Thursday, August 28, 2008

Goin' South, NFC Style

The NFC South has been a strange division. In every season since 2003 the team that was worst followed up by going to first the following season.

This year that trend breaks.

Yes, I actually believe that the Falcons are better than they were a year ago, but this is a team in development, not a team ready to win now. And away we go...

4. Falcons - While I'm not necessarily convinced that this team is going to win more games than they did a year ago, I do think this is a better team than last year's edition if for no other reason than the fact that I believe that Atlanta is better positioned to be successful down the road. However, even though I think four wins is the likely total, I wouldn't be surprised to see this team steal one or two and creep up to six wins.

3. Panthers - The more I have seen of this team since their ill-fated run at the Super Bowl a few seasons back, the more I think that was just one of those fluke seasons where everyone had that one career season, the serendipity of everyone on an otherwise average team peaking at the same time to come within a few minutes of a championship. In an effort to recapture that magic, the team has brought back a 35-year old Muhsin Muhammad to pair with the volatile Steve Smith in spite of the fact that Muhammad seldom got separation in Chicago. If Julius Peppers has a 2008 like his 2007, it's going to be a very long, very unrewarding season in the Carolinas.

2. Buccaneers - Chuckie's boys are the tough out, so to speak of the division. They'll hang around until the end, they'll pound you with a physical running game and a tough defense, but they'll also lose one or two to teams they have no business losing to. Realistically, they have just enough talent to scare some people and play spoiler, but they don't really have enough to get all the way to the Bowl. Chances are that they'll hit 8-8, maybe a repeat of last season's 9-7, and they may even win the division again, but they'll have to overcome the Saints which might be the best team in the division.

1. Saints - The Saints could potentially win 11 or 12 with the talent they have, assuming their defense comes together and Jeremy Shockey doesn't do to their locker room that he did to New York's. The chances of that, I think, are slim as this is a veteran quarterback that Shockey is dealing with, and it's definitively Drew Brees' locker room. This isn't a locker room that had veterans like Tiki Barber undermining the QB, and Brees isn't a guy that let's that stuff get to him (see his time with the Chargers for reference). Of the division's team's that have a shot at the playoffs, I think only the Saints have enough talent to make noise in the post-season.

Slipping away and the AFC North

They can feel it in the Big Apple. It was obvious last night.

A crowd of 51,000 in the Bronx watched in what can only be called reserved quiet as the Yankees went out of last night's game with a whimper. The bang was provided by the visiting Red Sox.

Through the two games the Sox have scored 18 runs against Yankee pitchers, with Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay combining to drive in 10 runs. The only two Sox players that failed to score runs in the two games were Alex Cora and Kevin Cash, and Cora at least had an RBI, making Cash the only player who failed to contribute to the Sox' offensive outburst.

And the Yankees' $30-million man and clean-up hitter? The man who's supposed to be an offensive tour-de-force - Alex Rodriguez - is 2 for 9 (.222) in the series with one run scored on one batted in (home run), has left all eight men on that were occupying the base-paths during his at bats, and, overall, is batting .246 with runners in scoring position (he's batting .348 with the bases empty). This might be a radical thought, but maybe he should bat lead-off.

For a contrast, and maybe this illustrates how the seasons have gone for the two teams, Kevin Youkilis, who's currently batting clean-up behind David Ortiz, is batting .281 with the bases empty, but .360 with runners in scoring position. To take the comparison a step further - Youk is batting .429 and has 12 RBI with the bases loaded. A-Rod: .100 with 4 RBI.

With Jon Lester on the mound this afternoon against Mike Mussina, I would say today's game is a toss-up, giving the Sox a 50-50 chance at a sweep.

With 30 games left, in the season, more than 60 percent of them at Fenway for the Sox, the Yankees likely have to get to at least 94 wins, and probably 95 just for a playoff bid. That would be a gaudy and unrealistic 25-5 record for the final 30 games of the season.

It's time for the Yankees to begin looking at some of their minor leaguers, to see who the future of the team really is.

And on to the AFC North...

I don't see any major issues changing the face of this division from last year. Injuries and quarterback problems are issues for almost all of these teams.

4. Ravens - They may have found their quarterback of the future, but the future isn't now in Baltimore yet. They'll be in games and play teams tough, but they're at least a year away from being good. I'm guessing at six wins.

3. Bengals - Carson Palmer is already banged up, Chad Johnson is playing through a shoulder injury, and the team is so short at wide out that they resigned resident thug Chris Henry, whom the team claimed they would never re-sign when they cut him. And he can't play in the first month due to a four game suspension. This is not going to be the high powered offense we're used to. If they win more than seven, it will be something of a miracle, and, given their defensive woes, they could end up with four wins on the season.

2. Browns - They haven't looked good in the pre-season, but there's a lot of potential here. Their biggest issue remains on the defensive side of the ball. If they manage to work that out, this team could make some noise. As it is, they aren't surprising anyone this season, so I wouldn't be surprised at 8-8.

1. Steelers - I think that Pittsburgh takes the division - possibly at 9-6. Their biggest problem could be something of a lingering hangover from getting beat-up by other elite teams such as the Jaguars and Patriots late in the season. Only three of the Steelers wins last season came against teams that won at least ten games, and only one was a playoff contender. This season they face teams nine times that either won ten or made the playoffs last season. They have to play better against good teams, or this division might be sending an 8-8 division champ to the big show, and I guarantee, that team will be one and done.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dog Days and the NFC North

In recent years this series - Sawx-Yanks - in the dog days of August has meant a lot to the complexion of the American League East. It has played a part in determining the East Champ, and even the Wild Card contender. It's where the wheels came off of the Sawx in 2005.

It's where the Sawx gave Yankees hope for the division last season.

This year it's less about the division than who ends up out of the playoffs. Nothing is written in stone, and both the Yankees and Sox have looked a little cooked lately, while the Twins have surged recently. Granted, the Sox were looking a little cooked at the beginning of
September last season, dropping five of their six to the Yanks in August and September and look what happened there.

But let's face a few basic facts - a month ago the Sox were by themselves as the wild card entrant if the season ended then. Now the margin of the Twins is smaller than the space between the Sox and the division leading Rays - who have added games between the two teams in the last month. The Sox still have a chance to pull it off - even the division - but the team has to play better ball of the next month than they have for the last month.

Needless to say, it's gonna be one hairy September in the Hub of the Universe.

And onto the gridiron...

The NFC North - Something feels weird about this division. It's filled with teams that all have issues, fatal flaws if you will, in regards to their aspirations to a Lombardi Trophy. All have an issue at a key position - quarterback - and some have issues that go deeper.

4. Lions - They may actually have the best quarterback in the division in John Kitna (and this might be the first time in Kitna's career that has EVER been written about him), and based on last year, Rod Marinelly might finally have this team heading in the right direction. But let's face two basic facts: The Ford Family ownership of this team has been an unending nightmare, and Matt Millen's tenure as a GM has been record shattering, and not in a good way. No team in the history of the NFL has had as many consecutive seasons with double-digits in the loss column, and I have a hard time buying that he's learned to be better than any of his in-division counterparts. If the Lions finish ahead of another team in the division, I'm guessing it has less to do with the Lions elevating their level of play than it does with the other team spitting the bit. I have a hard time seeing this team improving on their 7-9 season of last year, and considering their schedule gets considerably tougher after the first three games of their season, I wouldn't be surprised if they regressed to four wins.

3. Bears - The carousel goes around and around at the signal caller position, and it looks like Kyle Orton is getting the call again. You'd think someone there could pick a pro-caliber QB, but alas, no. But the real killer for this team is that the D is not what it once was, and lacks depth. I'm guessing in the vicinity of 8-8.

2. Vikings - Despite the deficiencies of Tavaris Jackson, I think this team will compete for the division, and may even win the division, but that's going to depend on three things. One - Jackson has to keep from making the mistake that kills the team. Two - the health of Adrian Peterson. The young running back racked up some hard miles in his rookie year, and breaking down is a strong possibility, and if that happens this team will plummet in the standings. His ability to pound the ball last season made the Minnesota defense better by keeping them rested. If he's not touching the ball, they pay. Three - the health of Aaron Rogers.

1. Packers - The Packers won 13 games last season and were a few plays away from the Super Bowl. Their only major change was at quarterback. Rogers has been in the system for three seasons already, has been solid in preseason, and was better against the Cowboys last season than Brett Favre. If Rogers stays healthy, the Pack wins the division, albeit not by much. Last year they were five games better than the 8-8 Vikings. This season they're maybe two games better, and maybe not even that.