Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Making sense of the Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles season is only five games old, but their performance thus far has been wildly inconsistent. The Eagles were the talk of the NFL following their week three beat down of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field. The team was 3-0 heading into their bye week and all three wins came in convincing fashion. Granted the first two were against two of the worst teams in the National Football League in the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears, but their dominant performance against Pittsburgh seemingly silenced any doubters.

                                                                     Associated Press
Wentz was under duress all afternoon last week at FedEx Field.
However, then the Eagles entered their bye week and the momentum they had built up in the season’s first three weeks disappeared. It was a potential concern of having the bye so early, but not an excuse nonetheless. In Detroit, against a subpar Lions team, their defense looked like it was still on a bye week in the first half allowing chunks of yardage which resulted in a 21-10 halftime deficit. The Eagles rallied, only to blow the game in the waning minutes as Ryan Mathews fumbled on a play that didn’t have much of a chance to go for a first down to begin with. The fumble resulted in Detroit taking a 24-23 lead on its ensuing possession that would hold up. Last week against Washington, the defense again looked lifeless. Washington dominated the line of scrimmage and ran the ball at will to the tune of 230 rushing yards and seven yards per carry. Cornerback Jalen Mills who was a bright spot in the first three games, could not keep up with former Eagle DeSean Jackson on the outside. Washington did this on offense without one of its best players on its entire roster as tight end Jordan Reed was sidelined with a concussion. On offense, things weren’t any better for the Eagles who lost the battle in the trenches against Washington’s defense as well. Rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai’s first start in place of Lane Johnson, who began serving his 10-game suspension, was a disaster and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz had next to no time to operate in the pocket all day. The score was 27-20 but felt much worse since the Eagles two touchdowns came on an interception returned for six by Malcolm Jenkins and a kickoff return for a touchdown by Wendell Smallwood. Additionally, in both the Detroit and Washington games, the Eagles had over 100 yards of penalties.

So now what? Who are they? Are they the team that looked flawless before the bye or are they the team that’s continuously shot themselves in the foot coming out of the bye? It’s probably something in between, but will that be good enough to remain competitive in the NFC East? For as critical as many have been about the mediocrity of the division in the last couple of seasons, right now it’s not shaping up like a mediocre division. Dallas is 5-1 heading into a bye week and certainly looks to be for real. Washington has righted the ship after an 0-2 start and won four straight games, two of which have been against NFC East opponents. The Eagles are still over .500. The Giants halted their three-game losing skid last week with a win against Baltimore and now have a very winnable game on Sunday in London against the Rams as they look to get back over .500.

Beginning with Sunday’s date with the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings, the Eagles schedule is about to get much more difficult. To remain competitive and have a shot at making the playoffs heading into December, they’ll likely have to take care of business against the inferior opponents, which they didn’t do the last two weeks, and sneak up on a few teams the way they did against Pittsburgh. It’s a tall task, that likely won’t result in the Eagles playing into January.

But remember this, the preseason expectations were for this team to win between five and eight games. Almost no one had the Eagles in the postseason. Granted, expectations changed after the Pittsburgh blowout. But these last two weeks should reset expectations close to or almost right where they were before the season started. It’s okay if the Eagles don’t make the playoffs this year. What’s most important is that Wentz continues to show he’s the franchise quarterback they thought they were getting when they made the move up in the draft last spring. Then, the Eagles can move forward and address some of the roster concerns that they have, namely offensive line. As for this year, it looks like this is going to be a team that teases its fans one week and lets them down the following week. In other words, an average team headed for an average season.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

2016 MLB Playoff Predictions

Wild Card Round

AL: Toronto over Baltimore

NL: San Francisco over New York

Analysis: These games still are useless and my feelings haven’t changed since I ranted about these “playoff” games last year. That being said, I like the Blue Jays and Giants to advance. The American League game could become a slugfest as Toronto and Baltimore finished fifth and seventh in the American League respectively in runs scored and I’ll take the Blue Jays’ lineup in that case. Baltimore did surprise this year and Buck Showalter deserves serious consideration for the AL Manager of the Year. In the National League, it’s a marquee pitching matchup between Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard. Terry Collins may very well be the NL Manager of the Year for getting his team back to the postseason despite being decimated with injuries, but it’s hard to see Bumgarner’s October success coming to a halt tomorrow night at Citi Field considering the Mets lineup doesn’t strike fear into many opposing pitchers.

League Division Series

NL: Dodgers over Nationals in 5

        Cubs over Giants in 5

Analysis: Dodgers-Nationals is a tricky one. Both teams have struggled recently in the playoffs. I think this series goes the distance and I’ll take Clayton Kershaw to win two games in this series and officially exercise the playoff demons that some people still think exist after he won in New York last year with his team facing elimination.  The Cubs and Giants matchup has popcorn series written all over it if the Giants win the wild card game. The Giants have the starting pitching to silence the Cubs’ lineup and go toe-to-toe with the Cubs' starters in low-scoring games. However, Wrigley Field will be rocking with many anticipating this is the year the Cubs end their 108-year drought without a World Series title. The Giants having to use Bumgarner in the wild card game doesn’t help either. Cubs clinch it at Wrigley to head to the NLCS.

AL: Red Sox over Indians in 4

       Rangers over Blue Jays in 4

Analysis: Cleveland is without Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar’s role is unknown. That doesn’t bode well facing a Red Sox lineup that led the majors in runs scored. However, while Cleveland was second in the American League in runs, the Indians scored 101 runs fewer than the Red Sox did this season. Boston’s lineup is too strong for an undermanned Cleveland pitching rotation. There’s strong cases for Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts as the AL MVP and Boston starting pitcher Rick Porcello could take home the league’s Cy Young Award. Rangers-Blue Jays certainly could be fun in a rematch from last year’s ALDS that was won in five games by Toronto. Texas is a better team this year and avenges last year’s first-round exit.

League Championship Series

NLCS: Cubs over Dodgers in 5

ALCS: Red Sox over Rangers in 6

Analysis: Whoever wins that Cubs-Giants series is coming out of the National League. It’s hard to see either the Dodgers or Nationals beating one of those two teams in a best-of-seven playoff series. The Cubs have more starting pitching depth than the Dodgers and a better lineup so the Cubs' shaky bullpen probably won’t come into play much if this is indeed the NLCS matchup. The American League series would be more interesting and there’s an argument for Texas here if you believe Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish can turn in a stellar start or two. That said, Hamels struggled down the stretch and Darvish has made one career start in the postseason so I’m still not sure the Rangers could hold the Red Sox’ bats at bay.

World Series

World Series: Cubs over Red Sox in 7

Analysis: This should really be the World Series everyone is rooting for. Two big-market teams, with devout fan bases and several of baseball’s best players colliding on the sport’s biggest stage. It looked like we might get this matchup 13 years ago in 2003 when the Cubs and Red Sox both made it to the LCS, but then Steve Bartman and Aaron Boone became household names. With Theo Epstein assembling the roster, Boston ended its curse one year later in 2004 and has won the World Series twice more since. Now, Theo’s current team ends its own curse against his former team.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Is Lamar Jackson the next Heisman winner you’ve never heard of?

Some years are more straightforward than others when it comes to college football’s most prestigious award. There were arguments for Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey over Derrick Henry, but the Alabama running back was the overwhelming choice for last year’s Heisman Trophy. However, the race to flash the pose gets interesting when a candidate who wasn’t highlighted in the summer, bursts onto the scene. We saw this in 2012 when Johnny Manziel took down Alabama in Tuscaloosa and ran away with the Heisman Trophy. Remember the Cam Newton who was nearly expelled from the University of Florida and played a season at Blinn College? No, but you remember his Heisman and National Championship at Auburn.

Now, there’s another name that’s bursting onto the Heisman scene and probably won’t go anywhere in the next three months. Louisville sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson has thrown for 913 yards and rushed for 464 in three games this season. Both of those numbers are approximately half of Jackson’s respective 2015 yardage totals through the air and on the ground. He has accounted for 18 total touchdowns in three games this season. Last year, he was responsible 23 touchdowns for the entire season.

Jackson, a four-star recruit according to in 2015, attended Boynton Beach High School in Boynton Beach, Florida. He landed at Louisville despite also visiting the University of Florida. Jackson also had a Clemson offer on the table. Ironically, in three months, Jackson may find himself in New York as a Heisman finalist where Clemson quarterback DeShaun Watson may very well be in attendance as well.

There’s still tons of football left to be played. Next week, Jackson and Watson will square off in South Carolina as Louisville travels to Clemson for a game that will be pivotal for both teams’ chances to make the college football playoff. But last week, college football fans across America watched as Jackson led Louisville to a 63-20 blowout against No. 2 Florida State. His initial coming out party was last year in the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M when he threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns and added 226 rushing yards and two more touchdowns. But, his name wasn’t mentioned much in preseason Heisman talks that were led by Watson, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, LSU running back Leonard Fournette, and McCaffrey.

                                                 Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports
Jackson toyed with Florida State to the tune of five total touchdowns
and 366 total yards in Louisville's blowout victory last Saturday.
After the Florida State game, Jackson is squarely on the map. Manziel exploded as a redshirt freshman at Texas A&M four years ago. Jackson, a true sophomore, is just as old as Manziel was in 2012. While everyone got a glimpse of Jackson’s talent in last year’s Music City Bowl, last week’s Florida State game was Jackson’s official arrival. Next week’s visit to Clemson offers Jackson an opportunity to solidify himself as the Heisman favorite. A late-season non-conference game against Houston will be another contest worth highlighting for Jackson’s Heisman chances. 

Jackson is by no means an underdog story. When you consider he was a four-star recruit from Florida with several high major offers, and started as a true freshman for an ACC school that went to a bowl game, in some ways he’s just the opposite. So what’s surprising isn’t Jackson’s production, but how quickly it’s coming. Despite his performance in the Music City Bowl, one month ago, if you asked a college football fan who the best player in the country is, Lamar Jackson wouldn’t be a name that popped up. Now, you’ll hear his name is every debate. Stay tuned.