Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Sporting Implications of Scottish Independence

By this time tomorrow, we'll know the results of the historic vote taking place in Scotland.  The vote, of course, is whether or not Scotland will remain a part of Great Britain.  A simple majority and Scotland will break off into an independent country.  While I obviously don't have a horse in the race, I think Scottish independence is a bad idea.  My opinion, of course, doesn't matter, but the sporting implications, just like the economic and political ones (which are the main reasons why I think it's a bad idea), of this vote are vast.

Let's start with the most obvious: the Rio Olympics.  The IOC made it a rule a few years ago that you need to be recognized by the UN in order to receive IOC recognition.  Scottish leaders predict that, if the referendum is successful, it'll take 18 months for Scotland's government to become fully operational and the country to become a full voting member of the European Union.  That timetable brings us to March 2016...just four months before the start of the Rio Games.  Which is simply not enough time for an independent Scottish Olympic team to go to Rio.

There are other things necessary for a nation to become eligible to field an Olympic team.  For starters, a National Olympic Committee needs to be established.  That part doesn't seem too hard, seeing as Scotland sends its own team to the Commonwealth Games, but it's also worth noting that South Sudan has been an independent country for almost three years and still doesn't have an NOC!  They also need to have a certain number of national federations recognized by the international federation in the given sport.  Again, this doesn't seem like it would be much of a problem for Scotland, which already fields its own national team in soccer, rugby and a number of other sports.

It shouldn't be a problem for Scotland to get any of this put in place.  Except for the tight timing.  I'm sure some of the steps would be made during those 18 months, but that doesn't change the qualifying window.  And there's no guarantee that Scotland would be able to have the most important thing it needs--the recognized NOC.

Regardless, the IOC has promised protection to those Scottish athletes who qualify for Rio.  If there's no Scottish team in Rio, they'd all still be allowed to go.  After all, they'd remain British citizens, so the option to compete for Great Britain would always be there (I'd imagine it'd be a situation similar to that of Northern Ireland, whose athletes have the option of representing Great Britain or Ireland, which golfer Rory McIlroy will do in Rio).  At worst, Scottish athletes would be able to compete under the Olympic flag, which is what the South Sudanese athletes did in London and the Indian athletes did at the Opening Ceremony in Sochi.

Speaking of Scottish athletes, there were 16 that won medals in London.  The most famous of which is Andy Murray, who became a British national hero with his gold medal in tennis, followed by ending the home country's Wimbledon drought in 2013 (that would still count as a British win even if Scotland does secede).  Swimmer Hannah Miley, meanwhile, is the reigning European champion in the 400 IM, an event in which she finished fifth in London.  There are also a number of track & field stars from Scotland, most notably 400 meter hurdlers Eilidh Child and Dai Greene, as well as European 800 meter champion Lynsey Sharp.  Plenty of top-ranked golfers are Scottish, too, although none would qualify for Rio as members of a British team.

In fact, Britian's most successful Olympian ever is Scottish.  Sir Chris Hoy won seven career Olympic medals in cycling, including six golds, two of which came in London.  Interestingly, though, Hoy has spoken out about against Scottish independence.  He warned that it would negatively affect Scottish athletes, who would no longer have access to the world-class training facilities in England.  Or get a cut of the lottery money that funds the British Olympic team and is a big reason why Great Britain has been so successful in recent Games.

Of course, that's not something the Scots are thinking about.  Those that favor independence are caught up in nationalistic pride, and they'll point to the Scottish success at the recent Commonwealth Games, which they hosted in Glasgow.  Scotland won 19 gold medals and 53 overall, which were each the highest total in their history.  Although, success at the Commonwealth Games needs to viewed cautiously.  A number of those medals were won in sports that aren't in the Olympics, and the competition at the Commonwealth Games is significantly weaker.

And I haven't even brought up the impact it would have on golf.  Golf was invented in Scotland, and the British Open alternates between Scotland and England every year, with a regular stop at the sport's Holy Grail, the Royal & Ancient in St. Andrews.  You'd have to wonder whether Scotland would be removed from the rotation or if they'd work out some sort of arrangement to keep things as is.

I'm also worried for a British Davis Cup team that wouldn't include Andy Murray.

Whatever happens, there's little doubt that the Scottish independence referendum will have some sort of impact on the world of sports.  Could an independent Scotland succeed athletically?  Yes, depending on the sport.  Would Scottish athletes be better off if the country remained a part of Great Britain?  The answer to that one is a much more definitive "Yes."  For their sake, I hope the referendum fails.  Because otherwise, it might be a long road for even the elite Scottish athletes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Image Is Everything

Remember those Canon commercials with Andre Agassi from the early 90s?  The ones with the tagline "Image is everything?"  It's pretty clear that the NFL doesn't.  Because the most image-conscious league of them all has a serious image problem on its hands.  And what's worse, they seem completely unable or unwilling to do something about it.

From Josh Gordon to Ray Rice to Greg Hardy to Adrian Peterson, no news is good news coming out of the NFL right now.  Yet Roger Goodell is nowhere to be seen.  He's letting the inmates run the asylum.

The NFL's personal conduct policy was put into place for situations like these.  Things that take place off the playing field, but are serious enough to warrant league discipline.  Goodell alone has the power to suspend players under the personal conduct policy, and he sure didn't hesitate to use that power once it was given to him.  But ever since he went overboard on the penalties for the Saints players involved in Bountygate, he's been hesitant to drop the hammer.  Even in the situations where it's most warranted.

Of course, Bountygate isn't the only situation where Goodell has blown it.  Even he has admitted that giving Rice only a two-game suspension was far too lenient.  Especially now that that video has been released.  How is it possible that he never saw the actual video from inside the elevator before TMZ leaked it?  Not only does he look soft, he looks totally clueless or, worse, blissfully ignorant.  It was only after the extended video came out that Goodell extended Rice's suspension indefinitely.  Rice will appeal on the grounds that he's being punished a second time for the same offense.  As much as Ray Rice has no place in the NFL right now, I actually think his appeal has some merit.  This isn't new evidence.  It's just evidence that nobody bothered to find before.  Regardless, Ray Rice doesn't have a team to play for (because the Ravens did the right thing and released him), so it really doesn't matter if he's technically allowed to play in the NFL or not.

Then there's Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.  Hardy didn't play last week in wake of his July 15 conviction for assaulting and threatening a woman.  But the decision to deactivate him was made by the Panthers.  The NFL hasn't said "Boo" about the Greg Hardy situation.

At least the Panthers did the right thing by deactivating Hardy and keeping him out until who knows when.  That's more than I can say for the Minnesota Vikings.  Because it's an absolute joke that Adrian Peterson will be allowed to participate in a professional football game on Sunday.  What Peterson did is worse than what Ray Rice did.  He hit a four-year-old child.  With a switch.  Hard enough to warrant charges being pressed against Peterson in Texas.  And it wasn't the first time! 

Peterson's punishment for all this?  One game.  He had to sit out the Vikings' home opener against the Patriots on Sunday, but will be back in uniform when Minnesota plays New Orleans next week.  (And don't get me started on how wrong and disturbing it was that Vikings fans made a joke of it by showing up to the Patriots game wearing Peterson jerseys and carrying tree branches.)

Contrast all three of these situations to that of Josh Gordon.  Gordon is currently suspended for the entire year.  For smoking pot.  There's more to it than that, but essentially, it's because he failed a test for marijuana, which was his second failed test.  And that's where Goodell's critics get their most ammunition.  Gordon gets 16 games for getting high, Rice gets two! for beating his fiancĂ©e, Peterson gets NONE for beating his child.  It looks like Gordon's suspension will probably get reduced to eight games, but that hardly seems to matter.  The point remains.

Now, don't get be wrong.  I do believe that Gordon deserved to be suspended.  He was, after all, arrested for engaging in an illegal activity.  But I don't think there's a single person out there who thinks what Josh Gordon did is even remotely close to in the same league as what Rice, Hardy and Peterson did.  Yet Gordon gets suspended for the whole season and the other three get a slap on the wrist?  Something doesn't add up here.

Perhaps the biggest problem with all of this is the clear double standard being set.  Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice are superstars, so they get off easy.  Josh Gordon is a "problem," so the hammer comes down on him for what, in comparison, is a minor offense (which isn't even illegal everywhere).  If we want to take the double standard a step further, Colts owner Jim Irsay was booked for a DUI over the summer...and he was only banned for six games (or, 10 less than Josh Gordon).  Shouldn't the owners should be held to a higher standard than the players?

Simply put, Roger Goodell doesn't get it.  I'll give him credit for admitting he dropped the ball on Ray Rice, but where's he been with the other guys?  And that domestic violence policy the NFL drafted during the Rice fallout was too little, too late.  Sponsors are falling by the wayside and every NFL-related headline is negative.  Yet he can't come out and say what everyone else is already thinking. 

The NFL has a serious problem on its hands, and it needs to get fixed.  ASAP.  It's times like these when a good leader leads.  Take Adam Silver with Donald Sterling.  Yet with his league's and his own reputation at stake, Roger Goodell says and does nothing.  That says all you need to know.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Brian Cashman's Greatest Hits

A bunch of people I know went to go see Yankees GM Brian Cashman speak last week.  (It was on Monday, so I decided to go home and watch the US Open final/Giant game instead of waiting around for the speech.)  Anyway, when they were telling me about it afterwards, the Q&A period was brought up.  Cashman was asked something along the lines of "What transaction do you regret?," and a number of people in the audience immediately started with the cough...Carl Pavano...cough.

It always bothers me when people immediately bring up Carl Pavano as this giant black mark against Cashman.  Sure, it didn't work out.  But who could've foreseen Pavano being injured for basically his entire Yankees career?  On paper, he saw a guy who filled a need that could help the team.  And if you look at what Pavano did in Florida before he came to the Yankees and in Minnesota since he left, you can see why he wanted him.  It's not Cashman's fault Pavano couldn't stay healthy, and it's unfair to blame him for that fact.  Especially since he's made plenty of other moves that turned out a lot worse than Carl Pavano.

Just a few examples...

Kei Igawa: I'm not blaming him for Hideki Irabu because that was all George Steinbrenner, but Cashman definitely deserves a good portion of the "credit" for Kei Igawa.  He was so good in Japan, that the Yankees paid a $26 million posting fee just to talk to him, then gave him a five-year, $20 million contract.  And what did they get for that $46 million investment exactly?  A 2-4 record and 6.66 ERA, followed by three years in the minors.

Josh Phelps: The Yankees took Phelps in the 2006 Rule 5 Draft, meaning he had to stay on the big league roster all season or they'd lose him.  And with Phelps guaranteed a roster spot, that meant there was no room for Bernie Williams.  So I already didn't like him, then he didn't exactly do anything to change that perception.  He was released in mid-June, which means Bernie Williams was cut so that this schmo could be on the team for two months.

Nick Johnson: One of the reasons I give Cashman a break on Carl Pavano is because there was no way to predict Pavano would be so chronically injured.  Not so with Nick Johnson.  This guy occupied a permanent place on the disabled list of the Expos/Nationals and Marlins after leaving the Yankees, yet for some reason was brought back as a free agent in 2010.  And guess what happened.  A season-ending wrist injury on May 8.  Shocking, I know!

LaTroy Hawkins/Kyle Farnsworth: They're lumped together because there's very little to differentiate them.  They both sucked.  Hawkins holds a slightly higher ranking in my mind because on top of not being good, he wore Paul O'Neill's number for a week and didn't understand why the fans didn't like that.  There were two reasons, LaTroy.  Farnsworth was never good, yet somehow lasted three seasons before the Yankees turned him into Pudge Rodgriuez, who was a strange acquisition in his own right.

Ian Kennedy/Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain: Likewise, it's very difficult to make a distinction between this trio.  It was his bright idea to have all three of them in the starting rotation as rookies in 2008.  It was a noble effort, but it didn't work, and the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993.  Kennedy was traded to Arizona in the Curtis Granderson trade and has actually had a decent career.  Same with Phil Hughes, who found a fair amount of success in Pinstripes.  Then there's Fatso.  They messed with his head with that whole "Is he a starter, is he a reliever?" nonsense, and he was consistently inconsistent after that lights out 2007 rookie year.  The Yankees had absolutely no interest in bringing back either Hughes or Chamberlain when they became free agents after last season.

But, to be fair, Cashman has also been responsible for some moves that really paid off.  That even includes all of those moves last season that kept them in the race a lot longer than they should've been, from picking Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay up off the scrap heap to the midseason trade for Alfonso Soriano.  So what if Soriano was released in the middle of this season after becoming an automatic strikeout.

Aaron Boone: Let's go back to 2003.  The Yankees traded Robin Ventura and needed a new third baseman, so they made a trade with the Reds to get Aaron Boone.  And in October he permanently entered Yankees lore while also earning a new middle name in Boston.  Then in the offseason he hurt his knee playing basketball, which gave the Yankees an excuse to trade for Alex Rodriguez.  Take your personal feelings about Alex Rodriguez today out of the equation.  That was a steal 10 years ago.

Bobby Abreu: Much like the last two seasons, everybody was injured in 2006.  So at the trade deadline, Cashman pulled off one of the shrewdest deals of his entire tenure by getting Abreu from the Phillies for four low-level minor leaguers.  And he had a great two-and-a-half years in Pinstripes.  Abreu hit .295 for his Yankees career, had 100 RBIs in both 2007 and 2008, and he finished second in the AL in runs in 2007.

Raul Ibanez: We're looking at the second straight year of the Yankees missing out on the playoffs.  They haven't won a playoff game since Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS against Baltimore, and they wouldn't have won that series without Raul Ibanez.  If not for Ibanez, Derek Jeter might not have broken his ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS against Detroit, either.  His big postseason home runs stand out the most, but his regular season was pretty good, too.  Signed to be a part-time DH, the 40-year-old got a lot more playing time than expected, especially in the outfield, and hit 19 home runs, many of the dramatic variety.

Orlando Hernandez: El Duque was his first big free agent signing, and he was arguably the best.  He came over from Cuba in 1998 and went 12-4, finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.  He was even better in the playoffs, winning his first eight postseason starts for the 1998, 1999 and 2000 World Series champions.  Hernandez was also MVP of the 1999 ALCS.

CC Sabathia/A.J. Burnett/Mark Teixeira: After missing the playoffs in 2008, the Yankees went out and spent big in the offseason.  And the three pieces they got were integral in winning the World Series the following October.  They got an ace and a slugging, switch-hitting first baseman.  And say what you want about A.J. and how his Yankees career ended, but there's no denying how valuable he was in 2009.  They don't win that World Series without him.

That's just a sampling of the good and the bad during Brian Cashman's tenure as Yankees GM.  There are plenty more that could've fit into either category.  There are also some moves that are still to be determined, although the Masahiro Tanaka signing and the Michael Pineda/Jesus Montero trade are both looking pretty good for the Yankees right now.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Rest of Week 2

I had an OK Week 1.  10-6.  Not great, but enough for a wild card.  I'll take it, though.  Especially since I got a real scare when Jacksonville took a 17-0 lead on the Eagles in my survival game.  Fortunately the Eagles pulled it out and somewhat salvaged my week.

...Then I go pick the Steelers on Thursday and they get slaughtered.  So it looks like I'm going to need a good Sunday/Monday to redeem myself.

Thursday Night: Pittsburgh (Loss)

Dolphins (1-0) at Bills (1-0): Miami-After both recording upsets last week, the Dolphins and Bills are tied for first in the AFC East.  (OK, technically Miami's in first place since they won a division game, but that's besides the point.)  A lot of things are going well for the Bills right now.  They're 1-0.  It's the home opener.  It's Dolphins Week.  And Sabres owner Terry Pegula is going to buy the team and keep it in Buffalo.  All signs are pointing towards a Bills victory here.  But I'm going to play the odds and take the favored Dolphins.

Falcons (1-0) at Bengals (1-0): Cincinnati-How impressive was Atlanta last week?!  I knew the Falcons were going to show they actually aren't as bad as they were last season, and a win over New Orleans went a long way towards proving that.  As for Cincinnati, I don't know why people are surprised they went into Baltimore and won.  The Bengals are good.  Probably the best team in the AFC North.  And they're looking at 2-0.

Saints (0-1) at Browns (0-1): New Orleans-It might sound weird to call Week 2 a "must-win," but you've gotta think the Saints are already feeling the pressure after losing to the Falcons.  Especially since Carolina won without Cam Newton last week.  Fortunately for the Saints, they're playing the Browns.  Cleveland came close to pulling off the upset in Pittsburgh, and very well might again this week.  But once again, I think they'll come up short and the better team will win.

Cowboys (0-1) at Titans (1-0): Dallas-This was perhaps the hardest game of the weekend to pick.  Dallas got thumped by the 49ers, while the Titans went into Kansas City and pulled out a win.  Total toss-up here.  The Cowboys are one of the most schizophrenic teams in football.  If the Good Cowboys show up, they should be able to beat the Titans.

Patriots (0-1) at Vikings (1-0): New England-When's the last time the Patriots were in sole possession of last place in the AFC East?  (You have no idea how wonderful it felt to type that!)  After losing in Miami, they now head to Minnesota for the Vikings' opener at their home-away-from-home for the next two years.  Hopefully this game goes better than that Monday nighter they played at U of M a couple years ago and the Bears effectively ended Brett Favre's career.  Anyway, New England never loses two in a row, and I don't see them starting now.

Cardinals (1-0) at Giants (0-1): Giants-They both played on Monday night, so there's no rest advantage here.  Except the Cardinals played the later game and are flying cross country for a 1:00 start.  The Giants were bad against the Lions, and last year they were done in by their incredibly slow start.  They can't have that happen again.  That's why they really need a victory over an Arizona team that's better than they are and probably should win.

Jaguars (0-1) at Redskins (0-1): Washington-The Jaguars visit an NFC East opponent for the second straight week, while the Redskins take on their second straight AFC South foe.  I can't really say much more about the No. 6 regional game on CBS that you'll only be able to watch in DC and North Florida.  The Redskins are home.  Let's say they win.

Lions (1-0) at Panthers (1-0): Carolina-Cam Newton comes back for a Carolina team that picked up a division road win without him.  The Lions looked mighty good in their Monday night demolition of the Giants, though.  Unfortunately for Detroit, Carolina has a much better defense than the Giants, and this week they're on the road.  We'll see if that extra day off has an impact, too.  That's why I'm going with the Panthers.

Seahawks (1-0) at Chargers (0-1): Seattle-It seems like forever since the Seahawks-Packers season opener, doesn't it?  Baltimore and Pittsburgh have played twice since then!  Anyway, this is a tough draw for a Chargers team that lost a game it could've (and maybe should've) won in Arizona on Monday night.  Thursday night vs. Monday night.  How'd that happen?  That's not fair to the team on short rest.  Especially when their opponent is the defending champions.  Seattle's 2-0 going into the Super Bowl rematch.

Rams (0-1) at Buccaneers (0-1): Tampa Bay-If the Rams without Sam Bradford are the team we saw last week, it's going to be a long season in St. Louis.  Tampa Bay, meanwhile, looked good last week despite losing to Carolina.  Now I can see why all those people were so high on the Bucs.  Lovie gets his first win with his new team.

Chiefs (0-1) at Broncos (1-0): Denver-Kansas City's not as good as they were last season, and they're not going to have the same benefit of an easy schedule.  Last year, these two met twice in three weeks, and Kansas City was undefeated going into the first one.  Three weeks later the Chiefs had two losses and everyone knew who the best team in the AFC West was.  That hasn't changed.

Jets (1-0) at Packers (0-1): Green Bay-The records here are deceptive.  The Packers opened in Seattle.  Most people expected a Green Bay loss in that game.  The Jets opened at home against the Raiders.  They were impressive, but consider the opponent.  If they can repeat the feat in Green Bay, then we can talk.  But there's a reason why the Packers were a popular preseason Super Bowl pick.

Texans (1-0) at Raiders (0-1): Houston-Like the Falcons, I think the Texans are on their way to a much better 2014 than 2013.  Of course, they haven't had the most difficult of opponents so far this season, but you play who's on the schedule.  And it's good that they're getting games like this out of the way now, especially since Jadeveon Clowney will be out at least a month.  At the same time, this is a great opportunity for the Raiders to get in the win column.  I don't see it happening, though.

Bears (0-1) at 49ers (1-0): San Francisco-We stay in the Bay Area for the Sunday night game, which will be the opener of the 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara.  I'm surprised Chicago lost at home to Buffalo, and it doesn't get any easier for them against the 49ers.  While I expect this game to be competitive, I seriously doubt the 49ers are gonna let the Bears come into their shiny new home and spoil the Grand Opening party.

Eagles (1-0) at Colts (0-1): Indianapolis-Back to one Monday night game, and the NFL hooked us up with a good one.  I'd expect a lot of points to be scored with Philadelphia and Indianapolis both on the field.  It might be a case of who has the ball last wins.  Although, after seeing Andrew Luck almost steal that game in Denver last week, I'm not going to count him out.  (He's starting to build a reputation very similar to the previous Colts quarterback.)  Two of the better teams in the league will both be 1-1 at week's end.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 10-6

Season: 10-7

Monday, September 8, 2014

Schedules, Schedules Everywhere

The 2022 World Cup is back in the news.  FIFA still hasn't taken it away from Qatar, and some people are now questioning whether or not they even will, so the timing of the event is once again a source of debate.  FIFA President Sepp Blatter (who was taking advantage of the opportunity to announce he'll run for a fifth term) has previously said that he'd rather have the World Cup later in the year (October/November) as opposed to earlier (February) so that it wouldn't conflict with the Winter Olympics.

Well, the various winter sports federations aren't happy with the October/November plan, either.  Their reasoning: because it's the start of their season.  Seriously?  This is the reason they're opposed to that timeframe?  Would they actually prefer February?  During the Olympics?  The marquee event in the sports in question?  Talk about stupid.  While I still think the whole idea of holding the World Cup in Qatar is ridiculous, if the only choices are holding it in February and holding it in October/November, I think most people would agree that October/November isn't just the better option, it's the only option.

But that wasn't the end of the bellyaching about schedules for the day.  Major League Baseball released its 2015 schedule, and everyone's getting their panties in a bunch about the fact that the season's going to extend into November this year.  It's guaranteed.  Game 4 of the World Series is scheduled for November 1.  This is a problem why?  The season's ended in November before, and it will again.  I honestly don't see how this is a big deal.

And did people seriously not see this coming?  Baseball season starts on the same day every year.  The season starts on the first Monday in April, unless March 31 also falls on a Monday (like it did this year), in which case the season starts on March 31, and lasts 26 weeks.  Since this year was the earliest possible start, the playoffs will actually start in September, and the World Series will start and end on the earliest possible date (same with the Super Bowl, by the way, earliest possible date this season, latest possible next season).  Next year's the latest possible start to the baseball season, which means the last weekend of the season is the first weekend in October.  That also means the playoffs will start later.  Again, I don't really see why playing a World Series game or two in November is a big deal.

My disappointment with the release of the baseball schedule was the lack of that big surprise Bud Selig promised us.  The Commissioner implied we might see the regular season start somewhere untraditional, which got people speculating as to where.  The common consensus was Europe, specifically the Netherlands.  Except there were no games on Dutch soil in the schedule announced today.  In fact, there are no games scheduled anywhere outside of the 30 Major League cities.  Of course, there's still plenty of time to work things out and make that happen, but I'm not getting my hopes up.  They normally announce that sort of stuff before the entire schedule comes out, not after.

Another big question I had about the Major League schedule involved interleague play.  Next season is the first one under the new interleague format where it's East vs. East, Central vs. Central, West vs. West.  That means you're playing the division that includes your natural rival, so you're only going against five teams from the opposite league instead of six.  The way I thought they would handle it is exactly what they ended up doing. 

Instead of the four game home-and-home it's been for the past two seasons, we go back to six games between natural rivals next season.  That also means they can play each other on weekends again, which is a good thing.  The natural rival was simply replaced by another team for that second four-game home-and-home (which is needed for the three-series week).  The best part is that you only play one team just at home and one team only on the road.  So, when you play the corresponding division in the other league, you're hosting four of the five teams.  I'm sure a number of teams will appreciate the reduced travel, as well, especially after the NL East played the AL West this year.

Year-round interleague play is something we've all gotten used to, but it still has its quirks.  The best of which is the season-opening series between the Red Sox and Phillies in Philadelphia, presenting a little problem about David Ortiz right off the bat.  (Boston home opener is also interleague, vs. Washington.)  And you have the Pirates playing their home opener against the Tigers (who are actually considered their natural rival). 

As for the Subway Series, which is one of the reasons interleague play was created in the first place, I've never seen it scheduled so uniquely before.  Next year it'll be both the earliest and latest it's ever been.  The Yankees and Mets play at Yankee Stadium in late April, but don't play at Citi Field until mid-September (Subway Series vs. Sunday Night Football).  Dodgers-Angels only gets one weekend(July 31-August 2), though.  We're back to six on all the ones you'd expect (Cubs-White Sox, Giants-A's, Reds-Indians, Marlins-Rays, etc.), as well as the less-natural rivals that are needed to balance out the pairs (Rockies-Rangers, Diamondbacks-Astros, Phillies-Red Sox, Braves-Blue Jays).

In other notable series, the Cubs celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley against the Cardinals (who else?), the Blue Jays host the Rays right after the All-Star Break but are otherwise away for the duration of the Pan Am Games, the Mets are only home during the first three days of the US Open as opposed to the entire first week, and the Astros will complete their first cycle of interleague play as an American League club by playing the whole NL West for the first time since switching leagues.

Cincinnati once again hosts its traditional Opening Day afternoon game, this time against the Pirates.  But the biggest game of the year in Cincinnati will be the All-Star Game on July 14.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Rest of Week 1

Here we go.  After seven long months away, the NFL is back.  And since the NFL is back, so too are my weekly NFL picks.

Things, of course, got started the other day with the Seahawks in the traditional Super Bowl champion Thursday night opener, but this is the first Sunday of football games that count.  And, also in true NFL tradition, most of the better games in Week 1 are reserved for the national TV slots.  Nevertheless, we've got almost a full slate of Sunday games (13 to be exact).  The NFL didn't make it easy for us either.  I had a hell of a time choosing my Survival game.  Because a lot of these matchups, while they have a clear favorite, feature two good teams and could easily go either way.

I also have a confession to make.  I'm not sure how much football I'm going to watch on Sunday.  We've got Derek Jeter Day and Serena vs. Woz in the US Open final.  If not for Red Zone, my only option at 1:00 would be Jets-Raiders, so thank God I have more football choices than just that.  But with Peyton vs. the Colts on Sunday night, you know I'll at least be watching that one.

Thursday Night: Seattle (Win)

Saints at Falcons: New Orleans-The Falcons aren't as bad as their record last year indicated.  That was the result of simply too many injuries to key personnel to overcome.  We'll immediately get to see if this season will be more like 2012 or more like 2013, as they open the campaign against the rival Saints.  New Orleans is one of that handful of teams that has to be considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.  I've gotta think the Saints start 1-0.

Bills at Bears: Chicago-This is the first game that is affected by the new TV deal.  Since the Bills are the visiting team, this game would normally be on CBS.  But it'll be on FOX instead to balance out the games between the networks.  Anyway, the Bears usually wait until November/December to throw away their season.  In September and October, they usually look like a playoff contender.  I don't see them losing to Buffalo at home.

Titans at Chiefs: Kansas City-This is one of those tough ones I was talking about.  On paper, Kansas City should win it easily, but I don't think the Chiefs are as good as they were last year and the Titans might be a little bit better.  Nevertheless, I don't think Tennessee has made up the gap enough to expect to come out of Kansas City with a win.

Vikings at Rams: St. Louis-The team that was most affected by a preseason injury is, obviously, the St. Louis Rams, who'll be without Sam Bradford for the year.  That took away any chance they had at contending in the loaded NFC West, but playing Minnesota at home in Week 1 at least gives them a chance to get the season started on a winning note.

Patriots at Dolphins: New England-If there's one team in the AFC East that actually has a chance at ending the Patriots' dominance, it's the Dolphins.  And they can certainly make a statement by making New England start the season in last place.  This is a tough assignment for Brady and Co. in Week 1, especially considering it's a 1:00 game and that notorious September Miami heat.  I think the Patriots know the potential pitfalls, though.  I just don't see them letting a chance at making an early statement get away.

Raiders at Jets: Jets-I feel bad for my fellow New Yorkers who don't have NFL Red Zone.  Because they don't have another option at 1:00.  Of course, there are also some Jets fans who don't care they're playing the Raiders and will be more than happy to see them start the season 1-0.

Jaguars at Eagles: Philadelphia-After much deliberation, I ended up going with this matchup as my Survival game.  The Eagles were a playoff team last season, and there's no reason to think they're going to drop off.  Nor is there any reason to think they're going to lose at home to the Jaguars.

Browns at Steelers: Pittsburgh-If you've watched CBS at all in the past six weeks, you know the Steelers are playing the Ravens on Thursday night.  Psst, CBS, you've got a bunch of games on Sunday first.  One of those games also involves Pittsburgh--against rival Cleveland.  I see the Steelers going into that Thursday night matchup 1-0.

Bengals at Ravens: Cincinnati-As for the Ravens, I don't think they'll be 1-0 going into that Thursday night showdown.  Baltimore is favored in this game, but I'm taking Cincinnati in the upset.  The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the past two years and look just as strong this season.  And they absolutely caught a break by going to Baltimore while Ray Rice is suspended.  That's why I give the edge to the Bengals.

Redskins at Texans: Houston-This is another tough one.  Both of these teams won their division in 2012 and underachieved last year.  Except for the Texans, that was more a result of injuries.  Washington had injuries, too, but I think there 2012 success was more lightning in a bottle.  The Texans are definitely more equipped to make a run back to the top.  Plus, they're the better team.

49ers at Cowboys: San Francisco-Remember when this was the can't miss matchup of every NFL season?  We get a little bit of that feeling back with Dallas and San Francisco meeting in the national game at 4:30 on FOX.  San Francisco's becoming a staple of this game, although this is the first time in two years they aren't playing Green Bay.  It's also weird to not see the Cowboys not in the opening Sunday night game.  As for the winner, I'll go with the team that's looking to make its fourth straight NFC Championship Game appearance.

Panthers at Buccaneers: Carolina-The other late game is in Tampa Bay, as the Panthers visit the Bucs.  Carolina was the breakout team of last season, while Tampa Bay is a chic pick to be this year's breakout team.  Lovie's definitely going to get them going in the right direction, but the NFC South is simply too good.  Maybe if the Bucs win this game, I'll be more accepting of them as an NFC South contender.  My gut tells me the defending division champs get it done, though.

Colts at Broncos: Denver-Last season, in Peyton's well-publicized return to Indianapolis, the Colts controlled the game and handed Denver its first loss of the season.  As a result, Indy remains the only team Manning has never beaten in his career.  The Broncos' most recent memory, of course, is of that debacle at Giants Stadium known as Super Bowl XLVIII.  Now they finally get a chance to move on from that game.  And Peyton finally gets his chance to beat the Colts, who'll play a game without the owner that fired Manning watching for the first time in 30 years.  This game is made even more important because it could very well determine home field should they meet again in January (in fact, I've got this as my AFC Championship Game matchup).  (I have another Week 1 matchup, Packers-Seahawks, as my NFC Championship Game.)

Giants at Lions: Giants-The first Monday night game is quite a matchup.  The Giants and Lions can both probably be viewed as having an outside chance at the playoffs.  When they played last year, it was effectively the Giants that knocked the Lions out of the playoffs with a Week 16 win in Detroit.  It's Week 1, so it's obviously not a "must-win" game, but I think it's an important one for both as they look to get out to a good start.  The Giants always play well against the Lions and they're a good road team, so they're the pick.

Chargers at Cardinals: Arizona-Week 1 concludes with the two best third-place teams from last season squaring off.  The Chargers, of course, snuck into the playoffs on the final day, while the Cardinals ended up on the outside looking in despite going 10-6.  Both have realistic thoughts on getting there this season, so this is another important Week 1 matchup.  Since San Diego doesn't usually turn it on until later in the season, I'm going Cardinals at home.  (The weird thing about this game is that these two concluded the preseason against each other, so they're meeting for the second consecutive week.)

This Week: 1-0

Thursday, September 4, 2014

2014 NFL Preview, NFC

When I did my AFC preview the other day, I put Indy in the AFC Championship Game pretty much by default because they're probably the second-best team in the AFC.  The only team in the AFC that has a legitimate chance at winning it all, in my opinion, is Denver.

That's not the case in the NFC, which has clearly emerged as the stronger conference.  In the AFC I had trouble finding six playoff teams because I didn't think there were enough that are that good.  I've got the opposite problem in the NFC.  So many good teams that six doesn't seem like enough (don't worry, we've got that unnecessary playoff expansion coming next year).  And the legitimate Super Bowl contenders in the NFC are almost as numerous: Seattle, Green Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Carolina, and I'm sure I probably forgot somebody, too.  Just making the playoffs in the NFC this year is going to be an achievement.

East: What was once the NFC Beast has become the NFC Least.  It's not that the NFC East has become weak.  It's just that the other three divisions are loaded with good teams while the East isn't.  I think the NFC East will play out in a similar fashion to the way it has the past couple seasons.  Three of the four will hover around the 9-7/10-6 mark, and only the division winner will end up in the playoffs as these four rivals kill each other six times.  And it'll probably be the division record that decides it.  The slight edge I would say probably has to go to Philadelphia.  The Eagles won the division last year in Chip Kelly's first season and have only gotten better.  They have the fewest holes.  The Giants will once again hover around .500 and end up a game or two short of the playoffs (they play the Eagles in the finale, which could be for the division.  Dallas will also do the same thing it does every year.  Make everybody think this is the year they're actually going to make the playoffs, have a chance to do so, and lose their last game.  Everybody was jumping on the Redskins bandwagon two years ago when RG3 was this dynamic rookie who took them to the playoffs.  Last year he was hurt and Washington regressed significantly.  I think they're probably somewhere in the middle.  Problem is they're still the worst team in this division, which likely means last place.

North: The Packers are like the St. Louis Cardinals of football.  No matter what, no matter how far out of it they might seem, you know they're going to find a way to end up in the playoffs.  Take last year, when Aaron Rodgers missed half the season and they still won the division.  If Rodgers stays healthy all year, they're not just the favorites to win the NFC North.  There's a reason why Green Bay is a very chic pick to be in Arizona in February.  Winning the division is by no means a mere formality, though.  Because the Chicago Bears are good.  And I think they're going to be a real threat.  I know it seems like I say this about the Bears every year and every year they find a way to piss their season away.  It's very possible that will happen again, but they've definitely got all the pieces in place to challenge the Packers for the division title.  The Lions can't be counted out either.  Detroit choked worse than Chicago last season, going from division champs to out of the playoffs in a span of six days in December.  They've gotta play like the team that played the first 13 weeks of last season all year if they want to make the playoffs in a loaded NFC.  The Vikings enter another rebuilding year as they head to the University of Minnesota for two years while their new stadium is built.  How long has it been since Adrian Peterson was on a college campus?

South: I have no idea what's going to happen in the NFC South.  The standings could easily be exactly the same as they were last year.  But I don't think it would surprise anybody if they flipped completely.  Regardless, New Orleans is the deepest and most talented team in the division.  The Saints only got a wild card year because of how good the Panthers ended up being.  Carolina's not going to surprise anybody this year and the Saints have Drew Brees, so I'm giving them the edge in the division race.  But the Panthers are right there.  Any slip-up at all by the Saints, and we could easily see Carolina defend its division title.  A lot of people are also very high on the Bucs.  If they were in another division I might be too, but I question whether Tampa Bay has the talent to hang in there with New Orleans and Carolina all season.  Besides, what are those uniforms?  What do NFL teams in Florida have against the American public?  Seriously, why is the pirate flag on the helmets so big?  I miss Buccaneer Bruce, too.  As for the Falcons, they went from the best record in the NFC in 2012 to last place in 2013.  Atlanta had some big time injuries last year, which helps explain the subpar season.  Because the Falcons are a better team than that.  They're entirely capable of a bounce back year, especially if everybody stays healthy.  But I think the NFC South is too good for that to make much of a difference.

West: Until Sam Bradford tore his ACL in the preseason, there were four legitimate playoff contenders in the NFC West, which has emerged as football's best division.  Unfortunately for St. Louis, it looks like they're now destined for another last place finish, which says less about the Rams than it does about the rest of the division.  They're simply not going to be able to overcome being without their franchise quarterback while playing six games against three of the best teams in the NFL.  Speaking of the top, let's head to the Pacific Northwest and visit the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.  Seattle's young and has perhaps the best chance to repeat of any Super Bowl winner since New England's back-to-back titles 10 years ago.  It's also possible that the Seahawks might be even better this year, which is a scary thought for their opponents.  Seattle will have a tough time just to win its own division, though.  Don't forget, the 49ers have been to three straight NFC Championship Games, with a last-second Super Bowl loss thrown in.  The NFC Championship Game last season was Seattle and San Francisco.  It's not a stretch to think that could happen again.  Arizona might have something to say about that, though.  The Cardinals are the best third-place team in football, which is not a knock on them.  What I think a lot of people don't realize is that Arizona went 10-6 last year and just missed the playoffs.  (The Cardinals' record last year is probably one of the reasons that seven-team playoff talk got going again in the offseason.)  Sadly, I think they might be destined for a similar fate unless they find a way to move above the 49ers or Seahawks.  Which won't be easy.  Even for a team as good as the Cardinals.

Forgive me for kind of going with the chalk, but I'll go Eagles, Packers, Saints and Seahawks as the division winners.  And in a very close call for the wild cards, I'll say San Francisco and Chicago, although a tiebreaker involving Carolina and/or Arizona is definitely possible.  In fact, the Cardinals could end up 10-6 and not get in once again.  The top of the NFC is just that good.

As for the way these playoffs would play out, the upset possibilities are endless.  I'll say we end up with Packers vs. Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, though.  And that one goes a little better for Green Bay than tonight's game is going.  The Packers move on to face the Broncos in the Super Bowl.

My Super Bowl matchup pits two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks against each other (just like the last time the Broncos played the Packers in the Super Bowl).  The NFC is the stronger conference, and surviving it would make Green Bay the favorite.  But the Broncos know how to overcome playoff disappointment.  They had that overtime loss to Baltimore in 2012, then won the AFC title last season, when they got shellacked by the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.  If they get another chance, I don't see them squandering the opportunity.  Peyton finally ties Eli with a second Lombardi Trophy.  At the very least, Denver keeps up its streak of having its season ended by the Super Bowl champions in the playoffs.