Friday, December 30, 2005

Wrapping Up the NFL Wrap-Up

Here’s the last of The Sandlot’s four-day NFL season wrap-up. We finish up with the AFC South and West divisions.

AFC South
Indianapolis Colts
For some reason, losing two meaningless games, including one on the road just days after head coach Tony Dungy’s son committed suicide, has caused all the so-called “experts” to dismiss Indy’s Superbowl chances. I guess winning 13 games in a row, including victories over playoff teams Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New England and Jacksonville (twice), securing home field advantage where they haven’t lost a meaningful game in two years as well as having the most successful QB-to-WR combo in the history of the NFL doesn’t give you a fighting chance of winning the conference championship. Let me be very clear about this: Indy’s going to beat Arizona this weekend by at least four touchdowns, then they’re going to take a week off to get ready to beat Cincinnati by three touchdowns, then they’ll beat the winner of the Pittsburgh-Denver game decisively, then win the Superbowl in an absolute offensive barrage. Don’t believe the rest of the hype, suckers—the Colts are the champs in 2005.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Nice season. Good work. Don’t let Chad Johnson hit you in the butt on the way out of Cincinnati. Better luck next year, guys. You might also try to get put in a division that doesn’t include Indianapolis, because you’re looking a wild card berths at best for the next few years.

Tennessee Titans
I don’t think they’ll part ways with Jeff Fisher, even though I’ve been on record since the beginning of the season that I’d love to see him coaching the Rams next year, but everyone knew that this was a rebuilding year. What I think would be ideal is if they could draft a QB, then let Billy Volek take over the team with Steve McNair serving as #2, but more importantly, serving as Jedi Master to the freshly drafted padawan learner. We have to remember that the Titans were the youngest team in the league with an average age of 23, and since McNair’s like 54 years old, take him out and the average age is probably around 19. They’ll learn, and they’ll be back in the playoff discussion in a couple of years.

Houston Texans
This team is so bad, they’ll probably beat San Francisco and miss out on Reggie Bush. I don’t think Bush is going to help them much; they’ve got a competent QB in David Carr, but the poor guy has to play behind the worst offensive line in the league. Dom Capers should have coached himself out of any future employment, but some schmuck will probably hire him to run a defense or something similarly stupid. If they really want to win, they should trade the Bush pick for a host of linemen. Don’t be surprised if Mike Martz interviews for this job, too, especially if they draft and sign Rocket Reggie. If that happens, he’ll be the only decent Bush to ever come out of Houston.

AFC West
Denver Broncos
Yes, I know I’m the same guy who went on for weeks about how this team stunk. Hey, Bill Simmons gets paid to do this, and his season record is one game below .500, so you get what you get. The thing is, even if Denver gets past its first playoff game in the second round, who I think will be Pittsburgh, by the way, their reward will be their third consecutive playoff demolition in Indianapolis at the hands of the Colts. Anyone else confident of the phrase, “Jake Plummer, Superbowl QB?” Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Kansas City Chiefs
Things to love about the Chiefs: 1) Dick Vermeil; 2) Trent Green; 3) Larry Johnson; 4) Tony Gonzalez; 4) Arrowhead Stadium; 5) the fact that KC knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs last week, ensuring only one more week of listening to NFL “experts” fawn over a slightly above average team who’s not even going to the playoffs this year. Of course, there is one negative about that fact, and that’s missing out on Marty Schottenheimer’s annual playoff game!

San Diego
Sit down, shut up, go away.

Oakland Raiders
So, I guess Randy Moss wasn’t the answer after all, hmmm?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

NFL Wrap-Up Continues: The AFC East & North

Now we venture into the fierce territory where this year’s Superbowl champion lurks to its forthcoming ascent to glory, the American Football Conference. I’m so old that I remember when the NFC Championship was the real Superbowl and the AFC team was the sacrificial lamb for the big game. In fact, the NFC’s absolute dominance over the AFC in the 1980s and 1990s may have been the reason why the commercials, with their over-the-top humor, sex and spectacle, became more watchable than the games themselves. This dynamic has turned 180 degrees, however, where any of the six playoff participants in the AFC would be legitimate favorites to beat any NFC team that emerged. Today we’ll start with the East and the North, then finish with the other two divisions tomorrow.

AFC East
New England Patriots
Everyone’s getting all a-swoon with the sudden resurgence of the defending champs. I say, in the words of Winston Wolf, “Let’s not start [CENSORED] each other’s [CENSORED] just yet, gentlemen.” Let’s see who they’ve beaten during their four-game winning streak: Jets (3-12); Tampa Bay (Florida team playing in cold); Buffalo (5-10); Jets, again (3-12). They’ve dominated weak competition (especially in their own division) while losing games to quality teams. If they win this week and Cincinnati loses, if I’m interpreting NFL seeding rules correctly, they would get the #3 seed. Their reward? Hosting the red-hot Pittsburgh Steelers. If they get the #4 seed, they play Jacksonville (Florida team playing in cold weather. Either way, a wild-card win sends them either to Denver or Indianapolis for the divisional round. I’m not counting them out until they’re on the losing side of the score at the end of the fourth quarter, because these guys are money when it matters, but I’m not telling Bob Kraft to clear another space in the trophy case, either.

Miami Dolphins
Wow, this is the most interesting team that nobody at all is even discussing. First-year head coach Nick Saban tells the media that he’s punting the entire season in terms of wins and losses in favor of evaluating talent for next year, which was fodder for ESPN Radio for a good two weeks of hand-wringing. Since that time, they’ve won five in a row with a chance to finish with a top-eight record in the conference. Heck, if they were in the NFC, they’d be competing for a wild-card spot. Not to mention that wandering pothead Ricky Williams has run for more than 600 yards and five TDs in limited duty, including 172 last week against Tennessee. This team is going to the playoffs next year, and maybe the Superbowl year after next.

Buffalo Bills
This is the team that motivated me to stop engaging in weekly picks. Sandlot regular contributor Tuck explained it best: “Buffalo beats teams with weak run defense, loses to teams with strong run defense.” The Bills just lack any sort of personality—what are they? A running team? A passing team? A defensive team? Answer: A mediocre team that’s going nowhere anytime soon.

New York Jets
I know that many people, myself included, looked at the Jets’ run last year and thought 2005 was when they would take the next step to compete for a championship. Well, that hasn’t happened, obviously, and whether Herm Edwards stays or goes, it’s time to select “Restart” from the main menu and begin rebuilding a new team. Curtis Martin is long past his prime and should either retire or accept a limited role in the same way Marshall Faulk has in St. Louis, and they need to cut ties with Chad Pennington and find a new quarterback. May I suggest Brad Smith from Missouri? He’ll be available in the second or third round if they want to take a chance.

AFC North
Cincinnati Bengals
This is when we start talking about playoff experience. Marvin Lewis has it from his time with the Ravens, but this is his first time as the head coach. His talented but young team has virtually no experience with the NFL playoffs. You know what the playoffs are like? It’s like the difference from going to a small high school with a graduating class of less than 200 in which you were at the top of your class, lettered in four varsity sports, never had to do homework and got a big, fat scholarship to a big university. When you get to the big university, the work is ten time harder than you ever had, the reading volume is overwhelming, classes are huge, and everyone in them is just as smart or smarter than you. That’s the difference between regular season success (high school) and the playoffs (big sink-or-swim university). Can the Bengals handle the pressure and intensity? Their first-round foe will probably be Pittsburgh or perhaps Jacksonville. They are on the flip side of New England: they have to beat Kansas City, who’s still hanging on to playoff hopes, on the road in order to host a game against either Kansas City or Pittsburgh. KC doesn’t lose at home in December. Who would you rather play, the Steelers or the Jags? If I’m Marvin Lewis, I’m throwing in the towel this weekend. But will resting key players like Palmer and the Johnsons derail their momentum? I’m telling you, this is juicier than a daytime soap opera. Stay tuned...

Pittsburgh Steelers
This team’s nickname (and their QB’s) ought to be Lazarus. A juggernaut for the first ten weeks of the season, Big Ben gets hurt, they lose crushing games to Baltimore, Indy and Cincy, where they are all but left for dead in the playoff race as Jacksonville, San Diego and Kansas City all look poised to pull away. Ben’s got a bad knee and a broken thumb. Bettis looks like the mileage has finally broken down the bus. The formerly dominant secondary gets picked apart by Manning and Palmer. “Lazarus, come forth!” They dominate Chicago on the road, no less, expose Minnesota’s fraudulent resurgence, then annihilate Cleveland. Now all they have to do to get to the playoffs is beat Detroit at home in Pittsburgh. Can you say, “slam dunk”? If I were a gambler, I’d bet the house on this game. They’ll get either New England or Cincinnati next week in the wild card round, and at this point, I’m picking the Steelers to win either of those games.

Baltimore Ravens
So what’s up with this team? As I predicted earlier this week, Brian Billick’s staying put as the head coach for at least another year. Kyle Boller has emerged in the past 2-3 weeks as a legit QB and team leader. Tasmanian Devil Ray Lewis should be back from injury next year to solidify a defense that is still one of the most formidable in the league. Playing a schedule based on this year’s losing record—at least outside of the division, which will be just as tough next year—the Ravens have to get to the playoffs next year or else clean house; in my mind, with all things equal, they’ll be out of excuses.

Cleveland Browns
This was not Romeo Crennel’s team. Romeo Crennel won’t have his team for another two years. They need a quarterback and a running back. Again, may I suggest Missouri’s Brad Smith, even if you move him to RB? The defense will come together next year. The offense will need two years to come together. They will be improved next year, and a force to be reckoned with year after next. It’s to the credit of Cleveland’s ownership that they are not using Charlie Weis’s instant success at Notre Dame to hold against Romeo; it’s much harder to coach up an NFL team than it is a college team because the talent at the pro level is much higher and more equal. Little things like discipline and play execution make a much bigger difference in the college ranks, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where Weis resides. It takes more than that in the pros; it takes talent and time for a team to buy into a coach’s entire system, and Crennel’s just going to need the time to implement his.

Tomorrow: AFC South and West

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

NFL Season Recap: NFC South, East

Continuing with yesterday’s post looking at the NFL division by division as we wrap up the regular season and head into the playoffs, we continue with the rest of the NFC, where the playoff picture is even more complicated.

NFC South
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I didn’t think the Bucs had a chance to win with either Brian Griese or Chris Simms. Guess now you know why I teach English instead of working for a sports news organization. They’ve got the Ain’ts at home in Tampa this weekend, while Carolina has to win in Atlanta. I like Tampa to win the South and host a game wild-card weekend, and that’s about it, because if they win, they have to go to Chicago. No Florida team is winning at Soldier Field, and that’s that.

Carolina Panthers
They’ll probably beat Atlanta because they need to in order to secure a wild-card berth, and then they’ll play the NFC East champ, whom I expect to be the NY Giants. I don’t see them beating the G-Men in the Meadowlands in January. This is a team that has championship potential if they can only find some consistency from week to week in all aspects of their game, but especially in their offense. Jake Delhomme may be going to the Pro Bowl from the NFC, but he’d be no better than a backup on the AFC’s top eight teams. I don’t know if I want to hitch my wagon to that star.

Atlanta Falcons
Please, can we have enough of the “let Michael Vick be Michael Vick” talk? The fact of the matter is that Atlanta’s offensive scheme relies on a power running game combined with the West Coast passing scheme. The problem is that NFL defenses figured out how to stop the West Coast offense about ten years ago (someone tell Jim Mora, Jr., would you?), so all you have to do to stop their offense is plug the run up the middle and have cornerbacks keep Vick from running around the end, and that’s why the Falcons have been average this year. Vick needs a wide-open offensive scheme like the Colts, Chiefs, Rams and Vikings have used. A conservative offense allows D-coaches to scheme for Vick too much, plus they had to deal with a tougher schedule than last year combined with improved competition in their division. Better luck next year (or not, since you’re in Atlanta, the WORST SPORTS CITY IN AMERICA!!!)

NewOrleansNewJerseySanAntonioBatonRougeLosAngeles Saints
Memo to Paul Tagliabue, et. al., NFL offices
Re: Saints
1) Move team permanently to Los Angeles
2) Buy out Tom Benson and install less scuzzy ownership (see Red McCombs/Minnesota)
3) Fire Jim Haslett and entire coaching staff
4) Rename team “Rams”; send “Cardinals” mascot back to St. Louis; dissolve Arizona franchise and send former owner Bill Bidwell on “fact finding” mission to Iraq to see if “NFL Mideast” can catch on the same way “NFL Europe” has captured the imagination of sports fans in Hamburg, Amsterdam and Barcelona!

NFC East
New York Giants
I’ve said most of what I wanted to say in the “comments” box from yesterday’s post, so here it is again: “Elvis Grbac never had the arm that Eli Manning does. We have to remember that this is essentially his rookie year, since he didn't come in last year until the season was half over. In two years, Eli will be challenging his brother for league MVP honors. I agree that he makes poor decisions at times now, but the reason the Giants are a legitimate threat to win the NFC title have more to do with their defense and Tiki Barber (who should be in this year's MVP conversation) than Eli.” I’ll add that they should win on the road at Oakland to clinch the division and host the wild card next week.

Washington Redskins
I’m not sure about people who say the Redskins “came outta nowhere.” Huh? They have a Hall of Fame coach, a Pro Bowl caliber defense, a veteran QB with postseason experience and one of the best running backs in the league in Clinton Portis. So where’s the surprise? They will be Philadelphia this week to secure the second wild card spot...

Dallas Cowboys
...which leaves Dallas on the outside looking in. Good. I freaking HATE the Dallas Cowboys. I always have, all the way back to Tom Landry and his stupid hat and Staubach and Dorsett and Pearson to Jimmy & Jerry, Aikman, Emmitt, Irvin, to Parcell’s bunch of no-names and retreads. I love to watch Dallas lose. It would be nice to see a crappy bunch of losers like this year’s Rams put the final nail in the Cowboy’s playoff coffin.

Philadelphia Eagles
Mulligan. Tee it up fresh next year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NFL Season-End Wrap-Up

So, as we enter into the last week of the NFL’s regular season, let’s take a last look around some of the more interesting stories in the league. We’ll start close to my heart with the NFC West and NFC Central, then tackle two more divisions in the next few days leading up to the final playoff spots and speculation about what’s going to happen in the postseason.

NFC West
Seattle Seahawks
They finally took the next step, shrugging off all other pretenders in a weak, weak, weak NFC West, but also taking care of business in the NFC as a whole, tying up home field advantage throughout the playoffs. But has any other #1 seed been more suspect in the postseason since the Missouri basketball team got a #1 seed in the NCAA tourney a few years back? I can’t find anyone outside of the Pacific Northwest who’s a true believer. Nothing short of a conference title—and maybe even a Superbowl victory—will establish this team as legitimate. I think Chicago, New York, Washington, Carolina and Tampa can all have an honest chance at going to Seattle and beating the home team. We’ve got three or four weeks to wait and see, but so far, they’ve done everything they needed to do, and they deserve credit for that.

St. Louis Rams
An absolute disaster of a season, and rightly so. Injuries have depleted starters; the offensive line was far beyond offensive, and the defense is cover-your-eyes awful in every way, but especially against the run. Stephen Jackson looks lost on the field, they have no QB (Bulger’s hurt and apparently chronically fragile), Marshall Faulk is likely to retire depending on who gets hired to coach next year, and the front office is more dysfunctional than the cast of “Arrested Development.” A complete housecleaning, from top to bottom, is in order. This isn’t going to be a competitive team for another 2-3 years, if that.

Arizona Cardinals
Rumor from Bernie Miklasz of the StLPD says Denny Green’s interested in coaching the Rams if he can get out of his contract with Arizona. Two years after coming out of the broadcast booth to turn this disastrous franchise around, he’s ready to hit the “Eject” button. Kurt Warner couldn’t work miracles a second time around, and I’m hard pressed to believe that Jesus Christ himself could do anything to change the fortunes of this cursed franchise unless he first cast Bill Bidwell and his spawn out of the owner’s booth first. Bidwell’s living proof that not every wealthy American deserves their good fortune.

San Francisco 49ers
Frankly, I’ve always hated the Niners. I hated them when they sucked in the 1970s, I really hated them with the white-hot fury of 1,000 stars when they dominated in the 1980s, and I’m not even remotely close to even half-empty on my giant surplus silo of schadenfreude when it comes to the misfortunes of this sorry bunch of misfits. Hey, if it wasn’t for the Rams, they’d still be in the Reggie Bush sweepstakes. These guys lose even when they win, and I hope it lasts for at least the rest of the decade.

NFC Central
Chicago Bears
Come on, does anyone really believe Rex Grossman is going to take this team to the Superbowl, even with this kind of defense? What’s scary to think about is what this team will look like next year with what will surely be a revamped offense. No one else has mentioned this idea, so I think I’m the first to throw it out, but Mike Martz is only a few weeks away from looking for a job. Why not visit old friend Lovie Smith and ask him to return the favor you gave him a few years back. Now imagine Lovie’s Chicago defense with Martz’s psychotic offensive scheme. That’s scary!

Minnesota Vikings
Clean house, top to bottom. Everyone goes, from the GM to the towel boys. Hit the restart button and rebuild this franchise from the ground up. Keep Brad Johnson and Paul Edinger. Everyone else is expendable. Zygi Wilf will not tolerate this embarrassment for longer than one more week. Brad kept us from being a laughingstock, but even before the tough losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, no one really considered this team a playoff threat.

Detroit Lions
Fire Matt Millen. Until the Ford family does this, they’ll be stuck with a powder-blue Edsel for the foreseeable future.

Green Bay Packers
Brett Favre should circle the Hall of Fame induction date in 2011 and walk away, waving his hand with his Superbowl ring on it. After Favre leaves, they can set about scuttling this garbage scow and set about the business of rebuilding something resembling an NFL team.

Tomorrow: NFC South and East

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Homestretch

Just four fun-filled weeks left in the NFL until the playoffs start, so let's take a look at the league's version of musical chairs and see who's gonna get left out when the music starts.

Legitimate Contenders
Seattle Seahawks
They've already clinched the West and are making a strong push for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I've never believed in Holmgren's birds, but if they can secure home field, they've got a shot. Alexander looks like a top-three candidate for league MVP, Hasselbeck's making smart decisions, and the defense is opportunistic.

Carolina Panthers
They've been down, then up, then down for a couple of weeks, now back up again. I'd like to see some consistency out of this group, but right now I'd say they're the only team with a real chance of beating Seattle on the road in the playoffs

Thanks for the Nice Season and the Single Playoff Loss
New York Giants
Strong defense, scary weapons on offense, Captain Bligh getting it done coaching on the sidelines—so what's the problem? There's three of them, actually: 1) Eli Manning's still too inexperienced to get it done when it counts in a pressure situation; 2) WAY too many stupid penalties; 3) If Jay Feeley were a horse, Coughlin would have shot him, skinned him and sent him to the glue factory two weeks ago. You can't win in the playoffs without a reliable field goal kicker.

Chicago Bears
Scariest defense in the league combined with weakest, most anemic offense ever assembled. Defense wins championships? Not if you can't score at least 20 points in the playoffs. Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio reported on Dec. 6 that in the past ten years, only four teams have won a playoff game while scoring less than 20 points. Lovie, you're doing a great job—now return the favor to Mike Martz and hire him as your offensive coordinator for next year's Superbowl victory.

Tampa Bay Bucanneers
Anyone think Chris Simms is taking this team to a championship? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller...?

Nitroglycerene Teams
Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta
I call them this because they might blow up on themselves before the end of the season and not even make it into the playoffs, but they could also run the rest of the table, get into the playoffs and upset a team or two. Strengths: Dallas has Parcells' smarts and experience; Minnesota has Brad Johnson playing the smartest QB in the league right now combined with an improved (and improving) defense; Atlanta has Michael Vick. Weaknessess: Dallas has Drew Bledsoe; Atlanta can't make up its mind how to best use Vick's multiple weapons; Minnesota—well, come on, this is the Vikings...

A League of Their Own
I'd not only love to see them run the table, I'd like to see the Colts go out in the next three weeks against strong teams—Jacksonville, San Diego and Seattle—and just crush them. Wouldn't that make a huge statement about their supremecy going into the playoffs? As I've said throughout the season, the first goal is home field advantage, which still isn't certain yet, so they don't need to back off anytime soon.

Legitimate Contenders
Yeah, I know I thought they stunk at the beginning of the season, thanks mainly to their opening week stinker at Miami. Lesson: Never underestimate Mike Shanahan. He may not be the most sparkling personality in the world, but he gets the job done consistently season after season. The biggest question for Denver is whether Jake Plummer will help them win or lose in Indiapolis, where they have been crushed in their past two playoff games.

If the Jags hand the Colts their first loss this weekend—a possibility, though not a probability, IMHO—they will build confidence for playoff success. I don't think they will be able to beat the Colts twice in one season, however, and certainly not in another game at Indy. Jax's defense remains impressive, but they have scoring problems regardless of which oversized QB is driving the car.

I see the Bengals as the biggest threat to beating out Indy for the AFC title just because they are the only team who can keep up with Indy's pinball-machine offense in a scoring shootout. Chad "The Mouth" Johnson has all but guaranteed a Cincy victory over Indy for the Superbowl berth. If it's anything like the first game, it ought to be one of the most exciting games we've seen in a long time.

This Schedule's Some Kind of Sick Joke, Right?
San Diego and Kansas City
Both teams are legitimate playoff contenders, both have tough defenses, both have powerful running games and skilled quarterbacks. So what's the problem? Let's take a look at the next four games for each teams...
SD: Miami (tough defense), at Indy ('nuff said), at Kansas City (don't lose at home in December), Denver (division leader).
KC: at Dallas (nasty defense), at NY Giants (division leader), San Diego (see above), Cincinnati (also see above)
Both of these teams could make the playoffs, or both could fall short. Either way, it's unlikely that either one will get a first-week bye, so it's back-to-back road games after completing these equally brutal four-game schedules. Yikes! It's probably too much to overcome.

Not This Year
New England and Pittsburgh
NE will win the west by default, but they're a first-week loss to the wild-card team that will almost certainly have a better record than the Pats. I'm not even sure that Pittsburgh will make the playoffs at all. Big Ben is hurt, the running game is no longer dominating games, and the defense is giving up too many points and big plays. I don't see how they can overtake both SD and KC for the last wild card spot.

More playoff previews to come after this weekend's games!

Friday, November 11, 2005

NFL Week Ten: Separation

This is the week that the top teams begin to separate themselves from the pack. There are a whole lot of 6-2 and 5-3 teams that can cement their status as legit playoff contenders. At the same time, teams sitting at 4-4 or 3-5 are thinking about upsetting teams in the first group and setting themselves up for wild card competition or, in the weaker divisions, possibly a division title. I'll include the respective records with the teams this week to show these exact matchups and tell who I think will separate themselve, who will climb into the playoff picture, and who will begin seriously ranking next spring's college draft picks.

On a personal note, I want to send a shout-out of "Congratulations" to long-time friend and regular Sandlot contributor "Tuck" on the birth of his son this week. Mom and baby are doing fine, but Dad reportedly could use a stiff drink. Best wishes to Tuck and his whole family on the new addition. I couldn't be happier for you!

On to the picks...

Houston (1-7) at Indianapolis (8-0)
For Houston, the question is whether you keep David Carr or draft Matt Leinert if you manage to end up with the #1 pick in the draft. For Indy, it's how to avoid the post-Patriot letdown and how to stay focused week-to-week now that the talk is about "undefeated season." Tough games lie ahead next week at Cincy and the following Monday at home against the Steelers, who will be a much more telling test than the wounded Pats were last week.
Pick: Colts

Minnesota (3-5) at New York Giants (6-2)
This is about the worst possible game for the Vikings to face after an encouraging win at home against Detroit. Minnesota has always played horribly at the Meadowlands (remember the shellacking they took in the NFC title game a few years ago?), and Eli Manning and the vicious Giants defense look like juggernauts at home. This one's gonna be ugly. The Giants will find separation in the NFC East, while the Vikings will miss their chance to stay with the Bears in the NFC Central.
Pick: Giants

Baltimore (2-6) at Jacksonville (5-3)
What I don't understand about Baltimore is how their offense has remained consistently bad under Brian Billick, who was a masterful offensive coordinator at Minnesota. With the core of the Ravens defense out with injury, Jacksonville should be able to keep their wild card hopes alive, which is all they have, because they're not catching the Colts in their division. Billick might consider updating his resume; I hear there might be openings in St. Louis and Green Bay...
Pick: Jaguars

San Francisco (2-6) at Chicago (5-3)
How did SF win two games? Chicago finds separation in the NFC Central, but Lovie Smith better find an offense that can score more consistently if he has any hopes of getting past the wild card weekend in the playoffs. He should have signed Kurt Warner; he would have been a better fit in Chicago than Arizona.
Pick: Bears

Arizona (2-6) at Detroit (3-5)
I don't know where to go on this one. I don't like Joey Harrington at all, but Arizona's got serious offensive line problems, which have led directly to all their QB problems. Warner or McCown either one would have more success if they weren't getting hit like pinatas by opposing defenses. I suppose I should go with the home team, but my gut tells me that Arizona bounces back this week. Denny Green is well familiar with playing at Detroit, Warner thrives on playing indoors, and Joey Harrington is the worst QB in the NFL. Okay, I talked myself into it.
Pick: Cardinals

Kansas City (5-3) at Buffalo (3-5)
Wow, was that a great finish last week in the KC-Oakland game? I loved that Vermeil went for the win when it was all-or-nothing at the end. Part of that was the recognition that their defense hadn't stopped Oakland at all in the second half. But Buffalo has screwed me week in and week out with picks this season, so I'm taking Vermeil's guts and KC's momentum to keep them on pace in the AFC West, and for Buffalo to fall further behind New England.
Pick: Chiefs

New England (4-4) at Miami (3-5)
If New England loses this game, they could be in a potential three-way tie for the division lead with Miami and Buffalo (if the Bills win at home, which I don't think they will), and it will also mean the Pats will have suffered their first 3-game losing streak since—oh, I don't know, what, the days of Steve Grogan? Does anyone really think that Bill Belicheck is going to allow that to happen? I don't. This is do-or-die for New England. They will separate.
Pick: Patriots

Denver (6-2) at Oakland (3-5)
The more I see Denver play, the more inexplicable their opening-day trouncing at the hands of Miami becomes. Jake Plummer has actually become a smart QB as opposed to a dangerous gunslinger. In a bizarre way, he has become Brett Favre, and Brett has become like Jake Plummer—liable to win or lose games by taking spectacular risks. Oakland's gut-punching loss at KC last week should send them into a season-ending death spiral. Denver asserts dominance in the AFC West.
Pick: Broncos

New York Jets (2-6) at Carolina (6-2)
Carolina's everyone's darling right now for coming out of the NFC, and it's easy to see why. Every aspect of their team is clicking together right now; the only question is whether they can win on the road in the playoffs if they don't secure home field advantage, which is, as we all know, the name of the game in the NFL. The name of the game for the Jets, however, is "Let's draft a QB in 2006."
Pick: Panthers

Green Bay (1-7) at Atlanta (6-2)
Green Bay's dilemma is what to do with Brett Favre. Is is retiring after this season? Would he be willing to play, let's say half a season as a tutor to Matt Leinert? Atlanta must win as many games as they can to keep pace with Carolina for home field in the playoffs.
Pick: Atlanta

Washington (5-3) at Tampa Bay (5-3)
Perfect example of two teams going in different directions. Washington saved their season with a gut-check win over the wounded Eagles last week, while Tampa continues its death-spiral with the excreble Chris Simms filling in for much-missed (can you freakin' believe it?) Brian Griese. Mark Brunell should feel right at home back in the Florida sun.
Pick: Redskins

St. Louis (4-4) at Seattle (6-2)
Perfect example of a separation game. St. Louis has managed to get back to .500 despite a dismal start from their defense, Martz's illness and injuries to QB Marc Bulger and top two wideouts Bruce and Holt. Their running game, featuring Stephen Jackson, has Pro Bowl potential, their special teams are improving, and their defense is starting to gain traction. In spite of all these factors, they have to play on the road against division leaders Seattle, who have at times looked like Superbowl contenders; at other times, they've struggled to win games that should have been much easier. But now they look to gain separation in the division and keep pace with the elite in the conference. So who will prevail? Unfortunately for Rams fans (like me), Seattle is simply the better team this time around. A Rams win would put them just one game behind Seattle; a loss leaves them struggling in the wild card race. It's a must-win for both teams.
Pick: Seahawks

Cleveland (3-5) at Pittsburgh (6-2)
Funny, isn't it, how you've heard absolutely nothing about Romeo Crennel in his first year as head coach in Cleveland despite the dismal quality of their team. I guess all his success in New England has given him a free pass this year, similar to Marvin Lewis' tenure in Cincinnati. He'll probably have until his third year, as well, to produce results. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is the only legitimate condtender left in the AFC to challenge Indy for the conference championship. They'll assert their power this week, even without Ben Rothlisberger.
Pick: Steelers

Dallas (5-3) at Philadelphia (4-4)
Another huge separation game. Can Dallas separate themselves from the other wild card contenders and try to keep pace with the Giants? Can Philly climb back into the playoff picture? This is what's Bill Simmons (a.k.a. "The Sports Guy") calls a "kitchen sink" game—a must-win game for the Eagles in which they will bring everything they have, including the kitchen sink, in order to win. McNabb's due to have a great game passing and running; he's got a giant chip on his shoulder to prove he can win without that loudmouth ex-wide receiver.
Pick: Eagles

Sunday, November 06, 2005

NFL Week Nine Quick Picks

It's Sunday morning, and I'm rushing to make my picks for this afternoon's games. Honestly, I have no freaking idea about this week. I could go undefeated or I could look like W. Bush at an unscripted press conference. Well, here goes...

Detroit at Minnesota: Brad Johnson vs. Joey Harrington? Pick—Vikings

Oakland at Kansas City: Trent Green and the gang bounce back after a tough loss at San Diego. Pick—Chiefs

Atlanta at Miami: I've been burned three times already this season picking against Miami at home against good teams. Pick—Dolphins

Tennessee at Cleveland: If this were a college game, they'd call it the " bowl." Pick—Titans

Carolina at Tampa Bay: These teams are moving in opposite directions, and Delhomme is miles better than Chris Simms. Pick—Panthers

Cincinnati at Baltimore: Maybe the Rams should think about interviewing the soon-to-be-available Brian Billick to succeed Mike Martz. Pick—Bengals

Houston at Jacksonville: No comment needed. Pick—Jaguars

San Diego at NY Jets: You can't win in the NFL without a QB, Herm Edwards. Pick—Chargers

NY Giants at San Francisco: You can't win in the NFL without a QB, Mike Nolan. Pick—Giants

Seattle at Arizona: You can't win in the NFL in Arizona, Dennis Green. Pick—Seahawks

Chicago at NewYorkBatonRougeSanAntonio: Tom Benson is pond scum. Pick—Da Bears

Pittsburgh at Green Bay: At least Cowher has the sense not to start Tommy Maddox. I think Favre could upset them, but I'm gonna trust the Pittsburgh defense today. Pick—Steelers

Philadelphia at Washington: Now that they've finally pushed the "eject" button on über-selfish team cancer Terrell Owens, the Eagles should come together with a big sigh of relief and a big game against the now-exposed Redskins. Pick—Eagles

Indianapolis at New England: Peyton Manning is Bill Belichick's bitch, and unless he can win this game, he always will be. That's too much pressure to overcome on the road. Pick—Patriots

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Walt Jocketty for a Day

Why didn't the Cardinals beat the Astros? Easy—no hitting and a lousy bullpen, plus the fact that none of our pitchers are named "Roy Oswalt." There's no shame in losing to the best pitcher in baseball; it's just one of those things that happens. Fortunately, the Cardinals' problems are solveable, and if there's anything that we've learned from the past ten years, it's that Walt Jocketty gets the job done. I'm excited to see what he does over the winter and spring, but in the meantime, since it's close to Halloween, let's put on our WJ mask and pretend to play "Let's Make a Deal," baseball edition.

Pitching Staff
I keep Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder, and I pencil in Anthony Reyes to make the big club during Spring training. I'd like to sign Matt Morris, but not for what the Yankees or Red Sox are liable to offer him, so good luck and goodbye. I'm trading Marquis and Suppan for spare parts, then using the money saved to sign Billy Wagner as my closer. If Izzy's still under contract, I'm trading him for a good setup man. They can trade every single arm in the bullpen as far as I'm concerned. They weren't worth a bucket of spit to us in the playoffs this year. My feelings about Izzy are well documented. We need a fireballer of the sort that when he comes into games, opposing fans turn off their televisions.

What about starters? It's hard to know at this point who will be available. My wish list starts in Florida, but those prices might be out of the Cardinals' range. It may sound crazy, but Randy Johnson might be available as a free agent. I know he's old, but Dave Duncan could probably get one more good year out of him.

So how's this for a starting rotation:
Chris Carpenter
Mark Mulder
Randy Johnson
A. J. Burnett
Anthony Reyes

That matches up a lot better against Houston or Chicago next season.

No changes, save one: keep Scott Rolen healthy at all costs. If an opposing player even brushes up gently beside him on the basepaths, that player gets a fastball between the shoulder blades the next time up at the plate. Pujols, Grudzielanek, Eckstein and Rolen give you solid defense and a good mix of speed, power and timely hitting. I'd like to see Grudz batting second rather than seventh, though. We need a good contact hitter to execute the hit-and-run with Eckstein leading off and getting on base, and Walker and Edmonds struck out too much for that.

I would keep Jim Edmonds in center field. Sure, he can be infuriating at the plate, but he's gonna save you as many runs with his defense as he loses by not coming through at the plate. I'd rather see him hitting sixth rather than third at this point in his career. We need a right fielder to replace Walker, and though I wouldn't mind seeing Reggie Sanders return in left, we also need to remember that he'll be 38 years old next year, so grooming a replacement is necessary. Again, the free agent market and players available in trade will determine this to a great extent, and I'll comment on who's available when the list comes out. There are a lot of quality outfielders to be had, but protecting Pujols has to be our primary concern. And at the risk of causing Tuck's head to burst into flames, don't be surprised if Rick Ankiel has a big spring with the bat and ends up making the club.

I hope they can keep Taguchi and Nuñez, but beyond that, the bench turnover will probably be the same as it is every year. Walt and Tony like to have solid defensive replacements, and this year has shown that to be a wise course of action, but I still insist (as I did last year) that we need a BIG BAT off the bench who could also fill a DH position if and when we get back to the World Series.

Any ideas, Sandlotters?

My Lame Excuse

The two previous weekends to this one just past, I have been out of town with family events and outings, so I've not been able to get caught up on grading essays for the college coursework I teach. As a result, I spent all of the past weekend getting caught up on grading. I'm planning to post later this afternoon, so thanks for your patience--I shall return!

Monday, October 17, 2005

The Last Word on NLCS Game Five

This just in from Heaven:

"I don't believe what I just saw." —Jack Buck

See you in St. Louis!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A Little Bit of Everything

NFL Week Five Wrap-Up
This week illustrates both the fun and frustration of trying to make weekly picks. I was just a few points away in five games from going 13-3 instead of my pedestrian 8-8; three of those games—Seattle at St. Louis, Cincinnati at Jacksonville and Miami at Buffalo—ended with turnovers that prevented my picks from possibly scoring win-clinching points at the end of the game. The other two games, Tampa at NY Jets and Pittsburgh at San Diego, were decided by only two points. It's a good thing I make picks just for pride rather than cash money. At this point in the season, the only sure bet is Indianapolis. Every other team is an absolute mystery week to week.

Let's look at last night's game, for example. Three weeks ago, New England beat Pittsburgh at the Big Ketchup, even though the Steelers had all the momentum on their side. Then last week, San Diego goes to Gillette Field and puts the worst beatdown on the Pats since their dynastic run began. So this week, the Chargers should have won easily at home, right? Wrong! Not in today's NFL, baby. There's no such thing as a sure thing. It makes it fun, for sure, but I'm not spending my own money betting on anything related to it.

League Championships Preview
NL: St. Louis vs. Houston
This is the matchup Cardinals Nation has been dreading. Houston seems to have a bit of momentum, but that doubleheader Sunday has also thrown their rotation out of whack, while the Cardinals have been able to rest up. The key for the Cards is to score early, keep building on their lead, and keep the starters out there as long as we can. We don't want to go to our bullpen unless we have to, and we can't play come-from-behind against their bullpen. I think the only way to beat them is to outhit them, because their bullpen is better than ours. The best scenario is two wins each from Carpenter and Mulder, so I'm picking the Cardinals in six games.

AL: Chicago White Sox vs. L.A. Angels
The Sox keep getting no respect, but they'll keep their underdog attitude as they use superior pitching and hitting to beat the Angels in seven games. The Yankees were not a very good team, and it took everything the Angels had to win three mostly low-scoring games. Like the NL series, I think this one will be more about hitting than pitching. I'm predicting a St. Louis-Chicago World Series, which will be soundly derided and ignored by the "experts" at the Eastern Sports Programming Network.

College Football
This year only serves to illustrate once again the absolute need for an eight-team playoff for the national championship in Division I. Let's take a look at the top of the polls as they stand today. Here are the teams currently undefeated: USC, Texas, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Georgia, Alabama, Penn State and Texas Tech. Texas and Tech are both in the Big 12, while Georgia and Bama are both in the SEC, so they all couldn't emerge at the end of the season undefeated, but who wouldn't want to see those teams in a three-round playoff? The only sporting event that approaches the Superbowl in interest and popularity is the NCAA basketball Final Four. Why can't the NCAA realize that an eight-team football playoff would be just as big? The participating bowls could rotate every year, and the lesser bowls could still feature the lower-tiered teams. This is a no-brainer, so I guess the powers-that-be at the NCAA have less than no brains.

Will the Blues EVER have a goalie who can stop a puck? Ever? Whoever ends up owning this team should make that his first priority. This is just a dismal team to watch. This is the year that the Blues record playoff-entry streak ends. I would like to see the new owner just dismantle the whole team and start from scratch with prospects and a new coach.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

NFL Week Five picks

Hi, everybody. I was out of town this weekend, which meant the preceding week was insanely busy. I'll be out of town this coming weekend, too, so who knows about the posts? Quickly, the Cardinals sweep the Padres, which means they'll be underdogs nationally when they play Houston (East Coast bias favors former Yankees pitchers Clemens and Petitte). The Blues should have stayed on strike; as Mel Brooks once said, they stink on ice. The Vikings have a bye week, which is about the only thing that can save them now. The White Sox swept away the eternally obnoxious Boston Red Sox, which sent my schadenfreude meter through the roof. I'll do my best to post more this week, but they'll all be short—such is the life of a college instructor, alas!

NFL Quick Picks:

Green Bay (H) over Saints—Favre finally gets a win.

St. Louis (H) over Seattle—The Rams own Seattle at the Jones.

Tennessee over Houston (H)—I like the way the Titans look, despite their record; Houston has been a big disappointment.

New England over Atlanta (H)—Vick's hurt, and everyone's writing off the champs.

Cleveland (H) over Chicago—'s Bill Simmons is recommending a Favre to the Bears trade. Well, yeah, they could use a QB!

Tampa Bay over NY Jets (H)—Vinny Testaverde is older than me!

Detroit (H) over Baltimore—Ravens have no QB, and the Lions played tough on the road last week.

Miami over Buffalo (H)—I don't like the Bills anymore, not one little bit.

Indianapolis over SF (H)—What's the spread here, like three touchdowns?

Carolina over Arizona (H)—Don't get so exciting; it was the Niners, after all.

Denver (H) over Washington—I think both these teams are bogus, but Denver's at home, so...

Philadelphia over Dallas (H)—McNabb for President; this guy is battle-tested and crazy tough.

Cincinnati over Jacksonville (H)—I think the Bengals are for real, and Jax hasn't shown me a thing yet.

MONDAY: San Diego (H) over Pittsburgh—the beatdown in Foxboro was one of the most impressive wins I've seen.

Last week: 10-4

Season: 37-23 (.617)

Friday, September 30, 2005

NFL Week 4: Flip a Coin

Sorry, Sandlot readers, but this one's gonna be short. Tonight's my 10th wedding anniversary, so Mrs. Sandman gets my undivided attention, and you all get what's left of a typically useless Friday afternoon at work. BTW, in Sandman's Socialist Paradise, the work week ends on Thursday so every weekend's a three-day snooze-fest. On with the (abbreviated) picks:

Buffalo at San Antonio (neé New Orleans)
I don't trust Buffalo on the road for one minute, and the Saints will be fired up for something resembling a home crowd. Saints 24, Bills 10

Detroit at Tampa Bay
The Cadillac rolls on. Bucs 34, Lions 13

Indianapolis at Tennessee
The Colts are a better team than the Rams, but Tenn's at home... (flipping a coin) Heads, Indy. Colts 17, Titans 13

San Diego at New England
All hail the champs. Patriots 27, Chargers 20

Seattle at Washington
I'm not taking Seattle on the road unless someone spots me three touchdowns first. Redskins 23, Seahawks 18

St. Louis at New York Giants
The Rams suck eggs in the Meadowlands. Giants 38, Rams 23

Denver at Jacksonville
Yeah, I remember week one in Miami, suckers. Jaguars 31, Broncos 20

Houston at Cincinnati
The Bengals are going to be 4-0. (cue Michael Stipe "That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane...") Bengals 41, Texans 10

New York Jets at Baltimore
The battle of two teams without quarterbacks (Zzzzzzzz!) Ravens 9, Jets 3

Philadephia at Kansas City
McNabb hurt at Arrowhead? Uhhh, gimme KC, please. Chiefs 24, Eagles 17

Minnesota at Atlanta
Whoever's doing NFL scheduling has a sick sense of humor. Falcons 70, Vikings 3

Dallas at Oakland
Heads, Dallas; Tails, Oakland... (flipping coin) Raiders 20, Cowboys 14

San Francisco at Arizona
Does it even matter? Niners 17, Cardinals 6

Green Bay at Carolina
I'd feel a lot better about my schadenfreude at the Packers' misery if the Vikings didn't stink like a dead skunk. Panthers 27, Packers 13

Last week: 10-4
Season record: 27-19 (.587)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

NFL Week 3: Desperate Times

Well, so much for Chris Carpenter winning the Cy Young. Another reason that I love the NFL is that Sunday's weekly angst over my teams' latest self-destruction distracts me from the baseball Cardinals annual post-season collapse. It's always something: Vince Coleman, Don Denkinger, Jack The Gimper, the Heftybagdome, the 3-1 Atlanta collapse, losing Daryl Kile, the Scott Rolen collision I, Carpenter's nerve damage, the Scott Rolen collision II...and the Cubs think they're cursed? Being a sports fan is like having a chronic disease, and since misery loves company, you all get me NFL week 3 picks:

Atlanta at Buffalo
It's games like this that make picks so challenging. Each team played well at home in week one, then stunk it up on the road in week two. I think I'm giving Buffalo the home edge, but this game could go either way. Bills 21, Falcons 20

Cincinnati at Chicago
Lots of folks jumping on both these bandwagons. Cincy won't light up the Bears defense, but likewise, the Bears don't have enough offense to overcome a Marvin Lewis coached defense. Bengals 24, Bears 14

Tampa Bay at Green Bay
This one's gonna be really ugly for Packers fans. Buccaneers 34, Packers 13

Cleveland at Indianapolis
Does anyone really think that, in the scheme of things, Trent Dilfer will have two good weeks while Peyton Manning will have two bad weeks? I sure don't. Colts 45, Browns 16

Tennessee at St. Louis
Let's ask Jeff Fisher how he feels about coaching in the Jones Dome. I like the Rams at home by at least seven points, but who knows? Mike Martz could find several new and different ways to screw up what should be an easy win. Rams 24, Titans 17

Carolina at Miami
Same problem as Atlanta/Buffalo, but I think Carolina's defense makes the difference in a low-scoring game. Panthers 17, Dolphins 9

New Orleans at Minnesota
Everything about the Vikings screams "desperation, must-win game." I know I'm biased when it comes to the Purple Ones, but I've got a strong gut feeling that Daunte's gonna have a big game against a tired and demoralized the-city-formerly-known-as-New-Orleans team. It won't be easy or pretty, but these guys have to play like their jobs depend on it, because they do. I think they will. Vikings 28, Saints 24

Jacksonville at New York Jets
Another coin flip. Leftwich might not play for the Jags, which raises scoring concerns for them. At the same time, can we expect Chad Pennington to play any better against the Jags defense than Peyton did? Probably not. Jaguars 23, Jets 19

Oakland at Philadelphia
After Oakland starts 0-3, maybe we'll stop hearing about what a difference-maker Randy Moss is. Look for the Eagles defense to shut him down just as they did in the NFC Divisional playoffs last winter. Eagles 31, Raiders 13

Dallas at San Francisco
Bill Parcells is pissed. No, really. Bill Parcells is pissed. Cowboys 27, 49ers 6

Arizona at Seattle
Until the Cardinals patch up an offensive line that looks like a Louisiana levee, Kurt Warner might want to consider some additional medical insurance. Arizona's certainly capable of winning this game, and Holmgren's certainly capable of coughing one up, but I'm not putting my pick on it. Seahawks 24, Cardinals 14

New England at Pittsburgh
Lots of experts expect NE to "bounce back" with this game. Huh? Carolina just showed the rest of the NFL how to beat the Pats: run up the middle and control the ball with a short passing game. Just so happens that the hallmark of the Steelers' offensive scheme is running up the middle and possession passing. Add in a tough Pittsburgh defense, a delirious home-field crowd and AFC Championship revenge, all the ingredients are there for a big home win. Steelers 31, Patriots 17

New York Giants at San Diego
The Giants aren't as good as they look, and San Diego's not as bad as they've looked. I'm sticking with the home team for the ESPN game. Chargers 23, Giants 20

Kansas City at Denver
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how hard it is to play in Denver. The only problem is that Denver stinks. They have a porous defense, a certified mental case at QB and a head coach who looks like a prime candidate for spontaneous human combustion. I look for the KC offense to have a big-time scoring festival while the improved defense takes out last seasons frustrations on a certain reptile in the backfield. Chiefs 38, Broncos 20

Baltimore, Detroit, Houston and Washington

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NFL Week Two post-mortem

Detroit at Chicago
My pick: Bears 13, Lions 6
Actual score: Bears 38, Lions 6
Well, so I was half right, at least. With the rest of the NFC North sucking eggs this year, Chicago can win the division by default. Oh, how I wish we could have shipped Martz to Chicago and kept Lovie in St. Louis…

Minnesota at Cincinnati
My pick: Bengals 31, Vikings 17
Actual score: Bengals 37, Vikings 8
I realized, in horror, that my Yahoo fantasy football team had autodrafted Culpepper as my starting quarterback. I dropped him faster than the government can award a huge no-bid contract to Halliburton. Mike Tice’s firing I give an over/under of Week Six, and we might have to start thinking about winning the Matt Leinart sweepstakes in the next draft.

Baltimore at Tennessee
My pick: Ravens 17, Titans 9
Actual score: Titans 25, Ravens 10
This pick is my own fault for not realizing that Baltimore didn’t have a quarterback to start the game. Duh!

Jacksonville at Indianapolis
My pick: Colts 42, Jaguars 20
Actual score: Colts 10, Jaguars 3
Kudos to the Colts defense for actually winning a game that the offense couldn’t. Experts made a big deal about the Jags playing the Colts tough, and they were right in this case. Manning will have to make adjustments to win at Jacksonville later this year.

San Francisco at Philadelphia
My pick: Eagles 27, 49ers 16
Actual score: Eagles 42, 49ers 3
Wow, so much for the decline of the Eagles, huh? They regain their spot as the NFC favorite to go to the Superbowl.

Buffalo at Tampa Bay
My pick: Buccaneers 21, Bills 17
Actual score: Buccaneers 19, Bills 3
It’s bad news for the rest of the league that Tampa has re-established both their power running game and their stifling defense. Can we call it “Return of Chucky”?

New England at Carolina
My pick: Patriots 24, Panthers 10
Actual score: Panthers 27, Patriots 17
So Belichek and Brady are actually human? So their defense, without Tedi Bruschi in the middle, has trouble stopping the power running game? Carolina has just shown the rest of the league how to beat these guys. Let’s get busy!

Pittsburgh at Houston
My pick: Steelers 31, Texans 13
Actual score: Steelers 27, Texans 7
It’s about as close as I thought it would be, which was not at all. Teams looking for a defensive coordinator (hello, Minnesota?) should take note: Dom Capers will probably be available next year. As of now, the Steelers look like the top team in the AFC.

St. Louis at Arizona
My pick: Cardinals 34, Rams 20
Actual score: Rams 17, Cardinals 12
The Cardinals should have won this game long before the last-second drive that stalled. Martz wouldn’t stay committed to the run late when he needed to run out the clock. Instead, he relied on limp-armed, lame-brained Marc Bulger, who just seems freaking clueless about 70 percent of the time. If Green can give Warner some offensive line protection and cut down on the stupid mistakes, they can still compete in the weak NFC West. The Rams looked bad winning a game they probably should have lost, and almost did.

Atlanta at Seattle
My pick: Falcons 38, Seahawks 14
Actual score: Seahawks 21, Falcons 18
That heap broken down on the side of the road with two flat tires is the Atlanta bandwagon. Seattle’s not this good, but they made Atlanta look muy mal.

San Diego at Denver
My pick: Chargers 24, Broncos 14
Actual score: Broncos 20, Chargers 17
Does Drew Brees worry that he’ll arrive at the stadium to find Phillip Rivers parked in his space? He should.

Cleveland at Green Bay
My pick: Packers 20, Browns 10
Actual score: Browns 26, Packers 24
I mean, come on, Trent Dilfer does have a Superbowl ring, you know. Yeah, right. My only consolation this season (other than anticipating the firings of Martz and Tice) is the knowledge that the Packers are gonna suck as much as the Vikings. Uff-da!

Miami at New York Jets
My pick: Jets 24, Dolphins 21
My pick: Jets 17, Dolphins 7
I’m still not putting three plays worth of trust in Chad Pennington, though.

Kansas City at Oakland
My pick: Chiefs 31, Raiders 21
Actual score: Chiefs 23, Raiders 17
So if Randy Moss is All That, how come Oakland is 0-2? Kudos to Chiefs defense for getting it done when it counted. KC’s winning the AFC West (duh!).

New Orleans at New York Giants
My pick: Giants 30, Saints 14
Actual score: Giants 27, Saints 10
Don’t fret, Saints fans—this week you get to play the Vikings!

Washington at Dallas
My pick: Cowboys 35, Redskins 13
Actual score: Redskins 14, Cowboys 13
I hate both these teams, so a tie would have been ever more satisfying. But since I hate Parcells worse than Gibbs, I’ll take the loss of what looked like a sure pick with the knowledge that Parcell’s ain’t getting any sleep until maybe Thursday night after coughing up what looked like a sure win at home. (insert Nelson Muntz sound fx: HAA-Ha!!)

This week: 9-7
Last week: 8-8
Season record: 17-15 (.531)

Saturday, September 17, 2005

NFL Week Two Picks

Last week was a disaster in terms of picks, proving once again that expert opinion is as useless as preseason games in determining the success of a team once the real games start. I am thankful, however, that the NFL season has started in time to help distract me from the fact that the Cardinals can't beat the Cubs and may not clinch the division in Chicago at all this weekend. LaRussa better hope his pitchers can throw playoff shutouts, or else St. Louis area golf courses will be filled with baseball players taking an early leave of the postseason. Thankfully, I don't have to watch baseball on Sunday afternoons. So here's what to watch in NFL Week Two tomorrow:

Detroit at Chicago
Detroit won impressively over Green Bay at home last week, while Chicago's defense couldn't overcome their offensive impotence. I like Lovie's Bears to win their home opener in a low-scoring defensive game. Bears 13, Lions 6

Minnesota at Cincinnati
The Vikings are a popular pick in this game, with people saying they'll play with more intensity, not make as many mistakes, Culpepper'll play better, etc. Don't believe the hype. The Bengals whomped the Browns last week, they're playing their home opener, and the Vikings stink, stink, STINK outdoors on the road. This one's not even going to be close. Bengals 31, Vikings 17

Baltimore at Tennessee
The Ravens have too much defense for the Titans to overcome. They held Peyton Manning to one lousy field goal drive in the entire first half against the Colts last week. Just think what they'll do to senior citizen Steve McNair. Ravens 17, Titans 9

Jacksonville at Indianapolis
Colts home opener? Manning & Co. on the Indy speed turf? No. 2 of the 16 needed for home field advantage. Colts 42, Jaguars 20

San Francisco at Philadelphia
Thus endeth the Niners winning streak. Eagles 27, 49ers 16

Buffalo at Tampa Bay
I guess this is where we find out which of these two teams are for real. As for me, I have no idea. Both of these teams beat bad teams last week, so it's hard to determine what's what. All things being equal, I guess I'll give the edge to Tampa's defense playing at home. Buccaneers 21, Bills 17

New England at Carolina
Superbowl rematch? Hardly. Belichek won't fall into the trap of not expecting Carolina to be motivated to play the champs and to not fall into an 0-2 hole. But Jake Delhomme's carriage appears to have turned back into a pumpkin. They're not going to score on the Pats' defense today. Patriots 24, Panthers 10

Pittsburgh at Houston
Tuck is all-knowing. Tuck is the foundation of all wisdom. Tuck says Pittsburgh will crush Houston. Tuck knows all, sees all, foretells all. Tuck is wise and good. (Okay, crow sufficiently eaten now?) Steelers 31, Texans 13

St. Louis at Arizona
So which team will regroup? As I said earlier in the week, Martz doesn't game plan. Assuming that Denny Green will, and that Warner should be motivated to have his best game in years, I'm going with the Deadbirds over the Lambs in the desert. Cardinals 34, Rams 20

Atlanta at Seattle
After Monday's game, I think you have to put Atlanta at the top of the NFC power rankings. I don't think Seattle has much chance of stopping Vick's offense. Falcons 38, Seahawks 14

San Diego at Denver
Denver stinks. Chargers 24, Broncos 14

Cleveland at Green Bay
Brett Favre is going to have to win this game by himself. Since it's Cleveland, he can probably pull it off. Packers 20, Browns 10

Miami at New York Jets
Was the Miami offensive powerhouse the real thing? Was the total ineptitude of the Jets on both sides of the ball a mistake or an indication of things to come? My feeling is that Miami's offense was an indication of Denver's shortcomings, while the Jets were ambushed by a Kansas City team that will be better than most people expected. Herm Edwards will have his team—and his quarterback—ready to play this week. Jets 24, Dolphins 21

Kansas City at Oakland
One of the best rivalries in pro sports takes on a new twist with Randy Moss in the mix. Moss will have the Black Hole fans worked up into their characteristic sociopathic froth, but the KC running game is going to rule the day. Look for KC to double- and triple-team Moss to prevent big plays. Lacking that, Oakland doesn't have much more to offer. Chiefs 31, Raiders 21

New Orleans at New York Giants
I know the NFL wants me to think that the Saints are the home team, but since they're playing the freaking game at the Meadowlands, the home of the Giants since Reagan was president, I'm not buying it. I'm also not thinking that the Saints can match the emotional intensity of beating a division rival last week. Giants 30, Saints 14

Washington at Dallas
These are the types of games that Bill Parcells lives for, and it's clear that he wants to win another championship, while Joe Gibbs looks like he only wants to win a NASCAR Nextel Cup. It's all about priorities. Cowboys 35, Redskins 13

Last Week's Record: 8-8

Monday, September 12, 2005

NFL Week One Wrapup

What's all that smoking wreckage crumpled in the ditch on the side of the road? It's the remains of the Carolina, NY Jets, Minnesota, Arizona, St. Louis, San Diego and Baltimore bandwagons. Who left all those skidmarks as they raced away? Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Dallas. Who's that guy on the side of the road with egg on his face eating a humble pie with crow filling?

Uhh, that would be yours truly, The Sandman.

I was absolutely bamboozled by the first week of the 2005 NFL season. I only racked up a dismal seven correct picks this weekend (Monday night game hasn't started yet; I picked Philly, but at this point, who the heck knows?), but I'm sure I'm not alone. My plan is to offer weekend picks on Friday with a Monday evening post-mortem. Here's the bitter results from Sunday...

SF 28, STL 25
I finally figured out what's wrong with Mike Martz. He doesn't game plan. Not one bit. I don't know if he's incapable of game planning, or just too stubborn to do it, but he doesn't do one darn thing to prepare for another team. The Rams were completely baffled by the Niners defense and their offensive line had bigger holes than the hull of the Titanic. They couldn't stop Tim Rattay's (!) passing game, and their special teams were even more atrocious than last year. A couple of minutes of game film from Mike Nolan's defense in Baltimore would have given any other head coach a clue, but Martz is so in love with his own abilities, he thinks his plan is superior to any other, regardless of preparation. Game planning is the key to Bill Belichek's success, it's why the Pats are the dynasty of the 2000's instead of the Rams, and it's the reason why Georgia and Stan should put Jeff Fisher's cell phone on speed dial. Over-under on Martz's firing: nine games.

TB 24, MIN 13
The Vikings' offense was supposed to be just as good without Randy Moss. It was much worse. Culpepper looked hideous, his worst performance by far as a pro quarterback. The Vikings' defense was supposed to be much improved. It wasn't. It was much worse. They let a previously impotent Tampa offense run and pass virtually at will. Mike Tice was supposed to show he could make a championship push as a coach. He can't. He ought to start checking the want-ads for high school assistant coach positions, because his days in the NFL are numbered (if God is merciful). The Vikings were supposed to be Superbowl contenders. They aren't. Some things never change.

NYG 42, ARZ 19
Speaking of things that don't change, there are the Cardinals. Going into the season, this is the line that many, myself included, bought into: Dennis Green, experience, savvy head coach; Kurt Warner, former league and Superbowl MVP; young receivers filled with talent; exciting running back in Marcel Shipp; improved defense ready to compete for a division championship. Here's the reality: These are the Arizona Cardinals, owned by Bill Bidwell, the worst franchise in the NFL. Does anyone knows what grows in the desert? That's right: nothing at all. This is the team where careers go to die, forever. Ugh! On the bright side, they'll probably beat the Rams next week.

NYJ 7, KC 27
The only reason this game wasn't 42-0 was because Herman Edwards is an old friend of Dick Vermeil. A less merciful coach could have run the score way up on the hapless Jets defense. Dick should teach his old offensive coordinator in St. Louis a little thing about game planning. They stopped the run, neutralizing Curtis Martin, which put the game in the hands of Chad Butterfingers—I mean Pennington—who folded up faster than the Bush administration's latest round of excuses under constant pressure from the KC defense. This offense looks like an absolute juggernaut at this point; we'll see if the defense is just good enough to get them through the playoffs.

NO 23, CAR 20
I drank the Carolina Kool-Aid against my better judgment; I figured since so many others had them going deep in the NFC, there must be something there. Nah. Good for New Orleans, the team without a city. Let's just call them America's Team this year, okay? The American Saints. Let's see if they can keep the emotional intensity next week against the Giants; it's a total rip-off that the Giants get to play at home when they should have been on the road; a neutral field would be more appropriate.

TEN 7, PIT 34
Yeah, I take back everything I said last time about Pittsburgh. They're gonna win the Superbowl.

DAL 28, SD 24
So, which one sold his soul to the devil, Parcells, Bledsoe or both?

IND 24, BAL 7
One down, 15 to go. Peyton, it's not about TD passes or yardage or even an MVP, it's about home field advantage in the playoffs. It's everything, absolutely everything.

All the others: A good start for Buffalo; a promising (and convincing) start for Cincinnati (though I'm still not convinced—it was Cleveland, after all); a frustrating loss for Lovie Smith (you should have signed Kurt Warner!) as the Bears coughed up a great defensive game on the road due to a total lack of offensive skill; Seattle loses on the road, as usual (is there a more overrated coach than Mike Holmgren?); Miami shocks the entire league as Gus Frerotte jumps on the "sold my soul" bandwagon; and finally, someone needs to tell Brett Favre that it's not too late to retire—he's really not going to want his last year in the league to be this bad, because it's gonna be.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

AFC Preview

I’ll have to pull this all off in one day, now, since the season starts tomorrow. It’s not too late to join The Sandlot’s Pigskin Pick’em league—check the earlier post for details on how to join.

AFC East
1. New England Patriots—Best coach, best QB, defending champs...until someone beats these guys, I’m not gonna pick against them.

2. New York Jets—I think they’re ready to take the next step this year; unfortunately for them, the best they can hope for is a wild card berth because of the guys living in the penthouse suit above them.

3. Buffalo Bills—I’ve got a good feeling about their team, but I don’t really know what to expect from second-year QB J.P. Losman, so I can’t say “playoffs” yet with this bunch.

4. Miami Dolphins—Nick Saban’s gonna have this team back in the playoff 2007. For now, they still stink, but I also think they’ll play spoiler late in the year.

AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts—Repeat after me: “We must secure home field advantage.” Nothing else matters for this team.

2. Houston Texans—This is who I think will be the “come out of nowhere” team in the NFL this year, similar to the Rams in 1999. They’ve got an exciting young quarterback, a solid coach in Dom Capers and a potentially great defense. If they turn out to be a big surprise this year, it won’t surprise me.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars—They surprised a lot of teams last year and looked they would make a run in January, but fell just short. Many expect they will take it to the next level. I expect that teams will start game planning for Byron Leftwich, and he’ll take a couple of steps backward.

4. Tennessee Titans—I like Steve McNair, and I love Jeff Fisher so much that I hope the Rams hire him to replace Mike Martz after this far-too-old team finishes last in their division. Time to rebuild!

AFC North
1. Baltimore Ravens—I don’t like Kyle Boller, but you don’t have to be a great QB to succeed in Brian Billick’s system (see Superbowl winning QB Trent Dilfer for references); the Ravens’ vicious defense will be enough to win the North.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers—With both running backs hurt and Ben Roethisberger poised to experience a sophomore slump, I can’t expect the Steelers to repeat another title run. (And now, Tuck will attempt to light my hair on fire...)

3. Cincinnati Bengals—Put down the Kool-Aid, step away from the Marvin Lewis bandwagon, and look closely at the tiger stripes on the helmet. We okay now? Good.

4. Cleveland Browns—Don’t believe all the Carson Palmer hype. Romeo Crennel needs at least two years to remake this defense. Like Saban in Miami, he won’t be a factor until 2007.

AFC West
1. San Diego Chargers—The best running back in the NFL, another surprisingly good campaign from Drew Brees, and the worst playoff coach in the history of league will still find a way to cough up the season. Do you think Bernie Kosar sends Schottenheimer a box of dead flowers every year before the AFC Championship?

2. Denver Broncos—Just because their home field advantage is good for six or seven games, plus two or three on the road, which should be good for second place.

3. Kansas City Chiefs—Defense? What’s a defense? We’re supposed to play defense? How does that work?

4. Oakland Raiders—Does anyone look more clueless on the sidelines than Norv Turner? He looks like my 10th grade civics teacher when you’d ask him a tough question—completely dumbfounded. And what’s all this talk about Randy Moss making such a big difference? Tell me, how many rings did he win in Minnesota? That’s what I thought.

Playoff teams:
New England
San Diego

New York Jets

You probably noticed I didn't pick playoff winners or Superbowl teams in either conference. That's because getting it right is like winning the lottery. I'll make those picks before the playoffs start, and we'll see if I picked the participants correctly. Hey, it's my blog, it's my rules!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

NFC Preview, Part Two

Hey Sandlot readers, don't forget to join our "Pigskin Pick-em" league at Click on the link listed under "Recent Posts" for details on how to join. So without further delay, here's the rest of the NFC team predictions...

NFC North
1. Minnesota Vikings—Of course I'm going to pick the Vikings to win the division; I ALWAYS pick the Vikings to win the division. What's different this year? Well, they'll actually win it. With an improved defense and no more Randy Moss distractions, look for Daunte Culpepper to have a career year. If they can secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs, we'll probably have a rematch of the 1998 NFC Championship and one more chance at redemption (God, please!).

2. Green Bay Packers—but only because Favre's the Man. The rest of the team stinks on ice. Fortunately for Green Bay, so also does the rest of the division.

3. Chicago Bears—So how many years has it been since the Bears had a legitimate quarterback? Twenty? Lovie should have signed Kurt Warner when he had the chance.

4. Detroit Lions—Hosting the Superbowl is the only involvement this franchise will ever have with the championship game. Steve Mariucchi deserves better than this. He should be coaching Favre in Green Bay and Mike Sherman should be stuck with this atrocious bunch.

NFC West
1. St. Louis Rams—I think they'll have enough offense to win nine or ten games, which should be enough in the West. Steven Jackson will be an All-Pro running back, Marshall Faulk will make some huge plays as an all-purpose back (I think he'll catch more passes than he'll have run touches), and the O-line just HAS to be better than last year (there's nowhere to go down from "worst"). The defense and special teams, once again, will determine whether they can advance in the playoffs.

2. Seattle Seahawks—The so-called experts like Seattle to win the division again this year. My question is why? They should have the helmet logo in the dictionary under "inconsistent."

3. Arizona Cardinals—I was all excited about Kurt Warner playing for Dennis Green with a cadre of young receivers and a revamped defense...and then I saw their schedule. Unless Warner has a year like he did in 1999, I don't see any way this team can finish better than .500, and no one's more disappointed about it than I am. If I'm wrong about one pick, I hope it's this one.

4. San Francisco 49ers—New coach, bad QB, rookie QB on the bench, tragedy during training camp...there's not much else that can go wrong with this once-proud franchise. Good riddance, says me—I always despised the 49ers in their heyday. Sip that with yer chardonnay, suckers!

Division Winners:
St. Louis

Wild Cards:

Tomorrow: AFC Preview, part one

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

NFC Preview, Part One

This is my opinion. If you disagree with my opinion, then that's what the comments pop-up is for. I've purposely not included predictions of records; it's just too hard to determine exact records with all the different variables involved. I'm gauging my predictions based on my overall impressions of the team and their prospects this year. I'll make playoff picks after I complete each division. And away we go!

NFC East
1. Philadelphia Eagles—Owens may not shut up, but he also wants to prove that he's worth the money they're not going to pay him. This will almost certainly be his last year in Philly, but in any case, he's playing for a new contract. McNabb will have another huge year, and their defense is still the best in the conference. An easy pick to win the East.

2. Dallas Cowboys—Bill Parcells in his third year overseeing the resurrection of Drew Bledsoe. I have it on good authority that Julius Jones is going to have a huge year. With a weak schedule, it looks like playoff time for the wild-card Cowboys.

3. Washington Redskins—Will Joe Gibbs decide to return exclusively to NASCAR? Probably, after this group underachieves again this year. You know, there's a reason that Jacksonville decided to discard Mark Brunell.

4. New York Giants—No quarterback and a sociopath for a head coach: it couldn't happen to a nicer gang of alleged football fans. I hope this group goes 0-16.

NFC South
1. Atlanta Falcons—This is a team on the rise, with a hungry young head coach, an improving defense and the most exciting athlete in professional sports in Michael Vick (and yes, that includes LeBron James). Don't be surprised to see Atlanta in Detroit come January.

2. Carolina Panthers—After getting off to an atrocious start last season, Carolina just missed a wild card berth with a late-season surge. A year removed from their Superbowl hangover, Jake Delhomme should revert to his free-wheeling gunslinger style, and their defense will dominate games. My solid pick for one of the two wild-card spots.

3. Tampa Bay Bucanneers—Do you really want to stake your season on Brian Griese? I wouldn't, either.

4. New Orleans Saints—Everybody's sentimental favorite this year, for obvious reasons, but they're not going to be able to overcome playing the entire season on the road, not to mention the possibilities of moving permanently to San Antonio, a real probability if they have to demolish the Louisiana Superdome. Oh, and Jim Haslett still looks like Boggs from The Shawshank Redemption.

Coming tomorrow: NFC North and West predictions

p.s. Scott Stevens retired from the NHL today, forever crushing the hopes of St. Louis Blues fans that he may someday return to wear the note. The Stevens decision was the biggest screw-job in the history of professional sports: it was completely disproportionate, unfairly biased toward an East Coast team (what else is new), and dealt a blow to the Blues franchise that they never really recovered from. Idiotic decisions like this help explain why the NHL has been reduced to a minor-league sport. Now I have to watch clip footage of Stevens hoisting the Cup in a NJ Devils sweater. Thanks, ESPN—I have to go puke now.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Join The Sandlot's Pigskin Pick'em League

Exclusively for readers of The Sandlot, I've created a private league in's "Pigskin Pick'em" game, which allows you to pick the winners of NFL games each week. National winners earn cool prizes; league winners earn bragging rights, which aren't worth anything in terms of cash value, but it does enable you to gloat on a weekly basis. I'll keep a regular post after each week's results where I'll heap praise upon the entry with the best picks.

To sign up, enter this link in your browser address bar:

Once here, you'll need to sign up for an entry if you've never played ESPN fantasy sports before. If you have, simply log in with your user ID and password. The game will ask you to create a team entry. This is where you will name your team for The Sandlot league. Click on the "Create Entry" button to proceed.

At the next screen, name your team (be creative!), indicate whether you want weekly e-mail reminders to make your picks (useful for forgetful doofuses like me), and select "no point spread" for the scoring type. Our league is just straight-up winner/loser picks. When you're done, click "submit entry settings."

Your first week's picks grid will come up at this time. But you need to join the league first, so click on the link above the picks that says "Create or join a group." There is another link just below the grid that says "Group Directory" that you can also click on; it takes you to the same place.

At the top center of the Group Directory listings is a search window. Enter "The Sandlot" and click on the button that says "Search by Name." When the name comes up on your screen, click it to access the league. The next screen will show current listing of teams in the league. Click on the link that says "Join this group." After you click, the next screen will ask you for a password. Type in sandman26 and then click "Join this group."

You will now see your entry listed with the rest of the teams in the league. To access your picks, simply click on the name of your team. Remember that NFL Week One officially begins Thursday night, so you need to make your picks early this week. If you don't join until later, remember that our league drops your worst week, so you can still catch up with the overall standings.

Here's looking forward to a great NFL season and weeks of fun slamming each other for picks missed, praising those amazing sleeper picks, and ultimately giving praise and honor to the season winner (uhh, that'll be me! Really? Prove me wrong, then!).

Friday, September 02, 2005

Labor Day Weekend

Just a quick note to The Sandlot readers:

I'm taking the weekend off to enjoy the Labor Day holiday. I'll be back next week with my always-controversial NFL season preview and picks, so start sharpening your swords and axes now.

I'm setting up a private league for ESPN's Pigskin Picks for Sandlot readers; this is the free weekly "pick the winners" football pool. Match your wits and predictions against the rest of the Sandlot community.

Many of us know people directly affected by the disaster in New Orleans. Prayer is always warranted, of course, but if you can donate time, money or resources to the relief efforts, that's a more practical way to help. If you know of resources that are looking for support, you can post the links in the comments section.

What about sports? Cards' magic number is 16, the Rams offense looks good, the Vikings are a tantalizing mystery, Mizzou's gonna stink in football and basketball, and if I had half a billion dollars I'd buy the Blues and hire Tuck as my President and GM.

Happy Labor Day.