Thursday, January 28, 2010

Yanks sign Winn to platoon with Gardner, Damon still unsigned

The Yankees have been looking for a left fielder to split time with Brett Gardner and they found one yesterday, signing veteran outfielder Randy Winn to a $2M contract for one year. Winn will likely play against left-handed pitchers as well as spell Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher in center and right.

Winn hit .262 last season with 2 home runs, 51 RBI and 16 steals after hitting .306 with 10 home runs, 64 RBI and 25 steals in 2008. His numbers from last season don't say much about his ability to start in the big leagues at age 35, but he should get 200-250 at-bats and be a productive veteran presence near the bottom of the Yankees lineup.

This signing ends any speculation that the Yankees were considering bringing back Johnny Damon, who was a huge part of last year's World Series victory. From day one I didn't expect the Yankees to re-sign Damon, while everybody else seemed unsure. He's still an excellent hitter but his defensive shortcomings, particularly his arm strength, made it difficult for New York to justify re-signing him at 36 years old considering agent Scott Boras' asking price.

I'm still curious to see what the Yankees decide to do in terms of their batting order. Against righties, it looks like Derek Jeter will lead off followed by Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada should fill the fifth and sixth spots, maybe not in that order, followed by the Nicks (Swisher and Johnson) and Brett Gardner.

Against lefties, Swisher or Winn would likely bat second with Granderson dropping to the seven-hole, thanks to his .202 batting average against lefties over the last three seasons. This is the major reason the Yankees would be silly to lead Granderson off, as you want every-day consistency from that spot and with Jeter, that's exactly what you get.

As far as the pitching rotation goes, New York will go to war with one of the strongest groups in baseball, headed by C.C. Sabathia. A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte and Javier Vazquez will fill the next three slots with Joba Chamberlain assuming the fifth starter's role, at least at the moment. With the strength of their top four, my thought is to move Chamberlain to the pen.

Combining him with Phil Hughes on the bridge to Mariano Rivera can shorten games to six innings or less for the Yankees, like they used to do with their late-90s' championship teams. Chad Gaudin can be a serviceable fifth starter during the regular season and teams don't use a fifth starter in the playoffs, so why mess with Joba? Start him in the bullpen and leave him there. Hughes would be a better fit in the rotation as well, if the Yanks decide only one of them can pitch in relief.

The Yankees made two big splashes with Granderson and Vazquez just one offseason after making tidal waves and signing Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett. It's hard to say they aren't the frontrunners for the AL pennant heading into the season and probably the early World Series favorite after adding to an already dangerous lineup and rotation. It should be fun to be a Yankees fan this year, once again. My expectations are high.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Downey's performance assures a third straight week with a new #1

He may be just 5-9, but Devan Downey is a big playmaker. From anyone who saw South Carolina beat top-ranked Kentucky without two of their best players, there would be no disagreement.

The Gamecocks built a 39-33 lead early in the second half, but a 14-3 run from Kentucky gave the Wildcats a five-point lead, a stretch that would take the wind out of many average, under-manned teams pushing to upset the nation's final unbeaten. President Obama was finally right on about something, having warned Ken

But Downey wasn't about to let that happen. He scored the next five points to tie the game at 47 and, when it was tied at 51 minutes later, Downey scored seven in a row to give South Carolina a 58-54 lead. And after an Eric Bledsoe turnover, multiple Kentucky defenders tried to stop Downey at the top of the key but left Austin Steed wide open underneath the hoop for an easy layup off the feed from Downey.

A John Wall three-point play with 40 seconds left cut the lead to one but he would miss a key free throw 30 seconds later, as Kentucky found themselves down four with 10 seconds to play and the ball. Turns out President Obama was finally right about something: Kentucky should have been worried about the Gamecocks at home. And while Wall will likely be the top pick in the NBA Draft, tonight belonged to Devan Downey.

He was just 9-for-29 to get his 30 points, but the degree of difficulty on the three shots he hit after the game was tied at 51 was extremely high. Shots off an inbound with two seconds on the shot clock while getting fouled and off-balance runners in the lane dropping in high off the glass speak to the fact that if you don't block a Devan Downey shot, there is always a chance it goes on no matter what it looks like. He muscles his way into the lane and to the hoop unlike a typical 175-pound guard and creates shots in sticky situations.

All he's done in SEC play is average 31.5 points per game through six games. If he keeps this up, the talk of him getting SEC Player of the Year over Wall, who may be the National Player of the Year, are legitimate.

People may look at Downey's size and say he can't play in the NBA. He's comparable to Nate Robinson without the high-flying dunking ability, as both can create their own shot in many ways and have excellent strength (speaking of which, did anybody see Robinson's three-point play against Minnesota last night?). Downey also leads the nation in steals, so can play a little defense too.

Scorers generally have the easiest transition to the pro game, as evidenced by the play of Stephen Curry this season, O.J. Mayo and Eric Gordon last season and Kevin Durant the year before. Downey may end up being drafted in the second round but much like DeJuan Blair this season, he has the ability to be a second-round steal if he sees 20-25 minutes a game.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

You can't teach an old dog new tricks

I think everybody knows how I feel about Brett Favre: I'm not a fan. The whole retire/unretire business and what happened in the final five games of last season with the Jets (2 TD, 9 INT, a 2-3 record and a collapse that left the Jets watching the playoffs at home) is reason enough. But when he came back this season, I doubted whether he could play at a high level for 16 games. Boy, was I wrong! Just check out some of these excerpts from my rankings:

(After Week 2) "Those Super Bowl aspirations look to be realistic, as long as Favre doesn't revert back to the quarterback we all remember from last season."

(Week 3) "Brett Favre is off to another hot start (don't forget his 12 touchdown passes through four games last season), but he is far from out of the woods yet. I really wonder when his injury issues are going to catch up to him."

(Week 4) "Brett Favre has that magical feeling surrounding him again after beating his former team. But let's not be so quick to forget last season, where he threw 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in the first four games (he has eight touchdowns and one interception this season). The last 12 games last season: 10 TD, 18 INT. And he is "injured." The jury is still out."

(Week 7) "Brett Favre's mistakes led to points for the Steeler defense, and I doubt this will be the last time this season that Favre's mistakes hurt the Vikings."

If I really wanted to be right, I would've said Favre couldn't maintain elite play for 18 games, not 16. My comment after Week 7 pretty much sums up what happened against the Saints. Favre's throw across his body that Tracy Porter intercepted when Minnesota was on the cusp of field goal range with less than 30 seconds left made Vikings fans cringe. Especially when you have an excellent kicker like Ryan Longwell kicking in a dome.

It would have been a 55-yard attempt for Longwell after a 12-men-in-the-huddle penalty pushed the Vikings back. But what it really did was put the idea in Favre's head that he had to make a play to set up an easier field goal, which just wasn't the case. Ryan Longwell's career-long field goal? 55 yards. All Favre had to do was not lose yardage or turn the ball over to give his team the best chance to win. He didn't.

For all the great things that Brett Favre does, and you saw a lot of them this season, he's a gunslinger. There's a good reason he has been to the playoffs 12 times and won just one Super Bowl. I'm not trying to take anything away from Favre's amazing accomplishments but, especially in today's NFL, you cannot win a Super Bowl without a quarterback who protects the football. Very simply, that isn't Brett Favre's best trait.

Favre promises a quick decision this time around about his playing future, but we've been down this road before so forgive my skepticism. Even if he makes a quick decision, there's nothing to say he won't change it once training camp rolls end and he gets that "itch."

His teammates seem to think he's done, but it's interesting how differently he's leaving two places in two seasons. After he left the Jets, many players were vocal in blaming Favre for the team's collapse from 7-4 and leading the AFC East to 9-7 and out of the playoffs, against sub-par competition nonetheless. Favre was very aloof and never really was "one of the guys," with rumors surfacing that he had his own separate office.

This season, his teammates loved him. Unlike last season, when he was traded to the Jets, he actually wanted to be in Minnesota. He wanted to be there last season, too, and it showed in his play. This year's Favre was on the same page as his teammates and seemed well-liked around the locker room. He definitely learned his lesson from last season.

Well, he learned one lesson: make nice with your teammates. The lesson of not making crucial mistakes at inopportune times, like he has done throughout his career? Not so much. I hate to say it Vikings fans, but I told you so.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Jets prove it's not how you get there, but what you do when you're there that counts

After a Week 15 loss to Atlanta, the Jets were done. Cooked. Hopeless.

Not so fast. With the Colts and Bengals laying down the Jets essentially won two pre-season games (or one and a half) to sneak into the playoffs at 9-7. I've had people tell me they didn't deserve to be there, but I completely disagree.

It was fine to say that to me before the win at Cincinnati. Or the win at San Diego. It was true. But by winning those two games and earning a berth in the AFC Championship game, the Jets proved they deserved to be in the playoffs, particularly over teams that couldn't come through with control of their own destiny (I'm talking about you, Denver). Their top-ranked defense was overmatched against the league's MVP, but they aren't the first good pass defense Peyton Manning has shredded.

I'm really sick of hearing people, particularly Giants fans (who are bitter their own overrated losers choked the season away), tell me that the Jets' accomplishments in the last few weeks don't matter because they didn't deserve to be there in the first place. The Bengals and Chargers were more "deserving" than the Jets, right?

Based on regular-season performance, yes, but Super Bowls are not won in the regular season. The Colts proved when they benched their starters in the final two weeks (and are now playing in the Sper Bowl). You also can't win the Super Bowl without winning a playoff game, something neither Cincinnati nor San Diego was able to do against the Jets. If the Jets proved themselves to be better than two of the top six teams in the AFC, how can you still say they didn't deserve to be there?

Despite losing to the Colts the Jets proved they belonged, especially by building a 17-6 lead in the second quarter. As a young football team with a rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback and just eight starters over the age of 30, they will most likely be back in the playoffs next season. I compared them to the Ravens at the start of the year (great defense, deep backfield, rookie quarterback) and that comparison was spot-on, as the Jets lost in the AFC Championship game much like the Ravens last season. And didn't Baltimore win a game in this year's playoffs, too?

So for the next person who comes to me saying the Jets were lucky to make the playoffs and didn't deserve to play for a Super Bowl berth, I'm just going to point them to this piece. This is how I feel, and I think many neutral observers (read: non-New York football fans) would agree.

Think what you want but the J-E-T-S will be back, granted they bolster a pathetic four-man rush and find another corner to play opposite Darrelle Revis, two weaknesses that were exposed by Peyton Manning, who wasn't fazed by Rex Ryan's all-out blitz packages. If 2009's second season is a preview of what's in store next season, I'm excited! Maybe they'll win 10 games and actually "deserve" their playoff berth this time around.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shaq's Dunk Contest: Keep Dreamin'

LeBron James preliminarily put his name in this year's dunk contest at the event last season, but will not participate this season. I can try to delve into every possible reason he wouldn't (risk of injury, lack of spectacular dunks that haven't been done, etc.), but I won't. Instead, Shaquille O'Neal has given another reason for James' absence: lack of big-name competition.

It would be fun to watch James in the dunk contest, but would players like Nate Robinson, Gerald Wallace, Shannon Brown, Eric Gordon and DeMar DeRozan stand a chance? O'Neal recognized this in calling out Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter, saying if they participated his client (James) would as well.

We haven't heard yet from James, Bryant or Carter on Shaq's comments, but the likelihood of this happening is slim-to-none. James may have just turned 25, but Bryant is 31 and Carter will be 33 on January 26. Bryant is in the midst of his 14th (!!) NBA season, while Carter is in his 12th. But it isn't all about age.

Bryant has been dinged up this season, dealing with finger and back injuries that have affected his shooting in recent games. Why would Bryant risk re-injuring either body part, a definite possibility in a high-flying dunk contest, and destroying his team's chances at another NBA title?

Carter hasn't exactly been one to stay healthy throughout his career either, but he has played at least 76 games in each of the past four seasons and has learned how to stay on the court as his career has gone on. Part of this is his transformation from an electric dunker who consistently played above the rim to a player who uses his mid-range game, court savvy and passing ability to create offense for himself and his teammates. So why would he risk going back to his old, exciting and injury-prone ways?

O'Neal thinks donating half the proceeds of the contest to Haiti might be incentive for players to come out for the contest. Not only are you putting on a show for the fans, you're helping an earthquake-ravaged country in a time of need. As much as I love Shaq's idea (and I LOVE IT), it's just not going to happen. A dunk contest featuring James, Bryant, Carter and returning champion Nate Robinson (by default), as entertaining as it would be, is a near impossibility.

So for now we may be stuck with Robinson, Wallace, Brown and the winner of the Gordon/DeRozan "dunk-off," but at least they want to be there. I'd love to be wrong about Bryant and Carter, because if they entered along with LeBron it might "save the dunk contest" like Shaq is hoping for. If only we could rewind the clock back to 2005, when each player was under 30 and this pipe dream could turn to reality. Please prove me wrong, Kobe and Vince. Please?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Chan Gailey: The answer in Buffalo? Doubtful

The Bills hired Chan Gailey as their new head coach yesterday. The same Chan Gailey who hasn't been an NFL head coach since 1999, when he took Dallas to the playoffs in two straight seasons.

Since then, Gailey has spent six seasons as head coach at Georgia Tech and a few as an NFL offensive coordinator with Miami and Kansas City. Apparently the Bills thought he deserved a second chance at being an NFL head coach.

Bills general manager Buddy Nix said there were many candidates with interest in the Buffalo coaching job and that they could have hired as many as 40 people on the first day. If this was really the case, why Gailey?

Owner Ralph Wilson wanted an offensive mind, and he got that in Gailey. Marty Schottenheimer apparently wanted the job, but as a former defensive coordinator he didn't fit the bill. Schottenheimer's success as a head coach in the past obviously was of no intrigue to Wilson, who claimed he didn't feel "comfortable" with Schottenheimer.

The irony is that Wilson felt comfortable enough with Schottenheimer's son, Brian, to offer him an interview. The current Jets offensive coordinator was apparently so interested in the job that he didn't even accept the opportunity to interview. Vikings defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was also in the running, but again is not an offensive mind. So the Bills went with Gailey, who was highly recommended by Bill Cowher.

If Cowher cares enough about the Bills franchise to make suggestions on who they should hire as coach, why wouldn't he take the job? Possibly because he's not ready to return to coaching and possibly because he knows there will be better opportunities after next season. So why would he waste his time and the leverage he has to join, as my friend Ian so eloquently puts it, a "Mickey Mouse organization?"

Simply put, he wouldn't. Nobody would. Which is why Chan Gailey is now the Bills head coach. Have fun with that, Buffalo fans. The Jets, Patriots and Dolphins (who are all well-coached) will continue to lap you in the AFC East until you match the men on their sidelines. And I'm sorry, but Chan Gailey is no Bill Belichick. On that note, he's not even Rex Ryan or Tony Sparano.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

And then there was one...

With Texas' loss to Kansas St. last night, there is now just one unbeaten left in college basketball: the upstart 18-0 Kentucky Wildcats. Behind new coach John Calipari and freshman phenom John Wall, who followed Calipari to Kentucky from Memphis, Kentucky will move into the #1 spot when the next rankings come out.

That's not to say they are the best team in the nation. The Wildcats have beaten just two ranked teams, North Carolina and Connecticut, who were #11 and #12 at the time. Both teams have lost four times since playing Kentucky and are in danger of falling out of the top 25. Kentucky has just three games remaining against ranked teams in February, two of those coming against #8 Tennessee, who have played great since leading scorer Tyler Smith was kicked off the team.

The Wildcats boast three players who average 15 points per game and Wall is third in the nation in assists (6.9). Three of their top four scorers are freshman, with DeMarcus Cousins averaging 15.3 points and Eric Bledsoe averaging 11.4 per game. Despite the comfort level these three have shown, Kentucky's inexperience could come back to bite them come tournament time.

Wall is a stud and should be the top pick in the NBA Draft next April. But as a player who always has the ball in his hands on offense, he turns it over more than four times a game. Combine that with Bledsoe's 3.5 turnovers per game and Kentucky's starting backcourt averages 7.6 turnovers every night! You have to take care of the rock when the calendar turns to March and if Wall and Bledsoe continue to turn it over at this rate, Kentucky may struggle to make it to the Final Four.

Texas, Kansas, Villanova and Syracuse round out the projected top 5 and all have one loss on their resume. All three lost to ranked teams except Villanova, who fell by 10 to unranked Temple. It's difficult to tell at this point which team is the nation's best, but Kentucky (with Wall, Patrick Patterson and Cousins) and Kansas (with Sherron Collins, Xavier Henry and Cole Adrich) have the most star power. Texas and Syracuse possess the most depth and stars of their own (Damian James and Wes Johnson), not to mention Villanova's Scottie Reynolds who scores more than any other player on a top-five team (19.3 PPG)

Kentucky may end up with the best record based on their remaining schedule and the Wildcats remind me of the the 2003 Syracuse national championship team that featured one-and-done freshman Carmelo Anthony, a team went into the tournament under the radar as a #3 seed. All eyes will be on Wall come March and if he and the Wildcats falter, there are numerous other title-worthy teams ready to take their shot at winning a National Championship, including hte Orange. It's only January, but I'm already getting excited for March.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dome Sweet Dome

Home teams were 3-1 this weekend. The teams who played in domes (Saints, Colts, Vikings) were 3-0, while the team that didn't (Chargers) was ousted by the Jets. It could just be coincidence, but these teams are provided a significant advantage by playing in a dome.

If you're a bad team that plays in a dome it doesn't matter. Bad is bad anywhere, just ask the 1-15 Rams or the 2-14 Lions. But when you have a good football team and a great home crowd, the dome can wreak havoc on your opponents.

Look no further than this week's games. Road teams playing in domes were held to 20 points and Kurt Warner, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo combined for just 592 yards, 0 touchdowns and 4 interceptions (Romo also lost 2 fumbles). Meanwhile, the most inexperienced quarterback of the four playing on the road, Jets rookie Mark Sanchez, threw more touchdowns (1) than the other three combined and turned it over just once.

It's hard to quantify the effect domes have on sound but those stadiums were rocking, especially with the home teams coming to play early. Quarterbacks are supposed to excel in the ideal environment of a dome, and the home quarterbacks did just that with the crowd on their side. Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre combined for 727 yards, 9 touchdowns and just 1 interception.

Out in San Diego, Philip Rivers struggled without a dome of his own. I know the Jets top-ranked pass defense had a lot to do with his lackluster performance, but there is something to be said about dome-field advantage. While the Saints and Colts were much better teams than the Cardinals and Ravens, I think the Cowboys-Vikings game is much different played in Dallas' dome (particularly how Romo and Favre played).

Favre is perfect proof of the dome-field advantage. Yes, the Vikings have a lot of firepower on offense but Favre has had explosive players to throw to in the past. But he's never played 8 games in a dome, and his stats reflect that:

Dome: 2,307 yards, 21 touchdowns, 2 interceptions
Road: 1,895 yards, 12 touchdowns, 5 interceptions

His road numbers are still great, but the dome leads to almost twice the touchdowns and less than half the interceptions. And possibly the biggest advantage of playing at home in a dome? It seems to have the complete opposite effect on the opponent's quarterback. Mark Sanchez has played well lately but beating Peyton Manning and the Colts, along with the Lucas Oil Stadium dome crowd, will be a difficult task.

And my apologies to Brett Favre, but playing in Drew's Dome isn't quite like your own dome. As much as I'd like to see a Jets-Vikings matchup for numerous reasons, the Saints and Colts have definite advantages this weekend. Dome Sweet Dome.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Syracuse stays hot, UNC continues to falter

There aren't too many nights during the college basketball season where I get to enjoy my two favorite teams on the court. While I didn't get to watch Syracuse roll Rutgers, I unfortunately caught a glimpse of the North Carolina Tar Heels committing 26 turnovers in their loss to Clemson, tied for the most since Roy Williams became head coach.

These two teams have gone in different directions since the 24th-ranked Orange beat the fourth-ranked Heels in the championship game of the Coaches v. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden. Syracuse has lost just once while the Tar Heels have dropped four games, including three of their four matchups against ranked teams.

While Syracuse is ranked in the top five and is making a strong case for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, North Carolina will be lucky to remain in the top 25, especially if they can't end their three-game losing streak against ranked teams with a win Saturday against #18 Georgia Tech.

An important trend to notice here is depth: Syracuse has it, while UNC doesn't. Seven Syracuse players average over 20 minutes played, while only four Tar Heels hit the 20-minute mark on a nightly basis.

Syracuse also possesses the balance that North Carolina lacks. Scoop Jardine is seventh in scoring for the Orange at 8.6 points per game, just 1.7 points behind second-leading scorer Andy Rautins. The top seven players in Jim Boeheim's rotation could arguably start for 95 percent of teams in the nation.

On the flip side, UNC is proving how difficult it is to replace multiple NBA-caliber players after losing Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington. The Heels have just two reliable scorers in Deon Thompson (15.8 PPG) and Ed Davis (15.5 PPG), who also are the only returning players who averaged more than 15 minutes per game for UNC last season. Maybe that explains their 1-5 record away from Chapel Hill.

The Orange lost Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris from last year's squad, but that pales in comparison to what Carolina lost. Flynn is the only NBA talent out of the three, and Brandon Triche and Jardine have done a great job in his stead. Syracuse's 2-3 zone is as good as always, which makes the Orange a tough out when the calendar turns to March.

UNC may have won it all last season but out of the two teams, it's Syracuse who has the best chance at cutting down the nets in 2010. They are way too talented this year to be satisfied with anything less than an Elite 8 appearance. UNC should be ecstatic if they even make the Sweet 16 in what amounts to a down year by the program's standards. This year, it's all about the 'Cuse!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My NFL Postseason Awards

Hard to disagree with a lot of these choices, so I'll try to keep it short if I agree.

MVP: Peyton Manning, Colts: I'm not disagreeing with this choice; as a Jets fan I saw first-hand what the Colts turn into without Manning. The Saints at least have an experienced backup (ex-Pro Bowler Mark Brunell) behind Drew Brees and as much as I love Philip Rivers, his time will come. Chris Johnson could've made a case if the Titans made the playoffs...

Offensive Player of the Year: Chris Johnson, Titans: Speaking of Johnson, this was an easy choice. An NFL record for yards from scrimmage (2,509) and a 2,000-yard season on the ground will make it that easy. No one else really made a strong case for this one.

Defensive Player of the Year: Darrelle Revis, Jets: Before you jump all over me for being a homer, look at these stats between Revis and Charles Woodson against the NFL's best receivers:

Andre Johnson - 4 catches, 35 yards (7 targets)
Randy Moss (twice) - 9 catches, 58 yards, TD (19 targets)
Marques Colston - 2 catches, 33 yards (6 targets)
Terrell Owens (twice) - 6 catches, 44 yards (17 targets)
Mike Sims-Walker - 3 catches, 49 yards, TD (7 targets)
Steve Smith (CAR) - 1 catch, 5 yards (6 targets)
Roddy White - 4 catches, 33 yards (10 targets)
Reggie Wayne - 3 catches, 33 yards (7 targets)
Chad Ochocinco (twice) - 2 catches, 28 yards (10 targets)

Chad Ochocinco - 4 catches, 91 yards, TD (7 targets)
Sidney Rice (not counting Week 4, when Rice wasn't Minnesota's top option) - 4 catches, 40 yards (5 targets)
Miles Austin - 4 catches, 20 yards (9 targets)
Calvin Johnson - 2 catches, 10 yards (12 targets)
T.J. Houshmandzadeh - 4 catches, 51 yards (8 targets)

Revis faced twice as many top-tier receivers and only one (Johnson) caught more than half of the passes thrown his way. The lone common opponent, Chad Ochocinco, was dominated by Revis in two consecutive weeks with everything on the line while Woodson allow him to top 90 yards. Revis didn't allow more than 50 yards in a game to an opposing receiver all season. Woodson's stats (9 interceptions, 3 touchdowns) may be prettier than Revis' (6 interceptions, 1 touchdown), but he did it against lesser competition and in a less dominant fashion. This award should belong to the league's best corner.

Comeback Player of the Year: Tom Brady, Patriots: Another choice that is difficult to disagree with. Brady's return from a season-ending injury in the first week last season didn't lead to his second 30-touchdown season (yes, he only has one), but he did have an excellent season. Cadillac Williams, who finished just five votes behind Brady, probably would've won the award if he reached 1,000 yards (821 yards on 210 carries) after all the injuries he's battled in his career.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Percy Harvin, Vikings: As if Harvin's impact in the receiving game wasn't enough (790 yards and 6 touchdowns), he also added two scores on special teams. Hollywood inspiration Michael Oher finished second with 35 fewer votes than Harvin, which isn't surprising considering right tackles can't accumulate over 2,000 all-purpose yards. Oher did deserve more than 6 votes for his work this season, but where was Hakeem Nicks? Even Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace got a vote, and Nicks had more receiving yards than both and more receptions than Wallace.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Brian Cushing, Texans: Guess I agree with all of these choices except Woodson...134 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles make this an easy choice though. Jairus Byrd's 9 interceptions were impressive, as were double-digit-sack seasons from Brian Orakpo and Clay Matthews, but Cushing's consistent improvement throughout the season and solid all-around play won him the award.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Knicks in the playoffs? It could happen!

The NBA season is almost halfway over, and the Knicks are still in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. This is a combination of the conference's ineptitude and the Knicks' solid play of late.

After ending the month of November with a 3-14 record, New York now sits 10th in the East at 15-22, just 1.5 games back of the final playoff spot. That's 12-8 in their past 20 games with some impressive wins mixed in (Phoenix, Portland and Atlanta on the road (twice)). That stretch also includes a 9-6 record in December, when Nate Robinson totaled more DNP's (14) than minutes (11).

Robinson returned with a vengeance in the Knicks' second win at Atlanta, scoring 41 points to lead them to a 112-108 overtime victory. The Knicks are 3-2 since Robinson's return to the rotation and his dynamic abilities will only help the Knicks down the stretch.

Starting tomorrow, the Knicks play their next four games against sub-.500 Eastern Conference foes Philadelphia, Toronto (who is in the playoffs), and Detroit for a home-and-home. Those are all winnable games, and maybe a win against the Raptors will convince Chris Bosh that New York may not be a terrible place to play next season.

Just because the Knicks have a shot at the playoffs does not mean they are a great basketball team. Out of the league's 14 best teams, 10 reside in the Western Conference and two of those teams won't make the playoffs, while as many as four teams with records below .500 could make the playoffs out of the East. I'm pretty sure we will be seeing Cleveland, Boston, Orlanda and Atlanta playing in the second round.

Even making the playoffs would be a huge step in the right direction for this team, who will be trying to attract a number of big-name free agents this summer (LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, etc.). It would also guarantee them a first-round pick, since missing the playoffs would throw them into the lottery and any top-three selection would go to the Utah Jazz.

As if being 1.5 games out of the playoffs wasn't enough, the Knicks are just 3.5 games out of the fifth seed, currently held by Miami at 18-18. And according to ESPN's John Hollinger's playoffs odds, the Knicks have a 46.4 percent chance of making the playoffs based on simulations, eighth-best in the conference.

This season's Knicks are not the laughing stock they have been over the last few seasons. This team is playing well and, the way they launch three-pointers, has the ability to beat anybody on any given night. Phoenix had the best record in the West when they visited the Garden in early December, and the Suns left with the taste of a 27-point defeat in their mouthes. At the very least, at least the Knicks are fun to watch again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thoughts from Wild Card Weekend

Lots of interesting things happened during Wild Card Weekend, although most of them happened during the Cardinals-Packers shootout. Here's what I took from this weekend's games:

-Cedric Benson is legit. I hate to say it, but at this point it's hard to deny Benson his due. He was the only major difference between the two games the Jets and Bengals played recently, rushing for 169 yards on 21 carries. Larry Johnson and Bernard Scott managed just 58 yards on 15 carries in Week 17. Benson's vision and ability to change direction proved to be a handful for the Jets defense to contain. Good thing the Bengals were losing for most of the game and never got the opportunity to unleash Benson for 30-plus carries. He's developed into a workhorse.

-Carson Palmer is overrated. I've always liked Palmer, but he isn't the Pro Bowl quarterback many think he is right now. In his last 10 games this season (including playoffs), he threw just 9 touchdowns and was intercepted 7 times. He averaged almost 29 touchdowns per season and 15 interception from 2005-2007 before an elbow injury ended his 2008 season. A lot of his struggles this season could stem from the injury and tragic death of Chris Henry, Cincinnati's best downfield playmaker. But Palmer is a statue in the pocket and looked extremely uncomfortable against the Jets these past two weeks. I'll give Palmer until the end of next season to prove me wrong.

- In a passing league, running and defense is still a winning blueprint come playoff time. The Jets and Ravens proved this point. Mark Sanchez threw 15 passes (12-15, 182 yards) against the Bengals, five more than Joe Flacco attempted against New England (4-10, 38 yards). Both teams won by double-digits. The Jets ran the ball 41 times for 171 yards, while the Ravens carried 52 times for 234 yards. Both defenses held the opposing quarterback around four yards per pass attempt and stayed in control the entire game. Let's see if the Jets and Ravens can repeat against Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, respectively.

-Tom Brady is human, especially without Wes Welker. People thought Tom Brady's early-season struggles were a result of him shaking off the rust from missing last season. But he threw 12 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions in the season's first six weeks. Welker missed two of those games, and Brady was just 48-89 (54%) for 493 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception without his leading receiver. In the four games of the first six in which Welker played: 108-162 (67%) for 1,231 yards, 11 touchdowns, 1 intereception. And without Welker this week? 23-42, 154 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3 interceptions. Wes Welker is the MVP of that team, not Tom Brady.

-Its 2010 now, not 1995-2009; Those years don't matter anymore. The Eagles are 7-0 in playoff openers under Andy Reid. The Cowboys hadn't won a playoff game since 1995. The Patriots reached the Super Bowl the last three times they went undefeated at home in the regular season and were 5-0 all-time agains the Ravens. The Bengals...well...their playoff winless streak continued. But I think you can see the point. Football isn't played on paper and it sure isn't played in the past.

-Aaron Rodgers can make pedestrian receivers look like superstars. James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Spencer Havner all reached the endzone against Arizona. It doesn't matter who you are, if you get open Rodgers will hit you between the numbers or whereever he needs to. He wouldn't let his team fold down 31-10 and almost led them to a come-from-behind victory against God (read: Kurt Warner) and the Cardinals. Speaking of Kurt Warner...

-Kurt Warner is a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, if there was any doubt. Just take a look at how Matt Leinart ran the Arizona offense in Week 17 against the same Packers defense. The Cardinals scored 44 more points with Warner under center, and he was virtually flawless in throwing just four incompletions. Cardinals-Saints in the dome could break the freshly-set Arizona-Green Bay record for points in playoff game.

-The Cowboys are different this season. I didn't believe this until they ended the season strong, but this Dallas team just has something going. They made it look easy against the Eagles, a team that threw all over most teams they played. The Cowboys have the pass rush and secondary to force Brett Favre into mistakes and the linebackers to keep the suddenly-underwhelming Adrian Peterson in check. I'm not saying they win for sure, but they have the best chance of any other road team this weekend.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wild Card Weekend Preview

I already wrote on the Jets and Bengals, so now it's time to cover the other three games in much less detail.

Eagles at Cowboys - Saturday, 8 p.m.

They say the hardest thing to do in the NFL is beat the same team three times in a season. That being said, Dallas is playing great football and I think that will continue in this game.

The Cowboys have shut out two straight divisional opponents and held the previously undefeated Saints to 17 points the week before. Donovan McNabb threw 15 passes to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin last week, with each catching just 3 passes for 47 yards.

Anthony Spencer has been a pass-rushing machine (6 sacks in his last 6 games) and Mike Jenkins' emergence at corner has taken the pressure off Terence Newman. The Dallas defense has really fueled this team lately, shutting down the potent offenses of the Saints and Eagles.

The Cowboys have also rediscovered their running game, with Marion Barber and Felix Jones combining for 182 yards on 29 carries in Week 17. Along with the growing Tony Romo, who set a career-best with just 9 interceptions this season, Dallas is firing on all cylinders in all facets of the game. If they can limit big passing plays this week, the Eagles will again struggle to score.

Prediction: Cowboys 27, Eagles 16

Ravens at Patriots - Sunday, 1 p.m.

Losing Wes Welker was an enormous blow to any Super Bowl aspirations New England may have had. But they are still a good enough football team to win a game in the second season, and that they will do against Baltimore.

Julian Edelman has proven he can adequately replace Welker, with 10 catches for 103 yards last week against Houston. The Ravens pass defense has struggled at times this season and they don't bring the pressure they used to, ranking in the middle of the league with 32 sacks.

But that defense has carried Baltimore of late, holding teams to 13 points or less in four of their last eight games, all wins. They are just 1-3 in the same stretch allowing more than 13 points and I can't see them keeping New England under 20, even without Welker.

Outside of explosions against Detroit and Chicago, the Ravens haven't been able to top 21 points in a game since Week 8 against Denver, a win that looked much more impressive at the time. Ray Rice is awesome and Willis McGahee still has life left in those legs, but the Ravens can't beat New England with a one-dimensional offense.

I'm not convinced the inconsistent Joe Flacco can outscore Tom Brady and the Pats. Flacco has just 10 touchdowns in his last 10 games, with 6 of those coming against the Lions and Bears. In the other eight games: 4 TD, 6 INT.

Prediction: Patriots 24, Ravens 13

Packers at Cardinals - Sunday, 4:30 p.m.

In the third Wild Card rematch of a Week 17 matchup, Green Bay will travel to Arizona again where they destroyed the Cardinals 33-7 just a week ago. But in contrast to the Jets-Bengals matchup, Arizona rested many of their key starters very early including Kurt Warner, who threw just six passes.

Everybody is pimping the Pack right now, and I have to say I'm on board. I bashed them for being inconsistent in the middle of the season, but with their newfound stability along the offensive line Aaron Rodgers is getting the protection he needs to dominate. Ryan Grant gets better at the end of every season, and this team should be able to maintain excellent balance on offense.

The Cardinals struggle with aggressive 3-4 defenses, scoring just 32 points in three games with the 49ers and Packers, all losses. Warner is one of the league's best rhythm passers, but disrupt that rhythm and things can get ugly. It doesn't hurt the Packers' case to have Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson in the secondary either, and Anquan Boldin's injury status has to be a red flag for Arizona fans.

Even if the Green Bay defense can't do the job, their offense has the potential to outscore last year's Super Bowl runner-up. If both quarterback stay upright, this one could turn into an impressive aerial display.

Prediction: Packers 30, Cardinals 21