Friday, August 29, 2008

Dare to Compare

Happy Labor Day Weekend everybody (or as they'd say in Canada "Labour" Day). Whatever you're off to do and enjoy, when you get back to start your work week next Tuesday, we'll officially be into September. Can you believe it's September already? Yeah, me neither. Well here in Twins Town, fans of the Little Engine That Could are gearing up for what should be a great pennant race for the Hometown 9 as we enter the final month. Heading into the weekend, the Twins are chasing Soxes (since Sox isn't a real word, I'm taking the liberty of pluralizing it how I damn well please): a game and a half behind the White Sox for first place in the division, and two and a half games behind the Red Sox for the Wild Card. This weekend will also feature a Battle of the Soxes as the teams play three games at Fenway Pawk (the teams have split their four previous meetings at Comiskey/US Cellular/Not Wrigley) The Yankees, at 6 back of Boston, are still mathematically in the race, but I don't think anybody outside of the Bronx believes they're going to make much of a run (hell at this point I'm not sure anyone in the Bronx thinks so either).

A Yankee-less postseason? Could the Red Sox join them? has an added feature in their baseball standings run by, which has a crazy mathematical formula for giving each team odds of making the playoffs. Right now, the Red Sox lead this group of four with an 86.1%, the South Siders have a 62.4% shot, the "Best Team Carl Pohlad Can Buy with the Spare Change in His Couch" has a 49.3% chance, and the Yankees are sitting at just 3%. If you don't mind, I'm going to go ahead and take the Pinstripers out of this equation, because it's been a long time since we've been able to do that. However, enjoy your non-Yankee post season while you can, because with almost $90 million coming off the books after this year (from the expiring contracts of Bobby Abrea, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettite, Pudge Rodriquez and Kyle Farnsworth. And that $90 million, which is $30 million more than the Twins payroll, is not from the life of those contracts- that's just $90 million from the 2008 season!!!) I'm going to guarantee that the Yanks sign Brewers ace CC Sabathia, AND quite possibly Angels first baseman Mark Teixiera or Ben Sheets. For fun, and because Hank Steinbrenner wants to prove he's just as crazy as his old man, they could get all three. So seriously, enjoy the one year hiatus of the Darth Vaders, because they'll be back next year.

Alrighty then, three teams for two spots with one month to play. Here's how they stack up:

Minnesota Twins: 75-59 (.667 winning% at home .446 road) +65 Run differential, Games Back Div 1.5 Wild Card 2.5
Offense: RUNS 672 (6th in AL) AVG .278 (3rd in AL) OBP .337 (7) SLG .409 (9)
Pitching: ERA 4.15 (7) BAA .275 (12) K/BB 2.45 (3)
Defense: Defensive Efficiency: 0.694 (10th)
Remaining... Opponents Winning %: .469
... Games against the Soxes: White (3) Red (0)
... Games against other Winning Teams: 7
... Home Games: 12
... Schedule:
Aug 29-31 @ Oakland (62-72)- Twins are 3-4 against the A's this year
Sep 2-4 @ Toronto (68-65)- 0-3 vs Jays
Sep 5-7 vs Detroit (64-69)- 10-5 vs Tiggers
Sep 9-11 vs Kansas City (56-77)- 8-3 vs Royals
Sep 12-14 @ Baltimore (63-70)- 1-2 vs O's
Sep 15-17 @ Cleveland (65-67)- 10-5 vs Tribe
Sep 18-21 @ Tampa Bay (81-51)- 1-1 vs Rays
Sep 23-25 VS CHICAGO (76-57)- 7-8 vs White Sox
Sep 26-28 vs Kansas City (56-77)- 8-3 vs Royals

Chicago White Sox: 76-57 (.676 home .462 road), +108 Diff, GB div 1st WC 1.0
Offense: Runs 735 (2) AVG .268 (7), OBP .340 (5), SLG .458 (2)
Pitching: ERA 3.89 (5) BAA .256 (5) K/BB 2.53 (2)
Defense: DefEff: .701 (6th)
Remaining... Opponents Winning %: .520
... Games against: Twins (3) Red Sox (3)
... Games against other winning teams: 10
... Home Games: 13
... Schedule:
Aug 29-31 @ BOSTON (77-56)- 2-2 vs Red Sox
Sep 1-3 @ Cleveland (65-67)- 9-3 vs Tribe
Sep 5-7 vs Anaheim (81-52)- 3-4 vs the Halos
Sep 8-11 vs Toronto (68-65)- 0-4 vs "Canada's Team"
Sep 12-14 vs Detroit (64-69)- 9-6 vs the Teegreys
Sep 15-18 @ New York (71-62)- 1-2 vs the Goliaths
Sep 19-21 @ Kansas City (56-77)- 10-5 vs Royals
Sep 23-25 @ MINNESOTA (75-59)- 8-7 vs the Little Engine That Could
Sep 26-28 vs Cleveland (65-67)- 9-3 vs the Ricky Vaughn's

Boston Red Sox: 77-56 (.705 home .472 road) +122 Run Diff, GB Div 4.5 WC Leader
Offense: Runs 690 (3) AVG .281(1) OBP .358(1) SLG .446(3)
Pitching: ERA 4.00 (6) BAA .250 (4) K/BB 2.08 (8)
Defense: .706 (4th)
Remaining... Opponents Winning%: .534
... Games against: Twins (0) White Sox (3)
... Games against other winning teams: 16!!!
... Home Games: 19 games (to counter all the winning teams)
... Schedule:
Aug 29-31 vs CHICAGO (76-57)- 2-2 vs Pale Hoes
Sep 1-3 vs Baltimore (63-70)- 9-6 vs O's
Sep 5-7 @ Texas (66-69)- 7-0 vs Rangers
Sep 8-10 vs Tampa Bay (81-51)- 6-6 vs Rays
Sep 12-14 vs Toronto (68-65)- 4-7 vs Centre of the Universes
Sep 15-17 @ Tampa Bay (81-51)- 6-6 vs Rays
Sep 19-21 @ Toronto (68-65)- 4-7 vs Metric Morons
Sep 22-25 vs Cleveland (65-67)- 2-0 vs the Pedro Cerano's
Sep 26-28 vs New York (71-62)- 8-7 vs the Playing out the Strings

Ok first of all, what's with the Blue Jays absolutely owning these three teams? The Twinkies and Chisox are a combined 0-7, while the Red Sox are just 4-7 against them. That's metric domination right there, my friends. Toronto will have a HEE-YUGE say in who's in this race, as they'll play everybody one more series, and just for fun twice against the BoSox. Cleveland also gets everybody once, while Tampa will dust up the Twins for a series, and play 6 more vs the Red Sox.

Hard to pick a favorite here, which is why the Soxes have better odds than the Twins because making up ground over the next month is going to be difficult. The Twins have the advantage of the easiest remaining schedule, but I think we can all agree that if Minnesota can stay close, the division, and probably the Twins playoff chances, come down to the three game series with Chicago at the end of September. As for this weekend, I'd be cheering for a Red Sox sweep, because despite Boston's tough schedule (and possible issues with ace Josh Beckett), I still believe it'll be easier to catch Chicago than Boston.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Is Daunte Culpepper Being Blackballed?

Mike Florio of the outstanding asked this very question yesterday. Florio, who's about as plugged into the league as it gets, isn't sure why it would be happening, but had one NFL executive tell him Culpepper is, indeed being blackballed. However, Florio wonders if because Daunte has no agent that other agents are badmouthing him to teams. Peter King, in his MMQB Mailbag, doesn't think he's being blackballed, but when you look at some of the QB situations around the league right now, it sure seems fishy that Daunte couldn't find a backup job somewhere.

In fact, SI's Don Banks ranks the backup QB's for every team in the league. Look at that list: isn't Daunte better than pretty much EVERYBODY listed there? Since he got hurt and completely fell apart in Minnesota in 2005, Daunte has has QB ratings of 72, 77, and 77. Not great, but not horrible either. His completion percentages the last three years has been 64.4, 60.4, and 58.4. Anything over 60% is considered good in the NFL, and Daunte's been right around there. His one failing has been INT's, as he's thrown 20 picks to just 13 TD's (he has run for 5 more) in his last 17 starts. Still, look up the numbers for some of the current starters and backups in the league right now, and Daunte is a MUCH better option. Hell, Trent Green in St Louis is listed as the 7th best backup, JP Losman- who has done NOTHING in the league so far- 9th, and 10th is the horrible, horrible, HORRIBLE Rex Grossman in Chicago. DAUNTE IS BETTER THAN ALL OF THOSE GUYS!!!!

Florio wonders if Daunte's whining in Minnesota and Miami is hurting his reputation, which would make the most sense of anything, but it still doesn't explain to me why he can't find at least a backup job somewhere right now. Will be interesting to see if he can find a job this year.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The 1st Annual Over/Under NFL Wins Confidence Challenge

An excellent blog about sports betting and other sports stuff called Vegas Watch is having an "NFL Totals" contest to see who can most accurately pick the over/unders on 2008 NFL win totals that Vegas puts out. I thought it'd be fun to have a Metric Musings challenge, where everybody submits the 10 over/unders you're MOST confident in. In fact, we can even do confidence points: Give 10 to the pick you're most confident about, and if you're right at the end of the year, you get 10 points, 9 for your next pick etc. etc. all the way down to 1. The winner at the end of the year gets a beer, or your drink of choice, on me (for Joel, you could get a 12 pack of Cherry cokes or something). so submit your 10 picks in the comments section, and at season's end we'll see who did the best.

Before I get to that, though, I'll give my last 3 playoff teams for the NFC, since I forgot to do it earlier: the Saints win the NFC South, the Cardinals the NFC West, and the Eagles take the final wild card spot.

And yes, I realize that I excluded the Vikings from the playoffs. That was not an accident. Every year there's a trendy team who the media seem to think is going to jump from pretender to contender. Last year it was the Niners. The year before it was Arizona. This year, unfortunately, it's the Vikings, and as much as I'd love to watch my beloved Purple in the playoffs, there's still too many questions about Tavaris Jackson, the wide receivers, and the pass defense to give the Vikes a playoff spot.

Ok then, on with the over/unders. Here's the whole list of all 32 teams, with my choices beside it. I'll give my 10 best at the end. Again, Vegas puts out a projected win total for each NFL team. Your job is to pick whether they'll finish with more or less wins. Feel free to play along at home.

Chicago, 8 wins- UNDER!!!!
Detroit, 6- over
Green Bay, 8.5- over (barely)
Minnesota, 8.5- under (barely)

Atlanta 4.5- over (barely)
Carolina, 7.5- under
New Orleans, 8.5- OVER!!!
Tampa Bay, 8- under

Dallas, 10.5- over
New York Football Giants, 9- under
Philadelphia, 8.5- over
Washington, 7.5- over

Arizona, 7.5- over
St Louis, 6.5- under
San Francisco, 6.5- under
Seattle, 8.5- under

best under bet- Bears at 8. That's the easiest money on the board right there.
best over bet- Saints at 8.5. To me they're clearly the best team in that division.
toughest pick- Buccaneers at 8. While I don't think the Bucs repeat as division champs I still think they'll be decent. 9 wins seems like too much, and 7 not enough so of course Vegas puts the number right at 8.

Baltimore, 6- OVER!!!!
Cincinnati, 7.5- under
Cleveland, 8- under
Pittsburgh, 9- over

Houston, 7.5- over
Indianapolis, 11- under
Jacksonville, 10- under
Tennessee, 8- under

Buffalo, 8- under
Miami, 5.5- over
New England, 12.5- over
New York Jets, 8- under

Denver, 7.5- over
Kansas City, 6- under
Oakland, 6.5- over
San Diego- 10.5- under

best under bet- Powder Blues at 10.5. I'm surprised this hasn't changed with Merriman's knee injury announcement. Or like me (at first), has everyone forgotten Norv Turner is still the coach there?
best over bet- Ravens at 6. Just edges out the Steelers line. Of course you know I'm rather bullish on the Ravens.
toughest pick- Toronto Bills at 8. Just like Tampa Bay Tampa Bay, 8 seems like the perfect number for the Buffalo/Torontos. I think they're a playoff contender but if I'm predicting them to miss the playoffs, 9 wins seems like one too many.

There you have it. Leave your 10 best in the comments section and we'll see what happens.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dream Team vs. Redeem Team: You've Got to be Kidding Me

"Redeem Team proves worthy of Dream Team comparison" That's the headline of an article today by hoops scribe Chris Sheridan (who has covered basketball at the Olympics since 1996), and it seems to be the running theme on the interweb today: everybody wants to compare the 1992 Dream Team to the current "Redeem Team" that just have a great run to win Olympic gold.

So my question is: why? There IS no comparison to the Dream Team, and in trying to compare the current guys, all you're going to do is diminish what they've done. Why not just appreciate what LeBron and Kobe and the rest did in restoring basketball glory for America. But no, this is the age of the internet and 24 hour news and sports networks and, of course, blogs, so you do what you can to get ratings and readers. Today, apparently that means making a comparison where there isn't one. ESPN certainly weren't the only ones to do it. The folks over at gave it a whirl too, as the wiley vet Jack McCallum (who's one of the best and most knowledgable hoops writers out there) pulled rank and took the Dream Team side, while poor Chris Mannix got stuck doing the impossible- trying to argue that the Redeem Team even belonged on the same court. has their take on it, and so on and so forth. Read any or all of these and the thing you notice is nobody really tries that hard to say the Redeem Team is anywhere near as good as the Dream Team (well except Mannix, but I'm guessing he drew the short straw s it wasn't really his choice). Sheridan's article gives a side-by-side comparison of how the teams did in the Olympics, and as you can see, it's not close.

Well me being me, I decided we needed to see some more stats to prove just how ridiculous an argument this is, and thanks to the folks at, we can do that. So we took the stats for each player (well excluding Christian Laettner because he sucks and he was the token white guy pretty boy and he never played and it was a joke he was even on the team. And also because he sucks) in the season leading into the Olympics they played in (1991-92 for the Dream Teamers, 2007-08 for the current squad). We'll use points per game and John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating or PER (which according to John "The PER sums up all of a player's positive accomplishments, subtracts the negative accomplishments, and returns a per-minute rating of a player's performance." For a really "mathy"-yep I just made up the word mathy. Deal with it- explanation go here) for everybody, and then a few position specific stats. Should be fun. Should be really one-sided. Just like how the game would be.


Starting Lineup
G- Magic
F- Bird
F- Barkley
C- Ewing

Crunchtime Lineup
G- Magic
F- Pippen
F- Barkley
C- Robinson (look at the numbers- he's clearly better than Ewing)

Magic Johnson (stats from 90-91 season because he didn't play in 91-92), age 32, 19.4 PTS, 12.5 AST, 7.0 REB, 1.3 STL, 25.1 PER
John Stockton, age 29, 15.8 PTS, 13.7 AST, 3.0 STL, 40.7% 3pt, 22.8 PER

Michael Jordan, age 28, 30.1 PTS, 6.1 AST, 2.3 STL, 6.4 REB, 27.7 PER
Clyde Drexler, age 29, 25 PTS, 6.7 AST, 6.6 REB, 1.8 STL, 23.6 PER

Larry Bird, age 35, 20.2 PPG, 9.6 REB, 6.8 AST, 40.6% 3pt, 21 PER
Scottie Pippen, age 26, 21 PTS, 7.7 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.9 STL, 21.5 PER
Chris Mullin, age 28, 25.6 PTS, 5.6 REB, 3.5 AST, 2.1 STL, 19.9 PER

Charles Barkley, age 28, 23.1 PTS, 11.1 REB, 4.1 AST, 24.5 PER
Karl Malone, age 28, 28.0 PTS, 11.2 REB, 3.0 AST, 25.4 PER

Patrick Ewing, age 29, 24 PTS, 11.2 REB, 3.0 BLK, 22.8 PER
David Robinson, age 26, 23.2 PTS, 12.2 REB, 4.5 BLK, 2.3 STL, 27.5 PER


Starting Lineup
G- Kidd
G- Kobe
F- BronBron
F- Melo
C- Howard

Crunchtime Lineup
G- Paul
G- Wade
F- Kobe
F- Global Icon
C- Bosh

Jason Kidd, age 34, 10.8 PTS, 10.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 7.5 REB, 16.7 PER
Chris Paul, age 22, 21.1 PTS, 11.6 AST, 2.7 STL, 3.2 REB, 28.3 PER
Deron Williams, age 23, 18.8 PTS, 10.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 3.0 REB, 20.8 PER

Kobe Bryant, age 29, 28.3 PTS, 5.4 AST, 6.4 REB, 1.8 STL, 24.2 PER
Dwyane Wade, age 26, 24.6 PTS, 6.9 AST, 3.3 REB, 1.7 STL, 21.5 PER
Michael Redd, age 28, 22.7 PTS, 3.4 AST, 4.3 REB, 18.8 PER

LeBron James, age 23, 30.0 PTS, 7.9 REB, 7.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 29.1 PER
Carmelo Anthony, age 23, 25.7 PTS, 7.4 REB, 3.4 AST, 1.3 STL, 21.1 PER
Tayshaun Prince, age 27, 13.2 PTS, 4.9 REB, 3.3 AST, 0.5 STL, 15.6 PER

Chris Bosh, age 23, 22.3 PTS, 8.7 REB, 1.0 BLK, 2.6 AST, 23.8 PER
Carlos Boozer, age 26, 21.1 PTS, 10.4 REB, 1.2 STL, 2.9 AST, 21.9 PER

Dwight Howard, age 22, 20.7 PTS, 14.2 REB, 2.1 BLK, 0.9 STL, 22.9 PER

All the Dream Team had to offer were the best point guards of all-time. No big deal really. While Magic had sat out the 91-92 season because he had the HIV virus (remember when that was a big deal? I'm not trying to make light of the AIDS virus, but in 1992 this was like 120000 times more scary than terrorism. Now? Do we ever hear anything about AIDS in the news anymore? Weird. Good work science for handling that one. Makes you wonder what we'll look back on 16 years from now and think "That was news? Really?"), he was still damn good in the Olympics, while Stockton was hitting his prime in all its short-short glory.
Redeem Team offers two good young points who are good and are going to be great, and one Jason Kidd who should not be on this team. Don't get me wrong, Kidd'll go down as one of the five best points ever (he wouldn't be in MY five best, mind you, but for the national media? Oh fo sho!), but to call him a shell of his former self would be a black mark on shells everywhere. There's at least 5 other American point guards who are better than he is right now.
ADVANTAGE: Dream Team in a landslide

The two funnest things about this game: 1) watching MJ vs Kobe. 2)Watching all 12 guys on the Dream Team try to guard LeBron at different portions of the game and watching 0.00% have success (hell he might be able to score on all 12 at once. Have I mentioned he's now 6'9 260? And possibly still growing? Just checking). The MJ vs Kobe battle would be one of the few sports moments we'd dub as epic that would actually BE epic! You have to think that nothing would please the 1992 Michael Jordan more than out and out destroying Kobe Bryant. I mean making him cry for his mommy kind of destruction. And America in general would rejoice at watching Kobe be humbled (except of course Kobe wouldn't be humbled and would make excuses or fake an injury and then give another awkward Kobe post-game interview in his best MJ-voice on why he didn't get schooled). It's just crazy to think that if Kobe is the second best player on this team (after Kobe's stink bomb in the Finals, we're all in agreeance he cannot be the league's best player right now, correct? We'll give that one to BronBron? Agreed? Good), that means he's a damn good player, and yet MJ is just so much better in every single aspect. It's astounding really. It just blew my mind.

Oh sure there's other good players here and good matchups, like Dwyane Wade (every time I see the spelling of "Dwyane" I'm angered that nobody at the hospital in Chicago where he was born had the stones to tell his mom "Look, that's not how it's spelled. I don't care if you're trying to be original or different, that's just plain stupid to spell it that way. Spell it correctly or get a different name." Really, would it have been that hard to do that?) vs Clyde Drexler. Or Michael Redd, yeah not sure who Michael Redd wouldn't get worked over by. Maybe have him play one of the women's Olympic players (by the way, can we stop calling the women's team the Dream Team? Nobody dreams of women's basketball. Nobody. Not even women's basketball players). By the way, just thought this was a good time to remind Bucks fans that there's only another three years and $51 million to go before you're free of Michael Redd! Let the countdown begin!

So LeBron is pretty good. He has the highest PER of anybody here, and has stats just as gaudy as MJ- only he's still just 23. You're fooling yourself if you wouldn't take him over a 35 year old Bird, or Pippen or Mullin in the primes. Heck, other than Jordan, is there anyone else listed here you'd rather take than LeBron? Me neither. After him, clearly Bird and Pippen are better than Melo, and maybe even Mullin too. Like Mike Redd and Jason Kidd, I'm not sure why Tayshaun is even on the team. So who then gets the advantage? The Dream Team has more depth and quality players, so I guess it comes down to this: who would you rather have? LeBron and Melo, or Bird, Pippen AND Mullin?
ADVANTAGE: Redeem Team (come on like you didn't make the same decision!)

We'll keep these next two positions short and sweet since there's really not much to say: hmmmm would you rather have two first ballot hall-of-famers, or two all-star level post players? Yes? You in the back? The hall-of-famers? Correct!
ADVANTAGE: Dream Team (if the point guards was a landslide, what's this, an avalanche?)

More than any other area, you can see how much the game has changed in the last 16 years at center. Bosh played a lot of time here during the Olympics, but I'd still call him a forward, yet I think the most telling thing is that USA brought just 3 guys out of their 12 who would be considered low-post players, and one of them, Boozer, hardly ever played. Not only that, but Bosh and Howard were rarely on the floor together. For the Dream Team, you always had either Ewing or Robinson on the floor, along with Barkley, and/or Malone. Another thing that makes it tough on the Redeemers is that Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Amare Stoudamire all decided to stay home. Had those three made the trip I think this very well could have tipped things in the Redeemers' favor, but since we're just talking about the Olympic teams themselves and not who the best NBA players were at the time, you have to leave TD, KG, and Amare out. So really, this isn't a fair comparison considering how the Redeem Team chose their team, but hey, this hasn't really been a fair comparison to begin with, now has it?

So there you have it, it's the Dream Team in a runaway. While I think this would be a very entertaining game, I think the Dream Team would win by at least 20. I do think the "Crunchtime" lineups listed about would create some very interesting matchups, but the problem is I don't think we'd ever get to Crunchtime with much to play for. So there you have it, trying to say the Redeem Team could beat the Dream Team is pointless, baseless, and is just plain wrong. But hey, it won't stop all the other websites from trying to tell you otherwise.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The 2008 Shocking Super Sleeper

Welcome back to the longest running segment in the history of blogging: me trying to make NFL predictions. I feel like this started sometime in February. For you, it probably feels any longer. Last post I took a mulligan on my AFC Picks, and changed them to this:
East- New England (including best overall record)
North- Pittsburgh (the other bye)
South- Indianapolis
West- Denver
Wildcards- Houston and...

That sixth and final team in the AFC is going to be our 2008 Shocking Super Sleeper, and we have seven candidates that fit our criteria for the "SSS": no more than 5 wins last year, and nobody's talking much about them for this season. There was actually an eighth team that finished with just four wins last year, but I'm pretty sure you might have heard a little bit about their latest acquisition: The J-E-T-S BRETTS! BRETTS! BRETTS! Yes the Jets finished just 4-12 last season, made some big free agent signings and some decent draft picks...and then traded for some guy named Brett Favre. I think ESPN might have devoted a couple of minutes of coverage to it- or a month and a half straight. Either way, the Jets aren't exactly flying under the media radar anymore, so they're out of the running for the SSS. And to be honest, with or without Favre, it's just as well since they're not making the playoffs.

While we're here, don't you love it when sports writers become big whiny babies, just like the athletes they cover? Jets WR Laverneus Coles is good friends with now former Jets QB Chad Pennington, who got kicked to the curb the same day they traded for Favre. Coles is upset because he believes the teams should have treated Pennington better. Instead of whining about it to the media, he's chosen to keep quiet and go about his business. The New York media aren't happy about it since they want another easy angle and story to the Favre Saga, but since Coles won't comply they're chosen to write about what a bad guy Coles is...except nobody on his team agrees. Don't you just love the media sometimes?

Here then are our seven candidates, listed in order from least likely to most likely...

7. San Francisco 49ers (2007 record: 5-11)
It's not a good sign when your team's coach is using the phrases "our starting quarterback" and "JT O'Sullivan" in the same sentence- without it ending in "when hell freezes over". Two years after selecting QB Alex Smith with the #1 overall pick, the Niners are set to use the career journeyman (in six career games with Detroit and Green Bay his QB rating is 48.2), which means the Niners season is over before it starts. The rest of their team is ok at best: too bad the Niners can't hope for the same.

6. Kansas City Chiefs, (4-12)
It bothers me putting Kansas City here, but I had to for one big reason: Brodie Croyle. In 11 career games he has completed just 56.3% of his passes, throwing 6 TD's and 8 INT's. Not exactly "hey let's get behind this guy!" kind of numbers, are they? And it's not like they're overflowing with talent around him: Larry Johnson was banged up last year (and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry), 2nd year wideout is the "veteran" in that group (he was good last year but not THAT good), and they have to replace one of the best guards of this era in Will Shields, which won't be easy. Defensively I like this team, but I liked them a lot more when they had Jared Allen. Without him, it's tough to see where those sacks are going to come from.

5. St Louis Rams, (3-13)
At first glance, you get excited about names like Marc Bulger, Steven Jackson and Torry Holt. But then you look at the rest of the roster...and get a lot less excited. There's still some talent here, but the offensive line without T Orlando Pace was awful, and defensively, the team wasn't much better. They're going to need a LOT of improvement in those two areas to get much better.

4. Miami Dolphins, (1-15)
They're virtually guaranteed to pick up four or five more wins than last year just because of a)the Bill Parcells effect and b) there's no way they can be that bad again. Still, this is not a playoff team yet. While they were no longer wanted, losing both Zac Thomas and Jason Taylor can't make your defense better, and it's not like there's a lot of talent left over. On offense, yes, Chad Pennington is an upgrade on what they started training camp with, but it's still CHAD PENNINGTON! That's like having a Pinto and a Pacer to choose from, and suddenly somebody gives you a Corolla. Is it an upgrade? Of course, but it's still only a Corolla! So let's all calm down that the Dolphins are suddenly playoff-bound with The Chad in town because the other pieces just aren't there. You're asking for A LOT if you think Ernest Wilford (who was the most reliable and underappreciated in that group of Jaguar receivers from the last few years) and Ted Ginn Jr can give you production catching the ball. I've seen some preseason pundits who believe Ginn's going to step in nicely as the team's #1 receiver. I'll tell you what, I'll believe it when I see it. Ginn has NEVER been the best receiver on his own team (Santonio Holmes and Anthony Gonzalez were both much more productive college players when the three played at Ohio State), and he never really learned to run good routes. Can you be a #1 NFL receiver just because you're fast? We'll find out.

Atlanta, 4-12
One rule for picking playoff teams: you CANNOT choose teams who are starting a rookie quarterback. That's why I rule out the Falcons, but begrudgingly so, because I like everything else about them. And I'm not for a minute saying they're making a mistake by starting #1 pick Matt Ryan: Ryan, from what I've seen and read, looks like a very mature kid (which shouldn't be surprising considering he looks like he's 35), and he could be a very good quarterback. And it's not like they have better options on the roster: Chris Redman? Joey "Bust" Harrington? DJ Shockley? Ryan's the right choice, even if it kills their chances this season (the only team to have done well with a rookie QB were the Pittsburgh Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, but that was the PERFECT situation because they were stacked everywhere but QB. Their D was awesome, they only threw when they had to, had Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress AND Antwan Randel El to throw to, and had one of the best O-lines of the past 10 years. You couldn't ask for a better situation to bring a rookie QB into. While Atlanta looks promising, they're not this good. Not yet). The defense should be salty, their wide receivers show potential, and Mike The Burner Turner will keep the chains moving on the ground. There's a lot here to like, but Ryan starting means no playoffs. But for 2009? Keep an eye on them.

2. Oakland, 4-12
Eight wins. That's how many games Oakland will win this year. Mark it down. The team who has put the "D" in Dysfunction is on the way back. A man-crush on Darren McFadden? Yes, thanks, I do. With teams in recent years seemingly able to pull productive running backs off the street (We can thank the Denver Broncos for starting this trend), people have lost appreciation for the really great collegiate backs. Adrian Peterson last year dropped to 7th because teams were thinking "no worries, we'll find a running back in a later round- or working at Walmart" and all Peterson did was run all over the league. McFadden is this year's Peterson: in the SEC, the best conference in college football, Run DMC never ran for LESS than 1113 yards or 11 TD's (he notched both of those as a freshman), totaling 4590 yards rushing and 41 TD's in three seasons, which included 1st team All-America honors as a sophomore and junior. He had off the chart combine numbers AND has a clean injury history (...quickly knocking on wood...). There's no downside to McFadden. To add to it, he's splitting carries with Justin Fargas, who last year ran for over 1000 yards, so it's not like he has to carry the whole load. What's more, there's much more than McFadden here. JaMarcus Russell had a solid rookie year and looks primed to take some positive steps this season, moving Robert Gallery from tackle to guard solidifies the line, and the defense was actually better than you think. Thanks to their off-season wheeling and dealing that nabbed them CB Deangelo Hall and S Gibril Wilson, they might have the best defensive backs in the league, and have a solid set of linebackers in front of them. The questions? 3 of them, and they're big: Russell can't win games by himself yet, so somebody in their sketchy group of wideouts needs to step up. I mean, we're asking Javon Walker to go a whole season without getting shot or throwing money in the air at strip clubs to prove how rich he is? Who could be resist those temptations? Second thing is the defensive line. You or I could have ran for five or six yards a pop on these guys, and with all the off-season spending, they didn't address this area. Third is really first, and will always be the biggest question looming over this franchise: how will Al Davis screw things up? Watching the NFL Networks AWESOME Super Bowl champion series, I had a new appreciation for Al Davis watching the episodes on the Raiders teams of the 1970's. Al's problem is he still thinks we're in the 1970's and he still knows what he's doing. Lane Kiffin is an excellent young coach, but could get run out of town at any moment for not running Al's kind of offense (or wearing bell bottoms. There's just no way to tell). The Raiders quietly have a lot going for them this year, but The Al Factor keeps me from picking them. Well that, and I just plain like our next team better...

1. Baltimore Ravens (5-11)
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2008 Shocking Super Sleeper. The Ravens win 10 games and grab a wild card spot. Let's start where you always start with the Ravens: defense. The defense went from the best group in points allowed and yards allowed in 2006 to 22nd in points and 6th in yards. There's a lot of teams in the league who would have loved to have that "drop", yet because the Ravens offense was so, well, they had a typical year, which was disappointing and unproductive. The team went from a 13 win season in 2006 to just 5 last year. So what's going to change this year? For starters, they finally have a new coach. Offensive "Genius" Brian Billick was finally run out of town and replaced by John Harbaugh (not to be confused with former Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh who's coaching Stanford). A new coach combined with a motivated group of veterans equals a big season for Baltimore. The defense is still loaded, and after last year will now be cheering with a chip on their shoulder. This could be the NFL's best unit in 2008. That's probably not hard to believe, but an improvement on offense? Believe it. Losing one of the all-time best tackles in Jonathan Ogden hurts, but there's enough talent here to keep the offense clicking. Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Todd Heap are a talented group of pass catchers, and there's a stable of good running backs ready to go. Willis McGahee is hoping to be ready to go for opening day, but even if he's not, rookie Ray Rice looks like a nice sleeper as his back-up or fill-in.

The key, of course, is quarterback. As of today, Kyle Boller is NOT the starting quarterback. For the Ravens to succeed, the only time Boller should step on the field is for warmups and post-game handshakes. First round pick Joe Flacco could be a nice player in a couple of years, but as mentioned with Atlanta, if he starts, the Ravens chances go down the tubes. So the pressure is on second year field general Troy Smith to take the reigns and lead the Ravens to the playoffs. Look, I like Smith. Really liked him at Ohio State, and thought people made WAY too big a deal of his stinker in the National Championship game against Florida (honestly, when Ted Ginn Jr got hurt in that game, the Buckeyes were done. Peyton Manning or Joe Montana couldn't have beaten that team without Ginn's ability to stretch the field and open things up for everyone else). His biggest knocks against him were he was 6'0 tall and he stunk in his last college game, and so he dropped to the fifth round. But nothing else about him has changed heading into his second year: he's poised, has a great arm, good mobility, and has thrived under pressure before at Ohio State (well except for that one game). I'm very bullish on Smith this year, and very bullish on the Ravens. With Smith running the show, they're going to be a scary team to watch, and to me, have the least amount of questions to answer of anybody on this is. It's a big question, to be sure, but I'm putting my stock in Troy Smith and the Ravens as the 2008 Shocking Super Sleeper.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

An AFC Redux and the Shocking Super Sleeper

Well that didn’t go very well. After coming up with a trendy new formula for picking NFL playoff teams, I couldn’t even stick to it. Did you notice that in picking playoffs teams for the AFC, instead of picking three or four of the five teams that made it last year, I picked ALL FIVE? Whoopsy daisy! But seriously, look at those teams again and tell me which one is getting left out: Pittsburgh is clearly the class of the AFC North, and if the Colts don’t win the South, the two best challengers are the Jaguars and Titans- both of whom also made the playoffs last year. I’ve been stewing about this for the past week, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: I’m taking a mulligan on my AFC picks.

That’s right, we’re pretending my post last week never happened- well part of it anyway. New England and Pittsburgh still win their divisions. The changes are that the Colts win the South…and the Chargers don’t make the playoffs. You heard me. Because you know what I forgot about the Chargers? Their head coach is Norv Freaking Turner. Norv Turner. He of the 69-87-1 career record, and who before last season had coached in a grand total of 2 playoff games. You could say the Charge made the AFC Championship game last year in spite of Norv, the man who is still known mostly for choking away big games and who in big moments looks like he's about to pee his pants.

Yep, Norv is coaching the San Diego Chargers in 2008, and he’s one of five reasons I’m changing my mind about the Bolts. The others are that I do not believe in Phil Rivers as a franchise quarterback. Like, at all. The Chargers chose the wrong quarterback when they let Drew Brees walk and it will be proven this season. Also, Chris Chambers is supposed to be the go-to guy. Really? The same guy who the past two seasons hasn’t cracked 1000 yards receiving or had more than 4 TD’s? That Chris Chambers? He’s now three seasons removed from his monster 2005 campaign when he had 82 catches for 1118 yards and 11 TD’s. Since 2002 that’s the only year he’s cracked 1000 yards or had more than 69 catches, and only the second time he had double-digit TD’s. I don’t buy him as a #1, and I’m not much sold on Vincent Jackson either. Reason number four is that the vaunted Charger defense was actually a middle of the pack defense in yards allowed (14th), and now Shawn Merriman is having his sore knee checked out. Never a good sign.

Finally, in researching for the Shocking Super Sleeper, I’ve come to the conclusion that the AFC West will be a lot better than last year. So therefore, the Chargers aren’t making the playoffs in 2008. You heard it here first.

The other team that’s dropping out from my previous picks is Jacksonville. Like Norv Turner coaching San Diego, I somehow overlooked the fact that right now Jacksonville is starting Troy Williamson at wide receiver. No seriously, they are. The Jags are a trendy Super Bowl sleeper with Troy Williamson as a starting receiver? Call me skeptical. He’s in that spot because Reggie Williams and Jerry Porter are recovering from injury, and Matt Jones spent his offseason getting arrested for cocaine possession. I'm pretty sure that's not in the "How to Spot a Super Bowl Sleeper" Handbook. Even if Williams and Porter come back healthy, Williams hasn’t yet put together a consistent season (yes he scored 10 TDs last year, but had just 38 catches for 629 yards) and Porter’s last good year was 2005, and by "good" I mean 942 yards and 5 TD’s. So there’s your receiving core for 2008.

On top of that, the surprisingly durable Fred Taylor (he’s played in at least 14 games in five of the past six years) is 32 years old, which is when running backs hit a serious drop off. While every team has questions, these will impact the Jags enough that they miss the playoffs. I’m not saying they’ll be terrible, but it’s enough in what will be the toughest division in the league.

So who’s taking the final three playoff spots? I’ll give you two today: Denver wins the West (really going out on a limb there, I know), and the Houston Texans take one of the wild card spots. I’m serious, Houston (who had the quietest 8-8 season in memory last year) takes that next step.

The final spot goes to the 2008 Shocking Super Sleeper. As documented last year by both Bill Simmons (his archived stuff is Insider so no point linking to it) and’s Peter King (his archives don’t even go back one year, so I can’t link to his preview from last year either), every season since 2003 we’ve seen at least one team that comes from absolutely nowhere to either make the playoffs or at the very least shock the league and challenge for a playoff spot.

Upon further review there’s been TWO teams every year since 2005 that no one saw coming (Atlanta in 2004 and Dallas in 2003 fit all of the requirements except for the “no one saw them coming” category. With Michael Vick in the ATL and Dallas being America’s Team, it was certifiably impossible for either of those teams to fly under the radar). These are teams who the season before had no more than five wins, and yet improved by at least five wins the next season. And again, to qualify for the Shocking Super Sleeper, they had to be teams that absolutely, positively nobody thought would be any good.

So how did they do it? A good question, and one that does not provide us with an easy answer. All of these teams had four things in common, only two of which are even remotely predictable: an easy schedule, and a good draft/free agent signing. The third and fourth things are a wildcard (a player that stepped up that couldn't possibly have been predicted) and a "bounce-back" or "step-up" year from a unit or just the whole damn team.

Generally (except apparently if you’re New England and San Diego this year) the NFL gives bad teams an easier schedule and good teams a harder schedule the following year. It helps to create the “competitive balance” the league craves and give as much parity as possible. Signing quality free agents and/or making shrewd draft picks needs no explanation, although surprisingly most of these teams didn't make much of a splash in free agency, and didn't make many marquee draft picks.

Where the real difference came was seeing their defense, offense, or both, make a big improvement from the season before. Maturation? Contract year? New coach? Guys finally figuring it out? Hard to say, but it happened with everybody on one side of the ball or the other.

A couple of things that WEREN'T consistent which you would think might be were a good defense and a good starting quarterback. While an improved D was a mark for most teams, there were some who had an outstanding offense and a bottom of the pack defense. And quarterbacks? Sure, a couple of teams got huge years from a QB, but others not only didn't get a great year from their quarterback, they didn't even get a decent year out of their signal caller. And yet, the team had a big year.

Here then is the list, with an explanation (or at least as best as I could figure it) for why each team what they did:
* denotes that team made playoffs

Cleveland (10 wins, 4 previous season)
DRAFT PICKS: T Joe Thomas (1st)
WILD CARD: QB Derek Anderson
Anderson was a 6th rd pick of the Ravens who was just trying to catch on with the Browns. Charlie Frye was the incumbent starter and Cleveland paid a lot to move back into the first round to select Notre Dame Golden Boy QB Brady Quinn. Yet after two unproductive starts for Frye, Anderson took over, the offense took off, and the Browns were relevant for the first time in years.

Tampa Bay* (9 wins, 4 previous season)
DRAFT PICKS: G Arron Sears (2nd- Started all 16 games)
WILD CARD: RB Ernest Graham
Garcia’s return to a productive starter was a surprise in itself, especially considering Tampa already had two good QB’s on the roster in Chris Simms and Jake Plummer. Florida Gator alum Ernest Graham was a late round pick in 2004 who had bounced around as a Bucs reserve. When Cadillac Williams AND Michael Pittman got hurt, Graham stepped in and led the team in rushing. Like we saw that coming.

New Orleans* (10 wins, 4 prev seas.)
DRAFT PICKS: RB Reggie Bush (1st)
WILD CARD: WR Marques Colston
Colston, a 7th rd pick out of Hofstra, was the wildest of wild cards. No football expert on earth could have predicted Colston would not only make the team, but would turn into a legitimate #1 receiver in his very first season. Brees was worth every penny as a free agent, while Bush, despite the hype, was not. And still hasn't been.

NY Jets* (10 wins, 4 prev seas.)
KEY FREE AGENTS: Pete Kendall, G
DRAFT PICKS: T D’Brickishaw Ferguson (1st), C Nick Mangold (1st), RB Leon Washington (4th)
WILD CARD: THIS team made the playoffs?
Not a great team by any stretch, and there were no real standouts on either side of the ball other than WR Laverneus Coles. The two first round picks, along with free agent Kendall, solidified the O-line, giving brittle The Chad time to find Coles and Cotchery, who had a breakout season. They also opened holes for surprise draftee Washington. The defense stepped up and got the Jets into the playoffs.

Chicago* (11 wins, 5 prev seas)
KEY FREE AGENTS: none really
DRAFT PICKS: um…Kyle Orton?
WILD CARD: A team with Orton at QB could win 11 games
Like the Jets they were not good offensively, but unlike the NYJ, their defense was downright scary. They would have to be for a team who had Orton as their “best” passer- and we’re using the term best as loosely as possible (Orton had a 59.9 QB rating with 1869 yds, 9 TD’s and 13 INT’s). Thomas Jones was a beast on the ground (1335 yds and 9 TD’s) as the Bears played the control-the-clock game to perfection. The defense got career years from just about everybody, had five players named to the Pro Bowl, two of whom (LB’s Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs) were named 1st team All-Pro. Really they didn’t make any huge offseason changes and didn’t draft well (Cedric Benson was the 4th overall pick- think DeMarcus Ware or Shawn Merriman could have helped? Actually, this was not a strong draft in the top 10 at all, so it wasn’t just the Bears who blew it), but had a group that came together. You can’t even call this a fluke because with the exact same recipe (swap a horrible Orton for a horrible Rex Grossman) the Bears were even better in 2006 going 13-3.

Tampa Bay* (11 wins, 5 prev seas)
DRAFT PICKS: RB Cadillac Williams (1st), G Dan Buenning (4th- started all 16 games),
WILD CARD: The maturation of Chris Simms
Hey it’s the Bucs again! And like the 2007 team they're just as boring as ever! Unlike the 2007 edition, there weren't any real huge surprises here. Simms had a good season (yet only started 11 games), and Cadillac Williams had a big year as a rookie, but there weren't any other big changes to the roster. The defense went from a top 10 to top 5, and WR Joey Galloway turned in a Pro Bowl season.

San Diego* (12 wins, 4 prev seas)
KEY FREE AGENTS: LB Donnie Edwards (from KC)
DRAFT PICKS: QB Philip Rivers (1st), DT Igor Olshansky (2nd-started all 16) C Nick Hardwick (3rd- started 14 games), RT Shane Olivea (7th- started all 16)
WILD CARD: QB Drew Brees AND TE Antonio Gates
Maybe you've forgotten, but there was a time when Brees was not one of the NFL's best. That time was 2004. After three seasons with San Diego (the last two as a starter), Brees had led the team to just 10 total victories, had more INT's (31) than TD's (28), and hadn't posted a QB rating over 76. While not quite Ryan-Leaf bad, San Diego had so little confidence in Brees that they used their first round pick (4th overall) on quarterback Phil Rivers. Apparently Brees hated Rivers as much as I do, because he responded by finally putting up the college-like numbers that had been expected (remember he tore up the Big 10 while at Purde), piling up 3159 yards, 65.5 comp%, 27 TD's, just 7 INT's, and a career high 104.8 QB rating. Of course he had a little help, as LaDanian Tomlinson was, well, LaDanian Tomlinson (named 1st team all-pro), and an unlikely source, Gates, also exploded onto the scene, with an incredible 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 TD's. Thanks to two more draft picks the line solidified, and yet another 2004 pick, former Oregon Duck behemoth Olshansky, along with free agent signee Edwards, helped take the defense from one of the league's worst to middle of the pack.

Cincinnati (8 wins, 2 prev seas)
KEY FREE AGENTS: MLB Kevin Hardy, CB Tory James
DRAFT PICKS: QB Carson Palmer (1st overall), G Eric Steinbach (2nd),
WILD CARD: RB Rudi Johnson and RB Corey Dillon
Kind of like the Brees/Rivers situation, the Bengals took Palmer #1 overall, only to watch Kitna have a career year (the Bengals were so impressed with Kitna that they benched him the very next year in favor of Palmer. In the Bengals defense, Palmer turned out to be pretty good), throwing for 3191 yds, 26 TD's and 15 INT's for a QB rating near 90. Dillon, who was coming off 6 straight seasons of at least 1100 yards rushing, got hurt early in the year and by the end of the season lost his job as he put up only 541 yards in 13 games while 3rd year back Johnson racked up 957 and 9 TD's. Hardy and James helped make the worst defense in 2002...well to be only slightly better. Oh yeah, and new head coach Marvin Lewis might have had something to do with all of this too.

So there you have it. Who will be the Shocking Super Sleeper(s) for 2008? Stay tuned.

Monday, August 11, 2008

2008 AFC Predictions: Way Freaking Harder Than It Looks!

So I thought I had a good thing going with this whole “3 teams in 3 teams out” from each conference thing. Had a nice, neat little chart which supported my argument and made me look like I kinda knew what I was talking about. Thought it went pretty well explaining who the two NFC repeat division winners would be and who would get back in as the wild card. Felt pretty confident heading off to write the AFC portion, ready to come back at you with more fancy-smancy picks from my can’t-miss formula…until I started looking a little closer. Holy shmoly. Have you looked at the AFC? I mean, really, have you? Take a look at who made the playoffs last year…

- New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego, Jacksonville, Tennessee

New England returns the Greatest Team to Win Absolutely Nothing, Pittsburgh is stacked, Indianapolis has won 5 straight division titles and returns a damn good team, San Diego brings back a group that got to the Conference Championship game and gave the Pats a scare, and the Jagwires (seriously, there are people who pronouce it “Jagwires”. Probably the same people who say “Warshington” and “Nationals”. Could we please, as a nation, just sit down and come to a decision on the proper way to pronounce a few words? Another I’ll add to the list is “roof”. Say the word “proof” for me…now take the “p” off the front and what do you have? Exactly- not “RUFF” but “Roof”. Same goes for “root”. Really not that hard. While we’re at it, let’s also come to a decision on one spelling of the name Lindsay. Or is it Lindsey. Or maybe Lindsy? I don’t care which, but for the love of pete, let’s just pick ONE, ok?!? Thank you) seem to be everybody’s chic pick to go to really make some noise in the playoffs.

Tennessee? I was as shocked as you were to see they made the playoffs. Vince Young was awful last year, but you know what? It’s ok because he’s become the Black Brett Favre. Announcers and the media fall all over themselves to say how great he is. Look, Vince is one of the best college players ever- EVER. Not just of this decade or this era, but EVER. Are we clear? The things he did at Texas were otherworldly. But he’s sucked as an NFL quarterback. Yes, he did finally complete over 60% of his passes last season, but he also threw just nine touchdowns to 17 INTERCEPTIONS, for a quarterback rating of just 71.7, 26th best in the league last season, and only one percentage point ahead of the one, the only Cleo Lemon.

VY is an excellent runner and an exciting player but is not, and will not, be a successful NFL quarterback. ANYWHO, Tennessee won last year because their defense was a-maze-ing, and it should be top notch again, but the offense is not improved enough (something called Justin Gage and Roydell Williams are their starting receivers. That’s right, STARTING RECEIVERS. And you thought the Vikings wideouts were bad) to get them into the playoffs again.

Still, that leaves us with five really good teams. To be honest, they might be the best five in football to start the year…and yet according to the formula, two of them have to go- or maybe just one. Looking at the chart a little closer, we find that 2007 was the only year where we had THREE division winners repeat, which helps us a bit. In 2005, New England, Indy, Denver, and Pittsburgh all made repeat trips to the postseason. So while I wanted to stick with “3 in 3 out” in each conference, there’s just no way that two of those five won’t be playing in January. So let’s say three repeat division winners and a fourth that gets back in as a wild card. Still, cutting even one division winner probably means they’re out of the playoffs entirely, since Jacksonville is the strongest non-division winner heading into the season, if they knocked off Indy for the AFC South, they would also be the fourth of our repeat playoff teams, meaning you couldn’t add Indy as a wild card. So while the three repeat division winners and four repeat playoff extension helps, it doesn’t help that much.

One thing that definitely factors in here is schedule strength, which can be tricky, since they’re based off of last year’s results. Since we know that the NFL can change quite a bit from one year to the next, it’s dangerous to put too much stock into schedule strength when trying to predict results for the coming season, but it’s still a useful tool.

Having said that, according to a number of websites and Schedule Strength Gurus, guess who has the EASIEST schedule in 2008? The New England Patriots. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? The Pats are helped immensely in this because they were the only team to finish over .500 in their division, so having three sub-.500 teams on your schedule a total of six times certainly doesn’t hurt. However, outside of the division the schedule still isn’t very strong, as Indy, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Seattle (who I’ve already predicted won’t be nearly as good this season) are the only four teams on their 2008 schedule who made the postseason in 2007. The rest of the Pat’s slate includes Kansas City, San Francisco, St Louis, Denver, Oakland, and Arizona. While there should be some expected improvement from some of these teams, you can’t say there’ll be THAT much improvement that New England won’t be favored in just about every game they’ll play.

So with that, plus the immense talent they return, New England should be a slam dunk to win the AFC East Division for a seventh year in a row.

Just when you thought the rich couldn’t get any richer, guess who has the second easiest schedule in the league for 2008? Why, none other than the Patriots AFC Championship game opponent, the San Diego Super Chargers. Like the Pats, the Charge benefit from playing in a division whose other three teams did not finish above .500. The Powder Blues also have only four teams on their slate who were a playoff team in 2007: the Pats of course, along with Indy, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay (another team who I’m predicting won’t be making a return trip to the post season). The rest of the schedule is filled with the other three teams from the NFC South (New Orleans, Atlanta and Carolina) and the AFC East (Buffalo, Miami, and the J-E-T-S Brett! Brett! Brett!). Bingo bango bongo you have another cakewalk. With virtually the same team coming back intact, including the game’s best offensive (RB LaDanian Tomlinson) and defensive (LB Shawn Merriman) players, the Super Chargers look like a mortal lock to repeat as AFC West champs in 2008.

Which leads us to the AFC North and South, or as the Strength of Schedule people like to call them, the Two Toughest Divisions in Football. Yes, the eight teams in those two divisions will be playing eight of the nine hardest schedules in 2008. Pittsburgh, Indy, and Jacksonville are the top three, your Minnesota Vikings are fourth (uh oh) and then the rest of the teams from those divisions fill out the next five spots. So while Pittsburgh and Indianapolis both look to have the toughest tasks of not only repeating as division winners but just making the playoffs again, it’s going be tough for ANYBODY in those two divisions!

But according to the chart, either Pittsburgh or Indy will not only not win their division, but possibly not make the playoffs?!?! Crazy but true. So which is more likely to falter this year? Good freaking question…

Pittsburgh, at least on paper, looks pretty freaking awesome! If you take a look at their team, there just aren’t any holes. Ben Roethlisberger became a franchise QB last season with the second best QB rating (104.1), 3154 yds passing and 32 TD’s to just 11 INTs. He has plenty of talent to throw to, and two good backs in Willie Parker and Illinois rookie Rashard Mendenhall alternating behind him. Yes, they did lose Alan Faneca to the Jets on the O-line, but can you remember the last time the Steelers didn’t have a great offensive line? Me neither. They’ll be fine. On the other side of the ball, they return the best defense in the league. This all should be a recipe for another division title, right?

Not so fast! Indy has won five straight conference titles, but will be in tough to make it six. It’s not that Indy shouldn’t be good again, it’s that the AFC South has become the league’s toughest division. We’ll get to Jacksonville in a second, I already told you what Tennessee will look like, and let’s not forget the Houston Texans, who quietly put together an 8-8 season last year and were only outscored by five points. I have trouble seeing how anybody in this group will have a top two record in the conference when you have to play everybody here twice. Good luck with that.

The Colts do still have Peyton Manning, and because of him some apparent red flags may not make much of a difference. Marvin Harrison barely played last year because of a knee injury, and so far in off-season workouts, he hasn’t exactly made a strong comeback. While last year’s first rounder Anthony Gonzalez played well and could step in for Harrison, there’s not much depth or experience after that. The O-line also looks just ok, but Manning is so good at avoiding sacks, it seems you could line up some lawn furniture to block for him and he could still find open receivers.

Looking at the defensive depth chart, other than Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders, you won’t find many names you recognize. Yet largely the same group, and mostly without Freeney, was one of the NFL’s best defenses last year. So there’s nothing to suggest it shouldn’t be any different this season.

Ok so both the Steelers and Colts look great on paper. What about the other teams in their divisions? In the AFC North, Cleveland was a Super Secret Surprise team from last year, Cincinnati finished around .500, and Baltimore, despite yet another awesome year from their defense, finished with just 5 wins. Personally, the Ravens are a prime candidate to have a huge bounce back year, the Browns are definitely for real and the Bungles could be dangerous. Are any of these three good enough to knock off Pittsburgh? Using logic, reason, and any statistical evidence I can find, I can’t say in good conscience that any of them are.

So I’m taking Pittsburgh to repeat in the North, Jacksonville to knock off Indy in the South, but for the Colts to still get in as a wild card. Who will be the sixth and final team to get in?

That and more in the next post on the Super Secret Sleeper(s) for 2008.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

NFC playoff predictions

Who doesn't love predictions? Heck, who doesn't love making predictions? One of my favorite things to do this time of year is to try to figure out who in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks are going to be playoffs teams in the NFL. Since the league went to the 8 division format back in 2002, we've had an average of almost four repeat division winners and six total playoff teams getting back in. Check out the stats that follow:

(first four teams in each conference won their division, last two were wild cards):
NFC – Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa, Seattle, NYG, Wash
AFC- Ne, Pit, Indy, SD, Jax, Tenn
Repeat division winners: 4
Repeat playoff teams: 6

NFC- Philly, Chicago, NO, Seattle, Dallas, NYG
AFC- NE, Balt, Indy, SD, NYJ, KC
RDW: 4
RPT: 5

NFC- NYG, Chi, TB, Seattle, Wash, Carolina
AFC- NE, Cincy, Indy, Denver, Pitt, Jax
RDW: 3
RPT: 4

NFC- Philly, GB, Atl, Seattle, Minny, STL
AFC- NE, Pit, Indy, SD, Denver, NYJ
RDW: 4
RPT: 7

NFC- Phil, GB, Carol, STL, Dall, Sea
AFC- NE, Balt, Indy, KC, Den, Tenn
RDW: 3
RPT: 5

NFC- philly, GB, TB, SF, NYG, Atl
AFC- Ne, Pit, Tenn, Oak, Ind, Den

Average # of Repeat Division Winners: 3.6
Average # of Repeat Playoff Teams: 5.4

So in the six seasons since we went to this format, it's been pretty consistent in the number of repeat division winners and repeat playoff teams we see from year to year. You could take the low side and say we'll only see 3 repeat Div winners and 5 repeat playoff teams, but me, I'm taking the averages and rounding up.

Let's look at the 2007 playoff teams again, and see who looks good to get back to the playoffs in 2008:

Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay Tampa Bay, Seattle, New York Football Giants, Washington

To be honest, I really only see two of these teams being shoo-ins to return to the playoffs: Dallas and Warshington (by the way, I love people that pronounce it "Warshington". I've never understood where the random "r" comes from. I also love people that say "Nayshunuls" instead of Nationals. Good times). Here's a fun fact: guess the last time the Dallas Cowboys won a playoff game. No really, guess. The Cowboys had the NFC's best team for most of last season, but faded late before the wheels came off in the postseason. Looking at this team, they seem primed to be the conference's best team again. There's really only chemistry issues to stop them right now. And I do think the Marion Barber/Felix Jones combo will be even better than Barber/Julius Jones was. Jones is lighting fast and a much better compliment to the type of runner Barber is than Jones was.

As for Washington, they came on in the second half last year winning their last four games to get into the playoffs, and I've heard nothing but good things coming out of their camp so far. Clinton Portis should be 100%, which means he'll be an elite back again, the line is improved, they have like 17 good WR's all under 6'0, and QB Jason Campbell seems to be coming into his own. The D also looks to be stingy again.

As for the other four, well there's some real questions here. I, for one, think Green Bay has HEE_YUUUUUGGGEEE Ewing Theory Potential (the Sports Guy's theory that when a great/hall of fame-type player leaves a franchise and everybody writes them off, they end up surprising everybody. The New York Football Giants, who had Tiki Barber walk away before last season in a very public and ugly way- remember Tiki savaged head coach Tom Coughlin on his way out- and all they did was win the Super Bowl). Their D is young, fast, and downright scary, they have a solid line and good developing receivers. Their 2 big questions- and they're definitely big- are whether RB Ryan Grant is for real (remember one-year wonder Samkon Gado?), and whether Aaron Rodgers can handle all of this insanity and pressure. I'm betting Grant IS for real and that Rodgers will be fine.

The other three look sketchy at best. The Giants were nobody's pick to win the Super Bowl at any point last year, and I don't think they made enough good moves in the offseason to improve (or offset the loss of DE Michael Strahan). Ewing Theory? Nope, because all the pigskin prognosticators seem to think they'll be fine. I just think they caught lighting in a bottle. For the last few years we've seen the Super Bowl loser not make the playoffs the following year. Well I believe this year, the trend reverses.

Tampa and Seattle will both be worse. The Bucs, without or without Brett Favre, are just not any better on paper than Carolina or New Orleans. I don't think Tampa will be awful, I just don't think they're making the playoffs. And the Seahawks, if you look at the chart again, have had a helluva a run under Holmgren, winning four straight division titles, but it comes to an end this year. For one thing the division should be better (if it seems like I say that every year, it's because I say that every year), and for the other, as bad as Shaun Alexander was last year, I just don't see Julius Jones and Maurice Morris being any better.

So to recap the NFC, the Cowboys and Pack repeat as division winners, while the Redskinnies get back in as wild cards. 3 "repeaters" in, 3 more to go from the NFC which, just glancing at, is looking almost impossible to take only 2 division winners and another repeater. Still, you do not argue with The Chart, because The Chart never lies. So we'll look at the AFC tomorrow.

By the way, Dallas last won a playoff game in 1996. I know, it blew my mind too.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Monday Musings- Minnesota Style

So I'm back in Minnesota, hopefully for good, and I have to say, it's great to be back. I really love this place. Will I be saying that in February when I'm freezing my ass off and there's no end of winter in sight? Quite possibly not, but for now, it's good to be back. A few things I've noticed since my return late last week...

...While it's fan-freaking-tastic to have real sports again (and by real sports I mean not hockey and the CFL), I had forgotten that nobody, and I mean NOBODY, beats a dead horse like E!SPN beats a dead horse. In fact I believe it should be their slogan. That or "ESPN: Soap Operas for Men." From Barry Bonds to Michael Vick and now Brett Favre, they really know how to tell a story from every possible angle- and keep telling it until you want to punch them in the face. Seriously Jer and I were enjoying a delicious Fuddruckers lunch today, and "SportsCenter" was on. Now I use the term Sportscenter loosely, because the entire show, for the half hour or so we were there eating, was about Favre. The whole damn thing. My goodness gracious, how is that necessary? I mean usually I LOVE this time of year because it's training camp and you get to see how everybody looks in camp and what the new storylines are and all of that? But right now it's all Favre, all the time, and I'm just sick of it. Would it be cool/weird/amazing for Favre to end up in Purple? Yep, it would, but I don't need to hear about the possibility, or how all of this effects Aaron Rodgers psyche, at every waking moment. I gotta be honest at first I was a little sad when I found out La Casa de Jer didn't have cable, but after watching a half hour of E!SPN, I'm now grateful.

...If you don't know me at all, you need to know one thing: I love eating out. Probably too much. If I could afford it (which I definitely can't), I would eat out for pretty much every meal. There's just so many good options (all of which are pretty much vegetable free) out there and so little time! The one I missed the most was Chipotle, hands down! And yes, I've eaten there 3 times already in the four days I've been back, and honestly, I'd go back again tonight for dinner. Chicken burrito with rice, black beans, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream- BAM! HEAVEN! Oh yeah and don't forget the Tobasco Chipotle on each and every bite. Just incredible. I also really enjoy Perkins for either the Chicken Tendermelt or the Bacon benedict. There are many, many more good places to eat in the Twin Cities, and I will do my best to visit each and every one of them.

...It's nice to be back in a city in a pennant race. Being a Mariners fan, I haven't gotten to experience that in a long time, and even then, I don't live in Seattle so it's not the same. Two springs ago the Vancouver Canucks made a rare playoff appearance, and Vancity was absolutely electric. While the Minnesota Twins aren't in the playoffs just yet, it's been fun to see them all over the news and radio, and there's Twins gear all over the place. Not too hard to cheer for a team like that, especially since they finally cut Livan Hernandez and brought up Francisco Liriano. Of course they should have done that three weeks ago, but the point is, it's done.

...The trade deadline passed before it could have happened, but I was going to make a suggestion to Twins GM Terry Ryan that he should deal one of his 19,000 pitching prospects to the LA Dodgers for 3B Andy Laroche. In his short time in the pros his numbers have been awful, but he was a super prospect not too long ago, and I think he just needed a change of scenery. He would have been a great fit for the Twins and would have cost them next to nothing. Unfortunately, he got dealt to Pittsburgh in the Manny trade, so that idea's out. But seriously, they need to do something about the Hot Corner, because trying to sign the Mike Lamb's of the world every year (or Tony Batista) just ain't cutting it.