Tuesday, November 29, 2005

11-0 and still rolling

Well, it became painfully clear to the rest of the NFL Monday night that the Colts are very much no longer the one-trick pony they used to be. They punched the typically physical Steelers right in Bill Cowher's proverbial jaw on their way to a 26-7 victory that wasn't even that close.

The Steelers came in with a simple game plan: control the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning and friends. Unfortunately, as has been far too often the case in Bill Cowher's 15 years of spittle-inducing fury on the sidelines, that plan was exposed early for what is was: vanilla and unrealistic.

The Steelers have not been able to run the ball succesfully against good defenses this year. They went for 104 against San Diego, but ran for under 80 against Baltimore, Jacksonville, and a New England defense that in September wasn't quite the M.A.S.H. unit it currently resembles. Yes, they ran all over the Bengals, but Cincinnati's defense has yet to earn the label of elite unit.

So what did they try to do Monday night? Run, run, and run some more to play "clockball." They ran the ball on nine of their first 12 first downs and gained two or fewer yards on six of those attempts. The Colts knew the Steelers were going to run. Tony Dungy knew the Steelers were going to run. Heck, even John Madden knew the Steelers were going to run. But their lack of success and Cowher's stubborn nature didn't stop them from throwing the ball early against a defense geared to stop the run.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the '05 Steelers is their lack of interest in even ATTEMPTING a pass more than 20 yards downfield. Ben Roethlisberger, at one point Monday evening, had completed 13 passes for about 65 yards. Five yards per completion isn't gonna get it done against the 49ers, let alone the Colts.

This simply isn't the same squad as the '04 group that easily could have gone to and won the Super Bowl had it not been for the same style of coaching that has let them down time and time again in big games over the last decade and a half. The offensive line has been banged up (in the case of Marvel Smith), less effective than usual and aging (Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings), inexperienced and probably not very good to begin with (Trai Essex), far more bad than good (Max Starks) and flat-out abysmal (Kendall Simmons). Jerome Bettis is a year older and a few tires wider. The superbly talented Plaxico Burress has been replaced by the marginally talented Cedric Wilson. Antwaan Randle El has been replaced with an even less useful Antwaan Randle El.

On the defensive side of the ball, Joey Porter has been on the decline since the middle of '04 at the latest, Larry Foote is putrid and Clark Haggans and James Farrior have been hurt. The secondary has taken a lot of heat when the team has been struggling, but the real culprit has been the defensive front, which generates pressure on the opposing QB about as often as we're treated to Haley's comet in the night sky. The 3-4 defense isn't the optimal defense for getting penetration up front against a passing attack, but combined with the lack of any semblance of effective blitzing, which far too often involves the corners or safeties, it has been rendered obsolete.

The greatest problem though is the change that didn't take place in the offseason. Bill Cowher is still wearing the headset on the sidelines and gazing peculiarly at the events unfolding before him like a man walking in on his wife making love to a unicorn. Pick your poison from Monday night's throttling and you can make a case for a man who should no longer be in control of the NFL team that has done the least with its superior talent in the past 10 years. It doesn't matter whether it was the run-first attitude that didn't change following its lack of success, the completely absurd onside kick to start the second half, or the unconscionable 4th-and-5 decision to let Roethliberger run a QB draw ... each epitomized Cowher's coaching style. To put it simply, he's scared to lose, and that was painfully clear Monday night.

Particularly in the case of the onside kick, he basically admitted that his offense, which did nothing in the first half that wasn't handed to them, needed the ball, while his defense, which came together quite nicely following the debacle that was the first play from scrimmage, was not to be trusted with the Colts starting at their own 25 or so.

In the meantime, the Colts are clearly the class of the NFL and, despite having a coach who has come up as big in critical game over his career as Cowher has, will vault over that hump this year. With Manning essentially running the show and the defensive line ensuring the big plays against will be kept to a minimum, there isn't a team in the league that should be able to run with the Colts. Denver is the closest option, but Jake Plummer in a road playoff game? Not likely.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Rivalry weekend

After nearly a month of the laptop being on hiatus thanks to, in the words of the fine Asian gentleman who fixed it, a "shot hard drive," the blog returns as college football (and in a small way, the NFL) heads into rivalry weekend.

When we came to you last, Penn State was reeling from a last-second loss at the Big House in Ann Arbor, a result of a vanilla defense, questionable officiating from a crew chief that, like most Big 11 zebras, hailed from the great state of Michigan, and perhaps most significantly, lobbying from Lloyd Carr for two more seconds on the clock. Since then, the Lions have reeled off three impressive "on-the-surface" wins - less impressive when you consider the fact the opponents were a team playing above its heads in Barry Alvarez's final season, perhaps the single biggest disappointment in D-I college football, and perhaps the worst team from a major conference in the past 15 years not named Temple.

Now, the Lions head into East Lansing to face a Michigan State team that is playing the role its most comfortable with: late-season spoiler, trying to salvage its own season after running off to a lightning-quick start and proceeding to collapse in mid-October. No one knows the role better than Michigan State. Add in the fact that the Spartans are 9-1 against Top 10 opponents since 1997 (one of the truly great "are you kidding?" stats to come along in a while), and the upset alert is on.

The stakes are simple enough: win and PSU is the Big 11 Champion, on its way to a BCS bowl, and on the couch for the next two weeks hoping USC or Texas, among others, falter so that it may have a shot at the Rose Bowl. Lose and more than likely head to Orlando for a second trip in four years to the Crapital One Bowl. Not good times.

One of the most interesting questions to consider at this point is where Penn State would be had Chad Henne not hit Mario Maningham in the end zone on that fortuitous final play. The answer seems pretty clear - third in the BCS, third in all the polls, as they would be the third undefeated team behind SC and Texas. So basically, all it did in the long run was cost Penn State one spot in the BCS rankings.

As it currently stands, Penn State needs to win at Michigan State and get help in the following form: SC or Texas must lose, and either Miami or possibly LSU must lose as well.

Why LSU you ask, a team that Penn State is one spot ahead of in the BCS? LSU still sits ahead of Penn State in the two polls that count toward the BCS. Should Penn State move up one spot in each it may - and I stress may - be enough to surpass the Hurricanes even should Miami win out. However, the more likely scenario is the PSU needs a loss by the 'Canes in addition to Goliath A or Goliath B faltering.

I'd place the odds of Penn State slithering into the Rose Bowl at about 5 percent: Though I believe the Lions would give SC or Texas a hell of a game, those two are looking semi-invincable (or in the case of Texas, in-Vince-ible) and Miami is playing its best ball at the right time.

On to some picks for the weekend:

IOWA (-4.5) over Minnesota:
I'll take Minnesota in the dome, but Iowa's pink locker rooms will do the trick in this one. Laurence Maroney is probable, and though the Gophers can run with or without home, look for Iowa, reinvigorated from its win at Wisconsin, to pull it out late.
Pick: Iowa 38, Minnesota 30

Northwestern (-15.5) over ILLINOIS:
Team A can score points. Team B can't. Team A can play defense on occasion. Team B can't. Team A has a quarterback who throws it to his own receivers. Team B has a quarterback who throws to Teams C, D, E, F, G, H and I. Team A ain't Illinois.
Pick: Northwestern 48, Illinois 20

INDIANA (+12.5) over Purdue:
Indiana, despite trouncing Illinois earlier in the fall, has done everything possible over the last month to make people believe they are just as bad as the Illini. But they're not quite that bad, and thanks to the nature of this game in the state of Indiana (and ONLY in the state of Indiana), they'll hang close for a while.
Pick: Purdue 34, Indiana 26

Ohio State (-3) over MICHIGAN:
Winner of this one takes the Big Ten's BCS bid should Penn State falter. Despite it being in Ann Arbor, it's as simple as this: Ohio State is deserving of winning or sharing the conference crown; this Michigan team, despite showing marked improvement in the past month, is not.
Pick: Ohio State 27, Michigan 20

MICHIGAN STATE (+8) over Penn State:
History suggest the battle for the Land Grant trophy will be a blowout in favor of the home team. Logic, among other strong variables, suggest it will be a blowout in favor of the road team. Michigan State's season comes down to this game, and East Lansing will be alive for this game, whereas if any other team were waltzing in at this point, the Spartans may have simply rolled over. But Penn State will be ready.
Pick: Penn State 31, Michigan State 26

And the upset special of the week, leaving Penn State one SC/Texas loss shy of the Rose Bowl:
Georgia Tech (+18) over MIAMI:
Miami has its final two games at home before a likely ACC championship game tilt against Florida State. Unfortunately for the 'Canes, this is a team that can often go out feeling it has something to prove on the road, while playing lackluster ball at home. This college football season has lacked the big, big upset, all season, and an 18-point dog going into the No. 3 team in the nation's house and winning would do the trick.
Pick: Georgia Tech 28, Miami 27

Friday, October 21, 2005

Some mid-October rumblings...

College football hits the midpoint of its season this week, and as usual, things have been as wild as ever. Last Saturday featured some of the most fantastic finishes you'll see on any gridiron, including three wild Big Ten games that were decided within the last two minutes and another, Ohio State-Michigan State, that the Buckeyes won despite not running 1 PLAY! in Michigan State territory until under six minutes remained in the game. Ridiculous.

Penn State had a chance to take a chokehold on the conference with a win at Michigan, but playing a Charmin Ultra defense and having to deal with some corrupt officiating for their second Big House visit in a row, the Nittany Lions lost, 27-25 on the last play of the game. Hats off to Michigan for playing a tough game, but if the Big Ten is going to continue to be the pioneers of instant replay they claim to be, then use it.

Nonetheless, it's on to Week 5 in conference play. First off, here are the current Big Ten power rankings.

1. Penn State
2. Ohio State
3. Wisconsin
4. Michigan State
5. Iowa
6. Minnesota
7. Michigan
8. Northwestern
9. Indiana
10. Purdue
11. Illinois

Teams 3-8 could realistically be flip-flopped in almost any order and it wouldn't be outlandish. Though Michigan will have a firm grasp on 8th place if they lose to Iowa this weekend. Purdue is an absolute disgrace considering some folks thought they were a preseason top 10 team. Indiana has shown improvement but still isn't more than a bottom-tier team in the league for now. And Illinois has been awful since conference play started.

Now, to the matchups.

IOWA (-2.5) over Michigan:
Iowa has a 22-game winning streak at home. Michigan should be sky-high after its last second heroics against Penn State. Michigan will also have to deal with Iowa's visiting pink locker rooms, which seem to have scared off the last 22 teams that have used them for the afternoon. At this point, it's safe to say we know less about Iowa than any other Big Ten team. They got smoked at Ohio State and have handled the three bottom-feeders with ease.
Pick: Iowa 30, Michigan 24

INDIANA (+16) over Ohio State:
Indiana has at least shown signs of competitiveness in its first season under Terry Hoeppner. Ohio State looked awful for most of the Michigan State game, and that was preceded by looking absolutely awful in Happy Valley for 60 minutes (save for one drive). Ohio State shouldn't have much to get up for in this one, and may in fact be looking ahead to a toughie at Minnesota next week. If the Buckeyes can't get their offense going in Bloomington, they may never get it going. But 16 points is just too much for a team this offensively challeneged.
Pick: Ohio State 27, Indiana 14

Northwestern (+12.5) over MICHIGAN STATE:
How this line is so big is a mystery to me. Northwestern has been one of the league's pleasant surprises, and Michigan State continues to be a mystery. Still, Michigan State's offense is prolific enough that the Spartans could win the league. This game will be extremely high-scoring and it may come down to whichever defense can come up with any sort of stop. A must-win for MSU to remain in the conference title race. Look for about 800 yards passing combined between Brett Basanaez and Drew Stanton.
Pick: Michigan State 48, Northwestern 38

Purdue (+7.5) over WISCONSIN:
No logical reason behind this one, other than Purdue is "due" to play well. While they're not the top 10 program some may have thought, they still have too much talent to go 2-5. Or do they? Wisconsin is playing over its heads and is coming off a miraculous last-minute win in Minneapolis last week. Still, it will be awfully tough for the Boilers to win this one in Madison. Purdue owes Wisconsin a little bit of payback for a heartbreaking loss last year in West Lafayette, and will be primed to play.
Pick: Wisconsin 33, Purdue 28

ILLINOIS (+18) over Penn State:
Same situation as the OSU-Indiana game. Penn State's offense, particularly now that they're missing Derrick Williams, is not good enough to trust as 18-point favorites on the road. This is Illinois' homecoming and would make their season, plain and simple, if they could pull the upset. Penn State has fallen apart in recent years after heartbreaking losses, most notably in 1999, the last time they were undefeated in October. It will say a lot about the Nittany Lions' mental toughness if they can come into Champaign and pound a hungry Illinois team.
Pick: Penn State 31, Illinois 16

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Doesn't get much bigger than this

As a Penn State alumnus who attended school from the fall of 2000 until the spring of 2004, I was in State College for some lean years on the gridiron. Growing up a Nittany Lion fan, I came to expect nothing but the best out of Joe Paterno's teams year in and year out, and while, as a whole, everything following the undefeated 1994 season until the end of the decade was a bit of a letdown, the team would still win nine or 10 games each year.

Then, Nov. 6, 1999 happened. The 1999 team was in many ways the inverse of the offensively superior 1994 squad - a dominant defense to go with a more-than-capable, if unspectacular offense. The only problem was that for one windy November afternoon, Penn State let Minnesota hang around just a bit too long, and it bit them after a game-winning field goal as time expired, following a miraculous fourth-down completion via a deflection. Tom Brady and Michigan came to town the following week and won, and the season ended with a blowout loss at Michigan State. They salvaged something with an Alamo Bowl win over Texas A&M, but those dreams of a national championship had been blown up two months before that day.

2000 began with a 29-5 Kickoff Classic loss to an awful, non-bowlgoing, pre-Pete Carroll USC team, followed by a 24-6 home loss to Toledo ... Penn State's first such trip-up to a MAC team, and really that game that sounded the alarm in Happy Valley.

From there, the unthinkable happened - a season without a bowl game to look forward to. It continued in 2001, though Joe Paterno's record-breaking 324th victory, a come-from-behind thriller over Ohio State, brought some solace to a 5-6 campaign.

2002 seemingly began a turnaround, as the team went 9-4 and could have easily been at least 12-1 had the Lions had a couple plays (and one very incorrect call) go their way. But that team's core was almost solely comprised of seniors, and in some dark recruiting times, 2003 began with the cupboard mostly bare yet again.

The wheels fell off again, as the team went 3-9, thus ending my tenure as a student with a 22-26 record and one disturbingly ugly bowl game defeat.

Last year was more of the same, with the team sporting a slightly improved 4-7 record but having an offense so bad, it once was outscored 4-0 by its own defense in a sickening 6-4 setback to Iowa.

And then, something happened.

On Dec. 22, 2004, Derrick Williams committed to "The University of Penn State." So he was an 18-year-old kid, probably nervous in front of a national audience on ESPNEWS ... no one in State College cared, because "UPS" had landed the No. 1 recruit in the nation.

Much like the real UPS, Joe Paterno had delivered once again.

Justin King was already on board. Two warm bodies with speed the Nittany Lions had previously only seen in the form of Ronnie Brown and Ted Ginn Jr. streaking past their defense. Two difference makers.

Throw in Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood, who had spent 2004 in a redshirt and grayshirt respectively, and Penn State had an infusion of young talent and speed at wideout. Hell, this was a university that hadn't seen a legitimate threat to catch more than a 10-yard pass since Bryant Johnson graduated in 2002.

Five wins in 2005 later, and here we are: an undefeated Penn State team playing at home against what, to me at least, a lifelong Ohioan, is an anguishingly despicable Ohio State program coached by Mr. Rogers Jr., Jim Tressel. Only thing is, Mr. Rogers wouldn't have looked the other way if a cat was taking milk from a booster, or worse yet, being skinned in front of his eyes ... but that's neither here nor there.

To borrow from the inimitable Bill Simmons, let's break this under-the-lights, prime time spectacular down Dr. Jack-style.

Troy Smith (OSU) vs. Michael Robinson (PSU):
Robinson is a fifth-year senior who is playing quarterback full-time for the first time. It's been a mixed bag of results: he's 5-0 but he's turned the ball over eight times, including four times in a half against Northwestern. He really came into his own against Minnesota last week when he ran the ball, which is where he's clearly at his best. Smith is a junior who only now knows he's the guy in Jim Tressel's offense, but if he struggles in Happy Valley, don't think it will stay that way for long with Justin Zwick on the bench. Then again, Tressel lost the Buckeyes their game against Texas because he couldn't stick with one or the other. Smith is also an excellent runner, and is a SLIGHTLY more polished passer than Robinson. Robinson throws the deep ball better; Smith has more touch on shorter passes.
EDGE: Even

Running back:
Antonio Pittman (OSU) vs. Tony Hunt (PSU):
When Big Ten running back discussions take place, every conversation starts and ends with Laurence Maroney, as it should. But last I checked, Mr. Maroney ran for 48 yards last week while Hunt gained over 100. Hunt is a big, powerful back who is light on his feet and can make people miss, and is one of the most underrated players in the conference. Similarly underrated is the 5'11", 195-pound Pittman, who emerged last year when the Buckeyes realized that Maurice Hall was more of a gargoyle than a tailback. Pittman is smaller but is very shifty and has a nose for hitting the hole at precisely the right moment.
EDGE: Penn State

Wide receiver:
Santonio Holmes, Anthony Gonzalez, Ted Ginn Jr., Roy Hall, etc. (OSU) vs. Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood, Justin King, etc. (PSU):
A year ago, this would have been more of a mismatch than Texas Tech and one of the all girls' high schools the Red Raiders call a non-conference game. Penn State had Mark Rubin, who emerged as a moderate possession receiver, and a bunch of kids whose position had changed more times than George W. Bush had mispronounced the word "nuclear." Now, it's at least up for discussion. While the Buckeyes may have the best receiving corps in the country, Penn State has, potentially, its best group since 1994. Holmes will be the best receiver on the field Saturday, and would still be the best even if Ted Ginn wasn't serving as a "decoy," as some seem to think. Frankly, Holmes is just that good. Butler has been Penn State's best receiver thus far, and is the most viable deep threat. Ginn, Williams and King are all more effective at this point getting the ball on gadget plays and utilizing their superior speed to make defenders miss. Gonzalez has emerged as Smith's No. 2 target and has responded rather well, while Norwood was Robinson's go-to guy for a large portion of the Northwestern game. These two groups have easily the most talent that will be on the field during a Big Ten conference game this season, though OSU has a major edge in experience.
EDGE: Ohio State

Offensive line:
Doug Datish, Rob Sims, Nick Mangold, T.J. Downing, Kirk Barton (OSU) vs. Levi Brown, Charles Rush, E.Z. Smith, Tyler Reed, John Wilson (PSU):
Neither offensive line is anywhere near as dominant as both programs have come to expect over the years. Mangold may be the best of the bunch, and he paves the way for the Ohio State ground game up the middle. Rob Sims is no slouch either. The right side of the line, with Downing and Barton, is the place to attack. Penn State's line was porous last year and looked average through the season's first four games, particularly at Northwestern when anyone thrown out there was being pushed back into Robinson's face. That said, the group rebounded to absolutely tear through Minnesota, paving the way for 100-yard rushing days from Hunt and Robinson. Brown is a solid player at left tackle, and Smith and Reed are effective in the middle. Rush is up and down and Wilson is not good.
EDGE: Even

Tight end:
Ryan Hamby (OSU) vs. Isaac Smolko (PSU):
Hamby is a better receiving tight end than Smolko and is utilized more often in the passing game. Smolko is the better blocker and can be counted on if needed to make a big catch here or there. Will often get wide open only to find Robinson looking for anyone but him.
EDGE: Ohio State

Defensive line:
David Patterson, Marcus Green, Quinn Pitcock and Mike Kudla (OSU) vs. Tamba Hali, Jay Alford, Scott Paxson and Matthew Rice (PSU):
Both solid groups but much like their counterparts on the offensive line, not quite as intimidating as some of what we've seen from these schools over the years. No Courtney Browns or Will Smiths in the group, but lots of toughness throughout. Kudla has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble and Pitcock led the defensive line in tackles last year ... Patterson and Green are relatively unspectacular. Hali is the best of the bunch for Penn State talent-wise, though Paxson gets the most out of what talent he has, and he is, quite frankly, a behemoth in the middle. Rice is quick and Alford is turning into a quality tackle.
EDGE: Penn State

Anthony Schlegel, A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter (OSU) vs. Tim Shaw, Dan Connor and Paul Posluszny (PSU):
Two of the very elite groups in the country. Hawk is an All-American to the tee and Carpenter is nearly as good. Schlegel doesn't get the glory the other two do, but he's no slouch either. Connor should be back in the lineup for good after missing the first three games due to suspension. Posluszny may turn out to be every bit the player Hawk is by his senior season and Shaw has gained a reputation as a big hitter. You couldn't go wrong going into battle with either of these groups, but OSU's threesome is more experienced and better in coverage as a whole.
EDGE: Ohio State

Ashton Youboty, Tyler Everett, Nate Salley and Donte Whitner (OSU) vs. Alan Zemaitis, Anwar Phillips, Chris Harrell and Calvin Lowry (PSU):
Yet another reason why these are two of the better defenses in the nation. Penn State's starters are all seniors, and Zemaitis is the best of the bunch. While he doesn't appear to be a true shutdown corner in some people's eyes, he doesn't have to be, because he is rarely challenged by opposing QBs. Phillips is more athletic but doesn't quite have the football instincts of Zemaitis. Harrell and Lowry are solid center-fielders and Harrell especially isn't afraid to the lay the wood. Youboty has blossomed into a nice player and is a likely future first-round draft pick, but he is not quite as reliable as Zemaitis. Everett is impressive as well but isn't the true corner that Youboty is. Salley is a safety to be feared in the secondary and is the best hitter of the bunch for either team, while Whitner may be the most athletic of the group, a safety who was formerly a cornerback.
EDGE: Even

Special teams:
KR Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr., PR Ginn; K Josh Huston and P A.J. Trapasso (OSU) vs. KR Derrick Williams and Justin King, PR Calvin Lowry; K Kevin Kelly and P Jeremy Kapinos (PSU):
Speed, speed and more speed. Four of the fastest players you'll find make for a strong possibility that a game this close could be decided on special teams. Then you throw in Calvin Lowry, who has as much business returning punts as Weird Al Yankovic has being nominated for a Grammy. The only borderline logical explanation for his returning kicks is that Paterno simply wants a safe choice who he can trust to hang onto the ball ... only problem is, Lowry fumbled more in the last two years than a greased-up Tony Banks or Kurt Warner. Ginn is the man to watch ... he has yet to get going this season but is too talented to avoid the endzone much longer. If you're interested in gambling, call up the MGM Grand and see what kind of odds you can get on Calvin Lowry scoring on special teams before the aforementioned fantastic four. Huston is no Mike Nugent but he's awfully good and Kevin Kelly is 8-for-10 for the Nittany Lions as a true freshman, including a 47-yarder last week.
EDGE: Ohio State

Jim Tressel (OSU) vs. Joe Paterno (PSU):
Yes, Jim Tressel won a national championship three years ago, and yes, Joe Paterno has had four losing seasons in five autumns in State College. But if there's one thing that can be taken away from watching this team in the new millenium, it's that even though his teams may not have 1/3 of the talent that some of the teams in the mid-80s or mid-90s had, Paterno isn't afraid to try things. First the shotgun, then the option and now the spread offense. Meanwhile, Tressel continues to play things as close to the (sweater) vest as possible for a Division I college coach with national title aspirations. Yes, he accomplished in three seasons what John Cooper couldn't do in 13, but if someone tells you Tressel is full utilizing all his talen, he's drunk or lying. The difference now for Paterno is that while he's still trying innovative things, he now has some true talent to help run things. Certainly Galen Hall, Penn State's offensive coordinator, deserves a large portion of that credit, but it's as if Paterno is living on borrowed time and he knows it. He's recognized that going out with a bang, even if it's not the Rose Bowl peg he'd like to hang it up on, is a hell of a lot better than three yards and a cloud of dust. He understands that college football has changed and he has to change, grudgingly or not, along with it.

Tressel is a wonderful college football coach who seems to have his teams as well-prepared as possible most Saturdays for what they're about to face. But the Texas game showed the nation that he doesn't always have it together when it comes to making adjustments within the context of a game. Outside of Ryan Hamby having about 13 chances to bring one simple Troy Smith pass down in the end zone, Tressel's coaching was the primary reason Ohio State didn't walk away winners that night in Columbus. He didn't adjust to Vince Young's success throwing the ball to take away the pass and he didn't settle on one quarterback or get Antonio Pittman as involved as he could have. And Ginn has really been nowhere to be found through four games. Of course, all that could change this week. But, as of yet, it hasn't.
EDGE: Penn State

After 23 years of obsessive fanatacism following sports, I've learned two things: when you think you're right, you're wrong, and when you get too excited about your team, bad things happen. Both reasons typically preclude me from picking games in which I have more than a vested rooting interest.

With that said, all things considered, Ohio State should win the game 20-16. They will strike once on special teams, once through the air, and Josh Huston will boot two field goals. Penn State will have a chance late in the game, but a late fumble from Michael Robinson will prove too much to overcome.

Just remember ... I've been wrong before.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Not yet October, but the heat is on

Last week's Big Ten picks were a moderate success, going 5-0 straight up and 3-2 against the spread. Illinois didn't quite keep within double digits of Michigan State like I thought, and Penn State failed to win by a full touchdown over Northwestern ... BUT, considering I nailed Wisconsin beating Michigan and Minnesota's 3OT upset over Purdue, I'll take it.

On to Week 2 in the conference, where Lloyd Carr and the Wolverines are feeling some major heat, and it's not even October. Michigan is in East Lansing this week to battle Michigan State, and its only gimme win the rest of the way is a home tilt against a still-meek Indiana squad in mid-November. Assuming they lost to the Spartans, next week's homecoming matchup against Minnesota will likely tell all we need to know about both of those programs: the Gophers haven't been able to clear the Michigan hurdle for a long, long time, and should Michigan lose to wind up at 2-4, going bowling will be a pipe dream and the Bassett Hound who roams the sidelines for the maize and blue may be out of a job.

Other things we learned last week:

1. Iowa was vastly overrated.
2. Ohio State's pretty damn good.
3. Michael Robinson could single-handedly win a few games and lose a few games for the Nittany Lions this year.
4. Wisconsin isn't exciting to watch, but it's a fitting team for Barry Alvarez to have in his final year as the Badgers' head coach.
5a. Minnesota likes to run the ball.
5b. Minnesota can pass the ball.
5c. Minnesota has a serviceable defense.
5d. OK, we knew the first of those previous three statements. But it's the next two that matter, anyway.
6. Purdue should still rebound just fine.
7. Michigan State can score with the best of 'em. I, for one, am witholding judgment until they play Michigan at home and Ohio State on the road in their next two contests.
8. Indiana shouldn't be campaigning for top 25 votes until it wins a conference game. Which ain't happening this week in Madison.

On to the Week 2 picks:

MICHIGAN STATE (-5.5) over Michigan
Michigan State still has a lot to prove to the rest of the country as far as being a consistently dangerous team, but it doesn't have anything to prove to itself. The Spartans rolled through Kent State, Hawaii and Illinois, and held on at Notre Dame despite blowing a 21-point lead. Drew Stanton has completed 73 percent of his passes thus far, throwing for 13 touchdown and just two interceptions. True freshman running back Javon Ringer and sophomore Jehuu Caulcrick both have 300 yards rushing, something the Spartans have struggled to do consistently since oh, about 1997. Michigan is reeling but you know the Bassett Hound himself will have his Wolverines ready for the big intrastate showdown. Believe it or not, Michigan State still has the pressure in this matchup, though that is by no means saying that the Wolvereines aren't feeling heat. But if the Spartans win here, no one will question their status as a top 10 team. Michigan's secondary is too vulnerable and Ryan Mundy is out for the year. Stanton will light the maize and blue up and the Spartan defense will do enough to give Michigan State its first win since 2001 against Michigan.
Pick: Michigan State 37, Michigan 28

Minnesota (-2.5) over PENN STATE
Another game where there is a good amount of pressure on both teams. Minnesota finally beat a quality team last week in Purdue, and Penn State won a conference road game outside of Bloomington. But again, these are two teams that have been unable to get past certain hurdles in recent years. Penn State is 4-0 but has turned the ball over an amazing 13 times in those wins. Justin King, Derrick Williams and Deon Butler give this offense three game-breakers, and Jordan Norwood stepped up last week in Evanston. Meanwhile, Laurence Maroney carried the ball 46 times last week, though Bryan Cupito did manage to throw for 271 yards and 3 TDs as well. This game will come down to two big IFs. IF Penn State can avoid critical turnovers (and the alarming volume with which they've occured) it should win. IF Laurence Maroney doesn't have as much success on the ground against a stout PSU D, and Cupito is forced to win the game, Minnesota should lose. That said, Maroney will find enough running room to keep the Penn State defense on the field until it tires in the fourth quarter, and the Gophers escape.
Pick: Minnesota 27, Penn State 24

IOWA (-18) over Illinois
Iowa got smoked in Columbus, but Kirk Ferentz will make sure his team keeps the ill-effects to a minimum. This spread is a bit tricky considering Iowa's offense has been poor, but Iowa's D is capable of shutting down anyone, particularly an average offense like Illinois. Iowa has to rebound quickly with a trip to West Lafayette on the horizon next week, but at the same time, it can't afford to look ahead. Iowa should use this week to get its offensive kinks worked out, and odds are it will do enough to cover an 18-point spread.
Pick: Iowa 34, Illinois 14

WISCONSIN (-18) over Indiana
Quite frankly, this spread is nowhere near as tricky as the other 18-point spread. Right now, at least, Wisconsin is a better team than Iowa and despite its record, Indiana is a worse team than Illinois. Remember, Indiana struggled mightily to put away a mighty Nicholls State squad just two weeks earlier. Wisconsin showed how dominant it can be against a JV team like Temple and JV defense like Bowling Green. Indiana would struggle to win three conference games playing in the MAC West, so don't look for any miracles from Terry Hoeppner's boys just yet. Brian Calhoun will have plenty of running room in this one and it really shouldn't be close. The Badgers play at Northwestern next week, so it's not as if there's much to look ahead to. The Hoosiers' only chance to keep it close Wisconsin still being caught up in last week's thrilling win over Michigan. Still, Indiana isn't good enough.
Pick: Wisconsin 41, Indiana 16

PURDUE (-3) over Notre Dame
This game should be quite a spectacle, as Purdue tries to win three in a row against the Irish for the first time in over 30 years. It's at night in West Lafayette and the place should be rocking as Charlie Weis brings his boys into town. Purdue will have to suffer through the hangover of a close loss at Minnesota, and should struggle early. But Brandon Kirsch and that offense are too talented to be kept down for too long, and Notre Dame's defense was proven to be a bit of a paper tiger by a talented Michigan State offense a few weeks back. Notre Dame will put up some points thanks mostly to Brady Quinn and Maurice Stovall, but the key for the Irish is getting Darius Walker the ball early and often. Purdue had the No. 1 rushing defense in the country heading into the Metrodome last week, but limped out after being run over by the Laurence Maroiney freight train. Walker won't do nearly as much damage though, and Purdue's home crowd should give it enough of a push to fend off an admirable effort by the Irish.
Pick: Purdue 31, Notre Dame 27

-- Northwestern and Ohio State have the week off before the Wildcats host Wisconsin next week and Penn State welcomes the Buckeyes to Happy Valley for a 7:45 night tilt to be televised by ESPN.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Big how many out of Ten?

The joke with the Big Ten conference over the years has always been that it's more like the Big 2 (Ohio State and Michigan) and Little 8 (everyone else). Things started to change when Penn State joined the conference full-time in 1993 and as Purdue, Wisconsin and Minnesota became actual warm-blooded football programs. Northwestern, for the doormat it is typically considered to be, has won or shared more Big Ten titles since 1995 than everyone but Michigan.
But recently, the Big Ten has become a target for pundits to preach its status as overrated. Michigan has lost a non-conference game in each of the last six years with their loss to Notre Dame two weeks ago included. Penn State has won just one league title since it joined the league. Minnesota and Purdue have been respectable but have earned reputations as peaking in September and subsequently "choking" when the weather gets cold. Illinois and Indiana have been, well, Illinois and Indiana. And Michigan State's Jekyll and Hyde approach (beat a top 10 team, lose to an unranked team the following week) has won it few supporters.
(Of course, when Penn State joined the name "Big Ten" became a bit of a joke in itself, as the conference was now home to 11 schools. But back to the point at hand.)
Come 2005, the Big Ten was supposed to be back. Iowa, Michigan and Ohio State were all top 10 teams and the conference was supposed to have depth not seen in years.
Then came Sept. 10.
Ohio State lost, 25-22 to No. 2 Texas in Columbus. Disappointing but hardly heartbreaking for the conference. Ohio State did nothing to disprove itself as a top 10 team; Texas was just better on that day. But Michigan put up 10 points in a loss at home to Notre Dame. And Iowa was embarrased by rival Iowa State in a 23-3 shellacking.
Conference play hadn't begun and the Big 3 were, for all intents and purposes, out of the national championship race.
But make no mistake about it ... the Big Ten is actually back this season. OSU's loss was to a team no one except USC could really hang with right now. Michigan lost to a Notre Dame team that was ready to rebound under Charlie Weis sooner than anyone expected. Iowa's loss, though startling, was to a major in-state rival, on the road, and their star quarterback Drew Tate was injured early and never came back.
For certain, those three teams will be right there at the end of the season. But the key this time is what's beyond those three. It's Purdue, which misses Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule, but has a solid team and perhaps the easiest path to 8-0 in conference. It's Penn State, which has an offense to go with a phenomenal defense. It's Michigan State, which won for the fifth straight time in South Bend and has put up 40+ points in three games. It's Wisconsin, which made national sleeper Bowling Green look silly. It's Minnesota, which features a stud running back and offensive line to keep it in any game. Throw in Northwestern, which has won seven straight home games for the first time since the mid-90s and Illinois, which is slowly slipping out of its bottom-feeder status under Ron Zook and you finally have a true Big Ten. At least truer than it's been in years.
Unfortunately, Indiana is still lurking around in the conference. But the league only needs 10 teams to live up to its namesake anyway.
Big Ten, Little IU. It's settled.
As for what will actually happen this season...
Purdue, as mentioned earlier, has the easiest path to 8-0. In fact, its biggest roadblock may be this week at Minnesota. Iowa is at home and Michigan and Ohio State are nowhere to be found. The Boilers still have to play at Wisconsin and at Penn State, but as usual, nothing in this conference will come easy. Look for Purdue to end up 7-1, with a loss this week at Minnesota as its only blemish.
Michigan also has a tough opener in conference play, at Wisconsin. The Badgers are playing over their heads right now, but going to Madison isn't easy for any team. Michigan State and Iowa are additional road games, and Penn State and Ohio State, along with Minnesota, come to the Big House. The Wolverines will likely lose at Iowa and are a good bet to be upset this week in Madison, leaving them 6-2 at the end of the conference year.
Ohio State is, talent-wise, the best team in the conference. But a schedule that included a non-conference game against Texas won't get any easier. Iowa visits this week and Penn State, Minnesota and Michigan loom on the road later on. Happy Valley will be more than revved up for a night game against the Buckeyes, and Michigan is due for a win over their hated rivals, especially in Ann Arbor. The Buckeyes will finish 6-2 in a tie for second place in the conference.
Iowa got off to a rough start to the season by losing to Iowa State, but losing badly out of conference happened to the Hawkeyes last year as well, and they rebounded nicely with 10 wins. At Ohio State and at Purdue are likely to be losses, and look for Northwestern to spring an upset on the Hawkeyes late in the season. 5-3 is the likely finish for the Hawkeyes, which will be good for a tie in fourth place with a team they won't find on their schedule ...
Penn State, which is looking for an offense to go with that stud defense, and just may have found one with its speedy freshman wideouts. The Lions' toughest road game is at Michigan, a team Penn State hasn't beaten since 1996. Michigan State will be tough at home at the end of the year as well, and Purdue's visit to State College at the end of October may well wind up as the conference game of the year. Should the Nittany Lions win, there may be as many as five Big Ten teams tied for the conference title at 6-2.
Minnesota has a fine offensive line and Lawrence Maroney behind it, but Bryan Cupito is still a question at QB and the defense hasn't been tested as of yet. After possibly taking out Purdue this weekend, the Gophers play at Penn State and at Michigan before returning home for Wisconsin and Ohio State. Iowa is in to close the year, ending a very difficult slate for Minnesota. 4-4 is their likely outcome, a step up over last year's late season collapse.
Michigan State is coming off a huge win at Notre Dame, and is actually 9-1 in its last 10 games against top 10 teams. But so often, they follow those games with a stinker against an unranked team a few weeks later. Illinois visits this week and that should be a win, but the schedule heats up after that. Michigan and at Ohio State could well be losses, and at Purdue and Minnesota to start November won't be very forgiving. A big late-season win at home over Penn State could mean the Spartans end up at 4-4, tied with Minnesota and ...
Wisconsin, a team that didn't expect to contend but looked solid in three non-conference wins. Purdue, Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota is a tough slate to negotiate and Iowa visits Madison late in the season. Look for the Badgers to drop four of those games, but if they get off a good start this weekend against Michigan, things could be looking up. It's hard to separate those three 4-4 teams, but they're definitely a step up over the bottom three teams, starting with ...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Week 2 picks and other thoughts

Time to break out the Week 2 picks. For the record, though I didn't get them posted for last week, I went 9-7. Not horrible for the first week of the season, but we'll look to improve this time around. Home teams are in caps.

Baltimore (-4) over TENNESSEE
The Ravens aren't as bad as they looked against the Colts, and we don't really know if the Titans are as bad as they looked against the Steelers. Tennessee's defense is porous and the Ravens should be able to win this game by controlling the clock with Jamal Lewis and Chester Taylor. Kyle Boller is out, which, as usual, is a blessing in disguise for Baltimore. The Titans need to get Tyrone Calico and Drew Bennett involved downfield in order to have a chance.
Pick: Baltimore 23, Tennessee 16

Pittsburgh (-6) over HOUSTON
Though Bill Cowher warned the media his team isn't looking ahead to next week's showdown against the Patriots, that won't be proven until the Steelers take the field Sunday. It is the very definition of a trap game save for one crucial element: the Texans stink. That said, they did beat the Steelers 24-6 in their only meeting three years ago. With Dunta Robinson ailing, look for Ben Roethlisberger to throw more than 11 times this game. Willie Parker will top 100 yards, and the Steelers should force David Carr to turn the ball over at least twice.
Pick: Pittsburgh 26, Houston 13

Jacksonville (+9) over INDIANAPOLIS
This game is by far the biggest roadblock to the Colts' chances of starting the season 7-0 before their bye week. Jacksonville took a big step toward playoff contention last year and should get in this year. They don't have enough offensive firepower to dethrone the Colts in the AFC South, but they can hang with them. Look for Peyton Manning to be stifled by the Jags' defense early in the game, similar to last week's effort against the Ravens. The Jaguars need a big game out of Fred Taylor and they can't afford to have Byron Leftwich make mistakes. The Colts should put it away late, but don't be surprised if Jacksonville wins outright.
Pick: Indianapolis 27, Jacksonville 21

CHICAGO (+2) over Detroit
There are going to be a lot of close games in the NFC North this season and the Bears' defense is a big reason for that. Since the Bears' offense should continue to set the passing game back 50 years, Brian Urlacher and company will have to keep the team in games. Look for them to confuse Joey Harrington and take Roy Williams and Charles Rogers out of the game, forcing Detroit to try to pound it out on the ground with Kevin Jones. If Kyle Orton can hand the ball off to Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones, and occasionally find Muhsin Muhammed for 10 yards or so, the Bears should grind this one out at Soldier Field.
Pick: Chicago 16, Detroit 12

Minnesota (+3) over CINCINNATI
Well, Chad Johnson is at it again. This time, the Bengals' loquacious wideout publicly attacked Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot, saying "Smoot ... Smoot ... let's go." He went on to say that Smoot talked a better game than he played. Johnson's comments shouldn't make much of a difference though, because both teams will score at will. Minnesota's defense is slightly better than a Bengals' unit that is still looking for an identity, and after last week's home loss to a mediocre Tampa Bay team, the Vikings need a win desperately. Daunte Culpepper should rebound from his dreadful Week 1 performance and though Carson Palmer will have a big day as well, look for Minnesota to pull this one out.
Pick: Minnesota 34, Cincinnati 30

San Francisco (+13.5) over PHILADELPHIA
Maybe the 49ers aren't as bad as everyone thought. Though the Rams outgained San Francisco by 200 yards, the young 49ers still pulled out a victory at home last week. Donovan McNabb is questionable though he has said he'll play. The Eagles should be primed to explode after a drab effort at Atlanta on Monday night, and Terrell Owens always has a little extra motivation when he's playing his much-loved former team. That said, look for the 49ers to get a late score to make the score look respectable and make the oddsmakers pout.
Pick: Philadelphia 28, San Francisco 17

TAMPA BAY (-2.5) over Buffalo
One of the true tough games to pick this week. Both teams came off pretty convincing Week 1 victories, with the Bucs' win being over a better team on the road in Minnesota. J.P. Losman looked like he was up to the task of managing the game to let Willis McGahee and his defense win it against Houston last week, but he faces a more formidable defense this time around. If Brian Griese can avoid having an interception returned for six points and if Cadillac Williams can come close to equaling his effort against the Vikings, Tampa Bay should be able to win in the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium.
Pick: Tampa Bay 19, Buffalo 14

New England (-3) over CAROLINA
Possibly the game of the week, and what many feel is a Super Bowl preview, should live up to its billing. But the Panthers lost Kris Jenkins for the season last week, and they still have what looks to be a vulnerable secondary. Tom Brady won't have as easy of a time picking Carolina apart as he did against the Raiders' woeful defense, but he should still be able to put up 275+ yards since the Panthers should be keying on Corey Dillon. Dillon is very much a second-half back, taking advantage of fatigued defenses late in games, and look for that trend to continue today after Brady and the wideouts score some early points through the air. Jake Delhomme will need to find someone other than Steve Smith this week, as Belichick and his staff will find a way to contain the Panthers No. 1 receiver.
Pick: New England 24, Carolina 20

Atlanta (+1) over SEATTLE
Seattle's defense is certainly a downgrade from the unit Michael Vick and the Faclons faced last week, and this is a team Vick should be able to run against more often. He looked shaky throwing the ball last week, still trying to find a No. 1 receiver. Michael Jenkins stepped up for a few big plays, and Vick still has his No. 1 target roaming around in Alge Crumpler. Matt Hasselbeck is mistake-prone and Atlanta has a playmaking defense. Shaun Alexander's ability to run the ball will be key for the Seahawks, who will be desperate to avoid an 0-2 start. But the combination of Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and Vick getting to the outside will be something the Seahawks will struggle to contain all day.
Pick: Atlanta 27, Seattle 17

St. Louis (+1) over ARIZONA
Yet another road underdog is the pick in a game that could really go either way. St. Louis, expected to be back to their explosive pre-2003 style on offense and expected to be improved on defense, looked like it didn't really care when it counted against the 49ers last week. The Cardinals have a chance to be a good football team, but as the offense transitions to Kurt Warner leading the attack, it will take some time to completely adjust. If this game is played in Week 6, the Cards would be the pick, but look for the Rams to put up enough points to hold off a late Arizona charge, as Warner looks for Larry Fitzgerald often. If the Cardinals terrible running game can get going, watch out.
Pick: St. Louis 30, Arizona 23

GREEN BAY (-6.5) over Cleveland
Let's face it, if Brett Favre can't lead his team to a win at home over one of the worst teams in football, No. 4 should hang it up on Monday morning. With or without Javon Walker, the Packers should be too much for the Browns depleted secondary. Gary Baxter may be back at cornerback for the Browns this week, and he is really Cleveland's only chance. Otherwise, Leigh Bodden and an injury-riddled Daylon McCutcheon will be out there together. Trent Dilfer should be able to pile up some yards throwing to Antonio Bryant, Frisman Jackson and possibly Braylon Edwards, but the Browns running game needs to pick a back and get moving. This will not be a defensive struggle by any stretch.
Pick: Green Bay 31, Cleveland 21

NY JETS (-6) over Miami
Miami shocked everyone by clobbering Denver in Week 1 and Gus Frerotte looked very good in doing so. The Jets looked miserable in getting clobbered by Kansas City and Chad Pennington looked very bad in doing so. Actually, Pennington wasn't just bad ... he was six fumbles and two interceptions bad. In reality, going by the old cliche, Miami isn't as good as it looked and the Jets aren't as bad as they looked. Pennington will bounce back to a degree this week and Curtis Martin will find some running room. Laveranues Coles has to get his hands on the ball and hold onto it because the Jets don't have much else to throw to. As for Miami's running game ... with that offensive line, Ronnie Brown is going to have trouble running against what is a fairly stout front four of the Jets.
Pick: NY Jets 19, Miami 10

San Diego (+3) over DENVER
We already mentioned how good Denver looked last week and San Diego struggled as well, losing on a late score to the Cowboys. But Drew Brees was without his favorite target, Antonio Gates, who will return from his one game suspension this weekend. Denver is a team on the decline and the Broncos offense is especially a mess. Jake Plummer can explode in any given week, but it's a lack of a consistent running threat that had Denver's O unusually average. Mike Anderson is banged up and Tatum Bell seems to be in Mike Shanahan's doghouse. The Chargers will get LaDainian Tomlinson revved up in the mile-high air and Brees will find Gates early and often. Invesco Field is a good home-field advantage typically, but San Diego is simply a better team.
Pick: San Diego 27, Denver 24

Kansas City (-1) over Oakland
The Chiefs delivered arguably the most impressive performance in the league last weekend, throttling a Jets team that nearly played in the AFC Championship game last year. Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson loooked like the most dynamic combo in the same backfield since Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen and the Kansas City defense, moribund for the past three years, shut the Jets out for all intents and purposes. The offense should continue to roll this week, as Oakland's defense really can't stop anyone as proven against New England in Foxboro. But the Raiders will get some points, especially playing at home in the Black Hole. Look for Randy Moss to gain 150+ yards and grab two TDs, but the Chiefs will hold Lamont Jordan under 100 yards and walk out with a win over their dreaded rivals.
Pick: Kansas City 33, Oakland 28

New Orleans (+3) over NY GIANTS
This is actually the Saints' first home game, despite the fact it's being played in Giants Stadium. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, no one knew what to expect from the Saints physically, mentally and emotionally last week at Carolina. But the Saints played with an immense amount of heart and knocked off a very highly regarded Panthers team. Whether that was just one week of all-out effort or a sign of things to come is what the league will be looking at this week. One things's for sure: the talent is there. Aaron Brooks has all the physical skills to be a star QB and Deuce McAllister is a Pro Bowler. Look for McAllister to have a big game and the Saints D to attack Eli Manning. Tiki Barber will have to do it all if the Giants are to win this one. The Giants' 42 points were a bit deceiving last week as 14 came on special teams. They are due for a bit of a letdown and the Saints should be sky high with the game being on Monday night as part of the league's Katrina relief effort.
Pick: New Orleans 24, NY Giants 17

DALLAS (-6) over Washington
The Redskins had the good fortune of playing the Bears last week and should be well aware that they likely would have lost to anyone other than Kyle Orton and Co. The Cowboys were very impressive on the road in San Diego and Drew Bledsoe looked revived playing for Bill Parcells. The Cowboys are getting some playmakers that they've lacked for the past few years, as Julius Jones is ready to explode and Patrick Crayton has shown some promise as a speedy wideout. Throw in Jason Witten, who wasn't used much last week, and the Cowboys are a fairly dangerous offense. Mark Brunell gets the start for the Redskins, who have Clinton Portis and not much else to speak of on offense. Dallas' defense will give Portis some trouble, which means Washington will be in big trouble. Brunell isn't exactly the most mobile guy behind center anymore.
Pick: Dallas 21, Washington 9

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

And it has begun...

Well, Week One of the NFL season is officially in the books with tonight's 14-10 victory by the Falcons over the Eagles on Monday Night Football. And thus, America's fascination with the gridiron game is back for another fall of 60-minute battles from Minneapolis to Mexico City (yes, the fine folks south of the border get Cards-49ers in October...how lucky they are). Some thoughts after a small sampling of the action from around the league...

  • The Bears offense is going to be painful to watch for quite a while. They are a team that will find their way eventually because Lovie Smith is a quality NFL coach, but Cedric Benson needs some time to get his footing in the league and Kyle Orton got benched briefly for a Big Ten team about 10 months ago. Fortunately for Chicago, they compete in the NFC, which right now is no better than the NBA's Eastern Conference circa 2002 or the woebegone NL West circa right now.
  • The Redskins offense isn't much better.
  • The Bengals keep getting better every year, but it's yet to reflect in the standings at the end of the year. They've been 8-8 for the past two years and the next logical leap is the playoffs, where in the NFC they'd be no worse than the conference's third or fourth best team. But, they pass and catch in the AFC, where right now New England, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Jacksonville, San Diego, Buffalo and Baltimore are all arguably as good or better. They may go 9-7 or 10-6, but it might now be enough.
  • The Browns will win no more than 5 games, with 4 being the more likely number. If they go 7-9, Romeo Crennel should not only be the NFL's Coach of the Year - he should be sainted and given a Purple Heart for working with a team who started Leigh Bodden at cornerback in the first week of action.
  • Tom Brady is a much better passer than many people think. Anyone who doesn't think he's a good Fantasy Football player has a few screws loose - the guy can throw for 300 yards any time he wants and he has no fewer than seven solid options to throw the ball to. New England wins the AFC East in a landslide.
  • Kerry Collins and Randy Moss might hook up for about 12 or 15 TD passes of 30+ yards this year, but Collins' passer rating might top at right around the price we're paying for a barrel of oil right now.
  • If Gus Frerotte throws for 275 yards every week, the Dolphins might go 12-4. But if A.J. Feeley threw for 275 yards every week, the discontinuation of taxes and women's menstrual cycles might not be out of the question.
  • This just in, nine years into his NFL career, Jake Plummer still doesn't get it.
  • Hi, I'm Brian Billick and if anyone could recover the naked pictures Kyle Boller has of me, please return them to my office at M&T Stadium before I'm unemployed.
  • The Colts will go no worse than 13-3 with the offense they've had for a while and the somehow obscenely easy schedule they're playing despite winning the AFC South last year. But it's their speedy, resilient defense that will give them a shot come January.
  • Houston, we have a ... nah, too easy.
  • J.P. Losman, get back to me when you score some points against a better team than the Texans. The next "soft" defense you get is in Week 7 at Oakland.
  • Well done New Orleans, well done. No one should be questioning the heart of Jim Haslett or the Saints after that performance. It would be great to see them keep it up for the next four months, but it they can't, no one would blame them.
  • Jinx No. 1: Carolina should be just fine. But then you hear Kris Jenkins is out for the year after about a half of one game. What if Jake Delhomme misses any time? Chris Weinke's AARP meetings might cut into his studying the playbook. That and he's not even a viable CFL quarterback. If it turns into last year and they spend more time in the infirmary than the end zone, the SI cover jinx will be the least of their problems.
  • Jinx No. 2: Until Ben Roethlisberger loses Hines Ward, Alan Faneca, Marvel Smith, Jeff Hartings, Willie Parker, Heath Miller, Antwaan Randle El, Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis all in the same week, the sophomore jinx won't happen.
  • Steve McNair deserves better than the team he's going to be playing with for the next 15 Sundays.
  • Jeff Fisher, the mullet is still out.
  • All those who thought the Minnesota Vikings would be vastly improved, raise your hands. Keep those hands up if you considered that Mike Tice is still their head coach. Where'd the hands go?
  • Tampa Bay will be the mercurial team of the 2005 season. They'll win when they should lose, lose when they should win, and they'll do it all with a Cadillac stretching defenses thin and a man who once hurt himself tripping over his dog in his own driveway throwing passes. Thank God for Brian Griese.
  • Kansas City won't allow fewer than 10 points the rest of the season. Hold off on printing the Super Bowl XL tickets until they face a varsity offense.
  • I'm sorry Mr. Vermeil, I didn't mean to offend you. Tissue?
  • Jacksonville is a lot better than people realize. Playoff-caliber good this year and maybe more once Leftwich really gets going.
  • Is Mike Holmgren still coaching the Seahawks? He's done less with more over a longer period of time than George W. Bush.
  • Chad Pennington and Herm Edwards need some marriage counseling.
  • The Kurt Warner of 1999 probably isn't going to emerge in the desert this fall. And even if he does, the Cards might want to try stopping someone.
  • The Giants aren't very good.
  • Green Bay might be worse. Javon Walker out for the year. Brett Favre looking older and less patient with the football. Mike Sherman still on the sidelines. If they don't beat Cleveland this week, No. 4 might want to call it quits.
  • Dallas will hang around the playoff race until Week 16 in Carolina when Drew Bledsoe gets sacked an NFL record 343 times in one game.
  • Maybe the Chargers should have let that Antonio Gates suspension go when the real games began.
  • The march of the Mike's continues with Mike Martz having his team finely tuned for their game at San Francisco. Try to avoid throwing the ball 60 times next week at Arizona, Mike. One man who was ready to take advantage of Martz's diminishing skills as a coach was ...
  • Mike Nolan, who needs to send a greeting card to Marc Bulger for throwing the game away in the final minutes, and a fruit cake to the NFL offices for allowing his virgin head coaching experience to include coaching against a man who probably believes he could run a four-minute mile while eating more hot dogs than Takeru Kobayashi.
  • Joey Harrington, your team should probably be scoring more than 17 points against Green Bay's defense.
  • The Eagles may be headed directly toward a self-destructive situation with Terrell Owens' silly feud with Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook's lack of a new contract. But it's still tough to pick anyone else to emerge from the NFC except maybe ...
  • The Atlanta Falcons. If Michael Vick can play the role of Trent Dilfer (OK, bad comparison) and simply not make mistakes (asking a lot, I know), then Atlanta could easily win the NFC. And there's something inherently likable about Jim Mora Jr. Playoffs?!? For this Mora, definitely.

Back later this week for more NFL and college football thoughts, some predictions for next week, and whatever else comes to mind. New England at Carolina looks like the prime game of the week, with Jacksonville at Indianapolis not far behind. If you know what's good for yourself, avoid Detroit at Chicago at all costs. The revolutionary concept of the forward pass may become obsolete at Soldier Field on Sunday.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Some thoughts before the storm

As I mentioned in the introduction, a lot of the material posted here will be related to the NBA. And there honestly may not be a more intriguing time of year to write about the NBA than right now.

As a fan of the Cavaliers, the team is about to embark on what is far and away the most important offseason in the history of the franchise. With somewhere around $25 million in salaries to throw around (and I used that term because it's what I'm afraid they may do), this is the team's best (and perhaps only) opportunity to build a contending team around LeBron James before he can decide whether he wants to remain a Cavalier or take the first plane out of Hopkins after his four-year sentence in basketball Siberia is up.

The Cavaliers are going to announce Danny Ferry as their new General Manager, and presumably President of Basketball Operations, sometime later today. It's been a position of great speculation since Jim Paxson was finally let go two months ago, and now there's finally an answer as to who is running this ship that's been lost at sea for so long.

Possibly the most interesting news to come out of the hiring of Ferry is that, according to Brian Windhorst's article in today's Akron Beacon Journal, Larry Brown is out of the mix for a position in the Cavaliers' front office.

And the fans of Cleveland should be thanking their lucky stars.

Larry Brown in Cleveland might have worked out great ... if and only if his responsibility was to coach. Once it became known that he would only be a part of the organization in some capacity in the front office, with what was allegedly going to be great say over personnel decisions, I'd been waiting and waiting for this thing to fall through. Thankfully, it sound like it has.

Brown is a fine coach with one of the better basketball minds the sport has seen since James Naismith attached that peach basket to a post 114 years ago. But he's a basketball vagabond, not only in the nature of his moves, holding 11 different posts in 33 years in the league, but also in his mindset while he jumps off the circus ride for long enough to stop and make his mark on a city and a franchise. He falls in and out of love with players just as he does with whatever franchise he's working for, though these particular grudges/infatuations can be spawned overnight.

He can manage players on the court with a pedigree of few who have come before him but when left in charge of salaries, contracts and bringing in players, he's consistently come up short, particularly recently when he had control of personnel decisions in Philadelphia. We're talking about a guy who was hell-bent on trading Allen Iverson for Jerry Stackhouse. The Sixers are still trying to climb out from under some of the unenviable positions he put them in financially.

But enough about Larry Brown. He'll enter the Mayo Clinic Wednesday to have his health checked yet again, and according to the nomad himself, by Friday he hopes to have a decision made as to where his basketball future lies.

Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have brought Danny Ferry back in the fold, this time (fortunately) as an executive in the front office rather than a player. If I hear one more person question the move due to his rather dubious playing career as a Cavalier, I may lose faith in mankind altogether. Ferry's failure to be the next Larry Bird, or whatever it was that people saw in his game at Duke, has NOTHING to do with his ability to evaluate talent or run a team. But unlike his playing days, he won't have a year to spend in Europe honing his craft.

The draft is tomorrow and teams can start negotiating with free agents on Friday. Talk about jumping right in. Fortunately, Ferry has been well-groomed, coming from a Spurs organization that is extremely well-run by R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich.

We don't know what Ferry will bring to the table in Cleveland. I don't know what input, if any, he has in signing Ginobili to an extension, bringing Brent Barry aboard via free agency, or pilfering Nazr Mohammed from Ray Charles (err....Isiah Thomas) in February. But I do know he's as right for the job as anyone at this point, and considering he learned how to be an NBA executive from people who actually have been successful (unlike his predecessor Paxson), the Cavaliers are off to a good start.

As for the draft tomorrow, I wouldn't be letting Ferry steer the ship completely (assuming, of course, the Cavaliers actually can acquire a pick and be part of the festivities). I'd leave that to Mark Warkentein, who had been the team's interim GM. It's up to Warkentein to get into the middle of the first round and get this team the young point guard it so desperately needs.

I realize this is probably more of a fantasy than reality, and I'm certain Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Raymond Felton will be long gone before the Cavaliers can even think about having enough ammo to acquire a pick. But Jarrett Jack will be readily available. And anyone who knows my thoughts about basketball knows how big of a fan I am of the former Georgia Tech guard's game. Amazingly, he's not mentioned anywhere near as much as the three previously mentioned points. But he should be. And just enough teams don't seem to realize this that if the Cavaliers can get a pick in the 15-20 range, Jack will be there and the Cavaliers will have had to give up far less than they would to acquire Paul, Williams or Felton. Most importantly, they will have drafted a player who is a proven winner, excellent passer, solid scorer, and stout defender who can be averaging 11 assists per night in a year or two next to Mr. James. If the guy could make Luke Schenscher into a decent player, imagine what a potentially re-signed Zydrunas Ilgauskas could do on his team.

But enough dreaming. Until further notice, the Cavaliers are on the sidelines for the draft, something we haven't been able to say about this franchise for a very, very long time.

That's all for now. Until next time...

Monday, June 20, 2005

A little introduction

Welcome to Give and Go, a blog that over time you'll find is mostly sports-related. The title of this site is, of course, a basketball term, and I thought it was fitting because a good portion of the content I discuss will deal with the NBA and college basketball.

Of course, the NBA isn't my only passion. Football, baseball, international soccer are also of high interest to me, and maybe at some point over the course of the next 10 years (or even this summer), the NHL will get its act together and be back on the ice come October. And despite the irreparable damage that Gary Bettman, Bob Goodenow and company have done to their sport, it will still be back and a good portion of its already niche fan base will return as well.

Sports won't be the only topic of discussion here at Give and Go. Movies will be another big subject, and I'll give you thoughts on current releases at the box office or good stuff to check out on DVD from time to time. Though I don't watch a lot of non-sports related TV, there are a few shows that I don't miss (such as Fox's masterful "24") and I'll get plenty of talk in about those as well.

That should give you a good overview of what Give and Go is all about. I'll give you a topic and go with it from there. If you're interested in what I have to say, feel free to keep reading and keep coming back. If you're not, as you might be aware, there are a few of these other "blogs" on the Web to check out.