The Cheap Seats

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End This Farce

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This season is done.  Everything that follows should be framed by that harsh truth — for the Red Sox, the possibility of on-field success has been snuffed out by July, and the only victories that the defending world champions can hope to have over the remainder of this season will be in the front office.  Any sense of accomplishment will be derived from the intelligent, stabilizing moves made by the Cherington-Lucchino group of Super Friends that pulled together a ragtag team of misfits in the perfect patchwork order to form a World Series champion in 2013.  This season will now be won or lost in the backroom, by guys in suits with a laundry list of roster modifications to make before next spring.

And they can’t even get past Move One.

It’s right there for them.  The genius staff who in 2013 pulled off one of the finest offseasons in baseball history are right now faced with a simple reality: In four months, their 30 year old, ace pitcher, who is having the best opening half-season of his career, who is showing every sign of still being immersed in his peak, will become an unrestricted free agent.  He’s told the Red Sox, one of the richest sports empires in the world, that he’ll re-sign, no questions asked, for nothing more or less than his market worth: somewhere in the range of five years, $110 million.  Regardless of the general public’s distaste for the quibbling of millionaires over guarantees for certain more millions, what Lester is proposing is, in fact, a hometown discount – you can scoff and call him greedy, but in his profession, this is his minimum value, and he’d earn much more on the open market. 

So this is easy, right?  Just get it done, right?

The counter made this spring by the glorified Red Sox front office – the only counter currently on record: Four years, $70 million. 

The Red Sox have valued Jon Lester somewhere in the range between Homer Bailey and Edwin Jackson.  In non-baseball terms, they’ve eyed a Porsche, confidently strode up to the dealer and pointing it out proclaimed, “Yonder Corolla looks okay, I guess.”

This is too important, Lester is too important, for this deal to stalemate in hardball negotiation.  Last year’s patchwork champion is in tatters.  As strong of an offseason as the Sox had in 2013, the follow-up has so far been a shameful disaster.

They won the World Series in what was supposed to be a middling, transitional year, and the verdant lineup to which last year’s team was supposed to be transitioning is still proving enormously unready to provide any sort of positive Major League output.  With Ellsbury and Saltalamacchia gone, Victorino incapacitated, and Middlebrooks, Gomes, and Nava turning suddenly back into pumpkins, the Red Sox are left with only two remaining veteran stalwart non-pitching position players from last year’s team: Dustin Pedroia, whose bat has taken this year off, and Mike Napoli, whose degenerative hips still require frequent days off. 

Aside from adding A.J. Pierzynski, whose offense is tanking and whose management of the pitching staff has been dubious, the Red Sox haven’t looked beyond their own Triple A roster for additional lineup depth.  Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts are now both experiencing heavy playing time in the outfield, after hastened rises through the farm system – Jackie Bradley Jr. was in A-ball as recently as 2012, and spent only 80 games in Triple A last season before being awarded the starting centerfield job after Ellsbury’s departure.  That the Sox front office viewed Bradley’s rise as justification for putting up no fight at all as Ellsbury was making arrangements to defect from Boston to the Bronx is already proving flawed – no one expected Bradley to immediately replace Ellsbury’s output by himself, but so far Bradley has only deepened the offensive crater left by Ellsbury, and halfway through his first full-time season in centerfield, there’s earnest concern that he simply isn’t capable of hitting in the majors. 

If Bradley’s promotion was escalated, Betts’ has been meteoric – he began this season in Double-A, spent 23 games (103 plate appearances!) in Triple-A, and as of last week is the starting right fielder for the Boston Red Sox.  John Farrell has insisted that the ascension of Bradley and Betts is primarily a result of the organization’s responsibility to ‘challenge its young players’ – this explanation certainly sounds good, but it’s mostly gibberish.  I’m not sure if Betts’ ability to first encounter and then surmount and then become bored with Triple-A pitching can be adequately discerned in 103 plate appearances, and given the blundering routes he’s taken to track fly balls in the last week, he’s certainly still challenged enough in the outfield to merit additional time in the minors.  The rise of the young players in the Red Sox lineup is almost wholly a byproduct of the current roster’s utter lack of veteran talent and depth – if Victorino is healthy and Ellsbury’s still on the team, then at the least, Bradley is not an everyday player and Betts is absolutely still in the minors.

It hasn’t been all bad for the Red Sox young players – Brock Holt has played something like nineteen different positions since his call-up in May, and while the sample size is small, his play has been fantastic in each of his already diverse assigned roles; and shortstop Xander Boegarts has perhaps been the most promising of the Sox’ young, next-generation players. 

Enter Stephen Drew.

Stephen Drew is rising up the list of My Most Hated Players of All Time faster than Mookie Betts flew into the major leagues.  The Red Sox rewarded one of the most perplexing holdouts of all-time, during which Stephen Drew somehow mistook himself for a player worth holding out into the regular season for a 10+ million dollar per year contract, by signing Drew two months into the season to a 10+ million dollar contract. 

The early returns are not good.  His slash-line looks like a barf.  His mere presence on the roster has disrupted the aforementioned only two shining young beacons: The shortstop phenom Boegarts has had to shift to third base, which has forced the natural third basemen Holt into a platoon that includes every position other than catcher. 

Referring to his cataclysmic start, Drew said “I sort of expected it.”  Everyone else sort of did too — that’s why it took until May for someone to meet his demands.  The only person duped was Ben Cherington.

Aside from Lester, the Red Sox current pitching staff consists of an effective but aging John Lackey, a decomposing Clay Bucholz, a remarkably deficient and soon-to-be-traded-at-the-lowest-value-of-his-career Jake Peavy, and Brandon Workman, who’s been suspended more major league games than he’s started.  

There’s a crop of promising but unproven starters waiting in the minors, and while next year the Sox can plug in Allen Webster or Rubby De La Rosa for Peavy or Lackey, they can’t use them to replace Jon Lester.  The void he’ll leave is too enormous, and the roster is still too hopelessly decimated to take that hit.  Without major changes to the lineup, supplanting Jon Lester with the current bunch of pitching prospects would at very least vanguard another two years of rebuilding, taking the Red Sox down a path of calculated failure that this ownership group has in the past rallied mightily against, and with great success.  Part of what makes the Red Sox’ relentless approach to these negotiations so mystifying is that the only guys you can use to replace Lester are the kind of guys you have to give 5 year deals worth $110 million – this is what an ace pitcher costs, and if the Red Sox plan on winning more than 70 games a year for the indefinite future, they’re going to have to give that contract to someone – give it to the Cy Young-caliber guy who’s having the season of his life and is ready to sign now.  End this farce and get it done. 

The 2013 offseason was a front office success not because they were able to win with a crop of players signed to deals below market value — before the season started, Victorino and Napoli were actually considered overpays — those free agent contracts were intelligent because they ended up representing actual market value to fill clearly defined holes on the roster, and while there’s legitimate reticence for structuring big-money contracts that pay out into a player’s mid-30’s, re-signing 30 year old Jon Lester to a 5 year deal is not the same as signing 35 year old Albert Pujols to a 10 year deal.  Their pitching staff is deficient, and Lester’s contract demands represent the market cost of filling that need and keeping it afloat.  The Red Sox can’t allow themselves to be disillusioned by the one-year returns on a few solid contracts given last year to role players – that strategy works when bolstering a lineup and giving it one-through-nine depth, but Jon Lester is not a role player.  Top tier starting pitchers are not role players.  The guys who take 4 years/$70 million are guys like Homer Bailey and Edwin Jackson, and take note of how many world championships the Cubs and Reds have won recently – you can’t win a World Series with an Edwin Jackson at the top of your staff.  If the Red Sox are not willing to pay market value to Jon Lester, given their current roster realities, this team will be a sewer far beyond this season. 

Filed under red sox baseball MLB boston red sox jon lester Sports

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We’re Not Where We Hoped We Were

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In a society becoming more progressive by the minute, driven forward as every generation is — with little patience for the normative disgraces perpetrated by those that have come before it — it can be easy to misinterpret the advancements we’ve made in areas of civil rights for a place of actual acceptable standing in the strata of equality and human tolerance.  There remains a continuous succession of occurrences that make it difficult to feel good about how far we’ve come, that remind us that we started from a place so low that the great distance we’ve traveled still leaves us far short of suitable, equitable humanity.  Sports typically serve as an easy, passive distraction from this reality, but there are moments when this easy recreation betrays us, when it illuminates that even it isn’t immune to certain contaminations.

On December 11th, Michael Sam was named the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.  He was generally regarded as a 2nd – 3rd round selection in the upcoming NFL draft.

On February 9th, Michael Sam came out as gay.  The next day, his pre-draft ranking fell 70 spots, the equivalent of about two full rounds.  The 24 year old, who hadn’t grown an inch during his four years in college, suddenly became undersized.  Professional scouts and administrators, harking loudly from behind the cloak of anonymity that is most commonly sought when the message is known to be suspect, when the title of “Unnamed Team Source” is most valuable as a shield against legitimate recourse, deemed Sam “undraftable,” “overrated,” “just not a good player.”  Legitimate justifications for not picking Sam were suddenly being fabricated from all corners.  The flimsy, preparatory defenses against accusations of discrimination were mounted with dizzying, frantic haste.  Sam’s stock, according to Unnamed Team Sources, wasn’t plummeting because he was gay – it was purely coincidental that his value as a football player evaporated in perfect time to the escalating conversation about his sexuality.  Scouts simply suddenly, in the offseason inertia, realized that he wasn’t as good as they thought he was.  It would stand to reason, though, that if Sam’s drop could be reasonably purported to be purely football-related, that something must have changed in his style of play that caused him to deteriorate from a professional-level prospect to a used Hyundai salesmen almost overnight.

Here is the number of football games in which Michael Sam played between the time that he was projected as a second round pick and the time that he became undraftable:

Zero.

Here is the total number of SEC Defensive Player of the Year winners who have ever been drafted outside of the first round:

One.  Fourteen years ago.

Last weekend, Sam was drafted in the 7th Round by the St. Louis Rams, who were immediately heralded as heroes to the causes of fair practice and human rights.  They took Sam with the 249th overall pick, just seven spots before the end of the draft.  Of 22 defensive ends drafted, Sam, coming off of the best defensive season of any player in the best conference in America, was taken 22nd. 

Again: Only one SEC Defensive Player of the Year has ever been taken outside of the first round.  Sam was drafted seven spots before the end of the entire draft.

Among the defensive ends drafted ahead of Michael Sam was Terrence Fede, of Marist College fame — the same Marist College that competes in the powerhouse Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which I forgive you for not previously realizing is a thing.  Against the I’m sure stalwart FCS competition, Fede peaked at 6th place in its Defensive of the Year Award voting.  Michael Sam was a first-team All-American and had, it’s worth repeating, the best defensive season in the best athletic conference in the country.  Fede’s pre-draft projection: Undrafted Free Agent.  Among Fede’s weaknesses: “Immature and has been disciplined for fighting teammates.”  Sign him up!  The Dolphins drafted Fede 15 spots ahead of Sam.  When Sam was drafted, Dolphins defensive back Don Jones tweeted simply, “Horrible.”  It’s good to see that every level of the Dolphins organization appears to be on the same page.

Zach Moore was taken 51 spots ahead of Sam, which is conceivable, because he is a graduate of something called Concordia-St. Paul College, and the Patriots were probably impressed with the 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks that Moore was able to amass against his Division 2 opponents, made up mostly of schools that none of us have ever heard of.  Michael Sam had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss against the stingiest competition in college football, and he was casually passed over in favor of guys whose level competition was somewhere between “Jim’s Diner Wednesday Night All Stars” and “NFL Combine.”

IK Enemkpali was criticized before the draft, like Sam, for his size — he measures two inches shorter than Sam, and both were scolded for weak performances at the combine, where their competition was inanimate.  If you’re looking for a tangible difference between the two players, you may care to note that Sam was, in addition to the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-American, finalist for the Bednarik Award, Hendricks Award, and the Lombardi Award, and he played in the Senior Bowl.  Ik Enemkpali was drafted 39 spots ahead of Michael Sam.

The source of a lot of the reticence about Sam’s professional possibilities, from both teams and the media, was the sense that Sam’s presence would lead to a ‘distraction’ for the team burdened with him, which argument has been brought against Sam in large part because of its complete and utter inability to be measured and validated.  It’s difficult to view the ‘distraction’ argument as anything other than a weak smokescreen, thinly veiling a general feeling of social discomfort from its purveyors.  The hypothetical media attention surrounding Michael Sam’s presence on a team could not ever be tangibly equated to the team’s win-loss outcome in any meaningful way, his sexuality would by all reasonable logic have nothing at all to do with anything football-related, but the argument still not only exists but has been nauseatingly pervasive, infuriatingly unchallenged. 

I would encourage anyone who is seriously concerned about Sam’s potential ‘distraction,’ or his detraction to the moral value of the NFL, to please visit UT San Diego’s extensive database of arrests made against NFL players since 2000, found here: http://www.utsandiego.com/nfl/arrests-database/.  Sexual assaults, gun charges, vehicular manslaughter, countless DUIs and drug charges – those all fly without issue, the legal battles brought against those players don’t constitute a distraction of any kind and are welcome in NFL locker rooms.  The line apparently stops with Michael Sam. 

It doesn’t feel good to make this counter to the ‘distraction’ argument – to have to compare Sam’s homosexuality to vehicular manslaughter is more than a little personally challenging – but it’s difficult to comprehend the dubiousness of the claim that Michael Sam’s homosexuality would be an unwanted distraction for his team without bringing up the countless legal breaches by players who remain employable, and employed, by the NFL.  The most difficult part of the argument is that homosexuality is brought up against the acceptability of vehicular manslaughter in an NFL locker room and homosexuality loses.

The question I can’t avoid asking, considering Michael Sam’s athletic credentials and how excruciatingly little weight those credentials seemed to have against the diversionary tactics that teams enacted when Sam’s sexual preference became public, is what will happen to the second openly gay college football player who enters the draft?  Sam’s resume is tough to top – if the next gay prospect doesn’t exceed that enormous on-field watermark, will he stand any chance of playing professional football?  Can this really be seen as a meaningful step forward if we can’t derive from it any hope that the door for gay football players hasn’t already been slammed shut again?

As unsatisfying as these small strides toward reasonable open-mindedness can be, as incredulous as it is that the move toward what amounts essentially to workplace equality for Michael Sam and others feels like such a battle against outdated and wholly unjustifiable false moralism, the reality is that the evolution in sports, and in most facets of society, will continue to be slow.  Any long journey has to begin somewhere, and we can at least be glad that, for the NFL, this journey toward accepted integration has finally begun.  The fiasco surrounding Donald Sterling’s recorded bigotry revealed a dichotomy in the NBA – it proved that there are still pockets of antiquated fanaticism hiding away in the framework of professional athletics, but it galvanized the overwhelming populous, both in sports and in society at large, to expunge the sources of that hatred.  It would certainly seem that Michael Sam’s treatment by some forces inside the NFL can so far be classified as intolerant, bordering devastatingly close to oppressive.  What happens next is crucial – we either treat him fairly as an acclaimed, deserving, professional-level talent, or we let him, and others, be crushed, and accept the rightfully scathing judgments of future generations.

Filed under michael sam nfl nfl draft football Sports st. louis rams homosexuality

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NL Playoff Preview: Wild Card Edition

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Reds – Pirates

This is the National League’s only play-in game this year, which is one behind the AL’s coincidental two game play-in gauntlet, and two years in, I’m still torn on the play-in Wild Card idea.  It’s great theater and it’s added excitement to the race and I’m glad for the four Wild Card teams this year that survived long enough to play just one time for their continued survival — I think both games will be great — but I can’t get around the fact that it seems to do little, if anything, to legitimize the integrity of the greater playoff bracket itself. 

Allow me to play the role of paltry unremarkable buzzkill douche for a paragraph or two while I contemptuously shit all over something that has provided joy and dramatic vitality to millions of fans over the last two seasons:

The playoffs have two basic functions: to entertain its audience and to crown a champion through somewhat balanced competition.  Are you ready to key my car and spray me with bear mace yet?  I’m not sure what percentage of importance the league associates with each of those two functions (but I feel like based on the All Star Game home-field abomination, I have a pretty good idea), but while the play-in game absolutely meets the ‘entertainment’ requirement, to me, it falls way short on providing an environment in which a champion is logically anointed.  It screws up rotations and places a huge advantage on the teams whose pitching staffs will, almost purely by chance, fall on the right guy on Wild Card gamenight.  The play-in game has allowed twice as many markets to be included in the playoff chase and is responsible for generating the economic upswing that comes with having twice as many fan-bases enticed into September attendance, so the game will never go away, but I don’t really believe that after 162 games of competition, a one-game Wild Card playoff followed by a five-game Divisional Series is a better way to weed out the better team than would be a freestanding seven game Divisional Series free of any prerequisite Wild Card playhouse hoops for teams to blindly wish through.  Baseball whittles its contenders to the final four in each league before even beginning its playoffs – Why are teams who have fought into the top four and made the playoff cut after 162 games, and now in some cases 163 games, not granted the benefit of a seven game series once they get there?  162 games, strong games, top-four-team-out-of-thirty games, and your season ends if you run into a couple of bad pitching matchups, matchups that are bad probably because you just had to burn a starter in a weird play-in game two nights before – it seems insane.  The next time Bud and I have tea I will go ahead and give him authorization to implement the Ryan Plan, consisting of no wild-card play-in and a seven game Divisional Series.

So, how about that play-in game tonight?!  Like I said, it’ll be a great, entertaining game, if not undermining to the integrity of the playoffs and completely debilitating for the team that wins, and the rotation-break has fallen in huge favor to the Pirates, which is a big deal for a team still struggling to score a lot of runs.  They’ll catch Johnny Cueto, whose only two starts since June 28th have amounted to twelve combined innings against the Mets and Astros – so basically Johnny Cueto has pitched in zero major league games since June 28th.  On the other side, Francisco Liriano is having a major naysayers-vaporizing season, and the two biggest power threats in Cincinnati’s lineup happen to be lefties, so it was great foresight for the Pirates to plan on slotting their southpaw to start tonight.  Oh wait…

Liriano is finally healthy and is playing as he did in his early phenom days in Minnesota, and he’s just one example of a free agent who has come to Pittsburgh and flourished (the phrase “come to Pittsburgh and flourished” has only ever been stated in sports-related contexts).  I’m picturing Mark Melancon, A.J. Burnett, and Russell Martin sitting around every night, probably drinking a beer and eating some chicken at their lockers to the finger-wagging chagrin of no one, observing wistfully how fantastic life is outside of the AL East. 

The Reds and Pirates have only played each other six times since July 21st, and all six games were in the last ten days – they’re used to each other and probably both are sick of having to spend so much time in Cincinnati/Pittsburgh, so I look for both teams to play really hard for that trip to Los Angeles.  Both rosters, expanded to roughly 9,000 apiece for the playoffs, will power through this game sustained by the fantasy of a concluding dogpile at home plate as each of the 9,000 gleefully sprays champagne in majestic foamy rivulets that fall with dazzling glory upon their delighted teammates in a display that is made either more or less homoerotic, I can never tell, by the triumphantly adorned scuba goggles, shouting “We’re getting out of Pittsburgh!!  We’re going to Disneyland!!!” and so on.

Pittsburgh’s at home, I trust their starter more, their lineup isn’t great but Morneau and Byrd (Byrd coincidentally is 7 for 12 lifetime against Cueto) have both fit in well – in short, Pittsburgh did a really nice job filling the few holes they had at midseason.  They’re just stronger in this one.

The biggest storyline between these two play-in games will probably be the atmospheres in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, both of which feature historically strong fan bases that have been recently (for the Pirates, extensively) starved for success, and both teams finished in the top Wild Card place.  If not for the play-in game, both fan bases would have been awarded a full Divisional Series already.  For the Pirates, the reward for 21 years of suffering and anticipation could be just three hours of fulfillment.  They finished four games better than the Reds.  Nope, I don’t like it.

The Pick:
Pirates 5-4

Filed under MLB baseball Sports playoffs wild card Pittsburgh Pirates cincinatti reds

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Week 4 Predictions: The First of Many Thursday Night Duds Edition

San Francisco at St. Louis (+3.5)

We’ve had a pretty good stretch of Thursday night games to start the season, but here is where the weekly tilt takes its inevitable downward turn toward graceless unmet potential and wasted, foreshortened capability.  Forcing teams to play two football games in four days completely undermines everything the league is telling us about its commitment to player safety, and the only evidence needed to support that point is five minutes of time spent watching any Thursday night game.  The exhaustion is palpable on most players, and the sloppy, awkward, slipshod performance that almost always results from it is not really meant to entertain us, because the clearly drained elements on the field that are supposed to be providing the entertainment are very obviously incapable of playing to their highest standard – far from being provocative and captivating, the games, laden with injury timeouts, lots of punting, and the occasional butt fumble, are often painful to watch.  They’re a blatant money-grab by the NFL, and for Roger Goodell to expound upon his passion for and allegiance toward building a safer game from one side of his mouth while from the other he tells players to go knock each other around for three hours before their bodies are even close to being recovered from the last time they were knocking each other around kind of makes me not want to even watch these games, and the resulting ugliness of the play itself makes me not want to watch them even more.

So how about that game tonight!  For as quickly as everyone has jumped off the Kaepernick bandwagon, watch how many will be back on it tomorrow morning.  The Rams defense hasn’t really shown any ability to defend the pass (23rd in total defense, 24th in pass defense, one interception through three games, and so on), and starting defensive end William Hayes has just been ruled out with a sprained MCL, which obviously limits the pass rush.  The two best receivers the Rams have faced so far this season?  Julio Jones clocked 11 catches from 182 yards and a touchdown and Larry Fitzgerald finished with 8 for 80 yards and two touchdowns of his own – this would seem to indicate a pretty strong likelihood for a big game from Boldin tonight, but both the Falcons and the Cardinals had other threats to draw the Rams’ defense away from those two stars, while the 49ers don’t have anything enticing for the Rams’ secondary to chase around and draw attention away from Boldin other than Vernon Davis, who’s questionable for tonight’s game with a hamstring.  Jason Witten had a big game at tight end against the Rams last week, and the 49ers could obviously use a strong performance from Davis in the same position tonight – even as a decoy to take some of the pressure off of Kaepernick and Boldin, he’d be of great use, so if he can’t go, it’s a big hit for the 49ers.

But not big enough.  I almost feel bad for Sam Bradford – his already week offensive line is only three days removed from a game in which it gave up six sacks – six sacks!  Bradford was on his ass eight times last week!  And that was at full rest!  What’s going to happen to him when he’s dropping back behind that offensive line when it’s tired and facing a much stronger defense??  He is going to get destroyed, that’s what’s going to happen to him.

Enjoy the hideousness!

The Pick:

Straight: 49ers
vs. Spread: 49ers
49ers 31-14

Season:

Straight: 34-14
vs. Spread: 29-19 (13-3 last week!  Suck it, Vegas)

Filed under nfl Sports football football picks san francisco 49ers st. louis rams roger goodell hypocrite thursday night abomination

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How Good Are They?

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We’re not even a quarter of the way through the NFL season, which seems like a healthy benchmark to make some premature judgments about the trajectory of teams who are only just beginning to hit their stride.  I’m leaving out the two clear favorites, one from each Conference, which are the Broncos and Seahawks, but there’s a huge number of teams whose current record has been influenced by the confluence of one or two weird plays or mistakes, so there’s an especially great opportunity here to make some hastened, sweeping denouncements and flatteries alike, so let’s get to it:

The “Everyone Betray Me!!!” Division

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I wrote at the beginning of the season that I thought this year’s Bucs team would resemble the ’09 and ’10 Jets that were talented enough to drag a mediocre Mark Sanchez to two straight playoffs and, subsequently, AFC Title games.  I didn’t see the Bucs as a contender to win the NFC, but I saw them as at least able to claw their way into the playoffs on a just-good-enough 10-6, but it turns out that Josh Freeman is more capable of destroying a team’s season than I originally gave him credit for.  After their Week 1 abomination in New York, word came out that the Bucs had held a postgame meeting in which Freeman’s captaincy was voted upon and subsequently stripped, and then it came out that the meeting had actually occurred BEFORE the game – before Freeman even went out and laid that Week 1 egg, his team had said “Nope, no, you are not our guy at all.”  AND THEN it turned out that not only was Freeman’s captaincy stripped via a PREGAME vote, but that the VOTE WAS PROBABLY RIGGED BY THEIR HEAD COACH.  Congratulations, Buccaneers, you’ve won this year’s New York Jets Award for Outstanding Display of Turmoil and Incompetence!

Important to note is that despite how badly Freeman has played and despite their 0-3 record, my early estimation that the team would be good enough to overcome his stink has very nearly come through.  They’ve controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, with Doug Martin rebounding after a tough Week 1 (against a Jets D-Line that was probably a little underrated at the start of the season), we know about their talent at wide receiver (even if Josh Freeman apparently still has no idea), and their secondary has shut down two straight solid passing attacks – the strength of the rest of the team is evidenced by the fact that despite Freeman’s seemingly boundless ineptitude, the Bucs are a few stupid penalties away from being at least 2-1, and they outplayed the Patriots for a huge part of the game in their 20 point Week 3 loss, in which Mike Glennon was seen repeatedly warming up on the Bucs’ sideline.

If you happen across a Bucs fan who has just emerged from a four week coma and desperately asks you how Josh Freeman’s season is going so far, just reply “Mike Glennon was seen repeatedly warming up on the sideline…”  That’ll do. 

My preseason feeling that the NFC South would be the best division in football hasn’t changed, which is bad news for an already 0-3 Bucs team that has only gotten one divisional game out of the way.

The Verdict: Doomed


New York Giants

So, how’s the football season going in the State of New York?  In a Week 3 victory over the Bills, the Jets had more penalty yards than the Giants starting quarterback and running back combined had yards from scrimmage.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

Wondering whether the Panthers 38-0 drubbing of the Giants, one of the more shocking NFL results in a while, says more about the Panthers or the Giants?  The Panthers lit up the Giants for 38 points, and they’re STILL ranked 32nd, dead last, in the league in passing yards.  Their defense threw a shutout, and they’re still middle-of-the-pack in most defensive categories.  The Panthers lost to the Bills in Week 2.  That should clear things up for you.

The Giants are an absolute disaster, and there really hasn’t been any reason or catalyst behind their rapid decent to utter foulness other than a weak offensive line.  One of the great coaches of all-time, one of the best passing attacks in the league, and a running back generally regarded as one of the most talented, and a passable defense, and the result: 38-0.  0-3. 

I picked the Giants to win the NFC East, mostly for the reasons I just listed, and as Oakland Coliseum-y as their season has been so far, that division is horrendous.  It’s hard to imagine the door closing on the Giants before they’ve amassed 9 or 10 losses, so don’t panic just yet, Giants fans.  Put in some tape of the Redskins and the Eagles and breathe a huge sigh of relief.

The Verdict: Presently Dead, but with serious resurrection-as-zombie potential.

The ‘THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!!!’ Division

Philadelphia Eagles

I had them on the cusp but out of the playoffs at around 8-8, and through three weeks they are on the fast track to that mediocre finish.  I understand that Chip Kelly runs a unique offensive system and that he has the perfect personnel on offense to run that system, but at what point does defensive personnel have to dictate how you run your offense?  The Eagles don’t have the talent on defense to handle the workload that comes with having an offense that gets on and off the field in a hurry, and so far this is killing them.  The numbers paint a pretty clear picture – the Eagles are giving their opponents too many opportunities to score against a defense that isn’t any good:

Eagles Total Defense: 30th
Eagles Defensive Yards/Drive: 29th
Eagles Offensive Time of Possession: 32nd

Not helping matters is that Michael Vick is deteriorating rapidly from “Talented Guy with Enormous Shoulder-Chip” to “Talented Guy Who Can’t Get Out of His Own Way,” which is where we’ve become accustomed to seeing him.  He was smothered by Kansas City’s defense in Week 3, and he must like Andy Reid as much as he says, because he kept giving the ball to Andy’s team like it was a warm bun cake for the new neighbors.

Like the Giants, the Eagles will benefit from being in a weak NFC East, but I don’t see the upside on defense, at quarterback, and on the sideline that the Giants have.

The Verdict: Doomed


Pittsburgh Steelers

This is a team that is old and, with a few exceptions, talentless.  Period.  I know they’re the Steelers, I know they’ve had a lot of success in the last ten years, I know about Antonio Brown and Big Ben, but they’ve done such a good job at keeping their weakening roster, particularly on defense, upright and passable in the last three years that it’s been a sudden shock to many observers to see this team look as bad as it does this year. 

The big issue with the near-complete lack of playmakers on the team (I know, I know, Antonio Brown), and with the front office’s inability to get younger on defense and replace the offensive skill players that they’ve lost, is the annihilation it is going to cause to their star quarterback.  Roethlisberger, who can’t stay healthy as it is, is looking at a season in which the ball will be in his hands more often because they’re going to play from behind a lot/don’t have a running back, which means that your injury-prone leader, who is the only reason that anyone is going to go see the Steelers this year, is going to have a lot of opportunities to be pummeled, and considering the state of their offensive line, he is going to be pummeled a lot of times.  What is the over/under on starts for Big Ben this year?  Give me under 12.

Is it at least starting to become more apparent how really, really weird it was for the Steelers to let Mike Wallace go without a fight?

The Verdict: Doomed


The Who Are You? Division

Miami Dolphins

Ryan Tannehill, who are you?!  The Dolphins are a team playing in a down division, a division with a stumbling front-runner, that could easily sneak into the playoffs.  They have two big benchmark games coming up at New Orleans and at home against Baltimore, but both are winnable considering how the Dolphins have been gameplanning their offense.  Neither Baltimore nor New Orleans have a scary secondary, and Mike Wallace running 70 yard deep outs to open the middle of the field for Brian Hartline has been a pretty formidable scheme so far for the Dolphins, and Lamar Miller has actually looked solid at running back – remember, this is no longer a league where you need a star back to go far in the playoffs, and Lamar Miller’s numbers so far, if projected out over 16 games, look plenty on par with the James Starks and Ahmad Bradshaw’s of the world.

Donnell Ellerbe and Nolan Carroll are having monster seasons on the defensive side of the ball, but the overall team numbers on both offense and defense leave a lot to be desired.  I don’t think this is a great team, and the carpet could come sweeping out from under them at any moment, BUT: If they split the upcoming Saints/Ravens set, they’ll head into their bye at 4-1 with winnable games still coming against the Bills, Chargers, Bucs, Steelers, Bills again, and Panthers – if they run the table in just those games, that puts them at 10-6.

The Verdict: Alive and Sneaky


Chicago Bears

Jay Cutler, who are you?!  We all saw the defensive performance last night in Pittsburgh, which, thank god for it, if you’re the Bears, because the Steelers were somehow crawling back into the game by the fourth quarter.  The Bears are 3-0 and haven’t looked particularly wonderful in any of their three wins, with the Minnesota game being the ominous one for the Bears.  The Vikings are roaming around in the NFC sewer, and it took a last-second touchdown to beat them in Chicago – this was after the last-second home victory in Week 1 against Cincinnati – and with two still coming against both Detroit and Green Bay and one each against New Orleans, Baltimore, and Dallas, I am going to assume that the Bears are going to fall on the whoopee cushion fairly quickly, here. 

Chicago’s defensive touchdown-performance was great Monday night, but there’s room for a conversation about the ratio of luck/skill that goes into scoring defensive touchdowns, but some other of Chicago’s defensive numbers through three games:

Total Defense: 25th
Pass Defense: 24th (Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger…ahem)

Their current trajectory seems too unsustainable to get overly excited about the 3-0 start.

The Verdict: Steep Decline Forthcoming


Houston Texans

Matt Schaub, who are you?!  This is a 2-1 team that should be 0-3, and the numbers are pretty ugly.  Does Matt Schaub look to anyone like a guy who can win 3-4 straight playoff games?  Also, Arian Foster is sounding more and more like a lunatic every week, and so who is going to feel comfortable sitting him down and telling him that Ben Tate has nearly matched his yards-total in half as many carries and so he’s probably going to have to play some more?  Have fun with that, Gary! 

Four of the Texans’ next five games are against Seattle at home, at San Francisco, at Kansas City, and at home against Indianapolis.  Have fun with that too, Gary!  When you look at their schedule, it really is some fantastic luck that Houston was able to mount those comebacks against the Chargers and Titans, because they could easily be staring down the barrel of 1-7. 

They’ve given up a ton of points, but is it possible, with J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing both healthy, that the Texans defense is actually its biggest weakness?  In short, no.  The Texans are 24th in the league in Points/Game Allowed, which sounds awful, but they’re 2nd in Total Defense, 2nd in Rush Defense, and 9th in Pass Defense, which tells you that the offense is turning the ball over a ton (-3 TO Differential) and punting the ball away to strong opponent field position.

The Verdict: Another Playoff One-and-Done


The Sneaky Contenders

Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals were my preseason Super Bowl pick, and through three games, they look like as complete a team as there is in football.  Andy Dalton has responded well to added pressure this year, Giovani Bernard has been slotted in at running back to take an increasing share of the load from a lagging Benjarvus Green-Ellis, and the defense has been stellar, led somewhat surprisingly by Vontaze Burfict and Terence Newman, with even a little Pacman Jones sprinkled in (though Pacman was arrested over the weekend, making his status the rest of the way a little unclear – relatedly, whoever took the “under” on 4 games before a Pacman Jones disorderly conduct related incident hit the jackpot for like the eighth year in a row).  Geno Atkins has been basically dormant through three games, but I look for that trend to continue for about as long as it takes for Cleveland to come to town, which incidentally will be this week.

They never should have lost that tough Week 1 game in Chicago and they bullied a weak Pittsburgh team in Week 2, but Week 3 was the showcase game against the Packers.  They went through a stretch in the first half in which they turned the ball over on four straight possessions (remember when I wrote about how disciplined they looked in the preseason?  Dammit), but their defense, despite feeling thoroughly Freeman’d at that point, still played tough, holding Aaron Rodgers to a field goal on three of four straight possessions in which he had a short field.  They sacked Rodgers four times and picked him off twice (and really should have had a couple more), Bernard had his best game on the same day in which he also had his highest percentage of the workload this season, and Andy Dalton only turned the ball over twice, which I’m told is a new record for ginger quarterbacks. 

This is a team that could have buckled after their Week 1 choke-job, but they’ve rebounded extremely well.  The NFC North is way, way down across the board, despite the Ravens big win against Houston this week.  I’m not backing off the Super Bowl pick quite yet.

The Verdict: Contender


Detroit Lions

I love the Lions.  We knew about their talent on offense, but they’ve actually played passable defense through three games against strong offensive opponents.  Their numbers don’t blow you away, but the +3 TO Differential is nice, and their secondary, led by DeAndre Levy and Chris Houston, is having a monster start to the year.  Speaking of monsters, Ndamukong Suh.  Suh, for all his talent, represents everything that could go wrong for this Lions team as the season progresses.  The team still has a reputation as being undisciplined and reckless – led by Suh – and we saw with the Lions last year and with the Bucs through three weeks this year that guys on defense who, in this newly policed NFL, try to be hit-men, will cost their team games.

They have trouble running the ball despite having one of the best-looking offensive lines in football, and I don’t think you can count on Reggie Bush to play 16 games anyway, but some of the wrinkles that they’ve added to their passing game almost make up for their inability to run.  They have two big receivers in Johnson and Burleson, and they run a lot of quick screens and wide receiver slants, impossible routes for corners to cover against a guy like Johnson, to get short yardage over the middle, and this has opened the long plays for both Burleson and Johnson in the same way that a strong running game would.  Remember when Sanchez won all those playoff games and we started to wonder if we overvalued Matthew Stafford as the best quarterback from the 2009 draft class?  Neither do I.  Burleson especially has had a huge impact in the early going, and word came down just now as I am typing this that he was in a car accident this morning and broke his arm, which would be a huge loss for the Lions and a blow for Burleson himself, who’s spent this year rebuilding his stat-sheet. 

The Verdict: Almost There and Rising Quickly


Kansas City Chiefs

That’s right, I said it: Three weeks into the season, the Kansas City Chiefs are a sleeper contender.  There was a pretty significant Chiefs bandwagon before the season started, and I was on it, predicting them to get in as a Wild Card, and the bandwagon has grown exponentially through three games.  I wrote about it a little earlier in the week, but the defense has been remarkable, led by Poe and Flowers, and the team is a little bit of a throwback to some of the early-mid 2000s Conference Champions (Ravens, Seahawks, Early-Roethlisberger Steelers) that had a passable quarterback, one or two strong receivers, an All-Pro running back, and a strong defense.  It’s the makeup of the anti-contender of the last 5 years, but they’re making it work.  3-0 and they haven’t even played the Raiders or Chargers once yet.  3-0 and Andy Reid hasn’t drowned in a euphoric stupor at the bottom of a vat of barbecue sauce.  Things are going about as well as they possibly could for Kansas City so far this year.

Still left on their schedule: the aforementioned two each against San Diego and Oakland, plus Buffalo, Cleveland, Tennessee, the Giants, and Washington.  They could win just seven out of those nine cupcake games and get to ten wins. 

The Verdict: Almost There and Rising Quickly


Next Week on How Good Are They?: Patriots, Falcons, Ravens, Titans, Panthers, and Colts

Filed under nfl sports football detroit lions cincinatti bengals miami dolphins tampa bay buccaneers new york giants Philadelphia Eagles Kansas City Chiefs chicago bears

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Week 3 Predictions: Don’t Make Me Watch Jets vs. Bills Edition

Packers at Bengals (+2.5)
Straight: Bengals  vs. Spread: Bengals  Bengals 24-21

Browns at Vikings (-5.5)
Straight: Vikings  vs. Spread: Vikings  Vikings 28-17

Rams at Cowboys (-3.5)
Straight: Cowboys  vs. Spread: Cowboys  Cowboys 27-20

Lions at Redskins (-1.5)
Straight: Lions  vs. Spread: Lions  Lions 31-24

Chargers at Titans (-3.5)
Straight: Chargers  vs. Spread; Chargers  Chargers 20-17

Bucs at Pats (-7.5)
Straight: Pats  vs. Spread: Pats  Pats 28-10

Cardinals at Saints (-7.5)
Straight: Saints  vs. Spread:  Saints  Saints 31-20

Giants at Panthers (-1.5)
Straight: Giants  vs. Spread: Giants  Giants 27-17

Texans at Ravens (+2.5)
Straight: Ravens  vs. Spread:  Ravens  Ravens 23-17

Falcons at Dolphins (-1.5)
Straight: Falcons  vs. Spread: Falcons  Falcons 31-17

Bills at Jets (-2.5)
Straight: Jets  vs. Spread: Jets  Jets 17-14

Colts at 49ers (-10.5)
Straight: 49ers  vs. Spread Colts  49ers 31-21

Jags at Seahawks (-19.5)
Straight: Seahawks  vs. Spread: Seahawks  Seahawks 38-3

Bears at Steelers (+2.5)
Straight: Bears  vs. Spread: Bears  Bears 24-20

Raiders at Broncos (-14.5)
Straight: Broncos  vs. Spread: Broncos  Broncos 31-14


Season:

Straight: 24-9
vs. Spread: 17-16

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Week 3 Predictions: Where’s the Fanatical Hostility? Edition

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Kansas City Chiefs at
Philadelphia Eagles (-3.5)

This game has a much too heavy concentration of warm happy feelings and good cheer for what should be a ruthless, maniacal, nut-kicks-all-around revenge game for Andy Reid.  From Reid’s former players this week: “Andy Reid is a man who will go down in history, in my book, as one of the greatest coaches of all time and one of the greatest men I’ve ever met.”  “Coach Reid is a father figure to me…it’s going to be great to see him back.”  “Excellent person.  I think people don’t really realize how good of a person he really was.”  Reid was jettisoned mere months ago by the team for whom he was its winningest coach, where he began his career by inheriting a 3-13 Ray Rhodes disaster, a team that won its three games by a combined nine points and was shutout three times by a combined 92-0, and two years later he’d spun them to 11-5 and a playoff winner, and we know the story from there.  Can’t I get a modicum of depraved malevolence?!  Just a little bloodlust leaked from anonymous team sources whose identity can be speculated upon by both sides in passive aggressive public jabs??  Come on! 

Reid’s three seasons with Vick as his starter?  10-6, 8-8, 4-12.  Vick on Reid’s departure for Kansas City: “That’s just where our lives took us.”  That’s just where our lives took us?!  Andy Reid is, by all means, one of the nicest, most goodhearted men in football, but is it possible that he can read that line from Vick and not want to jump-kick him in the face?  His Eagles career ended after he assembled one of the most highly-touted talent-conglomerated teams we’ve ever seen, only to have the prematurely-christened “Dream Team” crash and burn under the weight of, in part, Michael Vick giving the ball to the other team too many times, and Vick appears to be under the impression that it was mostly blind fate that has landed Reid on the opposite sideline this week.

You!  You did this, Michael!  It was you!  And now look at what’s going to happen to your beloved Andy.  He’s working in Kansas City – KANSAS CITY!!  LOOK AT HIM!  DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO HIM IN A PLACE PAVED WITH PULLED PORK AND BARBECUE SAUCE?!  He’s surrounded by red meat, and Alex Smith is his quarterback – his heart is going to explode somewhere around Week 5, and it’s your fault!!  AHHHH WHY WON’T YOU FIGHT EACH OTHER?!

Since they refuse to make this game about cheap public face-slapping and retribution, it appears that the game will I guess have to be decided by execution on the field.  Last week’s game pointed out the fatal flaw in Chip Kelly’s offensive attack – You can’t run a bunch of plays if the other team has the ball for a long time, and the faster you run your offense, the quicker the ball goes back over to the other team and the more gassed your defense is going to be.  Jamaal Charles can wreck this game for the Eagles simply because he’s going to earn first downs on the ground and keep the clock moving for the Chiefs when they have the ball.  And let’s not forget about how great the Chiefs defense has been through two games – they didn’t give up any points to the Jaguars in Week 1, which I know doesn’t count for anything, but they blew up the loaded Cowboys offense in Week 2.  Dontari Poe is having a great early season at nose tackle, and through two games, Brandon Flowers has 14 tackles, a pick, and two passes defensed at corner.  Flowers, though, is listed as questionable with a knee injury, which would leave Desean Jackson duty to the much less formidable Sean Smith.  Huge advantage for the Eagles if he doesn’t play, but I like the Chiefs in a close one.

THE PICK:

Straight: Chiefs
vs. Spread: Chiefs

Chiefs 27-24

Season:

Straight: 23-9
vs. Spread: 16-16

Filed under nfl football picks football predictions andy reid philadelphia eagles kansas city chiefs Sports barbecue sauce michael vick

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Week 2 Predictions: No Time for Supporting Evidence Edition

Rams at Falcons (-7.5)
Straight: Falcons  vs. Spread Falcons  Falcons 31-17

Panthers at Bills (+2.5)
Straight: Panthers  vs. Spread: Panthers  Panthers 24-17

Vikings at Bears (-6.5)
Straight: Bears  vs. Spread: Vikings  Bears 24-21

Browns at Ravens (-6.5)
Straight: Ravens  vs. Spread: Ravens  Ravens 37-14

Cowboys at Chiefs (-2.5)
Straight: Chiefs  vs. Spread: Chiefs  Chiefs 27-17

Redskins at Packers (-7.5)
Straight: Packers  vs. Spread: Redskins  Packers 27-20

Titans at Texans (-9.5)
Straight: Texans  vs. Spread: Texans  Texans 34-24

Dolphins at Colts (-3.5)
Straight: Colts  vs. Spread: Dolphins  Colts 17-14

Chargers at Eagles (-7.5)
Straight: Eagles  vs. Spread: Eagles  Eagles 31-14

Lions at Cardinals (+.5)
Straight: Lions  vs. Spread: Lions  Lions 27-13

Saints at Bucs (+3.5)
Straight: Saints  vs. Spread: Saints  Saints 31-17

Broncos at Giants (+5.5)
Straight: Broncos  vs. Spread: Giants  Broncos 37-34

Jags at Raiders (-6.5)
Straight: Raiders  vs. Spread: Raiders  Raiders 21-3

49ers at Seahawks (-2.5)
Straight: Seahawks  vs. Spread: Seahawks  Seahawks 27-24

Steelers at Bengals (-7.5)
Straight: Bengals  vs. Spread: Bengals  Bengals 27-10


Season so far:
Straight: 12-5
vs. Spread: 10-7

Filed under nfl football football picks week 2 Sports

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Week 2 Predictions: Butt Fumble Rivalry Renewed Edition

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Jets at
Patriots (-12.5)

Geno!  GEENNOOOO!!!  I’m all in!  Screw the buzzkilling naysayers who keep pointing out to me on the street, as I sprint past them in my green body-paint while making airplane sounds, which is how I have conducted all transportation this week, that if Sanchez had turned the ball over the way Geno did there would this week be a complete disregard of the victory for the sake of full-on Sanchez castigation; that Tampa’s offense was the epitome of ineptitude for the entirety of the game’s sixty minutes, including the Vincent Jackson play that set up the would-be winning field goal, because that play on its own included three or four of the worst defensive catastrophes in all of week one, and the Jets offense still couldn’t outscore them without the help of a borderline personal foul call that maybe wouldn’t have even been made had it happened on the opposite sideline; and that the Jets had absolutely no running game to speak of and suddenly even Shonn Greene (SHONN EFFING GREENE!) looks like an upgrade over the Wednesday-Night-Bread-Truck-Drivers’-Beer-League backs that are currently carrying the ball.

Back off!  You couldn’t just let me have these three days of glory before the inevitable crashing-back-to-earth Patriots game?!  “Butt fumble” is not a relevant point, you jerks!  The crux of all conversations had by every Jets fan with a non-Jets fan re: their Week 1 victory:

“Their defensive line looked pretty solid—“
“Butt fumble.”

“There were a couple of plays where Geno did this weird thing where when people weren’t open, he threw the ball away instead of forcing it to one of his quadruple-covered JV-level receivers, which I had kind of forgotten was even a legal play—“
“Butt fumble.”

“That punter of theirs sure looked formidable—“
“Butt fumble.”

I like Mark Sanchez – I think he took too heavy a share of the blame for last year’s disaster because he did not have anyone to throw the ball to/hand the ball to/with the fragility of his psyche already being public record his front office went ahead and signed one of the most popular athletes in the world to do nothing but spend the entire season lurking behind him (the Sanchez-Tebow thing could take up 5,000 words on its own, but Sanchez’s ownership basically threw him to the wolves for no other legitimate reason than to sell a few extra tickets, and Woody Johnson, a corporate heir who has provided us with enough evidence that he has no idea how to run a football team to fill another 5,000 words, continues to take dubious shots at Sanchez, even long after his own Tebow move proved utterly idiotic) – but I’m starting to feel like he needs to immediately take his stink to the injured reserve simply so that I can have fewer than 900 conversations per week that include the phrase “butt fumble.”  We need to somehow heal the wound opened last thanksgiving by Brandon Moore’s buttocks, and I don’t think the recovery can begin until the ties between Sanchez and the Jets are finally, at great cost for a mostly undeserving Mark Sanchez, severed.

This line is egregious, but as a Jets fan, even though the Patriots are without Amendola, Vereen, and Gronkowski, I have the scars of too many unlikely humiliations to think that the Jets roster as it currently stands, even against this diminished version of the Patriots, will be able to pull this game out.  Steven Ridley plays for Bill Belichick and was therefore benched after his fumble early in their game against the Bills, which sort of made us forget that he’s a guy who ran for 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and Tom Brady won’t be able to score 35 points with the receivers he’ll have on the field with him Thursday night, but to beat this Jets offense, he won’t have to.  To cover this spread, though, they’d probably have to put up at least 27 points, and I don’t think they have the fuel in the tank to do that on a short week and with their most impactful players sidelined.  I’ll be interested to see how the Jets defensive line, the team’s strongest asset, performs against the O-Line of the Patriots.  If the Jets try to get after Brady, I think a lot of pressure falls on Edelman and backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui (is that an alias?) to do their best pretend Welker/Gronkowski big-play-safety-valve impressions – if Edelman and the tight ends crack, the Jets have a small chance, but I don’t think it happens.

The Pick:

Straight: Patriots
vs. Spread: Jets

Season:

Straight: 11-5
vs. Spread: 9-7

Filed under nfl new york jets new englad patriots picks football picks jets patriots butt fumble