Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Time For C___ to Party Like It's 19_8

Cubs-Indians.  I bet you didn't have that as your World Series pick back in Spring Training (Cubs, sure, but very few people had Cleveland).  But here we are, the first-ever all-Central World Series between two teams that have waited a collective 176 years since their last championship.  For fans in either Cleveland or Chicago, the drought will finally end.  So either way, this World Series is going to be historic.

First a little perspective about the sheer remarkableness of some of the numbers involving these two teams.  We all know it's been 108 years since the Cubs last won the World Series.  In fact, Game 1 will be their first World Series game in 71 years.  That was so long ago that World War II had just ended, there were 16 teams in the Majors, the World Series wasn't yet broadcast on television and the thought of playing it at night was blasphemous.  Oh yeah, and all the players were white.  That's right.  It was two years before Jackie Robinson.  When Dexter Fowler leads off the opener, he'll become the first black Cubs player ever to appear in the World Series.

For the Indians, it's been 68 years.  And their last title came three years after the Cubs' last appearance.  Cleveland, of course, has come much closer to a title since.  The Indians went to the World Series twice in the mid-90s, losing to the Braves in 1995 and that memorable Game 7 to the Marlins in 1997.  Now, 19 years later, they're back, looking to keep Cleveland's incredible 2016 going.

How great has 2016 been in Cleveland sports?  Well, this should tell you all you need to know.  The Indians are hosting Game 1 of the World Series for the first time in franchise history.  Meanwhile, LeBron and the Cavs will be receiving their rings and seeing their banner raised on the NBA's Opening Night.  The two games are happening at the same time in venues that are next door to each other.  Downtown Cleveland is gonna be rocking!

Cleveland has been utterly sensational this postseason.  The Indians are 7-1, and their only loss came in Game 4 against Toronto when they were going for a sweep with Kluber pitching on three days' rest.  They shut down the incredible offenses of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, mainly thanks to their dominant bullpen (well, mainly ALCS MVP Andrew Miller).  It's made even more incredible because they've done it with really two and a half starting pitchers.  We'll see if Trevor Bauer is able to pitch (what kind of an idiot cuts his finger on a drone in the middle of the playoffs?!), and Danny Salazar has been added to the World Series roster, presumably to start Game 4, which I think is kinda risky seeing as he hasn't pitched in a month.

The Cubs are making a risky roster move of their own by activating Kyle Schwarber to DH in the first two games.  Schwarber was supposed to be their starting left fielder this year, but was lost for the season when he broke his leg after running into Dexter Fowler in early April.  He's an outstanding power hitter (remember the homer on top of the Wrigley scoreboard in last year's NLCS?), but it's definitely a gamble to insert Schwarber into a lineup that has been clicking ever since Game 4 of the NLCS.  Especially since he'll really only be able to pinch hit during the games at Wrigley.

And, before I get going with the pick, first a shout out to the managers.  Terry Francona and Joe Maddon have proven that they are both among the best managers in the game.  Francona won that curse-breaking title with the 2004 Red Sox, then Boston won another three years later.  (By the way, the 2013 Red Sox are everywhere.  Lester and Lackey are on the Cubs, Coco Crisp and Mike Napoli are on the Indians with Francona.  I guess they're the World Series equivalent of the 2008 Phillies in the NL playoffs.)  Maddon, meanwhile, took Tampa Bay to the World Series eight years ago and now looks to exorcise the Cubs' demons.

We know that one of these two long-suffering fan bases will finally have something to celebrate in a little more than a week (if not sooner).  But which one will it be?  Either way, the parade's going to be epic.

Anyway, the Indians' greatest strength is their pitching.  Especially the bullpen.  However, the Cubs' starters match up evenly with them, if not hold the advantage, in every game.  And the Cubs boast the World Series experience of Lester and Lackey, who've both won clinchers before.  You never know if that's going to be a factor, but it's not insignificant that they've been here before.  Cleveland wants to get it to Miller and Allen, while the Cubs really can get away with six from the starter before figuring out the seventh, then Strop/Rodon and Chapman.  If there's a slight edge on the pitching front, I give it to Chicago.

Meanwhile, the clear advantage on the offensive end goes to our friends from the North Side.  Ever since Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell started hitting in Game 4 of the NLCS, the Cubs' bats have been on fire.  We saw Cleveland shut down two powerful AL lineups, but the Cubs are more complete than either the Red Sox or the Blue Jays.  The Indians don't have nearly as many weapons as the Cubs.  When the series shifts to Wrigley, that'll be even more of a factor.  Especially since they'll have to decide between sitting Carlos Santana or sitting Mike Napoli.

Then there's this.  When one LCS extends significantly longer than the other, the advantage tends to go to the team that hasn't had the time off.  In this case, that's the Cubs, who finished off the Dodgers on Saturday night.  The Indians, meanwhile, wrapped up the ALCS on Wednesday afternoon.  They'll have a full week off.  Is that enough to base a pick on?  No.  But the trend has been true for so long that it's too much to ignore.

I've thought all year that the Cubs were the best team in baseball.  Prior to the start of the playoffs, I compared them to the 2009 Yankees.  But the 1998 Yankees might be a more appropriate comparison.  That team was the best team of the Yankees Dynasty and probably the best team of this generation (certainly the best of the wild card era).  They didn't face much adversity during the year...until Game 4 of the ALCS, when they were down 2-1 and faced their first must-win of the season.  They didn't lose again.

That was almost an identical situation for the 2016 Cubs.  They didn't face any adversity until Game 4 of the NLCS, when they trailed 2-1 after having been shut out in the last two games.  Three wins later, they ended their 71-year World Series drought, without Steve Bartman or the Billy Goat in sight.  These Cubs seem immune to the pressure.  Mainly because so many of them are too young to care.

If you think about it, the hard part is over.  Getting to the World Series was the big hurdle for the Cubs franchise.  Now that they've made it here, there's only one way you can envision this story ending.  And what better way to celebrate a century of the Cubs at Wrigley by raising the W flag in the last game of the year?  After 108 years, it's time to party on Sheffield & Waveland.  Because Cleveland won't be making it back-to-back championships.  The Chicago Freakin' Cubs (yes, the Chicago Cubs) are going to win the World Series.  Four games to two.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

2016 NFL Week 7

The NFL's ratings so far this season are down and they're not happy about it.  They've been trying to figure out the reasons why, and there are a number of theories out there.  Some blame the Hillary-Donald Factor, others blame uncompetitive primetime games, while still others think it's a combination of the two.  Then there are those who bluntly declare that people aren't interested in watching Tom Brady's backup or the Broncos without Peyton Manning.

My theory is slightly different.  The NFL is king.  But we may have reached a point of oversaturation.  There's a game on every freakin' night!  We're not going to put our lives aside just because there's a football game on.  Especially not when there's a full day of football on Sunday, then a Monday night game, then a Thursday night game, then a whole bunch of college games on Saturday for those who are so inclined.  And we're definitely not going out of our way to watch Jaguars-Titans or Browns-Bills or whatever crappy Thursday night matchup they have just so every team can play a primetime game.

I've never really been a fan of the full-season Thursday night games, for a number of reasons.  (The Color Rush has been added to that list of reasons, but I didn't like Thursday Night Football before that.)  The players hate them, and the quality of play is never really that good, even on the rare occasion that the matchup is.  And the teams that play on Thursday night often end up playing on Sunday night or Monday night the following week, so you almost forget about them when they go almost two weeks without a game.

For the record, I have no problem with the Opening Night Thursday game, and Thanksgiving games are obviously a tradition.  But I digress.  On to the picks...

Giants (3-3) vs. Rams (3-3): Giants-Ten years ago, the Giants played the first-ever NFL game in London.  Now they play the first NFL game at Twickenham Stadium, the home of English rugby.  And they play the Rams, who still played in St. Louis when they agreed to be one of the regular London teams.  Since they've moved to LA, though, add 2,000 miles to the trip and a 6:30 a.m. Pacific start time.  The Rams were cruising at 3-1, but have lost back-to-back games since.  A trip across the Atlantic isn't exactly coming at the best time.

Browns (0-6) at Bengals (2-4): Cincinnati-Maybe the Browns will celebrate the Indians' success by winning their first game of the season.  Except it probably won't happen.  The Bengals are 2-4, mainly because of their brutal schedule to start the season.  A visit by Cleveland may be just what the doctor ordered before they head over to London.

Redskins (4-2) at Lions (3-3): Washington-After starting 0-2, the Redskins have won four in a row.  The Lions have also been playing some good football, winning two straight after that inexplicable loss to the Bears.  Something's gotta give in this one.  Since I think Washington's the better team, I'm going with the Redskins, who need a win to keep pace with the Cowboys.

Colts (2-4) at Titans (3-3): Indianapolis-Things are just as crazy as they usually are in the AFC South.  Had the Colts won last week, they'd be in a three-way tie for first.  Instead, they're in last.  The Titans, meanwhile, have a chance to move into a tie for first this week if they win and the Texans lose the Osweiler Bowl on Monday night.  Except, I don't think they're going to win, so that won't matter.

Saints (2-3) at Chiefs (3-2): Kansas City-That was a big win for the Chiefs last week, going into Oakland and beating a good Raiders team.  The same thing can really be said for the Saints, who avoided a 1-4 start by knocking off the Panthers.  New Orleans has done a lot of scoring this season, even though it has resulted in only two wins.  They haven't faced a defense like Kansas City's, though.  The Chiefs get to 4-2 and keep the pressure on the Broncos and Raiders.

Bills (4-2) at Dolphins (2-4): Buffalo-Rex Ryan thinks his own team is "boring."  Well, Rex, that may be true, but you've still won four straight since firing your offensive coordinator.  Now they head to Miami without LeSean McCoy, who went nuts on the 49ers last week.  I have a friend who's a Bills fan and considers their record a "soft" 4-2 based on who they've played.  The Dolphins may have beaten the Steelers last week, but they're not exactly one of the top teams, either.

Ravens (3-3) at Jets (1-5): Baltimore-When was the last time the road team played consecutive games in the same stadium?  That's exactly what the Ravens are doing, though.  They played the Giants last week, and now return to MetLife Stadium to play the Jets (considering the proximity of Baltimore to New York, I'm assuming they went home and came back).  Last week didn't go so well for them.  This one should be better.

Vikings (5-0) at Eagles (3-2): Minnesota-It was a little bit of a surprise that NBC didn't scoop this one up and flex it into Sunday night.  Because it's one of the most intriguing matchups of the season.  Sam Bradford was traded from the Eagles to the Vikings with a week left in the preseason, handing Philly's starting job to Carson Wentz.  The trade has worked out well for all parties involved so far, especially the Vikings, who are the only remaining undefeated team.  It's a shame that this game is a 1:00 regional offering instead of the national game it should be (CBS has the doubleheader this week).

Raiders (4-2) at Jaguars (2-3): Oakland-Oakland has had a very interesting season so far.  They're 3-0 in 1:00 Eastern starts, but have lost two of their three home games.  Fortunately they're back in the early slot, as they visit Jack Del Rio's first team.  Jacksonville should keep it competitive, but I see the Raiders' East Coast mojo continuing.

Chargers (2-4) at Falcons (4-2): Atlanta-San Diego has had the lead in the fourth quarter of every game this season, but only has two wins to show for it.  Atlanta, meanwhile, has been putting up video game numbers on the offensive end, and they almost pulled off the upset in Seattle last week.  Some people are saying that this Falcons squad is different than the one that had that massive collapse last season.  I still need to see it to believe it, but I do think they'll beat the Chargers at home.

Buccaneers (2-3) at 49ers (1-5): Tampa Bay-Colin Kaepernick's first start of the season went just about how I expected.  He's not a good quarterback and San Francisco's not a good team.  The Bucs aren't great, either, but they're definitely better than the 49ers.  That trip to the West Coast could make this one interesting, but I think Jamies Winston gets his team to 3-3.

Patriots (5-1) at Steelers (4-2): New England-Were the Steelers caught looking ahead to this weekend's matchup with the Patriots?  That Miami game had "trap game" written all over it, and it turns out that was exactly what it was.  After they got smacked by the Eagles, they took it out on the Chiefs.  Well, slight problem with that plan, which won't work again.  They're playing the Patriots, and they're doing it without Big Ben.  This could be a blowout.

Seahawks (4-1) at Cardinals (3-3): Seattle-In the various NFL Power Rankings, Seattle is a pretty consensus top five team (it's usually Minnesota-New England 1-2 in either order and Dallas-Seattle 3-4 in either order).  Now they look to make a statement in a rivalry game against Arizona.  The Cardinals clinched the division in Seattle last season.  The Seahawks remember that.  Yes, it's Week 7.  But the Seahawks want to make sure the NFC West goes thru them this year.  That, and they're just better than the Cardinals right now.

Texans (4-2) at Broncos (4-2): Denver-On Monday night, we've got a good one.  Brock Osweiler returns to Denver against the suddenly reeling defending champs.  The Broncos are one of those teams I was talking about before that plays on Thursday night, then you forget about them.  Except in this case, the break might've been good.  They lost twice in five days after having not lost at all since December.  They've had plenty of time to straighten things out after being completely outplayed in every aspect in San Diego.  Osweiler may get his ring, but that'll be the only time his former teammates show him any sort of camaraderie.  It's a big game for Trevor Siemian, too.  He wants to show Broncos fans that they aren't missing out on anything by not having Osweiler under center.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 9-6
Overall: 60-33

Friday, October 21, 2016

Cleveland: City of Champions

Raise your hand if you ever thought you'd hear those four words said together.  But it's true.  It's great to be a Cleveland sports fan right now.  After waiting 50 years for a championship, they're on the verge of their second in a row.  LeBron gave the Cavs their long-awaited first-ever NBA title and now, four months later, the Indians are headed to the World Series.  Unfortunately, the Browns didn't get the memo.

It's weird that we're talking about Cleveland like this, but it wouldn't be the first time that a particular city has felt like the center of the sports world.  In fact, it's happened quite a few times that a city won back-to-back championships in the four major sports (Super Bowl/Stanley Cup, Stanley Cup/NBA, NBA/World Series, World Series/Super Bowl).  The last time was in 2009, when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup a few months after the Steelers won the Super Bowl.  Pittsburgh's not the only city that's had this kind of fun, though.  Almost every city that has multiple teams has enjoyed a time like this at least once.

Boston: Remember a few years ago when all four Boston teams were good and their fans got even more obnoxious?  Of course, the Patriots have been one of the NFL's elite teams for the last 15 years, winning four titles and losing to the Giants in two other Super Bowls.  In 2005, they won their second straight Super Bowl months after the Red Sox had their memorable 2004 championship.  The Red Sox have added two World Series wins since then (in 2007 and 2013), the first of which was followed by a Celtics title.  Oh yeah, and the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 for good measure, making Boston the only city with a championship in each sport this millennium.

New York: We had a memorable spring of 1994 here in New York, when Madison Square Garden was being used for both the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals simultaneously.  With the number of teams that play in New York (both currently and in the past), it's not surprising that we've seen this on multiple occasions.  But New York teams haven't earned consecutive titles in 30 years.  Not since the Mets' 1986 World Series victory was followed by the Giants winning the Super Bowl in January 1987.

Los Angeles: After Magic and the Showtime Lakers won their second consecutive title in June 1988, the Dodgers won the World Series that October.  The Lakers also lost in the NBA Finals to the Celtics seemingly every year in the 1960s, when the Dodgers won two World Series and lost another.  The LA Sparks just won the WNBA championship, and the LA Galaxy are always in the mix for the MLS Cup, so a Dodgers World Series victory would put Los Angeles in Cleveland territory in terms of most successful sports cities right now.

Bay Area: People from San Francisco take no ownership of the Oakland teams and vice versa, but the A's run of three straight World Series appearances (one of which was against the Giants) corresponded with the end of the 49ers' dynasty.  The Earthquake Series came in the midst of the 49ers' run to a second straight Super Bowl title that would culminate in a 55-10 shellacking of the Broncos three months later.  The Giants and Warriors were also both the reigning champions in their respective sports for a few months last year. 

Baltimore: This one goes back a-ways, but it still counts.  Baltimore's Memorial Stadium was the place to be in 1970.  The Orioles dynasty was at its peak.  After being upset by the Mets in '69, they defeated the Reds that fall.  Then in January 1971, the Colts beat the Cowboys in the first post-merger Super Bowl.

Philadelphia: A city doesn't necessarily need to win the championships it plays for to be a part of this party.  Take Philadelphia.  The Phillies won the World Series for the first time in 1980, then the Eagles made their first Super Bowl appearance in January 1981.  Same thing in 1983.  The Sixers won the NBA title, then the Phillies were back in the World Series, where they lost to Baltimore.

New Jersey: The state where the Giants and Jets play used to have two teams to call its own (a number that has since been reduced to one).  In 2003, they were both playing in the Finals at the same time.  The Devils won the Stanley Cup, while the Nets lost to the Spurs in the NBA Finals.

Believe it or not, despite having two baseball teams and one in each of the other sports, Chicago's never even had two teams in the finals in the same year.  Although, considering the history of the five Chicago sports teams, it does make sense.  Jordan's Bulls won their six titles in eight years in the 90s and the Blackhawks have had their recent Stanley Cup runs, but Chicago's never really had two of its teams be good at the same time.

Chicago isn't alone, though.  Dallas?  Nope.  The Avalanche and Broncos kind of overlapped in the mid-90s, but not enough for Denver to make a claim.  Same thing with Phoenix, which only has one championship period courtesy of the 2001 Diamondbacks.  Ditto with Houston.  Two titles for the Rockets and that's it.  Minnesota came close with the 1991 North Stars (who now play in Dallas) and Twins, but the Vikings haven't been to the Super Bowl in 45 years and the Timberwolves struggle to even make the playoffs.  Washington, Miami, Milwaukee?  All in the same boat as the others.

So, while it's not completely unheard of, it's not as if this happens regularly, either.  In other words, enjoy it Cleveland.  Because it really doesn't matter whether the Indians win or lose.  Your city is the center of the sports world right now.  A point that will be made even more clear on Tuesday night, when the Indians host Game 1 of the World Series while LeBron and Friends get their rings and see their banner raised next door.  Now THAT'S going to be a memorable night.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Upon Further Review

Instant replay has become an accepted part of virtually every sport.  And, frankly, it's a good thing.  The whole point of instant replay is to fix correctable errors.  Even if we're sometimes left sitting there wondering how a certain call can stand when the replay clearly shows it should be overturned or vice versa.  But at least that's better than wondering why a play can't be reviewed (or what the NFL's definition of a catch is that week).

I also agree that instant replay isn't the end-all, be-all.  There are definitely certain things that should still be left to human judgment.  Things like balls and strikes in baseball or penalties in football.  Likewise, instant replay's purpose isn't to interpret the rules.  It's a tool to help officials do their jobs.  It's not meant to replace them.

But even when instant replay is used properly, it sometimes leaves you scratching your head.  The correct call may not always be the "right" one.  Especially if it goes against the whole spirit of the replay rules in the first place.

There are two instances that come to mind regarding the use of replay in baseball, neither of which really makes too much sense to me.  The first was a game late in the regular season between the Reds and Cardinals.  St. Louis had the winning run score from first on Yadier Molina's walk-off double that kept them in the playoff race.  Except the video clearly showed it should've been a ground-rule double, which would've kept the winning run at third.  And the Reds weren't allowed to challenge it!

Apparently it's a rule that a replay request has to be immediate and the Reds took too long to say they wanted to challenge.  The thing that's really stupid about this rule, though, is that they have 30 seconds during the course of the game.  So, for the inconsequential play in the third inning, they have 30 seconds.  But on the final play of the game, it has to be immediate.  Am I the only one who thinks there's something wrong with this picture?  Shouldn't it be the other way around?

Cincinnati manager Bryan Price wasn't happy after the game, and it had nothing to do with the loss.  That wasn't even remotely close to the point.  The Cardinals might've won the game anyway.  It was more about the integrity of the process.  In that situation, replay clearly would've shown that the call on the field was incorrect and the game shouldn't have been over.  Price had a greater point.  He even said in his postgame press conference that the San Francisco Giants had every reason to be upset by that result.  It ultimately didn't, but that could've been the game that cost the Giants a playoff spot.

Price's argument that it was absolutely ridiculous that play couldn't be reviewed is one that was well-taken.  I don't know of a person who didn't agree with him, and I'm sure that will be a topic of discussion at the Winter Meetings.  I wouldn't be surprised to see a rule change put in next season, either.

Another replay rule change I'd like to see put in place involves the tag play at second on stolen base attempts.  We've seen this play called right a number of times throughout the playoffs, one of which led to an inning-long discussion between Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling and Cal Ripken during the Indians-Red Sox series.  I agree with Ernie and Ron.  While technically correct, calling the guy out because he came off the base for a split-second on the slide isn't within the spirit of the rule.

Ever since Major League Baseball instituted instant replay, middle infielders have been taught to keep their tag on any runner attempting to steal second just in case his body comes off the base at any point.  In the Cleveland-Boston game in question, I think it was Francisco Lindor had the base stolen.  He had a great jump, beat the throw by a mile, and got his hand in there.  But because there was a split second between Lindor touching the base with his hand and completing the slide that he wasn't in contact with the base...so they called him out to end the inning.

So, in other words, Lindor did everything right, yet he was out because the umpires in New York had access to 17 different angles of slow motion video that showed he was not on the base for a millisecond on an otherwise picture-perfect stolen base attempt.  How many stolen bases would that have cost Ricky Henderson or Lou Brock if they'd had replay back then?

That's not the intent of the replay rules.  If the throw beats him and he clearly doesn't touch the base or if he overslides the bag or if he goes out of the baseline I have no problem with the runner being called out.  But in situations like the one with Lindor in the Division Series, the runner should be called safe.  Because for all intents and purposes, he is.  I highly doubt they'll make any sort of rule change about this one.  But I hope they do.  At the very least, they should consider it.

While we're on the topic, I always prefer the umpires letting something play out then using replay to correct the situation rather than the other way around.  It's better to call the guy safe then overturn it than to call him out and have everybody stop, only to find out that the original call was wrong and the runners should've kept going.

Who knows?  Maybe this is enough to get Baseball talking about it.  Maybe they'll even tweak the replay rules, which wouldn't be unprecedented (remember when it first started and everyone was getting called out at first when the throw was still in the air?  That got fixed quickly).  After all, it only takes one high-profile play that gets everybody talking to prompt a change (NoVarro Bowman Rule anybody?).

Sunday, October 16, 2016

2016 NFL Week 6

OK, how awesome were those Color Rush throwbacks on Thursday night?!  I've made my distaste for the whole "Color Rush" thing very clear, but thought those looked great.  The throwbacks didn't come off as a cheap gimmick, which I think is one of the reasons why they worked.  And the Broncos' old logo looked great on the navy.  In fact, it looked better on the navy than it did on that lighter shade of blue that was their actual helmet color then.

Yes, I got my Thursday night pick wrong, but I barely watched the game (that's what happens when there's a Game 5 in baseball).  Now it's on to the rest of the week

49ers (1-4) at Bills (3-2): Buffalo-America's favorite oppressed minority activist makes his first start of the season this week.  And LeSean McCoy responded by inviting cops to the game.  It really doesn't make a difference how well Kaepernick does over the final 11 games.  He's all but guaranteed to be released after the season.  Oh yeah, the Bills are playing in this game, too.  They're better than the 49ers, no matter who's playing quarterback for San Francisco.

Jaguars (1-3) at Bears (1-4): Jacksonville-One of these teams has to win this week.  Of course, for the Bears to win, that will likely require them scoring more than 17 points.  A lot of people have said that Chicago is better than its record.  I'm not sure I agree.  The Bears aren't good.  Jacksonville, however, I think IS better than its record.  Especially coming off a bye, I like the Jaguars in this one.

Rams (3-2) at Lions (2-3): Los Angeles-LA lost to Buffalo last week and is no longer in control of the NFC West.  Now they hit the road to face a Lions team that knocked the Eagles from the ranks of the undefeated last week.  But they've also lost to the Titans and Bears.  The Lions are quite the enigma.  Which Detroit team will show up?  Which Rams team will show up?  I think LA bounces back, while the Lions suffer a massive post-Eagles letdown.

Browns (0-5) at Titans (2-3): Tennessee-Another game where two bad teams take on each other.  The Titans might be just the right team to get Cleveland over the hump...because if they can't get this one, the Browns could easily be 0-12 at their bye.  Tennessee has a chance to get to .500, though.  It's been a long time since the Titans were there.  And they could actually be tied for first in the AFC South if the Colts beat the Texans.

Steelers (4-1) at Dolphins (1-4): Pittsburgh-That was quite a recovery from that blowout against the Eagles, wasn't it?  Pittsburgh's one of the best teams in football, if not THE best, and they'll get another chance to prove it against the Dolphins.

Bengals (2-3) at Patriots (4-1): New England-Cincinnati might be the best 2-3 team in football.  They've had a brutal schedule to start the season, which will start to get easier next week.  They're in danger of slipping out of contention in the AFC North, though.  Problem is they face the Patriots this week in Brady's first home game.  We saw what he did in Cleveland in his 2016 debut.  You know he'll be just as amped up to take the field in Foxboro for the first time this season.

Panthers (1-4) at Saints (1-3): New Orleans-Things have certainly gone differently for the Carolina Panthers this season, haven't they?  The same could probably be said about the Saints, too.  Both of these teams came into the season with high expectations, but are at risk of seeing Atlanta run away with the division.  The loser of this game will likely knock themselves out of wild card contention, as well.  The Panthers have lost to both the Falcons and Bucs in the last two weeks.  Make that three division losses in a row.

Ravens (3-2) at Giants (2-3): Giants-Finally some relief for a Giants team that's had to go to both Minnesota and Green Bay in the last two weeks.  And, frankly, they needed a trip home.  After three straight losses, they badly need a win, too, before next week's journey across the pond.  Baltimore's in a similar boat.  Losses to the Raiders and Redskins after starting 3-0.  Something's gotta give in this one.  Which losing streak comes to an end?  I'll say it's the home team's.

Eagles (3-1) at Redskins (3-2): Philadelphia-Not only did the Eagles suffer their first loss of the season last week, they dropped out of first place.  Now they find themselves in what probably feels like a virtual must-win in Washington.  The Redskins have been playing some good football themselves after an 0-2 start.  The winner stays firmly in the NFC East race.  I'll say that's Philly.

Chiefs (2-2) at Raiders (4-1): Oakland-When's the last time the Raiders were favored against the Chiefs?  When's the last time the Raiders were legitimately considered this good?  With Denver's loss, they've got a chance to move into first place.  You can bet on it.  Take that to Vegas.

Cowboys (4-1) at Packers (3-1): Green Bay-Talk about a marquee matchup!  Dallas-Green Bay would be worthwhile anytime, but especially now with the Cowboys and Packers both coming in playing this well.  Dallas has arguably been the best team not named Minnesota over the past couple of weeks.  But they haven't faced an opponent anywhere near the Packers' caliber yet.  Definitely not on the road.  This is the biggest test Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have had so far.

Falcons (4-1) at Seahawks (3-1): Seattle-If Cowboys-Packers wasn't enough for you, the other FOX late game is Falcons-Seahawks.  Four of the six NFC teams with either zero or one loss take on each other in the best pair of 4:30 games all season.  There's been a lot of Matt Ryan for MVP talk, mainly because the Falcons offense has been putting up video game numbers.  Their most impressive win so far came last week in Denver.  But they've spent the entire week out west in preparation for Seattle.  That was probably the right move for them.  The problem is, they have to face the Seahawks in front of the 12th Man, which isn't a fun proposition for anybody, no matter how good they are.

Colts (2-3) at Texans (3-2): Houston-We're gonna learn a lot about the AFC South on Sunday night.  Are the Texans still the best team in the division?  Or can the Colts actually challenge them?  We'll find out.  This is Houston's division until Indy proves otherwise, though.  And with the game taking place in Houston, I'm even more inclined to take the Texans.

Jets (1-4) at Cardinals (2-3): Arizona-Arizona's season has gone incredibly similar to Carolina's.  But the Cardinals have at least shown some signs of life.  Especially in last Thursday's win over the 49ers.  Arizona's had plenty of time off to get used to life without Carson Palmer, and that extra rest is probably a good thing.  The Jetropolitans, meanwhile, play their fourth road game in the first six weeks.  It hasn't been an easy stretch for them, and they cap it off with a Monday night in Phoenix.  That's not any easier.  The Cardinals get back to .500.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 11-3
Season: 50-28

Friday, October 14, 2016

Chicago, LA, Cleveland and Toronto

Yes, I know the ALCS already started, so my previews are coming a little late.  Blame the Dodgers, Nationals and that ridiculous 75-minute inning (not to mention the nearly five-hour nine-inning game).  But that's all done and we're left with a final four that's been waiting a while to get to this point.  They've all won multiple championships in franchise history.  Toronto's was the most recent.  In 1993.  None of these teams have even been to the World Series since the 1997 Indians.  It's been a combined 227 years (an average of 56.75) since one of these teams won the World Series.  Well, that's going to change in a couple weeks.

First, a few comments on the four Division Series.  Toronto-Texas shocked me.  Not so much because the Blue Jays won or even because they swept it.  But how easy it was.  I was expecting the Rangers to slug it out with them and have some high-scoring games.  It was only Toronto that brought the bats, though.  Meanwhile, I thought Cleveland had no shot against Boston.  But the Indians did what they've done all year.  Win with pitching.

Over in the National League, the Cubs really, really impressed me.  After the Giants won Game 3 (despite MadBum giving up a three-run bomb to the opposing pitcher), I thought their even-year mojo was going to take over, especially after they took that lead into the ninth in the Game 4.  But the Cubs, in very un-Cubs-like fashion, refused to go down quietly and put up a four-spot to win and clinch.  (Two questions regarding the San Francisco bullpen in that game: If Romo's your closer, why not start the inning with him?  And, does Bruce Bochy know that relievers are allowed to pitch to more than one hitter?)

Meanwhile, I thought the Dodgers made a tremendous mistake by starting Kershaw in Game 4.  Shows how much I know.  My rationale was that down 2-1, knowing they'd have to win one without him, I would've taken my chances with Urias at home and gone ace vs. ace in Game 5 rather than giving Washington the clear pitching advantage (at least when it came to starters) in the finale.  Well, we of course saw things play out a little differently, as Dave Roberts totally outmanaged Dusty Baker, Clayton Kershaw exorcised his playoff demons, and the Dodgers finally won a playoff series.

So now we're left with two of the most historic, beloved franchises in the game, while we've got the ALCS that no one would've expected (and the matchup I'm sure TBS was hoping for).  When they revealed the LCS schedules, they mentioned the "Cubs factor" as the reason the NLCS is in primetime on the days when both series have a game.  Except it doesn't really have anything to do with the Cubs.  Yes, Cubs-Dodgers is the marquee matchup.  But you've got LA and Chicago, the second- and third-largest cities in America, while on the other side you've got Cleveland (a mid-sized market) and Toronto (a major city, yes, but in another country).  Last year, when the NLCS was Cubs-Mets, that series was primarily in primetime, so why would this year be any different?

Anyway, we'll start in the AL because that's the series that's already underway.  And it's basically the polar opposites of Cleveland pitching against Toronto hitting.  Which puts the onus on the Indians' pitchers.  Because the Blue Jays lineup got in a groove during that Texas series.  And if they hit the way they can (and displayed against the Rangers), it'll be really tough on Cleveland's pitching staff.  Because any little mistake will get hit from here to Mississauga.

That I think is the biggest thing that will separate these two teams.  I'm not sure how long you can expect to keep Toronto's bats quiet.  Especially in a seven-game series.  Don't get me wrong, Cleveland's got a great pitching staff, but the Blue Jays pitching staff is incredibly underrated.  Their offense gets all the attention, and rightfully so, but they wouldn't have made back-to-back ALCS if they didn't have the pitching to back it up.

That's why I think Toronto will win this series.  The Blue Jays definitely have the advantage in the lineup, and the Indians definitely have the advantage in the bullpen.  I rate Cleveland's starters as slightly better than Toronto's, but not to that great of an extent.  And the Blue Jays pitchers don't have to face that lineup.  They know their window is closing.  Bautista and Encarnacion are probably both gone after the season.  The Blue Jays won't want to waste this era without a World Series appearance, and I don't think they will.  Toronto in six.

Cubs-Dodgers.  This is the NLCS the baseball purists wanted.  One of the game's marquee franchises back on the game's grandest stage.  For the Dodgers, it seems like it's been a lifetime.  For the Cubs, it actually has been.  The last time Chicago even played in the World Series was four months after World War II ended.  During the Giants series, someone posted a stat that AT&T Park has hosted more postseason games than Wrigley.  Then I saw that the Cubs are winless all-time in LCS play (their last World Series appearance came 24 years before the LCS existed).

In Dodgerland, 28 years without playing in the World Series might as well be an eternity.  And who would've thought it would be this Dodgers team that finally had that playoff breakthrough.  Kershaw's literally their only worthwhile starting pitcher, and this mix-and-match lineup they've got is nowhere near as good as the lineups of Dodgers teams past (it also really bothers me that they have like seven starting outfielders, yet continue to use Andrew Toles in left).

Also, quick sidebar, you know my feelings on pitchers with single-digit numbers.  Well, we're guaranteed to have at least one in the World Series, two if Toronto advances.  See what you started Marcus Stroman!  (Since they're the only remaining team without one, does that mean I should root for Cleveland?)

Anyway, off the soapbox.  LA obviously did everything it needed to do in Game 5 against Washington, including using three of its four starting pitchers.  The Cubs had no such problems.  They went four with the Giants, so their starters can just stay in the same order against the Dodgers.  And Chicago's advantage in the starting pitching department is massive.  Even assuming Kershaw starts Game 2, he'll be going against Kyle Hendricks, a Cy Young candidate.  But the other three matchups: Lester-Maeda, Arrieta-Hill/Urias and Lackey-Urias/Hill are all advantage Cubs.

Dave Roberts also won't be able to get away with overusing the bullpen the way he did in the Nationals series.  We all saw what the Cubs did to the Giants' bullpen.  The Dodgers have a better bullpen than San Francisco, but the Cubs shouldn't be scared of any LA reliever other than Jansen.  Their bullpen is far superior anyway.

Starting pitching: advantage Cubs.  Bullpen: advantage Cubs.  Lineup: definitely advantage Cubs.  LA's got its left-handed lineup, which isn't bad, and it's right-handed lineup, then switches in the middle of the game when a reliever comes in.  The Cubs can mix-and-match, too, but it seems like Roberts does it just to do it (this isn't Little League, everybody doesn't need to play), while Maddon does it with a purpose (also, why is Javier Baez NOT the Cubs' regular second baseman?).

San Francisco was the scariest matchup for the Cubs, and they pulled that one out in dramatic fashion.  They ended the Giants' even-year mojo, while their bad postseason karma never crept in.  The LCS is different than the Division Series.  We all know about the crazy stuff (Bill Madlock, Steve Bartman) that has come between the Cubs and the Promised Land before.  This just feels different though.  After what happened in San Francisco the other night, I think they know it too.  I'll say the series goes six because I'd like to see them clinch at Wrigley, but I'm not even sure it gets that far.  The Cubs win their first NLCS in franchise history and send the entire baseball-watching world (except for maybe Cardinals and White Sox fans) into delirium.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hockey Season 2016-17 (West)

I said yesterday that I though the Western Conference in the NHL was significantly stronger than the East.  Why do I think that?  Because the best teams in the West are much better than the best teams in the East.  In the East, it's pretty clear that Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are at the top.  In the West, you really can't say who the top team is.  Is it Chicago?  Is it San Jose?  Is it Anaheim?  Is it LA?  Is it St. Louis?  Is it Dallas?  An argument really could be made for any of them.

The West is much more top-heavy than the East, though.  I will say that.  With the exception of the wild cards, the playoff spots, for the most part, seem to be already locked in.  Because for all the West's haves, there are plenty of have-nots (Arizona, Edmonton, Vancouver).

Last season, the Chicago-LA rotation finally came to an end, with both of them getting knocked out early in the playoffs.  But those odd-year Blackhawks figure to be right back at the top again.  Jonathan Toews just won the World Cup and Patrick Kane is last season's Hart Trophy winner.  They know how to win and have to be disappointed with the way last year ended.  Don't be surprised if the Blackhawks are once again playing deep into May.

What's crazy, though, is that the Blackhawks might not even be the best team in the Central Division.  Nashville has gone all-in for 2016-17.  They traded their franchise player--Shea Weber--to Montreal for P.K. Subban, arguably the best defenseman in the game, which capped a busy offseason that also saw the addition of Ryan Johansen (for Seth Jones).  And they've still got Pekka Rinne between the pipes.  Nashville's got all the tools to challenge Chicago for the Central Division crown.  In fact, they might be the two best teams in hockey (once again exposing the flaws of the current playoff format, but that's a topic for another day).

St. Louis finally broke through (somewhat) last season and made that long-awaited Conference Final appearance.  The Blues have made a lot of changes, though.  They might've missed their chance.  The same could possibly be said for the Dallas Stars, too.  Although, they've still got Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin.  The Stars can score with anybody, so they'll never be out of a game.

If there's one middle-of-the-pack Western Conference team with a chance to break through, it's Minnesota.  Zach Parise and Ryan Suter could definitely use some help, though.  But if there's an opening for a wild card spot, the Wild could easily seize it.  Colorado and Winnipeg, meanwhile, are locked into also-ran status.  If I had to pick one of the two as a potential playoff party-crasher, it'd be the Avalanche.  But I expect them both to be watching hockey come mid-April rather than playing it.

In the Pacific Division, it's still all about California.  After years and years of playoff disappointment, San Jose finally played for the Cup last season.  And this year's edition of the Sharks isn't that much different than last year's.  Assuming that last year wasn't just a fluke and they've finally crossed the threshold into a perennial contender, they could easily get back.

Los Angeles is too good to be counted out.  The Kings finally had their streak of even-year Cup wins snapped, but this team is young and talented.  Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick are probably the most important players on that team.  The Ducks are seeing their window close.  Of the three California teams, they're the weakest.  They're still better than Arizona and the three teams in Western Canada, though, which should mean a playoff spot.

One Western Conference team that missed the playoffs last season and I'm not really sure how is Calgary.  After that postseason run two years ago, I was expecting to see Johnny Gaudreau and Co. become playoff regulars.  Instead they had a very disappointing 2015-16.  Can they rebound and make it back this year?  With former Blues goalie Brian Elliott now in the net, I'd be surprised if they didn't.

Of the other three teams, Edmonton might be the closest to contention.  You don't suck for so long and stockpile No. 1 picks without eventually reaping the dividends.  Maybe not this year, but next year is possible.  Vancouver still has the Sedin twins, but not much else.  Like the Oilers, the Coyotes are built around young talent.  Their young talent isn't as good as Edmonton's, though.  I wonder whether or not they'll even be better than Las Vegas next season.

So, my Western Conference top eight are pretty clear.  It's basically the usual suspects once again.  Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis out of the Central.  San Jose, LA and Anaheim out of the Pacific.  With Dallas and Calgary grabbing the wild cards.  As for my Stanley Cup pick from the West, it's an odd-year season, so I've gotta go with the Blackhawks.  And they win the Cup once again.  Beating Tampa Bay in the Final.