Sunday, September 25, 2016

2016 NFL Week 3

Well, we've established that it really doesn't matter who's playing quarterback for the Patriots.  I could be under center and they'd still win. If I was the Patriots' quarterback for an entire season, we'd still probably go 12-4 and host a playoff game.

As you can tell, I was way off with my pick for the Thursday night game this week.  Maybe the Texans thought they were supposed to be playing New England on Sunday.  Whatever the reason was, they didn't show up.  Hopefully the rest of the league doesn't have that problem as we hit Week 3.

Cardinals (1-1) at Bills (0-2): Arizona-I don't know what's going on with the Bills.  They held the Ravens to 13 points, then gave up 37 against the Jets.  It was the offensive coordinator that bit the bullet, but you've gotta wonder how much Rex's brother is to blame for Buffalo's 0-2 start.  Arizona, meanwhile, hits the road for the first time after splitting a pair of home games.  We'll see how the Cardinals fare after the cross country trip.

Broncos (2-0) at Bengals (1-1): Cincinnati-What happened to our Bengals-Broncos Week 16 Monday night game?  Instead they meet in Week 3.  And it's a big one for both teams.  Cincinnati hasn't had the easiest schedule to start (at Jets, Pittsburgh, Denver), but neither has Denver (Carolina, Indianapolis, at Cincinnati).  The Bengals already have a loss to the Steelers, which means if they lose to the Broncos, too, they'll have already put themselves in a bad position when it comes to playoff tiebreakers.  I think they'll be ready for the challenge.

Lions (1-1) at Packers (1-1): Green Bay-Is it just me, or has Aaron Rodgers not looked like himself this season?  The Packers' opener against Jacksonville was too close for comfort, and then they go drop a division game against the rival Vikings.  You can somewhat write off last week as the excitement over opening the new stadium, but that doesn't change the fact Rodgers threw an interception on the final drive that essentially sealed the game for Minnesota.  If there was ever a team that needed the comforts of home, this is it.  And they're not leaving Lambeau for a while, either.  After their bye, they have three straight home games, which means it's five weeks until Green Bay travels again.  A great chance to gain some confidence and get a winning streak going.

Raiders (1-1) at Titans (1-1): Oakland-After opening with two straight against the NFC South, the Raiders finally play an AFC team.  The same is true for the Titans, who opened against Minnesota before getting that one-point win last week in Detroit.  One of these squads will be a surprising 2-1.  Although, I won't be that surprised if it's Oakland.

Browns (0-2) at Dolphins (0-2): Miami-One of them has to win!  As has been widely documented over the last week, Cleveland is using its fifth different starting quarterback in its last five games dating back to Week 16 of last season (by the way, Brady will be New England's fourth straight this year alone when he returns in Week 5).  And I can't say I'm excited about the prospect of this one, either.  I had to look it up to know its Cody Kessler.  Johnny Manzeil's still available if they want to make it six straight next week.

Redskins (0-2) at Giants (2-0): Giants-Last year, the Giants lost so many close games it was excruciating.  And it's ultimately what cost Tom Coughlin his job.  This season under Ben McAdoo, they're 2-for-2.  They've beaten the Cowboys and Saints by a combined four points in their first two games.  That's enough to make them one of three 2-0 teams in the NFC.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Redskins.  Which is not entirely a surprise.  Washington usually gives the Giants a game, and I expect this to be no different.  I expect a third close Giants win to start the season, though.

Vikings (2-0) at Panthers (1-1): Carolina-Sam Bradford has done everything right during the Vikings' 2-0 start (ironic that Minnesota and Philly have the same record, isn't it?).  Except now Minnesota's offense will need to consist of more than turning around and giving the ball to Adrian Peterson.  The Panthers, meanwhile, got their mojo back in that blowout win over San Francisco in their home opener.  This one will be tough on Bradford.

Ravens (2-0) at Jaguars (0-2): Baltimore-Of the eight teams to start 2-0, Baltimore may be the most surprising.  The Ravens scored just 13 points in their season-opening win, which is a credit to their defense allowing just seven.  Then last week, they gave up 20 points in the first quarter before shutting Cleveland out the rest of the way in a 25-20 come-from-behind win.  If you look at Jacksonville's 0-2 mark, you'd think "same old Jaguars," but this team is much improved.  This will be a game, and a Jaguars win wouldn't shock me, but I'm going with the Ravens.

49ers (1-1) at Seahawks (1-1): Seattle-Will the real San Francisco 49ers please stand up?  They had that dominant Monday night win in the opener (which they did last year, too, by the way), then got smacked around in Carolina last week.  The Seahawks, meanwhile, have managed a grand total of 15 points against Miami and Los Angeles.  They've clearly got some offensive issues they need to figure out.  The good thing for them is that they've got a winnable home game in which to work on them.

Rams (1-1) at Buccaneers (1-1): Tampa Bay-Los Angeles makes its first cross-country trek in more than 20 years (the road trips tend to be shorter when you're right smack in the middle) still looking for its first touchdown of the season.  Although, considering they played Seattle last week and won without one, I'm sure Jeff Fisher will take 1-1 right now.  They'll need to finally get that TD this week, though, if they're going to entertain beating Jamies Winston and Co. in the Bucs' home opener.

Chargers (1-1) at Colts (0-2): Indianapolis-The good news for the Colts is that their 0-2 start hasn't really hurt them, especially with the Texans losing on Thursday night.  That doesn't mean I recommend an 0-3 start, though.  They already blew their home opener against Detroit.  San Diego's another team that they should beat at home.  This time, I don't see them squandering the opportunity.

Jets (1-1) at Chiefs (1-1): Kansas City-Twice this season Kansas City hasn't gotten off to a good start.  They got away with it against the Chargers, coming all the way back to win in overtime, but didn't last week in that playoff rematch with the Texans.  They're gonna need to figure out how to play better first quarters.  Because they won't be able to come back on everybody.  Teams like the Jets are fully capable of taking advantage of those slow starts by the Chiefs.  I think Kansas City will find a way again, though.

Steelers (2-0) at Eagles (2-0): Pittsburgh-Both Pennsylvania teams come into their matchup at 2-0, but they've gotten there in different ways.  It looks like the Eagles made the right decision on Carson Wentz.  He's the first rookie to start 2-0 with no turnovers since 1970.  The Steelers, meanwhile, have looked every bit as dominant as some experts predicted they would be.  That win in Cincinnati last week was proof of that.  So who stays undefeated and earns Keystone State supremacy?  I think Wentz's luck runs out.  It'll be the Steelers.

Bears (0-2) at Cowboys (1-1): Dallas-So it turns out all that worrying Dallas fans were doing about life without Tony Romo was unnecessary.  Because Dak Prescott has proven to be a more than acceptable alternative.  Cowboys fans are no longer worrying about when Romo's coming back.  If they are, it's because they're worried Prescott will get them off to something good and Romo will screw it up.

Falcons (1-1) at Saints (0-2): New Orleans-In our Monday night game, it's an NFC South matchup.  Both of these teams have played Oakland.  The Saints lost to the Raiders, the Falcons beat them.  But you can't use that alone to judge their seasons so far.  New Orleans lost on a two-point conversion against Oakland and a last-second field goal last week.  They're 0-2 by a combined four points.  I think luck has had more to do with their record than anything else.  They won't be in a position to lose another close one this week.  I see the Saints winning by at least a touchdown, probably double-digits.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 11-5
Overall: 21-12

Friday, September 23, 2016

Brian Cashman For Executive of the Year

After a few weeks where it looked like they might actually somehow sneak into the wild card race, the Yankees finally appear to be officially out of the playoffs.  This is no surprise to anyone.  They've never really been in the race, and anybody who thought they were was fooling themselves.  It's really a miracle that they were considered "contenders" for this long.

They were terrible in April, slightly less bad in May, and decent in June.  Pretty much every game over the first three months of the season followed the same script--either they hit a few solo homers in a 4-2 loss, or they actually did get a few hits, but no pitching and lost 10-8.

It got to the point that the Yankees found themselves in the unusual position of being sellers at the trade deadline.  First they sent Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, then traded Andrew Miller to the Indians, turning No Runs DMC (the only thing on the team worth watching during the first half of the season) into No Runs D.  Then it was their best player, Carlos Beltran, getting shipped to Texas.  Oh yeah, and A-Rod was essentially fired in the middle of all this, too.

Then something crazy happened.  They got good.  The Yankees were 52-52 on August 1.  On September 1, they were 69-63.  They hit their high-water mark on September 10, when they won to go 11 games over .500 at 76-65.  In other words, a team that was .500 after 100 games (they were actually 52-48 after 100 games, but you get my point) went 24-13 (a .649 winning percentage) over their next 37.  And this after getting rid of the three best players on the team!

I've never seen a team overhaul their roster this much in the middle of the season.  Let alone get better after making such massive changes.  In fairness, there are only about 10 players from the Opening Day roster no longer on the team, but Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann have also seen their playing time drop significantly, so it really does seem like an entirely new squad.

That's why I think Brian Cashman deserves some serious consideration for Executive of the Year.  When the Yankees made all of their deadline moves, Cashman and Joe Girardi both insisted that they weren't throwing in the towel for 2016.  It turns out they were right.  Some people thought they were making room for Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Co. to give them extended auditions for 2017 and beyond.  Well, guess what?  Those guys are the reason for the turnaround.  Not only are they better than the guys they replaced, they had no idea what they were doing (and I mean that in a good way).  The Baby Bombers brought a new energy that had been missing for quite a while.  Suddenly the Yankees were fun to watch again.  And it was all because they did a complete reset at midseason.

A popular debate among baseball experts right now is Gary Sanchez's Rookie of the Year candidacy.  Now, I don't think a guy who's only been in the Majors for two months deserves to be Rookie of the Year over someone who's been in the Big Leagues all season.  And I do think the Tigers' Michael Fuhlmer will win (which he deserves to).  But Sanchez does deserve consideration, even if he doesn't end up winning the award.

What Sanchez has done since being promoted permanently in August is unprecedented.  He's hitting home runs at a record clip, and is definitely the most exciting Yankees rookie since Robinson Cano.  Sanchez is so impressive that he got Alex Rodriguez fired, turned Brian McCann into a platoon player/pinch hitter (although, I'd love to see McCann return next season as the DH), and become the everyday No. 3 hitter for the New York Yankees.  And don't be surprised if he occupies that lineup spot for years to come.

To say Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Co. are the main reason for the Yankees turnaround wouldn't be a stretch.  And that's another reason why he belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation.  Again, I don't think he should or will win, but Cashman and Girardi's instincts about the Major-League ready talent the Yankees had waiting in the wings was right on.  (It should be worth noting that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won the Triple A championship without all those guys who got called up.)

None of these moves were made with 2016 in mind.  Yet they hung around in the wild card race much longer than anyone anticipated.  And they restocked the farm system at the same time, which didn't go unnoticed by other organizations.  They came much closer to the playoffs in 2016 than anybody thought they would, all while preparing to be really good in 2017-18.  Brian Cashman should get as much credit for that as the players he promoted to the Major Leagues.

Gary Sanchez won't be the AL Rookie of the Year and Brian Cashman won't be the AL Executive of the Year (you've gotta think that's going to be Ben Cherington).  But don't be surprised if the last three months of the 2016 season marked the beginning of the next great Yankees dynasty.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Streaming Sports

We're coming up on the second week of the NFL streaming Thursday Night Football on Twitter, which, by all accounts, was a rousing success during its initial run last week.  And, of course, the broadcast of last year's Bills-Jaguars game was exclusively on Yahoo.

Last Friday, the day after the game, I had a conversation with somebody about the Twitter stream, and he loved it.  He's one of the many people that no longer has cable and was thankful he had the opportunity to watch the game.  He even argued that this is the wave of the future.  That eventually you'll only be able to watch games on your computer and cable will no longer be a thing.  

I quickly dismissed that argument as asinine.  For starters, cable companies are smart.  In order to watch most online programming, you need to first enter your cable login...which means you can't watch it unless you have a cable subscription.  And with cable you don't need to deal with buffering or the screen freezing or anything like that.  And, I think I'm like most people here, but if given the option of watching a game on TV or on my computer, I'm picking the TV.  Even with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon producing original programming that you can only watch online, that doesn't mean TV as we've always known it is going anywhere.

That doesn't mean I dismiss live streaming of sports.  Quite the opposite actually.  Webcasting has completely changed the game.  In a good way.  It's not going anywhere, and I don't think anyone wants it to--including the TV networks.  They use streaming to their benefit.  It allows them to do different things and show so many more events than they'd ever be able to show if they only had 24 hours of programming a day available to them.  None of this is a bad thing.

Take ESPN3.  That has completely changed the way people watch college sports.  They show so many football and basketball games, a lot of which are exclusive.  Some schools and conferences have even signed deals with ESPN3 to have all of their home events streamed, and that includes soccer, baseball, softball, etc., as well as conference championship track and swimming meets, among others.  Most Division I schools (and some at the lower levels) stream their home games themselves if they aren't on TV or ESPN3, and virtually every league has a conference-wide streaming platform.

None of this would be possible without a platform to stream these events on, and it's something that fans have come to expect.  In addition to all these events, ESPN3 gives ESPN the ability to broadcast multiple events at once...or to show things live before editing them for future broadcast.  They can also utilize different camera angles or have dedicated cameras for certain teams or individual players.  You can't do that if you only have the standard game broadcast, which has to be the traditional, neutral coverage.

Likewise, NBC has taken its usual amount of Olympic criticism for its coverage from Rio.  But one thing they can't be criticized for is the ability to watch whatever event you want whenever you want.  They streamed every event live on, and they were all made available On Demand, as well (I was actually watching some of the Olympic track & field earlier this evening).

Fans have only had this option since 2012, but it has completely changed Olympic viewing.  If you're a fan of badminton, you don't have to hope NBC shows it on one of its networks.  You can watch it online as it's happening.  In the past, badminton fans would've been lucky to see any coverage at all.  Which isn't entirely NBC's fault.  They simply don't have enough broadcast hours to show these niche sports at the expense of the marquee events that are going to draw better ratings.

It's so much more than that, though.  Thanks to the internet, you can watch virtually any event you can think of, from virtually anywhere in the world.  I got to watch the European Championships in track & field on the European Athletics website, and NBC Sports Live Extra has all kinds of Olympic sports programming that they picked up after Universal Sports Network went under.  You can also purchase a subscription to watch sports like cycling or figure skating or skiing online.  Sports that don't have enough of an audience to justify TV airtime, yet are still worthwhile enough viewing to show them somewhere.  Without the online option, these sports wouldn't be seen at all.

And I haven't even touched on things like, which lets you watch any out-of-market game you want.  If you live in St. Louis and you're a Red Sox fan, you can just pull up the NESN broadcast and watch the Red Sox game.  I took full advantage of that to watch the Yankees when I was in San Francisco earlier this year.  (In the interest of full disclosure, my subscription is free because I'm a T-Mobile customer, but that's not the only reason why I think it's great.)  The NHL's streaming platform, meanwhile, is so successful, that MLB recently bought it for $1.2 billion.

All of this, of course, gives you the option of watching the game not just on your TV.  You can watch it on your computer, your iPad, your phone, whatever.  Live streaming doesn't mark the beginning of the end of televised sports (after all, live streaming, if you think about it, essentially IS a TV broadcast).  Rather, live streaming has enhanced televised sports.  And that relationship will only grow stronger in the future.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Paralympics Come to a Close

This year was really the first time that I watched more than just a few minutes of the Paralympics.  And, honestly, I was missing out.  Because these athletes are incredible to watch.  From the eight-foot tall Iranian sitting volleyball player to the Egyptian table tennis player with no arms to the sheer skill and athleticism of the wheelchair rugby players (talk about brutal, that sport is called "murderball" for a reason).  There are so many amazing athletes in the Paralympics that deserve to have their stories told.  (Although, my feelings on certain publicity-seeking Paralympians remain unchanged.)

And NBC did a great job of telling those stories.  They've received criticism in the past (mainly from the IOC and IPC) for their lack of coverage in the past, but this year NBC showed more of the Paralympics they ever have before.

I have no idea what their final ratings for Rio will end up looking like, but the Paralympics put NBC in a tough spot.  They invest so many resources and dedicate so much air time to the Olympics because they know the audience is there.  The Paralympics are part of the deal, though, both for the host city and the broadcasters.  In the past, NBC has explained its lack of Paralympic coverage by arguing that the interest in the Paralympics simply isn't there.  Although, it's tough to build interest if there's nowhere to watch the Paralympic events, which presents an interesting catch-22 for NBC.

Maybe this increased exposure will result in increased interest in the Paralympics.  Paralympians were included in the Team USA commercials alongside the Olympians, and athletes like Tatyana McFadden and Jessica Long have become just as well-known.  The Paralympics are only going to continue to grow, too.  Especially if anybody saw how intense and competitive those wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby games were.

One of the other cool things about the Paralympics is the range of the athletes.  Their athletic peak is much different than that of able-bodied Olympians.  Rio was Jessica Long's fourth Paralympics.  She's only 24.  She made her debut at 12 in Athens.  There were plenty of teenagers, but there were also a number of 40-somethings.  Likewise, there were athletes who've had their condition since berth, as well as army vets who lost a limb in war and those who suffered some sort of catastrophic injury or illness at various ages.  It truly is a diverse collection of athletes.

Although, the Paralympics are difficult to follow.  There are so many different classifications that all the different numbers can get confusing.  Especially since they have different events in the different classifications, which may or may not be the same.  I understand why they do this.  These athletes have different levels of disability and they have to make the playing field as level as they can.  Having an artificial leg is much different than being blind, which is different still than having a limited range of motion.  But that doesn't make it any easier for those of us on the outside looking in to know what number stands for what or who competes against who.  Even though it's sometimes obvious.

That might be why NBCSN focused so heavily on the team sports.  In wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby or sitting volleyball, you're not sitting there trying to figure out why the athletes are in a certain class.  The athletes are assigned a point value based on their level of disability and the players on the court have to add up to a certain number, but you don't need to know whose point value is what to understand what you're watching.

From all accounts, the fans have enjoyed what they've been seeing, too.  There were worries about lagging ticket sales heading into the Paralympics.  But from the events I've seen, the venues were either sold out or close to it.  Some Paralympic events even drew better than some Olympic events in the same venue!  The Paralympics are more accessible and the competition is just as good.

Some have suggested that the Paralympics be integrated into the Olympics somehow.  Whether that means combining them into a single entity or holding the Paralympics immediately after the Olympics end instead of the current gap of a few weeks, I don't know.  But either would be a mistake.  Because that won't increase exposure or interest in the Paralympics.  I think it would actually have the reverse effect.  The Paralympics would lose their identity.  Those events would just be Olympic events like all the others.

The Paralympics are never going to be the Olympics.  And that's OK.  They still deserve their own spotlight.  Which is why the Paralympics are perfect the way they are.  They just need to be appreciated.  That appreciation will only continue to grow as the Paralympics gain more exposure.  And that exposure will only come if the Paralympics and Olympics remain separate but equal entities.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

2016 NFL Week 2

Well, Week 1 sure was something, wasn't it?  Four one-point games, two two-point games (which would've been three if not for that meaningless last-play safety in the Lions-Colts game), and an overtime game in Kansas City that saw a crazy Chiefs comeback.  Oh yeah, and New England won when nobody expected them to because, well, that's just what the Patriots do.

I also didn't notice this until the games were actually being played, but there were 10! interconference games in Week 1.  That's kinda crazy if you think about it.  In Week 2, we make up for it.  Only two interconference tilts, with most of the games this week division matchups.  We've also got the NFL's return to LA (which wasn't last week why?) and the opening of the Vikings' new stadium (with Sam Bradford at quarterback for the home team).

With all those division games on tap, we're gonna see some intense rivalries come to the surface.  None more so than the first Bengals-Steelers game since last year's playoffs.  One of those intriguing division games already happened, with the Jetropolitans beating their old coach for the first time, prompting Rex to fire his offensive coordinator after just two games.

Now on to the rest of the league...

Ravens (1-0) at Browns (0-1): Baltimore-Cleveland got smacked around last week in Philly and lost RG3 for two months.  He never even got to play a home game before getting hurt!  The Ravens, meanwhile, won despite scoring only 13 points.  They probably won't need much more than that this week, either.

Titans (0-1) at Lions (1-0): Detroit-Detroit's win in Indianapolis was perhaps the most surprising result in Week 1.  We didn't know what kind of a team the Lions would put on the field in game one of the Post-Megatron Era.  But all indications look good so far.  Granted, it was only one week, but it was on the road against a good Colts team.  The Titans aren't good, so the Lions should be able to do it again in their home opener.

Dolphins (0-1) at Patriots (1-0): New England-While Tom Brady's off playing catch with Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, his team takes the field with Jimmy Garroppolo under center in the first of three straight home games before Brady comes back.  If Patriots fans were worried about Garroppolo, they're not anymore.  And this was one of the games people figured New England would win anyway, so I have no reason to go against the Patriots here.

Saints (0-1) at Giants (1-0): Giants-New Orleans missed an extra point--and ended up losing to the Raiders when Jack Del Rio made the gutsy decision to go for two.  The Giants, meanwhile, won by one--helped in large part by the Cowboys' clock mismanagement.  You know they want to atone for coming up on the short end of that shootout in the Superdome last year, and you know they'll want to impress in Ben McAdoo's first home game as head coach.

Bengals (1-0) at Steelers (1-0): Pittsburgh-Definitely one of the most-anticipated matchups of the week.  Cincinnati will give Pittsburgh its best shot after handing the Steelers that playoff game in January.  And they won't have Vontaze Burfict because of his stupid penalty that helped lead to that winning Pittsburgh field goal.  It would've been better for them if he was playing.  Because the Steelers are clear favorites here.

Cowboys (0-1) at Redskins (0-1): Dallas-It's too early to call a Week 2 game a "must-win," but this one sure seems like it.  Especially for the Cowboys.  Because a Dallas loss wouldn't just make them 0-2, it would make them 0-2 in the division.  Things are already going to be difficult for them without Romo, but the playoff hopes would be all but gone if that happened.  That's why I'm taking Dallas in this one.

49ers (1-0) at Panthers (0-1): Carolina-Ron Rivera is still on the whole Week 1 Super Bowl rematch thing.  He says he feels "disrespected" that they didn't open at home.  Well, you know what dude?  Get over it!  The NFL only scheduled you in Denver to start the season because of the unique opportunity to have a Super Bowl rematch.  It had nothing to do with you or how they feel about your team, which should've won that game, by the way.  They'll take it out on the 49ers, who aren't as good as their 28-0 win over the Rams might make some people want to believe.

Chiefs (1-0) at Texans (1-0): Kansas City-Bengals-Steelers isn't the only Week 2 AFC Wild Card Game rematch.  Although, the Kansas City-Houston playoff matchup was significantly less competitive.  Houston has been waiting months to get another shot at them, and the Texans will have a much better showing this time.  But after what the Chiefs managed to pull off last week, how can you go against them?

Seahawks (1-0) at Rams (0-1): Seattle-Can someone explain to me (1) why the Rams opened on the road and (2) why their first home game is against Seattle?  Last week's Monday night game against San Francisco should've been the NFL's triumphant return to the City of Angels.  Instead, it'll be Russell Wilson and Co. that get the honor of winning the first NFL game in Los Angeles since Christmas Eve 1994 (when, ironically enough, both the Rams and Raiders were home).

Buccaneers (1-0) at Cardinals (0-1): Arizona-Most people figured that the team heading into this game 1-0 would be Arizona.  But the heavily-favored Cardinals got dropped by the Brady-less Patriots.  Which makes this game that much more important.  They can't start 0-2 if they want to win the division.  Especially since they're already a game behind the Seahawks.

Colts (0-1) at Broncos (1-0): Denver-Peyton Manning's retirement has taken most (if not all) of the luster out of the Indianapolis-Denver matchup, hasn't it?  There's still this, though.  The Colts are visiting Denver for the first time since that 2014 divisional playoff.  That's motivation enough for the Super Bowl champs.

Falcons (0-1) at Raiders (1-0): Oakland-Jack Del Rio gave everyone an indication of what this year might be like for the Raiders when he went for the win last week in New Orleans...and it paid off!  If this is the beginning of their final season in Oakland before moving to Las Vegas, it could be a good one for the Raiders.  Traveling cross country and getting a win in always a tough task, especially when it's a trip you only make once every eight years, which is how frequently Atlanta visits Oakland.

Jaguars (0-1) at Chargers (0-1): San Diego-Last week, both of these teams showed us how improved they are.  Yet one of them is still going to start the season 0-2.  Unfortunately, I think that's probably going to be Gus Bradley's guys.  Even though they completely impressed me against the Packers.

Packers (1-0) at Vikings (1-0): Green Bay-See, now this is the way you open a new stadium.  Sunday Night Football against your biggest rivals.  The same one that you beat in Week 17 last year to snag the division title.  Except you're already down to your third quarterback, and said rival is among the preseason Super Bowl favorites.  Al and Cris are excited to see the stadium that's going to host next year's Super Bowl.  So am I.  This should be a good one.

Eagles (1-0) at Bears (0-1): Philadelphia-A group of Eagles players have announced that they're going to join in Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest on Monday night.  So I guess this is just a thing now, huh?  I guess that's good.  Because eventually people will stop caring enough for it to be a "story" every week.  As for the game, Philly will have played Cleveland and Chicago, which would make them probably the weakest 2-0 team in the league, but a 2-0 team nonetheless.

Last Week: 10-6
This Week: 1-0
Season: 11-6

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The World Cup of Hockey

It's hard to get up for the World Cup of Hockey the same way you would for the World Cup of Soccer or the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics or any other event held somewhat regularly.  This World Cup started 20 years ago, yet this is just the third one being held.  They went eight years between the first two, and Canada's been waiting 12 years to defend its title.

The World Cup of Hockey really seems to be held only when the NHL feels like it.  There's absolutely no regularity, which, again, makes the event a difficult one to follow.  The timing always seems way too convenient also.  The first one was in 1996, which was two years NHL players first played in the Olympics.  The next one was in 2004, and it ended just before Lockout 1.0 wiped out the entire season.  Now the NHL is thinking about NOT going to the Olympics in 2018.  Seems to me like the World Cup was revived as a potential replacement for the Olympics (provided they actually hold it somewhat regularly).

While the NHL's participation in the Olympics is a topic for another day, that doesn't change the fact the World Cup is here.  And we should be excited for it.  Because it's always fun to watch the best in the world compete for their country, especially since in sports like hockey that doesn't happen very often.

This year's World Cup is slightly different than the previous two.  The 1996 and 2004 editions were actually "World" Cups, with games taking place in Europe and North America.  This time, every game will be in Toronto as a part of the Maple Leafs' 100th anniversary celebration.  This change I like.  All of the games in one place makes it easier on everybody--the fans, the broadcasters and the players.  Eliminating the travel should result in a better quality tournament.  After all, in the Olympics there's no travel (except back and forth between arenas if they're using two), which probably explains why the Olympic tournaments are so good (of course, the Olympics taking place in the middle of the season has something to do with that also).

As for the teams, you've got the top six, along with Team Europe and Team North America.  I'm not overly keen on that idea.  I get why they want to have a Team Europe.  There are a number of good NHL players randomly scattered across the continent, and the NHLPA would rather see their own guys than a bunch of KHL players with a few NHLers mixed in.  Team North America is way too gimmicky, though.  It's the Canadian/American combined under-23 team.  Their worry was probably that guys like Johnny Gaudreau and Connor McDavid wouldn't make the regular Team USA and Team Canada, and they want to show off their young stars.  So, as a result, Team North America was born.

I think my biggest problem with Team Europe and Team North America is that Slovakia really got shafted here.  Slovakia is just as strong as the six nations that are participating.  They took part in the first two World Cups, and would probably put up a respectable showing if they were participating in this one.  My solution is to include Slovakia and hold a qualifying tournament for the eighth spot.  Or even increase it to 10 and have three qualifiers.

Anyway, those are plans for the 2026 World Cup of Hockey (just guessing the next time they'll actually hold the tournament based on the regularity of previous editions).  Right now, it's time for the 2016 tournament.  And the home team, which has won the last two Olympic gold medals (and three of the last four), is the overwhelming favourites.  As they should be.

But who plays Canada in the finals?  The smart money's on either Sweden or Finland.  Sweden won the silver in Sochi and has the only Olympic gold that Canada hasn't won this millennium.  It also isn't lost on me that most of the best players in the NHL that aren't Canadian are from Sweden.  Throw in Henrik Lundqvist, and you can see why I'm high on the Swedes.  As we've seen, a hot goalie can carry you, especially in a short tournament like this one.

Finland, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout.  They're one of the most consistent teams in these major international tournaments, yet they've never taken the big prize.  I don't think they will here, either, but they're definitely a threat to be in the finals.  Of course, they'll have to knock off Russia just to get to the semifinals.  The Russians have Alex Ovechkin and are determined to make up for the disaster that was their hosting turn in Sochi.  Team North America is in for a struggle against those three.

Don't think Sweden, Finland and Russia weren't all placed together intentionally.  That way, they were able to set up both a guaranteed Canada-USA game, as well as making the Americans' road to the semifinals much easier.  Team Europe is going to be better than some people might think, though.  I can see them pulling off a surprise.  They won't advance, but they'll give all three teams in Group A a game.  That second spot behind Canada comes down to the United States and the Czech Republic (which evidently wants to be known as "Czechia" now; for some reason, I don't see that catching on).  But with Jonathan Quick in goal and a legion of American fans in attendance, I expect Team USA to win that game and advance to the semifinals.

In the semifinals, I have Sweden knocking off the USA and Canada beating Finland.  And, in a rematch of the 2014 Olympic gold medal game, the Canadians win again, defending their World Cup title from 12 years ago.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

North Carolina and the NCAA

When North Carolina passed its controversial new HB2 law, you knew there was going to be a lot of negative backlash from all over.  And with good reason.  While that may not have been its intent, it's easy to view the law as discriminatory.  Especially considering how much of a hot-button topic LGBT issues have become.

For those that don't know, the HB2 law (House Bill 2 or, officially, the "Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act") requires transgender people to use the public restroom for the sex listed on their birth certificate, not the sex with which they identify (even if they've legally transitioned).  It also excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from anti-discrimination protection.

As you can imagine, reaction to the law has been swift.  Various states have passed legislation prohibiting travel to North Carolina using state funds.  As a result, Duke had to scrap a non-conference basketball game against Albany, and other North Carolina schools will have to adjust their schedules, as well.  The 2017 NBA All-Star Game was supposed to be in Charlotte.  But, in reaction to the law, the league has moved it to New Orleans.  That was the first major event moved out of North Carolina as a result of this law.

Then on Monday, the NCAA announced that it was moving seven championship events out of the state.  This isn't the first time that the NCAA has prevented a certain area from hosting one of its championships.  They don't hold any in Nevada or New Jersey because of gambling, and South Carolina only just got the right to host back once they agreed to stop flying the Confederate flag at the State Capitol.  Likewise, North Dakota only just reentered the hosting rotation in hockey after not being allowed to until dropping the incredibly awesome "Fighting Sioux" nickname.

But Monday's move is significant because of the message it sends.  Not only did they pull championships already scheduled for North Carolina, they also made it clear that there will be no NCAA Championships held in North Carolina as long as the law is in place.  Considering they had seven scheduled for this year alone, and that eliminates Duke and North Carolina (among others) from hosting events that are held at campus sites, that's potentially a lot of NCAA events that will end up being held elsewhere.

Naturally, some of these championships are more marquee than others.  The Women's College Cup regularly takes place in the Raleigh area and was supposed to again this year.  Now it won't.  The Women's Lacrosse Championship was also set to take place there, but that, too will be moved.

The biggest event being moved out of North Carolina, though, is the first two rounds of the Men's Basketball Tournament in Greensboro.  The ACC Tournament is held in Greensboro more than any other location, and Greensboro also regularly hosts the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.  One of the reasons Greensboro hosts so frequently is because Duke and/or North Carolina is usually good, and with those fan bases, they're all but guaranteed a sellout.  And with Duke likely to be in the Preseason Top 5, it seems probable that Duke was going to be playing their first two NCAA Tournament games in Greensboro.

Duke's athletic director went on record saying he agreed with the NCAA's decision, while both North Carolina and NC State expressed their disappointment (although, it should be noted here that North Carolina and NC State are state-funded, while Duke is a private institution).  North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, meanwhile, went on the offensive, accusing the NCAA of taking "political retaliation" while the matter is still being decided in the courts.

McCrory's reaction was tame compared to that of North Carolina Republican Party spokeswoman Kami Mueller, though.  This quote is so ridiculous, you'd think it has to be made up, but it all comes straight from Mueller: "This is so absurd it's almost comical.  I genuinely look forward to the NCAA merging all men's and women's teams together as singular, unified, unisex teams.  Under the NCAA's logic, colleges should make cheerleaders and football players share bathrooms, showers and hotel rooms.  This decision is an assault to female athletes across the nation.  If you are unwilling to have women's bathrooms and locker rooms, how do you have a women's team?"

Hang on, it gets better.  "I wish the NCAA was this concerned about the women who were raped at Baylor.  Perhaps the NCAA should stop with their political peacocking -- and instead focus their energies on making sure our nation's collegiate athletes are safe, both on and off the field."

Seriously, with such a sound and reasoned argument, how could you possibly disagree with Mueller?  She didn't take it to an absolutely ludicrous extreme or anything.  She completely gets the point.

While it's clear North Carolina's lawmakers don't think there's anything wrong with this law, the vast majority of Americans disagree with them.  The NBA and NCAA's actions prove that.

This doesn't mean there won't be any big time sporting events in the State of North Carolina, either.  They haven't decertified the Belk Bowl (and probably won't), and NASCAR hasn't said anything one way or the other, but you'd figure they're not inclined to pull the Coca-Cola 600, one of their biggest events, out of Charlotte, which is also the site of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  The Panthers and Hornets and all of the colleges will still play all of their home games, too.

North Carolina should take the NCAA's move seriously, though.  It's a chance for them to step back and look at the bigger picture.  Maybe then they'll see why so many people think the law is wrong.  Since North Carolina's elected officials aren't going to do anything about it, the NCAA did it for them.  If North Carolina wants to host NCAA events in the future, the way to do that is pretty clear.  Become welcoming--to everybody--and the NCAA will gladly come back.  Until then, enjoy traveling.