Saturday, January 21, 2017

NFL Playoffs -- Conference Championships

It probably shouldn't be a surprise which teams are left standing in the NFL.  New England, Pittsburgh and Green Bay are the three hottest teams in football.  Either the Steelers or Patriots will definitely see their winning streak end one game short, but the Brady/Roethlisberger/Manning streak will continue.  For the 14th time in the last 16 seasons, one of those three future Hall of Famers will be the AFC's starting quarterback in the Super Bowl.  So much for parity, huh?

In fact, Matt Ryan is the only quarterback starting this weekend that hasn't previously won a Super Bowl.  Atlanta's also the only remaining team that isn't riding a long winning streak.  But, especially after that impressive performance last week, would anybody really be shocked to see the likely MVP get a win in the last game ever at the Georgia Dome?  There's probably a lot of people out there rooting for the Falcons, too, if only to finally see somebody else in the Super Bowl.

Packers (12-6) at Falcons (12-5): Green Bay-We've seen Aaron Rodgers put the Packers on his back before.  Don't forget, Green Bay's Super Bowl title six years ago came as the No. 6 seed.  So, when he said not to panic when they were 4-6, was there really any reason to doubt him?  Now, eight wins (including an upset of the top-seeded Cowboys in Dallas) later, he's once again got the Packers one win away from the Super Bowl.

As the face of the franchise, Rodgers is obviously the most well-known and most publicized member of the Packers.  But the other part of this eight-game winning streak that's gone unmentioned (if not unnoticed) is the fact that Green Bay's defense is healthy.  And that defense has stepped up big time.  What did Odell Beckham, Jr., do in the wild card game?  What did Ezekiel Elliott do last week?  Exactly.  So for all the press Rodgers and the offense gets, it's really the Packers defense that's going to determine whether or not they're celebrating at the end of the day.

But if you want to talk about unheralded defenses, I present Vic Beasley and the Atlanta Falcons.  Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co. get all the headlines for good reason.  Because this team is all about its offense.  (They led the league in scoring, after all.)  But everyone knows that it's very difficult to outscore teams in the playoffs.  Which means it's up to the defenses.  That's especially true in this game, which has the potential to be high-scoring.

They both have some bad memories from their last trip to the NFC Championship Game.  Only one will get to exorcise those demons.  And, as good as the Falcons are, I just have a feeling it'll be the Packers.  It was a 33-32 loss in Atlanta that started Green Bay's four-game losing streak that freaked everybody out.  It only seems fitting that their second trip to Atlanta will end in a second trip to the Super Bowl for Rodgers and Co.

Steelers (13-5) at Patriots (15-2): New England-Somebody please remember to test the balls before, during and after the AFC Championship Game!  As we all know, the last time the AFC Championship Game was in Foxboro, there was a little bit of a controversy that refused to go away.  Now, here we are again, as the "Tom Brady Revenge Tour" (as his fans are calling it) makes one final stop before ending in Houston.

The reason why this Patriots team is one of the best Bill Belichick has had has nothing to do with Brady, though.  New England's defense is vastly underrated.  That's the thing about this team.  Everyone is always only going to talk about Brady, but they wouldn't have gone 14-2 without the defense playing the way it did.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, found a way to win a playoff game on the road without scoring a touchdown.  Sure, they got some help from the officials (who somehow got the Super Bowl assignment), but the way they won in Kansas City will serve them well in New England.  In fact, the game plan will need to be similar to the one that was used against the Chiefs.  Move the ball with long drives and keep Brady off the field.  If they do that, they can win.  Especially because the Three B's are just as dynamic as Brady and whoever his receiver du jour is.

There's a big difference between this game and the Patriots' 27-16 win over the Steelers in Week 7: Ben Roethlisberger was injured and didn't play in that one.  As a result, I think New England's in for much more of a game than Pittsburgh gave them in mid-October.  There aren't many teams that have given the Patriots a game this season, so it'll be interesting to see what'll happen if the Steelers do keep it close.  We've seen this script with New England before, though.  You know Bradicheck will find a way to end up in Super Bowl No. 7.

So, there you have it.  While I definitely think there are scenarios where both Atlanta and Pittsburgh could win, my bet is that the Packers and Patriots will be the two teams left standing.

Last Week: 1-3
Postseason: 4-4
Overall: 171-91-2

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Hall of Fame Time!

As my loyal readers know, this is one of my favorite posts of the entire year.  With the election results announced tomorrow, it's time for me to unveil my "vote" for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I'm always envious of those actual voters, and this year's ballot isn't remotely close to easy.  Narrowing it down to 10 is incredibly difficult, although the crop of first-year-eligible candidates isn't particularly strong.  There's no obvious first-ballot guy like there was last year with Ken Griffey, Jr. or there will in the jam-packed elections coming up, starting next year with Chipper Jones, followed by Mariano Rivera in 2019, Derek Jeter in 2020 and Mark Teixeira/David Ortiz in 2022.  Which bodes well for the likes of Jeff Bagwell, who came close last year, and Tim Raines in his last year on the ballot.

Also, a note on my selections before I reveal them.  I rank the players based on how much I feel they belong in the Hall of Fame.  With a 10-vote limit, I feel that's the fairest way.  There are more than 10 guys on this list I would've voted for, so I needed some sort of system to determine who made the cut and who didn't.  As a result, my rankings really only get shifted as guys get elected or dropped off the ballot.  Griffey and Mike Piazza got elected last year, while Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds dropped off.  That gave me four spots for new guys and with only two first-ballot players that I felt comfortable with, that opened up two positions for players that, in the past, I've supported in some years and not others.  (Now I get it when writers change their votes on certain players from year-to-year.)

You'll also notice two names that I support every year, but not another who has ties to PEDs.  So why a vote for Bonds and Clemens but not Manny Ramirez?  Well, that's simple.  Whether or not you think they "cheated," Bonds and Clemens didn't break any rules.  Ramirez, meanwhile, actually failed a drug test.  TWICE!  That's enough to disqualify him for me.

Anyway, on to the votes:

1. Barry Bonds, Outfielder (1986-92 Pirates, 1993-2007 Giants): Yes, right at the top.  He's not going to get elected.  I know that.  But, steroids or no, Barry Bonds was among the greatest players of his era.  Arguably THE greatest.  And, like it or not, he's the all-time home run leader.  In 50 years, how are we going to explain that the all-time hits leader and the all-time home runs leader both aren't in the Hall of Fame?

2. Roger Clemens, Pitcher (1984-96 Red Sox, 1997-98 Blue Jays, 1999-2003 Yankees, 2004-06 Astros, 2007 Yankees): Like Bonds, I don't care what Roger Clemens did or didn't put into his body.  Because that doesn't change the fact that, along with Greg Maddux, he was the greatest right-handed starting pitcher of the 80s and 90s.  I understand that a lot people don't agree with me about either Bonds or Clemens.  All they see is "steroids" and refuse to vote for them based on that fact alone.  I don't care.  You're entitled to your opinion, and I'm entitled to mine.  And as long as they're on the ballot, my hypothetical check mark goes next to both of their names.

3. Jeff Bagwell, 1st Baseman (1991-2005 Astros): If I had to handicap it, I'd say Bagwell is the most likely guy to get elected.  There's been some suspicion about him and the authenticity of his numbers, but I think a lot of that chatter has subsided.  That's probably why he isn't in yet.  But his resume is one of the best among this year's contenders (and pales in comparison to the guys coming up).  Two years after Craig Biggio became the first Astro with a plaque in Cooperstown, I think his fellow "Killer B" becomes the second.

4. Trevor Hoffman, Pitcher (1993 Marlins, 1993-2008 Padres, 2009-10 Brewers): There are three closers on the ballot and distinguishing between them is going to be hard.  Which is among the reasons why Trevor Hoffman probably won't get elected this year.  But I don't think the comparison between him, Billy Wagner and Lee Smith is really that close.  It's more than the 601 career saves.  It's the longevity.  Trevor Hoffman is the second-best closer in history.  He's probably gonna have to wait for No. 1, but that doesn't change the fact Hoffman belongs.

5. Ivan Rodriguez, Catcher (1991-2002 Rangers, 2003 Marlins, 2004-08 Tigers, 2008 Yankees, 2009 Astros, 2009 Rangers, 2010-11 Nationals): Pudge Rodriguez is going to be the first player who spent a majority of his career with the Rangers to be elected to the Hall of Fame.  It just won't be right away.  Personally, I think he hung around a little too long, and he probably suffered because of it.  But the differences between Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Piazza aren't that great, and there's no comparison between them defensively.  He's not a "first-ballot" guy, so he won't get in this year.  But he may very well share a stage with Chipper next year or one of his former Yankee teammates soon after.

6. Vladimir Guerrero, Outfielder (1996-2003 Expos, 2004-09 Angels, 2010 Rangers, 2011 Orioles): Like Pudge Rodriguez, there's no doubt in my mind about Vlad Guerrero's place in the Hall of Fame.  The only question is Expos hat or Angels hat?  One of the many future stars that the Expos had to get rid of during their final years in Montreal, he won the AL MVP his first year in Anaheim, and the Angels were perennial contenders throughout his six years there.  Yes, he ended his career as a DH.  So what?  He also retired at 36 when he could still play despite having a decent season with Baltimore in 2011 (the year after going to the World Series in his only season with Texas).

7. Tim Raines, Outfielder (1979-90 Expos, 1991-95 White Sox, 1996-98 Yankees, 1999 Athletics, 2001 Expos, 2001 Orioles, 2002 Marlins): Can Raines do what Jim Rice did and get in on his last shot?  My appreciation of him has gone up throughout his 10-year stay on the ballot.  When his name first appeared, I was skeptical.  But I've been convinced.  Tim Raines absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame.  He wasn't Rickey Henderson, and I think the fact that they were contemporaries has led to some unfair comparisons between the two.  It's his final year, and he got nearly 70 percent last year, so, with Griffey and Piazza off the board, Raines will definitely see his support go up.  Will it go up the five percent he needs?  If it does, there's no doubt about what team will be on his hat.

8. Curt Schilling, Pitcher (1988-90 Orioles, 1991 Astros, 1992-2000 Phillies, 2000-03 Diamondbacks, 2004-07 Red Sox): He's become as much of a lightning rod as the Bonds-Clemens tag team, and choosing between Schilling and Mike Mussina is always a difficult proposition.  But I've always been inclined to give Schilling the slight edge.  Why?  When he came to the Phillies, they became a contender.  When he came to the Diamondbacks, they became a contender.  When he came to the Red Sox, he put an already good team over the top.  An 11-2 postseason record, including 7-0 in elimination games, three World Series titles and one World Series MVP.  He was at his best when the situation was the biggest.

9. Mike Mussina, Pitcher (1991-2000 Orioles, 2001-08 Yankees): Welcome back to the ballot, Mike Mussina.  Ballot congestion led to having to make a choice between him and Schilling in the past.  But this year I've got the room, so the Moose is back.  No, he never won a World Series and he only pitched in two of them.  No, he never won a Cy Young (although he did finish second in 1999).  But...he won 270 games and had a winning record for his career while playing his entire career as a starting pitcher in the AL East when that division was a beast.

10. Edgar Martinez, Designated Hitter (1987-2004 Mariners): Eventually the DH stigma is going to wear off.  Unfortunately for Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz is probably going to be the one to do it.  Which is a shame.  Because the DH award is named after Edgar Martinez for a reason.  If you have an award named after you, you belong in the Hall of Fame.  Yes, I've gone back-and-forth on him.  But Edgar gets the nod over Larry Walker for my 10th spot.

In each of the last two years, I've nailed it with who eventually got in, but this year I really have no clue.  I think Bagwell is the most likely to get elected, and that last-year push may put Raines in, as well.  Hoffman I think will get close, but they might be making him wait until after Mariano Rivera the way football made Kurt Warner wait for Brett Favre.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Australian Open 2017

Yes, I'm aware of the fact that it's Monday afternoon in Australia and the tournament has been underway for several hours.  There's even been one big upset on the women's side already, as fourth-seeded Simona Halep lost to American Shelby Rogers (so much for my prediction that Halep would end up in the semifinals).  That 14-hour time difference isn't easy to work around, especially when there are plenty of other things happening on Sunday.

Anyway, this is one of the strangest Grand Slam draws I've seen in recent memory.  And that's all because of Roger Federer.  Since he didn't play after Wimbledon last year, that's four months' worth of zero ranking points.  As a result, his ranking has plummeted and he's seeded 17th here.  As weird as it is to see a 17 next to his name, you know every single top player was hoping to stay as far away from the 17 seed as humanly possible.

Well, it's his old buddy Tomas Berdych that drew the short straw.  Federer-Berdych in the third round, with the winner getting Kei Nishikori, then Andy Murray in the quarters.  Murray, who finally became No. 1 in the world at the end of last year is the top seed at a Grand Slam for the first time (also weird, a "2" next to Djokovic)...and his "reward" is a potential quarterfinal against Roger Federer.  If Roger is back to 100 percent healthy, everyone knows he'll be back in the top 10 before long (although it will take a while since he doesn't lose all those zeroes until the summer).  But until his ranking is back up, he's going to loom as a dangerous floater in whoever is unfortunate enough's draw.

I do still like Murray to win this title, though.  He's a different player since he's become No. 1.  Yes, he ascended to the top while Federer and Nadal were both out with injuries, and Djokovic didn't really play that much after the US Open last year.  But he's still the top dog at the moment, and he's always played well Down Under.  He's been a finalist here five times, including each of the last two years...and lost them all to either Federer or Djokovic (until he played Milos Raonic at Wimbledon last year, every Grand Slam final of his career had been against either Federer or Djokovic).

You'd have to figure that Murphy's Law dictates he's eventually got to win this title.  And I think this is his best opportunity to do it.  Yes, the Federer quarterfinal is a tough draw, and so is Wawrinka (who's developed quite a reputation as a big-match performer) in the semi.  But if he gets through both of those or, better yet, there's an upset along the way, Murray's set up really well for the final.

Although, this has traditionally been Novak Djokovic's best Grand Slam, and the six-time champ has won the title in five of the last six years.  His only loss in Australia since 2011 was that great quarterfinal against Wawrinka in 2014 (that went 9-7 in the fifth).  As if he wasn't already a tough enough out, Djokovic will benefit from a much easier draw than any of the other top contenders.

That includes Milos Raonic, who is somehow ranked third in the world.  Except he'll have to deal with that other dangerous floater I haven't mentioned yet.  Rafael Nadal is still in the top 10, but barely.  He's seeded ninth and sitting right there in Raonic's section.

A Murray-Djokovic rematch wouldn't surprise that many people, and I don't think a Serena Williams-Angelique Kerber rematch would either.  Who would've thought at this time last year what Angelique Kerber's 2016 would be like.  She saved off a match point in the first round, only to go win the tournament, upsetting Serena in the final, then making the finals of Wimbledon, winning the US Open, and becoming No. 1.  The question is what does she do for an encore in 2017?  (It's been two weeks, and it's still weird to type that!)

Women's tennis doesn't have quite the same star power as the men's game right now.  Maria Sharapova's suspension doesn't expire until April, Victoria Azarenka hasn't returned from having a baby yet, and who knows what's up with Caroline Wozniacki?  She's here and seeded 17th, but it seems like the US Open is the only Grand Slam she ever makes any noise at whatsoever.  A healthy Wozinacki that's playing well is one of the best players in the world, though.

With all that being said, who can stop a Kerber-Serena rematch?  Well, frankly, I think Kerber's road is much straighter than Serena's.  Her biggest obstacle, Halep, has already been knocked out..  Sure Venus Williams and Garbine Muguruza and Julia Goerges (who's very similar to Wozniacki in that she can beat anybody or lose in the second round just as easily) are there, but I'd be very surprised if Kerber doesn't return to the final.

Serena, on the other hand, will have her work cut out for her.  She's still the best player in the bottom half of the draw, but will need to be on her game.  Because there's a lot of talent in her half of the draw, and I think someone is poised for a breakout.

And if I had to put my money somewhere, it would be on one of the Czechs.  Lucie Safarova, the 2015 French Open finalist, could potentially face Serena in the second round, but she's not the one I'm worried about.  That would be fifth-seeded Karolina Pliskova, the US Open finalist, and sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, who's actually Slovakian.  Cibulkova has been a finalist here (in 2014) and won the year-end tour championship last season.  I think we're going to see her make a run.  And that's going to be a great quarterfinal if the seeds hold and she faces Serena.

For some reason, I think Cibulkova will beat Serena, then knock off Pliskova in the semis.  And, while she's at it, I see her knocking off Kerber for the title.  I don't know why.  I just like the way her draw sets up, and I think she carries that momentum from last year into the tournament.

This is the Australian Open, though, and strange things have been known to happen at the Australian Open.  It's on the other side of the world, so they're playing it in the middle of summer in brutal heat.  That usually comes into play.  As does the fact that it's the beginning of the season.  For some players, in fact, the Australian Open is their first tournament of the year.  That's why we see unexpected things take place and surprise names emerge.

As we saw last year, though, those surprise names aren't necessarily surprises.  The Australian Open sometimes gives us a hint about the year we have in store.  Just ask Angelique Kerber.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

NFL Playoffs -- Divisional Round

Most people refer to this as the best weekend of the year in the NFL.  Four games involving the eight best teams, each just two wins away from the Super Bowl.  And, after the dud that was Wild Card Weekend, hopefully the Divisional Playoffs can give us the excitement that we've come to expect from football in January (the kind that those of you who watched Clemson-Alabama got).

I also don't remember the last time all four home teams won the wild card games.  So, for all the talk about which teams playing last weekend could end up in Houston, it turns out that all four division winners had something to say about their chances of going all the way to the Super Bowl.  Of course, now things get real, though.  We don't have Miami and the Raiders and their backup quarterbacks anymore.  They've been replaced by a future Hall of Famer, the likely MVP, a Rookie of the Year candidate and a former No. 1 pick.  Vastly different to be sure.

Seahawks (11-5-1) at Falcons (11-5): Seattle-Now we get to see how good Atlanta really is.  We start the Divisional Playoffs with what could possibly be the last game ever at the Georgia Dome.  It's also a rematch of that Divisional round game a couple years ago when the Falcons were the No. 1 seed and beat the Seahawks.  This was before Seattle went to back-to-back Super Bowls, though.

Anyway, we've got strength against strength in the Falcons offense vs. the Legion of Boom.  But I think the real difference in this one is going to be Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense against Vic Beasley and the Atlanta defense.  The other interesting thing here, of course, is that Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn used to be the Seahawks' defensive coordinator.  And I'm not sure Quinn's current defense has enough to contain Seattle's offense.  The Seahawks get deep into the playoffs every year for a reason, but rarely go on the road.  Last year they did, and they lost in Charlotte.  That's the only thing that gives me a sense of trepidation, but I still think the Seahawks win and go to another NFC Championship Game.

Texans (10-7) at Patriots (14-2): New England-This is expected to be a romp.  The Patriots are one of the biggest Divisional Playoff favorites in recent memory.  New England is back in its familiar position, hosting a Divisional Playoff game for the eighth consecutive year.  And most people expect them to have another home game next week.  With good reason.  Because beating Tom Brady on the road is a much larger task for the Texans than playing at home against Connor Cook in his first career start.  Especially since they got shut out by a Patriots team quarterbacked by Jacoby Brissett in Week 3, and we all know how much better New England is now.

If you believe all of these projections, you'd think the Texans have absolutely no chance and shouldn't even bother showing up.  But that's not the case at all.  Houston has an excellent defense, and New England has proven susceptible to defenses that didn't let Brady do whatever he wanted in the playoffs.  After all, their two recent home playoff losses were to Jets and Ravens teams that were just as strong defensively as this Texans team.  Besides, remember why the Patriots were the visiting team in the AFC Championship Game last year?  That's because Brock Osweiler beat them in overtime in the snow in Denver.  I'm not saying the Texans are going to win.  But I do think they'll keep it a lot closer than people are giving them credit for.

Packers (11-6) at Cowboys (13-3): Dallas-Do we have another playoff classic between these two in store?  This game was originally supposed to be running the anchor leg of the weekend, and it's obviously the most-anticipated of the four matchups.  The winner will be the favorite next week in the NFC Championship Game, and most people agree that Green Bay is the one NFC team most capable of knocking off the Cowboys.  Out of the their three potential opponents, the Packers were definitely the team Dallas wanted to see the least.  Especially after that offensive performance against the Giants.

The second half of the Giants game was vintage Aaron Rodgers, and the Green Bay offense certainly seems to be firing on all cylinders.  But for all the talk we've heard about the Packers, I don't think people are giving Dallas nearly enough credit.  This is a completely different team than those Cowboys squads known for their playoff disappointments.  Yes, they lost the last game of the season...when they didn't care at all.  Maybe the loss and week off did enough to slow the Cowboys' momentum.  Meanwhile, their challenge will be to slow the Packers' roll.  I understand that's easier said than done, but the Cowboys didn't lose to a team outside their division all season for a reason.  Dallas is the best team in the NFC.  They'll prove it against the Packers.

Steelers (12-5) at Chiefs (12-4): Kansas City-It's convenient that this was NBC's game to begin with.  Because for the first time ever, we've got a Sunday night playoff game.  Seeing how much the NFL loves Sunday Night Football, don't be surprised if this winter storm in Kansas City ends up prompting a permanent change (which you know NBC would be all for).  And this is actually the second Sunday night game of the season between the Steelers and Chiefs.  They met in Pittsburgh in Week 4 when the Steelers absolutely crushed Kansas City.

So how is this game going to be different?  Well, for starters, this one's in Kansas City.  That, and the Chiefs are a much better team now than they were in early October.  My Super Bowl pick is Dallas-Kansas City for a reason.  This team is excellent on defense, Tyreek Hill is electric, and the offense just has to not screw up, which they don't.  The Chiefs can beat the Patriots next week.  Of course, that will require beating the Steelers first, and Pittsburgh comes in just as hot as Kansas City does.  That game against the Dolphins was over quickly last week.  But the Dolphins aren't the Chiefs.  And Kansas City had a week off, and will be playing at home.  This will be a much better game than the regular season matchup, and it's definitely worthy of a Sunday nighter.  It'll be close, but the Chiefs will end up on top.

Last Week: 3-1
Postseason: 3-1
Overall: 170-88-2

Thursday, January 12, 2017

La La Land

After 20 years without a football team, LA has two.  The Chargers have exercised their option to join the Rams at their new stadium, moving two hours north to their original home (of one year) after 55 years in San Diego.  It's a move they were reluctant to make, but the city of San Diego really gave them no choice.

Whenever a team moves, the first reaction from people is usually, "I feel so bad for their fans."  Well, in this case, I really don't.  Because the fans had plenty of chances to keep the Chargers in San Diego, yet they made it clear they had no interest in doing what it took to keep the team.  Dean Spanos spent how many years trying to get a new stadium?  Every time the measure failed.  He wasn't asking for the stadium to be completely publicly-financed.  But even the small amount he needed (which would've come by raising a tax by a small percentage) was too much for the people to agree to.

It looked like the Chargers were going to be the team given the LA go-ahead last year when the NFL surprised them by allowing the Rams to move instead.  That's when Spanos said he would give it another go in trying to get a new stadium in San Diego.  Once again, he was unable to get it done.  And as soon as the measure failed (once again) on Election Day, the move seemed all but inevitable.

If you look at it, the people of San Diego really gave Spanos no choice.  He wanted to stay, but they didn't want to do what it took to keep the team.  It's just like 60 years ago when a certain baseball team made its famous move to Los Angeles.  No one thought they'd ever leave Brooklyn, but the Dodgers were put in a situation very similar to the one San Diego put the Chargers in.  It was the same thing with the Islanders.  They needed a replacement for the Nassau Coliseum.  The "fans" refused to help them out, and they moved into the brand-new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Making matters worse for the Chargers, San Diego voters did pay for a new stadium for the Padres.  Yes, Petco Park has been open for more than a decade, but it has to sting that the taxpayers did come through for the Padres (who came into existence in 1969), yet wouldn't step up for San Diego's other pro team.  As a result, the Chargers (who became San Diego's first pro team when they arrived in 1961) are now the third team to leave the city (and the second one to move a few hours north to LA), leaving the Padres all alone as San Diego's only pro team.

On the surface, moving two hours north from San Diego to Los Angeles doesn't seem like a lot.  And in reality, it's really not that much.  This isn't the Expos becoming the Nationals or even the Rams moving halfway across the country.  This is more Islanders going to Brooklyn or 49ers going to Santa Clara.  But it completely changes their identity.  Instead of San Diego, which is known for its beaches and its laid-back attitude, they're a part of the glitz and glam of LA, where they'll be tenants in the football palace being built by the Rams.

The Chargers are in a very interesting spot, too.  They have no ties to Los Angeles and are going to try and build a fan base out of nothing in a city that has seven other pro teams and two major colleges.  I'm sure a lot of die-hard Chargers fans will make the drive to see the team play (just like fans come from Iowa and the Dakotas to go to Vikings games or fans from Syracuse and Canada drive to see the Bills).  But there are probably a lot of San Diegans who feel jilted and will refuse to support any Los Angeles-based team, even if it's their once-beloved Chargers.

So, yes, this is much different than the Rams' move last year.  The Chargers are stuck playing somewhere they don't want to be sharing a stadium with a team that doesn't want them there with a fan base whose only experience with them is rooting against them.  Most of LA is still Raiders fans, and the Rams at least have their history there to build off.  And it's gonna take some work for the Chargers to develop an LA fan base, especially since there's a lot going on in LA and people will lose interest if they don't win.  Right away.  (Although, the Chargers were the closest NFL team to LA for those 20 years, so that probably helped them gain some LA fans.)

Their temporary home will be the StubHub Center, home of the LA Galaxy.  It will only have 30,000 seats for football, which is incredibly small by NFL standards.  But I still think that was a better decision than being the third tenant at the LA Coliseum or playing in the cavernous Rose Bowl.  The StubHub Center is in Carson, too, which is a half-hour closer to San Diego than downtown Los Angeles, making it easier for fans from San Diego to bear the freeway traffic.

Chargers fans (the ones that are left) will hopefully still come to games.  The challenge now is to get more.  They're basically starting from scratch in the second-largest city in America.  But at least they'll still be in Southern California.  It's truly a new beginning for the now Los Angeles Chargers (man, it felt weird typing that).

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Expanding the Futbol World

During his campaign for FIFA President last year, Gianni Infantino promised that, if elected, he would expand the World Cup beyond its current 32 teams.  Well, Infantino ultimately won the election, and it looks like he's going to deliver on that promise.  FIFA is set to vote on expansion, and all indications are that the field will increase to 48 teams for the 2026 World Cup.

There are five proposals on the table, but all indications are that they're going to opt for Infantino's preferred format of 16 groups of three.  Two of the other options propose a modest expansion to 40 teams, while the third is Infantino's original proposal of a 32-team playoff round that would eliminate 16 teams after just one game.  Leaving the tournament as-is with 32 teams is also an option, but it seems highly unlikely that they won't vote for expansion.

Of the four expansion proposals, the one that seems likely is also the one that makes the most sense.  It seems easy to just add one team to each group and have eight groups of five, but that would lead to a number of meaningless group games.  It would also extend group play at least another week.  And, based on the proposal, they'd drop the round of 16 (likely as a means of controlling the number of games), which means only group winners would advance.  It just doesn't seem right that you could finish second in a competitive five-team group and be left out in the cold.

The other 40-team proposal is just messy.  They'd have 10 groups of four, which would mean the group winners and the top six second-place teams advance.  That system works in qualifying, but I don't like the idea of second-place teams having to sit there and wait out other results for advancement in the World Cup proper.  

Likewise, the "playoff round" is basically the "First Four" of the NCAA Tournament.  Except it's worse.  Because these teams would go through the grueling two-year process of qualifying to potentially play just one game and go home before the top European and South American teams even start playing.  It looked like that was going to be the format, but I'm glad enough people realized how unfair that ultimately was.  Besides, the new proposal is much better.

So how is this new format going to work?  Instead of eight groups of four, it'll be 16 groups of three, with the top two in each group advancing to the round of 32.  Teams would be guaranteed only two games instead of three, but the maximum number of games a team would play will remain at seven.  And, despite the addition of 16 games, the overall duration of the tournament wouldn't be much longer than Brazil 2014 was or Russia 2018 is scheduled to be.

Much like the expansion of the Euro from 16 teams to 24, this gives smaller countries a better opportunity to qualify.  And, to be fair, there are currently 211 national associations in FIFA plus 12 federations that play at the continental level but aren't yet recognized by FIFA.  When they last expanded the World Cup, prior to the 1998 tournament, there were 174 teams that attempted to qualify (compared to 147 in 1994 and 116 in 1990).

Iceland, Northern Ireland and Wales were the talk of Euro 2016.  Not only will those nations have a better chance of qualifying for the World Cup now, with just two group games, they'll also be better equipped to make a similar run.  Sure, the additional African and Asian teams probably wouldn't be at the same level as some of the top European clubs, but you run into that problem at every World Cup.  And with only two games instead of three, those teams that don't necessarily belong will be weeded out more quickly.

All of this is an obvious money grab.  FIFA estimates a $1 billion increase in revenue and a rise in profits of nearly $650 million.  And, since the final group games wouldn't be played simultaneously, all 80 games would have exclusive TV slots.  Not to mention the extra revenue that would go into the host country by the fans traveling in from 47 other nations as opposed to 31.

Although, the costs of hosting this expanded World Cup would seem to be somewhat prohibitive to all but a handful of nations.  FIFA claims that you could still get it done with 12 stadiums (which is the minimum requirement now), but some countries have a problem fulfilling even that requirement.  Sure, it's not a problem for nations like the United States or Germany or England or Italy, but what about a Japan or an Australia or even somewhere like a Mexico?  That's one of the reasons Euro 2020 doesn't have a specific host country, and that's one of the reasons nobody wants to host the Olympics.  What this likely means is that we'll see the return of joint World Cup bids, too (the only co-hosted World Cup was Japan/South Korea 2002).

We're going to see this expansion, though, mainly because no one seems opposed to it.  The European club coaches are worried about the length of the tournament, but FIFA has assured them the tournament won't cut into training camps.  The English are opposed, but resigned to the fact that it's going to happen.  The only nation that's been vocal in its opposition is Germany, which just happens to be the defending champions.

Not surprisingly, all of the continental confederations are in favor, mainly because it means they're getting a greater slice of the World Cup pie.  Even UEFA is willing to come on board as long as Europe's number of bids increases, too.  Seeing as Europe accounts for nearly half of the tournament field (13 plus host Russia next year) and a number of good European teams are always left at home, that sounds like a reasonable request.  And you'd think FIFA will honor it.  Because if the whole point is to include more deserving teams, you can't exclude the largest and most successful federation just because you're trying to make it "fair" for everybody.  Although, I do like it that Oceania will, presumably, at long last be given a guaranteed place in the finals, even if that means it'll be New Zealand every time.

I'm sure they're worried about getting the approval first before figuring out how qualification for the expanded tournament will work (and I'm sure the continental confederations will be jockeying for those extra berths).  Here's how I think World Cup allocation can work moving forward, though: 
  • Host (1)
  • Oceania (1)
  • Europe (20)
  • Africa (7)
  • Asia (7)
  • CONCACAF (6)
  • South America (6)
  • Notice no inter-confederation playoffs
They won't even announce the host for this 48-team, 80-game World Cup until probably 2020, but the United States (which most people agree should've been selected for 2022) is the overwhelming favorite.  There's talk of a combined bid with Mexico and Canada, but that's not necessary.  Besides, 2026 is America's 250th birthday.  Can you think of a better way to celebrate than an 80-team futbol extravaganza?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Not Brady For MVP

During the Seahawks-Lions game, Cris Collinsworth admitted that this was one of the hardest years he could think of when it came to choosing the MVP.  Collinsworth ultimately voted for Tom Brady because "looking at his body of work, what more could he have done?"  Well, Cris, HE COULD'VE PLAYED THE ENTIRE SEASON INSTEAD OF MISSING THE FIRST FOUR GAMES BECAUSE HE WAS SUSPENDED FOR CHEATING!!

Whatever your feelings on Brady's suspension are, the fact remains he missed a quarter of the season because he wasn't allowed to play.  Yes, he put up ridiculous numbers in the 12 games he did play.  In other years, that might be enough to earn you MVP honors.  But in a season with so many quality candidates, the slimmest of margins will determine who wins.  And I don't see any possible way to justify giving the MVP to a guy that missed four games (when he wasn't even allowed to be around the team!) over those who put up similar numbers over the course of a full season.

Let's go back to the whole furor over Deflategate for a second.  Remember when Brady announced that he was dropping his appeal and would serve the four-game suspension?  Remember how everybody thought the Patriots would be lucky to go 2-2 without him?  Well, they ended up going 3-1 without him, while using both Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quaterback!  And that game they lost came after Brissett got hurt and they had no idea who was going to play quarterback.  My point here is that Brady's valuable, no question, but the team did just as well without him, so how can you call him the most valuable?  It seems to me the Patriots' real MVP is Bill Belichick.

Now let's look at Matt Ryan.  Or Aaron Rodgers.  Or Ezekiel Elliott.  Is there any chance their teams would've gotten anywhere close to where they ended up without them?  Take the Raiders.  Derek Carr got hurt and they completely fell apart.  Over the span of three weeks, Oakland went from a legitimate Super Bowl contender to losing in the wild card round.  The Patriots proved in September that you can take Brady away and they'll do just fine.  If that's the case, how can you argue that he's any more valuable than those other names I just mentioned?

Had Brady played the entire season, or even if he'd missed just one or two games, his MVP "case" would be much stronger.  But you can't tell me that he had a better year or was any more valuable to his team in 2016 than Ryan, Rodgers, Elliott or Carr.  If I had a vote, Brady would be no higher than fifth, behind each of them.

Knowing the media and the general obsession with Tom Brady and the Patriots that most of America seems to have, don't be surprised to see if some of the other starry-eyed voters did the same thing as Collinsworth.  But Brady doesn't deserve to be the MVP.  I'm not saying that because of his suspension, I'm saying that because the suspension resulting in him missing a quarter of the season.  And the MVP is awarded based on the entire season, not just three-quarters of it.  (Sidebar, if any other player missed four games because of a league-issued suspension, he wouldn't even be in the conversation.  But Tom Brady gets a pass?)

Matt Ryan was selected as the First Team All-Pro quarterback, which revived some of my faith in the media, many of whom vote for both awards.  Ryan was the NFL Player of the Month for September (when Brady was sitting on his couch and going to Michigan games).  He was the best player on the best offense in football, and the Falcons wouldn't have been anywhere near as good without him.

And if you compare Ryan's numbers to Brady's, they really aren't that different.  Ryan threw 38 TDs to just seven interceptions, compiled 4,944 yards passing and had a 117.1 rating.  Brady supporters keep pointing to his 28-2 TD-interception ratio.  He also had 3,554 passing yards and a QB rating of 112.2.  If you were to hypothetically add in the four missing games, Brady would have 37 TDs, 3 INTs, and 4,738 yards (I have no idea how QB rating is computed, so I'm not even going to try).  As you can see, Ryan has the edge in two of the three categories (and probably QB rating, as well).

To me, the choice is clear.  The MVP should go to the player who had the most impact on his team's success from September-December.  Not October-December.  In any other year, Matt Ryan would be the runaway MVP.  So why should this year be any different just because his biggest "competition" is Tom Brady?  Hopefully the voters (at least the voters not named Cris Collinsworth) realize that this entire conversation is downright silly.  Because it shouldn't even be close.

Your 2016 NFL MVP should be Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.  It'll be a travesty if it isn't.  (For the record, my top five would be Ryan, Rodgers, Elliott, Carr, Brady.)