Saturday, September 06, 2008

And now for the AFC East

The AFC East is going to be one of the most watched divisions this season, if for no other reason than the following -

  • People will want to see when the Patriots finally lose a game
  • See how Brett Favre fares in New York
  • See how Da Tuna's changes work in Miami
  • To see if Buffalo can close the gap on a playoff birth
There's a lot going on in a division that faces an easier schedule than it had last season, and the following is how I see the chips falling...

4. Jets - It was the biggest move of any team in the off-season, and it could result in big dividends for the Jets, but I don't think it will. I don't see Brett Favre being the solution on a team that had so many glaring holes last year. If anything, I believe, given the short amount of time he had to practice with the team going into the season, he will be a wash (in regards to Chad Pennington). Before anyone gets defensive about it, I present the following -
  1. Favre is learning a new system for the first time in 16 seasons, that will cause early problems for a team that faces New England, San Diego, and an improved Arizona squad in the first four games. This is a team that could easily enter their bye at 1-3 or even 0-4.
  2. He has had one good season in the last three - last year's when the young talent drafted by Green Bay finally began to gel. The Jets do not have the playmakers on defense, the wide outs (though theirs aren't bad), the runners, nor the offense line that the Packers have. Favre has not made his teammates better the last couple of seasons, he was made better last season by young talent placed around him. Now that talent is around Aaron Rodgers.
  3. The Jets brought in Damien Woody and Alan Faneca to protect a quarterback that will be 39 in October - two thirty-plus year-old linemen. Sure, Faneca was a pro-bowler while surrounded by other pretty good linemen in Pittsburgh, but now he has to compensate for a roughly average D'Brickshaw Ferguson, and an okay Nick Mangold on either side of him. And Woody, well, this is a guy who spent his career handling tackles from the guard position, lost his starting job in Detroit of all places, and has been brought in to play tackle. Forgive me if I'm skeptical about that line having great results.
  4. With that line, teams aren't going to give Favre time early to connect long. Teams will pressure Favre until the Jet line shows it can handle the pressure. Don't count on the long ball early.
All that said, the Jets will win around six games this year just out of the mercy of the scheduling gods that gave them teams like Kansas City and Oakland - and even the Raiders aren't a given for the Jets this season.

3. Dolphins - This still isn't a good team. As a matter of fact, it's still pretty bad. However, while it's universally acknowledged that the Favre deal was the biggest deal during the off-season, I believe that the Chad Pennington signing is the most important. It makes the Dolphins significantly better than they were last year, it might even make them better than the Jets, and here's why - unlike Favre, Pennington has had to adapt to new coaches and new systems, and it's likely, given Bill Parcells' predilection for hiring guys he's worked with before (he drafted Pennington), it's likely that Pennington will be playing in the same system in which excelled when he was first with the Jets. Overall the team lacks the requisite personnel to be successful, and the 'Phins would be better off with Parcells on the sideline rather than in the executive offices, but he will make the team better in the long run, just don't expect a contender right away. Expect them to be around that same six win plateau as the Jets, maybe even seven and nine if they can steal a game here and there.

2. Bills - I think Donte Whitner's mouth is writing checks his team can't cash. This team isn't bad, but it's got work to do to get to the next level. They aren't ready to compete with the likes of the Pats, Indy, the Steelers, and the Jags, San Diego, and maybe not even the Browns. I give the team an outside shot at the playoffs, but should they eke their way in, it will be one of those final regular season Sundays when they're doing calculus to figure out tie-breakers with teams like the Titans, or the Broncos as they try to figure out the tie-breaker (Dick Jauron to Whitner sometime in December: I think we get in if the Broncos win, but only on a drop kick from 32-yards out or longer by Jay Cutler, unless the Ravens score a safety and it happens to be a new moon).

1. Patriots - A lot of people are putting the Pats at 12-4. I'm going to go out on a limb and put the Pats at 15-1, losing only to the Colts during the regular season. Yes, there were issues during the pre-season on defense, but this is largely the same defense the Pats had last season that was ranked fourth overall, they ran virtually no stunts during the pre-season, and they've added some speed and youth on that side of the ball. In games that the defense struggles, this is still an offense that will be able to score at will against almost every team in the NFL, and it's a better team, from a talent perspective, than the Chargers, probably the second best team the Pats will face this season. It's been 19 games since the last time the Pats lost in the regular season. If my guess is correct, the Patriots will make it to 26 consecutive regular season wins before dropping another game.

On a related note, my wife is creepy. Years ago my wife started doing this thing where she would just say if the Pats would win or lose. If I remember, it started with the 1996 season. She got every game right that season. Overall, through the years she's probably batting about .900, maybe .950. She said, without hesitation nor reservation, that the Patriots would win the Super Bowl this year. She could be wrong, but I wouldn't bet against her.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

National League redux and more NFL

Speed kills.

On a day when the Red Sox offense was sluggish, it was the lightweights that came through at the end of the game. Playing the national league base-to-base speed game is what put the team over the top.

With the game tied at four in the ninth, Alex Cora, the same Alex Cora who bats .133 in pressure situations (runners in scoring position with 2 out) hit a flare to lead off the inning. Coco Crisp followed up with a bunt single, putting runners at first and second for Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury laid down the sac bunt that everyone was expecting, and Baltimore pitcher Jim Miller fielded the ball cleanly, only to throw it into left field in an effort to force Cora at third. Cora came home on the throwing error.

Three of the team's five runs came either from Pedroia or the bottom of the order.

With the come from behind win the Sox inched another game closer to the Rays who have not looked good against the Yankees.

And the NFC EAST....

4. Redskins - This team got by last year largely on emotion after the sudden, violent death of teammate Sean Taylor. That won't carry over. Overall, they're the least talented team in the devision, have the fourth best quarterback and the least experienced head coach in the division. Overall, that's a formula that's likely to result in a five to six win season.

3. Giants - I concede that healthy, this team has as good a chance as any to return to the postseason - they have the best running game in the NFC East, they still have a decent defense, and that running game will go a long way toward making the D better. That said, I still don't trust Eli Manning. Yes, he had a postseason for the ages last year, but he's wildly inconsistent, and that vaunted defensive line, so deep last year, is one injury away from being completely screwed. This team could well win eleven, but could just as easily crap out at seven wins. My guess, eight or nine wins.

2. Cowboys - The most talented team in the division still has the second best defense in the East (New York's is better), and there's a volatility to the team that is kind of like a powder keg waiting to go off. They have a solid coach who has never had a losing season, but he's also never won a playoff game, they have a receiver that has torn apart two previous teams, a cornerback that has never gone a season without at least one arrest, and they have the coach of the future sitting on staff. That can't be good for a head coach's confidence. This team should win ten or eleven games, assuming it doesn't eat itself.

1. Eagles - Yup, going out on a limb here. I don't believe that they're the best team in the division, I think they have problems top to bottom. I'm not convinced that Asante Samuel is going to pay dividends (what ex-Pat has been an impact player with his new team in the Bill Belichick era? Adam Vinatieri and who else?). He's largely the same corner they had before but with a different name. They have okay but not great receivers. What they really have, however, is still the most talented quarterback in the division, and he was largely all the team had when they won the three straight NFC East titles. This year he's likely out to prove that the Kevin Kolb pick was a mistake. I think this team scratches and claws its way to eleven wins and a division title.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

City of Dust and the AFC South


He's the Mighty Mite, the Dust Storm. He's possibly the smallest clean-up hitter in the history of the Red Sox. When looking at it from a size perspective, the closest middle of the order you will find is Ted Williams and Jimmy Foxx to today's Dustin Pedroia/David Ortiz pairing. The big difference is that Foxx protected Williams in the line-up, not the other way around.

The team seems to have found Pedroia's spot in the order. To wit - He's batting .208 (72 at bats) when hitting first in the order, an impressive .339 (484 at bats) when batting second in the order, but when he's batting fourth, and yes, 14 at bats isn't a great sampling, but the numbers are obscene - he's hitting an mind-boggling .643, his on base percentage is .647, he's slugging 1.071 and his OPS is 1.718. He has yet to strikeout while batting fourth, while batting second he averaged one strikeout per 12.1 at bats.

In three games in the clean-up spot, his Runs Scored and Runs Batted In Per Game, or as I call it; RSBIG, is 3.33.

With Kevin Youkilis fighting a virus, Mike Lowell and JD Drew injured, Josh Beckett missing a couple of starts, Big Papi playing injured, Manny Ramirez playing his way out of town, and Varitek hitting like his last name should be Mendoza, Pedroia has led the team. Pedroia has been the spark plug, leading a cast that includes Jed Lowrie, Jason Bay, Jeff Bailey, Alex Cora, and Mark Kotsay.

Think about this for a second - The BoSox took two of three from potential post-season contender Chicago with a line-up that includes only opening day starters at only centerfield, second base, catcher, and designated hitter. More than half the starting line-up has turned over. They have missed starts from both of last seasons top two starters - Daisuke Matsuzaka and Beckett, and got virtually no contribution from the five spot in the rotation until recently.

I seem to remember some owner down in New York whining about how his team would be in contention if it weren't for injuries. Maybe they're just not that good a team. At least not good enough to compete with the Dust storm going on in Boston.

And onto the AFC South...

4. Texans - This team is improving, but they might be in the toughest division in football right now. While I believe this team will only win about five or six games tops, I also see them being in a lot of games at the end, losing several by less than a touchdown. If the offense improves and becomes more consistent, look for them to make some noise next season. This just isn't their year.

3. Titans - I see this team taking a step backwards. I still don't trust their quarterback and his desire to play the game. They will likely be 8-8 and out of the playoffs this season.

2. Colts - I think the Colts could still win the division, and I firmly believe that they will be going to the playoffs, but there are concerns around the Colts that mirror certain concerns I have with the Patriots. Manning is coming off an injury that will limit his mobility while playing behind a banged up line. Because of this there's every possibility that the Colts will get off to a slow start this season. Part of the issue I have with the line is that the middle of it is a mess. The big problem that the Colts will have that the Pats don't have is that the Colts face stiffer divisional competition. I see 10-6 and a wild card berth.

1. Jaguars - The Jags also have issues, particularly given the recent shooting incident, and they had a turbulent off-season with players getting in trouble. The Greg Williams defense might even be an issue for this team in getting over the hurdle that is the Colts considering, as good as his defenses have been, they have always lagged in the bottom half of the league in take-aways, and that might be a big problem. If everything clicks, they could win 11 or 12.