Monday, October 31, 2011

Rutgers 2011-12 Preview

Alright, so I know most of you are Villanova alums, students, or fans, but I am a proud Rutgers student and so thankful for the collective effort of our guys never giving up and Villanova's miscues that resulted in Rutgers Men's Basketball Head Coach Mike Rice's first signature win On The Banks.

The hero from that game, Jonathan Mitchell, has since graduated and is now playing overseas in Spain. Along with JMitch, Rutgers lost both players from its starting backcourt in James Beatty and Mike Coburn. Also gone is guard/forward Robert Lumpkins, who played a fifth year as a graduate student at Rutgers after coming over from New Mexico State, where he played three years. He began his collegiate career at a Texas junior college.

As for the returning players and newcomers, each was instructed to find a summer league in order to prepare for the season. Six of the seven freshmen played together with returning players junior forward Austin Johnson and sophomore guard Austin Carroll for Ned Stevens Gutter Cleaning in the Jersey Shore Basketball League. Joining them was former McDonald's All-American forward Wally Judge, who is sitting out this year after transferring from Kansas State to Rutgers. As per NCAA rules, no more than two returning players are allowed to play on the same summer league team. This resulted in junior forward Dane Miller suiting up for Investor Savings Bank, the JSBL champion. Carroll's classmate, sophomore forward Gilvydas Biruta opted not to take summer classes at Rutgers, instead returning home to represent his native Lithuania in the U20 European Championships. Lastly, sophomore Mike Poole and second semester freshman Kadeem Jack took their talents to New York City, where Poole showcased his talents at Nike Pro City at Baruch College and Jack played in the Dyckman outdoor summer league.

As for the newcomers, they got the opportunity to play with each other as well as Johnson and Carroll at the JSBL. While it was evident that the first years had not played with each other, it was also very clear that they could ball. The athleticism the freshman guard trio of Myles Mack, Jerome Seagears, and Eli Carter showed had Rutgers fans in awe, something the Scarlet Knights have not had in a long time. In addition, forwards Greg Lewis and Derrick Randall proved to be legitimate Big East bodies down low, and will provide instant front court depth, something that will be necessary with the recent injury to Kadeem Jack. Malick Kone figures to be in the mix as he brings a very well-rounded game to Rutgers.

A lot of questions have come up about the leadership. With no scholarship seniors, who will be the leaders of the ballclub? Well, the team does in fact have two seniors in redshirt senior Charlie Rigoglioso and senior Mike Kuhn. Both walk-ons have played basketball their entire time at Rutgers, with Rigoglioso having a brief stint at Moravian. The two figure to show the freshmen the ropes and lead the "Bomb Squad" while sporting new numbers this year. Rigoglioso has given up #15 to Derrick Randall, while Mike Kuhn has traded his #22 to Kadeem Jack and will now wear #44.

While there are a lot of new faces, it appears that Coach Rice has the personnel that he needs to run his system. The system that led to three consecutive NEC championships, including two NCAA tournament appearances, while at the helm of Robert Morris. The Scarlet Knights will run the floor in an uptempo offense and look to pressure the ball a lot on defense. Look for the same switching in positions 1-4 that was seen last year as well, which should create a lot of mismatches and favorable opportunities for Rutgers. This will in turn lead to everyone getting a good amount of playing time, however, as is usually the case some will play more than others.

This year figures to be an exciting one On The Banks, but the team's success will hinge on the freshmen's ability to buy-in to Coach Rice's intensity, attention to detail, and being locked in at all times. It will ultimately be upto the returning players to lead by example and hope that their work ethic rubs off on the younger guys. Climbing the ladder in the Big East is a daunting, yet not impossible task.

Overall outside the top 6 teams, the Big East is expected to be wide open. Rutgers was picked 11th by the coaches at Big East Men's Basketball Media Day, the highest they have been picked since the league expanded to 16 teams prior to the 2005-06 campaign. Like I said above, the team will only go as far as the players are willing to take it. The returning players know what is expected of them. The returning players worked very hard this summer, trying to take their games to the next level in an effort to help Rutgers return to the Big Dance, something that hasn't happened since a March 1991 loss to Arizona State in Atlanta.

The Scarlet Knights are back in action on Sunday, November 6 in their exhibition against Rutgers-Newark. Their first regular season game is Friday, November 11 at the RAC, when they take on the Dartmouth Big Green.

While the starting lineup is anyone's guess at this point with so many new faces, I'll take a crack at it myself...

G Myles Mack
G Mike Poole
F Dane Miller
F Gilvydas Biruta
F Austin Johnson

There you have it.. your 2011-12 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Men's Basketball team.

Superbowl Teams Back on Top

Last year, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers won the Superbowl after needing to win their Week 17 bout vs. the Bears just to get into the playoffs. The Pack have quickly become the league's most complete team, combining a star-studded group with great depth all over the field. At 7-0, the Packers won't have any trouble getting into the playoffs this season. They are still the favorites to win it all, but there's one team creeping back into relevance.

No, it is not the Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off of a romp over the inconsistent Dallas Cowboys.

No, it is not the New Orleans Saints, who proved they are still vulnerable after losing to the winless Rams.

No, it is not the Jets, who have been mediocre in the young season.

And no, it is not the New England Patriots, who have now conceded the top spot in the AFC.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are back and stronger than ever. Yes they are much older and definitely not as skilled as they were in the past few years, but no team is more fundamentally sound in football. The defense is back to its overpowering ways and with the emergence of Mike Wallace as the best deep threat in football, this team is for real.

The Steelers seem to always find a way to be in playoff contention year after year, but the amazing part is that they've done so with a very similar core. Roethlisberger continues to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the game, while Hines Ward and Heath Miller provide consistent production as secondary and tertiary options. On defense, we've heard names like Farrior, Woodley, Harrison, Polamalu, Keisel, Taylor, Gay, Foote, Timmons, Clark, and Hampton for years. I know the Ravens have boasted one of the best defenses in the game for the past ten years, but the Steelers, in my opinion, have the best defense in the NFL of the past decade.

Despite getting embarassed by the Ravens 35-7 in Week 1, the Steelers have bounced back and are playing great football now. They face a huge rematch next week against Baltimore, but I guarantee this game will be a lot closer. This game will be played at Heinz Field and I expect the Steelers to take care of business against their biggest rivals.

As of right now, we are right where we left off at the end of last season. The top two teams in the league are the Pack and the Steelers. Of course once the playoffs start anything can happen (Seahawks defeating the Saints), but don't be surprised if you see a rematch of Superbowl XLV in a few months.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cardinals Freese Rangers

Their star player missed 4-6 weeks with a fractured wrist. They entered the month of September with a 72-64 record. In fact, on September 1, 2011, they were 9.5 games behind the NL Wild Card leading Atlanta Braves, who were 80-55 at the time.They closed the regular season out by winning 7 of their last 10. They pulled off the win against the once-thought-to-be-unbeatable Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS after starting the series down 1 game to 2 games. Then, they knocked out the powerful Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS. And finally, they came back in game 6 of the World Series to take it to a 7th game, and go on to win that one. They took home the Commissioner's Trophy. They were the underdogs. They were the St. Louis Cardinals.

But who could have ever counted the Cardinals out of these playoffs? If there was one team to be afraid of throughout the playoffs this year, it was the men in red (and no, not the Philadelphia Phillies). The St. Louis Cardinals were driven. They had nothing to lose. Not Fear, or anxiety, or over-confidence crossed their minds. After game 3 of the NLDS, Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols told the media, "Listen, we flip the page and come back ready to play with the same energy we've been having the last six weeks. We've been in this situation before." And, boy, were they in that situation plenty of times after.

The defining moments of the Cardinals playoff run were the Game 6 heroics by hometown kid, David Freese; it wasn't just the one homerun that made his impact so significant, it was the lead up to the at-bat. Up by 3 runs in the 7th, the Texas Rangers were in full control of the game. Even ESPN's NFL Expert Analyst @AdamSchefter tweeted the morning after, "So when I turned off the World Series in the 7th inning, with the Rangers holding a commanding three-run lead, what'd I miss?" Here's where I think the New York Times says it best:

A few batters later, Freese went on to tie up the game by driving in 2 runs on an outfield knock. The Rangers were 1 strike away from being crowned champions, but only ended up winner of the AL. The last time a team was one strike away from the championship and blew the lead: 1992. According to Kyle Kepner, the Blue Jays later went on to win the series shortly afterwards (2-innings to be exact). So, how does this add to Freese's drama? Not only was he the first batter in almost 20 years to take the lead on what could have been the final strike of the Series, but he was the first batter EVER to win the game for the team that was down to its last strike. Talk about "Being Clutch".

To top it all off, the Cards weren't down to their last strike once, but twice. Berkman tied it up in the 10th with a blooper to center. One inning later, with the score still tied, Freese takes the plate with the count full, and we all know what happens from there...

The Rangers were stunned, frozen. While the Cardinals were hot the whole ride through, the rangers kept losing heat and momentum. Less than 24 hours later, the Commissioner's Trophy was awarded to the birds. After the big Game 7 victory, Freese was easily named the World Series MVP. If there was any team that deserved this ring, it was the St. Louis Cardinals, and if there was any player who deserved the MVP award, it was the new Mr. October. Nobody could freeze Texas like David Freese.

EDIT: Interesting statistic... The Rangers gave up the lead 5 times to the Cardinals throughout the course of Game 6 of the World Series

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Villanova 2011-2012 Preview

Amidst the chaos of the conference frenzy, one thing has been made clear for Villanova basketball fans: we must now relish the next two seasons. Fortunately, due to Big East restrictions, Syracuse and Pittsburgh won’t be shifting to the ACC for another couple of seasons. Additionally, with news out that West Virginia has been accepted into the Big 12, the Big East Conference, which sent 11 teams to the NCAA Tournament last season, is in shambles.

So for now, let’s forget about this whole conference mess and focus on the upcoming Big East season. The conference has a whole different look as many programs graduated big-time players, headed by Connecticut’s loss of Kemba Walker. Georgetown loses Austin Freeman and Chris Wright as well. Each team had its losses, but as usual, each team had a solid recruiting class. Connecticut brings in a stud in Andre Drummond, who many believe could be the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, if there is a season that is.

Let’s shift our spotlight towards the Villanova Wildcats. Many of our readers are students or alumni of Villanova and are wondering what to expect after a quiet recruiting class. Let me just say this to start, I believe that the Wildcats will be a more fundamentally sound basketball team, led by its defense. I understand that the Corey brothers (Fisher and Stokes) are gone, as well as Antonio Pena, but the inconsistencies of those players hurt the team. There is no doubt that their contributions will be missed, as 3/5 of the starting lineup is gone; however, there is optimism.

I would argue that, last year, Maalik Wayns was the best player wearing Villanova across his chest, closely followed by Mouphtaou Yarou. In basketball, numbers lie more than ever, and with Fisher and Stokes taking most of the shots. Fisher and Stokes led the team in scoring, both averaging around the 15 mark. Wayns scored 13.8 per game last year, but the stat that I believe is misleading is the 39.9% field goal percentage. After his freshman season, in which Maalik looked out of control and flustered at many times, Wayns really took a stride forward. He took right under 11 shots a game, which I believe will increase to around 16 this season. Maalik has to focus on getting to the hole instead of settling for a jump shot. Wayns had a noticeable improvement from freshman year to sophomore year in terms of his jumper, but he is most effective going to the hoop, shown by his increased production and 5 free throws attempted per game.

My favorite player on the team is Mouphtaou Yarou and he continues to impress me. Yarou is fairly new to basketball and boy will the Big East have problems with him this year. I expect big things from the big man, as he becomes the #2 option. I believe that he is capable of averaging a 12-10 every night, but he must improve his positioning on rebounding. There is no doubt in my mind he has worked hard this off-season, so there is a good chance you’ll be hearing “Wayns to Yarou!” a lot this year.

The 2011 recruiting class has no headline name or star player, but it is a solid group of freshman. We can add Jayvaughn Pinkston to the list as well, who will probably the biggest difference maker among the group. Pinkston was suspended last season, but reinstated by Jay Wright. Pinkston adds some size, along with a smooth shooting stroke. He’s got a big frame, but he’s quick enough to make plays both off the dribble and in the post.

Tyrone Johnson, who stands at 6’3, is a pretty big point guard. He’s got long arms and has the makings to be a good lead guard, due to his passing and dribbling skills. Achraf Yacoubou is a 6’3 shooting guard, who is a tough player. He is a valuable rebounder out of the 2 spot, as well as a good scorer. He will benefit most playing with a good point guard who can feed him the ball slashing to the hoop.

Markus Kennedy is a big dude, no other way to say it. He’s 6’9, 270 lbs. and provides some much needed size for Villanova. He is a good offensive player and is a solid post presence. His big problems have been with conditioning; however, a year with Jay Wright will benefit him tremendously. Last but not least, we have 6’5 Darrun Hilliard. Darrun, who plays the wing, is definitely a downgrade from the perimeter compared to Corey Stokes, but he finds ways to contribute to the team. He’s a hard worker and has a “high basketball I.Q.”

These five newcomers will probably all be in the rotation, but expect Kennedy, Pinkston, and Johnson to play big-time minutes. The biggest question marks on the team are Dominic Cheek and James Bell. Can these two contribute heavily? Only time will tell, but I’d like to see both players make improvements offensively. Cheek had a terrible sophomore season, but with his athletic ability, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be an above-average player. He needs to be more confident in his shot and start knocking them down. James Bell impressed me in his freshman year, but he still is a raw offensive player. He must hit those open jumpers in order to be effective. Both players are solid defensively, but they’ll need to make adjustments offensively in order to stay in the rotation.

I think Villanova is a top 40 team in the league right now, but has the potential to be better. They certainly won’t contend for a title this year, but they will challenge the elite of the Big East.

With all that being said, here is my projected starting lineup:

Maalik Wayns, G
James Bell, G
Dominic Cheek, G
Jayvaughn Pinkston, F
Mouphtaou Yarou, C

Here’s the rest of the team, in order of projected minutes:

Tyrone Johnson, G
Markus Kennedy, C
Achraf Yacoubou, G
Maurice Sutton, C
Darrun Hilliard, G
Dallas Ouano, G *
Nick McMahon, G

* - Denotes Senior

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Meaning of Milestones

This will be a different post then those of you are used to here at the point after. This one isn't about sports (at least not directly), and it's not an opinion piece either. It's more along the lines of a thank you letter. Ive been with The Point After for a little under a year now, and I've posted numerous articles about baseball, about football, about statistics and how to act as fan but more importantly as a human being during a heated rivalry.

From the time I started, there have been a couple of Milestones reached in all areas of sports and the world, some good, some bad. Eugenio Velez went an entire season without getting a hit. Good for him. Mariano Rivera reached 600 saves. An incredible feat to one of the games greatest relief pitchers. These are the achievements that history will remember and use to compare the game's best.

But why these numbers? Why is 500 home runs the dividing line between the game's best sluggers and merely a legitimate homerun threat? If a player has 499 homeruns, is he perceived differently then if he had hit just one more homerun over his career? Milestones, everybody. They are infinitely important and terribly inconsequential. They tend to legitimize one's efforts as something tangible, something real that one can hold out to the world and say "Look at me, I did this, and I got this far!"

Here at The Point After we are approaching 20,000 page views in our 1 year of existence. We are so close that I'm guessing we will go over it when you read this post. 20,000 page views in a year isn't much in terms of the internet, but it's nothing to sneeze at either. It's an arbitrary number no doubt. Why didn't we celebrate 19,000? Who knows. But this milestone of 20,000 page views not only shows us where we are headed, but where we have been.

It's been a fantastic journey so far, we're up to 15 writers in 15 different cities. I suppose the next big milestone is our own domain name. That's a big deal, and maybe we'll celebrate that one too.

Again, this is a thank you letter. Big thanks to Brendan and Sagar for creating the blog and allowing me to write for it. To the other writers who share their opinions and stories with all of us. But most importantly, to you the readers. We as writers love to know that people are reading our work. So when you read an article you like, or don't like, or makes you angry, or makes you fall asleep, let us know. That's what makes us better.

On to the next milestone, everyone.

Monday, October 17, 2011

World Series Preview: Rangers and Cards

The Fall Classic begins on Wednesday as the Texas Rangers travel to St. Louis to take on the hot Cardinals. The Cardinals shouldn't even be in the playoffs, but a meltdown by the Atlanta Braves in the final week of the season allowed St. Louis to sneak in on the final day of the season. Just five years ago, the Cardinals won the World Series vs. Detroit, after winning just 83 games in the regular season. The Cardinals are underdogs once again, but this time they hold home field advantage as well, due to the National League's victory in the All-Star game.

The Texas Rangers have the best offense in baseball. They can score at any time, as they combine power, speed, and timely hitting. Nelson Cruz is absolutely tearing up the ball, with 6 bombs and 13 RBI in the playoffs. The Rangers' pitching staff is holding its own, allowing the offense to take over ballgames. This lineup 1 through 9 is deadly, with each hitter a threat to hit one out of the park.

The Cardinals don't have a single aspect that defines the entire team, but they do have one thing the Rangers don't have: Albert Pujols. "The Machine" is the greatest player in the game and he hasn't disappointed in the playoffs. Pujols is hitting .419 with 10 RBI, with his teammate David Freese driving in 14 as well. This lineup is hitting the ball well, but their strength is pitching. Even without Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals rotation keeps the team in it. The bullpen is pitching well, as Jason Motte has 4 saves in the playoffs.

Despite both teams having played high scoring affairs in the past week, this series will come down to pitching. Can the Cardinals limit the Rangers offense? Can the Rangers pitching refrain from blowing up?

Prediction: The Cardinals are a complete baseball team, but the Rangers are just too good to lose this series. Their offense will overpower this series and I wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of blowouts.

Give me the Rangers in 5.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Baseball Post Inspired by Football

I love television. Perhaps most of you do too. When a good television show comes around, I'm hooked until either A)The show ends. Or B) The show runs out of ideas and the writers force the issue until it gets cancelled, or ends (I'm looking at you The Office). Being an aspiring writer, I usually have to flesh out my reasons for liking something other then the boring "I just do" or the ever maddening "I believe what I believe and you can't change my opinion". And so I thought to myself, why do I like TV?

And I realized it's because I like baseball*. Let me explain. If you've read any of my previous posts on this blog, you'll have noticed that baseball is a narrative. Well technically it's a game and writers and fans alike ascribe the narrative to what has happened on the field, but there is a story nonetheless. And throughout the grueling 162 game season, hero's, villains, and the like fade in and out of the picture. The longer the season goes on, the more apparent the story arc.

*And you thought this post wasn't going to be about sports.

The thing about baseball is that it's boring. Are you surprised to read that sentence? Don't be, as I'm sure all of you have watched a game half-heartedly while doing homework, reading a book, or cleaning a room. The pace is slow, and there is rarely any action. Hell, the games most heavily advertised, when the Red Sox and Yankees face off, routinely last over 4 hours for a 9 inning game. I don't blame anybody for making the claim that baseball is boring. So what keeps us coming back for more?

Television is almost exactly the same. Even the best of television series have their boring episodes. My favorite show right now, Breaking Bad, has been guilty a handful of times of making me wonder why I just spent 48 minutes watching that seemingly inconsequential episode. It happens. One episode in particular spent 48 minutes showing the main characters Walt and Jesse trying to kill a fly for literally the entire episode. So what keeps me coming back for more?

Television shows, like baseball, are greater as a whole then when scrutinized individually. A truly great season of television leaves me satisfied when I look back upon the narrative that I have just witnessed. Baseball is almost exactly the same. Throughout the summer, a 1-0 loss here, a 15-0 blowout win there, are inconsequential. It's when one looks back through the string of events that got us to where we are now that we really, truly, realize the fun we've had all season long.

And probably, most shocking of all, is that this post was inspired by the upcoming 49er's-Lions game in a few hours. I have an excitement about this game that I haven't had about a 49er's game in a long, long time. And yet, watching football is not the same as television. And it got me thinking. And I now realize that football is a lot like a movie. The narrative is not the same as a television show. Teams gameplan on a week by week basis. And the way fans treat football is incredibly different as well.

Football, like movies, are an event. There's a ritual involved with football that isn't found in baseball. Tailgating is a celebration before the event, and friends and strangers alike share beer, food, and games. Perhaps you have a lucky jersey, an unwashed shirt, or a tattered and worn cap or beanie that you always wear for the game. After the event, you wait for the next one a week later. If you don't believe that this is like a movie, consider what you do when you go to see the next blockbuster hit with your friends. You get to the theater, you try to sit in the same seats, if possible, and you get your jumbo soda and a box of popcorn or candy*.

*My favorite and arguably the best movie candy are none other then Junior Mints. Feel free to debate this in the comments section.

Many of you are probably wondering when I'm going to get to the point. The point, I suppose, is to debate which I, and you, the readers, like better, TV or Movies, Baseball or Football. If I were to throw my hat into the ring, so to speak, it would come as no surprise that I like Television and Baseball respectively. It's not that I dislike Football and Movies, because I actually like watching a little pigskin, but Baseball gives me a sustained enjoyment that I don't believe football can provide.

Long live the story. Narrative will always be king.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Harbaugh Has 49ers Looking to the Future

Transition is such a complex term. On the surface it seems easy enough, moving from one phase to another. But look deeper, transition can be perceived as negative or positive. In history, some of the roughest periods in civilization's existence occurred during a labeled "transition" phase. What's that line attributed to many but most recently used in The Dark Knight? "It's always darkest just before the dawn". Transitions can be difficult, troubling times.

But what about positive transition? Some of the best basketball teams in the history of the sport had a superb "transition offense", forcing the ball upcourt before the newly defensive team can even stop the ball. Or how about awkward transitions? Going from young boy/girl to man/woman is fraught with embarrassing peril. Going from one phase to another requires transition. Or does it?

Enter Jim Harbaugh, stage left. Coming into the season fresh off a fantastic season with the Stanford Cardinal and signing a major contract for 5 years with the 49ers, Harbaugh inherited a 49ers squad that had gone just 21-27 in the last 3 years under Mike Singletary. Their quarterback was a #1 overall draft pick bust, their running back, while talented, was oft-injured. Their only claim to fame was perhaps the hardest hitting linebacker in the league in Patrick Willis and one of the best tight ends in history in Vernon Davis. Thats it.

Ah, but then the lockout. The lockout that threatened the season. The possibility of no season. The season that never was. And then suddenly there it was. It had come back to life, like a phoenix from the flame to energize American's who had visions of no tailgating, no beer, and worst of all, no football. Teams who had established coaches, players, defensive schemes and offensive sets, ie. Patriots, Packers, N'Orleans, were predicted to go far. The 49ers were not.

The 49ers brought back Alex Smith for one more shot with QB Guru Jim Harbaugh. They were late (or slow, whichever story you believe) to sign Free Agents. They let the top Free Agent prize in Nnamdi Asomugha go to the Eagles. Harbaugh's playbook was said to be elaborate and enormous. Almost every coach was replaced. Many said the Niners would take this season as a learning curve, and be ready to compete and contend next season.

It's week 5 and the 49ers are 4-1. How did they get here? They beat an atrocious Seahawks team, barely, lost a lead to Dallas at home late and got buried by a field goal in OT. They played perhaps the most boring game of the year in Cincinatti, but came out victorious. They came back from 20 points down in the 2nd half against a "Dream Team" in Philly that has quickly become a nightmare. And perhaps most impressive feat of all, they drubbed a 3-1 Tampa Bay squad by 45 points. Wait, what?

Harbaugh has his team believing and working towards a common goal: To win. Even Alex Smith, booed often in his home stadium at Candlestick Park, walked off the field to the crowd chanting his name. He is having a Renaissance year, playing mistake free football, and unbelievably, according to the statistics as they stand right now and not looking at anything else, is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. That transition from #1 pick to effective quarterback only took 6 years and a lot of misery.

Jim and his 49ers seem to be transition free. Harbaugh has his team believing. The 49ers are pulling an Athena, emerging from the NFC West fully formed, ready to do battle, ready to go to the playoffs for the first time in 8 years, ready to win. Are they as good as their record indicates at the moment? Probably not. Losses are coming, perhaps 2 or 3 in a row. The game against the Lions in week 6 will be a measuring stick. It is probably the most compelling game in week 6. Win or lose, they have a bright future. The 49ers have lived in darkness for too long. Light looms on the horizon in San Francisco.

Prime Time Lions

The Detroit Lions are relevant. That alone is shock, let alone their success. After the 2008 win-less season some NFL fans wondered why the Lions were still an organization, and the situation seemed completely hopeless. However, in his third year as the Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz has put together a team that has a positive outlook. Schwartz had a dream to build a winner and in order to do so he put his team together from the inside out.

Starting with the defensive trenches, drafting Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly in consecutive years, the Lion have a legitimate defense along with an up and coming offense. Matthew Stafford, in this third season as well, and Calvin Johnson are a quarterback-receiver combination from hell for defenses. Johnson, known to some as Megatron, is a seemingly unstoppable force that secondaries around the NFL have no choice but to fear.

Because of all their recent success the 4-0 Lions find themselves at home on Monday Night Football for the first time in over ten years. Detroit hasn't started a season 5-0 since 1956, which was before the Super Bowl Era even began. Having not played with the spotlight or expectations to win in years it will be interesting to see how the Lions respond. Look for the biggest match up to be between the Lions' defensive line against a suspect Bears offensive line. Jay Cutler has been thrown around all season by defenses and if the Lions can do that, and contain running back Matt Forte, they may be well on route to that 5-0 start.

I Was Wrong About the AL and NL Central (At Least Temporarily)

Back at the beginning of August, the AL and NL Central Divisions were the picture of mediocrity. In the AL, the Tigers and White Sox seemed to want no part of first place, while in the NL the Pirates were tied with St. Louis for the pole position. Both division leaders sat only a few games above 500. In an article, I illustrated how this season seemed to be part a downward trend for the baseball teams of America's heartland. Instead of crumbling down the stretch, Central teams really came to life, and now make up 3/4 of the final MLB field. What a difference two months can make!

On the AL side, the Tigers rolled through the last two months of the season. After struggling to put it together most of the summer, Detroit rode the pitching of Justin Verlander (24 wins!) and Jose Valverde and used clutch hitting to achieve 95 wins. The AL Central champs showed their resolve in a 5 game series win over the New York Yankees. The Tigers are now in a tough ALCS with a solid Rangers team. It is a classic matchup of good pitching versus good hitting. I am confident Detroit and their solid pitching will come out on top.

It is hard to fathom that there are two NL Central teams in the NLCS, much less the playoffs! Two months ago, the Cardinals were going nowhere and the Brewers just seemed like another mediocre team trying to make a playoff run. Over the past eight or so weeks, the Brewers have been the best team in baseball, and cruised to an NL Central title behind their immense talent, both in pitching and hitting. The Brew crew had a tough first round fight against a pesky Diamondbacks team, but persevered on the way to winning the series in 5 games. While Milwaukee locked up the division with ease, the Cardinals had to pull off a near miracle to get in as a Wild Card. The Braves seemed to have a postseason spot locked up with only a short time to go, but a several game lead disappeared over the season's final month as Cardinals won the right to the postseason in the 162nd game. St. Louis carried this momentum into the Divisional Round and beat the 102 win Phillies to go to the NLCS.

Before this is all said and done, we will probably see a Central team crowned world champion. But will this success continue in the years to come? Are we in the midst of a renaissance in America's heartland? If I had to answer, I would say probably. Although some teams might lose a lot this offseason, (Pujols, LaRussa, Fielder) most of the teams in these divisions will retain their most important assets. With teams on the rise like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and many teams lurking to reclaim past glory, (White Sox, Twins, Cubs, and even the Royals) the Central divisons in both conferences should be at least competitive in the years to come. But, lets not focus too much on the future. Let us instead enjoy the story of a few remarkable teams proving their doubters wrong and going for the ultimate prize, a World Series Championship.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hey Tony, It's Time to Rise

Tony Romo is the easiest target in the NFL for all the haters of the Dallas Cowboys; however, despite his collapses in two of his first four games this season, there is still a long way to go in season. At 2-2, Dallas is right in the middle of the NFC East and ahead of the "Dream Team," plus is 1-0 in the division. The Jets and the Lions were both losses that could definitely fall on the shoulders of Tony Romo, but he needs to look past both of these games. Clearly he is an extremely talented player, and has the ability to carry the offensive to victory. He needs to slow the ball down in the fourth quarter, and trust his offence to make plays.

This part is directed at you Romo, time to be remembered as a hero in Dallas. Another unsuccessful could very well drive you out of Dallas.

With Dallas going into a bye, Romo will have time to regroup and gain back his confidence. They will play week 6 in Foxborough and take on the New England Patriots.