Friday, January 30, 2015

Canton Calling: 2015

It's almost an impossible task to predict who's going to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in any given year.  No one has any idea what the 42 selectors in that room are thinking.  Who are their friends that they'll advocate for?  Who do they hold a grudge against?  How do they determine the value of one guy over another at the same position?  Only they know.  So, outside of Junior Seau and probably Kurt Warner, your guess is as good as mine as to who will make up the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2015.

One of the changes they made this year that I like was creating a separate "Contributor" category.  Previously, contributors were lumped in with everyone else and ended up not getting in as a result.  Now they're considered separately, which could have the opposite effect, since it's become almost a formality that whoever makes it to this stage will end up getting inducted.  They also reduced the number of senior candidates from two to one to make room for the contributors.  So, I'll look at those three first, since their chances of getting in are far better.

Senior nominee Mick Tingelhoff seems like a lock.  Tingelhoff played 17 seasons for the Vikings and never missed a game, starting all 240 games at center from 1962-78.  He was on all four of Minnesota's Super Bowl teams and was an All-Pro seven times.

Of the two contributors, I'm more inclined to think Bill Polian will get in than Ron Wolf.  Polian was the architect of the Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 90s, then built the expansion Panthers, who reached the NFC Championship Game in just their second year of existence.  In 1998, he went to the Colts, drafted a quarterback you might've heard of and turned Indianapolis into one of the dominant franchises in the NFL.  They won eight division titles and went to the playoffs 11 times in 12 years, winning at least 10 games each time, and played in two Super Bowls, including a Super Bowl XLI win.

Now moving on to the players.  Again, your guess is as good as mine.  It's impossible to handicap who's going to get in from this field.  Junior Seau is a lock, but that's it.  If I had to guess, I'd say Kurt Warner gets in, too, along with one of the wide receivers (Tim Brown, Marvin Harrison), one of the offensive linemen (Orlando Pace, Will Shields) and another defensive player, probably John Lynch.

So, since it's tough to predict who's actually going to get in, I'll instead reveal the five players I'd vote for if I was sitting in that room in Phoenix...
  • Junior Seau, Linebacker (1990-2002 Chargers, 2002-05 Dolphins, 2006-09 Patriots): Next question please.  Seau is a lock for induction in his first year on the ballot.  I could go through all of the reasons why he's one of the best linebackers of his generation, but what's the point?  If you saw Junior Seau during his career and didn't know you were watching a future Hall of Famer, I'm not sure you know what a Hall of Famer is.  It's such a shame that Seau took his own life in 2012 and won't be able to enjoy the culmination of his brilliant 20-year career.
  • Kurt Warner, Quarterback (1998-2003 Rams, 2004 Giants, 2005-09 Cardinals): The Warner narrative, from grocery store stock boy to the Arena league to NFL Europe to the Hall of Fame, seems to be too much of a fairy tale for him to be kept out.  It's also been a while since they've elected a quarterback, so that works in his favor, too.  It's not like Warner would be an undeserving choice, though.  He made the Greatest Show on Turf go and was MVP when the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.  He was also a two-time NFL MVP.  Oh, yeah, then he went to the Giants and tutored Eli for a season before moving on to the Cardinals and taking them to a Super Bowl.
  • Charles Haley, Defensive End/Linebacker (1988-91, 1999 49ers, 1992-96 Cowboys): He's a finalist every year, yet he still hasn't gotten the call to Canton, mainly because Haley had a notoriously frosty relationship with the media throughout his career.  And that to me is completely insane.  Because Charley Haley was the defensive anchor on the 49ers dynasty, then was the defensive anchor when he switched over to the Dallas side of the rivalry.  He's the only player in NFL history to win five Super Bowls, and it's not just because he was on the 49ers and Cowboys dynasties.  He's a big reason why those two teams were dynasties.
  • John Lynch, Safety (1993-2003 Buccaneers, 2004-07 Broncos): There aren't many safeties in Canton.  Lynch would be just the 11th, but three of them also played cornerback.  But as the members of that dominant Bucs defense that won Super Bowl XXXVII become eligible, they're going to start collecting Hall of Fame busts.  Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are already in.  Lynch should be next, with Ronde Barber to follow in a few years.  Lynch probably isn't going to get in this year, but he'd get my vote.
  • Tim Brown, Wide Receiver (1988-2003 Raiders, 2004 Buccaneers): This final selection was the toughest one.  I wanted to vote for both offensive linemen, both wide receivers and Jerome Bettis, but could only choose one of the five.  So I went with Tim Brown because he's been waiting the longest.  Something needed to be done about the wide receiver backlog.  They've finally started to induct the wide receivers, electing Cris Carter two years ago and Andre Reed last year, but we've still got Brown and Marvin Harrison sitting there with others coming through the pipeline soon enough.  If they're making these guys wait their turn, Brown should get in over Harrison.  It's mind-boggling that he isn't in yet.  Because, again, as you watched him throughout his career, you figured Tim Brown was a future Hall of Famer.  A dual threat as a receiver and returner, he was second all-time in receiving yards, third in catches and third in touchdowns at the time of his retirement.  The only two guys ahead of him?  Jerry Rice and Cris Carter.  Not bad company.  And Brown did all this without a great quarterback.  Hewas better than Andre Reed, who got the nod last year.
In case anyone was wondering, my cut from 15 to 10 would knock off Morten Andersen, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene.  Then when it came to trimming from 10 to five, Bettis, Harrison, Pace, Shields and Jimmy Johnson would go, leaving me with the five that I would give a gold jacket and bust: Brown, Haley, Lynch, Seau and Warner, with Polian and Tingelhoff completing a seven-member Hall of Fame class.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Super Bowl Fun Facts: The XLIXth Edition

It's convenient when you have a snow day on Super Bowl Media Day.  I was actually somewhat surprised that the Patriots' session wasn't completely about Brady's balls, but I think Robert Kraft took care of all that when he told the NFL that they "owe him an apology" if they find they're wrong.  Oh, boo-hoo.  You made Bobby cry!  (For what it's worth, Brady did look like he just got out of bed, though.)

Deflategate has taken up a lot of the pre-Super Bowl media attention, although there have still been a few choice sound byes that weren't completely related.  There was also an article on NBC Hardball Talk today that said this could never happen in baseball that just made me laugh.  The argument was that it's because the media attention on football is so much greater that it let this thing take on a life of its own.  It made me laugh because it's true that this can't ever happen in baseball.  Baseballs aren't inflated.

Anyway, Super Bowl Media Day is time for one of my other traditions.  My random collection of completely irrelevant little tidbits that some people might find interesting, while others will be like, "Huh?"  And away we go:
  • Starting with the obvious, the Seahawks are looking to become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champion since the Patriots a decade ago.  Seattle is the first team to even reach consecutive Super Bowls since then.
  • This equals the longest gap between back-to-back Super Bowl wins.  We also went 10 years without a repeat winner between the Steelers (XIII-XIV) and 49ers (XXIII-XXIV) doing it.
  • Should the Seahawks win, they'll be just the seventh franchise to win consecutive Super Bowls (I'm only counting Pittsburgh once, even though they twice went back-to-back).
  • This is the Patriots' eighth Super Bowl, tying them for the most ever with the Steelers and Cowboys.  However, six of those eight appearances have come in the last 14 years, which gives Bradichick to record for most Super Bowls for a coach and for a starting quarterback.
  • It's the Patriots' eighth Super Bowl, but it'll only be the second time they'll wear white in one.  Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles marked the only other time they played in an odd-numbered game and were thus the "road" team.
  • Both Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick are former coaches of the Jets.  Carroll went 6-10 in his only season in 1994, while Belichick was technically the Jets coach for like 25 minutes in 1999 after Bill Parcells retired before leaving to become head coach of the Patriots.  The coach he succeeded in New England?  Pete Carroll.
  • Carroll is the third coach to take on a team that previously fired him in the Super Bowl, and the fourth overall to face his former team.  Two of the previous three won.  Weeb Ewbank beat the Colts with the Jets in Super Bowl III, and Jon Gruden's Bucs beat the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.  Super Bowls III and XXXVII were the only previous ones where one coach took on his successor, and that coach's new team won each time.  The one to lose to his former team was the Falcons' Dan Reeves against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.
  • Going back to the 2000 season, the last 15 AFC championships have been won by the same five teams (New England 6, Pittsburgh 3, Indianapolis 3, Baltimore 2, Denver 1).  Meanwhile, in that same timeframe, nine different teams have won the NFC title.  This is the Seahawks' third appearance in 10 years, tying the Giants for the most in the NFC this century.  The Giants and Seahawks are the only NFC teams who've even gone twice.  St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, New Orleans, Green Bay and San Francisco have all been to one.
  • Tom Brady and Russell Wilson have both already won the Super Bowl as a starter.  The last time both starting quarterbacks already had a Super Bowl win under their belt was Brady vs. Eli II three years ago.
  • Speaking of Eli, the Patriots' only other Super Bowl trip to Arizona didn't go so well.  That was the 1 during the 18-1 season.  Also speaking of Eli, Super Bowl XLVI was the last one on NBC, giving the Peacock Network back-to-back Super Bowl helpings of the Patriots.
  • We've got the two 1-seeds for the second straight year.  It's only the third time that has happened in the last 21 seasons, but all three of those have taken place in the last six years.  (Yet they're going to expand the playoffs next year so that they can make it easier for the 1-seed to get to the Super Bowl?)
  • We've also got both Super Bowl participants entering the game with the same record for the second straight year.  Prior to last season, that hadn't happened since Super Bowl XXXV, when the Ravens and Giants had identical 12-4 regular season records (although, Baltimore technically entered the Super Bowl with one more win since they were a wild card team).
  • The Kansas City Chiefs beat both the Seahawks and the Patriots this season.  That happened last year, too, when the Colts beat both the Seahawks and Broncos.
  • This is the third straight Super Bowl for the NFC West.  The last time a division went to at least three straight Super Bowls, the NFC East faced the Bills four consecutive times from XXV-XXVIII.  This the first time any division has been to three straight since the 2002 realignment.  In fact, NFC West teams have actually accounted for nearly half of the conference's Super Bowl berths (6 of 13) in the eight-division era.
  • The Seahawks beat the Cardinals twice during the regular season, which obviously includes a win in Arizona.  The Patriots have never won at University of Phoenix Stadium.  The only other game they've played there was Super Bowl XLII.  They haven't played the Cardinals on the road since a 2002 game at Sun Devil Stadium.
  • New England will be playing in just its second game at University of Phoenix Stadium in franchise history.  Both games were Super Bowls, the only two Super Bowls to be held at the stadium.
  • Their game at the Cardinals was in Week 16.  It was Seattle's final road game before returning to the same stadium for the Super Bowl.  The same thing happened last year when they beat the Giants in their final road game (Week 15) before coming back to MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl.
So, there you go.  Like I said, a lot of these are pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  Hopefully that won't impact your enjoyment of the game.  I do have one last question, though: If the Patriots win, will they make the football on the Lombardi Trophy look like it's a little deflated?  Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Bud Selig's Legacy

Today marked a historic day in the history of Major League Baseball.  It was one that was celebrated with a really cool little video where a baseball rolls into a box, the box spins around, then the ball comes back out with a different name on it.  That's because Bud Selig has officially turned over the commissioner reins to Rob Manfred.

Selig had been commissioner for so long that I don't even remember Baseball without him in charge.  Fay Vincent banned Pete Rose for life, then was promptly fired by the owners and Selig took over.  And so it remained for 20 years.

Say what you want about Selig, but there's no denying the impact he had on the game.  He, of course, has his critics and he made his share of mistakes over 20 years.  That's bound to happen when someone holds such a powerful position for so long.  But it's also safe to say that history will judge Bud Selig favorably.  In fact, some might even say that Selig was the best commissioner in Major League Baseball history.  I'm not 100 percent sure that I'd be willing to go that far, but I'd certainly agree that, at the very least, he belongs near the top.  Because if you were to make a checklist and rank Selig's pluses against his minuses, you'd find a lot more pluses.

If you think about it, there are really only two big minuses that can go against Selig.  The first is the All*Star Game tie in Milwaukee in 2002.  He was embarrassed about that as anybody (especially since he used to be the Brewers' owner), and he promptly moved to make sure it would never happen again.  Since 2003, the league that wins the All*Star Game will have home field advantage in the World Series.  While some people were quick to write it off as a gimmick and still criticize it to this day, this has become accepted as a standard part of the All*Star Game.  And it sure beats the old way, where World Series home field simply alternated between the leagues.

The other big knock against Selig is the Steroid Era.  Isn't revisionist history a great thing?  The Steroid Era happened.  Everyone knows that.  Everyone knew what was going on while it was happening.  Yet no one wanted to do anything about it.  It was convenient to turn a blind eye until the Mitchell Report and Jose Canseco made it impossible to.  But, you know what?  Bud Selig's not the only one to blame for the Steroid Era.  Not even close. 

And you know something else about the Steroid Era?  As screwed up as this is going to sound, while it was going on and nobody cared, the Steroid Era was kind of a good thing.  It's exactly what Baseball needed at the time.  Fans were disillusioned with the game after the 1994-95 strike.  The home runs brought them back.

Notice I don't include the strike as one of Selig's black marks.  That was inevitably going to happen no matter who was commissioner.  In fact, Selig was only the interim commissioner back then.  Even if there was somebody in charge, the animosity between the players and the owners was so deep that there wasn't going to be a resolution without a work stoppage.  But ever since then, Baseball's enjoyed an unprecedented era of labor peace.  There hasn't been a single game missed because of labor issues since the players returned in 1995.  Each of the other three leagues has had at least one lockout since then, including all three within a couple months of each other a few years ago.  The lone exception?  Major League Baseball.  Major League Baseball, which famously had nine work stoppages from 1972 until the strike, has not endured a single work stoppage in 20 years.  Bud Selig is a big reason for that.

Going back to the steroid thing, Baseball now has one of the strictest, most sophisticated drug testing programs in all of professional sports.  First-time offenders have to miss half the season and, just like the rules of the game itself, it's three strikes, you're out.  Biogenesis brought a boatload of suspensions without so much as a single positive test, and Alex Rodriguez got suspended for all of last season.  None of that happens without the drug testing program that Selig engineered.

He's also helped the sport grow exponentially.  The World Baseball Classic was his brainchild.  The idea had been tossed about before, but Bud Selig was the one with enough clout to finally get an international tournament with all the best players from around the world, including Major Leaguers, off the ground and running.  We've also seen teams open the season in Japan, Mexico and Australia, and games in Puerto Rico during Selig's tenure.

After the terrible idea that was contraction, Selig also brought baseball back to the nation's capital after 34 years.  Montreal was the unfortunate casualty in all this, but it just seems right to have a baseball team in D.C.  And that was just the tip of the realignment iceberg.  Not one, but two teams, the Brewers and Astros, switched leagues, as we finally have an even distribution of 15 teams in each league.  The Diamondbacks and Rays have also came into existence and new parks have popped up all over the place.

Under Selig, the playoffs expanded twice.  The wild card was his idea and so was the second wild card.  It seemed unnecessary and sounded like a bad idea at first, but, like most things Bud Selig wanted, it turned out being the best thing for Baseball.  After all, Madison Bumgarner doesn't become a World Series legend if there isn't a Wild Card Game for him to win first.

As much as I don't like the home plate collision rule and some of the other changes he made, Selig hit a home run with instant replay.  It was something that enough people were clamoring for that something had to be done, and it was implemented almost seamlessly.  Despite some initial concerns, replay didn't slow the game down nearly as much as anyone thought, and everyone seemed to embrace the change that has become a part of the game after just one year.

But perhaps Selig's enduring legacy is interleague play.  Say what you want about interleague play, it's been around since 1997 and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.  If it wasn't here to stay, the Astros wouldn't have switched leagues and we wouldn't have year-round interleague play.  Sure, we sometimes end up stuck with series like Twins-Rockies, but, interleague play has also given us Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels and the like in meaningful regular season games on a yearly basis.  Interleague play is so much more than just a gimmick.  It gives baseball fans everywhere the chance to see all of the game's best players, not just those on the teams they see all the time.  And that's a good thing.

So, I choose to thank Bud Selig for his years of service to America's great game.  Baseball is most definitely in a better place now than it was when Selig took over.  I don't know what Selig's enduring legacy will be.  But this much I do know.  Rob Manfred has big shoes to fill.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Spygate, Now Deflategate

If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'.  Well, as we've once again found out, no team follows that philosophy more than the New England Patriots.  Because the team that infamously gave us Spygate has now given us Deflategate.  And, instead of talking about Bradicheck's sixth AFC Championship in the last 14 years or anything about the Seahawks, this has taken all of our attention in the first pre-Super Bowl week.

Everyone has heard the story by now.  After the AFC Championship Game, they discovered that 11 of the 12 footballs New England used on offense were underinflated.  That, allegedly, made the balls easier to throw and catch, especially considering how much it was raining.  The NFL obviously needs to conduct its investigation, but, as Jerry Rice noted, 11 out of 12 can't be a coincidence.  Especially considering the Patriots' track record.

Now, nobody is saying the Patriots won because of underinflated footballs.  If you think that, you're an idiot.  Because f you watched even five minutes of that game, you know that's not the case.  They were heavy favorites, and New England completely dominated every aspect of that game.  But that's exactly the point.  They didn't need to cheat to beat the Colts.  And they're not going to get the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, there are plenty of questions regarding how this happened.  If the officials were told about it at halftime, why didn't they do anything then?  If the balls were OK when they were inspected, how did they end up losing air?  After the inspection, why are they left on the sideline and handled by a member of the team staff instead of a neutral NFL official?  Did the weather have anything to do with the air coming out?  If they were tampered with, who did the tampering and why?

Assuming Bill Belichick knew what was going on, this is yet another black mark against him.  After the NFL determined the Patriots were taping the Jets' defensive signals, Belichick had to pay a $500,000 fine.  If he knew what was going on here, the punishment needs to be just as severe, if not more so.  Belichick should be suspended.  I'm not saying you take it to the extreme of making him watch the Super Bowl on television like the rest of us.  But the first few games of next season, in addition to a fine, certainly would seem appropriate.

This also serves as another prime example of why, for the most part, America hates the Patriots.  There's no denying that they've been on an incredible run over the past 15 years.  Three titles, with possibly a fourth on the way, a record six Super Bowl appearances, 12 division titles, 175 wins, the 21-game overall winning streak, and, of course, the 16-0 regular season in 2007.  But they've developed a sense of cockiness and arrogance (as well as an inferiority complex that makes absolutely no sense) that has made them pretty much completely unlikable to anyone who doesn't live in New England or have a crush on Tom Brady.

Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Belichick is probably a Hall of Famer, too.  But Belichick is also unnecessarily paranoid.  You didn't need underinflated footballs to beat the Colts.  Just like you didn't need to record their defensive signals to get an edge on the Jets.  It's a shot of karma that isn't lost on anyone that the Patriots haven't actually won the Super Bowl in 10 years, which includes all of the time since Spygate.

I'm not saying that the legacy they've built is completely tainted, but if there's any truth behind these claims and the NFL finds that the balls were deflated deliberately, there definitely has to be an asterisk.  Especially since the only team that we ever seem to talk about when it comes to breaking the rules in order to gain a competitive advantage is the Patriots.  And, once again, the worst part is that they don't need to do any of it.  It's almost as if Belichick is saying he doesn't believe his team is good enough to win the right way, so he has to resort to tricks, which, of course, is ridiculous.

While it has nothing to do with Belichick, let's also not forget the infamous snow plow game, where the Patriots were playing the Dolphins in a blizzard, the field was covered in snow, and the Patriots had a guy driving a snow plow (who happened to be an ex-con) conveniently come out just in time to clear a place for them to kick the game-winning field goal.  Ray Lewis will also be quick to remind us that this whole run started when New England controversially won the "Tuck Rule" game against the Raiders in the playoffs (although that one can be blamed more on a stupid rule than anything the Patriots did).

Some people have downplayed this as not a big deal.  Aaron Rodgers even went out and said he likes it the other way.  He has big hands, so he wants the balls to be inflated as much as they can (does that mean to the point of popping?).  In the grand scheme of things, it might not be a big deal.  But since it's the Patriots, and since it's Bill Belichick, and since it's the week before Super Bowl week so the writers need something to write about, this story has taken on a life of its own.

Who knows what the end result of all this will be?  I do know one thing, though.  As a result of this, most of America is going to root for Seattle a week from Sunday.  And the Patriots will find some sort of way to spin it as another case of "Us Against the World."  That mentality I'd like to see deflated.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Aussie Open 2015

It's on days like this that I really hate that 16-hour time difference between New York and Australia.  They're a day and a half ahead of us, which means a lot that happens there starts at weird times here.  Take the Australian Open for example.  It's Sunday night in New York, but it's Monday afternoon in Australia, and this year's first Grand Slam is already well underway.

My initial Australian Open picks have already had to be amended.  That's what happens when play starts in primetime the night before, even though it's really 11:00 in the morning.  The main change I have to make is my Ana Ivanovic-Sabine Lisicki quarterfinal.  That ain't happening.  But, for the most part, all of the favorites are still alive, and the 2015 Aussie Open is still you, so there's still plenty of time to dissect the field and pick a pair of winners.

Li Na won the women's tournament last year and definitely won't defend her title.  She retired right before Wimbledon last year.  Li was also a finalist here in 2013, so she absolutely would've been one of the favorites if she was in the draw.  Without Li around, I think "favorite" status has to fall to (who else?) Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.  But Australia is always the Grand Slam where we're most likely to see a surprise or two, and the year's breakout performer usually reveals herself pretty early.  Last year it was Eugenie Bouchard.  She made the semis here and at Roland Garros before reaching the final at Wimbledon.  The year before it was Sloane Stephens upsetting Serena and making the semifinals.  Who will that breakthrough performer be?  If I had to guess, I'd say either Andrea Petkovic, Karolina Pliskova or Yaroslava Shvedova. 

Serena and Maria might be the two favorites for the title, but they're by no means the only contenders.  Petra Kvitova won her second Wimbledon last year and is ranked No. 4, while Simona Halep can take over the No. 1 ranking if she wins her first Grand Slam title.  Then there's US Open finalist Caroline Wozniacki, who seems to finally have gotten her game back, and Aggie Radwanska.  They're currently the two best players in the women's game who've never won a Slam.  And lest we forget Victoria Azarenka, the winner here in 2012 and 2013.  Because of injuries last year, her ranking has dropped so far that she's unseeded.  And, as a result, Azarenka-Wozniacki will be a second round match!

Predicting the Australian Open is always tough because it's still early in the year and most of the top players are making their debuts.  But I like the way both Serena and Woz ended last season, so I'll say they meet in the quarters.  I'll say Flavia Pennetta beats both Radwanska and Kvitova en route to the semis, where she falls to Serena.  In the bottom half of the bracket, I'm not taking the chalk.  I've just got a feeling Genie Bouchard is going to beat Maria in the quarters.  And since I had Lisicki in the semis, let's replace her with the third-seeded Halep.  Either way, I've got Bouchard going one round further than she did last year and playing Serena in the final.  In fact, I think Genie goes even further than that.  She beats Serena for the title.

On the men's side, 2014 was a very interesting year.  The Big Four only went 2-for-4.  In fact, we had four different Grand Slam champions last year.  Unfortunately, US Open champ Marin Cilic will miss the Australian Open.  Stan Wawrinka, who upset both Djokovic and Nadal to win here last year, then joined with Roger to win Switzerland's first-ever Davis Cup title, is seeded fourth, and his quarterfinal opponent could be fifth-seeded Kei Nishikori, the US Open finalist.

As for the three guys we're used to winning the Grand Slams, Djokovic is ranked No. 1, and this has traditionally been his best Grand Slam.  Meanwhile, Federer and Nadal are 2 and 3 and on a semifinal collision course.  It's one of the most understated things about his greatness, but Roger has been to at least the semis in Australia every year since 2004.  That's 11 straight years!  He hasn't won an Australian Open title since 2010, though.  Clay Boy, meanwhile, hasn't really played since his annual French Open win, sat out the US Open, and has flat out said that he's not one of the favorites here.  Who am I to argue?  He was a finalist here last year, though.

Regardless, the favorites in men's Grand Slam tournaments rarely change.  Especially since the three of them automatically have to be in different sections of the draw.  The open section is the Wawrinka-Nishikori quarter where the winner gets Djokovic.

Those with the chance to make some noise include eighth-seeded Milos Raonic, who might have to knock off Juan Martin Del Potro in the round of 16, then gets Djokovic in the quarters.  Speaking of Djokovic and the quarters, the round before he gets there, he's set to take on John Isner, the only seeded American at No. 19.  Lean times indeed.  I also like Bernie Tomic, the new Aussie star, who has a chance to finally be the first hometown finalist since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005.  Hewitt's still around, too.  He's long removed from his days as a top player.  But you've gotta love the fact he still plays his home Slam every year without fail.  This is his 19th straight Australian Open appearance.

Among the top three, Federer probably has the toughest road to the semis.  He'll have to face either Tommy Robredo or Ivo Karlovic in the round of 16 before a quarterfinal matchup against the winner of the great potential matchup between Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov.  (Speaking of breakout candidates, this might be the year Dimitrov becomes known as more than just Mr. Sharapova.)

But this is a men's Grand Slam.  Going against the chalk is generally a dumb idea.  After all, the 2009 US Open won by Del Potro and the two last year are the only ones since that 2005 Australian Open that one of the Big Four didn't win.  Hell, it's weird to see a Grand Slam final without at least one of them like we had at the US Open.

So, my semis are Djokovic vs. Wawrinka and, after upsetting Nadal in the quarters, Tomic vs. Federer.  And, after their epic Wimbledon final last year, we get another Djokovic-Federer matchup.  The result of which I think will be the same.  Novak Djokovic wins another Australian Open.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Playoff Picks, Week 3

Well, we sure had an interesting week of Divisional Playoffs, didn't we?  Peyton Manning looked incredibly old, then we found out why, which explains why he didn't look quite like himself over the entire final month of the season.  John Fox went from coach of the Broncos to coach of the Bears in a matter of three days, and Jack Del Rio also left Denver to become coach of the Raiders.

Over in the NFC, we saw Dez Bryant make an incredible clutch catch that somehow wasn't a catch and ended up costing Dallas the game.  In the Wild Card Game, I was one of the few people who didn't think that was a pass interference.  But on this one, I'm with pretty much everyone in America who isn't a Packers fan and is incredibly confused as to how that's not a catch.  The rule wasn't interpreted incorrectly.  By letter of the law, they got the call right.  The problem is that the rule is stupid.  Like the tuck rule (which doesn't exist anymore).  The Competition Committee said they're going to look at it over the offseason.  I wonder why?  It didn't decide a playoff game or anything.

Of course, way back when the Packers controversially lost a game because the replacement officials screwed up a touchdown/interception at the end of a Monday night game in Seattle.  Well, the Packers returned to Seattle in Week 1.  And that didn't go well.  But that can be chalked up to the Super Bowl champs opening their defense on national television.  I think the NFC Championship Game will be much closer.  Meanwhile, Bradicheck is back in the AFC Championship Game once again.  For New England to get to its sixth Super Bowl in 14 years, they'll have to beat a familiar foe--Indianapolis.  Except this time it's a little different.  It's not Manning vs. Brady.  It's Brady vs. Luck.

NFC Championship Game: Packers (13-4) at Seahawks (13-4): Green Bay-Back in mid-December, the Packers and Seahawks were sitting in the NFC's two wild card positions.  A month later, they're meeting for the NFC championship as the top two seeds.  And this is the matchup that has seemed inevitable since pretty much that exact point in mid-December.  Because, no offense to the Cowboys, these are the two best teams in the NFC.  It's only right that one of them will represent the conference in the Super Bowl.

It's strength vs. strength with Aaron Rodgers and the NFL's most explosive offense going against the Legion of Boom (BTW, how cool was in when Kam Chancellor jumped over the line on that Carolina field goal attempt not once, but twice last week?).  The health of Rodgers is a very relevant question, but he's said that he's got two more games left in him.  Of course, that's what you'd expect him to say and you'd be incredibly worried had he not said that.  But Rodgers, while definitely not 100 percent, certainly looked good enough last week.

There's plenty of reason to be concerned about Rodgers against the Seahawks defense and the Sixth Man, but I think the Packers' defense is a little underrated.  Assuming the Seattle defense and Green Bay offense cancel each other out, that's going to be the key matchup.  Russell Wilson vs. the Packers defense will determine the NFC's Super Bowl participant.  If Seattle's able to do what it did against Carolina, it'll be very difficult for Green Bay to stop them.

Seattle is a team on a mission.  They want to be the first defending champion to get back to the Super Bowl since the 2004 Patriots.  The Packers are on a mission, too, and Green Bay is a much better team than the one that lost in Seattle to start the season.  While I think there's a chance the crowd could become a factor, I said prior to the start of the playoffs that the Dallas-Green Bay winner would go into Seattle and win.  I'm sticking with that.  Packers 23, Seahawks 20.

AFC Championship Game: Colts (13-5) at Patriots (13-4): New England-The real challenge for New England was going to be getting through last week.  For whatever reason, the Ravens always give the Patriots trouble in the postseason, and last week was no exception.  But the Patriots survived and moved into their fourth consecutive AFC Championship Game, where they won't face their expected opponent.

I give all the credit in the world to Chuck Pagano and his team for what happened in Denver last week.  That defensive game plan was absolutely brilliant.  The fact that Peyton was injured doesn't seem particularly relevant.  The defense never let the Broncos get into the game.  And as a result, we've got the Indianapolis Colts one game away from the Super Bowl just three years after their complete franchise reboot.  Andrew Luck, in fact, is the only quarterback starting this weekend that hasn't already won the Super Bowl.

But beating the Patriots in Foxboro against a healthy Tom Brady is a much taller order.  Remember Week 11?  Both of these teams sure do.  The final score of that one was 42-20 Patriots on a Sunday night in Indianapolis.  The Colts are a much better team than they were that day, and beating Peyton Manning's Broncos sure gave them a jolt, but the problem is they're playing the Patriots. 

All season long, everyone has been talking about how this might be the best Patriots team since their last Super Bowl squad.  Well, here's their chance to go out and prove it.  New England's going to be a heavy favorite in this game, and there's good reason for that.  The Patriots are a much better team than the Colts on both sides of the ball.  Andrew Luck's time will come.  Probably soon.  But New England desperately wants to stop hearing about the fact they haven't won a championship in a decade.  And this time, they won't have the Giants waiting for them in the Super Bowl.  That's not until next year.  Patriots 38, Colts 13.

So, there you have it.  The popular pick from a lot of NFL experts at the beginning of the season, at midseason, and at the start of the playoffs was New England-Green Bay.  They're called "experts" for a reason.  Because the Packers and Patriots are the two best teams left.  I don't see any reason why that prediction won't end up being right, which is why it's mine also.

Last Week: 2-2
Playoffs: 4-4
Season: 165-98-1

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 2015 USATF Calendar-My Version

The 2015 calendar on my wall is a U.S. Olympic Team calendar.  It might seem pretty odd to have an Olympic calendar in a non-Olympic year, but it was free with one of their donation things and I didn't have a 2015 calendar yet, so I decided to hang it up.  (My Yankees calendar, which runs from April-March is in my office.)

Then today my friend Milos got a 2015 USA Track & Field calendar in the mail.  I'm not a USATF member, which is probably why I didn't get that calendar, but that doesn't mean I didn't want one.  Then I went through and looked at it, and I decided not so much.  There are plenty of other athletes I would've put in there over the ones that were included.  I get it, they needed to include men and women from all the different events.  But I'd rather see a calendar consisting of USA Track & Field's hottest girls.

Since I have free rein over what gets posted here, that's exactly what we're going to do.  So, may I present, my version of the 2015 USA Track & Field calendar...

January: Georganne Moline
She made the finals in the 400 hurdles at
the London Olympics.

February: Rachel Yurkovich
If you're hot enough to be in the ESPN Body Issue, you're hot
enough to be in my calendar.

March: Brianna Rollins
She had quite a year in 2013, winning the NCAA,
U.S. and World Championships.
April: Emma Coburn
She dominated the steeplechase last year.
If only there had been an Olympics/Worlds...

May: Laura Roesler
She just turned pro after four years at Oregon
and won the 2014 Bowerman, track's Heisman.

June: Allyson Felix
After three World Championships and two Olympic silvers, she
finally won Olympic gold in the 200 in London.
July: Shannon Rowbury
She won bronze at the World Championships in the 1500 in 2009,
and made the final in the 5000 at Worlds in 2013.
August: Anna Willard
She's long been one of my favorites.  Hasn't
raced much since 2012 due to injuries.
September: Lolo Jones
The only bobsledder on the list, she first became
known for tripping over the last hurdle in Beijing.
October: Jenn Suhr
The gold medalist in the pole vault in London,
and the indoor world record holder for a little while.
November: Brenda Martinez
She won the bronze in the 800 at the
2013 World Championships.

December: Maggie Vessey
She was hot long before she was
known only for her different uniforms.

There are also plenty of honorable mentions to go around, but those are the 12 that made the cut.  Are you starting to realize why I like track & field so much?