Monday, January 31, 2011

Is the Pro Bowl fixable?

(photo courtesy of

I love football. Every Sunday from September-January is off limits for me; I'm watching football. Whether its the Jets, Giants or even the Bills or a random game, it's football, football, football! But I enjoy my Sunday off between Championship weekend and the Super Bowl because there is no football on.

The Pro Bowl just doesn't count. How can you play a watchable game of football when most players are going half-speed and just trying not to get hurt? I can go outside and play touch football with my friends at a higher injury risk.

Maybe the NFL should take a page from the book of the NBA and NHL (is that a first?). Both leagues have skills competitions included in their All-Star weekend and honestly, I'd rather see NFL players in a combine-like competition than a powderpuff football game.

The MLB All-Star game is already screwed because it counts, so I won't touch that (I still watch, though). And I watch the NBA All-Star Game for the dunks and sheer talent on display. But the Pro Bowl just doesn't do it for me; give me Drew Brees vs. Philip Rivers throwing at targets 40 yards downfield or Adrian Peterson vs. Chris Johnson cutting through cones; I'd rather watch that.

The NHL also had a novel idea this season: choose captains and draft fantasy teams. I love fantasy sports, as do many people in 2011, and this idea really intrigued me. Not enough to watch the game of course, but hockey just isn't my cup of tea. Not to say I'd watch the Pro Bowl if they chose sides that way, but it would at least make it cooler.

Even the Onion knows the game is a joke:,18994/

In all seriousness though, I don't think the Pro Bowl will ever be watchable. You just can't play a joke game of football where players are happier to leave healthy than to win. And I don't think there's a fantasy draft or a skills competition that can save it.

Unless of course, that skills competition happened in lieu of the game. Then I'd probably watch. Instead of wasting three hours, I'd only waste one or two. That's a win in my book.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

What's going on in the Big East?

(photo courtesy of

First, Seton Hall blew out Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Tuesday night. Then, Providence dismantled Villanova last night. Why are two of the Big East's worst four teams beating two of their best so decisively? It's called parity and it's rampant in the nation's best conference.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology has 11 of the 16 teams in the Big East making the NCAA tournament. That may seem like an absurdly high number for one conference but when you look at how the Big East has played out, it may actually be one or two too few.

Only four of the league's 16 teams haven't beaten a ranked opponent (Cincinnati, Rutgers, South Florida, DePaul). Cincinnati is 18-3, but those three losses have come against the only ranked teams they've played (Villanova, Syracuse, Notre Dame). The other three have seemingly no chance to make the tournament, but there are 13 teams in this conference that might have legitimate cases by season's end.

Lunardi had neither Providence nor Seton Hall in his 11 tournament teams, but his last update was January 24. That included the Friars' victory over Louisville, but not their blowout of Villanova. It also didn't take into account the Pirates' domination of Syracuse on Tuesday night. So what gives?

There will not be 13 teams from the Big East in this year's NCAA tournament, I can tell you that much. But who should get the final few spots?

Providence is just 2-6 in conference play, but they've won their last two against top teams. Seton Hall has Connecticut, Villanova and Notre Dame left on their schedule. What happens if they win one or two of those games?

Marquette and St. John's are in as of right now. The Golden Eagles have a win at Notre Dame on their resume, while the Johnnies have beaten both Notre Dame and Georgetown at Madison Square Garden.

The problem with St. John's resume is as follows. Their best road win all season was at West Virginia and they've been outscored by 65 points in their last three games away from the Garden, all against ranked conference foes by double digits.

If the Big East was locked in at 11 teams like Lunardi has in now, Seton Hall would still be out and St. John's and Providence would be fighting for the 11th spot. But if Cincinnati proves unable to beat a ranked team with five games remaining against top-25 conference opponents they may play themselves out of the picture with just a .500 conference record.

If Seton Hall and Providence can stay hot and pick up another quality win or two, they will be almost assured of a spot in the dance. And if St. John's can't beat a ranked team on the road, their chances will diminish greatly.

Bottom line: The Big East is awesome and well-deserving of 10-plus teams in the tournament. They probably have 13 teams that deserve a spot, but that's not happening. All I know is that it's going to be awesome following the final half of the conference schedule to see who plays their way in or out of March Madness.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pitt and Nova, OK, but Seton Hall? Come on Cuse!

(photo courtesy of

Basketball is a game of runs and streaks, both in-game and in-season. This year, the Syracuse Orange have epitomized that age-old axiom.

The Orange started the season on an 18-game winning streak, which came to a screeching halt after Pittsburgh opened the first half on a 19-0 run last Monday. Syracuse responded with 17 unanswered points of their own but never led against the Panthers in their first loss of the season.

That early scoring run was the end of Syracuse's winning streak and also the end of their confident play and offensive chemistry. They have since lost two conference games at home to Villanova, a top-10 team, and unranked Seton Hall. Talk about streaky.

They didn't just lose to the Pirates either; they were embarrassed. Seton Hall started the game on a 10-2 run and took a 13-point lead into halftime. Most people watching surely expected Syracuse to climb back in the second half, but Seton Hall scored the first seven points to extend their lead to 20 and the Orange didn't score until four-and-a-half minutes in.

Pirates star Jeremy Hazell was awesome, tying his season-high with 28 points and adding 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals. Seton Hall is now 2-3 since his return from a wrist injury, but they still aren't widely considered to be a contender for the NCAA tournament. A victory like this will change that, however.

There's a lot of blame that can be tossed around for Syracuse's losing streak, but a lot of it ultimately falls on Scoop Jardine. Anybody who watches this team consistently know he's prone to turnovers (2.9 per game) but he makes up for it by creating offense for himself and others. The Orange don't have anybody else that can break you down one-on-one, so the responsibility of creating offense falls directly on Jardine's shoulders.

During their three-game losing streak, Jardine has not played at his usual level. He has averaged just 8.3 points per game on 9-for-31 shooting, almost five points below his season average, and has just 9 assists compared to 7 turnovers. Coincidentally, Syracuse is shooting poorly, averaging over five points per game less on offense and creating extra fast-break opportunities for their opponents with long rebounds and turnovers.

Normally I would say that Saturday's game at Marquette would a great time for this team to regroup and prepare for next Wednesday's game against Connecticut and surefire top-five NBA draft pick Kemba Walker. But if I had written on this team after the Villanova game, I would've said the same thing about playing Seton Hall. And Marquette is actually over .500.

Jim Boeheim said earlier in the season that this team was not as good as their ranking and wasn't a top-10 basketball team; I agreed. But after 18 straight wins, even I was starting to believe that this team was jelling into an Elite Eight or even a Final Four contender. However, Kris Joseph missing the Pittsburgh game has seemingly destroyed this team's rhythm and after last night's loss, they may fall out of the top 15.

For this team to succeed offensively (and keep their opponents in half-court sets on the other end), they will need to be more efficient. And considering Syracuse doesn't have a go-to scorer (sorry Kris Joseph) or a knock-down outside shooter, the onus will fall on Jardine to penetrate and create offense for everybody else. Does this team miss Wes Johnson and Andy Rautins or what?

This team will only go as far as he can take them and as much as I like Jardine, he's an above-average college point guard at best. Which seems to make Syracuse nothing more than an above-average basketball team at this point in the season.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Knicks still struggling, even with win over Wizards

(photo courtesy of

After losing six games in a row, including three of four road games against Western contenders, the Knicks got the perfect remedy: a date with the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden. But despite 20 turnovers from a Wizards team who still hasn't won on the road this season, the Knicks were up just 101-97 with under seven minutes to play.

Another major problem with the statement above? The Knicks allowed 97 points to the Wizards before the fourth quarter was half over. The Wizards shot 48 percent from the field and outrebounded the Knicks 47-40; partially because Washington has decent post players and partially because Landry Fields played just 19 minutes.

A win is a win and despite all the issues, it was nice to see Wilson Chandler (25 points) get his shot back on track after scoring over 20 points just once in his last nine games, following a stretch where he hit that milestone in four of six games.

Raymond Felton was also efficient (17 points on 7-of-14 shooting, 15 assists, 4 turnovers) while Amar'e Stoudemire led the way as usual with 30, and it was good to see many of New York's struggling leaders regain their swagger in what should have been a gimme game.

This was the Knicks first victory since Danilo Gallinari returned from injury (they had been 0-4), something that should have jump-started this team but instead has done nothing for them despite strong play and improved shooting from the Italian.

The Knicks will need to maintain their confidence in the upcoming week, as they play three of their next four against Miami, Atlanta and Dallas. Losing those games and beating the Pistons in between would leave New York at just 24-24, the first time they'd be at .500 or lower since late November (9-9).

Winning at least two of those games would go a long way to getting this team back on track, as they are now just 5.5 games ahead of the ninth-place Pacers in the East. This team looked assured of a playoff spot a few weeks ago but that assumption was premature; there's still a lot of season left and if Mike D'Antoni continues to run his starters into the ground they may run out of gas down the home stretch, which would be quite the epic fail.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oh those teasing Jets!

(photo courtest of

For the second straight season, the Jets lost in the AFC Championship game. And for the second straight season, they decided to show up for only one half of football. Who's to blame? Read on.

-Everybody loves to hate on Rex Ryan but after wins in Indianapolis and New England, people were singing his praises and rightfully so. He talked the talk and his team responded by walking the walk. Many people questioned the Jets "respectful" tone this week and how the team would come out on Sunday. Well, they were flat.

The Jets defense couldn't tackle me on the opening drive and the Steelers chewed up eight minutes, leaving the Jets cold on the sideline in single-digit weather. New York's offense couldn't get going and left their tired defense to fend for themselves against Rashard Mendenhall, who ran like a man possessed in the first half.

-Speaking of not going the offense going, Brian Schottenheimer's job should be in serious jeopardy after Sunday's playcalling debacle. When the running game was getting stuffed, he forced the issue. When it was working, he tried to get tricky.

When Shonn Greene busted free for 16 yards on second-and-18 and the Jets converted the ensuing third down to the two-yard-line, the playcalling seemed obvious. In four-down territory, you run the football at least three times and ride the horse that got you there. Greene was stuffed on the one on first down and a second-down pass was incomplete.

Any coordinator with a brain, even against the Steelers defense, would run twice with Greene. If you can't get one yard on two plays with your bruising halfback, you don't deserve to score anyway. But Schotty tried to get cute and throw a quick pass, which was incomplete.

On fourth down, he inexplicably called a handoff to LaDainian Tomlinson, which was stuffed. The Jets got a safety on the next play but they needed seven points, not two, and shoddy playcalling here was a major reason the Jets missed out on the five points they needed to force overtime.

-Bart Scott couldn't wait for Sunday. Why Bart, so you could spend the first half flailing at Rashard Mendenhall after missing numerous attempted arm tackles? Normally when players are excited and "can't wait" for something they come out hitting people in the mouth, which is what I expected from Scott.

Shame on you, Bart, and shame on the rest of the Jets defense for not showing up until it was too late. They played a great second half, but you can't let your team fall in such a big early hole against a legitimate defense and a championship-caliber quarterback.

-People are going to talk about Mark Sanchez and how he's proven for two straight seasons that he can't win a championship. And they're obviously right, as any quarterback who takes his team to the brink of the Super Bowl in his first two seasons in the league (and only his third as a starting quarterback beyond the high school level) doesn't have the necessary tools to win a Super Bowl.

Blasphemy. Yes that first-half fumble was awful and proved to be one of the many differences in Sunday's game. Sanchez has to feel that pressure better, but that will come with experience. He had about three seconds to throw on every play during that drive, so some of the blame also belongs on the offensive line.

Sanchez probably isn't going to be the league's best quarterback or even one of the top five, but he can be a top 10 NFL quarterback and a Super Bowl champion. People doubted Drew Brees as far as four years into his career and now, he's regarding as a top-five quarterback, if not top three. The great thing about the NFL is there's always next season and the past really doesn't matter.

Numerous times this season, Sanchez has shown me toughness, moxie and a never-say-die attitude. Many times would have folded down 24-0 after the first half, but Sanchez wouldn't let the Jets lay down in Pittsburgh. And he has shown his willingness to work to improve over his first two seasons.

Players improve drastically from year-to-year in the NFL, which is why it's so difficult to predict player performance from one season to the next. Sanchez took steps forward this season and I expect more of the same next year; the real question is whether his supporting cast will be good enough to make another deep playoff run.

But that's a story for another post, as the Jets have numerous important free agents to sign and not enough money to keep them all. And despite my heartbreak at the moment and the miserable drive home from Heinz field, I'm proud of my team.

They overachieved (again), at least compared to the expectations of everybody outside of that locker room. But Ryan had these guys believing in themselves all season and for now, he is a great coach for this team. I don't believe in moral victories, but I'm much more excited for next season after seeing them try to come back yesterday instead of giving up. J-E-T-S!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Championship Game Predictions

(photo courtesy of

Another week, another set of NFL regular-season rematches. After the AFC had two divisional games last round, the NFC will feature NFC North foes Green Bay and Chicago while New York and Pittsburgh will meet at Heinz Field, where the Jets won 22-17 in Week 15.

Packers at Bears:

These teams are similarly built with brand-name quarterbacks, excellent defenses and running games that tend to leave something to be desired. Both of their regular-season matchups were decided by a touchdown or less and I expect this one to be close as well.

Jay Cutler is coming off a 4-touchdown performance against Seattle, whose secondary pales in comparison to Green Bay's. Cutler was also just 15-for-28 passing and will need to be much more efficient if he expects to lead this offense to the Super Bowl.

Aaron Rodgers is coming off an NFL-record setting first three career playoff games and while the Bears have an excellent front seven, their secondary is vulnerable to the deep ball. Even Mark Sanchez and the Jets beat this Chicago defensive backfield down the field; who's to say Rodgers won't be able to?

I don't think either team will run the ball particularly effectively and while I hate when people say this, it's going to be about who gets more attempts and controls the pace of this game. As much as I have loved James Starks since before the season started, Matt Forte is the better back in this game. But he's also facing a slightly better run defense and neither team has a great offensive line.

I think this game will come down to three things: which quarterback can be more efficient moving his team downfield with short passes, which will hit the deep ball when necessary to keep the opposing defense honest, and which team wins the turnover battle.

I think the Packers are better equipped than the Bears in all three of these aspects and I think they win. Packers 24, Bears 20.

Jets at Steelers:

Two sixth-seeded teams have never played in the Super Bowl, but the Packers and Jets have the opportunity to rewrite history this weekend. After picking against my boys last week (hey, I was just playing the odds!) this week poses another scary matchup.

The Jets did win in Week 15, but Troy Polamalu didn't play. In the past two seasons, the Steelers allow almost 40 yards more on the ground and almost a touchdown more per game when Polamalu is out of the lineup. The Jets ran for 106 yards in the first meeting and if they can't match that feat, it might be a cold, long night for them in Pittsburgh.

But I'm a believer. You can argue that Pittsburgh has the better defense and the better quarterback, but I still think the Jets are a better overall football team. New England was better at the two most important spots, head coach and quarterback, but Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez managed to outduel their counterparts last Sunday. So why should this week be any different?

I know the Jets could've lost that Week 15 matchup if Ben Roethlisberger had a little bit more time at the end of the game, when the Jets stopped the Steelers deep in their own territory. But a win is a win is a win and this team, despite going into battle with a second-year quarterback and head coach, has showed time in and time out this season that they can close out games.

Both of these games will be great to watch if you like real football. The four top-10 defenses will be fired up and playing at their best, while each team has an offense that can put up points when necessary.

I'm a little disappointed in the lack of trash talk on either end; instead we get Bears' players calling Green Bay's receivers the best in the league and Santonio Holmes saying Polamalu is the greatest player he's ever played with. But lack of trash talk aside, these teams will be ready to go on Sunday.

And in all my ranting, I forgot to make a prediction for Jets-Steelers. Call it Jets 20, Steelers 17 and give me two sixth-seeded teams in the Super Bowl. And by the way, Green Bay-New York would be another rematch. Destiny?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

With NJ out, Melo to NY?

(Photo courtesy of

First off, I'm not convinced Mikhail Prokhorov isn't pulling his team out of the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes as leverage, especially now that Anthony said he would have been willing to talk with Prokhorov. But for now you have to believe that the deal is at least temporarily if not totally dead, because I don't think the Nets have any leverage. Either way, it gives the Knicks a chance to swoop in.

The question is: should they? I know a lot of people who might have said no last week will say yes now that they're riding a four-game losing streak, but that's not the right outlook. If they trade for Anthony and give up two starters like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, they won't win an NBA title this season.

This team is not deep and the starters play extensive minutes for a reason. Not to say that Anthony can't play 40 minutes a night, but you'd have to replace a lot more minutes than that. And one of the players who may pick up a few frontcourt minutes, Anthony Randolph, will surely be included or traded for a first-round pick to include.

The Knicks should definitely considering waiting until the offseason to make their play for Anthony. Why trade for a player when doing so would hurt your team for next year and beyond AND it won't win you a title this season?

If the Knicks could win a championship this season by trading for Anthony, I'd be all for it. Their offense bogs down sometimes with Amar'e Stoudemire out of the game; that wouldn't be an issue with Anthony on the floor. But this trade would mean starting Ronny Turiaf, giving Timofey Mozgov minutes again and continuing to struggle with Toney Douglas at the point when Raymond Felton needs a rest.

Felton has hit a wall lately because of his minutes and this team could use a backup point guard. I like Douglas as a player, especially defensively, but he doesn't run the offense well with the ball in his hands and is a much better fit off the ball. Obvious adding Anthony doesn't solve all of this team's problems and he wouldn't help their defense.

I think Anthony would rather play in New York for less money than elsewhere for the max, especially with an increase in the potential making-money opportunities off-the-court. He recognizes this and considering his strong ties to the state it's virtually a done deal that he signs in New York if he isn't traded.

The Knicks are good this year; much better than they've been in a very long time. But unless the Nets get back into the bidding for Anthony or another team makes a play, the Knicks should just wait until next year to become a title contender.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Syracuse loses without Joseph, UConn wins thanks to Walker

You don't see many conferences that can boast two matchups between top-10 teams in one night but last night, the Big East could. With #3 Syracuse traveling to #4 Pittsburgh and #7 Villanova visiting #8 Connecticut, it was a great night for college basketball fans, especially those who love the Big East as much as I do.

Pitt got off to a hot start against the Orange, scoring the game's first 19 points as Syracuse couldn't find any rhythm on offense without Kris Joseph, their leading scorer. The Orange stormed back with 17 unanswered to cut the lead to two but didn't lead all game and were tied just once.

James Southerland started in Joseph's stead, played all but two minutes and only had 8 points while C.J. Fair played 36 minutes off the bench and picked up Joseph's scoring slack with 16 and added 9 rebounds. Fair is the guy I expected to step up most without Joseph and he did, but no Orange player shot over 50 percent from the field and they shot just 39.1 percent as a team.

Southerland was stuck playing power forward most of the night and the Syracuse defense couldn't contain Nasir Robinson (21 points) or Gary McGhee (13 rebounds) down low. The Orange might have missed Joseph more on defense than on offense, as he has yet to turn into the player many expected to take over a heavy scoring burden.

One player who has taken over as one of the nation's top scorers is Connecticut's Kemba Walker. Walker was leading the nation in scoring for much of the season before BYU's Jimmer Fredette scored 47 the other night to take over the scoring lead. Walker has also hit numerous game-winning or game-sealing shots this season and has been the nation's top player in the clutch.

Walker did it again last night, hitting a three-pointer with just over a minute to play to put the Huskies up three. But up 59-57 with 34 seconds left, the 84-percent foul shooter missed two shots and committed a foul on the other end that Corey Fisher turned into two made free throws and a tie game.

Walker got the ball on the final possession, drove into the lane between three Wildcat defenders and pulled up for the game-winner, which hit nothing but twine on its way down. His body control to square himself to the basket in the air after being bumped (read: fouled) by a help defender was impressive, as was his short memory and determination to atone for the previous possession on defense.

I liked Walker a lot last season but he has turned into an absolute superstar this season, increasing his scoring average by over 10 points per game. With only one other player in double figures for the season, Walker has been essentially a one-man team for the Huskies.

I don't know how much longer UConn can continue to win in a difficult Big East with one player but when that player is Walker, anything is possible. This year's Connecticut squad is, to a lesser extent, similar to Syracuse's 2003 team which rode Carmelo Anthony and a bunch of role players to a national title. The Orange had better role players than the Huskies, but with a player like Walker they will be competitive in every tournament game come March.

I'm curious to see how the Big East regular season will play out but one thing I do now is that Pittsburgh, the only team left without a conference loss, does look like the best team right now. Brad Wanamaker is a do-it-all guard surrounded by shooters like leading scorer Ashton Gibbs, competent big men and impressive depth (nine Panthers average over 10 minutes per game).

I still like Syracuse and Villanova more than UConn and I think the Orange are the second-best team in the conference. Hopefully Joseph gets back in time for Saturday's big game at the Carrier Dome against Villanova because the Orange will need to be at full strength to take down the Wildcats.

Monday, January 17, 2011

NFL Championship games are set!

Last week, I predicted a Packers-Bears NFC Championship Game. WIN. I also predicted a Pats-Ravens matchup in the AFC. FAIL. But it's a happy fail.

-I still think New England wins that game two out of three times. But that's why they play the games; the Jets were the better football team yesterday and it wasn't even close. Mark Sanchez was the better quarterback, Rex Ryan was the better coach, and everybody already knew that the other 21 starters on the field were a huge advantage for the Jets.

Continue to hate on Ryan at your own risk. You may think he's brash and annoying, but I can't think of an NFL coach that has the back of his players like Ryan does. And his players have his back too, just check out Bart Scott's post-game interview. He may do things differently than a guy like Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin, who he gets to face off with again this weekend, but his players respond and what he does works.

Arguably the most important aspect of being a head coach in today's NFL is the ability to motivate your players and get the best from their abilities and Ryan sure seems like a genius in that regard. Add in his defensive prowess, which he used to disrupt Brady and the Pats' offense all day yesterday, and you have a damn good head coach.

-The Steelers made me look foolish for picking the Ravens. Similarly built teams with a drastic difference at the quarterback position in favor of the home team; how could I miss that pick? Joe Flacco wasn't terrible and was victimized by two awful drops from Anquan Boldin in the endzone and T.J. Houshmandzadeh on their final fourth-down play, but Ben Roethlisberger's throw to Antonio Brown is the stuff championship-caliber rapists (errr...quarterbacks) are made of.

-The Packers won what was essentially their fourth consecutive playoff game, including two must-win regular-season matchups with New York and Chicago, two teams with 10-plus wins. And they didn't just beat the Falcons, they dominated them. That game is much different if Matt Ryan protects the ball at the end of the first half, though.

The Packers were my preseason NFC pick to go to the Super Bowl and they're looking awfully good right now. The debate between Aaron Rodgers and Roethlisberger as to who is the best quarterback remaining is legitimate despite Big Ben's previous Super Bowl experience.

What Rodgers has done of late, especially with an inconsistent running game, is beyond impressive. He's been knocking on the door of the elite tier of NFL quarterbacks over the past few seasons with his impressive statistics and a Super Bowl victory would cement his status with Brady, Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.

-The Bears dominated the Seahawks and there really isn't much to talk about. Jay Cutler proved he can tear apart a bad secondary, good for him. When Chicago played Green Bay in Week 17 the Bears scored 3 points. I'm not saying they're going to get blown out at home this weekend, but there's a reason Green Bay is favored by 3.5 points on the road.

Predictions to come later in the week...

Friday, January 14, 2011

Divisional Playoff Predictions

We have another four NFL games this week and all of them are regular-season rematches, while both AFC games are division rivalries. 2011 is shaping up to be one of the better divisional rounds in recent memory.


Seahawks at Bears:

Back in Week 6, Seattle beat Chicago 23-20 on the road and the game was only that close because of a Devin Hester return touchdown. But Pete Carroll is on record saying he plans on kicking to Hester, which most NFL coaches know can be a disastrous decision.

Both secondaries are beatable in this game and coming off a great week against the Saints, Matt Hasselbeck may be able to turn back the clock for another week. But if Jay Cutler has time to throw, I expect to see a lot of Johnny Knox and Devin Hester running open down the field, much like their game against the Jets a few weeks ago.

I went with four road teams last week and only missed with the Seahawks. I still can't believe they beat the Saints and while I think New Orleans is better than Chicago, home-field advantage might end up being the difference here like it was last week. Bears 23, Seahawks 17.

Packers at Falcons:

Green Bay got to play Michael Vick's current team and by beating Vick, now gets to play his old team. Matt Ryan and the Falcons have been dominant at home in recent seasons but the Saints proved they can be beaten in Week 16. Green Bay lost by just three points at Atlanta late in the season and while I like the Falcons, I've been riding the Packers bandwagon all season.

People know I'm a big Aaron Rodgers apologist and for all those who hate on his sub-.500 record in close games and the fact that he's never won a big game, understand that this is just his third season as an NFL starter, the same number as his counterpart this week in Ryan.

It may seem to go against conventional wisdom, but I'm taking Green Bay here. The Packers were close in Atlanta without a running game and if James Starks can even reach half of the 123 yards he had against Philadelphia last week, it will open up the play-action passing game even more for Green Bay. I think this game will produce the Super Bowl representative from the NFC and I'm going to call it Packers 24, Falcons 21.


Ravens at Steelers:

Did the Ravens win last week or did the Chiefs lose? Either way Baltimore rolled the AFC West champs and now get to play Pittsburgh for the third time this season. Both teams won by three on the other's home turf, so forgive me if I'm not putting too much stock into the fact this game is being played at Heinz Field.

I also think Baltimore is a better football team. I know Pittsburgh has two-time champion Ben Roethlisberger, a stifling defense and playmakers on offense but so does Baltimore. The Steelers' offense has moved in slow motion from time to time this season despite all the talent on that side of the football and after a week off, I wouldn't be surprised to see a slow start from Big Ben and company.

This will be a close game (likely three points or less) and if I was a betting man, I would take Baltimore and the points (spread is 3.5). I would also take them straight up to win which would yield much higher profits, but I don't waste my money betting against Vegas. This game may even come down to which Pro Bowl safety (Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed) comes up with a big play. Ravens 20, Steelers 17.

Jets at Patriots:

I said Jets-Colts was the game of the week last weekend and it lived up to the hype, with New York advancing on a field goal with no time left on the clock. I think Ravens-Steelers is the divisional game of the week and while the Jets have more a chance here than most people expect, I think if this game is played three times the Pats win twice.

The Jets will need to beat Tom Brady like they beat Peyton Manning; by keeping him on the sideline. The loss of run-blocking stalwart Damien Woody on the right side will hurt the Jets but if LaDainian Tomlinson looks as fresh this week as he did in Indianapolis, the combination of he and Shonn Greene could cause serious problems for the Patriots defense.

Two key statistics for the Jets this week will be carries and time of possession. If Tomlinson and Green combine for 40 rushes and the Jets hold the ball for at least 35 minutes, they have a legitimate chance to win this game. If both of those numbers are closer to 30, the Jets will need to make big plays on defense to win and Brady hasn't made very many mistakes this season.

The Jets have been talking a big game this week, which surprises nobody. I like it when Rex Ryan does it because it seems to take the pressure off the players, but when guys like Antonio Cromartie come in chirping that's a bad sign. If the Jets don't dominate the line of scrimmage this weekend, they're toast. It can happen, but don't bank on it. Patriots 27, Jets 20.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tripodi's Top Teams: NBA Style

By request and my own general interest in basketball, here is the first edition of Tripodi's Top Teams for the NBA.

The Elite (top title contenders)

1. Boston Celtics (28-9): Boston has beaten Miami both times they've played this season, but that was before the light bulb seemed to click for the Heat. But those head-to-head matchups (they play twice more if anybody was curious) and the league's top scoring defense put Boston at the top. In a league where you need two superstars to win a title, the Celtics have four. No other team can make that claim.

2. Miami Heat (30-9): The Heat are hot right now (sorry for the bad pun), having lost just once since December 1. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have found the offensive chemistry they needed and Miami allows just 92.2 points per game on defense, second only to Boston. The Celtics-Heat rematch in Boston on February 14 will be much anticipated.

3. San Antonio Spurs (32-6):
Say all you want about their recent road losses in New York and Boston, as they still have three fewer losses than any other team in the NBA. But San Antonio's defense this season is not up to par with recent history and while they are a better regular season team right now than they have been, I'm not sure this style of Spurs basketball is playoff-tested.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (28-11): Bad recent losses to Milwaukee and Memphis at home raise red flags, but once this team gets used to playing with Andrew Bynum back in the lineup again they have way too much talent to keep out of the title picture, especially if Kobe Bryant is rested for the playoffs.

5. Orlando Magic (25-12): After losing to Atlanta and Dallas in their first two games after re-acquiring Hedo Turkoglu along with Jason Richardson and Earl Clark, the Magic have won nine straight including wins over San Antonio, Boston, New York and Dallas. If Turkoglu can continue his strong play this team has legitimate title hopes.

6. Dallas Mavericks (26-10): They've struggled with Dirk Nowitzki on the shelf, but take away any team's best player outside of Boston and maybe Miami and they will struggle too. With a healthy Nowitzki this team is on the title radar, but Caron Butler's injury will hurt this team more than many think.

On the Cusp (not quite title-worthy, but capable of winning a series)

7. Chicago Bulls (25-12): The combination of Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer is an excellent 1-2 punch and along with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah when he returns from injury, this team is very legit. I'm just not sure Rose is ready to lead them to an NBA title in 2011.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder (25-13): Kevin Durant is already one of the league's top players and Russell Westbrook is stating his case with his improvement this season. I love this team's young nucleus but they're still a year away; in 2012 they will be part of the elite group.

9. Utah Jazz (25-13): Deron Williams is finally having the season that many (including myself) were expecting 2-3 years ago. The Jazz are strong inside with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, who have made the loss of Carlos Boozer a wash. I'm just not sure they can compete with the West's top three teams.

10. New York Knicks (22-15): The Knicks could very possibly be out in the first round depending on who they match up with, but New York is finally buzzing about basketball with the outstanding play of Amar'e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton and Wilson Chandler. Depending what they may have to give up in a trade, this team could take a step into the elite class if they get Carmelo Anthony. And if they don't 2012 may be their season, like the Thunder above.

11. Atlanta Hawks (25-14): This team will regret the contract they gave Joe Johnson, who can't be the lead guy on a title-contending team. But they have enough talent around him with guys like Josh Smith, Al Horford and Mike Bibby to make the second round. And if Marvin Williams ever puts it all together...

First-round exits

12. New Orleans Hornets (22-16):
Chris Paul is great and David West is a very solid player, but this team lacks the star power and the depth to make a legitimate run in the West. They're easily a playoff team, but a first-round exit seems likely.

13. Denver Nuggets (21-16): Carmelo Anthony's status is a major question mark for this team and the likelihood of a trade keeps them out of the top 10. If Melo stays in Denver for the season, this team will see a bump forward.

Other playoff contenders

14. Portland Trail Blazers (20-19): LaMarcus Aldridge is having a career season and while Wesley Matthews has performed admirably in his stead, Brandon Roy's multiple knee injuries will keep this team from hitting its potential.

15. Memphis Grizzlies (17-21): Based on talent alone, Memphis has one of the league's better rosters. And they did just beat the Lakers on the road, so they can play with anybody.

16. Houston Rockets (17-21): Similar to Memphis, the Rockets just went into Boston and beat the Celtics by six. But that was after losing five in a row to contending teams. A healthy Yao Ming would have really helped this team this season.

17. Milwaukee Bucks (14-21): They are tied with Charlotte for the eighth seed in the East but anytime you can combine a young point guard like Brandon Jennings with a big man like Andrew Bogut, you're in business. This team has enough role players to get the job done but is still a year or two away from being a serious contender unless Jennings develops quickly.

18. Charlotte Bobcats (14-21): The play of D.J. Augustin has softened the blow of losing Raymond Felton somewhat and while this team has some nice pieces, they don't have that go-to superstar that championship contenders need.

19. Indiana Pacers (15-20): It's obvious you're not that good when you don't have a set lineup or rotation, and this team will be easy picking for a top seed if they get in. After a 9-7 start, they have gone 6-13 and will be lucky to hold onto a playoff spot. Darren Collison hasn't taken the leap forward many expected and Danny Granger can't do it all.

20. Los Angeles Clippers (12-24): Surprised? Don't be. The Clippers are 7-3 since a 5-21 start and have a great young cast led by Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. Baron Davis is finally realizing his diminishing skill set and is enjoying his nightly spot on the highlight reel feeding alley-oops to Griffin. They are young but they're only 6.5 games behind an eighth-seeded Portland team that's trending in the wrong direction. Crazier things have happened.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

That was a title game?

If there wasn't enough talk about a playoff in college football, last night's BCS Championship game should continue to fuel the debate. You're telling me that teams like Stanford, TCU, Oklahoma and Ohio St couldn't have beaten both Auburn and Oregon they way they played last night?

The quarterback play in that game was far more atrocious than the numbers say. Darrin Thomas was 27-for-40 for 363 yards and Cam Newton was 20-for-34 for 265 yards, but both left lots of throws on the field. Most notably Newton short-arming a touchdown on fourth-and-goal and Thomas missing a key third-down pass late in the game.

LaMichael James was kept in check by an NFL-caliber defense despite two scores through the air, making his decision to stay in school seem wise. But one player who won't be staying is Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who had three tackles for loss including a sack and was a disruptive force for Oregon's offense all game long.

While Newton's stock as a quarterback dropped in my eyes due to inaccuracy and inconsistency, Fairley's rose. He is a game-changing presence along the defensive line and while he's not Ndamukong Suh, if he falls past Buffalo with the third overall pick I'll be shocked. I could see Carolina taking a pass rusher like Bowers and Denver considering help in the secondary, leaving the Bills with a difference maker to improve their shoddy run defense.

Newton wasn't the only quarterback who I downgraded after his bowl performance. I've always liked Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, but he's not ready and he showed that against Ohio State. He'll still go to the draft and probably be a first-round pick, but he needs to ride pine for a year or two before being thrown to the wolves. Then maybe he'll become Aaron Rodgers. Maybe.

With Luck staying at Stanford for his senior season, I'm not sure there's a cant-miss quarterback prospect in this class. Scouts love Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, but I haven't seen enough of him to make an educated assessment. He would probably be a reach for the Cardinals with the fifth pick, but that doesn't mean they won't take him. Gabbert would surely be an upgrade over John Skelton, Derek Anderson and Max Hall.

With the college season now over, let's just say I'm really looking forward to April's draft and the stock fluctuations we will see over the next three months. The players we're talking about now may not be the players we're talking about in March and April.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Wild Card Playoff Predictions


Saints at Seahawks:

The Seahawks may have the Qwest Field 12th man and a 5-3 home record to make them think they have a shot but those losses came against the Giants (41-7), Chiefs (42-24) and Falcons (34-18), the only three playoff teams they faced at Qwest Field.

Matt Hasselbeck returns this week after sitting out Week 17 but Seattle's quarterback situation is not ideal. Compare that to the Saints with Drew Brees, who threw for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns against Seattle back in late November.

Yes that game was played in the Superdome and no, Brees probably won't throw for another four scores. But that doesn't mean this game will be close as the second half wears on. The defending champs cover the spread, 27-14.

Packers at Eagles:

I've been raving about Michael Vick all season and since he's supposedly 100 percent healthy for this weekend's matchup, you would think I'd be picking the Eagles. But I've been pimping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers as Super Bowl contenders all season, well before anybody (including me) put the Eagles in the same boat.

Green Bay is trending upwards at the right time while Philly has lost two in a row, although last week against Dallas doesn't count without most of their starters playing. I'm still a believer in Aaron Rodgers being an elite quarterback beyond the numbers, but he will have to improve on his 9-15 record in games decided by 7 points or less.

This game will be close but I'm not running from my gut feeling all season. Vick is a one-man show and Philly has a great offense, but Green Bay's defense is arguably the NFL's best and I think Rodgers can put up points against the Eagles, even without much of a running game. Packers 24, Eagles 20.


Ravens at Chiefs:

Read my most recent power rankings and you will see I have the Ravens as the second-best team in football. Everyone wants to talk about Joe Flacco's previous playoff struggles and how he looks uneasy at times in the pocket, but the Chiefs aren't exactly world-beaters at getting to the quarterback and forcing them into mistakes.

The Chiefs looked abysmal in Week 17 against Oakland and while they had nothing to play for, a loss like that leaves a terrible taste in your mouth. After what Michael Bush did to that defense, Ray Rice must be salivating at the thought of running on Kansas City.

As long as Flacco takes cares of the football, the Ravens will score in the 20s. And while Baltimore won't be able to stop Jamaal Charles (who can?), they will contain him well enough to force Cassel-to-Dwayne Bowe to beat them. And while that's certainly possible with the season Bowe has had, I like Baltimore too much to knock them off in round one. Ravens 20, Chiefs 14.

Jets at Colts:

This is the game of the week in my opinion, with Packers-Eagles a close second. I've taken the road teams in all three games so far and while I don't expect all four road teams to win, I do expect at least two (Saints and Ravens) to beat the NFC and AFC West champs two out of three times (Saints even more than that).

Peyton Manning showed last season that you can't blitz him for four quarters or even a half and hopefully Rex Ryan has adjusted to this. There's a reason Manning is 5-1 against Ryan's defenses over the years. The Jets have enough talent on the defensive side to keep Manning in check if they don't make things easy on him by over-blitzing.

This isn't the same Colts team from last season, but it also isn't the same fearsome Jets defense. If Ryan truly is the coach he thinks it is he'll dial up the blitz more occasionally on Saturday and make Manning beat the Jets with 15-play drives. Manning can do that, but he'll march down the field in 5-7 plays and run up the score if you blitz every down.

This game should be the highest scoring matchup of the weekend, which means anything can happen. Call me a homer, but I think the Jets are in great shape to pull off the upset here. Mark Sanchez's shoulder issues are being overblown on purpose and Indianapolis, while improved against the run of late, still isn't a good run-stuffing unit. Jets 30, Colts 24.

I know I chose all four road teams and that surprises many, but three of the four teams seeded #5 or #6 have a better record than the division winner they're playing. It's a weird season in the NFL when arguably the second- and third-best teams are playing on Wild Card weekend. But it should make for some great football games, enjoy everybody!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

No Gallinari, no problem. Biggest Knicks win in a decade

Madison Square Garden was rocking last night as the 29-4 San Antonio Spurs came to town with the NBA's best record. And while they left still hanging onto the league's top mark, they came short in a big way against the upstart Knicks.

If you like defense then this wasn't the game for you. The Knicks led 36-35 after the first quarter and 72-69 at halftime and it looked like we had an old-fashioned 1980s NBA shootout on our hands. The pace slowed in the second half as both team fatigued; neither team shot over 55 percent for the game but both were above 60 percent in the first half and 70 percent in the first quarter.

The Spurs couldn't buy a stop for four quarters, while the Knicks were able to clamp down defensively in the second half, allowing 46 points and just 20 in the fourth quarter, as the third quarter ended in a 101-95 score that had a higher combined score than three of the other six games played last night.

The atmosphere at the Garden throughout the game was unreal. It was the first game I've been able to get to a game this season and it was awesome to see arguably the most meaningful New York victory in at least a decade. The excitement was palpable and, while it's taken a while, the energy has FINALLY returned to Madison Square Garden.

As someone who didn't get the privilege to go to many Knicks games when they were relevant (I was young, broke and without a ticket hookup) this was an indescribable experience. I've been to a few games since 2000 and it was like I was in an entirely different arena. I enjoyed going even when they were losing, but this game ranks among my best in-person sports experiences ever, along with the two World Series-clinching games I've seen (1999 and 2009).

It's amazing that the Knicks were able to outscore their league-leading 107-point average by 21 points without their fourth-leading scorer and best three-point shooter in Danilo Gallinari, who may miss a few weeks with a sprained left knee. Wilson Chandler more than picked up the slack with a season-high 31 points and 9 rebounds while Amar'e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton both added 28.

Chandler's play this season has been an absolute revelation. He's upped his scoring average by almost three points per game while taking less than one more shot per game than last season. He's cut his turnovers and almost doubled his blocks but the real improvement in his game has been his shooting.

Barely a 30 percent three-point shooter in his first three seasons, Chandler is hitting almost two three-pointers per game and is shooting a robust 38.6 percent from beyond the arc. His mid-range game has also improved and while in past seasons I hated when he would take bad shots early in the shot clock, I don't mind it now because he's become a knock-down shooter. His mechanics are much improved from his rookie season and his confidence is through the roof.

I don't think many Knicks fans or people around the NBA expected this kind of play from Chandler, who is my early favorite for the league's Most Improved Player this season. It's becoming increasingly obvious to anybody who watched the Knicks that with all the talk of Miami's Big 3, the Knicks have their own terrific trio in Stoudemire, Felton and Chandler.

Beating the Spurs last night showed me something about this Knicks team; more than they showed me in their close loss to Boston a few weeks ago. This team can beat ANYBODY on any given night, especially at home, and that will make for an extremely exciting playoff trip for these Knicks.

I'm still scared of the Heat because they are the only team in the league that can beat us at our own up-tempo game. The last thing you want is to allow Miami opportunities on the fast break and the way the Knicks play, that's a foregone conclusion. But if the seeds work out and the Knicks avoid the Heat in the first two rounds and Boston knocks them off, the Knicks seem like a team that can at least contend for an Eastern Conference title.

If you thought that was the case before the season, please come forward. And no, I won't believe you.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Should the Giants have kept Coughlin?

In a word: Yes. In more than one word: Only if they didn't think they could get Bill Cowher.

Tom Coughlin is not a bad football coach. He had four winning seasons in eight years with the expansion Jaguars and has four in seven seasons with the Giants, not including two 8-8 years. And while all the wins from his 4-3 playoff record in New York came during the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl run, he did win the big one on the biggest stage against one of the best teams in NFL history.

Coughlin is 133-107 in his 15-year career (.554 winning percentage) and his players still respond to him. The Giants could have collapsed in Week 17 after losing control of their own destiny for the NFC's second seed and then for a playoff spot, but they came out to play and if Chicago had beaten Green Bay, the Giants would be in and no one would be questioning Coughlin's job.

Granted you can look at the second half of the last two seasons and see noticeable collapses. But is the coach ALWAYS to blame when their team underperforms at the end of a season? This year the Giants were snakebitten by injuries and last season, well, there's really no excusing last season's stumble.

If New York fired Coughlin, who would they have hired that would've been an upgrade? The only name that comes to mind is Bill Cowher, who has been considering a return to coaching for years and would likely only come back to a team with an established quarterback. And as much as I hate Eli Manning, he is a capable NFL starter.

Cowher also is close with the Mara family and was supposedly in the running to be New York's next head coach before Coughlin won Super Bowl XLII. Former Steeler Jerome Bettis, who played under Cowher, even went as far as saying that Cowher would definitely be the next Giants coach whenever Coughlin is ousted.

But as long as Coughlin maintains the respect of his players and gets them to play hard for him every week he should remain the Giants' coach. This is especially true since they can wait on Cowher, who seems to be in no rush to return to the sidelines. After all, was it Coughlin who threw an NFL-high 25 interceptions this season? No, that was Manning.

Was it Coughlin who also led the league in fumbles with 17? No, that was due in large part to Ahmad Bradshaw and others. Sure, coaches can teach ball security and turnovers and penalties are generally a reflection of a lack of discipline, but watching this team on the field every week makes it hard to pin all of their issues on Coughlin.

About one-third of Manning's interceptions were dropped passes by his receivers and an offseason of work should teach Bradshaw how to protect the football after a breakout 2010 season.

All in all, I think the Giants were right to retain Coughlin. The NFC East will be tough again next season with Tony Romo returning to the Cowboys and possibly Michael Vick re-signing with the Eagles. Either way it looks to be a three-team race and one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL is maintain chemistry under a new coaching staff with a new philosophy.

In most other seasons, the Giants' 10-6 record gets them to the playoffs. Just not 2010. But that doesn't mean that Tom Coughlin shouldn't be back for 2011.