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MLB Playoff Preview ’08

Where would the Dodgers be without Manny Ramirez? Where would the Brewers be if they weren’t able to snag CC Sabathia? Would the Angels be 100-game winners with no Mark Teixeira?

And the survey says: 1) Below .500 in second place, 2) On the outside looking in at the Mets, 3) Probably not.

Indeed, if there’s a theme to this postseason, it’s those new faces in new places giving newfound hope to a trio of frustrated franchises.

But hold on, the Dodgers, Brewers and Angels aren’t the only clubs chasing realistic dreams of October glory.

With that in mind, let’s investigate each of the contenders.

Philadelphia Phillies (92-70, NL East Champions)

Case for an early exit The Phillies aren’t exactly, for lack of a better term, clutch. They took the NL East for the first time since 1993 last year — mainly by playing second fiddle to the Mets and their mammoth collapse — then went three and out against the Rockies in the first round. The 2008 Phillies are basically the same team with basically the same record that felt no pressure down the stretch as the Mets once again faded. And they are expected to win a short series against a squad throwing CC Sabathia twice?

Case for a deep run The three things you need to win a title — an ace, a basher and a closer — the Phillies have. Cole Hamels is as nasty as they come, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are tough outs that become even tougher in the playoffs, and Brad Lidge converted all 41 of his save chances this year. The formula is there.

Verdict Out in 4 against the Brewers. Because Sabathia threw the last game of the regular season, Hamels won’t be facing him in Game 1. This puts an excess of pressure on the Phils to take the first game. And even if they do they’re likely looking at a split going back to raucous Milwaukee.

Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78, NL West Champions)

Case for an early exit An inability to score runs. The Dodgers Achilles heel the last few years has been just that. Of course sticking Manny Ramirez in the middle of that lineup has paid enormous dividends, but the fact remains that LA scored 155 fewer runs than the Cubs this year, and even with Manny they can’t match the depth of Chicago’s lineup.

Case for a deep run The ex-Sox factor. That would be Manny and Derek Lowe. If Manny continues to smash the ball and Lowe (3.34 ERA in 18 postseason appearances) shows off his abnormally large set of stones, sky’s the limit for this team. Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito at the end of games is a dynamic combo.

Verdict Out in 5 vs. the Cubs. Just a tough draw for the Dodgers. If the Mets don’t fritter away another sure playoff berth, Manny and company are headed to Philly for a much easier series. I see them splitting the first two at Wrigley before returning to Chavez Ravine for a tussle with Rich Harden. He’s not the face you want to see in a swing game, no matter what the venue.

Los Angeles Angels (100-62, AL West Champions)

Case for an early exit History. The Angels simply can’t deal with the Red Sox in October. Dating back to 1986 they’ve dropped nine straight to Boston in the playoffs. Their two biggest weapons, John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez, have been tormented by the Sox in the postseason.

Case for a deep run F— history. Lackey was 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA and .132 BAA vs. Boston this year. They took eight of nine from the Sawx in the regular season. They are a far healthier team than they were last season going into the games that count. And Mark Teixeira completely changes the tenor of that lineup.

Verdict Done in 4 vs. the Red Sox. I’m just not convinced the Angels hurlers can shut down whatever lineup Boston trots out. As good as he was against the Sox this year, Lackey was putrid down the stretch (8.14 ERA and .356 BAA in four September starts). Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders simply don’t instill fear and the Angels bullpen — always one of their strengths — does not cope well with the patient Boston hitters.

Milwaukee Brewers (90-72, NL Wild Card Champions)

Case for an early exit Inexperience. We all saw what happened when the young Brewers got into a pennant race with the Cubs last year. They found that extra finishing gear this time around but that doesn’t change the fact they haven’t been to the dance since 1982. Not to mention succeeding in October requires a shift into overdrive. Is the Brew Crew going to be able to harness all that expectation and emotion?

Case for a deep run Let’s say it together: CC Sabathia. Talk about a man with purpose. In case you missed his body of work last year (AL Cy Young winner, 15 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings in the playoffs), Sabathia has something to prove. As fantastic as he’s been since joining the Brewers, he isn’t getting that desired $200 million payday unless he alters the perception about his ability to carry over regular season dominance into October.

Verdict Beaten by the Cubs in 5 in the NLCS. Sabathia will single-handedly carry them into contention for a pennant. Their lineup should be able to pack enough punch to match the mighty Cubs. Two glaring reasons why they can’t compete with Chicago in a long series: 1) Ben Sheets has already proclaimed he has a “broke arm”. 2) The back end of the Brewers bullpen isn’t strong enough to make up for the loss of the staff’s second-most important arm.

Boston Red Sox (95-67, AL Wild Card Champions)

Case for an early exit Josh Beckett’s oblique strain. He’s already been pushed back to Game 3 of ALDS, and that’s tentative. Oblique strains are by nature nettlesome. They are known to hang around, and in the blink-of-an-eye postseason tournament that is October baseball, Beckett’s is of grave concern to the Red Sox. Oh and have I mentioned the team paid $7 million to dispose of its best hitter? Oh that’s right, I did.

Case for a deep run Pitching. Specifically Beckett getting healthy and joining Dice-K and Jon Lester to form the best starting trio in the American League. All have won at least one World Series game. Beckett (6-2, 1.73 ERA in nine postseason starts) is one of the greatest October fireballers the sport has ever seen. And don’t forget about Jonathan Papelbon. He’s never allowed a run in the playoffs. You read that correctly.

Verdict Beaten by the Rays in 7 in the ALCS. One game swung my feelings about this team. September 9 at Fenway. First place at stake. The Red Sox entered the ninth with a 4-3 lead and Papelbon gave it up. Instead of leapfrogging Tampa Bay and probably cruising to the division title, that was the closest Boston got. And that contest wasn’t the anomaly; it merely underscored what became the norm this year: the Rays coming from behind and stealing games from the Red Sox. What that game did determine, however, was home field advantage for this series. The Rays (57-24) were the best home team in baseball, while the Red Sox, as always, were a different team (39-42) away from Fenway Park.

Tampa Bay Rays (97-65, AL East Champions)

Case for an early exit The pressure that goes with traversing uncharted territory. We’re talking about a team that had never even finished second to last before shocking the world this year. Will the pressure finally catch up to the wildly talented, yet very young and inexperienced Rays? I’m as eager as any to find out.

Case for a deep run Home field throughout the playoffs. As mentioned above, no team was better than the Rays within the confines of their own ballpark. Throw in the fast turf that is ideally suited for the Rays, the circus rules that define Tropicana Field (catwalks are in play!), and the team’s one hardened veteran (Troy Percival) being the guy that will have the ball when nail-biters are on the line, and these upstarts formerly tabbed as Devil Dogs are going to be tough to take down.

Verdict A Game 7 loss to the Cubs in the World Series. (Did I really just write that?)

Chicago Cubs (97-64, NL Central Champions)

Case for an early exit 1910, 1929, 1945, 1998, 2003, 100 years, the Billy Goat, Steve Bartman and quite a bit else that I’m likely missing.

Case for a deep run Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Samardzija and Sweet Lou Piniella.

Verdict The stock market rights itself, pigs fly, the Red Sea parts again, Paris Hilton does gratis club appearances … and … CUBS WIN!! CUBS WIN!!!! CUBS WIN!!!!!!

NFL Week 4 Picks

A few points before picks.

1. The Chargers are one prayer and one awful call from being 3-0. Of course, they are actually 1-2, but this is a very good football team. Dating back to the playoffs last year they’ve played their last five games (at Indy, at New England, Carolina, at Denver, Jets) with limited amounts of LT and, most recently, no Shawne Merriman. They blasted the Colts, fought the 17-0 Pats tooth and nail, then carried that style of play into this season. When everything shakes out this year, San Diego will be a top-three seed in the AFC.

2. As opposed to the Chargers, their divisional rival Denver has benefited heavily from the “that’s football” adage. If Ed Hochuli doesn’t blow a monumental call and Martin Gramatica drills a very makable 41-yard field goal, the Broncos are 1-2. Instead of everyone salivating at the most prolific offense in the league, questions would be floating around about the Broncos spine (or lack thereof) and their ability to finish games. I’m just saying.

3. There was much debate over whether the Patriots needed a bye week or were better off putting the Miami disaster behind them immediately and getting right back to football. Here’s the deal. When you get “Madden 95’d” (my made up term for running the same play five times for a touchdown), you need to go back to the drawing board. In addition, when the paparazzi tailing Tom Brady thinks his backup shares a last name with an aging, alien backup point guard for the Celtics, it’s time for some adjustments to be made.

4. The NFC East is good. Really good. In my opinion this is the best division in football since the AFC East in the late 90s. Offenses that can put points on the board, defenses that pack a hurting and high caliber quarterback play. The Redskins are clearly going to play the spoiler role. Unless they take three or more divisional games, there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing three 10-plus win teams in the NFC East.

5. Speaking of the NFC East, the defending champs have looked pretty nasty — albeit against a Washington team they should beat, a horrendous St. Louis squad and the Bengals. Impressive first trio of games but not enough to convince me that the G-Men are headed for anything more than 10 wins and a third place finish. We’ll start to find out what the champs are made of beginning in Week 8, when they go at Pittsburgh, Dallas, at Philly, Baltimore. The good news is they’ll likely be 5-0 heading into the gauntlet.

6. For everyone heading to the bar Sunday to watch football, take note of the one Bills fan and one Dolphins fan in your establishment. I swear, it’s some sort of phenomenon: there are no more and no less than one of each in every sports bar in the country on any given Sunday. They fascinate me, these hardened supporters garbed in their Jim Kelly and Dan Marino jerseys. These days, with the Patriots suddenly mortal, they’ve ceased to sulk in the one corner of the bar where their game is being shown on a 12-inch flat screen. So this week, see what’s good with the one in your watering hole. Believe me, they have much to say.

Week 4 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)

TENNESSEE over Minnesota
NEW ORLEANS over San Francisco
Green Bay
over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Houston
San Diego
over OAKLAND
DALLAS
over Washington
Denver over KANSAS CITY
NY JETS over Arizona
CAROLINA over Atlanta
Cleveland over CINCINNATI
Buffalo
over ST. LOUIS
Philadelphia
over CHICAGO
PITTSBURGH over Baltimore

Last Week: 9-7

Overall: 28-19

Rethinking the Patriots

Watching the Pats-Jets game Sunday, it dawned on me that’s it’s been a full season-plus since I’ve needed to take an interest in how the Patriots won, as opposed to by how much. Let’s be honest: the 2007 season was surreal. But it didn’t end with a title. Conversely, what the 2001, ’03 and ’04 campaigns lacked in showy predictability, they made up for in hardware.

Technically, all New England did in ’07 was prove beyond a reasonable doubt that talent alone doesn’t win championships in the NFL. The irony being that they fell victim to the very tenet that they themselves established earlier this decade.

When those Patriots won a record 21 consecutive games from the beginning of the 2003 season through the middle of ’04, their average margin of victory was roughly a touchdown. Their formula for success was simple, yet effective: control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, force turnovers and capitalize on them, gain a lead and turn to the ground game to protect that lead, seal the game with one decisive stop on defense.

With Tom Brady running a smart and efficient offense, the Patriots were able to set a new standard for winning. As spectacular as the Patriots were last year, they didn’t resemble anything close to the team that went three out of four.

Upon learning that the league’s MVP would be sidelined for the year, it became immediately clear that if the Pats are to have success this year, they’ll have to revert to “the sum is greater than its parts” mantra.

With that in mind, let’s break down New England’s Week 2 performance in a way that hasn’t been necessary in a long time.

Offense

Considering Matt Cassel hadn’t started a game at quarterback since high school, he did a formidable job of leading the offense. He clearly has the intellectual capacity and longevity to handle the system. However, two of the most critical aspects of the quarterback position — pacing and field vision — are skills that can only be honed through live action.

There’s little doubt that Brady is the standard-setter when it comes to managing the clock and seeing the whole field. Cassel did those things well Sunday. He consistently got the unit up to the line of scrimmage in the face of a bloodthirsty crowd, and didn’t hesitate to use a timeout when the play clock was winding down. Much of the game plan was centered around short, quick passes to Wes Welker and the running backs, which Cassel executed with crispness and precision. He exhibited good field vision in the red-zone on third-and-6 of the Patriots’ final drive. Out of the shotgun with three receivers to his left — including Randy Moss in the near slot — Cassel saw tight end David Thomas on his right slip past the coverage and head to the corner of the end zone. He made the adjustment and tried to hit Thomas but the ball was tipped. A good sight adjustment nevertheless, considering the play was meant for Moss.

As for the running game, the four-headed monster of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and LaMont Jordan was up to the task of assuming the brunt of the offense. Maroney missed a good chunk of the game with a shoulder but returned at the end and took a big hit in stride. Morris got the tough yardage and scored the unit’s only touchdown. Faulk had 66 total yards (including receptions) out of the backfield. And a revitalized Jordan came in on fresh legs late in the third and assumed the “clock-killin’ Corey Dillon” role, churning away at the fatigued Jets defensive front for 62 yards on 11 carries.

Defense

Lots to address here, all good. The D-line was stout in the trenches, with the immovable Vince Wilfork anchoring a run defense that will undoubtedly be tops in the league this year. Richard Seymour, who was just never right last year, finally appears to be healthy. Whenever plays end and Seymour is strutting back to the line of scrimmage from the backfield, twitching his left shoulder pad, it’s a sign he’s feeling good. In nine games last season, he recorded 15 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks. He had two solo tackles — including a huge tackle for a loss on the goal line — and a sack Sunday.

For the second week running, rookie Jerod Mayo played every defensive snap and was among the team leaders in tackles. Ellis Hobbs had two passes defended and seems ready to undertake the duty of number one corner. Brandon Meriweather snatched his first career interception. Then there was Adalius Thomas, who made the play of the season thus far, sacking Brett Favre along with his blocker, Leon Washington for a 20-yard loss that iced the game on the Jets’ final drive. The man is a freak. You will be seeing that play on the 2008 highlight reel come January.

Special Teams

Stephen Gostkowski, who is suddenly a much bigger piece of the offensive equation than anyone could have imagined, did his job in spades Sunday. He was a perfect 4-for-4 in field goal attempts and booted a few of his kickoffs into the Hudson River. And Kevin Faulk returned three punts, each one into Jets territory, for a combined 53 yards.

Conclusion

It may have been a bit unnerving and new, but Patriots 19 Jets 10 was a Patriots victory. There was no Brady-to-Moss, but there was Moss saying this after the game: “The New England Patriots [are] 2-0. We got one in the division, so all you haters keep hating. We’re coming.”

Week 3 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)

ATLANTA over Kansas City
CHICAGO
over Tampa Bay
NEW ENGLAND over Miami
TENNESSEE over Houston
Detroit over SAN FRANCISCO
DENVER
over New Orleans
Jacksonville
over INDIANAPOLIS
BUFFALO
over Oakland
Carolina
over MINNESOTA
NY GIANTS over Cincinnati
WASHINGTON over Arizona
SEATTLE over St. Louis
Pittsburgh
over PHILADELPHIA
Cleveland
over BALTIMORE
GREEN BAY over Dallas
SAN DIEGO over NY Jets

Last week: 9-6

Overall: 19-12

 

Life After Brady’s Knee

I’m a die hard Patriots fan. I live in New York. Ever since the sun came up on February 4, 2008, times have been rough.

For six straight months I tried my best to duck all talk of football, the perfect season, the miracle catch, Eli Manning, the Giants. For six moons I attempted to convince myself that Mercury Morris was nothing more than the insolent next door neighbor on a short-lived sitcom.

I walked the streets of Gotham with my head down. I pretended I didn’t understand street vendors whenever they pitched me a Giants championship T-shirt. I changed the channel every time I heard the words “Relive the historic season of the New York Giants”. I playfully — and painfully — feigned amnesia when coworkers and acquaintances broached the topic. I abruptly dismissed any chatter amongst my friends; sometimes through threats, others through a mere slow shake of the head. Please guys, just spare me.

For 219 days I waited, uncharacteristically hushed and vulnerable. I — like many out there — patiently loafed in the wake of Super Bowl XLII.

For all Patriots fans, those darks months helped us come to grips with the fact that what was done in that game couldn’t be undone. Yet that empty feeling was accompanied by a renewed, albeit reserved, swagger. Time might have stood still since 00:00 of the Super Bowl, but days were passing. Redemption was brewing.

Whether our suddenly fragile fan complexes would allow it to surface or not, the fact was that a part of us was waiting to see who dared beat the Patriots again. Another perfect season may not have been expected, but the notion was stuck there in the basement of our consciousness, idling like a custom softail in neutral.

September 7 was the day Tom Brady would finally throw that Harley into gear and see how far it could carry us through The Season After Imperfection.

Then it was over. Brady — along with the mission — crumpled up in a heap on the Foxborough grass not a quarter into the first game of the year. We all thought back to June, when Paul Pierce appeared to tear apart his knee before the NBA Finals had even warmed up. We comforted ourselves with the hope that the script would be rewritten for Brady, that he’d come jogging back onto the field to the tune of Rocky sometime later in the game or the season.

Not this time.

This time, in a town that has experienced unparalleled winning this decade — but is historically conditioned to expect the worst — the worst was apparently meant to be.

Now we must turn back the clocks to another day, a day when the Patriots were a team actually competing in a sport, passably at best. Lest we forget that’s how the true identity of this team was forged. Not through multiple titles, offensive records and devious behavior, but through an ironclad and all-consuming concept of “T-E-A-M”. Those were the Patriots the nation grew to love, the ones that came storming out of the Super Dome tunnel as one.

If you’re desperate for a silver lining, that’s just it. This is an opportunity for the Patriots, a chance to hearken back to a time when the men in red, white and blue were as blue collar as the people cheering them on. When neutral fans came together in support of them, and not against them. Although they became a steely juggernaut, the Patriots used to symbolize hope and overcoming the odds.

That’s how they must move forward without their leader.

As mighty as the Patriots have been this decade, it doesn’t matter how you slice it: the two most catastrophic plays in the history of the franchise happened within 10 minutes of one another. The combined impact of The Helmet Catch and Brady’s Knee will be felt for years to come. Their place is already permanently lodged in the annals of NFL history.

History. For now, that’s what the Pats are.

For the first time since 2002, the playing field is level.

Week 2 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

Green Bay over DETROIT
NY Giants over ST. LOUIS
Tennessee over CINCINNATI
CAROLINA
over Chicago
SEATTLE
over San Francisco
New England over NY JETS
San Diego over DENVER
KANSAS CITY
over Oakland
Indianapolis over MINNESOTA
New Orleans over WASHINGTON
JACKSONVILLE over Buffalo
TAMPA BAY
over Atlanta
ARIZONA over Miami
Pittsburgh
over CLEVELAND
Baltimore over HOUSTON
Philadelphia
over DALLAS

Last Week: 10-6 Overall: 10-6