that anyone would have said all year that the NFC East would have Washington at the top and the Eagles at the bottom, but just looking at the schedule, I’d say that it’s certainly possible after two weeks.

NFC NORTH
2-0 Green Bay
1-1 Chicago
1-1 Detroit
1-1 Minnesota

The Pack starts 2-0, while the rest of the division splits their first two games.  Nice wins for Minnesota and Detroit in Week Two, give this division a pretty solid start here to 2011.

NFC SOUTH
1-1 Atlanta
1-1 New Orleans
1-1 Tampa Bay
0-2 Carolina

The Panthers fall back to what will be a very comfortable 4th-place, while the other 3 teams all sit at 1-1.  This is going to be a very good division, but it remains to be seen if there are enough wins out there for a wild card (or possibly two?).

NFC WEST
1-1 Arizona
1-1 San Francisco
1-1 St. Louis
0-2 Seattle

Okay, that’s more like it.  After a 3-1 Week One, the NFC Worst goes 0-4 in Week 2.

AFC EAST
2-0 New England
2-0 N.Y. Jets
1-1 Buffalo
0-2 Miami

Get used to this picture – Jets and Pats on top, the other two chasing.  Though Buffalo picked up a nice win to improve to 1-1.  Also get used to this – the schedule-makers did Miami NO favors.

AFC NORTH
2-0 Pittsburgh
1-1 Baltimore
1-1 Cleveland
0-2 Cincinnati

The Steelers and Ravens take care of business.  It should be noted here that I picked Indy to beat Cleveland.  While I’m sticking by the pick, it’s not out of the question for the Browns to beat a Peyton-less Indy team and go to 2-0…just sayin’.

AFC SOUTH
2-0 Houston
1-1 Indianapolis
1-1 Tennessee
0-2 Jacksonville

Houston stays on top here – probably for good.  The Colts get a Peyton-less win over the Browns.  The Jags are miserable.

AFC WEST
2-0 Denver
1-1 Kansas City
1-1 San Diego
0-2 Oakland

Tough losses for KC, SD, and Oak, coupled with a nice win for the Broncos, leaves the Mile High team in first place by themselves out west.

Timing is Everything: NFL Preview – Week One

Okay, here we are, getting underway with another much-awaited NFL season.  More great storylines pervade NFL nation this year, as we had a ridiculous flurry of an offseason and a seemingly rushed preseason.  Now, we start the regular season with a bang…

(Check out this link for a quick explanation of this series of posts.)

In CAPS is my pick to win the game, with a short explanatory paragraph to follow.  The records include this week’s game

Thursday, September 8:
8:30 – New Orleans (0-1) at GREEN BAY (1-0)
Like I have said for the past two years, I do like this now-not-so-new trend of giving the defending champs the night to themselves to open the season the following year at home.  And, even more, I LOVE the trend of almost always picking a fantastic opponent for them.  This year is no different.  As you will see in the coming posts, I love both of these teams this year, and really see this game going either way.  However, at home, raising a banner, it’s hard to pick against the defending champs.

Sunday, September 11:
1:00 – Atlanta (0-1) at CHICAGO (1-0)
Honestly, this first one on Sunday – right off the bat – may have been the hardest game for me all week.  I like the Falcons, but I don’t like them that much on the road.  I’m not huge on the Bears, but I think they might have a “circle the wagons” kind of mentality coming off how they ended 2010.  I also think that the Falcons may just be looking ahead to Michael Vick’s return to the Georgia Dome a week from now.  In the toughest pick of the week, give me the Bears at home.

1:00 – Cincinnati (0-1) at CLEVELAND (1-0)
I think the Bengals stink.  I am kind of a believer in Colt McCoy.  Give me the Browns here at home, with relative ease.

1:00 – Buffalo (0-1) at KANSAS CITY (1-0)
I think the Chiefs are due for a bit of a regression, and I also think that Buffalo will be better than they were at the beginning of last year.  However, the Chiefs are great at home, and there is absolutely no reason to think they won’t handle Buffalo here on opening day.

1:00 – Philadelphia (0-1) at ST. LOUIS (1-0)
Maybe I’m overcompensating for my homerism here.  Maybe I’m trying the reverse-jinx.  Maybe I believe too much in the Rams.  But, St. Louis was 5-3 at home last year, and they are a better team now than they were then.  And, with all the new faces, are the Birds ready to come together this soon?  Don’t you think Steve Spagnuolo will have a few blitzes dialed up for an O-line that looks off-kilter?  Doesn’t a fresh Steven Jackson terrify even the most ardent Eagles D supporters?  If this game was schedule for Week 13, I think the Eagles win easily.  But, game one with all the new faces and an inexperienced O-line against an elite defensive mind, I think the Rams might shock us all here.  And, this is exactly why – in the NFL far above any other sport – looking at WHEN you play the games, not just against whom, is vital in analyzing a team’s prognosis for an upcoming season.

1:00 – Detroit (0-1) at TAMPA BAY (1-0)
If the Eagles are “Team Hype,” then what the hell are the Detroit Lions?  If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that this team signed 3-4 elite free agents to add to an already successful team in a proven organization.  But, no, the Lions (who only won 6 games last year and have one of the worst histories for a franchise in North American sports) added the 13th overall draft pick to a position at which they were already very strong and a 2nd-round pick at running back one year after adding a 2nd-round pick at running back.  Oh, and by the way, both of those “additions” are injured, including LeShoure, who is out for the season.  Yes, they are young and improving, but let’s slow down a bit.  Give me the young, up-and-coming team that WON (not lost) 10 games last year, who also happens to be at home.

1:00 – TENNESSEE (1-0) at Jacksonville (0-1)
I feel like every year I rip the Jags and then they go out and win 5 more games than I thought they would.  Well, not this year, folks.  I’m going to still rip them, but they’re not going 8-8.  I’m not big on the Titans and originally had Jax winning this game, but first Chris Johnson signed and then the Jags cut their starting quarterback for one of the McNowns or McCowns or McClowns (none of them are good enough to decipher between them), I quickly changed my tune.  Gimme the Titans on the road.

1:00 – PITTSBURGH (1-0) at Baltimore (0-1)
Honestly, if you told me that we were going to eliminate 30 NFL teams, keep two and just have them play against each other every week until the end of time, I wouldn’t even think twice.  I’d line up the Steelers and Ravens to play each other forever.  With absolutely no rooting interest in either team, I can honestly say that these games are what football is all about.  I’m not happy that this game is so early in the season with a full slate of football, including Nnamdi’s Eagles debut, but still, this is gonna be great.  However, much to the dismay of all my fellow Baltimoreans (most of whom will be wearing all purple everything all week, but probably wouldn’t know who Heloti Ngata was if he walked in the room), I like the Steelers in this one.  The Ravens let go of a lot of veterans in a year where experienced veterans are going to be very important in the early going.  The Steelers, on the other hand, have everyone back from a 12-4 team that was a play or two from winning yet another title.  So, despite my man-love for Ray Lewis, I like the Steelers to grab a HUGE road win in Week One.

1:00 – Indianapolis (0-1) at HOUSTON (1-0)
Even with a healthy Peyton Manning, I like the Texans to exorcise some demons here and beat the Colts.  Now, with Kerry Collins, this one’s pretty easy.

4:15 – N.Y. Giants (0-1) at WASHINGTON (1-0)
With the exception of the Bears-Falcons, I went back and forth on this game more than any other game on the slate, and I am still VERY unconvinced either way.  In the end, I actually decided that the Redskins offense would be able to put up enough points against a really banged up Giants D to allow their defense to win the game.  They have a gambling, turnover-dependent defense, which plays perfectly against a guy (Eli) who turned the ball over THIRTY times last year.  The Giants offseason just seems like one of those offseasons where too much happened to right the ship immediately.  And, I think the ‘Skins come out of the offseason with more confidence than many thought they would – myself included.

4:15 – Minnesota (0-1) at SAN DIEGO (1-0)
The Super-Chargers are going to be super this year.  I put money on them at 12:1 to win the Super Bowl, and I love the bet.  Minnesota is going to be better than people think, and the Chargers (as we all know ALL too well) aren’t exactly the fastest of starters.  But, there is no reason to think SD doesn’t win this game and win it easily.

4:15 – Seattle (0-1) at SAN FRANCISCO (1-0)
This one was actually pretty tough for me here.  I don’t like what the Niners did in the offseason (how can you?), but…and I NEVER thought I’d say this…I think they made a better quarterback decision than their Week One opponents did this offseason.  Don’t get me wrong, as the manager of the Jack-O’s (a team of all Jacksons in our BSB fantasy football league, All in the Family), I am strongly rooting for Tavaris Jackson to perform masterfully, but I just don’t see how it’s possible.

4:15 – Carolina (0-1) at ARIZONA (1-0)
The Kevin Kolb Era is underway.  I honestly think he’ll be decent.  I don’t think he’ll be worth the money.  I don’t see any Pro Bowls in his future, but I think he’ll be “decent.”  The Arizona defense, on the other hand, not so much.  But, I don’t think they’ll be bad enough to lose to a Cam Newton-led Panthers team at home.

8:20 – Dallas (0-1) at N.Y. JETS (1-0)
This is a FANTASTIC game to open the season on Sunday Night Football.  (Quick tangent: Am I the only one who despises Chris Collinsworth?  I’ll save my justification for another time, but I really can’t stand him, like, AT ALL.)  While I do have question marks about their defense, I think the Cowboys could be really good this year.  But, I don’t think they have much of a shot in this one for several reasons.  One, the Jets are just a better team.  Two, Rex & Co. love the spotlight of prime time games.  Three, New York City, prime time, on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  Emotion plays more of a role in the sport of football than any other sport.  I think emotion carries the day here and give the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets a big Week One win.

Monday, September 12:
7:00 – NEW ENGLAND (1-0) at Miami (0-1)
I like the whole Monday Night double-header on Week One (I’ve actually been saying FOR YEARS that I don’t understand why the most popular TV sport in the country lets 85% of their games conflict with one another…it’s stupid).  But, what I don’t like is the fact that the games always seem to kind of stink.  I don’t mind this game because it’s in Miami, so I think the ‘Phins defense can at least make it a game, but it probably won’t be interesting for all that long, unless Chad Henne becomes who I thought he would be last year and not who he actually was last year.  Give me the Pats on the road, rather easily.

10:15 – Oakland (0-1) at DENVER (1-0)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of this Broncos team.  And, the minute the hand the reigns over to Tim Tebow, I will pick them to lose every game for the rest of time.  But, for now, they still have Kyle Orton.  They also have added Willis McGahee.  And…as our loyal readers know…I am a blind believer in all things John Fox.  Throw in the fact that I don’t think the Raiders are all that much better, and I’ll take the Broncos at home in Week One.

STANDINGS AFTER WEEK ONE
After each week, we will update the standings for each division, maybe do a little synopsis of the division races, and then, starting about 6 games in, we’ll give the tenative playoff positioning.  But, for now, it’s just about the standings.  Also, we won’t really worry about tiebreaker scenarios until maybe Week 13 or something like that.

NFC EAST
1-0 Washington
0-1 Dallas
0-1 N.Y. Giants
0-1 Philadelphia

Haha, if you told me that the Redskins would be a full game clear of the rest of the division at any point in the next 5 years I would probably say that you were crazy.  But, this might certainly be the situation when we wake up Monday morning.  Don’t worry, it won’t stay this way.

NFC NORTH
1-0 Chicago
1-0 Green Bay
0-1 Detroit
0-1 Minnesota

This year – same as last year.  Packers and Bears up top, Lions and Vikes down below…at least in the early going.

NFC SOUTH
1-0 Tampa Bay
0-1 Atlanta
0-1 New Orleans
0-1 Carolina

Both the Saints and Falcons start 0-1 with tough road losses, while the Bucs pick up a decent home win against everyone’s early-season darling, Detroit.  It should be interesting to see whether this is a 2-team race or a 3-team race.

NFC WEST
1-0 Arizona
1-0 San Francisco
1-0 St. Louis
0-1 Seattle

No way is this division 3-1?!?  I must have messed something up here…hold on, let me check something.

AFC EAST
1-0 New England
1-0 N.Y. Jets
0-1 Buffalo
0-1 Miami

Jets and Pats should battle for this division all year.  The two “also-rans” start off with losses.

AFC NORTH
1-0 Cleveland
1-0 Pittsburgh
0-1 Baltimore
0-1 Cincinnati

An absolutely GIGANTIC road win for the Steelers over the Ravens could keep them on top of this division for a while.  The Browns opened with a divisional win, as well, but it’s not quite as impressive when it’s home against Cincy.

AFC SOUTH
1-0 Houston
1-0 Tennessee
0-1 Indianapolis
0-1 Jacksonville

Is this the year?  Can the Texans finally get over the hump and into the playoffs?  Well, I just have to say that if it’s not this year, then it’s never going to happen because this division is not very good.

AFC WEST
1-0 Denver
1-0 Kansas City
1-0 San Diego
0-1 Oakland

Just like the NFC West, the AFC West also has a surprising 3-win opening week.  I’m not sure how good this division will be all year, but it’s off to a nice start.

Timing is Everything: BSB’s Game-by-Game NFL Preview

So, aside from the BSB-style NFL preview, we also like to do something in preparation for the NFL season, where we go through every week of the NFL season (before the season starts) and try to pick a winner, with strong consideration given to the teams involved (obviously), the place, the weather, the possible motivations, and a bunch of other scheduling circumstances (particularly, teams coming off of a bye or a short week, traveling long distances, West Coast teams at 1:00, looking ahead to big games the following week or let-downs from big games the prior week, etc.).  This is important because we all know that, in a 16-game schedule with professional athletes, a bounce here or there can be the difference between making the playoff crapshoot with a shot at a Super Bowl and having to sit through an offseason with the disappointment of missing the playoffs altogether.

Two years ago (this link takes you to the Week 17 page from two years ago with the final standings), we actually did pretty well, correctly predicting 9 of the 12 playoff teams, including 5 of the 6 in the AFC.  Last year (again here is the link that will take you to Week 17 with the final standings), we dropped down to 8 of the 12 playoffs teams, but we did correctly predict the Packers over the Steelers in the Super Bowl.

While, last year we were incredibly organized and did two a day every day, leading up to Week 1 kickoff, this year, we had a couple more “distractions,” so Week One will be out momentarily, and then we will just publish the various weeks when we get the chance.  So, stay tuned to BSB for updates, or just follow the tag “nfl week-by-week preview,” which will be on every post.  Also, don’t hesitate to call me out with any disagreements along the way, knowing that one minor assumption I make here can have MAJOR ramifications on the end result.