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October 20, 2008

Why the Tampa Bay Rays Must Fail

Looking through the history of Major League Baseball, one would be hard-pressed to find a franchise more atrocious than the 1998-2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In the pantheon of awful teams, the Rays found themselves with the likes of the 1999 Los Angeles Clippers, the 1992 Ottawa Senators, and essentially the entire collective existence of the Detroit Lions. Only once in their decade-long history had they not finished dead last within their division, and at no point did they ever lose less than 90 games in a season. Now, a mere one year removed from the farce that was their history, here they sit on the precipice of a World Championship. As my mind continues to try to wrap itself around this fact, I continue to find myself returning to the same thought.

They must be stopped.

Is it fun to root for the underdog? Of course it is. It gives every fan hope that, someday, they too could see their team drenched in champagne at season’s end. And it is always enjoyable to watch the fans of disposed favorites spend the offseason attempting to rationalize why it was okay to lose. After all, the popularity of March Madness is entirely based on these two points (see: George Mason and Duke, respectively). But there is something inherently wrong with the prospect of memorabilia adorned with the words “World Champion Tampa Bay Rays”.

Now, to help explain, I should probably add one small but significant fact – I am a Chicago Cubs fan. Yes, the same Chicago Cubs that just spent six months compiling the best record in their league, only to be swept out of October in three games. The same Chicago Cubs that now find their championship drought at an even 100 years. The team has been forced to watch the crowning of the champion on television since before there was television… nearly before there was even radio! And yet, here we sit as a fan base, preparing ourselves for yet another upstart to hoist a banner to the rafters before us.

We’ve been here before. Back in 1997, the Florida Marlins took home the title after a grueling five year wait. And just to rub it in, they went ahead and dismantled their entire team, rebuilt, and then stormed through Wrigley Field in 2003 to win a second championship, matching the Cubs franchise total in a mere eleven years. The Arizona Diamondbacks capped their fourth year in existence with a thrilling World Series victory over the Yankees in 2001. Even the Colorado Rockies joined in the fun last year, making their first Series before eventually falling to Boston.

For the most part, those were painful to watch, but at least we had company. The Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox each had droughts nearly as long at the Cubs, and Red Sox fans are more than familiar with the concept of curses. But one by one, they each left us. During Boston’s magical run of 2004, numerous Cubs fans expressed their joy in watching the Red Sox shed their curse, thinking that it would somehow be our turn next. They felt relieved; I felt abandoned. They did not understand why it did not make me feel better. I explained that throughout the entire comeback against New York, I found myself rooting for the hated Yankees. Why? Because a season that ends in a Yankees championship is like a season that never happened… and a season that never happened meant that we were not one step closer to being the sole exception to the law of averages. Of course, a year later, the White Sox etched their name onto the trophy and scratched their name off the list of historical misery as well. And then we were officially alone, left to watch teams with no history, no character, and no emotional connection shed tears of joy upon the championship trophy, a scene with which we could not empathize.

For a true sports fan, there is nothing quite as sacred as your team’s first championship of your lifetime. It is a journey you take, the ebb and flow of fandom pulling you in directions you never expected. You, as a fan, feel as if you deserve the championship just as much, if not more, than the team itself. At times you cheered; at times you walked away in frustration. But through the entire struggle, you were never indifferent.

And that brings us back to Tampa Bay. A year ago, they produced the worst record in the league, which had been preceded by nine years of near-identical results – only nobody cared enough to notice, or noticed enough to care. Now? World Series. Suddenly, the kid who had been eating glue in the corner for the past decade is acing the SATs and dating the head cheerleader. Meanwhile, we Cubs fans are left, alone, to wonder how we got bypassed again.

Now, could that be us next year? Maybe, but I have 100 years to tell me it won’t be. After all, this could have been the year. But it wasn’t. Instead, I am forced to watch a team with nary a fan base continue to inch closer to the goal that has eluded us for a century. I am forced to watch a team that thinks that its mere decade-long struggle with wins and apathy may finally be over. I am forced to watch a team that now elicits one simple response…

Go Phillies.

Apologies for the Lack of Posts

With apologies to my loyal reader(s), I must say that, not surprisingly, graduate school has seemed to take up a large chunk of my time, thus causing me to fall behind in my posts here. Nevertheless, I still intend to write whenever I can (and whenever a topic comes to mind)...

As a side note, I am currently writing for The Exchange, the UCLA Anderson student paper, and trying to interject more sports into the conversation whenever possible. In those instances, I plan on posting the pre-edited-for-length versions here. So that's something, right?

Again, apologies for the recent lack of posts, but please still check back often. It just might be your lucky day and there will be something to distract you from work, which is essentially why you're most likely here anyways...

September 20, 2008

NFL Scorecard - Week 3 Predictions

So much for getting off on the right foot...

After starting the season with double-digit wins, my luck decided to take a turn for the worse, as I completely tanked last week. Good thing nobody actually uses (or even reads) this for gambling purposes...

Well, I'm getting to this a bit later than usual this week. For those of you who know me, you are aware that I started my grad school orientation this week, which surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, takes up a whole lotta time during the week. But I'm here now, ready to either turn it around... or continue on my downward spiral of awful picks. Again, hopefully nobody's actually putting any weight to these...

Atlanta (-5.5) vs Kansas City - Um, next time, can I please be made aware of the fact that Tyler Thigpen is the backup quarterback on this team? I never thought I'd long for the days of Damon Huard. I'm guessing that makes it me and the entire Chiefs fan base... Well, Thigpen looked awful against Oakland so, good luck on your first start, kid... I'm going with the Falcons.

Buffalo (-9) vs Oakland - Okay, Bills, I'm on board. Now don't let me down. I think it's safe to say that the Raiders will be facing a team that's a bit better than last week. Darren McFadden definitely showed why the Raiders chose him last April, but the Bills have a nice running back of their own, and a lot more on both sides of the ball than Oakland.

Tennessee (-5.5) vs Houston - Am I the only one that feels that the Titans will be better with the constant Vince Young drama/development they've had the last couple years? No? Okay then, we're in agreement. The Texans did essentially have a bye week last week, but I wouldn't say it was a typical bye week where they could use both weeks to game plan against the Titans. So on equal footing, this one goes to Tennessee.

New York Giants (-13) vs Cincinnati - Until Carson Palmer shows himself as a competent quarterback again, I can't go for Cincy under any circumstances. He was once a quarterback with all the talent in the world, lighting the league on fire. Then a freak play tears his ACL and he hasn't been the same. How worried do you think Patriots fans are right now...?

Washington (-3) vs Arizona - This would make five straight favorites for me. That's never a good sign. But the Redskins finally came alive last week in their win over the Saints. Granted, the Saints don't exactly have a stellar defense, but Arizona doesn't exactly have a stellar team either. I still think Washington would win the NFC West, and I guess here's their first test.

Miami (+13) at New England - So let me get this straight... the Patriots scored only 19 points against a team that beat the Dolphins and are now giving 13 points to Miami? I guess Vegas doesn't have a lot of confidence in the Miami offense. Not exactly off-base there, but it still seems like a large spread for a team still trying to find its identity.

Chicago (-3) vs Tampa Bay - The Bears, as I always expect them to do at this point, choked one away against Carolina last week. So why am I going with them this week? Because I'm apparently an idiot... But I'm a loyal idiot, I guess. Just ignore the fact that I've gone against them the last two weeks.

Minnesota (-3) vs Carolina - Speaking of Carolina, can they make it three comebacks in a row? I'm guessing no, but I also thought the Vikings would knock off the Colts last week. And what I've learned is that "close" isn't "correct". I think this might be another situation like the Titans where Gus Frerotte might actually make them play better, not because he's more skilled, but he's more known, and the offense and defense won't be sitting there wondering if they can overcome their quarterback. They'll just go out and play.

St. Louis (+9) at Seattle - Following last week's theory of never going with an NFC West team giving more than 7 points, I'm going with the Rams this week. The Rams are still terrible, and I think they'll lose, but in this division, they all suck...

San Francisco (-4.5) vs Detroit - Speaking of sucking, here's San Francisco and Detroit! Is it just me or are there a lot of horrendous matchups early this season? I guess whenever Detroit is involved, that pretty much screws up the appeal of any matchup... They've fallen behind 21-0 in both games this season, which to those unfamiliar with football, is not a good thing... The 49ers may come from the NFC West, but I think Detroit is an honorary member of that division this season.

New Orleans (+5) at Denver - Every year, there's a team that I always miscalculate but consistently pick thinking that they'll turn it around. And every year, there's a team that I always miscalculate but consistently pick against them thinking that they'll come back to earth. I think those teams might be the Saints and Broncos this year, respectively. And that explains this pick...

Pittsburgh (+3) at Philadelphia - With apologies to my roommate, who is a huge Eagles fan and one of my few consistent readers, I've gotta go with Pittsburgh this week. I like Philadelphia, but there has to be some sort of emotional letdown this weekend, doesn't there? I mean, they just took on their arch rivals in an instant-classic Monday night game, then have to turn it around in six days and take on their intra-state rival, who, by the way, is 2-0? Just seems like a lot to me.

Indianapolis (-6) vs Jacksonville - The Colts showed life last week. The Jaguars continued to struggle. The Colts still own this division until proven otherwise...

Cleveland (+2) at Baltimore - The Browns offense has scored a total of 16 points in two weeks. This is why I didn't touch Derek Anderson during my fantasy draft this year. They were bound to come down from last season, now that they're not a surprise, but there still is too much talent on the offensive side of the ball to not still compete with the lower-level teams in the league. I'm looking at you, Baltimore... It's strength vs. strength in this matchup, with the Browns offense going up against the Ravens defense... and weakness vs. weakness on the other side... Sounds like a close game to me.

Dallas (-3) at Green Bay - I hate when my two fantasy running backs go against each other in a week, like I have with Barber and Grant in this game. Unless the game is ultra close, one team will be throwing by the end, which essentially limits one of the two by mid-third quarter. How does that affect this game? Well, it doesn't, but I just wanted to vent...

New York Jets (+8.5) at San Diego - You know the Chargers are going to turn it on at some point. You just know it. But is it this week? Is it next week? Will they show signs and squeek out a win before starting to blow things open? I don't know the answer to those, but I know this is Favre's first MNF game with the Jets, and against a wobbly Chargers team, that spread is too much for #4.

Last Week: 4-10-1
Overall: 14-16-1

September 12, 2008

NFL Scorecard - Week 2 Predictions

As I was watching Aaron Rodgers jump into the crowd Monday night in Lambeau, I thought back to the weekend of games... Tom Brady going down, Peyton Manning losing at home to the Bears, Shawne Merriman out for the year... It made me realize that this season is wide open to anybody who wants it. My mind continued to ponder the scenarios that may play out until I came to a frightening thought...

What if the Packers play the Jets in the Super Bowl?

Likely? Well, no. But it's safe to say that the Jets' path to the playoffs got a wee bit easier after Week 1, despite a shaky win against a bad Miami team. And it's safe to say that the Packers, with a solid running game and stout defense, will be battling it out for the division. So once both teams are in the playoffs, you never know. Just look at what's happened the last several years.

So getting back to my point... would there ever have been a Super Bowl more annoyingly hyped than a Packers-Jets matchup? Favre's old team against his new team. All the arguments about whether the Packers were right to trade Favre would be analyzed (read: over-analyzed) for two weeks. And you thought you heard too much Favre-talk this off-season... I don't know if I'd be able to handle it, although the networks would be falling all over themselves with stories. And worst of all... one of those teams would have to actually win the game. Okay, let's not think about that for now.

On to the picks...

Kansas City (-3) vs Oakland - The Raiders are even worse off than I thought. They made the Broncos have confidence in themselves to have a good season... now that's pretty bad. The Chiefs may not be good, but they do get to play this one at home, which should be enough to handle Oakland. Is there really anything else that needs to be said about this gem of a game?

Tennessee (+1) at Cincinnati - Vince Young... where to begin. Depending on who you believe, Young either spent the last week contemplating whether he should even be here on Earth, or it was all just a Three's Company-esque misunderstanding. Either way, I don't see the Bengals being able to stop the Titans' running game (that's faster than Joe Flacco, by the way...), and Carson Palmer looked absolutely dreadful last week. I can't believe I'm picking Kerry Collins on the road, but I told you it's a crazy season...

Minnesota (+2) vs Indianapolis - So my AFC final four of Indy, New England, San Diego, and Jacksonville isn't looking too good all of a sudden. If the Colts drop to 0-2, I think everybody within the Pittsburgh area will begin their search for hotel rooms in January. And the way the Colts looked on Sunday night, I think they will fall again. They looked disjointed, which can happen when the focal point of the team missing so much time in the off-season. Minnesota has a better defense than the Bears and a better running game, plus they're at home. Sounds like a winning setup to me.

New Orleans (pk) at Washington - Having Colston out hurts both the Saints and my fantasy team, as Brees will need to find his yards and touchdowns elsewhere for a while. I don't think he'll have any trouble finding them against Washington, however, as they looked rather scattered against the Giants on opening night. Granted, they've had over a week to prepare, but Jason Campbell has had over several years to prepare and that hasn't really seemed to help him too much at this point either...

Green Bay (-3) at Detroit - So... the team that handled a popular preseason pick on Monday night against a team that got blown out by a team starting a rookie quarterback and a running back carrying the load for the first time... Yeah, I wonder how this one is going to turn out. The Packers looked as good as I expected, while the Lions looked even worse (somehow). This one shouldn't even be close. Ryan Grant, my fantasy team thanks you ahead of time...

Carolina (-3) vs Chicago - I have no reason to go against the Bears this week other than I'm not letting myself buy into the hype until we're well into the season. So the Bears are on a high after beating a premier AFC team on the road? Um, Chicago? I'd like to introduce you to Carolina. Yeah, they did the same thing last week...

New York Giants (-8) at St. Louis - Well, so much for my "the Rams are dangerous when healthy" theory. That's pretty much shot. I still don't trust Eli, but the Giants defense will run over the Rams offensive line and Plaxico and the 14 running backs on New York will all get their numbers in this one.

Jacksonville (-5.5) vs Buffalo - Welcome back to the AFC, Buffalo. This is no longer the NFC West, and I think the Bills will find that out this week. I'm hoping the Jaguars' failure in Week 1 was more the product of never playing the Titans well. Although if I'm wrong (and there's a high probability of that), then my AFC finalist list is going to need a much-needed updating.

Atlanta (+7.5) at Tampa Bay - Brian Griese is back! I'm so excited... It can't be a good thing when I trust a quarterback with 60 minutes of experience under his belt more so than a veteran with 60 years. What's that? Brian Griese is only 33? I don't believe you... Well, whether he's 33 or 83, I still wouldn't want him under center for my team, especially after losing to one divisional opponent already and desperately needing a win to avoid an 0-2 start. So much for the Bucs' quarterback depth, huh?

San Francisco (+7) at Seattle - No team from the NFC West should ever, ever be giving 7 points. Ever. This game may turn out to be a blowout, but you tell me who's going to blow out whom. A couple turnovers either way and one of these teams could be coasting to easy victory. But couldn't you see either of these teams racking up the giveaways on any given day? Yeah, me too.

Miami (+6.5) at Arizona - So 6 1/2 isn't 7, but it's close enough for me to apply the rule from above here. Did Miami look bad last week? Yes. Is Chad Pennington still Chad Pennington? Unfortunately for him, yes. But is Arizona still Arizona? I'm sticking with yes again. I think Arizona will most likely win, but the Dolphins kept it close against the Jets last week, and I would pick the Jets over the Cardinals in a heartbeat. Screwed up logic? Once again, yes.

New York Jets (-2) vs New England - Okay, I've been sitting here for several minutes trying to talk myself into one side or another here. On the Patriots side, they have a better team up and down the roster, except for the fact that Tom Brady is injured. On the Jets side, Tom Brady is injured. Aren't you glad you come here for this thorough analysis? Making his home debut against a team that will need some time to find its new identity, I'm going with Favre and the Jets in this one.

San Diego (-1) at Denver - The Broncos are coming off a short week after a road game. That usually doesn't bode well the following week. Plus, they're playing the Chargers, who have got to be furious about the outcome of their game last week. And I'm sure they'll want to prove that they're more than just Shawne Merriman and company on defense. (Why this theory doesn't apply to the Pats above: You can replace some of the production of a Pro-bowler on the defensive line with depth at the position, but you can't replace the production of the reigning MVP at the most important position on the field.)

Pittsburgh (-6) vs Cleveland - Last season, I had a thing where I would never pick the favorites on intra-divisional games when giving 6 or more points. I'm dropping that this season because, well, I don't know how well that worked out, and the Browns have given me another rule for picking games this year: Don't pick the Browns. That one's easier to follow...

Dallas (-7) vs Philadelphia - Donovan McNabb looked great against a bad defense last week. That sounds about right. I don't think he'll do as well against a solid defense this week. That also sounds about right... The Cowboys, from top to bottom, are still a better team than the Eagles and playing at home against their rivals, I don't think they'll take their foot off the gas at all this game. With their offense, that could get interesting quickly.

Houston (-4) vs Baltimore - I don't think the Ravens are as good as they showed last week. I think that had more to do with an awful, awful Bengals team. And I don't think the Texans are as bad as they showed. The Steelers just appear to be the class of the conference in the early season. I realize that the people in Houston have more pressing issues on their mind right now than this game, but when all is said and done, I think the Texans will give their fans at least something to cheer about.

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 10-6

September 03, 2008

NFL Scorecard - Week 1 Predictions

Year 1 of the great predicting experiment yielded mixed results for me. What started out as a strong display of intelligence quickly devolved into a pathetic few weeks of a complete lack of football aptitude. In the end, the regular season turned out how you would expect, with a regular season record just under .500. The playoffs saved me somewhat, resulting in a final showing of 128-125-14 (.506).

When I started this last season, I wrote "[s]tastically speaking, I should bat around .500, as that's essentially the purpose of the point spread." And while that is true, it was somewhat disheartening to do so well for nearly the entire season, only to collapse in the 4th quarter of the season. I would compare myself to the Detroit Lions at this point, but at least I made it to Week 15 before starting my demise...

Despite no additional reason for optimism beyond simply the start of the season, I find myself stepping back onto the field of play to try to improve upon last year's results. I have not improved in any way and will most likely use the same techniques I utilized before and somehow hope for better results. I guess in that respect, I'm more like the Chicago Bears than I would have hoped...

As always, spreads can be found here.

New York Giants (-4) vs Washington - The defending Super Bowl champions kick off the new season on Thursday, which really messes up my schedule on writing this post. Nevertheless, the NFL has decided to move forward in spite of me, and I feel the Giants will do the same in spite of the Redskins. New York is missing some key guys on its defensive line, but their depth, and a completely raucous crowd, should easily handle a Washington team that's shown nothing in the preseason thus far.

Cincinnati (-1) at Baltimore - If Joe Flacco is going to start his career against somebody, the Bengals defense is probably a good place to start. Of course, that doesn't change the fact that he's still a rookie that's making the jump from Delaware to the NFL. That takes some getting used to, and even though Cincinnati may not be championship material, they do still have enough weapons to start the season off right.

New York Jets (-3) at Miami - Brett Favre Bowl I kicks off on Sunday, with the second quickly following on Monday Night Football. It's hard to believe that Favre has really adapted to the Jets, or that they've adapted to him, but a motivated Favre and a rebuilding Dolphins team can pretty much turn out one way here. Thomas Jones should get on track against a defense missing Jason Taylor and Zach Thomas, which will ease the load on the aging quarterback as well.

New England (-16.5) vs Kansas City - I'm torn on this game. After last season, you would think that the Patriots would want to come out and tear apart a lessor opponent in the Chiefs. However, the run-it-up Pats didn't exactly turn out so well. And they didn't exactly come together in the preseason. And Tom Brady isn't exactly healthy. Last season, I would have bet New England and given 30 points. This year, I think a more conservative and balanced team will still flex their muscles enough to dominate the Chiefs.

Pittsburgh (-7) vs Houston - I admit, I haven't followed the preseason enough to know how the Willie Parker/Rashard Mendenhall situation is going to play out, but with three solid receivers, two game-breaking running backs, and a Super Bowl quarterback, I think it's safe to say that the Steelers are pretty much set on offense. That's more than can be said for Houston, which has pieces but has yet to put them together. Ahman Green is somehow still the starting running back, which is not a positive. If Andre Johnson can stay healthy for the entire game, they may keep it close... but not close enough.

Tennessee (+3) vs Jacksonville - I like the Jaguars this season, I really do. But for some reason, I just feel like an early-season, divisional road game will be a tough play, especially with everything going on around the Jaguars in the last week or so. I could see them winning this one, but I think the Titans keep it close, if not win it outright. (Side note: I feel like I'm going to be regretting this pick in about 96 hours...)

Detroit (-3) at Atlanta - Oh, a hotbed for football fans! The Falcons! The Lions! Could it get any better?! Well, the Lions just signed a washed up Rudi Johnson, so they got that going for them. The Falcons counter with Matt Ryan's first NFL game and Michael Turner's first start as "the Man". Kitna and Co. may not be glamorous, but they've been together for a while and will be able to run around the Falcons for the win.

Buffalo (pk) vs Seattle - I really don't like the Seahawks this year. I don't know why, but I have no faith at all in them. Luckily, I have (apparently) negative faith in the rest of their teams in the division since I still have them winning it, but in this matchup, against a Bills team at home, I'll go with the team without two of its top receivers injured.

New Orleans (-3) vs Tampa Bay - It's the season for redemption for the Saints, as many thought they were about to turn the corner last season, only to fall flat. They have plenty of offensive pieces, especially after adding Jeremy Shockey in the offseason. It's only a matter the defense that worries me about this team. The Bucs could exploit this, but in the emotional Superdome, I think the Saints give New Orleans something to cheer about.

St Louis (+7) at Philadelphia - Yes, Brian Westbrook will probably have a huge game. But who is Donovan McNabb going to throw the ball to? And right now, the Rams are all healthy, which makes them more dangerous than they'll probably be in a few weeks. By the end of the season, the Eagles will definitely be better off the the Rams, but Week 1... Going with the Rams for the upset.

Dallas (-5) at Cleveland - The top team in the NFC takes on the surprise team of the AFC last year, but the Browns won't be sneaking up on people this year, while the Cowboys have no problem in making themselves known as well. Both teams have plenty of offensive firepower (even though I still don't trust Derek Anderson), but when it comes to defense, Dallas has the obvious edge. The Cowboys are looking for a Super Bowl title this season. They won't get tripped up this early.

San Diego (-9.5) vs Carolina - The Panthers without Steve Smith is not exactly the type of team that can travel into San Diego and take on a popular Super Bowl pick. Shawne Merriman's injury may be the story of the day, but Carolina won't have the weapons to do anything about it. On the other side of the ball, well, there's Tomlinson... Not sure what more you need to say about that.

Arizona (-2.5) at San Francisco - Another thrilling matchup on the same level as the Lions-Falcons tilt mentioned above. I really don't have anything to say about either of these teams that's worth mentioning, but I'm rooting for Anquan Boldin for fantasy purposes, and the Cardinals have a quarterback who's done something, so let's go with them this time around.

Indianapolis (-9.5) vs Chicago - Peyton Manning vs Kyle Orton. Let that sink in for a second... Okay. Do I need to mention anything else? How about the fact the Colts want to erase the abrupt end to their season last winter and what better way to do that than destroying a bad team that can't tackle in prime time? Okay, let's just move on before I get sick...

Green Bay (-3) vs Minnesota - It's Brett Favre Bowl II. I have the Vikings winning the division, but right off the bat, I think the Packers, at home, take care of business against Minnesota. No matter what you think of Tarvaris Jackson, when your starting quarterback is taking the field at less than 100% against a good defense, that's not a good thing. Adrian Peterson will get his yards, although he'll have to earn them, while Aaron Rodgers will (he hopes) get on Green Bay fans' good side.

Denver (-3) at Oakland - It concerns me that I've taken almost all favorites in what always turns out to be one of the most unpredictable weeks of the season. But I don't know which game I would switch in this list. I was tempted to pick Oakland here at home, but with young players at several key positions, it might be too early to have come together enough to knock off the Broncos. Add in how much Mike Shanahan loves beating the Raiders, especially on Monday Night Football, and you've got yourself a Broncos victory.

Last Season: 128-125-14

August 30, 2008

2008 NFL Predictions

It's amazing how having nothing to do really reduces your desire and capacity to do anything at all. I had assumed that my summer with no responsibilities would result in an abundance of new material on this website but as you can deduce by the date of the last post, that hasn't been the case. The Cubs and White Sox have both been riding their 1st place waves, the Bears have scuffled through the least inspiring quarterback competition I have ever witnessed, and the Bulls lucked into the #1 overall pick and drafted who I sincerely hope is the point guard in the Deron Williams/Chris Paul talent range like the experts all claim. And through every critical moment in the paths of my favorite teams, there I have sat, thinking "I should really write something about that... eh, I'll do it later."

Having no structure in my life is apparently not a good thing. Other than a move to Los Angeles, I can't really say I've accomplished much this summer. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and with the light only a few days ahead, it's become too blinding to ignore. That's right, football season is here. The epitome of structure in the world of sports, the NFL season is about to begin and will hopefully kick me back into some sort of productive writing routine.

So with that, let us begin with what else... NFL predictions for the upcoming season. Now as I mentioned, no routine has severely reduced my productivity, which includes keeping up with what's been going on through training camps and preseason games. But I'm sure that you, my reader(s), will understand...

AFC East
1. New England Patriots (12-4) - So... how do you follow up the most memorable one-loss season in the history of the NFL? Well, playing in the AFC East will help cure a lot of their ills. They're a little older, and teams are a little wiser playing them, but the Patriots are still the class of the division and should coast to another division title and first-round bye. Tom Brady could dominate this division with one leg, which coincidentally, he might have to do...
2. Buffalo Bills (8-8) - Dick Jauron still only has one winning season in his entire coaching tenure. Until proven otherwise, I can't possibly go above .500 with this team. I do like the talent they have, but their quarterback is still developing and who is going to line up opposite Lee Evans? If the pattern holds, the Bills will start slowly, then come on strong at the end of the season to save Jauron's job yet again.
3. New York Jets (8-8) - Yes, yes, Brett Favre is the quarterback. I get it. Where was he during the OTAs though? And through training camp? And in the first preseason game? Oh yeah, that's right, he just got there. I don't care who you are, it takes some time to adjust to a new system, and Favre isn't exactly getting younger. Was he taking care of himself this offseason? Is he in shape? Is he going to wear down? Too many questions to rank this team any higher than this.
4. Miami Dolphins (5-11) - Whoever invented the term "rebuilding" is a genius because it allows teams that you know are going to stink a free pass on the season. Low expectations are always welcomed by new coaching staffs. Chad Pennington, when not injured, should be serviceable, and I'm hoping (for fantasy purposes) that Ricky Williams stays on the right side of crazy, but there are plenty of holes on this team that will take some time to fill in. They won't be filled in this season...

AFC North
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) - I actually feel like the Steelers will be better than this record, but when I went through the season schedule, somehow this is what I came up with. But the potential is there, with plenty of offensive weapons at Big Ben's disposal. In a division with plenty of question marks, the Steelers look like the most solid of the bunch.
2. Cleveland Browns (8-8) - When weighing my quarterback options for my fantasy draft, I saw Derek Anderson sitting there among the top-ranked at his position. His ceiling is quite high, with an assortment of receivers all capable of breaking games wide open. But this is still Derek Anderson we're talking about. He couldn't beat out Charlie Frye to start last season, faded terribly at the end of the year, and still has Brady Quinn looking over his shoulder. Add in a defense that still hasn't stopped anybody... yeah, .500 seems about right.
3. Cincinnati Bengals (7-9) - Where to begin with this team... Well, they brought Chris Henry back, so there's that. Chad Johnson Ocho Cinco is still insane. The defense is still questionable. I feel Carson Palmer took a step backwards last season. I can't possibly trust this team to put forth any sort of consistent play this season. Sure, they'll have some nice wins, but I see some bad losses with this team.
4. Baltimore Ravens (6-10) - Kyle Boller, Troy Smith, and Joe Flacco? And I thought the Bears' quarterback competition was depressing. Add in Willis McGahee already being nicked up, Todd Heap being a complete disaster last year, and Ray Lewis and Co. all being a year older and this team looks like it has a long season ahead...

AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5) - Anybody who thinks Peyton Manning would miss any regular season time obviously doesn't follow Peyton Manning. Even after his Super Bowl MVP performance, questions about his "clutchness" continue to persist, especially after losing to the woefully undermanned Chargers in the playoffs and watching erratic younger brother, Eli, duplicate his MVP performance. Peyton wants to establish his greatness by breaking every record he can, including consecutive games played. He won't sit out a game unless the coaching staff literally straps his down during warmups.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (11-5) - At some point, the Jaguars are going to knock off the Colts to claim the division, right? I mean, we've been talking about this for years now, but every year the Colts hang on for the title. David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew form an impressive offensive combination to go along with a defense that just drafted even more linemen. I still don't know who's going to catch the ball, but they'll have enough firepower to claim the top wild card spot.
3. Tennessee Titans (9-7) - For the second year in a row, I have the Titans at 9-7 and I'm not entirely sure why. At the same time, Jeff Fisher has this team playing solid football every year and I'm not entirely sure how. Of course the season, as the last couple, will depend on how far Vince Young has come. Now in his third season, it's time to show what he's made of.
4. Houston Texans (6-10) - "Everybody believes the Texans are building a team the right way, but they're not there yet." I wrote that in last season's prediction post. I see no reason to change that this time around...

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers (12-4) - Behind Norv Turner, this team made great strides towards the championship... wait, let me read that again... I'll tell you, I never expected to type those words in my life, but there they are. This team scraped its way to the AFC Championship game, getting by the Colts and playing the Patriots tight. Now everybody is back healthy and has had a taste of what to expect. They're a trendy pick to represent the conference in the Super Bowl, and it's tough to argue, although the Merriman injury does raise some concern.
2. Denver Broncos (9-7) - Can we officially scratch off the "Genius" label from Mike Shanahan's business cards? Other than frustrating fantasy owners, Shanahan hasn't done much with the talent he's accumulated these last few years. Jay Cutler may be ready to take the leap, but this team is a far cry from the dominating team of several years ago. So why do I have them making the playoffs? Well, it's tradition to see the Colts destroy this team in the first round, and I don't like to mess with tradition...

3. Oakland Raiders (6-10) - JaMarcus Russell and Darren McFadden. It sounds like a great combination... in a year or two. The duo will go through some growing pains their first season together, but it's an interesting story to follow. If they both live up to the hype, the Raiders may be a force in the not-so-distant future. Of course, they'll have to upgrade from the Ronald Curry and the player formerly known as Javon Walker at WR.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11) - I thought the Chiefs were going to be one of the worst teams in the league... and then they manhandled the Bears first unit in the first preseason game. That did not give me confidence in my own team, but it did remind me that the Chiefs at least one offensive weapon in Larry Johnson. If he's healthy, he should carry the team behind a questionable offensive line. But one player won't carry a team beyond a handful of wins.

NFC East
1. Dallas Cowboys (12-4) - If the Cowboys don't easily control the division (and conference) this season, somebody is going to get fired, and it's not going to be Jerry Jones. The Cowboys have weapons at every position and a defense that can play with any team. I think their only weakness may be Jessica Simpson.
2. New York Giants (9-7) - Now the hard part begins... The team went 10-6 last year on their path to the Super Bowl but now as the crowned champs, opponents will be gunning for the Giants every game. Has Eli really shaken off all the inconsistency issues, or was the title run just a lucky consistency peak in his ever-fluctuating football career? I'm leaning towards the latter...
3. Philadelphia Eagles (8-8) - It's a shame that this division is so stacked because the Eagles would most likely win either the NFC North or West. However, being stuck in the East, the Eagles have a tough hill to climb. If Donovan McNabb can stay healthy, they can beat any team in their division, but he'll need his receivers to stay healthy as well, which hasn't been the case so far.
4. Washington Redskins (7-9) - They say not to make too much of the preseason, and that's good advice for Redskins fans, as Washington has been trounced in their last two games. Washington is looking for big things from Jason Campbell, but much like the Eagles, it will be difficult to accomplish much when even a decent team is still the fourth best in this division.

NFC North
1. Minnesota Vikings (10-6) - Adrian Peterson and the defense alone will win the division for the Vikings. Anything Tarvaris Jackson gives them will be a bonus. Bernard Berrian on turf will help, although don't expect to include him on the run blocking... They didn't get Brett Favre, but as long as that wasn't a huge distraction, the Vikings should claim the division title.
2. Green Bay Packers (9-7) - So... what's new? In what might be the most closely examined Packers season in a long time, Aaron Rodgers takes the helm as somebody other than #4 takes the snaps for the first time in what's seemed like the last 74 years. Somehow, even as a backup, Rodgers has had two season-ending injuries in the last three years, which is something that probably makes Packers fans nervous. But they do have surprise star Ryan Grant in the backfield and a solid defense, in addition to 4 games against the Lions and the Bears... I think the Packers will be just fine...
3. Detroit Lions (7-9) - Mike Martz is gone... so now who do they blame when things don't go well? Jon Kitna is suddenly the senior quarterback in the division, but that doesn't necessarily inspire confidence in duplicating his numbers from the last few seasons. He's a nice quarterback, but when Tatum Bell is atop your depth chart (even though Kevin Smith should get most the carries), it's not a good thing.
4. Chicago Bears (5-11) - You would think it pains me to list the Bears this low, but I'm hoping that low expectations softens the trauma that I'm most likely about to feel this season. Kyle Orton at quarterback. Rookie Matt Forte at running back. Five #4 receivers running routes down the field. A defense that can no longer tackle. Fantastic... The only exciting part of this team is Devin Hester, and they're reducing his returns this year to keep him fresh as a receiver. How much energy does it take to watch punts sail out of bounds?

NFC South
1. New Orleans Saints (11-5) - Is Reggie Bush an elite running back? That's the question of the season for the Saints, and at the moment, the answer is "no". However, they do have a plethora of receiving options, including Jeremy Shockey. This makes me, the owner of Drew Brees, very happy. However, there were holes on both sides of the ball for this team last year, and I'm not sure how well the defense has been fixed. But the offensive firepower alone should be able to control the division.
2. Carolina Panthers (10-6) - With a healthy Jake Delhomme, a healthy Jonathan Stewart, and an unsuspended Steve Smith, this team will have plenty of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Reports have Julius Peppers back to his old ways, which will be a welcomed sight to Panthers fans. However, I feel that there are still more questions (see: injuries, suspensions) for Carolina than New Orleans, which is why I'm putting them here, claiming the top wild card spot.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7) - Yet another team linked to the Favre drama this offseason. Like the Vikings, the Buccaneers failed to acquire the veteran quarterback. However, unlike the Vikings, there is no Adrian Peterson in the backfield to pick up the slack. They do have Jeff Garcia, who just continues to plug along and prove his doubters wrong. While it may not be exciting, it has been efficient. But I just don't see this team climbing over the two above it.
4. Atlanta Falcons (3-13) - This team was awful last season and is now throwing in a rookie quarterback from Day 1 to lead the team from the abyss that Michael Vick left them in. Yeah, good luck with that. Falcon fans are hoping that the "throw him into the fire" approach will have Matt Ryan follow the path that Peyton Manning took, but even Manning struggled the first season. Michael Turner will help, but it'll be time for great patience in Atlanta.

NFC West
1. Seattle Seahawks (8-8) - I've obviously saved the best division for last here... It's a shame that any of these teams have to make the playoffs, but that's the situation we're in, so I'm going with the team with the most experienced head coach and quarterback. Seems logical enough. Seattle will probably end up with a better record simply because of the teams in their division, but there's always one awful division that gets people worked up about the playoff structure, and I'm going with this one.
2. Arizona Cardinals (5-11) - Anquan Boldin is upset. Edgerrin James is older. Matt Leinart can't find the field. Sounds like a great recipe to the season. How much of a leash is Kurt Warner going to have? Will Boldin become a distraction? Will the Arizona Cardinals ever stop being the Arizona Cardinals? By this prediction, I'm apparently saying "not this year".
3. St. Louis Rams (5-11) - Well, Steven Jackson made it to camp, so that's a plus. But this team completely fell apart last season, with or without Jackson, and I don't know if they've really improved themselves that much. Marc Bulger is still accurate when healthy, but how long will he hold out? Torry Holt is older and the other side of the field needs to find a replacement for Isaac Bruce not named Drew Bennett... They did add Chris Long to the defense, but the left side of the defensive line has a lot of miles on their collective tires.
4. San Francisco 49ers (5-11) - Remember when everybody was on the Frank Gore bandwagon as a top fantasy football pick? Yeah, funny how things change. Of course, Gore is the least of the 49ers problems this season, as here we find yet another inspiring quarterback competition between J.T. O'Sullivan, Shaun Hill, and the immortal Alex Smith. Really, do I need to say anything else to explain why I have this team with only 5 wins? Okay then...

AFC Wild Card Round
Indianapolis over Denver - Just because it's what's meant to be...
Jacksonville over Pittsburgh - The Jaguars have the defensive players to contain the Steelers offense and their offense will find just enough points to get out of Pittsburgh with a win.
NFC Wild Card Round
Minnesota over New York Giants - With a stud defense and home field advantage, the Vikings dethrone the Giants and the questions about Eli start up once again.
Carolina over Seattle - Somehow, the wild card Panthers gets a better draw than the division winner Vikings. Carolina cruises to an easy victory.

AFC Divisional Round
San Diego over Jacksonville - The Chargers return to the AFC Championship game with an instant classic over the Jaguars.
New England over Indianapolis - Wow, the AFC matchups are just so much more intriguing than the NFC. The Patriots squeak by the Colts, closing out Tony Dungy's career.
NFC Divisional Round
Dallas over Carolina - The Cowboy defense smothers Steve Smith and pressures Jake Delhomme into key mistakes. The offense finishes the job.
Minnesota over New Orleans - They say a good defense always beats a good offense. That, for no other reason, has me going with the Vikings.

AFC Championship
San Diego over New England - On one hand, we have the questions surrounding the Patriots' aura of invincibility being irreparably damaged. On the other hand, we have questions about an injury to Shawne Merriman. I'll go with concern about one player over concern for the entire team.
Dallas over Minnesota - Yes, the Vikings' defense is good, but so is the Cowboys' and the Vikings are still being run by Tarvaris Jackson. Dallas will do just enough to contain Adrian Peterson and ride back into the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLIII
Dallas over San Diego - As I went through the entire season schedule, team by team, game by game, I could not find any obvious weakness or flaw in the Cowboys makeup. They have the offense, they have the defense, they have the special teams, they have the playmakers. They are a complete team that should easily handle the NFC and then cause Norv Turner to revert back into Norv Turner while facing his old team. The Chargers make it one step closer than last season, but have to settle for runner-up. Of course, this all looks silly if Merriman is hurt more than he's letting on. They'll still claim their division, but they won't be able to run through the AFC playoffs, much less the Super Bowl, without his talent lining up on every down.

So with that being said, feel free to go bet on anybody other than Dallas and San Diego with complete confidence...

June 17, 2008

Please, MLB, Expand Interleague Play!

Next week, I will be heading to Wrigley Field to see the Baltimore Orioles on the north side for their first series ever in the Friendly Confines. Many people claim that this is the beauty of interleague play... seeing teams you would not normally see. I say, what took so long?

Interleague play has been around for over a decade, yet we continue to see matchups that we have yet to see. Now in the NFL, it is somewhat understandable to not see teams for quite some time, as there are 30 teams and only 16 games a season. But even then, the longest wait to see a team in your home stadium is only 8 years. But could you imagine an NBA where the Lakers didn't visit the Celtics in Boston for a decade? Fans would be in an uproar. Yet baseball continues to coast by with its twisted system that has the Orioles on the north side once in 13 years... a system that pits the Cubs against the White Sox 6 times a year, while the Cardinals coast by against the Royals.

Unbalanced schedules, decades between matchups... This is why I like interleague play, but I don't love it.

The traditionalists argued that interleague play and the wild card would hurt baseball as we know it. If ratings and attendance are any indication, interleague play and the wild card brought excitement back to the game after the strike (with a little assist from steroids and HGH...). Yet it still seems like it's lacking to me. Why should we wait 13 years to see the Orioles play the Cubs in Chicago? Does that make sense to anybody? With 162 games a season, it seems crazy that every team can't fit into the schedule. Every year, each NBA team plays every team in the other conference twice, once in each home stadium. It's not like there are fewer teams in the NBA, and there are half as many games... Can't something similar be applied to Major League Baseball? My biggest problem with interleague play is not that it doesn't work, it's that baseball doesn't acknowledge that it can do more. To me, the problem is interleague play as it's currently implemented doesn't go far enough.

My solution? Expand interleague play to approximately a quarter of all games. This may seem like a big jump, but 4 out of 16 NFL games are across conferences and that hasn't seemed to hurt football's popularity in this country. So how would this work? Let's break it down...

162 Game Schedule
  • 48 Interleague games
  • 60 Intraleague games, non-division
  • 54 Divisional games
What does this accomplish? Well, first off, it allows each team to play a 3-game series with every team in the other league. So the Orioles and whoever else would make their way to Wrigley Field or US Cellular every other year. Still rare enough to promote ticket sales, but not the ridiculous wait of 13 years. When NBA schedules come out annually, I always look for the Western Conference teams coming to the United Center first because I know they only come once. Those games are still in higher demand, even though I know those teams are coming back next year, and I would expect the same with baseball. Second, it maintains the current home-and-home series with the 10 non-division teams in each league, so we would still see those teams each and every year. Finally, it keeps the division-heavy schedule, with 13 or 14 games against the other 4 teams within the division, but reduces the ridiculous 18-game divisional schedules that have the Cubs playing the Pirates 12 times before June. Basically, we would be borrowing games from the division for the chance to see the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, and Angels every couple years.

Now what about the uneven divisions of the NL Central and AL West? Well, that's the beauty of this system. With so many interleague games, there would always be at least one interleague matchup taking place, which means that there is no longer a requirement for an even number of teams in each league. It is insane that the Cubs have to knock off 5 teams to claim the division title while the Angels just need to fend off 3. Balancing the interleague schedule would allow the Brewers to move back to the AL Central, where they resided for so long. Then the Kansas City Royals could move to the AL West to even out that division. Do the Royals really belong in the AL West? Well, no, but all things considered, they don't really belong in Major League Baseball either. And it'll at least give the Rangers a team in their own timezone to compete with.

In addition, you may have noticed that 15 interleague teams times 3 does not equal the 48 I have listed above. I took into account the "natural rivalries" baseball has designated and have allowed an additional 3 games for that rival. So in Chicago, the Cubs would still play the Sox 6 times a season, with a series at each park. And if MLB was so inclined, it could have its rivalry weekend, where all 30 teams were playing their natural rivals at the same time. If that doesn't promote excitement within baseball circles, then I'm not sure anything would.

So, by expanding interleague play, not only would every fan be able to see every team every couple years, but the teams themselves would have nearly identical schedules with the other teams within their divisions. There would still be some minor differences, due to the rivalry games and the need to play two teams within the division one more time than the other two. And the potential for rainouts in these 3-game interleague season series would most likely require more doubleheaders the next day rather than down the road. Additionally, there would be some awful matchups, but it's not like people get too excited when bad teams play each other within their own league anyways. But overall, I believe that this is the next step in the evolution of interleague play, leveling the playing field for all the teams and giving fans something different to look forward to. At least, that's what I'll be telling myself when I'm sitting in the stands next week watching the Orioles take on the Cubs, wondering when the next time I will be able to see them will be...

April 19, 2008

Suns vs. Spurs - Early Battle for My Playoff Affections

With the demise of the Bulls this season, I have once again become a basketball orphan for these 2008 NBA Playoffs. Unfortunately, since the Jordan years, this is all too familiar a feeling for me, the last few years notwithstanding - 2 first round losses and a second round defeat don't exactly make a champion, as we found this year.

So which team will I be rooting for through this second season? As is the case when the Cubs, Sox, and Bears fail to make the playoffs, determining my temporary favorite is a lesson in process of elimination...

Tackling the Eastern Conference first is the easy task. Considering I'd like to enjoy these playoffs for more than a round or two, many teams are quickly removed from the list. Philadelphia and Atlanta, congratulations on returning to the playoffs but we all know this is where the story ends. Toronto? Orlando? Solid players on both teams (and bonus points for the Magic with two Illini) but I just can't bring myself to cheer for either. If I'm going to bandwagon for a couple months, it's at least going to be for a team with some sort of history beyond a four-game sweep in the '95 Finals.

The rest of the conference doesn't sit much better, not because of lack of talent, but because of historical rivalries with the Bulls that I just cannot move beyond. Detroit? Uh, no. Cleveland? LeBron and his traveling band of pseudo-NBA players don't get my vote. (Side note: Why is it so hard to find players to complement LeBron? Is it the GM's fault or does LeBron just not make his teammates better?) Boston? Let's just say there is some residual bitterness after seeing Kevin Garnett end up in Celtic green instead of Bull red. Finally, Washington? Well, they don't have the talent to win, and their uniforms are beyond ugly, but they fight hard and the longer Gilbert Arenas is around, the more chance of something truly insane happening, so let's keep them on the list for now...

Now this is where it starts to become complicated... the Western Conference. Essentially every team in the conference has at least an outside chance of the championship, so my main criteria for choosing a team doesn't eliminate anybody here. Moving on to just gut feel, Denver... I will always be grateful to Carmelo for winning me money when he was at Syracuse, but with the DUI, and the complete utter lack of defensive commitment, they aren't the choice. Houston? Make it out of the first round for once and we'll talk. Dallas? I still believe the Mavericks were screwed over in the series against Miami, and it would be nice to see David Stern hand the trophy to Mark Cuban, but there isn't a single player on the team I feel a connection to. New Orleans? How can Deron Williams claim the title of best young point guard in the league if Chris Paul succeeds this post season? So they're out. Speaking of Deron Williams, Utah is on the list, but essentially for that reason, and that reason alone... Los Angeles has been a great story, but if the Kevin Garnett thing still bothers me, just imagine the Kobe Bryant AND Pau Gasol situation.

So to recap... of the sixteen teams, twelve have already been eliminated either for lack of talent, lack of history, lack of connection, or sheer contempt towards the team. The Washington Wizards are on the list solely for the possibility (probability?) for Arenas insanity. The Utah Jazz are on the list solely for Deron Williams. And of course, the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs...

The fundamental game of the Spurs vs. the high-octane game of the Suns. Both teams are solid. Both teams are full of stars. Both teams find me subconsciously rooting for them. And of course, they go up against each other in the first round.

Behind Steve Nash, the Suns brought "exciting" back to the NBA. Steve Kerr made the gutsy call of trading for Shaq, and it seems to be working. Amare Stoudemire has taken off since Shawn Marion left. Throw in Grant Hill and the rest of the bench... If there's a team, and a player, that deserves a championship, it's Phoenix and Nash.

In San Antonio, they haven't been flashy, but they just win. I've respected them for years for the way they play (except for maybe Bruce Bowen). Tim Duncan has accomplished much in his career... except for back-to-back titles. And the longer Tony Parker is around, the more of Eva Longoria we are likely to see. If there's an NBA franchise that demonstrates how to operate better than the Spurs, I have yet to see it.

And again, one of these teams will be cleaning out their lockers in a week or so.

It's been billed as one of the greatest first round matchups ever, and it's unfortunate that it happens this early, but at least this will thin out my rooting interests. Whoever wins this series will undoubtedly get my support for the remainder of the post season. Judging from my reactions during Game 1, the Suns seems to have my edge right now...

But considering we are now in the second OT in Game 1, I can't go wrong rooting for both and enjoy seeing this sensational series go to seven.

March 29, 2008

Evaluating the NBA Playoff structure

In yesterday's ESPN Daily Dime, there was a survey asking if you would like to see the top 16 teams taken for the NBA playoffs, regardless of conference. Not surprisingly, 69% of the nearly twenty thousand people who responded said "yes" to the question. And logically, that makes sense. I mean, who wouldn't want to see the most qualified teams in the playoffs. However, as a member of the 31% minority, I would like to use this space to explain that while the 69% may be looking at the big picture, they are failing to see the whole picture.

First off, if the playoffs were to start today, the playoff teams would be as follows:

East: Boston, Detroit, Orlando, Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, Philadelphia, Atlanta
West: New Orleans, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Utah, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, Golden State

Now if we were to simply go with the top 16 records, the only things that would change would be Philadelphia and Atlanta out, Denver and Portland in. That's it. Those are the only changes. No sweeping alterations like taking 12 teams from the West as many would make it seem. There would be two teams out, two teams in. Division and conference alignments would be rendered meaningless in order to replace two teams unlikely to win a championship with two teams unlikely to win a championship.

However, this is not even my biggest concern with this thought process. My dilemma comes from determining the top 16 teams. How do you judge the top 16 teams across conferences? I argue that you cannot simply pluck the top records and claim "Problem solved! We have the best teams!" The issue with the system is not that the wrong teams are making the playoffs. It's that the disparity in conferences is so great right now. I would argue that at least four teams in the East would fail to reach .500, much less the playoffs, if they were in the West. But this isn't reflected in the records, as I just showed above, with only two teams being swapped out. Why is this? Well, the answer to that is simple... The East plays the East and the West plays the West.

Obviously, everybody who follows the sport is aware of this, but it is still a crucial point to make when arguing about the best 16 teams. How can you truly judge the premier teams when the level of competition is so markedly different between them? Would Atlanta still have the same record if they played 41 games against the West instead of 30? Wouldn't Portland be in a better position if they faced Miami four times instead of San Antonio? You cannot determine the best teams based on uneven levels of comparison. This season, wouldn't you consider a .450 team from the West to be better than a .550 team from the East? Yet in the 'Best 16 Records' approach, the team from the West would still be excluded from the postseason.

Now you may be thinking that this is still a better approach than what we have now, that at least we'd still be including teams that are qualified for the playoffs and eliminating teams with no reason to even be involved in the discussion. But I argue that the system we have currently is actually MORE inclusive than the alternative and promotes competition among those who would otherwise have no reason to compete.

If the NBA simply took the top 16 records, would Philadelphia have fought back from oblivion to reach .500 or just been satisfied with another year of rebuilding? Would Denver, Golden State, and Dallas be battling to the finish or would they be resting players knowing that their playoff positions were secure? Despite the fact that Eli and the Giants changed the whole "resting players" approach, I don't believe you would be seeing the same level of fight in some of these teams with their playoff lives at stake. And while you would be correct in stating that Portland and Sacramento would still be involved in races if we were to change the system, teams like Atlanta, New Jersey, Indiana, Chicago, and to some degree, Charlotte and Milwaukee, would have folded up ages ago knowing that there was no opportunity to reach the playoffs. Much like the wild card, it keeps hope in cities that would otherwise have none. And if you think that intentional tanking of the season is bad now, what would happen when a handful of teams are eliminated by the end of January? Although I hate seeing the Bulls struggle this season, I'd much prefer to see them compete (and I use the term loosely) than throw out something like what Miami has been lately.

Much like it is after Selection Sunday, this is always a discussion during the season for the simple fact that they want the best teams included. However, much like March Madness, once those first few rounds are completed, the true challengers for the title come to the forefront. The weeks of exciting games make everybody forget who was the nation's 66th or 67th team, just like these playoffs will quickly make you forget who the 17th or 18th best teams were this season. It's also why the BCS will never be free of this debate, as there is no distraction between the bowl pairings and the championship game, but that's a debate for another article.

In the end, I am not saying that I disagree with the thought that the most qualified teams should make the playoffs. But I do believe that it is a bit more complicated than merely taking the teams with the best records and thinking that solves everything. You must consider the imbalanced scheduling, the level of competition across leagues, and the possibility of discouraging several fan bases for the benefit of a few. Could discarding divisions and conferences ultimately prove beneficial to the league? Possibly, but in order to look at this big picture, you have to take into account the whole picture.

For that 69%, that is apparently easier said than done.

March 27, 2008

No-thought predictions of the 2008 MLB season

I love baseball.

Although I follow football more closely and enjoy playing basketball the most, there is something about baseball that just draws you in. Perhaps it's the idea that spring is just around the corner (despite the fact it's snowing right now). Perhaps it's the camaraderie built with friends and strangers drinking beers in the stands. Perhaps it's the uniqueness of the individualistic team sport that you don't find anywhere else in American culture. Whatever the reason, every year I get sucked in, every year I try to plan another trip in my quest to visit all the stadiums (up to 16), and every year I try to make predictions on the upcoming season.

However, unlike football, where teams are known to jump from worst to first, or basketball, where drafting a single player can change the course of a franchise in either direction, baseball appears to be more static. It's why the Braves can win 14 straight division titles. It's why the Yankees and Red Sox have dominated the AL East. And it's why the the Devil Rays have never even sniffed the playoffs.

Outside of the occasional Florida Marlins championship (next due in 2009), the league is fairly consistent from one season to the next. So instead of making some outlandish prediction just for the sake of making predictions, I'm going with the opposite approach. I'm going with a technique that results in approximately 90% of the predictions I would have ended up with anyways, but with a fraction of the thought process. I'm going with the 2007 regular season standings...

What's that, you say? How boring? Well, I challenge anybody to beat my predictions. Just for review, here's how the standings stood at the end of last season...

2007 2008 Standings
American League
East Division
1. Boston Red Sox
2. New York Yankees
3. Toronto Blue Jays
4. Baltimore Orioles
5. Tampa Bay Rays

Central Division
1. Cleveland Indians
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Minnesota Twins
4. Chicago White Sox
5. Kansas City Royals

West Division
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Seattle Mariners
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Texas Rangers

National League
East Division
1. Philadelphia Phillies
2. New York Mets
3. Atlanta Braves
4. Washington Nationals
5. Florida Marlins

Central Division
1. Chicago Cubs
2. Milwaukee Brewers
3. St. Louis Cardinals
4. Houston Astros
5. Cincinnati Reds
6. Pittsburgh Pirates

West Division
1. Arizona Diamondbacks
2. Colorado Rockies
3. San Diego Padres
4. Los Angeles Dodgers
5. San Francisco Giants

At first glance, this doesn't seem too unrealistic. Everybody predicts the Reds will be better, but let's see what they say when Dusty blows out Aaron Harang's arm and Neifi Perez makes his regularly scheduled appearance once his suspension is worked out. The Tigers could beat out the Indians, but either way, that should come down to the wire. And if Mark Prior can stay healthy, the Padres could run and hide in their division. But all in all, I'm not too disappointed with my picks, and this gives me the rest of the day to watch the Sweet 16...

Of course, I am not going to pick identical playoff scenarios to last year. I'll at least give that some thought...

Divisional Series
Boston Red Sox over Detroit Tigers
Cleveland Indians over Los Angeles Angels
Chicago Cubs over New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies over Arizona Diamondbacks

Championship Series
Cleveland Indians over Boston Red Sox
Philadelphia Phillies over Chicago Cubs

World Series
Cleveland Indians over Philadelphia Phillies

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some UCLA basketball to watch...

March 24, 2008

March Madness - Ranking the Sweet 16

The problem with going back through your bracket and forcing upsets is that 1) you never force the right ones, and 2) you end up missing out on the actual upsets, costing you twice as many points. The other side effect is that you end up with USC in your Elite 8...

Nevertheless, despite the fact that my
Yahoo! bracket looks like Christmas (too much red with the green...), I stand in decent shape, as seven of my Elite 8 are still alive, as is my entire Final 4. Although, UCLA... if you could just go ahead and win handily from now on, I'd greatly appreciate it. (Side note: Kevin Love... I am a fan.)

In retrospect, the first weekend brought us four overtime games, six others decided by 5 points or less, twelve upsets based on seedings, and of course, the knowledge that we will have a Duke-free remainder of the tournament. But as Mark McGwire would say, I'm not here to talk about the past! It's time to look forward and see what is going to happen in the coming weeks. Who has the best chance? Who should just be happy to be where they are? Let's take a look at the remaining 16 teams and try to sort this out.

16. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers - Sure, this team is a nice story, but the Sweet 16 is where Cinderella usually loses her glass slipper. And by glass slipper, I mean game... The Hilltoppers pulled out a dramatic win over mid-major Drake in round one, then took on fellow underdog San Diego in round two. They have yet to play a major conference team (although they'd most likely beat Illinois - sorry, back to looking forward...) and now go up against top-seeded UCLA. It's been a nice run, but I believe it stops here.

15. Villanova Wildcats - Perhaps the last team to make the tournament, the Wildcats are another example of why you should never go against your first instinct... Originally in my Sweet 16, the Wildcats have indeed made my non-prediction come true. The win over Georgia was solid, and they took care of business against Sienna, but now comes Kansas, who is always apt to choking but still a considerably better team than this Big East hopeful. As a vengeful Illini fan, I will be rooting for them. But truth be told, I can't see them pulling another win out.

14. Davidson Wildcats - I don't necessarily like putting Davidson here, but looking at the rest of the field, I could not select anybody to drop to move the Wildcats up. All 92 pounds of Stephen Curry has been phenomenal thus far. He not only shoots with accuracy, but with great confidence. Late in the second half against Georgetown, he received the ball just above the top of the key and you could just tell he was going to shoot it. Sure enough, the first opening he gets, drains a 3, nothing but net, putting Davidson up 5. I knew right then that the game was over and that this team is not a team I would want to face. I wish I knew this before I filled out my brackets, however, as I had Davidson in my Elite 8, had second thoughts... and then ended up going with the aforementioned USC...

13. Michigan State Spartans - This team confuses me. Their inconsistency has plagued them all season, yet somehow, Tom Izzo always seems to be prepared for the tournament. More power to him, I guess, yet at some point, the weaknesses of this team and the fact that they're still from the Big Ten will come to the surface. Playing a #1 seed is usually a reasonable time for that to happen. Sure, the Spartans beat Pittsburgh, who was the sleeper team of choice for many. But I had Pittsburgh losing to Temple, so that tells you my impression of Pittsburgh. Of course, I had Michigan State falling to Temple as well, so that tells you my impression of Michigan State. And I had Temple in my Sweet 16, so that tells you all you need to know about me...

12. West Virginia Mountaineers - How about that Big East, huh? Eight teams in and only three made it to the Sweet 16. And who would have guessed that the Mountaineers would be one of those still standing? Oh yeah, that's right... me. But defeating an Arizona team that barely squeaked into the field of 65 and an overrated Duke team is more impressive in terms of my gratitude than of accomplishment. I think the Mountaineers have a better shot at reaching the Elite 8 than some of the teams I'm about to get to, but in the grand scheme of things, I think this is where West Virginia lies... solid performance for a 7-seed, but not in the top tier of remaining schools.

11. Xavier Musketeers - Why do I think West Virginia has a good shot at the Elite 8? Primarily because I have not been overly impressed with Xavier. I have Xavier making the next round, so they'll have my rooting interest, but thus far, they defeated Georgia, which had an unprecedented run simply to make the tournament but was still a .500 team, and struggled against Purdue, who is up-and-coming but still too young to see as a major threat in this tournament (and again, that whole Big Ten thing). I don't know what the line is, but I can see the Xavier-West Virginia game going either way, down to the wire, so it makes sense to rank them together as well.

10. Stanford Cardinal - Yes, Brook Lopez was sensational during the second half and overtime, but at some point, he will be slowed down in this tournament and then what? The Cardinal need to find a little better balance if they're going to advance past Texas (who have issues of their own). They also need a coach who doesn't get needlessly ejected in the biggest game of the season... While we're here, how do you think it feels to be the less talented twin brother? Do you go through life just wondering what exactly happened in the womb? I don't think I would ever get over that. Somebody call Harvey Grant and ask him what he thinks...

9. Washington State Cougars - Here is another team that I'd like to rank higher but don't know who else to move down. While their Pac-10 colleagues were eking out last second wins, the Cougars soundly handled Notre Dame on Saturday, a team that I expected to see in the Sweet 16. Of course, a little luster was taken off the win after watching most of the Big East crumble, but it got to the point where I stopped paying attention to the game, something that typically only happens during blowouts. The biggest problem they face now, however, is that whole North Carolina thing that's staring them in the face.

8. Texas Longhorns - I kept looking at the scores in the corner of the screen and saw Texas continually lead Miami for most of the game. Then, suddenly, Miami was just a few points back with the game on the line. My initial thought was "What did Rick Barnes do now?" That's never a good sign. While the Longhorns have talent, essentially a home court in Houston, and that whole Ewing Theory working for them, the chances of them overcoming their coach (who is, to quote my relatives in Texas, "awful") is minimal. When it comes down to crunch time, you want a coach who is going to push all the right buttons... so the Trent Johnson/Rick Barnes chess match should be quite a show...

7. Wisconsin Badgers - I tend to disrespect the Big Ten often, but that's what happens when the conference, shall we say, fails to live up to expectations. While the Badgers were definitely the best of a bad bunch, I am waiting for the shoe to drop and purify this tournament from the plodding that is Big Ten offensive basketball. Nevertheless, I do have to respect Bo Ryan for what he's done with this team. Typically, the Badgers play solid defense and have one go-to guy on offense to carry them when needed. This year, they have the defense once again, but I don't know who will take over in the clutch, and in the month of March, you need that somebody.

6. Memphis Tigers - Before the tournament started, there were two sides to the debate regarding the Memphis Tigers. One side said that their free throw shooting would do them in. The other said that they were talented enough to overcome. I tended to side with the former, having the Tigers bow out in the Elite 8 of my bracket. After watching the end of the Memphis-Mississippi St. matchup, I'm going to stick with my gut and say they will be the first 1-seed eliminated. Conference USA, this is not.

5. Louisville Cardinals - Quite honestly, I did not know what to expect from the Cardinals before this weekend. I saw them reaching the Final 4. I saw them eliminated in the first round. So I settled with the round of 16, and thus far, my prediction is accurate. They have crushed both Boise St. and Oklahoma, although I don't consider either of those as signature wins. Nevertheless, the team is playing well, and you cannot underestimate Rick Pitino come tournament time. They'll be ready for the Volunteers.

4. UCLA Bruins - My pick to win the championship before the tournament, the Bruins put a significant fright in me on Saturday, trailing for nearly the entire game until eventually putting it together against Texas A&M. Looking back through the season, the Bruins have had quite a few scares. However, like good teams do, they have pulled them out, just as they did this weekend. They have the talent and have shown that championship-caliber play throughout the season, so I'm not dropping them too far. But with that being said, they need to get their act together and find something to rely on other than Kevin Love and his 7 blocks... Hopefully, for my bracket's sake, Western Kentucky proves to be the remedy to whatever is ailing this team.

3. Tennessee Volunteers - First off, this is the third 'eers team in the Sweet 16, joining the Mountaineers and the Musketeers. I just found that interesting. Second, it pains me to think that my top three teams are all on my less-preferred list of teams. Regardless, the Volunteers proved something to me with their win over Butler. Sure, they struggled and were forced into overtime, but they managed to knock out a team that was way better than a 7-seed. I don't understand why nobody was talking about how the #10 team in the country got a 7-seed in this tournament. Butler is a solid, underrated team, and the Volunteers took the punch and then punched right back. That will be a great learning experience for this team going forward.

2. Kansas Jayhawks - If this were a list of teams most likely to choke, Kansas would be on top of that list. If this were a list of teams I'd most like to see lose, again, Kansas would claim the top spot. Even in this list, Kansas is right behind the top team, having demonstrated solid and deep talent in this tournament just as they have all season. Now they get a matchup with Villanova, which should be an easy victory, before taking on either Wisconsin or Davidson. If Bill Self doesn't make it to the Final 4 this year, the Kansas fans will be in an uproar. I'm looking forward to that...

1. North Carolina Tar Heels - I think it's safe to say that the Tar Heels have been the most impressive team of the tournament thus far. Two games over 100 points... Not bad, I'd say. So instead of continuing their praises, I will just say that they should watch out in the coming weeks, because seldom does the team playing the best on the first weekend end up cutting down the nets after the third weekend. And I was a little disappointed when CBS changed to the final 10 minutes of the game only to see Tyler Hansbrough complaining about a foul call and his teammates still jacking up 3's, despite the fact that they were up nearly 40 points. It's not good to tempt the fates, my friends...