Saturday, January 21, 2006


Off Season Transaction Analysis - NL Central

St. Louis has owned this division for the past two years, but everyone else is starting to catch up. Let's review:

Chicago: I have been hard on the Cubbies in earlier posts, but I will give them props for some recent deals. Signing Jacque Jones away from Minnesota and trading for Juan Pierre are two significant steps in the right direction. They gave up on Corey Patterson, too, which I think was a good move for both sides. The power is all in the infield (Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee, specifically), but Pierre and Jones should hit 1-2 and be effective. This is a team that will play a lot of small ball this year, manufacturing runs rather than waiting for the big bop. Pitching is always a question mark, since the health of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior is never guaranteed. Having said that, a starting five of Wood, Pior, Greg Maddux, Carlos Zambrano and Glendon Rusch isn't too shabby. Direction: Slightly Up.

Cincinnati: Boy, I wish I knew what to make of this team. They have a scary good group of outfielders (Adam Dunn, Ken Griffey, Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena). Looks like one of them (probably Dunn) will likely be converted to a first baseman to replace the departed Sean Casey, swapped to Pittsburgh for Dave Williams. The Reds then dealt for Tony Womack, probably as insurance in case super-sub Ryan Freel gets hurt. Felipe Lopez had a breakout season last year, and this year could be Edwin Encarnacion's turn. Add in the great catcher combo of Jason LaRue and Javier Valentin, and you have as good an offense as anyone else in the division. But, boy, is that pitching still bad. Direction: Neutral.

Houston: If you've heard of the play "Waiting fo Godot", meet the cast of "Waiting for Clemens". Everything in Houston depends on Roger Clemens' decision whether or not to pitch this season. The only significant move the Astros made this offseason was signing Preston Wilson. That move further proves that the Astros want to get rid of Jeff Bagwell and his wrecked shoulders, as Wilson's signing forces Lance Berkman to first base, assuming the Astros feel Jason Lane is ready to assume the center field job full-time (which he is). Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.

Milwaukee: Here's the team that could make the jump from division also-ran to player. Of course, we've heard it all before. Did OK in completing two trades with the Blue Jays, getting David Bush, Gabe Gross, Zach Jackson and Corey Koskie for Lyle Overbay and Brian Wolfe. Overbay was out of a job with the ascension of Prince Fielder, and the Brewers have a lot of good, young talent (Rickie Weeks, JJ Hardy and Brady Clark) combined with some great veterans (Carlos Lee, Geoff Jenkins and Koskie). The pitching staff is better than you think, as Doug Davis would have won more than 11 games last year with better run support. Tomo Ohka and Dave Bush are both good pitchers and, if Ben Sheets is healthy, this team looks good. In short, they didn't make a lot of moves this offseason, but they really didn't need to. And the moves they had to make, they did. Direction: Up.

Pittsburgh: I really want to see Pittsburgh do well. Sadly, it won't be this year. Instead of sticking with growing a team up from the minors, they go out and sign Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz to free-agent contracts, trade for Sean Casey, re-signed all of their arbitration-eligible guys and unloaded Mark Redman, Tike Redman, Mike Restovich and Dave Williams. Doesn't make much sense. Also, they let Jose Mesa walk (not necessarily a bad thing), but Mike Gonzalez looks ready for prime time. This club got older this offseason and that's not good. Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.

St. Louis: The defending division champs underwent an extreme makeover of sorts after last year's ugly playoff exit against the Astros. They cut ties with OF's Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker and dealt for Juan Encarnacion and Larry Bigbie, added 2B Junior Spivey and Aaron Miles (who should have a fun slugfest for the job in Spring Training) and signed Braden Looper to set up, and as insurance, for Jason Isringhausen. They also cut loose Matt Morris and are giving Sidney Ponson a second chance after his Baltimore banishment. On paper, not good, but this is St. Louis, land of the greatest clubhouse and fans in the NL, not to mention Tony LaRussa, so you gotta think good things. Direction: Neutral, pointing Down.

Coming soon....the NL West!


NFL Conference Championship Predictions

Well, I got the NFC 100% right. Sadly, I got the AFC 100% wrong. Let's see how we do this week:

Pittsburgh at Denver: Turns out I had things backwards for the Steelers-Colts game last week, as the Steelers were seriously motivated and took an 11-point lead to the locker room at halftime. Oh, well. Despite the big lead, Bill Cowher yet again went ultra conservative in the 4th quarter and nearly paid for it. I have come to the conclusion that he will never learn. When the Steelers are aggressive on defense and mixing up the offense, they are nearly unbeatable (as we saw through much of last week's game). They need to do it for 60 minutes. I think if the Steeler blitz starts getting to Jake Plummer, he'll revert to Arizona-vintage Plummer and start throwing ducks and interceptions. Both teams will be putting 6, 7 and 8 guys in the box to stop the run and this game will come down to two things, the QB and the O-Lines. In both cases, I like Pittsburgh more. Pittsburgh 27-20

Carolina at Seattle: Everybody is talking about Steve Smith, and well they should be. What he did to the great Chicago defense last week was amazing. Problem this week is that Carolina deosn't have DeShaun Foster to offset him. I think Seattle will double and triple team Smith and dare Carolina to beat them with Nick Goings, their third-string RB. Seattle is expected to have Shaun Alexander ready to go, and their balanced attack will give them more options than Carolina has. I think we'll see a high scoring game with Seattle getting the last points. Seattle 30-27

Super Bowl in two weeks.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


NFL Conference Semi-Final Predictions

3 of 4 last weekend. I only missed Cincy, but who knows what the result would have been had Carson Palmer not blown out his knee. Let's look to this weekend:

Washington at Seattle: Mark Brunell's line from last Saturday's game at Tampa: 7-15, 41 yds., 0 TD, 1 INT QB Rating: 25.7. Clinton Portis' line from the same game: 16 carries, 53 yards, 1 TD. Those are UGLY numbers. The defense carried the day, and the Skins' season was likely saved by Edell Shepherd's horrible drop in the dying seconds. The D will need to do the job again, but this time they are facing an experienced quarterback and a runner (Shawn Alexander) who has a nose for the endzone. Some people I've listened to/read this week say that Washington will give the Hawks fits this week. I don't think so. 23-10 Seattle.

New England at Denver: If the New England team that showed up for the first half of the Jacksonville game is what goes on the field in Denver, Mike Shanahan will dance a jig. If the second half version shows up, it's going to be a very long day. The Pats were way off their rhythm in the first half of the Jags game and still went to the locker room leading 7-3. Against Denver, they'd be facing at least a 10-point deficit. New England needs their A-game all game against Denver, who have definitely got something to prove this week. It's going to be very close, and will probably go to OT, but I think the Pats will prevail.New England 24-21.

Pittsburgh at Indianapolis: How is it possible the Steelers went to the locker room losing 17-14 to a team with JON KITNA at QB? Sure, they won 31-17, but CNN-SI's Dr. Z, in his column, notes an interesting fact that the Steelers offense (particularly the running game) gets better as the game goes on. That implies to me that, if you get a big lead early, the Steelers have a hard time playing catch-up. It's also worth noting that the Steeler's second TD was off a trick play immediately following a shanked punt. They won't get those opportunities against Indy, who will be rested and healthy and, most importantly, seriously motivated. I think Indy goes to the locker room up by at least two TD's and then just outlasts the Steelers in the second half. Colts 31-17

Carolina at Chicago: During the post game show after Carolina's man-handling of the Giants, Chris Berman cracked that the over-under for this game should be 9.5. I might take the under. This is going to be a slow, plodding, smashmouth defensive battle with little-to-no offense. Carolina's chances may well hang on the health of DeShaun Foster, who is listed as probable for Saunday afternoon. That Bear defense is something to behold and they will be swarming all over Jake Delhomme and the rest of the Panther offense all day. This is a game where the winning team will be the one that doesn't waste opportunities to put points on the board, wins the field position battle and keeps the ball longest. I think, based on a gut instinct, that Carolina will find a way to do just that. Carolina 13-10

A lot of sportscasters/writers are making a big thing about the fact that all of this week's matchups happened during the season. Granted, it don't happen often, but so what? The regular season is NOTHING like the playoffs. There might be some lessons learned, but that's all. Should be a great weekend of football.

Back next week with the Conference Finals.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


NFL Predictions

I know, I know.....NL Central and West off-season transaction reviews are coming. But the playoffs are here in the NFL and I just felt I HAD to do a little preview. Since getting involved in a couple of pick 'em pools over the past couple of years (and doing better than CNN-SI's Peter King), I have really started to closely follow the NFL and this year's playoffs are very intriguing. So let's look at the games of wild-card weekend:

Washington at Tampa Bay: The game widely considered to be, potentially, the best of the weekend is first up (4:30 today). Last time these two teams met, Chris Simms announced his presence to the NFL world by leading the Bucs on a last-minute TD drive to stun the Redskins 36-35. This week's game will not be like that. First, I think Jon Gruden will try to keep Simms from going to the air too much to keep his playoff jitters from being a factor. That means lots of Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams and his running mates Mike Pittman and Mike Alstott. That equals long drives that eat clock. Washington will also be forced to try long, slow drives too, but for a different reason. Clinton Portis looked pretty worn out at the end of last week's must-win against Philly. If he's worn down, Joe Gibbs will need to limit his carries. If so, that means more Ledell Betts and, maybe, the return of Rock Cartwright. Mark Brunell's knee is still iffy, so he'll have to limit his time in the pocket against the ferocious Tampa rush, meaning short passess and a lot of underneath routes. Hello, Chris Cooley, get ready for the game of your life. Both teams' defenses will likely put 7 or 8 defenders in the box to plug up the run and dare the other team to win through the air. I see a low scoring game, a couple of key mistakes by rookies Simms and Williams and a heroic effort from vet Clinton Portis. 17-14 Washington.

Jacksonville at New England: Man, could Jacksonville have gotten a worse draw? The two-time defending champs (on a major roll), at New England, AT NIGHT. It's going to be freakin' freezing out there, probably snowy too. Anybody who thinks the warm-weather Jags have a chance in this, raise your hand...


Thought so. New England wins going away. New England 24-10.

Carolina at N.Y. Giants: Here's the interesting game of the week. By all rights, Carolina should have won the NFC South this year and be the prohibitive favourite to represent the NFC at the Super Bowl. A vicious, swarming defense and a good passing offense bolstered by a great running game should have been enough. Instead, the Panthers will have to be the first team ever to win three road games in the playoffs to achieve their pre-season destiny. That actually my be good, since the last two home games the Panthers had were both losses. Losses that put them on the road as an 11-5 wild card rather than at home as 13-3 division champs. The Panthers will throw absolutely everything at Tiki Barber this weekend and make the Giants win through the air, where Eli Manning has been wildly inconsistent. Add to that the fact that one of Manning's favorite targets, tight end Jeremy Shockey, is hurting, and it's a long road for the home team. Carolina 20-14

Pittsburgh at Cinicinnati: At 4:30 Sunday afternoon, this game kicks off. Everyone else loves Washington - T-Bay, this is my pick for game of the week. Pittsburgh won the first meeting in Week 7, 27-13, while the Bengals won the Week 13 rematch, 38-31. The question here is which set of skill players (Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and Hines Ward or Cinicinnati's Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Rudi Johnson) will be able to execute their game plan better? Pittsburgh's defense took some sort of a holiday through the middle part of the season, before returning for weeks 14-16, allowing a total of 12 points to the Bears, Browns and Vikings. However, giving up 21 to the weak Lions last week should give pause. Pittsburgh's secondary can be had, as Palmer proved in Week 13. The atmosphere In Cincy this weekend should be bordering on riotous, and I think the kids are going to use a fast-attack game to keep the Steelers on their heels and force them to play catch-up. The Steelers need to be able to execute their run-oriented, ball-control offense that eats up the clock. If the Bengal defense can hold the runners and the offense ring up early points, Big Ben will have to step up and the Steelers almost never win shootouts. Says here they won't this weekend, either. Bengals 31-27

Back next week with the Conference Semi-Finals.