Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Changing Of The Guard?

Serena Williams has been dominating women's tennis since 1999, but in particular, she was in the midst of one of her greatest runs of her career. She was seeded 3rd going into the Aussie Open, but we knew that she was the favorite to win the tournament. And then Sloane Stephens happened to derail her run of majors and perhaps to begin a new era of American women's tennis.

Stephens came from behind to knock off Serena 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. To be fair, Serena was battling back spasms, so this wasn't Williams at her best. Still, this victory represents the first time that Serena lost to a younger American. Stephens is 19 years old and figures to be around for a long time.

As for Serena, I'm sure she still will be among the very best when the tennis season continues the rest of the majors, but a glimpse into the future is needed as we'll soon be in a world where Serena Williams isn't the dominant women's tennis player.

If there's one thing to remember from Serena's tourney, it's this:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Championship Sunday Preview

The best day of the football season and on the short list of the best days of the sports year take place on today as both the NFC and AFC Championship Games take place. At a more optimum time, I will have a list of what are the best sports days of the year, but for now, the focus will be on the field. We've come off the heels of an outstanding NFL Divisional Round which the 49ers and Patriots showed us the best we can see in terms of offense and how many "HOLY $#!T" moments we saw in the Ravens and Falcons victories. And we are really desperate for real sports to occur after Manti Te'o and Lance Armstrong dominated our sports news this week. The Heat's win over the Lakers finally put the focus back on the field of play and the NHL FINALLY began its season and made the ice the focus. Today, we'll only be focused on Atlanta and Foxboro.

San Francisco at Atlanta. Spread: 49ers by 4

You see this spread correct, the Falcons are home underdogs in the NFC Championship game. This has happened before, last occurring back two years ago when the Packers were favored over the Bears. I don't think that Atlanta will lose close and cover, thus the spread shouldn't be a factor in my pick here. It seems to me that the Falcons have one chance to win this game and that's with a quick start on offense. Barring a particularly sloppy game by the 49ers where they turn the ball over too many times, drop passes and kill themselves with penalties, the Falcons would be better served if they can have their offense strike quickly. The biggest factor in Atlanta's favor is playing home in the dome and the way that building can be best utilized if getting an early lead and having the crowd in the game all day long. The other thing about an early lead is that the Falcons can then run the football. Now, Atlanta isn't very good at running the ball, but a good start for Matt Ryan might open up the running lanes and a lead will allow a more balanced offense; something that you must try to have against the San Francisco defense.

Last week, the 49ers put an absolute clinic on how to run an offense in 2012 as Colin Kaepernick seemed to have perfected the read-option that Jim Harbaugh has installed there. He threw a pick-six in the early going last week and I don't think anyone remembers that. Another thing that's been clear is Michael Crabtree has a more prominent role in the offense now with Kaepernick at QB. Now, I wouldn't expect a repeat of last week's performance because I'm sure the Falcons won't get beat repeatedly by both the passing game and running game. However, the 49ers defense won't have as bad a game as they had last week now that they aren't facing an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.

I don't think this spread is an overreaction to a great win for the 49ers last week; this team has been destined to go to the Super Bowl since Week 1. I really don't see an overrated Falcons team standing in their way, no matter where the game is being played.

San Francisco will win 30-17.

Baltimore at New England. Spread: Patriots by 8

Instead of Brady vs Manning, we get a rematch of last year's AFC Championship Game as the Ravens have snuck back in. This is the first rematch since 1994 when the 49ers finally got the best of the Cowboys, and the first in the AFC since 1987 which saw The Fumble. History isn't on Baltimore's side here as the only times that a team won a Championship Game rematch happened when two teams faced in three straight Championship Games (1976 Raiders and 1994 49ers). Every other rematch saw the previous year winner remain on top. Thus, the Ravens have to try to end a historical trend.

Baltimore's defense is better as of late (of the 35 points given up last week, 14 were via special teams), though that had a lot to do with the Broncos injuries in the run game. It will be interesting to see how the Ravens try to defend the Patriots, but they can't allow the Pats to run on them. Tom Brady is going to have success at times. It makes his success much easier if Steven Ridley and Shane Vereen are running the ball well. Another thing needed by the Ravens is that the Pats secondary plays like Denver's did last week. Funny thing is that New England finally figured out a way to make a solid secondary after years of failed draft picks and just an overall lack of talent there (helps when Aqib Talib is just handed to them in midseason).

The familiarity that these two teams breed will keep this game close. Just like a Ravens-Steelers game is always within a score, so is a Ravens-Patriots contest. I'm confident that Joe Flacco will keep the Ravens in this one, but in the end, there's too much Brady and too much Bill Belichick to overcome all the emotion to win a Super Bowl for Ray Lewis.

Patriots will win 31-27.

Last week: 2-2
Playoffs: 5-3
Season: 135-121-6

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Divisional Sunday

Seattle at Atlanta: Spread: Falcons by 3.

Losing Chris Clemons definitely hurts the Seahawks and they are at a disadvantage playing at 1pm EST. However, the Falcons might be missing John Abraham and they have a lesser defense than the Seahawks, making that injury matter more. Marshawn Lynch should play and that's enough for me.

Seahawks will win 23-10.

Houston at New England: Spread: Pats by 9.5

If there's one lock this weekend, it's the Patriots winning this game. After watching the Ravens win yesterday (and probably being reminded how the Jets came into Foxboro in 2010 and beat them a month after a Pats drubbing), I'm certain the Pats will take care of business against a Texans team with a scared QB in Matt Schaub.

Patriots will win 35-10.

This week: 0-2
Playoff record: 3-3
Season record: 133-121-6

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Divisional Saturday

We gear up for the best football weekend of the year with two matchups that cause everyone to look ahead to next week, one which no one believes in the favorite and the final matchup that makes it unfortunate that it isn't the NFC Championship game. To be fair, this year's Divisional round is better because of the way the game shook down from last week (although we will never be better for RGIII tearing his knee like he did last week). Let's take a look at the games.

Baltimore at Denver: Spread: Broncos by 9

Last week in Baltimore was about Ray Lewis' last home game and the Ravens more or less held off the Colts with timely offense and by keeping the pressure on Andrew Luck. The question for the Ravens is how much of the blowout they suffered in Week 15 against the Broncos is an aberration and how much of it is a trend. One thing we do know about Denver; their defense is a whole lot better than the Colts'. It's also true that while the Ravens are still hurt, their defense is better with Ray Lewis back in (this is where you tell me, thanks Captain Obvious).

One thing that is true though is Peyton Manning has always played well against the Ravens (or more to the point, his teams always beat the Ravens, especially in the playoffs. As a matter of fact, the Ravens haven't scored a touchdown against a Manning-led team (though Peyton has very little to do with that, aside from controlling field position). Of the two AFC matchups, the Ravens are more likely to pull an upset. Doesn't mean that's going to happen.

Broncos will win 31-17

Green Bay at San Francisco: Spread: 49ers by 3

I've been waiting for this game since Joe Webb's third pass from in the grasp of a sack last week. Packers and 49ers have history (their battles in the 1990s), common lineage (Mike Holmgren brought the West Coast offense there; Mike McCarthy was a SF offensive coordinator before going to Green Bay), draft history (49ers picking Alex Smith over hometown guy and Cal grad Aaron Rodgers back in  2005) and a recent result to motivate both sides. The season opener between these two teams, however, feels like it too place forever, especially now that Alex Smith has been replaced by Colin Kaepernick at QB. However, I have a feeling the absence of another Smith will prove to be the difference.

Since losing Justin Smith to injury, the 49ers defense hasn't been nearly as good (coincidentally, neither has Aldon Smith). It started against the Pats in the second half when New England rallied from a 31-3 deficit to tie it up, then the Seahawks put a 40-burger on the Niners the following week. The hope is that a game with the Cards and a bye week are enough to get the defense back to their typical season form. However, facing Aaron Rodgers (who has his first chance at making San Francisco pay for not drafting him) isn't a promising prospect for them. Let's not forget that the Packers defense is basically playing a similar offense to last week's Vikings (aside from Kaepernick waking up to know he's the starter). As long as they don't allow the 49ers to run on them, I don't see how Green Bay doesn't win today, with or without Justin Smith.

Green Bay will win 27-17

Last week: 3-1
Season: 133-119-6

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Wild Card Sunday

Saturday's games saw three ugly teams in the playoffs and one who was head and shoulders above the rest. Some of the worst offense ever displayed was courtesy of Andy Dalton and Joe Webb, who combined to go 25 for 60 for 307 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. I know what you're thinking, the combined box score isn't the worst QB play ever. Well, Dalton had only 3 yards of passing offensive before finally finding A.J. Green in the 3rd quarter and Webb just didn't belong on the field for the first three quarters in Green Bay. Yes, the Texans did things well as Arian Foster ran for over 100 yards again in the playoffs, while their defense was particularly stout. However, Matt Schaub didn't inspire confidence that he is capable of leading this team past New England next week, plus it doesn't help that Gary Kubiak will coach in a shell once the going gets bad and the Texans will take dumb penalties, which the Pats will make you pay for every week.

The Packers, on the other hand, played their absolute best game last night as Aaron Rodgers was in full control on offense and their defense was scary good, like they were in 2010. Yes, Joe Webb has a lot to do with that, but the Packers also didn't allow Adrian Peterson to hurt them and hold him to 99 yards on 22 carries is what I call holding him in check. Now they move on to San Francisco, for a rematch of the first game at Lambeau Field, which the 49ers made their opening statement that they weren't going anywhere this year and won a 30-22 game which the final score didn't show how much the Niners dominated. We have a whole week to see if in the Packers can get revenge; for now, there are two more playoff games worth previewing.

Indianapolis at Baltimore: Spread: Ravens by 7

Battle of old Baltimore NFL team vs new Baltimore team. Chuck Pagano faces his former defense. Ray Lewis' last game in Baltimore. The question is do the Colts end Lewis' career today or do the Ravens curtail the Chuck Strong movement this season? As much as I like what the Colts have done this year, asking them to win a road playoff game in Andrew Luck's first playoff start might be a lot.

Figure the Ravens will use a lot of Ray Rice, since the Colts are 29th in the league against the run. Joe Flacco doesn't inspire the utmost confidence, but as long as he can avoid turnovers, the Ravens will pass on the Colts as well (21st pass defense in the league). What helps the Colts is that this isn't a vintage Ravens defense, though the fact they lost nearly every major defensive player to injury at some point can't be overstated. As much as there is to like about Andrew Luck, he will throw an interception here or there and with a rookie QB, you don't know how it will effect him, especially on the road.

I figure the Ravens will get one last win for their leader Ray Lewis, the man who made the transition of the Ravens moving to Baltimore easier. The man responsible for the type of football the Ravens have played for the last 15 years. Chuck Pagano hopefully will coach another day and when he does, the Colts will be even better, but the fact he's coaching this game is the story of the year. Too bad that story won't have a Hollywood ending.

Ravens win 24-7

Seattle at Washington: Spread: Seahawks by 3

The two hottest teams in football have to play in the opening round? It's quite unfortunate that one of these two teams must go home before the National Championship game. Can the Seahawks continue their dominant ways away from home? How injured is Robert Griffin III and can a lesser RGIII prevail when playing in front of a raucous crowd in Washington (first home playoff game for the Redskins since 1999)?

For the Seahawks, their improved play is because of Russell Wilson becoming an effective passer, making a good offense with Marshawn Lynch's running lethal with Seattle's now well-balanced offense, plus the threat of Wilson to run. The Redskins are always a team that's dangerous on the ground with Griffin and Alfred Morris and they are always more difficult in the passing game when Pierre Garcon is healthy. The Seahawks defense is better than Washington's, though the Redskins have improved as the year went along.

Best case for the Redskins: Seattle doesn't play well on the road, Griffin is healthy enough to be able to run a little bit, making the Seahawks defense honest. The Redskins rushing attack keeps the Seahawks offense off the field. Best case for the Seahawks: Griffin is still gimpy and there's no difference in the Seahawks recent play in Landover. I happen to think that I'd rather have 100% Russell Wilson over less than 100% RGIII and the Seahawks will get the road win.

Seahawks win 27-17

This week: 1-1
Season: 131-119-6

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Team USA Shows Hockey Still Exists

If you're a hockey fan like me, I hope you woke up at odd hours in the morning here in the Western Hemisphere for the World Junior Championships, being held in Ufa, Russia. We saw the last four gold medals in the final four for this year's championship: Canada, USA, Russia and Sweden. Led by John Gibson in net, Seth Jones, Jake McCabe at the blue line and John Gaudreau and Rocco Grimaldi up front, the USA were able to beat Canada 5-1 in the semifinal and defeat Sweden today 3-1 to win the gold.

The most noticeable thing about the World Juniors is that it gave many people on Twitter a chance to tweet about actual hockey games. Aside from a couple tweets about an OHL, AHL or NCAA game, all the hockey tweets include discussions about the lockout. There are still plenty of people who do care enough about the sport that continue to be upset with all the posturing by both the NHL and NHLPA throughout this negotiation (this is my first mention of the lockout on the blog). There is a window of one week where the hope is for the NHL to resume playing and the focus goes back on the ice. If not, we will have the second cancelled season in 9 years.

Should the season get cancelled, us hockey fans will have to think of the World Juniors, the NCAA Tourney and the Memorial Cup as the biggest events that could bring hockey fans together, aside from their hatred of Gary Bettman. For that, I will thank the USA team for making me care about hockey again and demonstrating how great the game is when bickering isn't involved (unless the bickering is like this).

Wild Card Saturday

It's playoff time once again. One thing that the wild card round produces lately is a team that will make the Super Bowl. In the last seven seasons, only in 2009 did the two Super Bowl teams had byes; the previous 15 years, only five times did a team who played in the wild card round made it all the way to the Super Bowl. And if you look at the NFC, there are two teams who you can make the case should be more favored to to reach the Super Bowl from this round (Seahawks and Packers) then those with the byes (Falcons and 49ers).

Looking at the slate of games, familiarity is the name of the game for these matchups. Houston and Cincinnati faced each other last year in the exact same place and timeslot. Minnesota and Green Bay just played last week in perhaps the best regular season game of the year. It's always familiar when the Colts return to Baltimore, but add the fact that Chuck Pagano was the defensive coordinator of the Ravens last year, and the familiarity is added. On the surface, there isn't much to work with for Seattle and Washington, but both teams play in the 2nd half of the season is very familiar as both teams finished 7-1 to get to this playoff game. Since it's Saturday, let's make start by preview the NBC doubleheader slate.

Cincinnati at Houston: Spread: Texans by 4.5 

As recently as Week 13, the Texans were riding high on their way to home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. Then they finished the year losing 3 of their final 4 games and now they must face a rematch with the Bengals from last year's wild card round. Everyone knows how well the Colts, Seahawks and Redskins played in the second half, but the Bengals played just as well to finish the season; going 7-1 after a 3-5 start. Cincinnati has made the playoffs for the second straight season, something they've only done once and that was with help of a shortened season (to be fair, this is the first time ever the Texans made the playoffs twice, though this is their only two playoff appearances).

The key to the success for the Bengals has been their defense, which is very strong up front and in the secondary. Carlos Dunlap has become a force at getting to the quarterback, joining an already effective combo of Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson. Losing Johnathan Joseph to the Texans hasn't hurt the Bengals as Leon Hall and Terrence Newman have been as good a CB combo as you can see in the NFL. Offensively, they need more consistency from Andy Dalton. He has weapons like A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, yet Dalton will still make some head-scratching decisions. 

Houston has struggled offensively as the season wore on, particularly in the passing game. What has become alarming is their defense since the OT win against Jacksonville has been giving up a ton of yards and points to opponents. If they are to go far in the playoffs, this has to improve, since the Texans were built on a strong defense. 

A lot of signs to be worried if you're the Texans and the Bengals are very good defensively. I know I shouldn't pick Andy Dalton on the road, but I see the Texans finish their flame out and the Bengals will get their first road playoff win ever. 

Bengals win 17-7

Minnesota at Green Bay: Spread: Packers by 7.5

Last week's Packers-Vikings had plenty on the line (first round bye for Green Bay, Adrian Peterson's chase for Eric Dickerson's single season rushing record) but the most important thing about last week was the Packers were guaranteed another game, while the Vikings needed to win. And the Vikings got the best game of the season from Christian Ponder and another performance from Peterson which left people wondering if he's human to prevail and reach the playoffs. Now, they get the rematch against the Packers, only this time it's in Green Bay and the Packers are now in win or go home mode. 

A lot of what you see from the Vikings is the greatness of Peterson and a better defense when Jared Allen is creating havoc. Problem is that unless the defense is superior, a passing game is necessary for the Vikings to win. Unfortunately for them, Christian Ponder just doesn't add a passing game at most times. You can tell the difference in the Vikings chances in both games with the Packers. Peterson ran for 210 yards at Lambeau, then ran for 199 yards. Why did the Vikings win one and lose the other? Because Ponder threw for 234 yards and 3 TD's last week, whereas he threw for 119 yards on 12-25 passing with a touchdown and 2 INT's. So yeah, Christian Ponder is the key for the Vikings between winning and losing. 

Now, let's add the fact that the Packers are healthy at WR and that Aaron Rodgers is have his most impressive season considering that he doesn't have a OL to write home about and have to worry about staying upright half the time. Having Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Randall Cobb and James Jones all ready to play makes Rodgers dangerous. Having Charles Woodson back (though not the player he's always been) can't help but help the Packers, if not for nothing, keeping Tramon Williams off the field. 

Congrats on carrying the Vikings to the playoffs, AP. I know you'll show up, but I don't see the rest of the team doing so. Too much Rodgers, too much Ponder.

UPDATE: Christian Ponder is dealing with bursitis in his arm. Joe Webb would start in that case. I think Webb gives the Vikings a better chance since he's more mobile and the Packers haven't seen him yet this year. Problem is he wouldn't be in any rhythm with his receivers, and it's awfully tough to ask Webb to win a road game within a few hours.

Packers win 35-17 with Ponder. Packers win 35-24 with Joe Webb.

Last week: 8-8
Season record: 130-118-6