Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 NFL Season Predictions in Review

Happy New Year! In honor of the calendar turning towards another year, I'm doing something I do for every sport I watch with intense eyes... a review of my season predictions that will surely make me look stupid! I eat crow so you don't have to. I have some true head-scratchers this season, but also a few picks that will make me at least a little happy. So, let's look back and see what I did wrong (and right).

I correctly predicted 5 of the 8 division champs this season, and those would be the Patriots, Colts, Broncos, Packers and Seahawks. I whiffed pretty badly on the Ravens, Giants and Falcons, who all missed the playoffs. And yes, I also had the Ravens in the Super Bowl, so more crow for me. I predicted the same 6 teams from the AFC playoffs last year would make it this year, and that clearly didn't happen. I predicted 3 of the 6 NFC teams, missing the Giants, Falcons and Bears. 7 of 12 is at least passable, right?

In the overrated department, I pretty severely overrated the 5 teams that missed the playoffs that I thought would make it, and a few others that I now laugh at. Those include Washington (I said 9-7... 3-13) and Minnesota (I said 8-8, 5-10-1) and Bucs (7-9, 4-12). For those underrated teams, obviously teams like the Eagles, Chargers, Panthers, and Chiefs get the nod. But some other notables were the Cardinals (5-11 to 10-6) and Jets (4-12 to 8-8). I got 3 teams records exactly right, and they would be Miami, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

In terms of award picks:

MVP- Peyton Manning (Hmm... I wonder...)
OPOY- Calvin Johnson (Not quite a season worthy of this award, even by his own lofty standards)
DPOY- Luke Kuechly (He'd better win this award or everything I watched was moot this season)
OROY- Giovani Bernard (Had a good season, but Keenan Allen and Eddie Lacy had better ones)
DROY- Ziggy Ansah (Sheldon Richardson is the favorite here)
Coach- Pete Carroll (Had an amazing season with the Seahawks, but this likely goes to Chip Kelly or Andy Reid- ironic isn't it?)

So I ate a lot of crow for some of my picks, and redeemed myself in a few places too. Can't wait for my playoff picks, which are bound to be worse.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Did You See That: The 2013 Year-End Awards

For the last 2 years, I've sent off the year with awards to honor (or dishonor) the accomplishments of many and the failures of many more. And now, for the 3rd year running, I present the Year-End Awards in hope that they will continue to rise in prestige (even though awards don't mean much anymore).

The "George Steinbrenner Award for Ownership Excellence": Vincent Tan and Dan Snyder

Until the Boss finally broke the Yankees hoo-doo in 1996, the stories about his ownership made Yankees fans wonder "why us?" Tan and Snyder have made the fans of their respective clubs have the same thoughts. With his shirt tucked in and sunglasses over his eyes so no one could read his blank expression, Tan has become a symbol of the pitfalls with English football's growing acceptance of foreign ownership, and has made the Bluebirds a sickly red color. Dan Snyder has owned the Washington Redskins for a long time now, but business acumen doesn't always mean a good sports owner, and this season was another that blew up in Dan Snyder's face, as it seems to always happen. His prized QB benched, his prized team name under assault from all angles, and his prized ego thrown into the same approval rating as Congress; it's all gone wrong for Snyder again this season. 2 different continents and leagues, and the same ownership excellence.

The "Rich Kotite Award for Coaching Excellence": Jason Kidd

Fresh off a great NBA career, Mikhail Prokhorov decided to hand the keys to his Ferrari to Jason Kidd, who in this analogy has just passed his driving test. Complete with a roster of aging stars and overpriced veterans that only the Yankees and Redskins could love, Kidd has made a mockery of a franchise that used to only muster 3,000 fans to Brendan Byrne Arena in the past. And the best part: They have no first round picks until the end of the decade! I must assume this Ferrari is one of the F50's that turned out to be massive flops.

The "Narrative is a B****" Award: Tony Romo

He plays "heroic" in a game against Washington that his Cowboys needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive after a collapse for the ages against the Packers that only fanned the flames more... and then it's revealed that he needs season-ending surgery on his back forcing him to miss the Cowboys 3rd straight NFC East Title game. If Kyle Orton does somehow win this game against Philadelphia, Romo will never have to give this award back. It's a perfect size for his mantle, too.

The "M. Night Shymalan Award for 'New Ideas' that are actually tired tropes by now' in Sports": The Boston Red Sox Playoff Beards

Playoff beards were all the rage in Boston this October, as was the phrase "Boston Strong". While the latter was a rallying cry for a city recovering from a horrible tragedy, the former was just something that every hockey fan on the planet laughed at. "Oh wow look at their beards, they're so huge" cried everyone who has not watched a Stanley Cup playoff game in the last 30 yards. And Shea Weber still has you beat Mike Napoli.

The "Chivas Award for absolute incompetence in running a sports franchise": Chivas de Guadalajara and Chivas USA

Giving this award to one of the namesake franchises is bad enough, but for the longest time at least one of them was somewhat competent. The Guadalajara outfit has now become as bad if not worse than the one in LA with approximately 2 fans. Chivas USA's insistence on "returning to their Mexican roots" not only got them lawsuits and a scathing piece on HBO's "Real Sports", it got them this award. Jorge Vergara's reluctance to spend actual money while his main rivals from Mexico City became not only the dominant force in club football, but the saviors of the Mexican National Team has Vergara being criticized from all sides, including me.

The "I can't even think of a namesake for this award honoring boredom": The Detroit Red Wings in 24/7

In a segment of the fantastic HBO Show 24/7, the Detroit Red Wings were eating at a restaurant and talking about their great player in Pavel Datsyuk. Well... it sounded kind of... forced. The Red Wings have been tagged as a boring team, and this segment certainly didn't help matters.

The "Money Can't Buy You Happiness" Award: New York Knicks

James Dolan... That's all that really needs to be said.

And finally:

"The ButtFumble Award for most hilarious moment of the year": Mike Smith and the ButtGoal

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88FwDoxgsao Enjoy the madness for yourself.

So those are the awards for 2013. No one tries to win them, but they should be honored that they're honored at all. I hope no one tries to win them next year.

2013 Week 17 Fantasy Advice

If, by some miracle, you're still playing fantasy football at this point, then this advice will be important to you. If not, my Year-End Awards are coming soon, so look forward to that.

Who to Start:

QB Nick Foles (PHI) vs. DAL: Foles has become one of the league's most consistent QB's over the grind of the season, and in this win or go home game for the NFC East, he'll probably have another huge game since the Cowboys defense might be the worst in the NFL against the pass.

RB Le'Veon Bell (PIT) vs. CLE: The Browns once had a sneaky good fantasy defense at one point in the season, but that ship has sailed. Bell has become a very good fantasy performer at running back, so he could be in for a big game on Sunday.

WR Alshon Jeffrey (CHI) vs. GB: Him and Josh Gordon are the 2 best young receivers in football, and in the NFC North title game, he'll certainly make his mark against a Packers D that will be without Clay Matthews and was pretty bad to begin with.

WR Julian Edelman (BUF) vs. NE: All the way back in Week 1, Edelman had 2 TD's against the Bills. Since the Bills secondary is not really any better than it was then, there's no reason to think Edelman can't do that again.

TE Vernon Davis (SF) vs. ARZ: Despite the goose-egg on the stat sheet last week, he should have a good game on Sunday against Arizona since the Cardinals despite their proficient defense have not defended the Tight End well at all this season.

DEF Tennessee vs. HOU: If the Broncos D can hold this offense to less than 16 points, than the Titans D certainly can.

Who to Sit:

QB Matt Ryan (ATL) vs. CAR: He played pretty well on MNF all things considering, but going up against the Panthers defense won't bode well for him on Sunday. The good news is that this tough season for the Falcons will mercifully be over.

RB Ray Rice (BAL) vs. CIN: He's been a massive disappointment in fantasy land this season, and emblematic of that was his performance against the Bengals in Week 10, when he only had 30 yards rushing. Things don't figure to be any better on Sunday.

WR Anquan Boldin (SF) vs. ARZ: Despite his TE friend being recommended to start, I'd steer clear of Boldin on Sunday because of the Cardinals ferocious pass defense.

WR Hakeem Nicks (NYG) vs. WSH: In the final year of his contract with the Giants, he's been a massive bust for his team and fantasy owners, not scoring a TD all season. His performance has been dropping ever still, so even though the matchup is favorable, he's one to avoid.

TE Jared Cook (STL) vs. SEA: Another massive fantasy bust here, and his first performance against Seattle gives you a good clue as to how this one will probably go for him: 31 yards.

DEF Kansas City vs. SD: A mixture of starters and backups will be playing in order to keep the Chiefs fresh for the Wild Card, so steer clear of this defense in a game that will probably have massive meaning for the Bolts.

3 Super Sleepers:

RB Knile Davis (KC) vs. SD: If Andy Reid gives Jamaal Charles a rest as expected, Davis will get the bulk of the carries meaning he'll see some solid numbers despite the Chargers stoutness against the run.

WR Cordarrelle Paterson (MIN) vs. DET: I don't think he's really a sleeper any more, because every week he does something amazing. The Lions secondary is pretty bad, so another big game for Paterson is on the cards.

TE Andrew Quarless (GB) vs. CHI: He's actually been a great fantasy Tight End of late for the Packers, and with the Bears struggles in every defensive department of late, Quarless could have another big game when it matters most.

Buyer Beware:

Any other Kansas City Chief vs. SD: See above.

Good Luck in Week 17 and have a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading the column every week and keeping me writing them every year since 2009. There will be playoff stuff coming next week!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Ownership Owning Up

Sports are big business in today's world, and that should shock absolutely no one. Owners mean more than they ever have before in the sports sphere, and with the money that's on the line why shouldn't they take a more vested interest in their major property? However, recent events in two sports have some wondering what the proper role of owners/chairmen are, and whether they need to face the music after they act. Spoiler: they should.

The biggest stories in the NFL right now are centered in Dallas and Washington... for the wrong reasons. We're not talking about the resurgence of the Miami Dolphins, or the dominance of the Seattle Seahawks, but the gong shows run by Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder. When it comes to model franchises in the NFL, you would think of the Steelers, Patriots, Packers, and even the Giants. Do you ever hear a peep from their owners, or do they ever become the focus of a story? No. But in the two aforementioned cities? You hear plenty about Snyder and Jones. That's not a good thing. None of those two owners are often held accountable for what their teams do, especially in Dallas where the owner is also the GM. But even in DC, Dan Snyder sometimes puts his hand into the cookie jar, and then it gets shut with his hand still in it. Snyder does not hold press conferences to answer for what he may or may not be doing, and instead it's his coach and prized QB put in the crosshairs. These two franchises are two glory ones for the NFL, and when they do better, the league does better (no matter what people in New York and Philadelphia tell you). Everyone but the league does well when these teams are circus acts as they are now. When Skip Bayless gets more play than Jerry Jones talking about the Cowboys mess, there's a big problem. So that's the NFL's ownership accountability... but what about this other sport?

The Premier League's managerial carousel spins at such a violent pace, that even people on the periphery start suffering from vertigo. In the last week, two managers have been sacked, and a 3rd is on the verge. Are these all "clubs in crisis"? Probably not. But ridiculously quick managerial turnover makes it seem as such, which is disturbing. In the Midlands, West Brom sacked Steve Clarke after a small losing streak, despite finishing 8th last season and winning at Old Trafford and nearly doing so at Stamford Bridge this season. Yes they are two points above the drop zone at present, but Clarke had done a fantastic job with what he'd been given based on limited transfer spending. And we've heard nothing from the club chairman on why this course of action had been taken, especially considering he'd been given gardening leave (meaning he can't interview for any other job). In North London, Spurs are under pressure based on their transfer spending (even though their net spend is zero), and after 3 humiliating losses the board and chairman Daniel Levy couldn't take any more. You could go through all the records that Andre Villas-Boas had broken for the club, but that wasn't enough to keep him at the club. Was it that he lost the dressing room? Was it his relationship with the chairmen had gone to hell? Who knows, but pieces written in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph will probably not shed any light on the situation. The only way we'll find out what really went on is if Daniel Levy speaks about what he did, and there's no indication that he will. And recently stories have come out about Cardiff manager Malky Mackay being forced to resign or be sacked by owner Vincent Tan for... no adequately explained reason. So what's the point of tying all of these disparate examples together?

Money certainly plays a role in all of these messes, especially in the soccer examples, but ownership failing to take accountability for their actions in the function of their clubs is part of a disturbing trend. Distant ownership is not always a bad thing, see the example of Jerry Reinsdorf and the dynasty Chicago Bulls of the 1990's for proof positive of that. But when that team broke up, Reinsdorf didn't stand up to the media for why he didn't do something to keep them together, since it seemed that the break up happened too easily and too quickly. These five examples of owners gone AWOL from facing the music should raise alarms as to why this is continuing to happen, especially in soccer. These chairmen never have to respond to the criticism they get from all sides for lack of transfer spending to sacking managers for almost no adequately explained reason, and Jones and Snyder don't ever face the media to explain why their teams are sideshows. The best owners and chairmen in sports are ones that are not visible and don't make themselves bigger than the team, and here the men at the top have done just the opposite.

The call from this keyboard is to simply answer to why the actions that were taken were taken, and not just to stand silent and let the bus roll over everyone else. Fans continue to get frustrated with the way their loyalty and cash have been taken advantage of by ownership that don't treat their teams with respect, instead treating them like play toys. Taking a step in answering the call early and explaining their actions is a good first step in reversing the tide of negative press they all get. 

Fans deserve better than what they get most of the time. Because the money that these owners need to continue to run their teams will soon dry up without the support from the people who shouldn't have stick through their clubs being circus acts.

When owners don't own up, fans are left to wonder why. And type out columns like this to explain why. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

2013 Week 16 Fantasy Advice

Hard to believe we're already here, but fantasy championships are upon us. It's now or never, make or break, and every other possible cliche in the book to describe championships. Money and pride are on the line for many, so these picks are the most important of all.

Who to Start:

QB Philip Rivers (SD) vs. OAK: The Raiders defense has been downright abysmal recently, and Philip Rivers should have no trouble picking apart this ghastly secondary time and time again in a very important game for the Chargers.

RB DeMarco Murray (DAL) vs. WSH: Even with the "he might not get carries when the Cowboys are up 26" proviso, he is going against the Redskins on Sunday, and Bill Callahan's play-calling has to change after that debacle on Sunday, right?

WR Antonio Brown (PIT) vs. GB: The Packers defense has been pretty bad for most of the season, and Antonio Brown has been a consistently large fantasy player for many weeks now. Don't deviate from that strategy if you have him.

WR Pierre Garcon (WSH) vs. DAL: Speaking of another terrible secondary (seemingly a theme right now), the Cowboys secondary has been unbelievably bad, as has the rest of the Cowboys defense. Garcon saw a good helping of targets in Atlanta, so he should see another good game for Washington.

TE Dennis Pitta (BAL) vs. NE: The Patriots have had some trouble defending Tight Ends recently, so Pitta could be a major target for Joe Flacco on Sunday in another massive game for the Ravens.

DEF Denver vs. Houston: Even though this unit isn't very amazing on paper or on form, the Texans are starting Matt Schaub, which must mean that a pick-6 can't be too far off. And Ben Tate was just put on IR, so that will help.

Who to Sit:

QB Carson Palmer (ARZ) vs. SEA: His numbers have been taking a hit each of the last few weeks, and they'll probably take another hit once the Cardinals take the field in the snake pit that is CenturyLink Field.

RB Andre Brown (NYG) vs. DET: He might be hard to bench at this point, but consider this: Despite the negative narratives surrounding the Lions defense, they have defended the run well at home of late.

WR Roddy White (ATL) vs. SF MON: As the house is brought down on Candlestick Park, the 49ers will obviously be energized to have a big performance. Their pass defense at home is almost suffocating, so Roddy White will likely struggle, even though he's getting healthy.

WR Greg Jennings (MIN) vs. CIN: Even though he had a huge game last Sunday against the Eagles, that was against the Eagles at home. Against the Bengals on the road, he doesn't project to fare nearly as well, since the Bengals might be the best home team in the AFC on both sides of the ball.

TE Coby Fleener (IND) vs. KC: The Chiefs are usually a reliable team when it comes to defending Tight Ends, and they usually are even better at it at home. Fleener's production has seen a steady decline, so it might be wise to bench him on Sunday.

DEF New Orleans vs. CAR: Get the SNF performance by the Saints defense out of your head and think about this: The Saints are a pretty dreadful road team, and the Panthers offense is capable of breaking out in Charlotte. The Saints defense is a risky play.

3 Super Sleepers:

QB Kirk Cousins (WSH) vs. DAL: With a historically bad Cowboys secondary as his opposite number, Cousins could have another huge game, especially if he is able to cut down on the turnovers like the rest of the team.

WR Kendall Wright (TEN) vs. JAX: The Jaguars secondary had been playing better of late, but the defense as a whole is banged up right now, so Wright could be a very decent 3rd option in regular leagues, and probably even better in PPR ones.

TE Zach Miller (SEA) vs. ARZ: The Cardinals statistically are the worst team at defending the TE in the NFL, and Miller already had one big game against them in Week 7. He could be in for another big game on Sunday.

Buyer Beware:

QB Tom Brady (NE) vs. BAL: Obviously hard to bench, but keep in mind he has not played well in his career against the Ravens and looked pretty mortal again last Sunday in Miami without a lot of his important weapons. Bench him only if you have a superior option available.

Good Luck in Week 16 and have a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

2013 Week 15 Fantasy Advice

If you're still alive in your fantasy playoffs (I'm not), congrats on surviving one more week. If your league is weird and starts playoffs this week, good luck. The matchups on paper aren't on quite the same plane as last week, and probably won't live up to the craziness, but the fantasy implications are important for everyone, so check below to see what you can do to help yourself win and survive.

Who to Start:

QB Nick Foles (PHI) vs. MIN: It's pretty obvious by this point, isn't it? He's one of the league's hottest QB's, playing against one of the league's most banged up and bad pass defenses. He could have another monster game on Sunday.

RB DeMarco Murray (DAL) vs. GB: It's certainly not his fault that the Cowboys are losing games again in December; he's been doing his part. The Packers rush defense has been downright abysmal recently, so Murray could have another massive day.

WR Torrey Smith (BAL) vs. DET MON: Even though his QB has struggled mightily on the road this season, it's kind of hard to avoid this matchup for Smith, who is going up against the Swiss cheese secondary that is the Lions secondary.

WR Alshon Jeffrey (CHI) vs. CLE: A man on a mission, Jeffrey has been one of the breakout stars of the season. Even going up against Joe Haden, one of the best cover corners in football, it will be hard to bench Jeffrey in what will be an amazing individual matchup.

TE Tony Gonzalez (ATL) vs. WSH: I hope he comes back for one more season after this one, because he shouldn't go out on a team that will win at most 4 games. His fantasy matchup against the flaming dumpster fire that is the Washington Redskins is awesome, so he's a must-start.

DEF Carolina vs. NYJ: Ignore what you saw last week, the real Panthers defense will show up on Sunday against the Jets, who have won only once away from home and Geno Smith has been incredibly bad away from the Meadowlands as well.

Who to Sit:

QB Eli Manning (NYG) vs. SEA: Not only do the interceptions scare me in this very important matchup, but the Seahawks usually perform well off a loss, and they are probably going to take out their frustrations on the Giants and Eli on Sunday.

RB Bobby Rainey (TB) vs. SF: He's had 2 good home fantasy performances in a row, but those have been against the Falcons and Bills. His game against the 49ers is likely a lot less favorable, and in fantasy crunch-time, it's not a risk worth taking.

WR Mike Wallace (MIA) vs. NE: It's not that this matchup is particularly bad, it's really just the inconsistency Wallace has displayed. He was great for 2 weeks before laying another egg against Pittsburgh. In the fantasy playoffs, consistency is your number one friend, and Wallace has not been that all season.

WR Michael Floyd (ARZ) vs. TEN: He was pretty good for a stretch, but an ankle injury seems to have slowed him up some of late. The Titans matchup isn't as bad as it might look on paper, but injury risks aren't ones worth taking at this point in the season.

TE Heath Miller (PIT) vs. CIN: The consistency aspect once again plays huge here. Miller hasn't been consistent this season, and he's not usually played well against the Bengals in his career, including the first meeting back in September.

DEF St. Louis vs. NO: The fact that they've been a Top 10 fantasy defense all season shows you how bad defenses are now in the NFL. The Saints matchup is, as you would expect, putrid, so starting this unit is not a good idea.

3 Super Sleepers:

QB Ryan Tannehill (MIA) vs. NE: He's been decent fantasy-wise the last month, and against decent defenses too. The Patriots matchup is more favorable than any of his others since Week 9, so he could be a decent option if you need one.

RB Andre Ellington (ARZ) vs. TEN: He was running very well before injuries derailed him somewhat. The Titans are not the best team in the NFL when it comes to stopping the run, so Ellington could have a good day on the ground in Nashville.

TE Cordarrelle Patterson (MIN) vs. PHI: The Eagles defense is particularly bad despite how they've played of late, and Patterson has been used in unique ways by the Vikings offense too. He could have another breakout game Sunday.

Buyer Beware:

QB Carson Palmer (ARZ) vs. TEN: I was saying above that his matchup against the Titans doesn't look as bad on paper as you might think; namely I don't think the Titans secondary is that impressive unless their pass rush connects as it did against the Colts 2 weeks ago. Still, Palmer hasn't been nearly as good away from home as he has in Glendale, so this matchup is tricky.

Good Luck in Week 15!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Thoughts on the 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw

Finally the long qualification process has ended, and the 7+ month speculation period begins. The teams all now know where they are going and who they are playing, and it has provided us with some tasty matchups, and some ones that are going to be fascinating in equal measure. For those in the know about world soccer, and those who don't know Bosnia from Greece, this is a group preview.

Group A: Brazil, Croatia, Mexico, Cameroon

The hosts obviously have a ton of pressure on them to not only win but win convincingly for a nation that expects so much from its team. They might not be the most talented team in this tournament, but with the backing of the home fans, it clearly spurred them on in the Confederations Cup. When they get out (it's a formality with most host nations), a game against the runner up of Group B awaits, and that's no cakewalk. But they might be the favorite, and deservedly so. Mexico after a horrendous qualifying campaign were handed a favorable group with a Croatia team in turmoil after qualifying issues themselves, and a Cameroon team who haven't been the best of late. Mexico will have trouble if they get out, but the group draw is about as good as they could have hoped for.

Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia

One of the 3 groups of death, soccer fans are served up a treat by watching a rematch of the last World Cup Final in the first game of the group between Spain and Holland. I pray that it's a better game than that final (it won't take much). Holland cruised through qualifying, but I do wonder if they are quite as good as they were in 2010, especially that backline which has some question marks. Chile are a very good side with players like Alexis Sanchez who has come good at Barcelona, and Arturo Vidal who has been amazing this year for Juventus. It's not a formality that both of the European sides advance. Australia are in turmoil, and have been handed a nearly impossible draw to get out of.

Group C: Colombia, Greece, Ivory Coast, Japan

Colombia are making their first World Cup appearance since 1998, and they have a bevy of talented players like Falcao, Rodriguez and others that will make noise. Greece are a stout defensive team that had some issues through qualifying, but are a quality side that will surprise some people. Japan are Asia's best team, but did not put their best foot forward during the Confederations Cup and have issues at keeper that may well keep them out of the knockout stages. Ivory Coast have long been reckoned as one of Africa's best teams, but they've never made it out of the group stages. This is their best chance to do so, and as I type this, I would pick them to get out.

Group D: Uruguay, Costa Rica, England, Italy

This for me is the true Group of Death. Uruguay on South American soil are nothing to sneeze at, and despite their qualifying issues they have such a potent strike-force that it probably won't matter. Their back 4 and goalkeeper are problem areas that good teams may be able to exploit, but Suarez, Cavani and Forlan should be able to overcome that. England did not get done any favors here, but they may like their chances against a known quantity in Italy, and a Costa Rica side which will be underrated by everyone. It also makes this group that much more interesting that Uruguay and Italy played to a stand-still last year in the Confederations Cup, and Costa Rica have some quality that will surprise people.

Group E: Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras

No one understood why Switzerland were seeded ahead of Holland and Italy for this tournament, and there is a good chance afterwords that those questions will only be spoken louder. France are the class of the group, and if they can get their act together, a deep run in the tournament is not out of the realm of possibility. Ecuador are an interesting side, but probably the weakest of the South American sides, and Honduras could easily be overmatched on this stage as they were in 2010, although they are familiar with Switzerland already.

Group F: Argentina, Bosnia, Iran, Nigeria

Argentina were handed a nice and favorable draw not only in their group, but to get to the quarters as well. They don't have to trouble, and will play 3 teams that are going to be overmatched against them. The true question is who will finish second. Bosnia have some talented players like Ibisevic and Dzeko, but do they have the depth to compete in this type of tournament? Iran are a bit of an unknown quantity, so it is hard to judge them on their possible matchups, but if past World Cups are any indicator, then they will be in trouble. The Super Eagles won the African Cup of Nations and have shown decently against bigger sides, but will they slip again with a golden opportunity to get out of the group?

Group G: Germany, Ghana, Portugal, United States

Yeah... it's pretty bad for the Yanks. Not only do they have perennial boogeyman Ghana in the opening game, they get to play both Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany, and have the worst travel schedule of any team in the tournament. BUT... This draw doesn't favor as bad as one might think if they listen to narrative. Ghana are a very good side, the best African team by a fair margin, but if the US can get something out of that one, the game against Portugal is going to be the decider for the United States. I don't personally think Portugal are that amazing behind Ronaldo, and the US might be able to exploit Portuguese weaknesses like both Northern Ireland and Israel did in qualifying. Germany will likely not have that many problems getting out of the group, but do they have the leader to get them forward in the tougher games later?

Group H: Belgium, Algeria, Russia, South Korea

Belgium, as everyone's new darling and holder of the Golden Generation mantra, get a nice and favorable draw against a middling team from both Africa and Asia, and a European team that aren't the toughest to break down in the world. They'll be tested as soon as they exit the group stage, but for the meantime they will probably not have any issues getting out. Russia are a decent side, but they don't inspire a ton of confidence, and neither do Algeria and South Korea. Figure both European sides will advance.

Early Group Stage Predictions (In order):

Group A: Brazil, Mexico, Cameroon, Croatia
Group B: Spain, Holland, Chile, Australia
Group C: Colombia, Ivory Coast, Greece, Japan
Group D: Uruguay, Italy, England, Costa Rica
Group E: France, Ecuador, Switzerland, Honduras
Group F: Argentina, Nigeria, Bosnia, Iran
Group G: Germany, Ghana, USA, Portugal
Group H: Belgium, Russia, South Korea, Algeria

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

2013 Week 14 Fantasy Advice

Fantasy playoffs are either beginning now or starting next week. So it's crunch time in fantasy land, which means you need solid picks everywhere. So, more then ever, this column is, as all the others are, gospel.

Who to Start:

QB Nick Foles (PHI) vs. DET: He's been incredibly impressive all season, even if you throw away the no interceptions stat. That streak will end at some point, but Foles' overall streak of great games probably won't against the usually porous Lions defense. This game has the makings of a shootout, and Foles stands to benefit.

RB DeMarco Murray (DAL) vs. CHI MON: Things are really starting to break his way, as evidenced by his romp on Thanksgiving. The Bears defense is really struggling right now, especially against the run, so Murray could have another monster outing.

WR Vincent Jackson (TB) vs. BUF: Despite being a disappointment in most respects recently, how could you bench him against Buffalo, who have been awful defending the pass all season?

WR Torrey Smith (BAL) vs. MIN: Inconsistent but effective is the phrase I'd used to describe Smith's recent performances. The Vikings are pretty banged up on the back end, while also being naturally bad at defending the pass, so Smith could have a big game.

TE Jared Cook (STL) vs. ARZ: He's been such a frustrating fantasy player this season with both amazing highs and crushing lows. He'll probably get closer to the highs this week, on the back of his Week 1 performance against Arizona and the Cardinals general problem in defending TE's.

DEF New England vs. CLE: I have absolutely no idea who will be starting for Cleveland at QB, which is an instant must-start for any fantasy owner of the Pats D.

Who to Sit:

QB Andrew Luck (IND) vs. CIN: Since the bye week, he's been generally pretty bad in terms of stats. Two things are working against him on Sunday: One is that the Bengals defense is almost unbeatable at home, especially against the pass, and the weather forecast doesn't bode well for anyone trying to throw the ball.

RB Ryan Mathews (SD) vs. NYG: His fantasy points have been dropping of late, and it doesn't help that he's going up against a Giants rush defense that has been much better against the run than you might expect.

WR Marques Colston (NO) vs. CAR: His season long slump has meant that he's been one of the biggest fantasy disappointments all season. Now, he gets to go up against the #1 defense in football. Not a great recipe for success.

WR Michael Crabtree (SF) vs. SEA: He looked good last week for someone coming off a devastating injury as he did, but he's still a risky start against a Seattle defense that has been nearly unstoppable all season, especially last week against the potent Saints.

TE Charles Clay (MIA) vs. PIT: He's not been all that bad recently, but he hasn't been good enough to really warrant starting during the fantasy playoffs, especially against the Steelers who are very good at defending the Tight End.

DEF Detroit vs. PHI: That Turkey day game was a misnomer, and everyone knows it.

3 Super Sleepers:

QB Whoever starts for Chicago vs. DAL MON: The Cowboys secondary has been easily beaten most of the season, which bodes well for whoever is starting under center on Monday night for the Bears.

RB Bobby Rainey (TB) vs. BUF: He's been quiet since his breakout game against Atlanta, but he's a decent flex option if needed, since Buffalo's defense has been pretty terrible in every facet recently.

WR Harry Douglas (ATL) vs. GB: A PPR standout of late, he might be good in standard leagues this week because of the matchup against Green Bay. The Packers D is a shambles at this stage, and Matt Ryan and Douglas could stand to benefit.

Buyer Beware:

QB's Cam Newton and Drew Brees against each other: They're both having great years, and are both coming off less-than-stellar games last week. Even though the Saints offense is almost unstoppable in the Dome, the Panthers D is very good and has made the 49ers and Patriots look bad this season. Cam Newton is going to be under a different kind of pressure on Sunday Night, so he could also struggle some.

Good Luck in Week 14 and in your fantasy playoffs!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hockey Fan Cannibalism

I support hockey everywhere. I love the sport too much to criticize people for not wanting to see it in some places. Yes, that means I wanted it to work in Atlanta when they were on death's door. I don't seem to understand why there is a sense among a select group, unfortunately mainly Canadian, that always feels the need to laugh and point out when sunbelt teams have bad attendance. Usually it doesn't bother me, since as a Panthers fan I should be well numb to it by now. But tonight, as the Cats played another listless game and some Canadian fans began the now traditional circle up on the carcass of empty seats, I just began to wonder why. Shouldn't we all want hockey to succeed everywhere?

It will inevitably come up in discussion that the NHL shouldn't be in places where the barn is barely half-full like has happened in Phoenix, Florida and Dallas this season when cities like Quebec City have been waiting their turn for nearly 20 years now. And I agree... at least on the latter half of that sentence. Quebec City will soon have another team, and the league will be better (and richer) because of it. Markham may have one too. But it will always be in the best interest for the NHL for markets like Phoenix and Florida to succeed, since at some point you can't expand in Canada any further. The US is still vastly untapped in terms of hockey, and those sunbelt markets still standing are the places where the NHL is probably the most keen to see success.

But, as I am now inevitably reading, these teams are losing money hand-over-fist and are floor teams dragging the league's bottom line down. Yes, the Panthers are a budget team, and have been for quite some time. They are because they've not only had cheap ownership, but horrible teams and therefore no reason to spend above their means to maintain that. And despite everything one may read, SSE, the Panthers parent company, still makes money every year, and without them they certainly wouldn't. Vinnie Viola has said he is willing to spend to make the Panthers a winner, and unfortunately for Cats fans he came in too late this season for that vision to be implemented. The fact that he was willing to eat half of Kris Versteeg's salary in trading him to Chicago is hopefully a sign of things to come.  But defending the Panthers futility does me nothing except quell my own anger.

I've read about the oft publicized attendance concerns in Ottawa this season, and numerous pieces about ownership's lack of cash. What I've read is concerns about few marquee opponents visiting Kanata such as Montreal and Toronto, and fewer ticket handouts than in past seasons like two-for-one deals. It does hit home since the Panthers (and presumably the Coyotes, Islanders, Stars and Jackets) are all in similar boats. However, I don't see fans of those teams criticizing the empty seats in Canadian Tire Centre like some Sens fans might do in reverse. And there have been empty seats in Calgary and Edmonton at points this year too. Why? These teams (sans the Stars and Coyotes) are all poor. And no matter the market, no one wants to consistently sit and watch a loser. But this is not a condemnation of those markets.

Combine that with the inevitable stories appearing on some hockey blogs about this, and you get a perfect storm of frustration for people like me, a fan of one of these teams. I don't think it does any hockey fan any good to criticize attendance in any city because hockey fans have to stick together on this subject. Maybe it's the Canadian sense of entitlement when it comes to hockey that rubs me the wrong way, or the lack of mentioning the garbage attendance in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Boston before their recent renaissances, but hockey as a whole is 4th on the continent of North America when it comes to sports. All hockey fans have a duty to build it together, and tearing down cities struggling in the sunbelt does no one any favors despite the glittering allure of Quebec City or Markham.

Canada will always love hockey over everything else, but at some point the game can't grow in Canada anymore. It is those oft laughed at markets in the United States that hold the key to hockey's future, and mocking their current struggles alienates those fans who are doing their best to promote the game where it's not ingrained in the local fabric. There are dedicated groups of fans in Phoenix, Florida and any market of that ilk right now that are fuming at their teams failures, just like in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Why can't we support and prop up their voices, instead of the ones who are going to be heard regardless?

I don't really want to ever have to write about this subject ever again, because it really does make me sad as a hockey fan over everything else that other hockey fans are cannibalizing each other over silly things like attendance. We're all trying to grow this game everywhere and keep it growing, and that means that us as a collective need to not only sympathize but help out those fans whose voices are often garbled.

We're all in this together, and that means you in Canada too. Growing the game doesn't mean killing the places where hockey has all the room in the world to grow, but hasn't ever been given the proper chance and vision.

So the next time you see an empty bowl in Phoenix or Florida: Stop and think. Then ask why before trolling for hits.