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NFL Power Poll and Week 4 Picks

With September in the rearview, it’s a good time to break out the first edition of the Power Poll. There are some huge games this weekend (BAL at NE, NYJ at NO, SD at PIT, GB at MIN), which means a shakeup is imminent. For the time being, here’s how the Top 10 rounds out after three weeks.

1. Baltimore Ravens (3-0) The Ravens have never had a good offense, let alone a top-ranked one. Only the Saints have scored more points than Baltimore’s balanced attack.

2. New Orleans Saints (3-0) Three wins, two on the road, with a combined margin of victory of 64 points. This is the best team in the NFC until proven otherwise, something the Giants will have their shot at come Week 6.

3. New York Jets (3-0) First the Jets silence the Texans in Houston, then they back up their trash talk in New England before gutting one out vs. the desperate Titans. Hands down, the three most impressive wins of any team.

4. Indianapolis Colts (3-0) Back-to-back primetime victories in Miami and Arizona have those few Indy skeptics shaking their heads in disbelief. Again.

5. New York Giants (3-0) A win vs. the turnover-prone Cowboys stands out because the G-Men crashed the party at new Cowboy Stadium, but holding the Bucs — hapless as they are — to 86 yards of offense last week is pretty  impressive.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) Between Hard Knocks, the stomach punch they endured in Week 1 vs. the Broncos, and the way they’ve responded since — winning at Lambeau Field and pulling off a shocker of a comeback vs. the Steelers — the Bengals deserve some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

7. Minnesota Vikings (3-0) You can only beat who’s on your schedule, but the fact remains the Vikings drew the Browns and Lions before needing a for-the-ages Favre missile against San Francisco to polish off a somewhat dubious 3-0 start.

8. New England Patriots (2-1) Even without Welker, the Pats offense of old returned vs. the Falcons last week. Sure, they had issues getting the ball into the end zone, but 445 yards of total offense is still 445 yards of total offense.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (2-1) The Eagles have weathered the early storm in the face of injuries to McNabb and Westbrook, not to mention the ongoing Vick saga.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-2) If Jeff Reed makes either a 38 or 43-yard field goal Week 2 in Chicago, the Steelers are 2-1 and nobody’s panicking.

Week 4 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

NEW ENGLAND over Baltimore
WASHINGTON over Tampa Bay
Tennessee over JACKSONVILLE
HOUSTON over Oakland
CHICAGO over Detroit
Cincinnati over CLEVELAND
INDIANAPOLIS over Seattle
NY Giants over KANSAS CITY
NEW ORLEANS over NY Jets
Buffalo over MIAMI
Dallas over DENVER
SAN FRANCISCO over St. Louis
PITTSBURGH over San Diego
MINNESOTA over Green Bay

Last Week: 11-5
Overall: 30-18

NFL Identity Crises and Week 3 Picks

In exactly three weeks, on Oct. 16, we will arrive at the three-year anniversary of one of the great postgame podium tirades of all time.  That would be Dennis Green’s microphone-pounding, “THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!” gem of a rant after the Cardinals dropped a Monday night game to the Bears in 2006.

Alas, there were no such gift-wrapped Coors Light sound bites from Bill Belihick after the Patriots shockingly fell to the Jets or from Andy Reid after the Eagles were annihilated by the Saints at home last Sunday.

But take your pick, be it New England or Philly, the Titans getting beat by the Texans, the Steelers getting bumped by the Bears, the 49ers’ manhandling of the Seahawks or the Bengals’ triumph at Lambeau field, Week 2 of the 2009 NFL season — through the eyes of the Belichicks, Mike Tomlins, Jeff Fishers et al — might has well have been renamed the Sunday of  “THEY WEREN’T WHO WE THOUGHT WERE!”

With that in mind, and understanding that Week 2 always boasts the wackiest and most unpredictable slate of games, let’s put the microscope on a couple of the teams that sure as hell weren’t who we thought they were last week, and attempt to make a long-term diagnosis.

New York Jets

Why they weren’t: There’s no doubt the Jets have one of the best defenses in the league.  Bringing in Rex Ryan to mastermind its schemes and Bart Scott to fill the role of key cog means the New York front seven won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year.  Offensive coordinators know what they’re in store for.  It’s on the other side of the ball that the Jets have defied preconceived notions and turned heads.  Namely, the play of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.  I dare say he managed the game vs. the Patriots (14-for-22, 163 yds, 1 TD, 101.3 rating) in a very Bradyesque (circa 2001) fashion.  He withstood the initial burst from the Pats D without making a mistake and capitalized when he had a chance to finish a drive.  A second consecutive impressive performance out of the gates for the 22-year-old.

Diagnosis: With a Top 5 defense and an offense that takes care of the ball, the Jets are here to stay.  Sanchez seems to have transitioned seamlessly from a high-flying dynamic attack at USC into a pro quarterback who understands how to maximize his defense’s potential by managing the game.

New England Patriots

Why they weren’t: Without taking too much away from the Jets, there were two factors that prevented the Patriots from extending their streak at the Meadowlands.  The first was the crowd.  These folks showed up for their team and didn’t let up, as Tom Brady was whistled for four delay of game penalties and the Patriots as a whole were affected by the sustained noise level throughout the game.  The second was the absence of Wes Welker.  Against a Ryan defense bringing stunts and pressure from all angles, Brady needed his go-to guy because he frequently had less than two seconds to get rid of the ball.  There is no one better operating out of the slot and finding the pocket of free space upon recognizing the blitz than Welker.  Because of that, he’s Brady’s most valuable receiver, and there was just no way the Patriots offense could cope with Ryan’s schemes sans Welker.

Diagnosis: It’s evidently going to take some time for Brady to regain his confidence in the pocket, but the real reason why the Patriots are close to being 0-2 has been their lack of discipline: 17 penalties for 134 yards in two games.  Belichick doesn’t put up with mental errors.  Despite the way they’ve started, you can be sure New England will finish the season as one of the least penalized teams.  They’ve endured rough starts before and rebounded to win Super Bowls.  Keep that in mind.

San Francisco 49ers

Why they weren’t: We’ve known the recent incarnation of 49ers as NFC doormats that have had no viable quarterback to lead their team.  Yet the 2009 outfit, with Shaun Hill at the helm, marched into Arizona, one of the toughest places to win on the road last season, and silenced the massive crowd of the defending NFC champs.  They followed that up by routing the Seahawks, a team widely believed to be poised to regain control of the NFC West with a healthy offense this season.  That offense was throttled by a San Francisco defense that’s becoming more elite with each passing Sunday.  Patrick Willis is a monster in the middle; he’s already one of the best linebackers in the game and he’s only 24.  Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements have helped mold the unit into a legitimate force over the last season-plus.  And on the offensive side, Hill doesn’t need to much more than take care of the ball because Frank Gore is capable of running through anyone.

Diagnosis: A change in mentality can’t be underestimated in the NFL.  A losing mentality becomes insidious, which is why new Niners coach Mike Singletary sought to snuff that out immediately upon taking the helm after Week 7 last season.  Through his fiery style (and rich history as an frightening linebacker for the Bears in the 80s), Singletary made the team believe it could win again, and the results have spoken for themselves.  San Francisco is 7-4 under Singletary and has won seven of its past nine.

Philadelphia Eagles

Why they weren’t: As much as the Eagles have perplexed everyone, it’s tough to read too much into their first two games.  They blitzed the Panthers when Jake Delhomme was doing his best reenactment of his WPEBAQ (worst performance ever by a quarterback) showing in the playoffs against Arizona last January.  Then they got smoked by a Saints offense that has looked like it’s been playing by AFL rules the first couple of weeks.  They were also forced to play that game without Donovan McNabb.  Defensively, the spirit of Jim Johnson remains entrenched schematically, but the players themselves must adjust to life without Brian Dawkins.

Diagnosis: The Eagles probably aren’t four touchdowns better than the Panthers and surely aren’t four touchdowns worse than the Saints.  Their true identity lies somewhere in between, which is to say this is still a solid football team, albeit one that needs its quarterback to be healthy and productive if it wants to entertain any notions of another playoff run.

Week 3 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Green Bay over ST. LOUIS
DETROIT over Washington (not a typo)
MINNESOTA over San Francisco
NEW ENGLAND over Atlanta
PHILADELPHIA over Kansas City
Tennessee over NY JETS
BALTIMORE over Cleveland
NY Giants over TAMPA BAY
HOUSTON over Jacksonville
Chicago over SEATTLE
New Orleans over BUFFALO
Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI
SAN DIEGO over Miami
OAKLAND over Denver
ARIZONA over Indianapolis
DALLAS over Carolina

Last week: 6-10
Overall: 19-13

Week 1 Thoughts and Week 2 Picks

As usual, Week 1 of the 2009 NFL season was full of things to talk to about. Here are a few thoughts:

Mark Sanchez deserves his due for acting the part of a pro in his first NFL game, on the road, against a Texans team that is (again) rightfully hyped. His overall numbers (18-for-31, 272 yards, 1 TD/1 INT) were solid, but it was his formidable third-down efficiency (12-for-16 with 10 conversions) that kept the dangerous Houston offense off the field and helped the Jets own the all-important time of possession battle. For those who remain skeptical because of the small sample size, more defining answers will be coming Sunday when the Jets host the Patriots.

Speaking of New England, anyone who watched only the first half of the Patriots-Bills game on Monday night probably walked away thinking they had seen an impostor in Tom Brady’s jersey — or a guy who was simply no longer the same quarterback after reconstructive knee surgery. Whoever was wearing No. 12 in the retro Pats uniforms was tentative in the pocket, routinely missed throws and failed to convert third and fourth downs.

After the new Brady dipped into his old bag of tricks — leading the Patriots back from 11 down with 2:15 to play and going 11-for-13 for 112 yards and two TDs on the final two drives — the only question surrounding the quarterback had to do with where his latest comeback ranked on the big list. So much for all the speculation on how he would respond: 378 yards, yet another late rally and an AFC Offensive Player of the Week accolade should serve to ease or exacerbate the concerns of many, depending on perspective.

Concerns about player health run rampant in Week 1, and that goes for everyone, not just the Tom Bradys of the world. The one negative aspect of football returning is the reality that key guys won’t make it back to practice to prepare for Week 2. Unfortunately, this season was no different, as Troy Polamalu, Donovan McNabb, LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Urlacher and Jerod Mayo all suffered varying degrees of injuries. There was football played on Thursday, Sunday and Monday night, and guys went down on each day.

The injuries to Polamalu (MCL tear) and Mayo (MCL sprain) aren’t season-ending, as neither will require surgery. But each player is the most vital to his defense, meaning the 3-6 weeks Pittsburgh will be without Polamalu and the 4-8 weeks New England will have to make do without Mayo are going to have major implications on those defensive units. McNabb (broken rib) and Tomlinson (sprained ankle) are effectively ruled out for Week 2, with Tomlinson’s inactive status already having been announced. And Urlacher is done for the season with a dislocated wrist.

The Urlacher injury is obviously the biggest blow any team had to absorb, which was bad news on top of bad news for Chicago, considering the way Jay Cutler performed in his first game as a Bear, on national television no less. While Cutler wasn’t helped by his receivers making some poor reads, he was still exceptionally bad. Whether it was trying to rip the ball into triple coverage or moving right and throwing back across the middle, Cutler pretty much gave a 60-minute clinic on how not to play the position. With the Bears defense sure to be reeling for a few weeks while it gathers itself, the onus swings even more onto Cutler to take care of the ball and put points on the board. Trouble could be brewing in the Windy City.

Here are the Week 2 picks (home teams in CAPS)

Carolina over ATLANTA
Minnesota over DETROIT
GREEN BAY over Cincinnati
TENNESSEE over Houston
New England over NY JETS
KANSAS CITY over Oakland
WASHINGTON over St. Louis
PHILADELPHIA over New Orleans
Seattle over SAN FRANCISCO
JACKSONVILLE over Arizona
BUFFALO over Tampa Bay
Pittsburgh over CHICAGO
Baltimore over SAN DIEGO
DENVER over Cleveland
DALLAS over NY Giants
Indianapolis over MIAMI

Last Week: 13-3
Overall: 13-3

NFL Preview 2009 and Week 1 Picks

Admit it.  Football just wasn’t as interesting without Tom Brady in 2008.

Whether you love or despise the Patriots (is there really any middle ground?), once the NFL’s Golden Boy crumpled in a heap before most West Coasters had even awakened last Sept. 7, the league was irrevocably altered — for one season at least.

If you find yourself in the camp of Hoodie-hating Patriot-bashers, you suddenly had no titan towards which to direct your ire.  Every great narrative needs a villain, needs some conflict.  The Patriots had long been that reviled beast, long before SpyGate gave way to 18-0 and 18-0 gave way to 18-1.

Winning three Super Bowls in four years and contending for a handful of others while time and again giving the proverbial middle finger to the outside world — be it through Bill Belichick injury reports or press conferences or the bending of certain bendable rules or, ultimately, Brady’s 50 TDs and an historic unbeaten streak — made the Patriots the must-follow drama in football for seven years running.

Once Matt Cassel assumed the helm of New England, the team morphed into undermanned, underdogged longshots overnight.  Where was the fun in that?  Gone, like the air sucked out of a wind tunnel, a vacuum effect that left radio talk show mouths and water cooler-gabbers gasping for storylines to cling to and debate.  But there were none, or at least none within a Hail Mary as polarizing as anything Patriots.

Yet the fact was, had Brady been healthy, the league and its rabid underbelly would have had the mother of all ongoing subplots.  Few remember the 2008 Giants for much other than Plaxico Burress shooting himself in the leg in late November and derailing their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  But here was a team that began the season with 11 wins in 12 tries on the heels of the greatest upset in the history of the game.

Without delving too deep into revisionist history, considering the Cassel-led Patriots won 11 games thanks largely in part to a cake schedule, it’s not at all far-fetched to assume New England would have stood at an identical 11-1 (or better…) after Thanksgiving had their leader been in helmet and pads.

Can you say Rematch of the Century?  Again, that’s all hypothetical speak predicated on something that never was, but present to me a casual fan of the game who wouldn’t have gotten goosebumps when the possibility of Round II: 18-0 vs.  G-Men was raised.  Thought so.

Which leads me to Patriots fans/apologists themselves.  For all the winning they’ve been blessed with and cockiness they’ve embodied for the better part of a decade, the last 19 months have been quite the humbling experience.

After Super Bowl XLII, Pats supporters predictably went underground, avoiding all outsiders — remember, Giants fans and Patriot-haters were for all intents and purposes one and the same — and waited for their shot at redemption.  When that long-awaited prospect came and went in a heartbeat (OK, 15 snaps), the grim reality of another calender year of waiting on top of an already seemingly interminable seven months set in.

While I can’t speak for the whole of Patriot nation, I can say that the ’08 campaign schooled this fan on some valuable lessons.  Namely, that prosperity is a privilege and not an entitlement.  And when you’ve hit rock bottom, the slow ascent back up is almost as thrilling as residing on the top itself.  Almost.

So with that said, will Brady and the Patriots pick up where they left off at 18-0?  Will they complete the flexuous trek back to glory? No one knows for certain at this point, but what can be said for sure is the 2009 Patriots will reprise the role they played so effectively for seven seasons: that of the divisive villain that no one can stop talking about and everyone is chasing.

With that in mind, here are is your official 2009 preview.

AFC East Champs — New England Patriots (14-2)

The issue with the perfect Patriots in 2007 — and the ’06 outfit for that matter — was their inability to get one stop with the season on the line, something that used to be the hallmark of the franchise.  After the peculiar (to say the least) trade of Richard Seymour, the New England D goes into the 2009 season with even more question marks.  The real answers won’t come until January, though.  Until then, this team is going to put up points.  Lots of them.  And in massive bunches.  Assuming Tom Brady plays 16 games, the Patriots offense has the potential to be even better than it was in the record-setting season of two years ago.  Why?  Because the Patriots are stacked at running back and Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker are the most unstoppable trio in the game.

AFC North Champs — Pittsburgh Steelers (13-3)

The Steelers return 19 starters from their Super Bowl team of a year ago, including the core of a defense that ranked as the best of all time.  After grinding 12 wins out of the league’s toughest schedule in 2008, the champs have one of the weakest slates this season, largely because of an AFC West draw and two games apiece against divisional non-rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.  Many of the games they won last season (BAL, SD, DAL, Super Bowl XLIII, to name a few) were made possible by game-winning drives led by Ben Roethlisberger.  He is an elite quarterback with a knack for the clutch, which combined with the vaunted Steeler D, will have Pittsburgh sniffing another title.

AFC South Champs — Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

Many wrote the Colts off in 2008, particularly after a 3-4 start.  All they did was win nine straight games to end the season before falling to the Chargers in an epic Wild-Card playoff game.  The main reason they were so slow out of the gates was because Peyton Manning was still in the recovery stages from knee surgery performed just prior to the season.  While the loss of Tony Dungy is surely to lead to another transitional period, the Colts are Manning’s team, and so long as he is under center, they will be a force to be reckoned with.  He may no longer have his revered coach, but he still has a stable of receivers he is comfortable with.  Defensively, with Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney storming the backfield off the edges, the Colts D will continue to be a pressuring unit capable of making big plays.

AFC West Champs — San Diego Chargers (12-4)

By now, everyone knows the m.o. of the Chargers: tons of talent, not enough wins to show for.  However, it’s difficult to measure this team by wins and losses.  For instance, last season they won eight games but in January knocked off the team (Indianapolis) many believed was going all the way.  In 2007, they went 11-5 and fought their way to the AFC Championship Game, where they battled tooth and nail vs. the 17-0 Patriots without Phillip Rivers or LaDainian Tomlinson.  That’s three playoff victories over the last two seasons, which incidentally is more than the Colts and as many as the Steelers and Patriots in that span.  The 2009 Chargers are pretty much the same team that fell to the Steelers in the Divisional Round last season.  They’ll be better on defense with a full season of Ron Rivera’s schemes and the return of their leader, Shawne Merriman.  The AFC West is also the weakest division in football.

AFC Wild Card — Baltimore Ravens (11-5)

Despite having the defense of the decade, the Ravens have been remarkably inconsistent over the last five years.  Their records from 2004-08: 9-7, 6-10, 13-3, 5-11, 11-5.  That roller coaster ride is directly attributable to the lack of stability at the quarterback position.  Before last season, Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright, Steve McNair and even Troy Smith started games for Baltimore.  That’s a lot of shuffling over a four-year span.  For the first time this decade, the Ravens won’t have to fret about who they’re trotting out on Sundays, as Joe Flacco excelled in his first year, becoming the first rookie QB to win a pair of playoff games.  While the defense will surely feel the losses of coordinator Rex Ryan and linebacker Bart Scott to the Jets, it’s a unit that has been together a long time and knows what it’s doing.  The Ravens will be scary come playoff time.

AFC Wild Card — Tennessee Titans (10-6)

The Titans blew a golden opportunity vs. the Ravens at home in the playoffs last year, committing boneheaded penalties and turning the ball over multiple times in the second half.  Then they lost Albert Haynesworth, their defensive stalwart, to free agency in the offseason.  While their shot at a Super Bowl probably came and went in 2008, the Tennessee running game — led by second-year stud Chris Johnson — remains top-notch and their secondary is one of the best in football.  The Titans will have trouble throwing the ball, as an aging Kerry Collins is unlikely to submit a repeat of his ’08 campaign, but they will again boast a formidable rushing attack and top-rated D, which will be enough to return to the playoffs.

NFC East Champs — New York Giants (12-4)

Football is a game won in the trenches, and the 2009 Giants are sure to lay claim to the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.  Defensively, the return of Osi Umenyiora to a ferocious front-four will give New York the deepest and most talented pass rush in the league (Mathias Kiwanuka, who recorded eight sacks last season, won’t even start).  Offensively, there are legitimate questions about the Giants receiving corps, but the franchise doled out huge dollars to lock up Eli Manning for a reason — to turn the likes of Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon into big-play guys.  Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but for the time being Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw will grind down defenses with a relentless rushing attack.  The G-Men will be the class of the toughest division in the NFL.

NFC North Champs — Green Bay Packers (11-5)

The Packers lost five games by three points or less last season, and another pair by four points.  They basically imploded after a 5-5 start and dropped five of their last six to finish at 6-10.  Overlooked was the fact that Aaron Rodgers rapidly became one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.  The offense, which ranked No. 8 overall in 2008, could crack the Top 5, meaning the Packer defense — which has made the switch to the 3-4 — is all that stands between Green Bay and another NFC North title.  One of the NFL’s weakest schedules should also help propel the Packers to double-digit wins.

NFC South Champs — New Orleans Saints (10-6)

The Saints shocked everyone by winning 10 games and the NFC South in 2006 before regressing to seven and eight wins respectively over the last two years.  But they too, like the Packers, lost a lot of tough games in 2008 (five by three points or less).  In a league that has become defined by aerial attacks and a division that crowns a new champ each season, it’s hard to argue against the Drew Brees-led Saints, who boasted the No. 1 passing offense in the NFL last year and figure to have an improved running game with Pierre Thomas expected to come into his own in his first season as a featured back.  The defense remains suspect, but the Saints should be able to win four games in their division simply by outscoring inferior offenses.

NFC West Champs — Seattle Seahawks (9-7)

After Arizona’s Super Bowl run, most NFC West talk has been relegated to the desert going into the 2009 season.  The justifiable buzz surrounding the Cardinals has enabled the Seahawks to uncharacteristically fly under the radar.  We are, after all, talking about a team that won four straight division titles from 2004-07 before getting chomped by the injury bug in ’08.  Matt Hasselbeck appears to be fully recovered from the pinched nerve that cost him nine games and rendered him a shell of his former self in a handful of other contests last year.  Nate Burleson and Deion Branch return from injury-riddled campaigns to join newly acquired wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh.  Combined, that foursome should do wonders for Seattle’s air attack and help the ‘Hawks retake the West.

NFC Wild Card — Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)

Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb seem to take nothing but heat from the city of Philly, but year in and year out the Eagles contend.  That’s a testament to the coach and quarterback.  Granted, their glaring weakness — the two-minute offense — has been a death blow in the past, but that hasn’t prevented them from appearing in five NFC Championship Games in the last eight years.  With or without a significant contribution from Michael Vick (don’t count out the former), the Eagles are built for sustained success because of a consistent defense and the playmaking abilities of McNabb and Brian Westbrook.  Look for second-year wideout DeSean Jackson to make the leap and give the Philly offense an added big-play dimension the team hasn’t had since Terrell Owens blew in and out of town a few years back.

NFC Wild Card — Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

Now that a federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the Williamses, Kevin and Pat, we know that the Minnesota defensive line will be intact for the duration of the 2009 season.  Which is to say the Vikings figure to again trot out the league’s top-rated rush defense.  On the offensive side of the ball, everyone is naturally talking about Brett Favre, when in reality the story should be all about Adrian Peterson.  He’s the best running back in the league, and he’ll have a chance to feast on some poor rush defenses early on (CLE, DET, SF, STL), which should in turn allow Favre to save some gas for the stretch run (as opposed to last year when he all but broke down for the Jets in December).

Week 1 Picks (home team in CAPS)

PITTSBURGH over Tennessee

INDIANAPOLIS over Jacksonville

NEW ORLEANS over Detroit

Dallas over TAMPA BAY

Philadelphia over CAROLINA

BALTIMORE over Kansas City

HOUSTON over NY Jets

ATLANTA over Miami

CINCINNATI over Denver

Minnesota over CLEVELAND

NY GIANTS over Washington

ARIZONA over San Francisco

SEATTLE over St. Louis

GREEN BAY over Chicago

NEW ENGLAND over Buffalo

San Diego over OAKLAND

Panic Time for the Red Sox?

Two questions emerged from the Yankees’ 13-6 pasting of the Red Sox Thursday:

1) Is John Smoltz finished?

2) With the Sox fading fast and the Rays making a push, is it time for some good old-fashioned panic to engulf Boston?

In Smoltz’s case, enough of an answer came Friday, when the Red Sox designated him for assignment, meaning the club has 10 days to trade or release him.  The former would appear highly unlikely, especially after the Yankees destroyed him Thursday.  It’s sad to say, but what team in its right mind would be willing to invest in Smoltz after his performance Thursday night?

As opposed to elements of his previous starts, there was nothing to spin positively after the 42-year-old vet surrendered eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, walking four.  He gave up more runs, walked more batters and lasted fewer innings than any of his other seven starts.

While his velocity and quality of stuff was sufficient throughout his time with Boston — he routinely touched 92 on the radar gun and had some bite on his slider at times — he seemed to have totally lost the art of painting corners.  His pitches weren’t just catching chunks of the plate; they were pretty much going right down the middle.  Which explains why opposing hitters batted .343 against him and sent nearly 15 percent of fly balls out of the yard (Smoltz’s career home run per fly ball rate is 9 percent).

So in a word, yeah, it looks like the last chapter in the illustrious career of John Smoltz has just been written.

With Smoltz gone and the Sox reeling, that leads to the greater issue of when and how much panic should set in.  Considering Tim Wakefield remains out, Dice-K still hasn’t thrown since being shut down, Clay Buchholz is permanently in the rotation (and struggling) and Brad Penny barely passes for a fifth starter, the starting pitching depth — what used to set the Red Sox apart from everyone else — has been reduced to a pair of aces and nothing more.

In the short term, that is a major cause for concern.  The team called up 23-year-old rookie Junichi Tazawa, who has burned through the Minors, posting a 2.55 ERA in 20 starts between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket.  But make no mistake: his callup is a desperation move made out of necessity.  Theo Epstein likely never envisioned having to promote him so soon.

The good news is that the two legit hurlers the Sox boast have become the gold standard for righty/lefty attacks in the game today.  If Josh Beckett handles his business Friday and Jon Lester continues his mastery of the Yanks Sunday night, Boston could salvage a split of the four-game set that began with Smoltz’s train wreck.

The AL East may be lost (it is), but the Red Sox still very much control their own playoff destiny.  Of course, they are going to need a major upgrade in the quality and consistency of pitching down the stretch.

However, as long as they can weather the immediate storm — keep in mind Boston still leads the wild card race by 2 1/2 games over Tampa Bay (is anyone really sweating Texas?) — with September will come a more favorable schedule, along with the returns of a healthier Wakefield and recharged Dice-K.

As opposed to last season, when Beckett was pitching hurt and was thus ineffective in the playoffs, the 2009 Red Sox are built to make a run in October, particularly in a short series against the same Angels team they’ve been bullying around for the last five falls.

Superior starting pitching, a lights-out closer and timely hitting, that is the formula for success in October.  There is no better playoff tandem than Beckett and Lester, and Jonathan Papelbon has not once cracked in the postseason.

So is there cause for panic right now?  Yes, very much so.  But baseball is a long season, and there’s a lot yet to be played.  The Red Sox are going through a tough stretch, but if they can emerge from it without looking up too far at the Rays in the standings, these grueling dog days of summer could end up being vague and distant memories come the early days of autumn.

Halladay Deal Could Be Second “Holliday” for Fantasy Owners

With exactly one week before the MLB Trade Deadline, Roy Halladay — the biggest prize available — remains a Blue Jay, and general manager J.P. Ricciardi indicated Tuesday the club is unlikely to deal the ace.

Naturally, that statement can be chalked up as GM jockeying, and Ricciardi is one of the best in the business when it comes to that.  When he first made it known that he would be open to hearing Halladay offers back on July 7, two of the first phone calls he received were from Theo Epstein of the Red Sox and Brian Cashman of the Yankees.

The one thing Toronto would like to avoid is dealing Doc to an AL East foe, because 1) it would further alter the balance of power in baseball’s most competitive division, and 2) Halladay is the one guy available who would be an absolute game-changer in the never-ending Sox-Yanks arms race.

However, any smart GM knows that if he wants to max out the value of a star player whose departure is imminent, the talks must first go through Boston and New York.  In this case, Halladay has one year left on his contract, and as opposed to the past, said he does not want to sign a contract extension.  Which means Ricciardi essentially has three windows in which to deal him for some significant parts: before the Trade Deadline, in the offseason, before the 2010 Trade Deadline.

The chances of Halladay landing in Beantown or the Big Apple are slim, considering the prices would likely be too steep for either club — probably Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard from the Sox or Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes from the Yanks — to bite on.  But a bidding/prospect war is exactly what Ricciardi wants, and any fantasy owners with Halladay should want the same.  Why?

Because there’s another team in the Northeast Corridor that has the pieces to acquire Halladay, and as opposed to Boston and New York, really really needs his services.  That would be the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Relying on a rotation that includes Cole Hamels (struggling), Jamie Moyer (ancient) and Joe Blanton (serviceable at best), the Phils can’t expect to mount a serious title defense come October without doing something significant to their rotation, particularly given the imploding act that has been Brad Lidge this year.  The one bright spot on their staff has been 26-year-old rookie left-hander, J.A. Happ.  Happ is big (6-6), throws in the mid 90s and is 7-0 with a 2.68 ERA in 23 games (11 starts) this season.

If the Phillies can get Toronto to accept a package of Happ and a few other top prospects (outfielders Michael Taylor and Dominic Brown have been discussed), Halladay’s fantasy value will go through the roof.

Think about it for a minute.  Doc has spent his entire career pitching in the trenches of the AL East, the majority of which he’s done in the era of the unbalanced schedule.  Of his 273 career starts, 68 (or 25 percent) have come against the Red Sox and Yankees.  He’s hurled 20 complete games from 2007-09, most in the bigs, and possesses a career ERA of 3.46.

Now, project those numbers to a league without the DH and a division with the Marlins and Nationals instead of the Red Sox and Yankees.  Yikes.

Everyone saw what CC Sabathia did when he made the move to the NL in the second half of 2008 (11-2, 1.65 ERA, seven complete games in 17 starts).  Well, Halladay is better than Sabathia, so fantasy owners can do the math.

While Halladay talks have dominated the airwaves and water coolers for the better part of three weeks, just as I was writing this piece, a deal of comparable proportions actually got done.  The Cardinals sent three players to the A’s in exchange for outfielder Matt Holliday.

This is a major move for St. Louis, as the Cardinals look to bolster their lineup for a run at a second World Series in four years.  But it’s just as big for fantasy owners with Holliday, who was never right in the American League in the middle of an extremely soft Oakland lineup.  But if he was ever settling into a groove, it was just recently, as he’s hit .344 with a .986 OPS this month.  Additionally, he came out of the All-Star break swinging a fiery stick, cranking three homers and knocking in 11 runs over the last eight games, easily his most prolific stretch this season.

So not only is a scorching Holliday headed back to the familiarity of the National League, but he’s leaving a lineup where he protected the likes of Kurt Suzuki and Scott Hairston, and slipping into a batting order where he’ll likely hit between Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick, the most fearsome slugger in the game and one of the hottest hitters over the last month.

For all intents and purposes, Holliday was a fantasy bust for the first three months of the 2009 season.  Those days appear to be over, as he’s shown signs of life lately and is now primed for a monstrous stretch run with a contender.

Owners with the bopper should be licking their chops, and if they happen to also employ one Roy Halladay, there just might be a second “Holliday” coming within the next week.

Torre All Class in the “Citi”

Bill O’Reilly was standing next to third base as the Mets were taking batting practice before Thursday’s game vs. the Dodgers at Citi Field.

The real “no spin zone”, however, was a few paces away over in the visitors dugout, where manager Joe Torre was engaging a group of reporters — a handful of whom he knew well from his days managing the Yankees up in the Bronx.

Torre touched on a variety of team topics, from Orlando Hudson’s struggles — Torre dropped him to seventh in the lineup for the first time all season and he responded with a three-run double in the first — to the roster flexibility he’s afforded by having such a talented nucleus.

When asked why Matt Kemp has spent a lot of time recently in the eight hole, he returned the question to the reporter, asking him who he would put there (Kemp is 24-for-45 with seven RBIs and seven runs in that spot).  He wasn’t being condescending; Joe Torre is as straight of a shooter as there is in a profession characterized by hedging and line-feeding.  He was genuinely inquiring whether anyone had a better idea of what to do with a lineup full of dynamic, young and mostly interchangeable parts.  The old “if ain’t broke don’t — the bleep — fix it” adage, if you will.  Other managers would have verbalized some form of that saying as a response; Torre merely implied it.  Everyone had a laugh.

It’s that kind of candor and sincerity that endeared Torre to the city of New York, its fans, and the media.  When the man speaks to you, you don’t feel like he’s doing his civic duty in a public setting.  You could, for all intents and purposes, be having the talk over a couple of beers.  That’s the wonder of Torre, the reason why most associated with him say there’s no one else like him in the game.

The topic of the press conference shifted to the Yankees and Torre spoke about how lucky he was to inherit a Yankees club that would have been playoff-bound regardless of whether he was there.  He talked about how that team and experience shaped him — he never made the playoffs in 18 seasons as a player and got to one October in a combined 15 years managing the Mets, Braves and Cardinals.

For a man who had played his first nine seasons with Hank Aaron, made nine All-Star teams, won an MVP in 1971 and arrived in New York in 1996 having spent more than 30 years in the game without so much as sniffing the promised land, to win four titles in a five-year span was as humbling as it was exhilarating.

Torre, for so long one of the game’s class acts, was suddenly its most celebrated winner.  Yet once the 2000s hit and the Yanks started flaming out annually in October, people (read: his Boss) started to question whether he was really that elite manager who presided over the glory years or merely a guy who managed some egos and tapped his right arm to summon his otherworldly closer.

That, Torre said, was when he began to sniff the beginning of the end.

“When we got to the World Series and lost in ’01 and ’03, and that was a failure…” Torre said before tailing off.  He said that was when he knew expectations had become unrealistic, and without saying it, implied that gratitude should be doled out for making the playoffs 12 straight years, capturing six pennants and winning four rings.

As for the “managing egos isn’t managing” argument that his few detractors use as ammo against him, try spending a day in a clubhouse, let alone 162.  Then stick a bunch of bona fide superstars and a handful of Hall of Famers in there and put it in the biggest sports market in the world.  That’s the world he inhabited for 12 years, the world so many dismissed as solely a privilege to be a part of without acknowledging what a taxing and perpetual balancing act it was.

When the conversation returned to the Dodgers and Manny’s return, Torre spoke about how lucky they were to have a guy like Manny to stick in the middle of the lineup.  He’s right, but given what’s gone down in the last two months, the truth is Manny is equally lucky to have Torre as his manager.

Case in point: When Manny was ejected Tuesday for flipping his batting gloves in the direction of home-plate umpire John Hirschbeck, he said afterward, “[Hirschbeck] made a mistake.  I think it’s a ball.  I just threw my pad and walked to the field. I was coming out in the fifth anyway, so no big deal.”

The reality was only Manny — of course — knew he was coming out of the game regardless in the fifth.  When that tidbit was presented to Torre, he deadpanned, “He told me that, too.  I wasn’t aware of that.”  That’s a player’s manager, a term that should never be thrown around loosely or be underappreciated.  That’s Joe Torre.

Throughout the 30-minute gathering with the media Thursday, there were constant roars from planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport and passing just above the ballpark, rendering Torre inaudible for 15 or so seconds every two minutes.  Apparently, he had just concluded filming some sort of promotional spot on the field before the press conference, and upon seeing a Mets executive walking by the dugout, shouted over everyone: “Thanks a lot for having the planes diverted around the stadium, it really helped.”

“And just as I was finishing, the rehearsal of the national anthem was perfect!”

Everyone had a laugh.

Sox Machine Keeps Motoring

Has anyone else noticed how machine-like the Red Sox have become?

To this team, obstacles don’t register and negative storylines carry minimal weight.  Losses — when they come — seemingly dissipate into thin air while victories are greeted with little fanfare (like, for instance, any of the eight wins in eight tries they’ve piled up against the Yankees).

The fans still swarm into Fenway and belt out “Sweet Caroline” before the eighth inning, but now more than ever, being associated with the Red Sox is to be part of a world-class enterprise: an impeccably constructed, well-oiled and systematically run baseball machine.

It began last year after the club parted ways with Manny Ramirez, marking a new era within the new era of Red Sox baseball.  Minus the enigmatic and endearing slugger for the first time since the franchise shed it’s long-standing title of choke torchbearers, a severely depleted Sox contingent motored all the way to the seventh game of the American League Championship Series.

The theme of constantly battling the odds — yet feeling next to no effects of them in the big picture — has continued in 2009.

Consider the following:

After losing six of its first eight games, Boston was 3 1/2 games behind Toronto before barely blinking.   That four of those losses came against its two playoff foes from a year ago (Tampa Bay and Anaheim), alarm bells were probably sounding somewhere, but nobody cared to hear them.

Josh Beckett was atrocious in April, logging a 7.22 ERA in five starts.  When a Boston ace gets tuned up in April, it’s typically time to lay into the panic button.  Panic??  Puh-lease.

As poor as Beckett performed early on, he was outdone by Jon Lester.  Their lynchpin in the rotation last year, Lester got abused in six of his first 10 starts.  No worries kid, you’ll get em next time.

How about Theo and the Trio’s $100 million man?  Let’s just say Dice-K’s first stint on the DL was far more productive than all but one of his eight starts.  He’s back on the shelf again, and aside from feeling bad for the guy, is anyone really losing much sleep over his absence?

Then there’s David Ortiz.  The man whose toothy grin and big stick made life after Manny seem manageable.  Still hindered by an injured wrist and knee, Big Papi cranked 10 homers and knocked in 46 runs while slugging .529 in the two months PM (post-Manny) last year.

He assured all he was healthier, hungrier and fitter than ever this spring before coming out of the gates looking like he’d never seen a 92 mph fastball.  After two months, one homer, a .186 average and five different spots in the batting order, “Ortiz” and “release” began floating around in the same sentence.  While Papi has since (thankfully) rediscovered his stroke, the fact remains the Sox skipped not a beat during an extended period of time when their most feared hitter had morphed into the easiest out in baseball.

Throw in Kevin Youkilis landing on the DL after carrying the team (.393-6-20) over the first month and change, Dustin Pedroia running on hot and cold, J.D. Drew’s disappearance from the middle of April through the middle of May, Mike Lowell’s continued recovery from offseason hip surgery, both shortstops getting sidelined … and there’s no way this team could possibly be perched atop the American League today … right?

Well, as the kids are saying: Beleedat.

Indeed, the Red Sox have a four-game lead on the Yankees in the AL East and a three-game advantage over the Tigers for best record in the league.  They’ve stormed back from three and a half down in the division on May 18.  They’ve won five straight series and haven’t lost more than two games in a row since the second week of the season.

They have arms sprouting like dandelions: John Smoltz is here; Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden remain in the pipeline; Daniel Bard mowed down 16 batters in his first 15 appearances as a big leaguer.

Their lineup is gelling; their starting pitching is top-notch; their bullpen is unmatched.  No matter whom Terry Francona sticks in his lineup — from Jason Bay to  Jonathan Van Every — they’ve all produced.

Put it all together and the Red Sox again appear to be on a track leading to and through October.

ESPN has already dubbed Albert Pujols “The Machine” and Cincinnati will always lay claim to “The Big Red Machine”, but is there any denying the Olde Towne Team has transformed into the Olde Towne Machine?

Takahashi Story and Dice-K Thoughts

After lots of networking and prodding, I was given the opportunity to cover a Mets-Phillies game last week for MLB.com.  The story I ended up writing was on Ken Takahashi, the New York relief pitcher who served up the game-winning homer in extra innings to Raul Ibanez.  The link is below.

http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090612&content_id=5283844&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb

Coincidentally, Takahashi was one of a few players around when I was in the clubhouse before the game.  He conversed with a Japanese writer for about 20 minutes and passed the rest of the time hanging out with his interpreter.

Until this year, Takahashi had spent 14 seasons pitching for Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League.  He was acquired and released by the Blue Jays this spring, at which point the Mets signed him to a Minor League contract.  Since his callup at the beginning of May, he was more or less just another arm in the Mets bullpen.

Outside of closers, relief pitchers go largely unnoticed by the media; they are the linemen of baseball, meaning they typically only garner attention when they screw up.

For Japanese ballplayers in the US, role or stature matters not; be it Ichiro or, well Ken Takahashi, their every move is tracked and dissected by a personal shadow of reporters from back home.  Japan is a baseball rabid culture, and when one of their own makes the move across the Pacific, they are eager to chronicle his progress.

Needless to say, Takahashi was borderline despondent in the clubhouse after the game.  When he spoke to the four or five Japanese reporters, his voice registered as barely more than a whisper; the despair in his eyes needed no translation.  He gave up a game, sure, but he also let down his true fans half a world away.  It was only then that it really hit me what a monumental transition it must be for a player to take such a leap.

In Takahashi’s case, he left everything he knew and entered a situation where all he could relate to was the game itself and the man he entrusted to be his ears and mouth.  Add to that the fact that he’s carrying the weight and expectation of an entire nation that views him as a hero, and you can appreciate the enormous burden that is placed on expatriated ballplayers from our ally in the Pacific.

That got me thinking about Dice-K Matsuzaka, and the struggles he’s endured this season.  This being his third year with the Red Sox, one would assume that he would continue to make strides and enjoy more success.  To the contrary, this has been his poorest campaign yet, as he’s gone 1-4 in seven starts with a 7.55 ERA and .372 batting average against.

While his 18-3 record and 2.90 ERA were moderately deceptive last year (he had a 5.04 BB/9 ratio, was consistently working into deep counts and seemingly always operating with multiple runners on base), he made big improvements from his rookie season, lowering his batting average against from .246 to .211 while cutting in half the number of homers he allowed (25 to 12).

Which brings us back to the World Baseball Classic this past March, when Dice-K led Japan to a defense of its title by going 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA while routinely pushing the bounds of the established pitch count limits.  He contended that the bit of extra work — he threw 14 2/3 innings in the tournament — was not the reason he landed on the disabled list with a tired arm in mid-April, and he may be partly right.

When Dustin Pedroia suffered an oblique strain in the WBC and went through a subsequent slump to begin the season, he talked about how it had been difficult playing in such an emotionally charged environment, with so much at stake,  at a time when he was traditionally just resuming everyday baseball activities under the Florida sun.

Fiery and competitive as he is, Pedroia was still just a second baseman on a US team that wasn’t exactly known for bleeding red, white and blue.

Naturally Team USA wanted to win, but let’s not mince words: This side of Cuba, there was no country more emotionally invested in the WBC than Japan.  It is their World Cup and Dice-K is their global superstar.  After his historic performance on the hill in the inaugural tournament in 2006, the pressure for him to perform honorably and succeed only grew greater.

So although physically and in terms of relative pitches thrown, he may not have overextended himself (like he asserted), there is simply no overstating the psychological toll the WBC took on Dice-K.

NBA Finals Preview

While it was seemingly predetermined that the Lakers would return to the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year and record 30th time overall, the Eastern Conference playoffs ended up leaving in its wake a long trail of what ifs.

What if the baby Bulls had had the chops to knock off the Celtics in the Most Epic First Round Series Ever?  Would the Finals be returning to Chicago for the first time since MJ?

What if the Magic hadn’t received a team-altering gut check when the Celtics stormed back in the fourth to take Game 5 in Boston?  Would they still have been able to come together and vanquish the champs in Game 7?

What if Lebron had a Ray Allen?  Or a Rashard Lewis or Pau Gasol?

And the granddaddy of them all: What if Kevin Garnett had been healthy?  If so, would any of the above groups of questions have even been worth asking?

(No, no, and yes.)

As tantalizing and vexing as it is to ponder what might have been, the facts remained that Kevin Garnett wasn’t walking through that door and Mo Williams wasn’t going to be the crucial second banana on a championship team.

Enter Magic, stage right.

Let’s not sell Orlando short.  The Celtics and the Lebrons didn’t give it up to Superman and his sidekicks; they had it taken from them.  While it’s realistically impossible to beat a pair of champs in the same playoffs, the Magic did essentially that.

They grew up before our eyes after enduring one of the most painful 1-2 punches in playoff history to go down 3-2 to the Celtics.  Just when everyone thought it was over, the Magic — trailing in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in their own building — came alive to send the series back to Boston, where they promptly became the first team in history to come back from down 3-2 to beat a Celtics outfit.

Cleveland may not have been the defending champs, but they had fallen only once in 44 games that mattered in their house.  Orlando wasn’t given a choice: Either tear down the walls of a building that contained one of the most decisive home courts advantages off all time, or go home.

Make no mistake about it: The visiting team that will be showing up at Staples Center Thursday is not the same squad it was at this time last month.  The Magic are as battled-tested and proven as any team making its first Finals appearance in 14 years could be.  They won a Game 7 on the toughest home court to win a Game 7 on, then steamrolled a team nobody and their mothers gave them a chance of beating.

At the heart of the matter — and indeed what becomes the determining factor in the majority of playoff series — was favorable matchups.  Orlando had them against both the Celtics and Cavaliers.

Versus the Celtics, Paul Pierce had to give up four inches to guard Hedo Turkoglu, and the duo of Big Baby Davis and Brian Scalabrine was borderline comical given their task was to contain Rashard Lewis.  Kendrick Perkins put on a clinic of how to defend Dwight Howard (muscle him up chest to chest and force him into running line drive hooks) for five games until Superman got angry at his coach, and that was that.

Against Cleveland, let’s just say as dominant as Lebron was, there was a mismatch of comparably epic proportions on the other side.  Howard did the basketball equivalent of eating Zydrunas Ilgauskas for breakfast or stealing Anderson Varejao’s lunch money.  And he’s simply a bigger, younger and meaner version of Ben Wallace.  Ouch.

How next to nobody saw this coming is a topic for another day.  But staying on the topic of matchups, it’s hard for anyone to be so naive to think the Magic will have the same ease operating in their style of play against Los Angeles.

If you could tailor a pair of defenders to man up Turkoglu and Lewis, some version of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol would emerge.  Gasol has the wingspan to interrupt Turkoglu out on the perimeter and the quickness to stay with him on penetration.  The scouting report on Odom indicates he’s ideally suited for defending Lewis, in that he’s long and agile, and more than comfortable operating outside of the paint.

It’s more or less a certainty that Howard will give Andrew Bynum some serious on-the-job schooling, but Phil Jackson will not allow him to be so fluid in his dominance.  Which is to say you’ll see a lot of the Josh Powells and D.J. Mbengas playing small spurts merely to make life as taxing as can be on Superman.

In addition to matchups, there are two other factors that, depending on the series, can swing an outcome.  The first is coaching, an aspect of this Finals that needs little synthesis, considering one guy has nine rings and the other is in uncharted territory.

The second is hunger.  As talented as the Lakers were last year, they ran into the hungriest squad this side of the 2004 Red Sox.  Playing Garnett, Pierce and the famished Celtics was like running into the proverbial buzzsaw.  The Lakers didn’t stand a chance.

Well, as the saying goes, times change.  Last year, we didn’t see the hungry, desperate, ferociously competitive Kobe Bryant until the gold medal game in the Olympics.  Then we saw him.  His teammate now and competitor at the time, Gasol, saw him.  Lebron and Carmelo Anthony took note.

This is Kobe’s time, and everyone knows it.  A win in the 2009 NBA Finals cements Kobe as one of the handful of greatest players of all time and puts him on the list of most prolific champions.  He’ll also tie that fella named Shaq with four rings, one on the solo.

A magical run it has been for Orlando, but it will end at the last possible moment in the least desirable place, at the hands of the Black Mamba.

Lakers in seven.