Wednesday, October 8, 2008

NFL Week 5 -- and MLB Playoffs

The fact that the Washington Redskins beat the Philadelphia Eagles 23-17 on Sunday wasn’t the surprising or impressive part – that Washington came back from being down 14-0 to do it was.

Jason Campbell wasn’t spectacular – though he was solid again, passing for 167 yards and again committing no turnovers. Clinton Portis ran all over an Eagles defense that looked gassed at the end, and Antwan Randle-El must’ve had memories of his college days when he lobbed that touchdown pass to Chris Cooley.

More impressively? A defense that held down an offense led by Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook, not to mention the fact Washington pulled this off in Philly. The Redskins have already played their three NFC East road games this year, and sit 2-1 in those contests. While it’s entirely possible for New York, Dallas and Philadelphia to walk out of FedEx Field with a win, the fact that Washington came out of the toughest stretch of its 2008 schedule with a winning record is a good sign.

Also a good sign are the next three games for Washington: home against St. Louis, home against Cleveland and at Detroit. Those three teams have combined for one win so far this season, and it’s entirely possible the Redskins could go into their Monday night contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 7-1 record.

Don’t print out the Super Bowl tickets just yet, but the Redskins won’t the doormat of the NFC East this season.

Other Random NFL Musings

-Where did Aaron Rodgers go? After lighting up the professional football world for the first two weeks, Green Bay’s new quarterback has lost three straight games – including an inexplicable home defeat on Sunday to Atlanta. Add a nagging shoulder injury to the equation, and Cheeseheads everywhere have to be wondering if Ted Thompson made the right move running Brett Favre out of town after all.

-Sure, the Colts are 2-2 right now, but they could easily be 0-4. Houston practically gave that game to the Colts in the final five minutes on Sunday, and there is definitely something wrong in Indy. The team has yet to win in its new building, the offensive line appears to be a large revolving door, and I’m not sure how much more Marvin Harrison has in the tank. Yes, Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy are still there, and Indy might still make the playoffs, but the ship’s starting to take on water.

-It was nice to see Denver finally bring a defense to the game in Sunday’s 16-13 win over Tampa Bay. If the Broncos are hoping to become a serious force in the AFC, they’ll need a defense. I’ll grant that the Buccaneers aren’t the most explosive offensive team in the world, but Bronco fans have to be pleased with the fact that their team managed to hold a team under 20 points. Jay Cutler’s got that offense going; the Broncos need stops to be a legitimate contender.

-Am I the only one noticing that the Titans are a better team without Vince Young? I almost hate to suggest it, but Tennessee is 5-0. Kerry Collins isn’t turning the ball over, Chris Johnson’s proving to be a very good running back and the defense is hitting people upside their collective heads. Even if Young’s healthy, I consider keeping him on the bench, but if I must use the No. 3 overall pick from 2006, I start using that Wildcat offense Miami seems to have mastered.

-All the credit in the world to Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli for refusing to quit on his team, in spite of the Lions’ woeful 0-4 start. While Marinelli said he wouldn’t argue if management fired him – the way it did two weeks ago with general manager Matt Millen – Marinelli said the last thing he wanted to do was quit, and that he took the suggestion as a personal insult. I love guys who pledge to stick with it in spite of tough times – any players who fall in line with Marinelli will be better for it in the long run. Former Falcons coach Bobby Petrino could learn a lot from Marinelli.

Then There Were Four

The Dodgers and Phillies will face each other in the National League Championship Series, while the American League Championship Series will have a decidedly AL East feel, with the Red Sox and Rays squaring off. While MLB executives, guys whose entire lives sometimes revolve around television ratings are probably praying for a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series – and the bevy of potential storylines therein – that’s not necessarily a given.

The Phillies haven’t been this far into October since 1993, when Mitch Williams served up the World Series to Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays. But Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Co. are primed for this trip, though Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers won’t be a tough out. I have a hard time picking against any team managed by Joe Torre, but I think the Phillies have too strong a lineup and a good rotation.

Not to mention, Brad Lidge hasn’t blown a save all year.

As for Red Sox-Rays, I can easily see this going seven games. I can understand why everyone might pick Boston, really I do; the Red Sox have won two of the last four World Series, and they have all this postseason experience and pedigree. But the Rays have shown tremendous grit over the season, winning games when they absolutely had to.

Tampa Bay won the season series 10-8, and it seemed every time the Rays needed to win to hold off the Red Sox, they did. I also like the resolve Tampa Bay showed after losing Game 3 to the White Sox, bouncing back to win Game 4 and take the series. I think this is that rare team that won’t let a lack of experience bother it, so I like Tampa Bay in seven.

So sorry, guys – we won’t see Manny, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Lowe invading Fenway in Dodger uniforms. No “Manny Being Manny” as the Boston faithful rain down the boos. Phillies-Rays in the World Series, where I like Tampa Bay in six.

Is there a reason for that pick? Not really, but the Rays have been defying reason the whole season.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Did I Pick the Cubs? What, oh, What Was I Thinking?!

Is it too late to go back on my World Series pick from Wednesday? You know, the one where I said the Tampa Bay Rays would face the Chicago Cubs?

The good news is, I appear to have potentially been somewhat on the nose with the Tampa Bay pick; granted, it was only Game 1 of the ALDS against the White Sox, but the Rays looked intense and ready in a 6-4 win on Thursday. I don't think the White Sox have the pitching and offense to keep up with the Rays, who are virtually unbeateble at Tropicana Field.

But the Cubs? The best team in the National League this season? A team that won 97 games with a high-flying offense and a pitching staff that featured the likes of Rick "Can't Beat Me at Wrigley" Dempster, Carlos "Fireball" Zambrano and Rich "Hey, This is Much Better than Oakland!" Harden. Even Kerry Wood was in on the fun, giving the Cubs a reliable bullpen arm while actually managing to stay off the disabled list ... most of the time.

This looked like the year the Cubs might finally end the Billy Goat Curse. And the Bartman Curse. And the We're-Not-the-White-Sox Curse. After all, if Boston could exorcise its baseball demons in 2004 and the cross-town White Sox could forever banish Shoeless Joe a year later, why couldn't the Cubs finally win that elusive title 100 years after their last?

Because they're the Cubs. Losing is just a way of life for them. And I should've known better when I picked them to go to the World Series. Granted, I didn't forsee Dempster getting smacked around the ivy in Game 1, and I didn't think the Cubs' defense would implode to the tune of four errors in Game 2. But the thing with the Cubs in October is, you're probably better off betting on the unforseen. Conventional wisdom just doesn't work for this team.

So between the Dodgers' 2-0 lead heading back to Los Angeles and the way the Phillies are dispatching of the Brewers -- even knocking C.C. Sabathia out of Game 2 in the fourth inning on Thursday -- it's looking like we may be staring at a Philadelphia-Los Angeles NLCS. And if that's the case, I need to completely re-think my choice.

I find it almost impossible to pick against Joe Torre after the first two games of the Dodgers-Cubs series. This is a man who has made 13 consecutive postseason appearances as a manager, dating back to his Yankee days, and this time Torre did it without a plethora of high-priced free agents. Sure, he had Manny Ramirez tossed into his lap at the trade deadline, but the Dodgers were in NL West contention before then.

But the Phillies have Ryan Howard. And Chase Utley. And Jimmy Rollins. And Cole Hamels. And a rejuvinated Jamie Moyer. And Brad Lidge. Wait ... what was my argument for the Dodgers again?

So, Phillies-Dodgers in the NLCS. I'm gonna go with the Phils in six, mostly because of their rotation and that three-headed monster in the lineup. If Pat Burrell can get his back situated enough to be consistently effective, the Phils' chances of meeting the Rays in the playoffs look that much better.

But if I'm a Cubs fan, there is no longer any such thing as a lovable loser. If the Cubs do in fact finish this specatcular display of choking, there will only be one brand of loser on the North Side of Chicago, and it won't be very lovable. Then again, Cubs fans should take solace in three simple facts:

1) Bartman has absolutely nothing to do with this one.

2) Give it a few more days; the White Sox will likely join you in Chicago playoff futility.

3) The Bears might just give the Packers a run in the NFC North -- assuming Kyle Orton can keep from coughing up the ball. After this postseason, I think Chicago's had enough choking.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

NFL Week 4 -- and Baseball Playoffs? Already?

Pipe Down: Terrell Owens was mad after Sunday's 26-24 loss to the Washington Redskins, Dallas' first loss of the season. Apparently, T.O. didn't get the ball enough, thus explaining why the Cowboys' offense looked so stagnant.

Stagnant being his word, not mine.

But examine the facts: Tony Romo threw T.O.'s way 17 times on Sunday, 15 in the second half. Owens ended the game with seven catches for 71 yards and a touchdown -- and could've had more if not for Washington's secondary hounding him like a lost puppy. That's not even taking into account the two times Dallas gave the ball to T.O. on a sweep.

Marion Barber had eight carries against the Redskins. Owens had a quarter of that, and he's not even a running back.

T.O. had his touches, which was actually part of the problem. Romo and head coach Wade Phillips appeared so set on getting the ball to T.O., they virtually ignored their other playmakers -- specifically Barber, Felix Jones, Jason Witten and Austin Miles. If Dallas had actually bothered to balance its offense and try to keep a depleted Washington defense off-guard, Sunday's game might've been a completely different story.

That said, though, the continued progression of Jason Campbell and head coach Jim Zorn's offense is nothing short of impressive, particularly considering the season-opening egg the Redskins laid against the Giants. If Washington can beat the Eagles this week -- a potentially tall order, given Philadelphia's pass rush -- then notice will be served that the NFC East is a four-team race.

In the meantime, let's just bask in the glory that is the Redskins beating its most hated and historic rival.

Cause: Just when you think Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders couldn't get more ridiculous, Tuesday's firing of Lane Kiffin happened. Kiffin's dismissal wasn't surprising -- Davis had hinted at wanting the young coach gone as early as January -- but the press conference that ensued was nothing short of astounding.

Davis said he fired Kiffin "for cause," and refused to pay Kiffin the remainder of his deal (listen closely enough, and you can hear Kiffin's lawyers already working on fighting that). According to Davis, Kiffin spent his tenure undermining Davis' authority and lying to the media in an effort to curry favor and make the Raiders' management look bad.

Which, trust me, they don't need Kiffin's help for.

Davis even showed the assembled media a letter he said he gave to Kiffin before the start of the season, outlining Kiffin's missteps and threatening termination if it happened again. That letter, with all its misspellings and grammatical inaccuracies, was released to the media and can be found here.

Kiffin, to his credit, was even-keel when asked about things late Tuesday evening, lamenting how disappointed and embarrassed he was. One got the sense he wasn't really bummed about being fired, only that he didn't appreciate the way Davis handled things.

I won't go into how the Raiders won't amount to much of anything so long as Davis is still pulling the strings -- everyone with an internet connection and ESPN can do that -- but Kiffin was actually starting to show signs of improvement. The Raiders are averaging a full touchdown more per game on offense than they did a year ago, and a run-oriented offense designed to take the pressure off JaMarcus Russell has shown signs of working.

Not to mention, with fourth-quarter leads each of the last three weeks, Oakland could easily be 3-1 instead of 1-3.

Here's hoping Kiffin finds another NFL job soon, even if it's as a coordinator. He's a young, bright football mind, and he deserves to be with an organization -- and an owner -- that knows what it's doing.

Playoff Picks: Major League Baseball playoffs start today, and for the first time since I was in middle school, the New York Yankees are nowhere to be found. But look on the bright side, Alex Rodriguez: at least this year no one can criticize you for an October choke job -- unless you have to have the Heimlich performed on you at some point in the next 31 days.

But eight teams are in -- the Rays, Red Sox, Angels and White Sox in the American League; the Phillies, Brewers, Cubs and Dodgers in the National League. While I struggle to find a clear favorite, I'll try my best -- mostly cause I'm bored here at work with nothing to do.

In the AL, it's tempting to pick the Rays. Like, real tempting. Tampa Bay has this knack for winning when it absolutely has to, something the Rays showed repeatedly throughout September, as they battled injuries and the defending World Series champion Red Sox nipped at their heels. There is something to be said for a lack of October playing experience, but this Rays team strikes me as the sort that won't let that bother them.

The Red Sox will obviously be a factor, but the Angels have Boston's number this year -- and Josh Beckett's injury woes will cast a shadow on the Red Sox. The White Sox are a nice story, and I'm sure plenty of you out there are having dreams of an All-Chicago World Series, but given the amount of energy Chicago had to produce just to get to the playoffs might come back to bite them.

My pick? Tampa Bay and Los Angeles in the ALCS. A seven-game free-for-all between the league's two best teams. Going completely with my gut here, I'll pick Tampa Bay to keep the dream alive and go to the Fall Classic.

In the NL, the Cubs were by far the best team in the league this season, which for any other team would be an automatic ticket to the World Series. But these are the Cubs, a team that falls victim to fluke circumstances and its own ineptitude so often it's almost expected. They should make easy work, though, of the Dodgers, who despite having Manny Ramirez and Joe Torre, needed a late-season boost to win the woeful NL West.

Phillies-Brewers could be an interesting series, though Milwaukee will be in trouble. Ben Sheets is out for the playoffs with a torn muscle in his pitching elbow, which will make the Brewers' rotation C.C. Sabathia ... and a couple other guys. And since Sabathia can't pitch every day, I look for the Phils to take this one in four.

Phillies-Cubs in the NLCS. Who goes to the World Series? If for no other reason than starting pitching -- and the fact that Pat Burrell is a big question mark now because of his back -- I'll go with the Cubs.

So. Cubs-Rays in the World Series. Sign of the Apocalypse? Only if the Cubs win. I'll spare the world Armageddon for now and choose the Rays in seven.

Because I can.

Heartwarming: Tired of stories about athletes who are constantly getting in trouble with the law and thinking about "me me me" all the time? Then I direct you Dana O'Neill's piece on about Wisconsin basketball player Marcus Landry and how he balances fatherhood with academics and hoops.

It's the kind of story I'd love to see more of. You can read it here.