Well, I regressed...again. That Carolina pick will haunt me because I basically spelled out how Arizona could keep the game close, if not, win it outright, and yet I continued to be to stubborn to be swayed in the right direction. I vowed to be a more free-thinker, and last week's picks were not a sign of that at all. So, I apologize for that. Anyway, we have our championship games set for next weekend. Nothing like playing a January game at Pittsburgh at 7:00 at night...bundle up campers. Well, we've got much to talk about, so let's get right into it.
Okay, so pretty much outside of the Baltimore/Tennessee game (which I predicted 15-12 and ended 13-10), I was a little off for the other three contests in the NFL. First, let's start with the one I actually got right. In all honesty, I was concerned going into the game about Baltimore's inability to drop the hammer. Basically, they allow teams to stay in games, but are somehow able to contain long enough to get a win. However, this game was a little different because the Ravens did not jump out to a big lead. In fact, they were playing most of the game either tied or down. The Titans actually dominated most of the game, in yards, T.O.P., first downs, and most importantly, turnovers. It was the turnovers, especially the three that occurred inside the Baltimore 20, that did the Titans in. Joe Flacco...you got to give it to the guy. No INTs for the second straight road playoff game. Again, all they ask him to do is not so much to win the game, but just don't lose the game. My heart went up to my throat on his first TD pass, which I just assumed was going to get picked because it was not a safe pass at all (the deep safety was a half a second away from getting to the ball). What you have to remember (actually, what I need to remember) is that Flacco has a cannon for an arm, and he was able to zing that one into Mason for the first score. Again, when you're talking about Flacco, it's not about the completion %, but the # of picks. He was 50%, but did not throw a pick. Give Tennessee a lot of credit for limiting Baltimore's run game, which killed them the first time. Also, Chris Johnson had a nice game out of the backfield, averaging over six yards a carry. Along with the turnovers, the game was turned on a dime when Johnson sat out the entire second half with an apparent ankle injury. LenDale White is a nice change-of-pace back, but he in no way was ready to handle all the rushing duties. The turnovers and the Johnson injury were the backbreakers. The Ravens' D...they bend, but they don't break.
Most interesting stat I've heard in a really long time: Baltimore is the first team since 1947 to not allow a sack or throw an interception in their first two playoff games...wow.
Facing the Ravens will be the Pittsburgh Steelers. While I saw the Steelers winning, I was not anticipating a blowout, and also, I was not expecting the Chargers to have one play in the entire third quarter! Oh man! As predicted, Sproles could not single-handedly get the running game going on his own, but he did manage nearly 300 all-purpose yards, including a huge screen pass for a TD in garbage time. What was funny was that it was the Steelers' special teams who had a big part in winning the game, and not so much San Diego's, which had been well-publicized after the Indy game. Santonio Holmes took a punt back to the house, and the Steelers were able to contain the Charger return units (with one Sproles return being the exception). Willie Parker had a huge game, which I figured he would. 146 yards on 27 rushes and two scores. Everyone doubted the Steeler running attack...I didn't really understand that at all. Are we supposed to assume that because the Chargers stopped a banged up Addai and Dominic Rhodes the week before, they were going to stop a well-rested Willie Parker? See, it seems like the things everyone are dogging teams about, they are coming through all of a sudden (Steelers' run game, Arizona's D, Donovan McNabb, rookie QBs). First impressions about next week: It is hard to beat the same team three times in one year (it has occurred 19 times; 11 times the team that won the first two games has won the third, but in the last two occurrances (2004 with Green Bay and 2007 with Dallas), the winner of the first two lost the third)
Arizona manhandled Carolina. I can't sit here and say I saw the Cardinals blowing Carolina out at home, but I'm not too surprised that they were able to come out of there with the win. Again, Carolina simply had no answer for Larry Fitzgerald. They didn't have it the first time around, and even without Boldin in the lineup, the Panthers simply had nothing to slow Fitzgerald down. What's funny is that in the after-effects of this game, tons of people are coming out and saying Larry Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL. Hmmm...so I guess this is changing week to week and if a guy has a good week, he has to be annointed the best right? That's what kind of bugs me about the media and their superlatives and what not. It changes every week. Here's a thought: MAKE UP YOUR MIND! Don't just suddenly change because a guy goes off one week. It's okay to change once or twice a season, but not every week. I mean I thought Randy Moss was the best receiver in the game, and then, when he decided to become normal, I tabbed Steve Smith as the best receiver...and I'm sticking to that! Smith only had two receptions in the entire game! So because Jake Delhomme was completely miserable, I'm supposed to change? Larry Fitzgerald is a fantastic receiver, but all the publicity he is all of a sudden getting is laughable. He's always been this good! Where was everyone when this was going on the last five years! That's just something that bothers me. Speaking of Delhomme, you could not have played any worse than that. Five INTs? Really? Throw in a fumble, and you're looking at a guy who went from being one of the intrical pieces in getting the Panthers home-field advantage, to being the biggest goat in the Queen City. The Panthers' strong suit was running the ball, which I think made it a perfect time, you know, with it being the playoffs, and you're done if you lose, to say "hey, you know we run the ball really well...let's have Delhomme throw 34 times and see how that goes." This is laughable...I mean it's simply laughable. It's not as though 'Zona was really stopping the run either. DeAngelo had a five yard per carry average, and Stewart, who ran the ball just three times, was averaging four a carry. I will say that Williams got about half of his yards on one carry, but come on...you have to go with what brought you to the dance. It's almost like Davidson going "you know, Stephen Curry is averaging like 35 points a game...let's have him shoot five shots the entire game and see how that goes." For the second game in a row, you have to give credit to the Cardinals' defense. Their secondary, the more I think about it, has to be one of the most underrated units in all of football right? I mean Adrian Wilson is...well, amazing, but Roderick Hood and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie are also really talented, and they were able to keep Smith in check all game long, and force all those Delhomme picks.
Philly beat out the SI cover jinx, which I have to say I was a little surprised about. What I was even more surprised about, and something I didn't realize until Joe Buck was talking about it, was that Philly had not allowed a sack in any of the games vs. the Giants this season. Considering the Giants made a living on putting pressure on the QB for the past couple of seasons, this was something that may have fallen through the cracks when looking at this game. I know everyone keeps talking about how the Giants have been reeling ever since the loss of Plaxico Burress, but it's so much more than that. First off, why wasn't Brandon Jacobs used more often. The whole reason I looked at the first matchup between these two teams was I wanted to see what kind of effect Jacobs had on the Philly D-Line, and not surprisingly, he had a big game the first time, and then yesterday, he had another big game, but he wasn't used nearly enough. Was it health related or was that just bad coaching? It seemed like Jacobs would tear up the line, then they would send Ward in, and he would get nothing. Wouldn't it be a good idea to keep pounding them until they couldn't even stand, then go to the change of pace back? To me, they had a really short leash on Jacobs. It's one thing if he was hurt (which is a very real possibility), but if he was even 80%, that was inexcusable. Second, Eli Manning was garbage in that game. He was so weak throwing the ball. At first, you could let it go because they were going into the wind and what have you, but even when he was with the wind, it seemed like he had absolutely no arm. There is one thing I can guarantee: Everyone who thought Eli was better than Peyton got a gigantic reality check yesterday, and I would suspect that bandwagon is rather light right now.
Onto baseball...actually, it's more or less onto the Red Sox...and that's it. Well, first thing is that Jim Rice finally got into the Hall of Fame. Hey, that only took 15 years. Hey, sometimes it takes that long for the writers to realize "hey, I think maybe this year, after fourteen years of eligibility, maybe I should vote for the most dominant right-handed hitter for over a decade ('75-'86) now." Good call. I love how the writers used whatever grudge they had against Rice for all these years. That guy should have been elected like a decade ago. Yes, I'm saying it as a Red Sox fan, but come on. You look at his numbers, they're better than Gary Carter, better than Ryne Sandberg...come on! Anyway, good for him I guess is what I'm getting at.
Okay, a ton of action has happened in the last week or so, so let me at least attempt to break this down, and perhaps give you some kind of sense as to what may be on the horizon. So, here's what we know: Brad Penny and Josh Bard were added last week, and now, this week has brought the additions of Rocco Baldelli, Takashi Saito (both official), and John Smoltz (unofficial). I think I'm in the same boat as Theo in saying that I've wanted Baldelli for a long time. I absolutely love his game. Good hitter, great in the field, great on the bases...the guy can flat out play. The concern that a lot of people are having, which is definitely a common theme amongst all the signings that have been made recently, is Baldelli's stamina due to the mitochondrial disease he came down with last year. Well, the good news is apparently that was a misdiagnosis, and Baldelli's condition is actually a treatable one, as he actually suffers from channelopathy, which is "a disease caused by the disturbed function of ion channel subunits or the proteins that regulate them" (you learn something new every day with the Sox). Again, the long and short of it is that it's treatable, and if you know anything about the Boston area, you know that this is probably the best place in perhaps the entire world to get said treatment from. Of course it won't be until the season actually gets going to find out how effective Baldelli will be, but look at it like this: Local guy, not a lot of money, we need a fourth outfielder...it's not so bad (by the way, this has got to be the biggest "low risk/high reward" offseason by any team in the history of sports).
Takashi Saito and John Smoltz represent very interesting pieces of the puzzle with not only their roles on the pitching staff, but what it will entail for other members as well. Saito went on the DL last year with a sprained ligament in his elbow, but was able to return at the end of the season with mixed results. However, that being said, he has a lot of positives to go with his obvious negatives (being 39 years old with arm issues). Saito has averaged 30 saves in the three years he's played in the bigs. At this point in his career, I'm pretty sure he's not going to have many reservations about being a set-up man instead of being a closer. I've been watching some highlights of his days with the Dodgers. He has a nice fastball (91-93), and gets lefties out with regularity with his backdoor slider. Also, he brings a lot of intensity to the mound. Saito could combine with Okajima to become the first ever righty-lefty Japanese tag team set-up men in the history of the majors. The Sox have obviously become very aware of how developed Japanese pitchers are in terms of becoming adept to major league hitting. With Okie and Dice-K on board, the Sox went out earlier and signed Junichi Tazawa to a minor league deal, now get Saito to help anchor the back end of the bullpen.
Smoltz, while not being official, seems to be on the verge of signing a one-year, $5.5 million contract with an extra $5 million in incentives. People were miffed when Smoltz decided to leave the Braves after 20+ years in the organization and go to Boston. It really came down to this: Atlanta was not willing to put in enough guaranteed money. They were offering $2 million, the Sox offered $5.5 million...that will do it. I think Smoltz probably found it a little insulting that Atlanta, a team who is starved for starting pitching, decided that they would offer a guy who has done everything for that franchise an incentive-laden contract. The Sox came in with more on the table knowing that Smoltz would not be able to return to action until about June. That's another thing Sox fans need to remember: Smoltz is not going to be there on opening day. Yes, he had season-ending shoulder surgery last year, and he will miss at least the first two months of the season, but with what the Sox have done in the offseason, and with what they already have in place, this is not going to be a problem. They literally and figuratively have an ace in the hole. Sure Smoltz will be 42 when he returns to action, but if you've seen this guy lately, he sure doesn't pitch like he's 42. The Sox can afford to give him as much time as he needs to come back, and if he can't come back at all...oh well, at least they tried. But if he can return somewhat to where he was before his surgery last season, you are looking at a big-game pitcher, which they really needed once Schilling retired, and a guy with a ton of success in October (15-4, 2.65 ERA). Again, low risk/high reward.
So, what kind of implications does this have on the rotation/bullpen? Well, again, this is just me, but here's how I think the rotation will shake out on Opening Day:
- RHP: Delcarmen, Ramirez, Masterson, Saito
- LHP: Okajima, Lopez
- Closer: Papelbon
An interesting story that just came out has to do with Michael Young in Texas. Apparently, the Rangers want to convert him to a third baseman, and Young wants nothing to do with it. Young won the Gold Glove in '08 at short, and already has converted from second base to shortstop after A-Rod was traded from Texas to the Yankees. It's interesting because is there any chance the Sox may be interested? They already kicked around the idea of getting Hanley Ramirez back from the Marlins, but Florida wanted nothing to do with it (he's ranked #1 in fantasy baseball rankings and will make less than a million the next two years, you decide). Now, Young is on the market. Here's a guy who has hit 180+ hits, scored 80 runs, and drove in 80+ six years in a row. However, the drawback is that Young is signed through 2013, and his average salary will be in the $16 million range. So, here's how you can do this: First, you need to figure out what to make of Jed Lowrie. To me, he's a great source of energy, but can he sustain that energy for 130-140 games a year? I'm not sure, but if the Sox were able to pawn Lugo off on the Rangers, and throw in a couple prospects like Josh Reddick and Devern Hansack, maybe they do it? Baseball people are frowning on Young's contract though. Also, his on-base plus slugging (OPS) has declined over the past couple of years. Still, even with all the money involved, it's definitely worth investigating. People have tossed around throwing Saltalamacchia in the deal, but I'm thinking that would have to involve Buchholz, which the Sox are completely unwilling to do.
The Celtics are in desperation mode right now, and the desperation really comes down to somehow getting a shot of adreneline for the second half. J.R. Giddens and Bill Walker just got recalled from Utah and are expected to be in action in the coming days. While I don't believe that this is going to solve all of their problems, it does give them new blood, which is something the C's absolutely need. Both Giddens and Walker were putting up really nice numbers in the NBDL, and while it is nowhere close to the competition level that the NBA provides, there is still a fairly decent talent pool of guys playing in that league. Plus, to do so well as a rookie playing in Utah? About as far from Boston as you can get? There's something to be said for that. I just love Bill Walker, I'm not going to lie. Really, my motive for writing this was purely to talk about Bill Walker...and to show this again. This guy is a powder keg of energy. A dunk here, a block there...this guy is someone the fans can feed off of (as evident from the highlight when the crowd in Amherst, and the Celtic bench, were losing their minds). Say what you will, but getting these guys in the lineup provides something different, and you need that, especially when a team is looking slow and lethargic, like the C's have been looking since coming off that 19-game winning streak.
So, hopefully the Red Sox puzzle adds a few more pieces this week (again, catcher anyone). I will be looking into the two championship games throughout the next few days, and hopefully I can get a preview up by the end of the week. It seemed like the stuff I pointed out came to some fruition last week, so we'll see how it goes this time (and hopefully my record is a little better in the process). Hope everything is great wherever you are. Watch out for the black ice. Peace.