Sunday, December 4, 2016

2016 NFL Week 13

Why do the Browns and Titans have byes this week?  During that three-year stretch between the Browns coming back and the Texans starting, there was either one or three byes every week because there had to be with an uneven number of teams.  But there's absolutely no reason to have post-Thanksgiving byes in today's NFL.  Especially since they were able to figure out eight divisions of four so easily, but refuse to apply that same math to the bye weeks.  Dumb.  But on a positive note, at least the Browns won't lose this week.

Chiefs (8-3) at Falcons (7-4): Kansas City-That was a big field goal at the end of overtime last Sunday night.  It gave the Chiefs a very realistic shot at winning the AFC West heading into that huge Thursday night matchup with the Raiders.  But they can't get caught looking ahead.  Not against a good Atlanta team that also needs a win with the Bucs only one game behind them in the NFC South.  Big game for both teams, but I think Kansas City's defense shuts down the Atlanta offense enough to come away with a victory.

49ers (1-10) at Bears (2-9): Chicago-Much like Cleveland, one of these teams isn't going to lose this week!  Both the 49ers and Bears are bad football teams, and this is probably going to be a terrible game to watch.  It's really a toss up here, but Chicago's the home team, so I'll give them the slight nod.

Eagles (5-6) at Bengals (3-7-1): Philadelphia-Remember when these two finished in a tie because Donovan McNabb didn't know the rules?  That was actually the last time the Eagles and Bengals met in Cincinnati.  This time they square off with Philadelphia desperately clinging to its fading playoff hopes.  The Bengals' season is already lost.  They can play spoiler if they get a win here, but I think the Eagles rebound from that Monday night loss.

Texans (6-5) at Packers (5-6): Green Bay-It's snowing in Green Bay.  The Packers are used to that.  The Texans aren't.  How much of a bearing will that actually have?  Now that they've finally snapped their losing streak, I liked the Packers in this game already.  With the weather conditions being what they are, that furthers my belief Green Bay will win this one.

Rams (4-7) at Patriots (9-2): New England-Jeff Fisher just got a two-year extension, so there's no question about his job status in LA, which is a good thing.  Now the Rams can focus on football.  Not that any of that means they're going to beat the Patriots at Foxboro.  Gronkowski or no Gronkowski.  (And while I'm at it, the whole talk about whether or not he can come back for the Super Bowl was typical Patriots fan cockiness at its very best.  At least they put that to rest by officially declaring him out for the season.)

Lions (7-4) at Saints (5-6): Detroit-No matter what, Detroit will be in first place at the end of the day (they have the tiebreaker on the Vikings anyway, so they're really sitting pretty).  I give them a lot of credit.  They've trailed in the fourth quarter of every game this season, yet they've won seven of them.  I'd expect them to play another close one at the Superdome.  And if it's close at the end, they've proven they have what it takes to pull it out.

Broncos (7-4) at Jaguars (2-9): Denver-I had this discussion with somebody on Monday after the Broncos missed that 62-yard field goal to give the Chiefs the short field, but I fully supported Gary Kubiak's decision then, and I still do now.  Denver wasn't winning the game if they didn't attempt the kick, and nobody would be second-guessing the call if he'd made the kick.  Anyway, that loss knocked the defending champs out of a playoff position (at least temporarily).  Which means they can't take their trip to Jacksonville lightly.  Especially with Tennessee, New England, Kansas City and Oakland left on the schedule.

Dolphins (7-4) at Ravens (6-5): Baltimore-If the playoffs were to start today, Miami at Baltimore would be an AFC Wild Card Game.  Don't consider this a little preview (because the matchups are almost certainly going to change).  More like a happy little coincidence that this contest could repeat itself a month from now.  I really don't know how the Dolphins have won six in a row, but it all clicked when they beat the Steelers.  Winning in Baltimore, though?  That's a whole different proposition.

Bills (6-5) at Raiders (9-2): Oakland-For some reason, traveling cross country to play the Raiders when you don't regularly do it, especially for other AFC teams, usually ends up in an Oakland win.  And that was before the Raiders were any good.  With the Raiders playing the way they have so far this season, it would be a surprise if they do lose this one.  Especially since three of their final four games are their division road games.  It sounds silly to call this a must-win, but if Oakland wants the 1-seed, that's exactly what this is.

Redskins (6-4-1) at Cardinals (4-6-1): Washington-Dallas can clinch a playoff spot if the Cardinals win (they also get in if San Diego beats Tampa Bay), so you know Washington would love to put the Cowboys' celebration on hold for at least another week.  Thanks to their tie, the Redskins are sitting in playoff position right now, so a win would do more than delay the inevitable with the Cowboys.  This is a real test for them, but I do see them managing a win.

Giants (8-3) at Steelers (6-5): Giants-Oh man, we've got a good one for the FOX national game!  It's always fun when Big Ben and Eli get together.  The Giants are sitting pretty for a playoff spot.  They lead Washington by a game and a half for the first NFC wild card.  Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is in a dogfight (mainly of its own making).  The AFC North is going to go down to the wire between the Steelers and Ravens.  Which Pittsburgh team will show up, though?  The one that crushed Kansas City, or the one that got killed by Miami?  Meanwhile, the Giants have a tendency to play to the level of their opponent, so expect their best shot.

Buccaneers (6-5) at Chargers (5-6): Tampa Bay-Is this the beginning of the Chargers' final month in San Diego?  If some reports are to be believed, they're going to exercise their option to join the Rams in LA next season, but the NFL wants them in San Diego, so I really have no idea what's going on there.  Anyway, San Diego is that team nobody wants to play.  The same thing can be said for Tampa Bay, which has beaten Kansas City and Seattle (by a 14-5 score) in the last two weeks.  Can the Bucs make it three straight after traveling cross country?

Panthers (4-7) at Seahawks (7-3-1): Seattle-Don't ask me why, but NBC decided to keep this one on Sunday night even though the Panthers are out of it.  Maybe it's because Seattle's first two Sunday night games were both really good (even if one of them was a tie).  Regardless, the Seahawks should have no problems here, and, depending on how things go in the earlier games, move closer to clinching the NFC West.

Colts (5-6) at Jets (3-8): Indianapolis-There's an entirely realistic scenario where the Colts will be playing for a share of first place on Monday night.  All it would take, really, is a Packers win to set that up.  And if they have that opportunity, expect them to take advantage of it.  After all, they're playing the Jets.

This Week: 1-0
Last Week: 12-4
Season: 113-63-2

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Today's Game Ballot

In what seems to be an annual scene, they've once again changed the Veterans Committee rules for the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I don't know why they keep changing the format, but we'll see how long this one lasts.  The main purpose of this restructuring, it seems, was to split the more-recent candidates into two separate eras.  Instead of three different eras, there are now four, and they're voting on players, managers and executives from 1970 on with much more frequency.

It looks like they're trying to make it a little easier for the "modern" guys to get in via the Veterans Committee.  But that still doesn't mean it's going to be easy.  They still need 75 percent of the vote for election, and I'm not sure any of the 10 candidates will meet that threshold.  We'll see if I'm wrong when the results of the Today's Game Era ballot, which considers those whose contributions came from 1988 onward, are announced.

There are 10 candidates--five players, three executives and two managers.  No offense to the other four players, but there's only one in that group--Mark McGwire--that I would consider a Hall of Famer.  Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella are, at best, fringe candidates as well.  Which means the candidates with the most Hall of Fame-worthy credentials are the three executives (seeing as this is the only chance executives and managers get at election, that's only right).

The guy I'd most love to see get in is John Schuerholz.  He was the architect of those outstanding Braves teams of the 1990s that made 14 consecutive playoff appearances and won the 1995 World Series.  Ten years earlier, he built the Royals into World Series champions.  That's just the icing on the cake.  Because what he did in Atlanta was enough.  Manager Bobby Cox and the three starting pitchers already have plaques hanging in Cooperstown, and Chipper Jones will have his added when he becomes eligible next year.  Schuerholz drafted Glavine and Jones, traded for Smoltz, signed Maddux and hired Cox.  He deserves to have a plaque hanging alongside theirs.

George Steinbrenner almost got in the last time he was up, and he'll either get in or be close again this time.  Yankee-haters love to point out the negative aspects of George Steinbrenner's ownership and are quick to bring up the fact that the 1990s dynasty was really built when he wasn't allowed to be hands-on during his suspension.  But everything George Steinbrenner did was because he expected to win.  Anything short of a World Series title, especially with the franchise most associated with winning, was unacceptable.  And win the Yankees did.  Seven titles, 11 pennants and a .565 winning percentage during his 37 years of ownership.

Then there's Bud Selig.  His time as commissioner was occasionally somewhat rocky, and there were some definite black marks against him (the All-Star Game tie, the Steroid Era).  But he also presided over an unprecedented period of growth for the game.  When he took over, there were 26 teams, four of which made the playoffs.  When he left, there were 30 teams fighting for 10 playoff berths.  There's also interleague play and a World Baseball Classic.  Other commissioners that have done a lot less are in the Hall of Fame.

Looking at the two managers, I'd say Lou Piniella's resume is slightly better than Davey Johnson's.  But I don't think either one should get in.  Piniella is best known for his time with the Mariners (who he led to a Major League-record 116 wins in 2001), but he actually managed five different teams for 23 seasons starting in 1986.  This came after an 18-year playing career that ended in 1984.  That's basically 45 years of uninterrupted involvement in Major League Baseball for the three-time Manager of the Year who won the World Series with the 1990 Reds.

Now for the players.  No offense to Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark and Orel Hershiser, but they're not Hall of Famers.  Mark McGwire, on the other hand, would've been voted in by the writers if not for his (since admitted) steroid ties.  It's because of this that I highly doubt McGwire will ever be elected to the Hall of Fame.  That doesn't change my hypothetical "vote," which he's always had and he always will.  I acknowledge that I'm in the minority here, and I'm completely fine with that.

If the 16-member committee is limited to four votes, which is how the Veterans Committee ballot has been structured for the last couple elections.  So, sticking with that criteria, my votes would go to Schuerholz, Steinbrenner, Selig and McGwire.  I do think we'll see at least one person elected.  The most likely choice seems to be John Schuerholz.  At least, I hope it is.  Because he's the most deserving guy in this 10-candidate group.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

We've Got a Deal

It came down to almost the 11th hour, but Major League Baseball has a new CBA.  We won't see the first baseball work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike, and this unprecedented period of labor peace will reach 26 years (it's still my belief that both sides learned their lesson from the strike and we'll never see another one in Major League Baseball again).

I highly doubt that anyone actually thought either side would be stupid enough to let a lockout happen.  This isn't the NHL, where the owners (and commissioner) view lockouts as a negotiating ploy rather than the last-resort nuclear option.  The sticking points, while not trivial, certainly weren't anything that was worth having a lockout over.  Especially not with billions of dollars at stake, and especially not coming off the highest-rated World Series in years.

For their part, both sides were acting as if everything was (and would continue to be) business as usual.  After all, Spring Training doesn't start until February, and there was no doubt a deal would've been in place by then.  But a lockout, however brief, would've put things like free agency, and even possibly next week's Winter Meetings, on hold.  Those things are just as important as Spring Training and the 162 games.

There are still a lot of details that we don't know, but, on the surface, this labor deal looks really similar to the one that was about to expire.  The stuff we do know is gradually trickling in, and there are a few significant changes worth mentioning.

Perhaps the two biggest things to come out of this new CBA are major wins for the players.  The first is that there won't be an international draft.  The owners really wanted that.  The players, especially those from Latin America, were vehemently opposed.  Instead, each team will have a hard cap on roster bonuses it can give to international free agents.  This won't stop teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers being able to throw as much money as they want at top international players.  But it does limit their spending power, which gives the smaller-market clubs an opportunity to sign them, as well.

Another big win for the players is that the "free" part has been put back in free agency.  Teams will no longer receive a first-round draft pick as compensation for losing a premium free agent.  Frankly, the old process didn't make much sense anyway.  The whole point of free agency is that the player gets to choose what team he plays for.  But because of the first-round pick attached, the old system (which will still be in place this offseason sense since free agency has already started and the ink isn't dry yet, which does make sense) limited the market on certain players.  Now that's not a worry.  There are still draft picks attached to free agents.  But they aren't first-round picks.  If you're under the luxury tax threshold, you lose a third-rounder.  If you're over, you lose two picks, a second-rounder and a fifth-rounder.

Speaking of the luxury tax, it's going up.  From $189 million to $195 million, then gradually to $210 million by the end of the deal.  If you go over, you pay similar tax rates to what you already did.  But if you go way over (cough, Dodgers, cough), that rate could be as high as 90 percent.  So, basically, there's nothing different on that front.  The Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers were over last season, and they still would be using this new math.  The only thing that's different is the amount they have to give everybody else.

The players didn't get everything they wanted, though.  Rosters are staying at 25 instead of increasing to 26.  They'll still expand to 40 in September, and it's not clear whether or not teams will have to declare a 25-man active roster for each game after they do, which is something a lot of people have been pushing for for years.  Likewise, there are probably changes to the domestic violence and joint drug policies, which would lead you to believe means tougher penalties.

What's also unclear, although it was discussed (likely at length) is whether or not the season will start earlier.  Playing 162 games in 183 days is a grind.  Especially when you're flying cross country, then playing that night.  At the very least, the players wanted more day games on getaway days so that they're not getting into a city at 3-4:00 in the morning, only to turn around and play a few hours later.

So, don't be surprised if they add a few days on the front end of the season so that the players get a few more off days built in.  (The weather in April in a lot of cities is usually so bad anyway that giving teams more options for makeups doesn't seem like a terrible idea, either.)  Starting a full week earlier might be a little much, but adding an extra weekend in front of that traditional first Monday in April Opening Day doesn't seem unrealistic.  Obviously they can't change it for the upcoming season, but I'm curious to see if it'll be there on the 2018 schedule.

We'll get more details once the CBA is ratified by both the union and the owners.  But we're not going to have to worry about when the deal will be signed.  Instead, we'll move on to the Winter Meetings and Spring Training and the World Baseball Classic and, finally, the 2017 season knowing that we're not gonna have to worry about this again for another five years.  Which makes baseball fans the biggest winners here.

Monday, November 28, 2016

NFL Coaches On the Hot Seat

There's a month left in the NFL season.  That means some teams are positioning themselves for what they hope will be deep playoff runs.  Others are hoping to put themselves in a position to keep playing into January.  And still others are just playing out the string in a lost season.  Some coaches are coaching for their jobs, while others will inevitably be fired.  While some have warmer seats than others, there are a number of coaches that can't exactly feel comfortable about their standing with five games remaining.

Marvin Lewis, Bengals-I feel bad putting Marvin Lewis in this category.  Because he's not on the hot seat.  Everyone, probably including Marvin Lewis, knows he's going to get fired.  He's probably already started cleaning out his office.  Lewis was most likely gone unless Cincinnati managed to actually win a playoff game.  Well, they're not even going to make the playoffs.  His fate is sealed.  Although, don't feel to bad for him.  This might be a situation similar to the one with Andy Reid, where it was just time for him to move on from the Eagles, only to land in Kansas City days later.  There will probably be plenty of openings, so Marvin Lewis likely won't be out of a head coaching job for very long.

Gus Bradley, Jaguars-Jacksonville actually showed signs that they were on their way to being competitive towards the end of last season.  They even looked somewhat competitive early in this season.  And, don't get me wrong, things in Jacksonville aren't as much of a lost cause as they were a year or two ago.  But they've still got a long way to go.  Bradley got a vote of confidence last year, and he very well may again.  They're not making any progress, though.  If I were making the decision, I'd head in another direction and start another rebuild.

Hue Jackson, Browns-To be clear, NOTHING that has happened in Cleveland this year is Hue Jackson's fault.  The team just isn't any good.  And they haven't given up, either.  I watched most of the game yesterday, and they played their butts off.  But Jackson might end up being collateral damage if the Browns do manage to pull off the second 0-16 season in NFL history.

John Fox, Bears-John Fox got fired in Denver because he didn't win the Super Bowl, only to see the Broncos win the year after he left.  He immediately latched on in Chicago, where he reunited with Jay Cutler and was going to bring the Bears out of their recent doldrums.  Well, it hasn't happened.  Instead, it seems like they've regressed.  I wouldn't be shocked if they gave Fox one more year, but I wouldn't be surprised if they cut him loose, either.

Chip Kelly, 49ers-His system didn't work in Philadelphia.  It hasn't worked yet in San Francisco, but they're not gonna give up on it after one year.  I think it's more likely the 49ers will do a complete personnel overhaul.  Because, let's face it, the team isn't good.  Not only are all of their best defensive players hurt, it's been an uphill battle all season because of that Kaepernick national anthem nonsense during the preseason.  Once they release Kaepernick and Kelly gets the QB he wants we'll really get to see if he can cut it in the NFL or he's just a really good college coach.

Todd Bowles, Jets-The seemingly annual discussion of the job status of the New York Jets' head coach.  Like many of these other coaches, Bowles isn't the Jets' problem.  Except he might not be the solution either, which makes his situation one of the most interesting.  I can easily see Woody Johnson blaming Bowles for the team's struggles, even though the roster he has to work with isn't the best.  I can also easily see Woody keeping him around for another season.  This one's really a toss-up.

Jeff Fisher, Rams-Relocating a team isn't an easy thing to do.  This is the second time Jeff Fisher has done it.  The Oilers struggled their first couple years in Tennessee after moving from Houston, but it wasn't too much later that Fisher had them in the Super Bowl.  The Rams know that.  That's why they made sure to keep Fisher around when they moved from St. Louis to LA.  They've got a bright future with Jared Goff and that gorgeous new stadium in America's second-largest city.  The Rams will be closer to contending in the NFC West with Jeff Fisher as coach than without, and they know that.  He's not going anywhere.

Mike McCarthy, Packers-One bad season is not going to cost Mike McCarthy his job.  Not with an organization like the Packers.  Especially with the amount of success he's had in Green Bay.  They've made the playoffs each of the last seven seasons.  Yes, they haven't lived up to expectations (a lot of people had them in the Super Bowl).  But this seems like it's more of a one-year glitch than an indication of bigger problems.

If I had to guess, I'd say Bradley, Jackson and Fox are in the most jeopardy.  Again, Lewis doesn't count.  He's getting fired.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

2016 NFL Week 12

It's Thanksgiving.  As Cris Collinsworth says, this is when the NFL season really starts.  And this year, even the Thanksgiving games are good.  Lions-Vikings for first place, then the best team in football against their archrivals, and finally Colts vs. Steelers, two teams that need a win if they're going to have any playoff hopes in December.  That's just the start of a great Week 12, which also includes the Grey Cup, where I see Calgary concluding its dominant season with a victory over Ottawa.

Vikings (6-4) at Lions (6-4): Detroit-Jim Caldwell is 2-0 on Thanksgiving as Lions coach.  He's clearly a big fan of being regulars on the holiday.  And this year, it's not just the token "Why are the Lions on?" appearance.  This is actually a really good matchup.  One of the best of the week.  The Lions are on a roll, too.  I think they keep their Thanksgiving winning streak alive and take sole possession of first place.

Redskins (6-3-1) at Cowboys (9-1): Dallas-The Cowboys are the best team in the league.  They continue to prove it.  Nine in a row, and they've looked more impressive by the week.  Now they head into their annual Thanksgiving showcase against the rival Redskins, who would love nothing more than to snap Dallas' winning streak.  Don't expect it to happen, though.

Steelers (5-5) at Colts (5-5): Indianapolis-Finally AFC teams are allowed to play on Thanksgiving again!  Ever since they started allowing CBS to show NFC vs. NFC games, they've had both the Lions and Cowboys play a division game while the AFC got left out in the cold.  Well, this year, the AFC is back on Thanksgiving, with the Steelers taking on the Colts in the night game.  Pittsburgh finally got a win last week, but it was against Cleveland, so does it really count?

Cardinals (4-5-1) at Falcons (6-4): Atlanta-Atlanta's been off seemingly forever.  In fact, the Falcons have played just once in the last three weeks, going Thursday night, Sunday, bye.  And in that one game they did play, they were brought down to earth a little bit by the Eagles.  That game, however, was in Philadelphia.  They're a much better team at home.  And the Cardinals have struggled on the road all season.  Give me the Falcons to hang on to first place in the NFC South.

Jaguars (2-8) at Bills (5-5): Buffalo-Buffalo is trying to stay in the playoff conversation.  The Bills are a team nobody wants to face.  But they're also one that you have no idea what you're going to get from them.  One thing is certain, though.  If they want to stay relevant, they can't lose at home to the Jaguars.  Especially with a trip to Oakland on tap next week.

Titans (5-6) at Bears (2-8): Tennessee-Much like the Bills, the Texans are desperate to show that they're relevant in the AFC.  What happens after they get that huge win over the Packers, though?  They go and lose at Indianapolis.  Tennessee's record is a product of the teams they've played.  Yes, they've beaten Detroit and Miami, but their other two wins are over Cleveland and Jacksonville.  It does mean they take care of business when they're supposed to, though.  And the Bears are one of those teams they should take care of business against.

Giants (7-3) at Browns (0-11): Giants-Last season, the Giants lost all of their close games.  This season they've won them all.  As a result, they sit at 7-3 and holding the top wild card spot in the NFC.  They've also won five in a row since losing three straight.  What's the best way to make it six?  Playing the Browns.  I do think Cleveland will beat somebody.  It just won't be the Giants.

49ers (1-9) at Dolphins (6-4): Miami-If not for the Browns, we'd all be talking about how bad the 49ers are.  Nine straight San Francisco has lost since winning on the opening Monday night.  Now they head cross country for a matchup with a Dolphins team that's suddenly in the heart of the AFC wild card race.  Miami has won five in a row since starting 1-4.  And they've got a lot of home games left.  Look out for the Dolphins down the stretch.

Rams (4-6) at Saints (4-6): New Orleans-LA and New Orleans have the same record, but they're vastly different 4-6's.  The Saints have dropped a couple close ones in the last two weeks (although they were down big at Carolina before scoring a couple late touchdowns to make it look respectable).  The Rams, meanwhile, have had all kinds of trouble scoring, especially on the road.  It doesn't seem likely that'll change this week.

Bengals (3-6-1) at Ravens (5-5): Baltimore-Any doubts that Marvin Lewis' days as Bengals coach are numbered were put to rest last week when Cincinnati lost at home to Buffalo.  Now they head to Baltimore to face the first-place Ravens.  It's not inconceivable that we could end up seeing Cincinnati in the playoffs, it's just highly unlikely.

Chargers (4-6) at Texans (6-4): Houston-For some reason, San Diego is favored in this game.  I have no idea why.  The Chargers aren't going to beat the Texans in Houston.  They'll probably have the lead in the fourth quarter, but I think this game ends the same way most Chargers games this season have.

Seahawks (7-2-1) at Buccaneers (5-5): Seattle-What's the best NFC team not based in Texas?  That's an easy one.  The Seahawks resemble the team that made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances more and more every week.  They might be the only NFC team even remotely on the same level as Dallas right now.  This week, they make one of the longest road trips possible in the NFL (only Seattle to Miami is longer) to face their 1976 expansion brethren.  The Bucs have been playing some good football, too, and got that win in Kansas City last week.  Expect them to keep it competitive, but the Seahawks do what they usually do and find a way to pull it out.

Panthers (4-6) at Raiders (8-2): Oakland-People are still questioning whether or not Oakland is for real.  That's completely ridiculous.  The Raiders have the best record in the AFC and are right up there with the Cowboys and Patriots as the best teams in the NFL.  Yes, Oakland is for real.  Carolina is showing signs of life, but will everyone believe in the Raiders after they beat the defending NFC champs?

Patriots (8-2) at Jets (3-7): New England-Ladies and gentlemen, the Jets have done the impossible.  They got Tom Brady flexed OUT of prime time.  Last season, of course, we saw that overtime Jets win in Week 16 that cost the Patriots the No. 1 seed in the AFC.  This year, they moved the game from Christmas weekend to Thanksgiving weekend.  The last time the Jets hosted the Patriots on Thanksgiving weekend?  Butt fumble!

Chiefs (7-3) at Broncos (7-3): Denver-NBC flexed Jets-Patriots OUT so that they could flex this one IN.  They'll actually have both Broncos-Chiefs games on Sunday Night Football this season (the rematch is on Christmas night).  Kansas City lost last week, which dropped them out of a tie for first place in the ultra-competitive AFC West.  They're both holding down wild card places, but the winner will have a better shot at staying with the Raiders.

Packers (4-6) at Eagles (5-5): Green Bay-Philadelphia is 5-5.  That would be good for second place in four of the NFL's eight divisions.  But in the NFC East, it's got them in last.  The Packers, meanwhile, I still have no idea what's wrong with them.  They got smacked in Washington and are a shell of the team they're supposed to be.  For some reason, I'm picking Green Bay to finally snap its losing streak, though.

Last Week: 9-5
Season: 100-59-2

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Auf Wiedersehen Jurgen

When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as the head coach of the U.S. Men's National Team five years ago, it was the right move by USA Soccer.  Firing him was also the right move.  Because for all the great moments that have come with Klinsmann at the helm, there have been too many bad moments to count recently.

Last week's embarrassment in Costa Rica was certainly the last straw.  At that point, a change was inevitable.  Everyone (the players, the fans, the Federation) had lost all confidence in Klinsmann.  From his unusual lineup selections to his questionable in-game adjustments, the USMNT became a shell of its former self.  We're supposed to have the best, most feared national team in the region.  A team that shouldn't be losing to Guatemala or getting blown out by Costa Rica (as good as the Ticos might be).

Klinsmann's greatest moment, of course, was somehow navigating the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup, which saw the U.S. advance out of a group that included the current World Cup (Germany) and European (Portugal) champions.  There was also that 12-game winning streak in 2013 and the influx of young talent that has invigorated the National Team, as well as his convincing of those players that are based abroad or have dual citizenship to suit up in red, white and blue.

But there was also his very public feud with Landon Donovan that led to the most-capped and highest-scoring player in American history basically being forced into an early retirement from the National Team.  That dispute got the most play, but he also stripped Clint Dempsey of the captaincy and forced a number of respected veterans out because of his penchant for younger players.  Some of those moves worked, while some others were only successful at alienating many.

After that early run of success, the results began to taper off.  In dramatic fashion.  Let's start in 2015.  The only goal for the U.S. during the 2015 season was to qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup.  There were two opportunities to do this.  The easiest way was to win the Gold Cup.  Instead, the U.S. finished fourth, losing its last two games to Jamaica and Panama, part of a four-game home losing streak to CONCACAF teams.  Because the U.S. didn't win the 2015 Gold Cup, it set up a one-game playoff against Mexico for the Confederations Cup berth...which Mexico won.

The goal for 2015 wasn't achieved.  I was among those calling for Klinsmann's job after that, but he stayed on with the National Team in 2016.  So far, 2016 has seen the Under-23 team (which Klinsmann didn't coach, but did have some players from the senior team on it) fail to qualify for the Olympics and the senior National Team send everyone into panic mode after a loss at Guatemala in the previous round of World Cup qualifying.

Of course, the biggest event for the USMNT in 2016 was the Copa America Centenario on home soil.  In the opening game of the biggest soccer tournament on U.S. soil since the 1994 World Cup, the Americans were embarrassed by Colombia.  They recovered to win group and reach the semifinals, so many would consider the Copa America to be a success, but it ended the same way it started...with a loss to Colombia.  Then the Hex started in the worst possible way.  Suddenly, the U.S. looks vulnerable, something which should not happen in a region where the only real rival is Mexico.

Now it looks like USA Soccer will be handing the reins back to Bruce Arena, who presided over Team USA's emergence as a player in major international tournaments.  It was Arena that took the USA to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002.  Sure, there was also the disappointment of 2006 (when Klinsmann led host Germany to a third-place finish), but Arena is still the only man to lead the USA into two World Cups, and he's won more games with the national team than anybody.

And with the Hex not resuming until March, Arena will have five months to prepare the team for the final eight games of qualifying.  Yes, the U.S. is 0-2 and has a -5 goal differential, but there's still plenty of time to qualify, and I don't think there's a single person out there who doesn't think the United States will at least finish in the top three and claim a World Cup spot (at the very worst, fourth place gets a playoff spot, which is what Mexico had to do in 2014).  Two of the three hardest games are already out of the way, too.

Most importantly, bringing Bruce Arena back (which is still unofficial) will hopefully revive faith in the U.S. Men's National Team.  It was Arena that first brought the USA to those great heights and establish that standard that Klinsmann was able to maintain (and even enhance).  And ultimately, that was what did Klinsmann in.

People expect the U.S. to be a contender.  Those increased expectations are a wonderful thing.  It means the United States is relevant in world soccer.  Who would've ever expected that?  But in the quest to remain relevant, Jurgen Klinsmann was collateral damage.  It was a necessary move.  Because for all the great things he did in his five-plus-year tenure, it was most certainly time for a change.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

2016 NFL Week 11

When the NFL season hits Thanksgiving, we generally have a pretty good idea of who's going to be in the playoffs.  Well, Thanksgiving's next week, and outside of a handful of teams, we still have no idea.  Mainly because a lot of teams that were supposed to be good aren't.  I still think they can turn it around and we might see a team like Pittsburgh or Green Bay in the playoffs.

Bills (4-5) at Bengals (3-5-1): Cincinnati-We might be seeing the final seven games in Marvin Lewis' tenure as the Bengals' head coach.  It seemed likely he was going to get fired unless Cincinnati finally won a playoff game this season.  Well, now it looks like the Bengals aren't even going to make the playoffs.  So, yeah, Cincinnati really needs to win this game if they want to have any shot at a wild card.  The good news is the AFC North still seems winnable.

Steelers (4-5) at Browns (0-10): Pittsburgh-Man, that was a great game last week between the Steelers and Cowboys!  Steelers fans don't care how good the game was, though, because it was another loss, and it dipped them below .500 on the year.  They should be better than this.  Enter the Browns and a chance to right the ship before that Thanksgiving night matchup with Indianapolis.

Ravens (5-4) at Cowboys (8-1): Dallas-The Cowboys are the best team in football.  There's no doubt about that after last week's amazing game against the Steelers.  During that game, the point was made up--and I think it's a valid one--that forget Rookie of the Year, people should be talking about Ezekiel Elliott as MVP.  You've even had Tony Romo officially admit that he's officially been Bledsoed by Dak Prescott.  At least that's been cleared up.  They'll head into Thanksgiving on a nine-game winning streak.

Jaguars (2-7) at Lions (5-4): Detroit-Thanks to the Packers' and Vikings' sheer inability to win, the Lions have moved into first place in the NFC North.  Minnesota's their Thanksgiving opponent this year, and that game is actually going to have relevance.  Especially because the Lions will be 6-4 and no worse than tied for first place after they beat Jacksonville at home.

Titans (5-5) at Colts (4-5): Tennessee-Are the Tennessee Titans actually good?  Because that's what it seems like.  Especially after last week's humiliation of the Packers.  The Colts are also coming off a win over Green Bay, but they're just 4-5 on the year (by the way, it's utterly ridiculous that the Titans haven't had their bye yet).  I guess we'll see this week, but I've got a good feeling about the Titans in this one.

Buccaneers (4-5) at Chiefs (7-2): Kansas City-How come no one is talking about the Kansas City Chiefs?  It's all Dallas, New England, Seattle, even Oakland.  But what about the Chiefs?  They were a playoff team last year and, oh yeah, they're 7-2, which is tied with the Raiders and Patriots for the best record in the AFC.  Make that 8-2 heading into that Sunday night game in Denver next week.

Cardinals (4-4-1) at Vikings (5-4): Minnesota-Remember when everyone thought the Vikings were a lock for the Super Bowl after they started off 5-0?  Well, their bye came at the most inopportune time.  Because they haven't won since having Week 6 off.  Arizona's got a lot of road games left (five of their last seven).  They'll need to win a few of them if they want to get back to the playoffs, let alone the NFC Championship Game.  The Vikings also need to win this one if they want to have any shot at getting back to the playoffs.

Bears (2-7) at Giants (6-3): Giants-After that little hiccup earlier in the season, the Giants have gotten back on track with four straight wins.  They're actually sitting in the NFC's top wild card spot right now (and don't forget, they're the only team to beat the Cowboys this season).  The Bears, meanwhile, aren't good, wins over the Lions and Vikings aside.  They've struggled to score on the road all season, and I don't think that'll change here.

Dolphins (5-4) at Rams (4-5): Los Angeles-Two teams heading in vastly different directions face off in this one.  Miami has won four in a row, including last week's triumph over the Chargers.  Well, they've spent a whole week in Southern California, and now they take on the Rams before heading from one beautiful coast to the other.  The Rams, meanwhile, badly need a win.  They've had trouble scoring all season (they've won two! games this season where they've scored exactly nine points).  Now they turn to No. 1 pick Jared Goff.  For some reason, I see him leading LA to victory.

Patriots (7-2) at 49ers (1-8): New England-New England's aura of invincibility wore off last week against Seattle.  Now they head cross country to face a not-very-good 49ers team.  Even without Gronkowski, I think the Patriots will have a field day in Santa Clara.

Eagles (5-4) at Seahawks (6-2-1): Seattle-It sounds ridiculous to call the Eagles the best last-place team in football, mainly because they're better than half the teams in the NFC.  Unfortunately, Seattle isn't one of them.  The Seahawks confirmed their status as one of the NFC favorites when they went into Foxboro and beat the Patriots.  Now they're back at home, where they're always tough.

Packers (4-5) at Redskins (5-3-1): Washington-What is up with the Green Bay Packers?  They aren't this bad, so why can't they win?  It's been three straight, including getting smacked by the Titans last week.  While they should, in theory, beat the Redskins just like they did in the playoffs, I have absolutely no confidence in that team right now.  Which is why I'm picking Washington.

Texans (6-3) vs. Raiders (7-2): Oakland-Who would've thought that when the NFL scheduled the Texans-Raiders game in Mexico City that it would end up being the best game of the week?  They really ended up hitting a home run with this battle of first place teams.  They also lucked out by scheduling the Mexico game before the wall goes up.  Oakland has already proven that they're for real.  I think they win another one and stay atop the AFC West.

This Week: 0-1
Last Week: 10-4
Overall: 91-55-2