Friday, September 30, 2011

NFL Picks: Week 4

Quick picks for the week... happy Friday.

Last Week: 7-8
Overall: 19-24-4

Home team in Bold

Dallas (-1.5) over Detroit
New Orleans (-7) over Jacksonville
San Francisco (+9) over Philadelphia
Washington (-2.5) over St. Louis
Tennessee (0) over Cleveland
Buffalo (-3.5) over Cincinnati
Minnesota (-2.5) over Kansas City
Chicago (-6.5) over Carolina
Pittsburgh (+3.5) over Houston
Atlanta (-4.5) over Seattle
Arizona (+1) over New York Giants
Miami (+7) over San Diego
Denver (+12.5) over Green Bay
Oakland (+5) over New England
New York Jets (+3.5) over Baltimore
Indianapolis (+10) over Tampa Bay

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

2012 NFL Mock Draft 1.0

It's extremely early for a mock draft, I know. But that doesn't make it any less fun to speculate. Draft order is based on ESPN's power rankings, as of week 4. I'll change it in future mocks to reflect the current week.

1. Kansas City Chiefs - QB Andrew Luck, Stanford

2. St. Louis Rams - WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State

3. Indianapolis Colts - OT Matt Kalil, USC

4. Miami Dolphins - QB Matt Barkley, USC

5. Minnesota Vikings - WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina

6. Cincinnati Bengals - DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina

7. Denver Broncos - OT Jonathon Martin, Stanford

8. Jacksonville Jaguars - WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame

9. Seattle Seahawks - QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma

10. Arizona Cardinals - OT Riley Reiff, Iowa

11. Carolina Panthers - MLB Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State

12. Cleveland Browns- DT/DE Jared Crick, Nebraska

13. San Francisco 49ers - DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State

14. Cleveland Browns (Via Atlanta) - MLB Luke Kuechly, Boston College

15. Chicago Bears - OG Cordy Glenn, Georgia

16. Philadelphia Eagles - MLB Manti Te'o, Notre Dame

17. Washington Redskins - DT Alamada Ta'amu, Washington

18. Tennessee Titans - CB Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama

19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - CB Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska

20. Oakland Raiders - CB Morris Claiborne, LSU

21. New York Giants - RB Trent Richardson, Alabama

22. Dallas Cowboys - CB Cliff Harris, Oregon

23. Pittsburgh Steelers - OT Andrew Datko, Florida St

24. San Diego Chargers - DT Brandon Thompson, Clemson

25. Houston Texans - S Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State

26. New York Jets - DE/OLB Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma

27. Buffalo Bills - OLB Bruce Irvin, West Virginia

28. Baltimore Ravens - WR Jeff Fuller, Texas A&M

29. Detroit Lions - CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama

30. New England Patriots - OG David DeCastro, Stanford

31. New England Patriots (Via New Orleans) - LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama

32. Green Bay Packers - DT/DE Kheeston Randall, Texas

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Friday, September 23, 2011

NFL Picks: Week 3

Tomorrow (Saturday, Sept 24) will mark the two-year anniversary of this blog. The first post was me complaining about Bill Smith and the Orlando Cabrera trade. When I started it, I couldn't have imagined I would still be writing it today. At that point I was a college student planning on majoring in business who had no idea what he wanted to do... now two years later I'm on the verge of getting a journalism degree... and still have no idea what I want to do. Regardless, I wouldn't still be writing this blog two years later if it wasn't for all of you people reading this stuff, so thanks a lot. 30,000 page views in 2 years isn't record-breaking or really even jaw-dropping as far as successful websites are concerned, but luckily I'm just a kid with some sports thoughts. 30,000 is a big number to me; here's to hoping over the next two years it'll be closer to 300,000 than 30,000.

As a thank-you, I'll be giving away two more Twins DVD's to lucky readers. I haven't yet decided how I will do that exactly, but when I do I'll let you all know. Look for details sometime next week. Seriously, thanks for reading.

Now, on to my week 3 picks for the NFL.

Last Week: 6-8-2
Overall: 12-16-4

Home team in Bold

San Francisco (+3) over Cincinnati

Jerome Simpson, the Bengals #2 receiver by default, is in the middle of a huge marijuana bust. The feds tracked a 2.5 pound shipment of Marijuana from California to his home in a suburb in northern Kentucky. They also found an additional 6 pounds already at Simpson's home.

I don't think that will play a big part in the game, because while Simpson had solid numbers last week I don't think he's really a great player. The Bengals should be able to replace most of his production with their other receivers. However, it's interesting, and noteworthy, considering the Bengals have a long, lengthy history of players getting into trouble with the law.

While the Bengals combination of Andy Dalton-Cedric Benson-AJ Green is considerably better than the 49ers combination of Alex Smith-Frank Gore-Michael Crabtree, I feel like the 49ers defense will ultimately make enough plays during the game to let them eek out a close victory.

Final Score: San Francisco 23, Cincinnati 17

New England (-8.5) over Buffalo

The Bills have been a great story through the first two weeks of the season. After trouncing the Chiefs 41-7 in week one, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Bills offense came back from a 21-3 halftime deficit to beat the Oakland Raiders 38-35 in the final seconds. The Bills offense has looked explosive through two weeks, and there's at least a decent chance that the Bills will in fact contend for a playoff spot this season.

But there's teams on the brink of contention, and there's teams that are contenders. The Patriots are contenders, and have looked even more unstoppable on offense than the Bills through two weeks. With Bill Belicheck game-planning, I expect the Bills offense to make more mistakes and be a little less explosive this week. Even if the game does become a shootout, I have enough faith in Tom Brady that I think the Patriots will win this game by at least 10 points.

Final Score: New England 34, Buffalo 21

New Orleans (-4) over Houston

One week after the Bears defense looked sensational against what was supposed to be a high-powered Atlanta Falcons offense, the Saints made them look brutal. The Saints reminded everyone why they're still a super bowl contender by dismantling the Bears and sending Jay Cutler to the turf time after time after time.

Houston has looked good this season, and Ben Tate has shown he's more than capable of carrying the load in the backfield while Arian Foster gets healthy. Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub haven't really gotten it going yet, at least not by their usual standards, but yet the Texans are still 2-0. The defense has looked much improved and the offense remains capable of scoring in bunches, but to me the Saints are simply too good.

Final Score: New Orleans 31, Houston 21

Miami (+2.5) over Cleveland

Chad Henne went from looking great in week one to terrible in week two. After being anointed as a possible sleeper, and someone who may have finally figured it out after week 1, Henne became the goat again this week. He played terrible last week against the Texans, so it wasn't undeserved, but it's hard to forget how good he looked against New England.

Cleveland, meanwhile, had trouble beating the punchless, Manning-less Indianapolis Colts. Colt McCoy played well down the stretch as Cleveland pulled away, but I expect Miami to take advantage of a slow Cleveland start. The Browns may climb back into the game, but I think Miami will go into Cleveland and get a victory, and at least for this week, Henne will again be praised.

Final Score: Miami 27, Cleveland 20

Tennessee (-6.5) over Denver

Chris Johnson has run for just 77 yards on 33 carries through two weeks. I'm not informed enough to know if Johnson's holdout is contributing to his low-level of play, but it would seem to at least be playing a part. That said, Johnson is simply too good of a player to have three poor showings in a row, and I think he'll explode against a Denver defense that allowed 150 yards to Darren McFadden in week 1.

With all the injuries Denver is dealing with, I just don't see them going on the road and keeping this game within a touchdown. Orton might throw for 300 yards and a pair of scores, but I expect at least two costly interceptions that should help seal a 2-1 start for the Titans.

Final Score: Tennessee 24, Denver 16

Detroit (-3.5) over Minnesota

It pains me to pick Detroit. I wasn't a big fan of the Lions before the season, and as good as they've looked through two weeks, I'm still not completely sold on them. They beat a Bucs team that is probably overrated and looks headed for a 7 or 8 win season, and they dismantled a Chiefs team that may not win a game this year. Now, a 2-0 start is a 2-0 start, and there's no doubting the talent the Lions have at key positions. If the kids can stay healthy, they could make some noise.

The Vikings have looked great in the first half of both games this season, but they've scored just three points after halftime in their two games combined, which is why they're 0-2. The Chargers and Bucs are both solid teams and won double digit games a year ago, so the losses aren't necessarily a sign of a lost season. However, good teams find ways to win games in key situations. When the Vikings went 12-4 in 2009, they won a lot of close games and made key plays when it mattered. This team seems to be much more like other Vikings teams (Or, I suppose, even the '09 team), choking in key situations. Sadly, I don't think this week will be any different.

Final Score: Detroit 30, Minnesota 20

Carolina (-3.5) over Jacksonville

Cam Newton has been getting hyped all week because he's the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in his first two starts. Certainly, that's quite an accomplishment. However, Newton's been far from perfect in either game. His 3 interceptions last week against Green Bay really cost the Panthers, and a poor roughing the passer call in week 1 overturned an INT. Newton looks well on his way to putting up monster numbers as an NFL quarterback, but until he can cut down on the turnovers I'm not ready to say Newton's proven all of his doubters wrong.

That said, Newton is a great deal ahead of Blaine Gabbert as far as in-game readiness. The Jaguars did not want to use Gabbert this soon, but head coach Jack Del Rio foolishly cut David Garrard on the eve of the season opener and then, predictably, had to bench new starter Luke McCown after he kept throwing the ball to the other team last week. If Gabbert couldn't beat out McCown two weeks ago, I don't think he's going to be very good in his first career start.

Final Score: Carolina 26, Jacksonville 13

San Diego (-14.5) over Kansas City

The Chiefs have looked terrible through two weeks, and three key players are already out for the season. Second year players Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki were expected to play vital parts for the Chiefs this year, and Jamaal Charles was expected to be one of the top running backs in football. After getting outscored 89-10 through two weeks, there's just no way I can justify taking Kansas City to cover any spread.

Antonio Gates was held without a catch last week against New England for just the second time in his career, but that's more a sign of the Patriots game-planning than Gates abilities. The Patriots dedicated two defenders to Gates at almost all times, whether they were bumping him with a defensive end at the line or keeping a safety over the top. I expect Gates and the Chargers to roll over the Chiefs.

Final Score: San Diego 44, Kansas City 10

Oakland (+3) over New York Jets

Mark Sanchez continues to be the most overrated quarterback in football. Rex Ryan is capable of hiding many of Sanchez's mistakes on a weekly basis because of the Jets superb defense, but eventually Sanchez is going to throw a game-changing interception that the Jets can't bounce back from. I expect it to happen this week.

Darren McFadden has emerged as one of the best running backs in football through the first two weeks, and as good as the Jets defense tends to be at taking away big plays, I think McFadden will still find a way to have a big day. If Jason Campbell can be smart with the ball and not turn it over, the Raiders could surprise a lot of people on Sunday.

Final Score: Oakland 21, New York Jets 17

Baltimore (-4) over St. Louis

Joe Flacco played very poorly last week in the Ravens surprising loss to the Titans. I don't expect that to continue this week; if Eli Manning can play solid against this defense after looking brutal in week 1 and throughout the preseason, I don't see why Flacco won't be able to do the same thing.

With Steven Jackson likely out again, the Rams offensive playmakers simply won't be able to make enough plays to keep this game within striking distance. Sam Bradford can't make every play, and after watching numerous drops by his receivers last week, it's clear the Rams are not quite yet a real playoff contender.

Final Score: Baltimore 28, St. Louis 17

Atlanta (+1.5) over Tampa Bay

The Bucs come from behind win against Minnesota last week is getting a lot of publicity, and Bucs QB Josh Freeman is getting a lot of credit. Unfortunately, as a Vikings fan, I've gotten used to seeing the Vikings choke away leads every year. As much as I like Freeman, he didn't do anything outstanding during that game. He made the plays he needed to, but the Vikings simply choked.

Atlanta also made a great comeback, defeating the Eagles after trailing by 10 in the third quarter. To me, Atlanta is simply the better team, and despite being on the road I think the Falcons will come out victorious. Look for Julio Jones to have a fairly big game against a slower Bucs secondary.

Final Score: Atlanta 35, Tampa Bay 23

Arizona (-3.5) over Seattle

That Tarvaris Jackson-Sidney Rice signing combination is working out really well for Seattle. Look for Kevin Kolb and Larry Fitzgerald to remind Seahawks fans what a good quarterback-wide receiver combination looks like, repeatedly.

Final Score: Arizona 31, Seattle 0

Green Bay (-3.5) over Chicago

This is a tough one. The Bears and Packers always play close games, and the fact that this game is in Chicago makes it even tougher. There's no doubting the Packers have the better team, but the Bears always seem to play well in divisional games.

Ultimately, I trust Aaron Rodgers a helluva lot more than I trust Jay Cutler, so I'll take the Packers.

Final Score: Green Bay 24, Chicago 20

Pittsburgh (-10.5) over Indianapolis

I think Rashard Mendenhall is going to have a huge game, and I expect the Steelers to cruise past Kerry Collins and the Colts with ease. Roethlisberger could have a big game, but I expect the lead to be large early enough where it's going to be a heavy dose of Mendenhall for most of the second half.

Peyton Manning is starting to look more and more like the most irreplaceable player in sports, but we'll see.

Final Score: Pittsburgh 31, Indianapolis 13

Update: Dallas is now a 3.5 point favorite for tonight's game, so I'm taking them. There was no line earlier in the week due to Romo's uncertainty.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Twins and Michael Cuddyer

As has been well documented, the Twins love to have players that "play the game the right way." Not only because I have no clue what that actually constitutes, but I'm not a big fan of that philosophy. If I had to guess, I'd say the Twins would suggest "playing the game the right way" means being able to play good defense, steal bases, and get down sacrifice bunts in important situations.  While defense can make a big difference over the course of a season, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest the Twins scouts are actually any good at projecting players future defense. Torii Hunter was fantastic, among others, but when the team traded for Delmon Young they touted him as a possible five-tool player. They obviously saw Young's above average speed and cannon of an arm and figured he would learn to play defense. His athletic gifts were simply too special, they said. Obviously, that was laughably wrong, as we've seen Young take terrible route after terrible route to the ball. Stealing bases is extremely overrated, as a team would need to succeed slightly more than 75% of the time for it to pay off over a full season. Not a lot of players can steal a lot of bases with such a high success rate. Bunting? A waste in almost every situation.

I mention this because the Twins have a tough decision to make this off-season. Michael Cuddyer, who was drafted by the Twins way back in 1997, is a free agent. After a great first four months to the season, Cuddyer struggled for most of September, although he's been better of late. Cuddyer is making $10.5MM this season, and he seems to be right on the border of a Type A free agent or a Type B free agent. It's a no-brainer for the Twins to offer Cuddyer arbitration, because he seems likely to get a multi-year offer, which makes it likely Cuddyer would reject an abritration offer. Of course, if Cuddyer accepted it wouldn't be the end of the world. Having him on a 1-year, $12MM contract or so would be fine.

Ultimately, I think Cuddyer will sign for something like 3 yrs/$30MM, so the Twins need to decide if they want to spend $10MM a year over the next three years to keep him on the team. Is he worth that kind of money? Let's take a look.

This season, Cuddyer is hitting .279/.347/.455, which puts his OPS just over .800. He's on pace to hit 22 home runs, and he's been the Twins best offensive player pretty much all season. He hit .271/.336/.417 last season, so a giant bounce back to his 2009 line of .276/.342/.520 seems unlikely.

Cuddyer will turn 33 before the beginning of next season, and it's rarely wise to pay market-value type money to someone for their age 33, 34 and 35 seasons. However, the Twins undoubtedly are going to at least try to re-sign him because he "plays the game the Twins way."

Even if Cuddyer somehow produces as well over the next three years as he has this year, he'd still be slightly overpaid at $10MM a year. It's much easier to replace an .800 OPS at a corner outfield spot than it would be at a middle infield position, for example.

That said, it's unlikely that Cuddyer will in fact produce as well over the next three seasons as he has this year. As much credit as the team likes to give Cuddyer for being so versatile, the fact is he's a poor defender wherever he plays. He's not an asset at a single defensive position, so the fact that he is capable of playing some infield or center field in a pinch should not be seen as a positive. Danny Valencia could be a "versatile player" by those standards as well, because he'd likely be a poor outfielder and a poor middle infielder. Just because the team plays him at multiple positions does not mean his versatility is a good thing.

Ultimately, it would be in the Twins best interests to let Cuddyer get his next payday elsewhere. As much as I like Cuddyer, from everything he does in the community to the pranks and magic tricks he plans in the locker room, the fact is the Twins need to be sure they are spending their money wisely over the next few years. With Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau owed $38MM combined through 2014, wise spending is a necessity. That $38MM is about 33% of a $115MM payroll, and the team would need to fill 23 spots with that remaining chunk. If the team paid Cuddyer $10MM a year, they'd be spending almost 42% of their payroll on just three players.

It just doesn't make sense, especially when history suggests his best years are behind him. Add in the fact that watching Cuddyer sign elsewhere would give the Twins two more high draft picks, and it really shouldn't be a tough decision. But it will be, because Cuddyer "plays the game the right way," whatever that means.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

NFL Picks: Week 2

Kind of last minute, so I won't go into details, but here's my picks for the week:

Last Week: 6-8-2
Overall: 6-8-2

The picks: (Home team in Bold)

Chicago (+6.5) over New Orleans
Kansas City (+9) over Detroit
New York Jets (-9) over Jacksonville
Oakland (+3) over Buffalo
Arizona (+3.5) over Washington
Baltimore (-6) over Tennessee
Seattle (+14) over Pittsburgh
Carolina (+10.5) over Green Bay
Tampa Bay (+3) over Minnesota
Indianapolis (+2) over Cleveland
Dallas (-3) over San Francisco
Houston (-3) over Miami
San Diego (+7) over New England
Cincinnati (+3.5) over Denver
Philadelphia (-2.5) over Atlanta
St. Louis (+6) over New York Giants

Friday, September 16, 2011

NBA Lockout Thoughts

After months of NFL lockout coverage, luckily owners and players came to an agreement just in time to have a full season this year. Now, even as the NFL gets under way, we're stuck hearing about the NBA lockout, and there is very little optimism that a deal will get done before the season starts. Who's to blame?

I've seen several "fans" tweeting things at NBA players, calling them greedy because they can't come to an agreement with the owners on a fair CBA that will pay the players their fair share. That is ridiculous. However, the lockout mess is getting frustrating, so I understand why some people feel the need to vent their frustrations. Just please don't do it without a sense of logic; you give the rest of us fans a bad reputation.

As it is now (as it was, I suppose), the NBA players are getting 57% of the pie while owners are only getting 43%. That seems unfair, in favor of the players, and it is. Sure, the players make the league what it is, and nobody would argue that. However, the players are still employees. They aren't spending millions of dollars hoping to turn a profit; they are paid their salaries whether the team wins 17 games or 65 games. Owners need to build a winning organization to see consistent profits, and even though 16 teams make the playoffs every year, that means 14 teams will always miss the playoffs. It's not possible for every single team to consistently win, so from the owners point of view it's important that they get as much of the pie as possible because they realize the odds are not in their favor to consistently win games.

What would be fair? As much as a 50/50 split would seem to make sense, that's probably not fair either. Again, the risk involved for these owners is much higher than the risk involved for the players from a strictly economical standpoint. I think a 52/48 spread, with the owners getting the bigger chunk, would be more than fair. Has this been offered? I'm not sure. It's been reported the owners are trying to completely swing the spread in their direction, meaning from 57/43 in favor of the players to 57/43 in favor of the owners. It's also been reported that the players were willing to split it 50/50, which to me suggests a 52/48 spread wouldn't be out of reach for the owners. The players have seemed to concede that they don't deserve to take more of the pie than the owners, however the difference between 57% and 50% is huge when we're talking about billions and billions of dollars.

The owners, of course, will be fine if the lockout continues into the season. Financially, they are just fine, while a lot of players foolishly live paycheck to paycheck. This factor undoubtedly is why the owners don't feel any pressure; they're sure that the players will continue to cave as they realize their paychecks aren't coming. 

Sadly, this is the financial aspect of the league. Some owners are more worried about making a few more million dollars than they already will (and at a 50/50 split even, I can't imagine teams losing money) rather than ensuring the interest in their league continues on an upward trend.

There are other issues besides the revenue splits that are slowing things down as well, most notably an attempt by the owners to implement a "hard cap" instead of the current "soft cap." A hard cap would require teams to always remain at the cap or under it, as opposed to the current soft cap that allows teams to go over the cap in several instances. Common occurrences are re-signing players or offering a "mid-level exception" to free agents while already over the cap, among other things. Obviously, a hard cap would mean less money in the pockets of the players. Several teams were $20MM or more over the cap last year, and the World Champion Mavericks spent about $90MM despite a cap that was just under $60MM.

So even though I understand that this is a business for several owners and as a fan I will never completely understand that aspect of professional sports, I'm going to blame the owners. They are the ones being greedy, asking for even more than they would need, simply because they can. A soft cap has worked just fine, and if an organization performs well enough to have several young, talented players, it seems ridiculously unfair that a team like Oklahoma City might have to let Russel Westbrook sign elsewhere because giving Durant and Westbrook a max contract each would leave the team only about $20MM to sign the rest of the roster. Would the "hard cap" increase to a number closer to $90MM than the current $60MM? Again, I'm not sure. I've seen suggestions from people far more knowledgeable than me in both directions, so we'd have to see. My assumption is the "hard cap" would be much closer to $60MM than $90MM.

Asking for a 14% switch in revenue sharing with the players while also asking the players to agree to less spending from the owners is NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. The owners ultimately are angling for something closer to 55/45, and the players might in fact cave if the league remains locked out into November and December. But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. Everyone involved will be making money if they can just agree to a fair CBA, and more importantly the NBA may continue to see it's ratings increase. Increased ratings will lead to more money over the next decade than batting over 1 or 2% of the pie. Considering the owners are the ones who benefit the most from expensive TV deals, it's clear how greedy they are being.

So, blame the greedy owners for the lockout, not the employees (players). Imagine for a minute that you work at a company that literally makes money because of you and you can't be replaced. If your boss came up to you and said "Well, we're going to make you take a 14% paycut when this contract runs out, because we know you need the money to live and you have no leverage." What would you do? Would you just take it in stride and continue going to work? No. And if you would, you're an idiot. The players aren't greedy for asking for a fair share; hell, they've ALREADY offered to take a 7% paycut. Now, paycut isn't the right word, because they will be making more money probably, if the league continues to receive more and more money from television deals and other things. But the players are willing to give back some of the pie to ensure there is a season this year. If the owners would budge, something might actually get done. But don't count on it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Week 1 NFL Report

The following recap was written by Rich Bergeron, so a big thanks to him for it.

Week one in the NFL was extremely competitive. The Sunday stampede of season starting games happened to be coordinated with the 10th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. The Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and The New Orleans Saints oficially kicked off the season with a Thursday night stunner. Despite making several backpedaling blunders in the game, Saints QB Drew Brees still had a shot to win it right up until the final whistle and threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. The Packers amazing offense and passing attack did enough to get the win while the defense set the pace for most of the game, always keeping Brees on his toes. Drew Brees and his Saints relied on big plays at big moments all through the game. Green Bay edged out the win by a score of 42-34 looking like they are still championship material. Sunday's games produced some surprising and expected results with 9/11 tributes kicking off each game and the season itself for most teams in the league.

Monday night's double feature capped off a compelling week one of the season with two blockbuster games.
New England Patriots: 38
Miami Dolphins: 24
Both teams started this game with quick touchdown drives, but then New England's defense started doing a much better job of stopping the big plays from a much-improved Miami offense. It was a true QB battle between Chad Henne and Tom Brady at first. Once Brady and the New England offense went up by a touchdown there was no looking back, though. Benjarvus Green-Ellis, AKA "The Law Firm" scored the first touchdown on a nice run, but it was a high level passing game for Brady for the most part. Brandon Marshall and Chad Henne coordinated on multiple circus catches for huge yardage to keep Miami always a stone's throw away from matching the lead early in the game. A Patriot goal line stand late in the third forced a Dolphin field goal after Marshall caught one of his best passes of the game. The score was 21-17 and the Patriots had a chance to get some separation. A completed bomb and short follow up pass to Aaron Hernandez helped put the Patriots up 10 points, and Gostkowski's kick made it 11 points. The new system of automatic scoring reviews helped kill Miami's comeback after causing a 4th and goal situation New England stopped easily. The next play for the Patriots was a 99.5 yard pass connection to Wes Welker to give Brady 511 yards on the night. He finished with 517 yards and 4 scores. Facing a 38-17 defecit with under 5 minutes to play the Dolphins tried to produce some late magic with Reggie Bush getting the better of another reviewed play to make it 38-24 with the extra point. It was too little, too late. The Patriots controlled the rest of the fourth quarter to take the win.  

Denver Broncos: 20
Oakland Raiders: 23
This game showed how great the Raiders defense can be, limiting the Denver Broncos to just a field goal in the first half while Oakland put up 16 points. A circus catch of an interception by Matt Giordano crushed one of the Broncos' best chances to make the game tighter before the end of the first half. Even with less than 30 seconds left to move the ball, the Raiders put themselves in position to add another field goal with 5 seconds left in the half. The 63-yard boot from Sebastian Janikowski tied an NFL record and made it 16-3. A beautiful punt return touchdown and a second field goal for Denver put their total at 13 during the second half, but an Oakland goal line push kept the margin at 10 points through much of the 4th quarter. Clutch defensive play, including a huge sack by Raider DT Richard Seymour put the Broncos in a position to have to pull off a miracle to get back in the game. Despite throwing over 300 yards, Kyle Orton needed two scores on offense within the final 5 minutes. He wound up fighting the rain along with the Raider defense at the end of the game. Orton completed a touchdown pass to his running back Lance Ball to make the score 20-23 with 3:43 left in the last game of the week. Smart clock management and the relentless running of Michael Bush put the game out of reach at the two-minute warning. They took the clock down to nothing and began their season on a more positive note than they're used to. The Raiders snapped an 8-game season-opener losing streak and snap an 11-game Bronco opener winning streak with the big win.

Three teams put on offensive clinics in week 1's slate of Sunday games, allowing only one touchdown on defense to match their dominating offensive outputs:

Buffalo Bills: 41
Kansas City Chiefs: 7
The Chiefs choked and sputtered in their opener as the new look Buffalo Bills put up 41 points on their first opponents of the year. Kansas City looked miserable throughout the preseason, and they continued their lackluster play to open the regular season. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick was a fantasy football force with 4 TDs through the air and 208 total passing yards. Receivers Steve Johnson and David Nelson each made four catches for an identical 66 yards with Johnson getting the lone score among the two. Fred Jackson ripped up 112 yards on 20 carries to balance out the offense. Tight End Scott Chandler connected with Fitzpatrick for two scores and 63 total receiving yards. The Bills look pretty impressive despite going up against soft competition to start the season. If they can continue their dominance against higher caliber teams they could be a playoff threat this year.

Baltimore Ravens: 35
Pittsburgh Steelers: 7
The Baltimore Ravens worked the Super Bowl runner up Steelers into a  mad frenzy of frustrating moves to start the game. The Ravens defense created a total of 7 turnovers with daunting and dominating blitz packages. The Ravens defensive unit never gave up and kept coming up with stops and steals. Joe Flacco (17-29, 224 yds., 3 TDs) had a defining game to start the year on offense. Ray Rice (19 car., 107 yds., TD) ran over and through defenders all day. Ben Roethlisberger (22-41, 280 Yds., TD) threw three interceptions and couldn't get any kind of rhythm going against the constantly pressing Ravens Defense.

Houston Texans 34
Indianapolis Colts 7 
The Manningless Colts were piss poor performers this week. Kerry Collins was a horrible replacement for the future Hall of Famer. Houston scored 17 points in each of the first two quarters and then went through the entire second half on cruise control. The only Colts TD came in the 4th quarter on a connection between Collins and Reggie Wayne. Matt Schaub got away with throwing two interceptions and put up 220 yards passing on 17 completions with one passing TD. Ben Tate (24 carries for 116 yards) and Derrick Ward (11 carries for 39 yards) each scored on the ground. Andre Johnson nearly cracked 100 yards with 95 total receiving yards on 7 catches with one touchdown.

Five games really came down to the wire this week with teams winning by a touchdown or less:

New York Jets: 27
Dallas Cowboys: 24
The game began with a phenomenal September 11th tribute featuring a field-sized flag, and the New York Jets completed the tribute by making their time in the NFL spotlight special. The Cowboys dominated most of the game, but the Jets crept up out of nowhere and edged out the win by a field goal. Jets QB Mark Sanchez put up impressive numbers with 335 passing yards on 26 completions with two scores and one interception. Tony Romo's line for the Cowboys at QB looked just as impressive (23-36, 342 yds., 2 TDS, INT), but some poor decisions left Romo blaming himself for his team's loss after the final whistle. Romo was in charge with the game tied at 24. The Cowboys had a chance to assemble a winning drive with 59 seconds left, but Romo's lone interception wound up sealing his team's fate. The Jets defensive MVP, Darrelle Revis, returned the INT 20 yards to the Dallas 34. Just 4 plays later Nick Folk punched in a field goal to win the game for the Jets in dramatic fashion. The tying score for the Jets came on special teams when a blocked punt fell into the waiting hands of Isaiah Trufant, who ran it 18 yards for a score.

Minnesota Vikings: 17
San Diego Chargers: 24
The San Diego Chargers, led by Phillip Rivers at QB, took over with a second half surge in this game. Mike Tolbert scored one touchdown on the ground and two through the air in assembling 38 yards rushing and 58 yards receving for the day for San Diego. Rivers threw a couple interceptions, but he matched them with two touchdowns on 335 yards through the air. Donovan McNabb had a low key opening day with just 7 completions for  39 yards with his new team. The Vikings were unable to score a single point in the second half of this game.

Jacksonville Jaguars: 16
Tennessee Titans: 14
The Jaguars edged out the victory in the closest game of the week. Running Back Maurice Jones Drew set the tempo with an early touchdown on the way to compiling 97 yards in the game on 24 carries. Tennessee's holdout RB Chris Johnson didn't put out the kind of effort expected of such a high paid player. He had just 24 yards on 9 carries on the ground to go with 6 catches for 25 yards. Matt Hasselbeck's new favorite receiver seems to be Kenny Britt. The two combined for the only two touchdowns for the Titans on the day and represented 136 of Hasselbeck's 263 yards passing. Luke McCown went 17-24 and put up 175 yards in a decent effort as a new starting QB for the Jags.

Arizona Cardinals: 28
Carolina Panthers: 21
The Cardinals were the Cinderella team of the week, leaving little to criticize the Carolina Panthers for in their first game with Cam Newton (24-37, 422 yds., 2 TDs) at the helm as their QB. Most of the yardage came from Steve Smith, who made 8 grabs for 178 yards and two scores for the Panthers. Cornerback Patrick Peterson's 89-yard punt return made all the difference for the Cardinals. Arzona QB Kevin Kolb looked confident with his new team, scoring two touchdowns of his own through the air and cresting 300 yards in his first start for the Cardinals. Running Back Beanie Wells added the other offensive touchdown on his way to assembling 90 yards of rushing for the game on 18 carries.

Detroit Lions: 27
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 20
The Detroit Lions are a new team this year. Quarterback Matthew Stafford (24-33, 305 YDS., 3 TDs) is in control and looks to be at the beginning of building a fine legacy for himself as a Lion. Calvin Johnson caught two of the three touchdown grabs in the game and notched 88 yards receiving. Tampa Bay Quarterback Josh Freeman put up 259 yards of passing with one pass for a TD, but he also wound up being the team's leading rusher with just 26 yards on the ground. Tampa Bay only kept it close because one of Stafford's passes wound up bouncing off his receiver's hands and ended up in the grasp of Aqib Talib, who ran it back 28 yards for the score. Freeman added the finishing touch with his lone touchdown pass to Mike Williams inside two minutes to go in the game.

The rest of the week's games were somewhere between beatings, crushings, and close shaves.

Atlanta Falcons: 12
Chicago Bears: 30
The Bears made the best out of their off-season acquisitions. Atlanta's QB Matt Ryan was a mess on the field. He threw for 319 yards without a score and threw one interception. Bears QB Jay Cutler (22-32, 312 yds., 2TDs) had a much better game. Matt Forte earned 90 of those yards in receiving and one of those touchdowns on a career day in that category for the back, who also scampered for 68 yards on the ground on 16 carries. Brian Urlacher had a defensive score on a forced fumble and made the Bears defense a huge assett for fantasy teams who started them this week.

Cincinatti Bengals: 27
Cleveland Browns: 17
Cincinatti's Rookie QB Andy Dalton (10-15, 81 yds., TD) went on a wild opening day romp to lay the smack down on the Cleveland Browns, but his backup had to save the day. An injury gave Backup Bruce Gradkowski a chance to prove his mettle. Gradkowski threw for 92 yards on just 5 completions with the game winning touchdown throw to his credit. Cedric Benson also played a crucial role in this one with a 39 yard touchdown run being the highlight of a 25-carry, 121 yard day of rushing. Colt McCoy, the Cleveland Browns QB, threw for two scores and 213 yards with an interception. Ex-Patriot Benjamin Watson had the best catch of the game for the Browns on a 34-yard grab.

Philadelphia Eagles: 31
St. Louis Rams: 13
Michael Vick (14-32, 187 yds., 2 TDs, 97 yds. rushing on 11 carries) made the most of his first chance to prove he's worth the millions of dollars his team just packed into his new contract. His counterpart Sam Bradford was not able to match up to Starship 7 and found himself injured late in the game. Ram RB Steven Jackson began the game with a touchdown romp only to check out due to a thigh injury. The Eagles LeSean McCoy (15 carries, 122 yds, TD) and Desean Jackson (6 rec., 102 yds, TD) both had stellar days to help lead their team to victory on opening day.

San Francisco 49ers: 33
Seattle Seahawks: 17
The offensive-minded 49ers put up nearly double the points of their opponent this week to open a promising year for the team. The Seahawks looked listless in this game. Ted Ginn, Jr. returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in putting the special teams exclamation point on the season opener for the 49ers. Alex Smith went 15-20 for 124 yards through the air. He also ran for a score on 22 yards of rushing. Tarvaris Jackson threw for nearly 200 yards and two scores on 21 completions in his first start for Seattle. That effort included a 55-yard connection late in the game with Doug Baldwin for a score. The 49ers just had a better total package in this game and came out on top.  

New York Giants: 14
Washington Redskins: 28 
Eli Manning started strong, but he and his team fizzled late in the game while Washington sizzled. The Redskins scored in every quarter but the first and didn't kick any field goals in the game. Rex Grossman converted 21 of 34 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns to prove he's a much better starting QB than Donovan McNabb. Redskins Running Back Tim Hightower added a rushing score as part of his 25 rushing attempts for 72 yards. Manning went 18-32 and amassed 268 yards passing, but his lone interception went the other way for a touchdown thanks to the great return of Ryan Kerrigan.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

NFL Picks: Week 1

After a lengthy lockout and an extremely short off-season, the NFL season is upon us. The Packers and Saints open the season tonight, so here are my picks for the first week of the NFL season:

Home team in bold

New Orleans (+4.5) over Green Bay

The Saints continue to get praised for the off-season workouts Drew Brees organized, but to me that just seems like the media giving Brees credit for anything, because they love him. The Packers on the other hand didn't run any organized practices, and I tend to agree with Aaron Rodgers that those "organized workouts" are being extremely over hyped.

We'll find out tonight if the Saints are really that far ahead of the Packers thanks to those workouts, and while I don't think they made a difference, I do think the Saints are the better team. And as much as I dislike them for defeating the Vikings in that '09 NFC Championship game, I dislike the Packers more. The game should be close, but ultimately I think the Saints will show why they're considered a serious contender again this season.

Final score: New Orleans 31, Green Bay 26

Baltimore (-1.5) over Pittsburgh

The Steelers have made the Super Bowl three times since 1995; each time they've followed that up by missing the playoffs the next season. Rashard Mendenhall seems poised to have another big year, and Ben Roethlisberger is a very good quarterback, so the team appears to be in good shape to head back to the postseason.

However, as solid as they look, the Ravens will be too much at home. Flacco, Bolden and Ray Rice are talented enough players to perform against this vaunted Steelers D, and if James Harrison continues to look as out of shape as he did during the preseason the Steelers will be in for a long night.

Final score: Baltimore 24, Pittsburgh 20

Tampa Bay (-1.5) over Detroit

The Lions have won eight games in three years. They are 8-40. All that losing does allow the team to consistently draft inside the top 10, and it looks like it finally may have paid off. The Lions are considered by many to be a wild card contender and a lot of 'experts' are picking the team to make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.

I don't see it. Stafford is a solid player if he can stay healthy, but that's a big if. Jahvid Best had two monster games to start his career last year, and has done nothing since. He's also injury prone. The Lions defensive line looks good, but their defensive backs are a glaring weakness. Outside of Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, I don't see any sure things on this roster.

Josh Freeman is a better QB at this point than Matt Stafford. So I'm going to take the Bucs at home to open the season.

Final score: Tampa Bay 28, Detroit 17

Atlanta (-3) over Chicago

Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez.
Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Roy Williams, Johnny Knox, Devin Hester.

Yeah, you'd take Atlanta too.

Final score: Atlanta 30, Chicago 21

Kansas City (-6) over Buffalo

I think Jamaal Charles is going to do some special things this year, so the quarterback play isn't of big concern to me. Considering the Chiefs get to open against the Bills, even if Matt Cassel ultimately can't play, I think Charles is explosive enough to allow the Chiefs to cover.

The Bills offense will have the ability to score quickly with Ryan Fitzpatrick running the spread, but look for quite a few turnovers as well. The quick strike ability worries me in a 6 point spread, so if you're going to bet this game I'd take the extra 6 points in the Chiefs favor, making them even instead of 6 point favorites. I can't imagine the Bills actually winning.

Final score: Kansas City 20, Buffalo 12

Indianapolis (+9) over Houston

Peyton Manning is officially out this Sunday, which means he'll miss the first game of his NFL career. The Texans are obviously heavy favorites because of Manning's injury. However, before Manning's injury this game had no spread at all, and as great as Manning is I have trouble believing he's going to be worth 9 points.

That may seem crazy, but Kerry Collins should be able to do enough against a weak Texans defense to at least keep the game close.

Final Score: Houston 27, Indianapolis 21

Philadelphia (-4.5) over St. Louis

Can Michael Vick handle the blitz? Will the Eagles offensive line issues cause enough problems to let the Rams pull off the upset? Are the Eagles really that good?

We'll find out, but to me, the Vick/blitzing angle has been beaten to death and it's not even right. For some reason people seem to think that because Antoine Winfield, one of the best blitzing corners in football, was able to confuse Vick in a Sunday night game last season that anyone can do it. Sure, Vick struggled with other blitzing schemes as the weeks went on following that game, but not to the point that it was a major concern.

I think Vick will be blitzed early, but I think a long connection to DeSean Jackson and/or a long scramble will put an end to the questions. I don't think the Eagles are as good as they're being hyped up either, but they will be for at least one week.

Final score: Philadelphia 37, St. Louis 17

Cincinnati (+6.5) over Cleveland

Even if I purchased DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket, I can honestly say I don't think I'd watch any part of this game. Two below average teams with young quarterbacks who don't have great deep accuracy doesn't scream "exciting" and I expect this game to be fairly low scoring.

Browns QB Colt McCoy has an extra year of experience on Bengals QB Andy Dalton, and McCoy was much better in college. However, I think AJ Green and Dalton will connect on at least one deep ball, and the Browns lack that dynamic playmaker that can change the game. I'm not a believer in Peyton Hillis, and I'm still bitter the Madden cover is ruined by someone in an ugly Browns uniform.

Final score: Cincinnati 20, Cleveland 13

Tennessee (+2) over Jacksonville

If a team releases their starting quarterback 5 days before the season opener and replaces him with Josh McCown, it doesn't matter who that team is playing. They will lose.

I also expect Chris Johnson to let out some frustration he's had built up with the contract negotiations on the Jaguars. Look for a big opening week from CJ.

Final score: Tennessee 28, Jacksonville 10

New York Giants (-3) over Washington

The Giants have been decimated by injuries this preseason, and their defensive backfield is missing a few key players. While those injuries are likely going to cost the Giants a chance to truly compete in the NFC East, the good news for them is that they open the season against a team that is starting Rex Grossman at quarterback. Seriously.

Eli Manning has looked bad this preseason, but I think he'll be able to play well enough to help the Giants beat the Redskins this week. I'm not sure how he'll play the rest of the season, though.

Final score: New York Giants 17, Washington 13

Arizona (-7) over Carolina

The Cardinals gave up a lot to get Kevin Kolb from the Eagles. However, if Kolb becomes even an above average quarterback, it will be a solid trade. Kolb should be above average, at least, from day one, and the potential is certainly there for him to be a very good quarterback in this league. Throwing the ball to Larry Fitzgerald won't hurt either.

Cam Newton is a fun player to watch, but coming from a junior college two years ago and a spread offense this past year, he's going to have some growing pains. The Cardinals defense isn't exactly elite, but the Panthers conservative style should help the Cardinals pull away in this one.

Final score: Arizona 33, Carolina 14

Seattle (+5.5) over San Francisco

Tarvaris Jackson vs. Alex Smith. Yuck.

The scoring will be so low it'll look like a Mariners Giants game instead of a Seahawks 49ers game.

Final score: Seattle 6, San Francisco 3

Vikings (+8.5) over San Diego

This is nothing more than blind hope. If I was being unbiased, I would predict a Chargers win by 10 or more. However, since I'm not unbiased, I'll take the Vikings. Adrian Peterson should be able to run the ball well enough to help set up play action passes for Donovan McNabb, and that should also allow the team to control the clock and keep the high-octane Chargers offense off the field for long periods of time.

The Chargers have an elite offense and a good defense, and are at home, so if you're actually looking for advice, take the Chargers to cover. The Vikings will probably play terribly, but as a fan, I can't hope for that. I'd rather hope for a W.

Final score: Minnesota 27, San Diego 24

New York Jets (-4.5) over Dallas

I'm not sold on Mark Sanchez having even an average year, but I do think Rex Ryan will be able to come up with enough blitzes and odd schemes to confuse Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and he'll struggle against a great Jets defense.

The Cowboys should be better than they were last year but they still have a lot of issues. The Jets are great at exploiting teams minor issues, and I fully expect to see that on Sunday night.

Final score: New York Jets 27, Dallas 20

New England (-7) over Miami

Tom Brady is good. Chad Henne is not.

Final score: New England 38, Miami 14

Oakland (+3) over Denver

For all the talk about the Broncos quarterbacks this preseason, it's kind of meaningless. The team went 2-10 with Kyle Orton last year and 1-2 with Tim Tebow. Tebow's sample size was small so it's hard to know exactly what he brings to the table, but the Broncos were TWO AND TEN with Kyle Orton. Even if the team isn't sold on Tebow, see what Brady Quinn has. They should have traded Orton when they could have.

The Raiders aren't a great team, but they shouldn't have any problems beating Denver to open the season. I was surprised the Raiders were actually getting three points. We'll see what happens.

Final score: Oakland 28, Denver 19



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