Saturday, December 18, 2010

Five NFL Predictions Revisited

Before the start of the NFL season I made these five predictions:

1. Oakland would challenge the Chargers in the AFC West.
2. Sam Bradford would be compared to Tom Brady.
3. Houston would finally make the playoffs.

4. Tim Tebow would start a game.
5. Green Bay would beat Baltimore in the Super Bowl.

Starting with a complete miss, the Houston Texans were once again a disappointment.  The offense was even better with a renewed running effort behind Arian Foster.  Andre Johnson missed time this year, and really hasn't been healthy while playing with a high ankle sprain.  He has still managed to be productive, and gave us the highlight of the year when he pounded Cortland Finnegan with a haymaker to the back of the head.  Unfortunately for Houston, there was a sharp decline in the secondary allowing teams to throw all over them.  They lost a few heartbreakers at the end of the game including an answered hail mary in Jacksonville, but it was evident early in the season they would once again fall short of their playoff hopes.

Another miss was my Super Bowl prediction with Green Bay all but eliminated from the playoffs.  I cannot remember another team having as many high profile injuries as the Packers suffered this season.  It started in the first quarter of the season when they lost running back Ryan Grant for the year instantly making them one dimensional on offense.  It seemed like every week they lost another piece of their team.  You can never predict injuries and the Packers were just unlucky.  I still have a chance to get half of the equation right as the Ravens are still battling for a playoff spot, and look like they can beat anyone on any given Sunday.

I was partly accurate when I thought the Chargers would be challenged for the AFC West crown which has basically been handed to them four years straight.  Oakland was certainly more competitive this season, and managed to sweep the series with the Chargers, but San Diego's biggest competition comes from the surprising Kansas City Chiefs who still hold a half game lead over the Chargers down the stretch.

I haven't heard anyone comparing Sam Bradford to Tom Brady, but that might have something to do with the fact Brady is once again playing like the best player in the NFL.  The Patriots look unstoppable at this point in the season, and there is no debate who the odds on favorite for the Super Bowl is.  For his part, Bradford has received tons of praise and will most likely take home Rookie of the Year honors when the season in over.  He took a hopeless St. Louis team with a decimated receiving corps and led them to six wins so far this season which is good enough for first place in the atrocious NFC West.  Rams fans have been ecstatic with his play this season, and there is reason to be optimistic towards the future.  I give myself partial credit.

And for one prediction I was dead on accurate with: Tim Tebow is set to start his first game this week for the Denver Broncos.  Even with Kyle Orton putting up nice numbers this season, the disappointing record has led the Broncos to give their fans an early Christmas present with Tebow.  Orton has bruised ribs, but the Broncos claim Tebow's talent has helped him get this opportunity, not an injury to Orton. Tebow has made some goal line appearances this season and scored a few touchdowns, but Sunday will be a big step in his progression.  If I may build on this prediction and make another, unless Orton really needs to rest, Tebow will start but not finish the game.  As much fun as the first half will be, eventually the coaches will want to try to get an elusive win and stick Orton back in the game.  Hopefully Tebow can hold back the tears when he is jerked from his first start.

Cliff Phillee

Two seasons ago the Phillies acquired Cliff Lee mid-year to be the staff ace entering the playoffs.  Lee was brilliant helping the Phillies get to the World Series.  He posted a 4-0 record, including 2-0 in the World Series.  The fit seemed perfect.  There was a gushing love affair that ensued between Lee and the Phillies that made most think the match would be successful for a long time. 

After the season ended, Lee was surprisingly dealt to Seattle in a three team trade that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia.  Halladay was, and is, widely considered the best starter in baseball.  The trade was a success for the most part.  Halladay won 21 games and the Cy Young award.  He tossed the second no-hitter in playoff history in his first post-season game, but the Phillies came up short against the Giants in the NLCS.  

Lee went back to the playoffs with the Rangers and was dominant again.  He led Texas to their first World Series appearance in team history before hitters caught up to him.  As the playoffs unfolded I wondered how good the Phillies would be if they had both Lee and Halladay?  We'll find out this season as the Phils came from nowhere to nab the free agent last week. 

According to most media experts, it was a forgone conclusion that Lee would sign with the Yankees as a free agent.  No one would be able to match Yankee money, and baseball players always take the paycheck.  The MLB Players Union frowns heavily on free agents giving discounts even if the player doesn't want to sign with the highest bidder. 

There was an outside chance that he would stay in Texas after their World Series run.  New owner Nolan Ryan vowed to be competitive in the bidding for Lee, and he stayed true to his word.  At no point was any other team mentioned as a possible suitor, but in the end Philadelphia swooped in and signed the southpaw. 

Lee left $15 million in New York to sign with the Phillies, but he will still make $120 million over five years.  That should be enough to pay the rent.  Still, what he did is basically unprecedented in baseball.  There are only a few other examples of players leaving that kind of money behind.  Let's face it, $15 million is still a lot of money, even if you're already rich.

Halladay and Lee unquestionably comprise the best 1-2 punch in baseball, but that's not what has the rest of the league nervous.  The Phillies have two other aces in Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels taking the ball behind them. Both would be opening day starters on 80 percent of Major League teams.  The real beauty of these four pitching together is the tremendous balance.  Two are left handed and two are right handed so there won't be any advantage to teams heavy on one side of the plate. 

Many people want to compare them to the 1993 Atlanta Braves who ran out Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery.  There are uncanny similarities between the groups.  Even the pitching styles of the four look similar.  Halladay and Maddux, Lee and Glavine, Oswalt and Smoltz, Hamels and Avery.

Maddux is a multi-year Cy Young winner and future Hall of Famer who threw with tremendous movement and unbelievable control.  He was not overpowering, but always seemed one step ahead of the hitter.  Halladay throws with similar movement and control and actually throws harder than Maddux did.  He will have a bust next to Maddux in Cooperstown eventually.  Both are right handed.

Glavine was a very smooth left hander who never gave in to hitters.  He had an effortless delivery and controlled the outside of the plate.  Lee has the ability to work inside more than Glavine, but he also doesn't get the two to three inches off the plate Glavine enjoyed.  Working inside is a necessity now that the strike zone is called more accurately.  Both have tremendous strikeout to walk ratios and both are left handed.

John Smoltz was overpowering with one of the most wicked right handed sliders ever.  He could run his fastball over 97 mph and was dominant as a starter and closer.  Oswalt is also overpowering utilizing more of an overhand curve instead of a slider.  He doesn't quite have the velocity Smoltz had, but he changes speeds a little more effectively.  Both are right handed.

Steve Avery began to fall apart after the 1993 season.  He was fabulous the first year of Maddux's arrival, but an injury slowed him down and he was never the same.  He only spent two more seasons with the Braves before moving on.  Hamels is capable of dominating, but he will also struggle at times.  Hamels and Avery were both the youngest of their groups, and both enjoyed tremendous success at an early age.  Hamels has shown some signs of decline but has gotten a reputation as a second half pitcher.  Both are left handed.

As a group, the Phillies pitchers are more accomplished in the playoffs than the Braves were in 1993.  Halladay has the most modest post-season resume that includes a no-hitter, and is the best pitcher of the four.  Lee was 7-0 before taking his first loss in the World Series last season, Oswalt is 5-1 with a 3.39 ERA, and Hamels is a World Series MVP.  Think about that.  A former World Series MVP is now the fourth best starter for Philadelphia. 

The trio of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz pitched together for several seasons winning a World Series and making several trips to the post-season.  They did enjoy a pitcher friendly ball park which cannot be said for the Phillies.  At the same time, steroids began making an impact on baseball effectively wiping out any ballpark advantage.

Chances are unlikely that the Phillies can or will keep all four pitchers together, but this season should be very entertaining for Philadelphia.  Even with all that pitching, the Phillies still have the potential to beat you with their bats.  They lost Jason Werth to free agency which is a big blow, but they still have Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino to cushion the blow.  They didn't have their best season collectively as hitters last year, but the potential is endless in that lineup. 

Baseball's money issues and disparity of talent between the haves and have nots continues with the Phillies and Red Sox.  You can go ahead and pencil in Philadelphia and Boston for the World Series next season.  It is embarrassing how unbalanced teams have become. 

Aside for the NL East hitters and managers, the one person who crapped his pants when he heard about Lee's signing had to be head case closer, Brad Lidge.  He will shoulder the responsibility to close out the games his ace staff starts.  He has been both brilliant and awful seemingly every other year even before coming to Philadelphia. He better be sharp this season because fans and ownership won't put up with blown saves when they have tied up so much money on starting pitching.  The Philadelphia bullpen is about the only thing that can derail a team that talented.

Lee's move is vaguely reminiscent of Lebron James without the press conference.  He turned down more money to play with other supremely talented pitchers.  Lee can take the mound with virtually no pressure.  He will not be the ace of the staff, and he won't have to shoulder the responsibility on his own.  If he struggles, there are three other unbelievable pitchers there to pick him up.  He still makes nine figures, and returns to a city and teammates he became very fond of his first time around.

The role of fifth starter is likely to be a combination of several players, none of which will be current fifth starter Joe Blanton.  Blanton has become the forgotten man after the Lee signing, and the team will need to dump the $17 million he is owed over the next two years to cushion the blow of their other enormous signings.  I'm sure Blanton is fine to walk away from that situation, but I can't think of a more cushy job in the Bigs.  There is no expectation for wins out of the fifth spot, just a need to eat innings and get the ball back in Halladay's hands the next day.

With steroids all but eradicated from baseball, and offensive numbers plummeting, putting together a rotation like the Phillies is unfair.  We might as well hit fast forward on the coming season.  The suspense is over before the season starts.  Congratulations to the NL Champs of 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Letter to Adrian Gonzalez

Dear Adrian,

Your departure crowns the harsh reality of being a Padres fan.  In you, San Diego loses its most consistent run producer of my lifetime, on a team with no other slugger.  I hoped you would be another Tony Gwynn, sacrificing career success to play in San Diego, but that is an impossibility in today's baseball market.

There is no way a player of your caliber can throw away $100 million and a chance to play for a legendary franchise on baseball's biggest stage.  When the Padres traded Jake Peavy I wondered if ownership was preparing to shell out some money to keep you at home, but I didn't hold out much hope.  I have endured way too many years of "rebuilding" efforts.

I guess I knew this day would come.  On the bright side, we got to watch you a year longer than most experts thought.  You never wavered in your commitment to the Padres and never complained about your miniscule salary.  All you did was anchor a lineup that gave you no help, and still produced in the toughest park in the Major Leagues.

They tell me keeping you doesn't make financial sense.  I guess that means the Padres will never attempt to be competitive and will continue to be run as an investment rather than a sports franchise.  New ownership, same as the old ownership.  The Padres will continue to operate as a Major League farm system.  They trade marquee players they can't afford for top prospects.  Once the prospects establish themselves, they will be shipped away for new prospects, creating an endless cycle.

As usual the Padres have some promising young talent who have yet to blossom, but you can be sure that once Will Venable has a breakout season he will be out the door too. Then Latos.  It will be a surprise if they keep Heath Bell. 

To me, it would make perfect financial sense to sign you.  A steroid-free, left hander who hits for power and average in the prime of his career is a good investment.  Especially one who is also a silky smooth gold glover.  You are from San Diego, but you are also Mexican and lived in Mexico making you the most marketable player available.  You are humble, hard working, and you have no behavioral flaws or ego, and you are a great teammate.

So the attendance has been bad, even with you on the team...If the ownership wants to fill the seats, they have to keep the fan favorites.  Then get more fan favorites.  Stockpile rather than distribute.  But, that's not the Padres way.  They don't have the money.  They are content on being small market.  What ownership seems to forget is that there is always money in a champion.  If you win, they will come.

Sorry if I rambled a bit.  I basically just wanted to say that we were fortunate to watch you play, and I'm sure we'll see you hoisting a trophy wearing red and white.  Don't let the media get you down.  At least they care.  I bet it will be a thrill to have a packed Fenway Park cheering wildly when you hit the field for the first time.

Before I conclude here, could you answer me one question?  What happened with Jon Garland?  Why would he take a one year contract with the Dodgers?  Was he not happy as a Padre?  His salary isn't impressive either. He decided he liked pitching in Petco just not for the Padres, huh?  Pretty weak.  At least the games will get quicker without his 30 minute innings.

Anyway, thanks for the time. I'm not sure if Theo Epstein has his eye on any other former Padres, but there are about six more out there.  I think David Eckstein is available.  He'd be great for morale and a good bench player, plus he knows that league pretty well.

Okay, have fun denting up the green monster.  With your opposite field stroke you might hit .330 to go with the 35 homers and 140 RBI you'll produce.  We'll miss you.


 Blake Bryan

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Welcome Back, Vick?

How should we feel about Michael Vick?  Does his current success and mind boggling comeback warrant some degree of appreciation, or should he be viewed as a villain for life?  Can a player ever show contrition from their performance on the field?

For some, Michael Vick will always be an inhumane dog killer.  An animal torturer who went to prison for horrific acts of cruelty that make most humans sick to imagine.  Images of Vick's kennel will haunt animal lovers and sports fans for years.

Others have already forgiven him.  Some never cared about his crimes.  Many of his fans continued to support him even when he went to prison.  His football ability was enough to keep him beyond reproach.  There are fans that separate the man from the football player, only concerning themselves with game day production.

Right or wrong, fallen sports heroes can always find forgiveness by producing on the field.  Fans are fickle.  Many examples come to mind: Kobe Bryant, Ricky Williams, and Ray Lewis to name a few.  Each case is different but rarely do achievements on the field show that a person/player has changed.  When the problem is off the field, so is the solution.

Vick might be a rare example of a person whose athletic success is directly related to his contrition.  Making bad choices was always a part of Vick's personality.  He didn't care to be a good person or a great player.  His shortcomings were as evident as his talent.  A handful of incidents leading up to his dog fighting conviction highlighted his unsavory character. 

Nearly everyone that watched Vick play for the Falcons saw a player who was just getting by.  He didn't take the time to cultivate his talent or work on his shortcomings.  He was really good, but he could have been great if he would have worked for it.  Last to work and first to leave was part of his package.  His football career was a metaphor for how he lived his life.

This time around he is doing things on the field he has never done before.  His amazing play is a result of hard work, preparation, and dedication.  He is clearly the leader when he is in the huddle and his teammates love him.  The coaches have praised his attitude and work ethic which is something you never heard about in Atlanta. If his football failures were a product of his poor decision making in life, then his current success probably highlights positive life changes.

When Vick was taken to prison we saw the face of someone who realized for the first time he was not invincible.  He was finally held accountable for his bad choices.  He was forced to think about what led to his incarceration, and it wasn't just dog fighting.  He had a lifetime of poor choices to consider.  The dog fighting was a byproduct of his tremendous hubris and "me first" attitude.  He lived without consideration of the consequences of his actions.

It is just football, and there is financial motivation, but there is something very positive about how Vick reinvented himself.  He is finally showing signs of what he could have been all those years if his head was right.  His success would be too unbelievable if he hasn't changed for the better.  Your life has to be in order to lead an NFL team.  While Vick might not be all the way there, he is off to a great start.

Vick had the best performance of his career Monday.  He was nearly flawless and looked like the best offensive weapon in the NFL.  The numbers don't even matter.  What does matter is he showed an ability to read defenses and make accurate passes in the pocket. Something he never did as a Pro Bowler in Atlanta.

I won't ever defend what he did.  Any person that can torture an animal is sick beyond belief.  He does not "deserve" forgiveness, and probably didn't "deserve" a second chance at fame and fortune.  Deriving pleasure from watching dogs tear each other apart is a personality trait beyond rehabilitation.  I would never try to talk someone out of hating Vick.

He took full responsibility for his actions once he was finally caught and gave heartfelt interviews and apologies, but they were always directed to his fans and employers.  He never seemed to realize how sadistic his actions were.  He acknowledged that it was wrong, but he never realized the magnitude of his cruelty.  I don't think he ever will.  A person like Vick doesn't view his actions the same way others do.  If he was capable of feeling compassion for dogs he would have never engaged in dog fighting in the first place.  It's not like he needed it as a source of income.  It was pure entertainment, which is barbaric.

I don't think Vick "deserved" a second chance, but I am glad he got one.  Everyone should get a second chance, deservedly or not.  Those that are incapable of forgiveness are sad to me.  I can't stand moralists who shove their beliefs in your face but don't understand why forgiveness is a virtue.  If we fail to forgive as a species, we prevent ourselves the ability to grow from mistakes.  To quote Penelope Cruz, "every passing moment is an opportunity to turn it all around."  I don't want to live in a society where we prevent people the chance to improve.  That includes Vick.

Vick's crimes were atrocious but he seems to be atoning for his sins.  He continues to work with the Humane Society after his release and has helped raise awareness by using himself as an example.  He paid his debt to society, not only financially, but with two years of his life behind bars.  At this point, all we can ask of Vick is to try to be a better man and learn from his mistakes. If he responds positively, then I can forgive what he has done.  I won't buy his jersey, but I won't curse his name either.

His apologies appear to be from the heart and his actions appear to back up what he is saying.  To be a great quarterback in the NFL you have to be a leader.  You have to set the example.  Something the pre-prison Vick would have never done.

I hope that Vick continues his redemption story.  There is a lot of time ahead for him to screw up and prove he didn't learn anything. I don't want to get ahead of myself and assume he is a different person, but he has done everything right since entering prison.  If his life deteriorates with success then we will know he was never sincere about changing.  But, if he continues to live his life in a positive manner, his success will be monumental.  With all the terrible people in professional sports, it would be nice to see a role model emerge from such tremendous turmoil.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Take Your Pick: Week 10

The first Thursday game of the season is tonight which is great for anyone who has the NFL channel.  Being a reluctant customer of Time Warner Cable, I am not fortunate enough to get the game.  I would love to see the game and I think Thursday NFL is a great idea.  The players don't like playing on Thursday, but this is an instance where I side with the NFL.  Fans like me want to see as much football as possible, so why not give the fans what they want?  Can you imagine Thanksgiving without fooball?  No, Thank you.  I rarely bring NFL salaries into a discussion about why players should do certain things, but this is an instance where I will.  It might be a little uncomfortable for the players to play on a short week or play over a holiday, but their job is to entertain and they are compensated well by the millions of fans that support the league.  Playing games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday let's fans enjoy the NFL more often.  It gets teams and players national exposure.  There are only so many Big East or MWC games you can watch before Thursday NCAA games become stale.  Players should be happy that their Thursday games bring their fans happiness and help grow the league.

Baltimore Ravens vs. Atlanta Falcons

The first game of the week might be the hardest to pick.  The Falcons are 17-1 at home with Matt Ryan starting at QB.  That's a pretty impressive stat.  But, I love the Ravens, and the Falcons have been lucky a lot this year.  This is the first game featuring Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan who were the top two QB's drafted in 2008.   Flacco has a tendency to struggle on the road which means Ray Rice will have to run well.  Atlanta has been soft in the secondary in games this season, but have been consistent at stopping the run.  It is tough for me to pick against the home team here, but the Ravens play better defense.  I think the Ravens will step up and win a close game.  Roddy White is banged up for the Falcons which won't help either.

Baltimore: 27
Atlanta:      24

Detroit Lions vs. Buffalo Bills

I have picked the Bills three weeks this season and have been wrong every time.  In each game the Bills have had a lead and let it slip away in the end.  The Lions know exactly what the Bills are feeling, but they have enough new weapons from their years of futility that they have become a team that should be taken seriously.  Matthew Stafford is once again sidelined but the Lions are used to that and really didn't miss a beat the last time he was out.  I think the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick will score points and play another hard fought game.  It has to be time for them to get lucky and win one.  The Lions won't take them for granted though.  This is a tough one.

Detroit:   28
Buffalo: 31

Minnesota Vikings vs. Chicago Bears

Did the light come on for Minnesota after their comeback victory last week?  The real question is how did they find themselves in that situation in the first place?  Did someone forget to tell them that they were playing at home against the Cardinals?  I don't trust Minnesota at all, especially when they need 400+ yards from Brett Favre to scrape by.  There are some fundamental problems with the execution of the offensive line.  The Bears are another team that scraped by last week to a weak opponent.  Their suffocating defense is the reason the Bears continue to win.  The offense just hasn't been consistent.  Funny how most Jay Cutler teams have had that in common.

Minnesota: 20
Chicago:      17

New York Jets vs. Cleveland Browns

The Jets were lucky to beat the Lions last week, but they found a way to win.  I think the Jets have won enough games to take that as a positive, but they need to find some momentum.  The Browns are a team that should be filled with momentum after last week's blasting of New England.  Mangini took on Belichick with power football and the Browns simply overpowered the finesse Patriots.  I don't think they will find the sledding as easy this week.  This should be a hard-hitting defensive battle.

New York:  17
Cleveland:  13

Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I have maintained since the first week of the season that the Panthers are the worst team in the NFL, and I stand by it today.  Not hard after they lost 34-3 last week.  The Bucs fought hard in an important game in Atlanta but came up short.  For their playoff dreams to stay alive, they have to win this game.  They cannot drop a sure win at home to Carolina.

Carolina:       16
Tampa Bay: 23

Houston Texans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Texans have gotten in their own way this year.  Kind of sounds like the Texans from last year, and the year before that.  Matt Schaub has been put into position to determine outcomes in nearly every week they have lost.  Arian Foster ran over San Diego in the first half last week until the coaches decided to go to the air and let the Chargers come back.  Their pass defense is the worst in the NFL which doesn't help.  Jacksoville had a week off after smoking the Cowboys.  They have quietly put together some nice wins this season.  These teams have had similar production, but had different expectations for the season.  I think the Texans have a bounce back in them.

Houston:      31
Jacksonville: 21

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Indianapolis Colts

The only thing I have to say about Cincy is that I drafted T.O. in one of the later rounds of my fantasy football league and he has been huge.  In real life, this team is not good.  They don't appear to have the confidence to win.  They like to get behind and rack up stats when the game isn't on the line.  They came close to a win last week, but predictably came up short.  The Colts lost a tough one to the Eagles that extended Andy Reid's winning streak after a bye.  The Colts are a much better football team that knows how to win.  They will probably give up some points, and hopefully a couple of TDs to Owens, but they will win.

Cincinnati:      24
Indianapolis: 33

Tennessee Titans vs. Miami Dolphins

The Titans start the first week of their version of the Randy Moss Experiment.  There is no doubt that his presence can only be beneficial to Chris Johnson and the running attack of the Titans.  My concern from a franchise perspective would be Vince Young trying to force the ball to Moss.  I can see at least one interception resulting from a forced pass in this game.  The Dolphins have pulled the plug on Chad Henne and are going back to Ol' Reliable, Chad Pennington.  If Ronnie Brown can put Pennington in a position where he only has to complete three yard passes, the Dolphins have a chance.  If they need to throw the ball downfield, I'm not confident Pennington will be an upgrade.  I guess we'll see.

Tennessee: 28
Miami:        20

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos

The Chiefs are not built to hold a division lead for 16 weeks and Oakland knocked them down a peg last Sunday.  The Chiefs will look to pound the ball against Denver's weak run defense.  This could be the game we see some Tim Tebow under center.  I have a feeling if things aren't going right for Denver, they might pep up the home crowd with some 4th quarter Tebow.  Watch for it, there's nothing else to watch for in this game.

Kansas City: 27
Denver:          20

Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants

Wade Phillips is the happiest man in Dallas right now.  The best gift Jerry Jones could have given him this holiday season is his release.  Especially before the Giants game who might be the best team in the NFL.  They have been overpowering on defense and hazardous to the health of opposing quarterbacks.  The Giants could also argue that they have the deepest receivers to go along with their effective run game.  I wouldn't bet against these guys.

Dallas:        13
New York:  34

Seattle Seahawks vs. Arizona Cardinals

We are at the time of the year where there are some real dud matchups.  This is one of them.  It is actually extremely important for the fate of the NFC West, but that is one of the worst divisions I have ever seen, and I have grown up an AFC West fan.

Seattle:    20
Arizona: 21

St. Louis Rams vs. San Francisco 49ers

The Rams could take a big step toward the NFC West crown with a win this week.  They are coming off a bye week which is especially important for the health of Steven Jackson.  San Fran looks to keep their playoff hopes alive after an atrocious start.  They are also coming off a bye and they are basically playing for their season.  Desperate team at home, can't bet againt em.

St. Louis:           19
San Francisco: 24

New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

One of two things happened last week in Cleveland for the Patriots.  They weren't ready to play or they had a huge weakness exposed.  They were pounded physically and were beat on both sides of the ball.  If that is the future for the Patriots, there might be cause for concern.  Of course, every week isn't going to go as you planned in the NFL, so they are due a pass.  The Steelers invented the brand of football Cleveland used against New England.  They have shown some weakness in pass defense.  If they don't tighten up, the Pats will score some points, and the Steelers don't want to get into a shootout.  I like the Steelers at home, close.

New England: 26
Pittsburgh:    27

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Redskins

With Michael Vick playing the way he has, the Eagles look primed for a playoff run.  They are a tough draw for any defense and can defend on their end.  If they are for real they won't lose this game.  The Redskins have had their fair share of drama after Donovan McNabb's benching at the end of their last game.  They had a week off to regroup and apparently let McNabb learn and train for the two minute offense, but it might have done more harm than good.  Unless the Skins can knock McNabb out of the game again, they're in trouble.

Philadelphia: 31
Washington:   16

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Breaking Down Blake's BLT

As a lover of food, I have always prided myself in trying new things, being open to exotic ingredients, and not being afraid to stray from the norm when I eat.  That being said, like most people, my favorite ingredient and food has always been bacon.  Is there anything more universally appealing than a perfectly crisp, warm, piece of smoky bacon?  There is nearly no dish that isn't improved by its inclusion.

Because I love bacon as much as I do, one of my favorite sandwiches, snacks, meals, etc., is the BLT.  I enjoy cooking for many reasons, but my motivation to cook usually comes from trying to please someone else.  I usually don't cook if I'm the only benefactor, it's just not worth the effort.  BLT's are one of the few things I do like to make for one.  I generally make BLT's by myself for three reasons:

1. It's delicious without a lot of fuss
2. No one is around to monitor the amount of bacon I'm using
3. No one is around to share with

Bacon does not last in my presence.  If it's cooked, it's getting eaten.  There is no such thing as bacon leftovers in my world.

I have experimented with a variety of ingredients and combinations of this sandwich.  I have ordered different varieties ranging from pork belly on ciabatta to a soft shell crab BLT on Texas toast.  I don't think I have ever had a BLT I didn't enjoy, but only one specific combination can be called Blake's BLT.  Here is how I do it.

Six Strips of Bacon

It starts with the bacon, and the number is important to me.  Six pieces of bacon is the perfect amount.  That may seem like a lot, but it really isn't.  It's enough to be substantial without being overkill.  Also, only five pieces make it to the sandwich.  Part of the process of making bacon is eating a strip as soon as it is cool enough to pick up.  I always account for that extra piece I know I can't keep my hands off of.

To achieve perfectly cooked, crispy, and straight strips of bacon, the best method is to cook the strips in the oven.  I like to put the bacon on a wire cooling rack placed on top of a cookie sheet, and then bake until crisp at 375 degrees.  It comes out perfect every time.

The wire cooling rack allows the fat to drain off the bacon so it is not sitting in grease which helps it crisp up.  Because it is laid out on a sheet, the ends don't curl and you don't get the fatty parts you sometimes do when frying in a pan.  It does take a bit more time, but you will save time with cleanup because you don't have to wipe bacon grease off the stove top or scrub a pan.

Plain White Sesame Seed Hamburger Bun LIGHTLY Toasted

Blake's BLT is not a small sandwich, and you need something that will hold up to the ingredients.  Although I love experimenting with ingredients, BLT's always taste best to me on plain white bread.  The bun gives you the same taste as white bread, but provides protection and stability for the rest of the sandwich.

There is nothing worse than a sloppy sandwich.  The actual experience of eating a sandwich is as important as the ingredients.  If parts are hard to chew or falling out of the bread, it really diminishes the taste.  If a BLT goes wrong it is usually from sloppy craftsmanship.  The large and sturdy bun makes sure that doesn't happen.

I say lightly toasted, but a better description would be barely toasted.  I like to throw the bun in the oven just long enough for it to toast without taking on any color.  Many BLT's are toasted fully which can scrape the roof of your mouth.  Lightly toasted is better.


Mayonnaise is a condiment I enjoy immensely.  When I crave a sandwich of any kind there is usually an ulterior motive to eat something with mayo.  The words Miracle Whip are sacreligious in my kitchen. There is no substitute for mayo.  My wife happens to dislike plain mayo (although she'll suspiciously eat flavored aioli and dips) which I still have not been able to figure out.


For the lettuce portion of the BLT I use arugula.  I have a strong affinity for arugula.  It has a bitter, peppery crunch that I have become addicted to.  Its flavor surprises many that aren't familiar with it, but once you begin to see how it can be used as an ingredient, it becomes a staple.

The bitterness cuts through the richness of the bacon and mayo.  There is nothing wrong with iceberg in a BLT, but arugula provides the same pleasing crunch with tons more flavor.  It also isn't full of water like iceberg or other greens that can make your sandwich soggy.

Large Vine Ripened Tomato (or Greenhouse, Hothouse, etc.)

Skip the beefsteak tomato here, and definitely don't make the mistake of using a smaller tomato like a roma.  The size is as important as the flavor.  You're looking for a bright red tomato that will cover the majority of the face of the sandwich.  Make sure you season with salt and pepper before construction.

By the way, if you don't like tomatoes, time for you to grow up.  You're not a child anymore, and I bet you like ketchup and spaghetti sauce.  Let's be a big boy and try a tomato.  It's a beautiful thing.


Yet another one of my favorite ingredients.  I used to be very adamant that adding things to a BLT was a mistake.  I don't like to complicate the flavors.  But avocado does not complicate anything, it compliments it.  Aside from the tremendous flavor which marries well to all the others, the creamy texture adds an element that puts an ordinary BLT over the top.  Again, make sure you season this ingredient individually.  Somewhere between a quarter and half a sliced avocado works well.


To put this masterpiece together, spread a thin layer of mayo on BOTH sides of the bun.

Working on the bottom bun, break the strips of bacon in half.  Lay three pieces side by side to cover the bun, then add three more in the opposite direction.  Continue alternating bacon layers until all bacon is used.  The reason for the criss-cross pattern is so nothing slides around when you bite into it, and every bite has the same amount of bacon.

Pile the arugula on top of the bacon and gently press in place.

Top the arugula with two thick slices of tomato that gently overlap in the center.

Add the avocado slices.

The top bun is empty so there is no awkward transfer to the top of the sandwich.  Nothing falls off if nothing is there to begin with.

Give the sandwich a firm press to make sure all the ingredients stay put.  And there it is...Blake's BLT.  Pure perfection.  The type of sandwich that when you finish eating it you'll think, "I should write a blog about that!"

I'd love to show you a picture of the finished product, but I'm not thinking about photography when I make this bad boy.  I usually don't make it out of the kitchen before I'm eating.  Once I pick it up, I don't put it down until I finish it.  There are few time consuming, gourmet masterpieces that I have made that can beat the satisfaction of the this simple sandwich.  So easy, so delicious.  Give it a try, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Take Your Pick (and go): Week 9

It seems like week nine is the time we start to understand what most NFL teams are all about.  It's the halfway point where the murky playoff picture starts to clear up and we can identify who is for real and who is pretending.  I'm not sure that's the case this season. There are no singularly dominant teams, and some of the bottom feeders are real scrappers.  It looks like this season will not be decided until the final weeks.  Here's what I think this week.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Bucs are one of the best stories in the NFL and will be in the drivers seat in the NFC South with a win this weekend.  They have surprised teams all season, yet still come into this game as an undervalued 8.5 point dog.  The Falcons have been an analyst favorite all season but it feel like they are overrated.  I guess when you put them in the framework of the NFC they are one of the better teams, but I don't think they're as good as advertised.  I would love Tampa here if the Falcons weren't coming off a bye week.  I still like the Bucs to cover.

Tampa Bay: 20
Atlanta:      26

Chicago Bears vs. Buffalo Bills (Toronto)

The Bears are a team that is easy to dislike.  I feel sorry for Chicago fans having to put up with a bum like Jay Cutler at quarterback.  His play alone, terrible as it is, isn't what bothers me.  It's a combination of his attitude, facial expressions, body language, lack of commitment, and his ability to not care at all about throwing picks.  The Bears have an excellent defense which keeps them a tough team to predict.  The Bills are an improving team that is better than most people think.  Ryan Fitzpatrick has been putting up nice numbers at quarterback and the team has not quit despite their 0-7 start.  This week is a good chance for them to notch that first victory.  One question: Why are they playing in Toronto?  I guess it makes more sense than London.

Chicago: 17
Buffalo:  23

New England Patriots vs. Cleveland Browns

Don't look now, but the best record in the NFL belongs to the Patriots.  They have had some good fortune, especially in scheduling, but the Patriots have been a franchise that creates their own luck.  The Browns play great defense, but don't offer much offensive firepower.  They aren't going to make the playoffs, but they are a team that will compete.  Of course, the story of this game will be Bill Belichick vs. Eric Mangini.  Mangini, the one time lackey turned assistant coach turned bitter rival will once again try to overthrow the Ego.  I like what the Browns have been doing, love the fact they're at home, love that they're coming off a bye week, but not sold on Colt McCoy beating Tom Brady.  That doesn't sound right.

New England: 21
Cleveland:        17

New York Jets vs. Detroit Lions

This is a very interesting game for the Jets coming off a shutout loss to the Packers.  The Jets had won five straight and looked like they might be the strongest team in the league before last week's set back.  Mark Sanchez has been a good bounce back quarterback in his young career, and it's hard to argue with the talent of the Jets. The Lions are a team that have been improving on both sides of the ball, and now have Matthew Stafford back under center.  They could be 5-2 at this point with a bit of luck (and common sense by the referees), but they have won two of their last three, both at home.  This could surprisingly be one of the best games of the weekend.

New York: 22
Detroit:       20

New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers

The up and down Saints appear to be on the upswing again.  Drew Brees looked comfortable last week against the Steelers which is a great sign for Saints fans.  They still lack production in the run game, but they have improved.  Carolina is a disaster.  The only part of their game that has been productive is pass defense.  Unfortunately, Brees put up 275 yards against them earlier this year, and the lineup of quarterbacks they have faced is not impressive.  If the Saints found their groove, this one is a no-brainer.

New Orleans: 34
Carolina:         17

Miami Dolphins vs. Baltimore Ravens

Has anyone played a tougher schedule than the Dolphins?  They are solid on both sides of the ball, but not spectacular.  One major concern for the Dolphins is the drop off in the run game.  They are not getting what they expected out of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams is not getting near as many carries.  Here's a weirdo stat: The Dolphins are 4-0 on the road and 0-3 at home.  The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the Ravens after two overtime games where they clearly weren't playing their best football.  Normally, this would be an easy call, but you have to wonder about Miami's road record.  I have to stay with the Ravens here.

Miami:        19
Baltimore: 27

San Diego Chargers vs. Houston Texans

This is the season for the Chargers.  They won last week against a hot Tennessee team at home, but they have yet to win on the road.  Last year a trip to New York sparked their second half run after their usual slow start.  This game has the same feeling, and it's definitely a game they're capable of winning.  The Chargers have won every game that they haven't beaten themselves with poor special teams and ridiculous turnovers.  Antonio Gates is doubtful for the game which would be a huge blow to the Chargers already depleted receivers.  The Texans need this win as bad as the Chargers after losing to Indy last week.  The Texans are great on offense, but rank dead last in the NFL in pass defense.  Not good when you're going up against Phillip Rivers who hasn't let injuries to his receiving corps slow him down.  As long as the Chargers don't beat themselves, they should get their first road win of the season.

San Diego: 24
Houston:     21

Arizona Cardinals vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Cards are terrible. They rank at the bottom of nearly every statistical category on offense and defense.  Not much else to say about them.  If it weren't for the Cowboys the Vikings would be the biggest disappointment of the season.  The Brett Favre, Randy Moss, Brad Childress side show is pitiful.  They have gone from Super Bowl contenders to a franchise that will miss the playoffs and have to blow up the team and bring in a new coaching staff.  Any coach that can improve the offensive line and learn to use Adrian Peterson correctly would be a welcome addition.

Arizona:      10
Minnesota: 24

New York Giants vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Giants have been firing on all cylinders and have played the most dominating defense in the NFL.  They have knocked out five quarterbacks this season.  Ridiculous.  The Seahawks continue to play above their head at times, especially at home.  They will welcome in Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback with Matt Hasselbeck out this Sunday.  Pete Carroll made it a priority to acquire Whitehurst as his first move as head coach, we'll see if it works out.  This will be a better game than most think.  The Giants have struggled in Seattle historically.  The Giants are a tough draw for Whitehurst to get his first start though.

New York:  27
Seattle:       20

Indianapolis Colts vs. Philadelphia Eagles

The Colts might be banged up, but they still have Peyton Manning.  Before I jump on the bandwagon, I need to see them get a quality victory.  I don't think the Texans are as tough as originally thought, and they have struggled through some of their other wins this season.  Andy Reid is 11-0 coming off bye weeks in his career and Michael Vick and Desean Jackson are back on the field for the Eagles.  I like the Eagles.

Indianapolis:   21
Philadelphia: 28

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Oakland Raiders

The most important game in the AFC West doesn't include the Chargers.  The Chiefs have been a pleasant surprise, and the Raiders have put together two games where they were absolutely dominant.  I still have a problem believing in the Chiefs, especially with their low scoring offense.  The Raiders are sizzling hot and playing at home.

Kansas City: 17
Oakland:     30

Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers

So you bring in Roy Williams and Jon Kitna and suddenly you become the Detroit Lions of 2008.  The similarities are so close that Williams is even starting his idiot Longhorn chatter claiming the Cowboys will run the table the rest of the season.  Remember when he claimed the Lions would make the playoffs before going winless? He might have picked a better week, like Jacksonville at home.  Oops, that wouldn't have worked out either.  As a punishment for the terrible season Jerry Jones is going to force Wade Phillips to finish the season as head coach.  Green Bay is still finding ways to win games.  They are not the team they were supposed to be, but they are still not push overs.  I think it will be close with the Cowboys on the losing end.

Dallas:         20
Green Bay: 23

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals

The Steelers are coming off of their second loss of the season.  They gave up a lot of passing yards to Drew Brees and were unable to come up with much on offense.  The Steelers will have to run the ball more effectively if they want to win games in the typical Steelers fashion.  Luckily, they are playing a weak run defense in Cincy.  It has been awhile since the Bengals have notched a victory.  They are 2-5 with one of the victories coming against Carolina.  It's a tall order to ask a team like that to get back to their winning ways against Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh: 24
Cincinnati:   18

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Take Your Pick: Week 8

In a hotel room in Norman after watching Oklahoma beat Colorado 43-10.  I didn't submit my picks before leaving town, so here is a quick version this week.

Miami Dolphins vs. Cincinnati Bengals: Dolphins (+1) cover

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Dallas Cowboys: Cowboys (-6.5) cover

Washington Redskins vs. Detroit Lions: Lions (-2.5) cover

Buffalo Bills vs. K.C. Chiefs: Chiefs (-7) no cover

Carolina Panthers vs. St. Louis Rams: Rams (-2.5) cover

Green Bay Packers vs. New York Jets: Jets (-6) no cover

Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers: Broncos (+2.5) cover

Tennessee Titans vs. San Diego Chargers: Chargers (-5) cover

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Arizona Cardinals: Bucs (+3) cover

Minnesota Vikings vs. New England Patriots: Pats (-5.5) no cover

Seattle Seahawks vs. Oakland Raiders: Raiders (-2.5) cover

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. New Orleans Saints: Steelers (+1.5) cover

Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts: Colts (-5.5) no cover

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Take Your Pick: Week 7

Week 6 was quite the bounce back week for me.  I went 11-3 and was pretty accurate picking scores.  This week is much more challenging.  There are several road teams and underdogs I like, so I will look very smart or very dumb.  According to Vegas, I like no less than seven underdogs this week.  I think I might be smarter than Vegas because they have the Chargers as a favorite over New England.  How can I have faith in a system that gives points to Tom Brady against a 2-4 team?  I hope they're right, but I don't see it.  Here's my picks.

Cincinnati Bengals vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Bengals season needs a shot in the arm.  They looked like they might get things on track after beating Baltimore, but went on to lose against Cleveland and Tampa.  A win in Atlanta could help a sputtering team get some confidence.  Atlanta became the toast of the NFC (strangely) after posting a 4-1 record.  They have had as much good fortune as any team in the league.  Philadelphia exposed them last week so the Falcons need a bounce back at home.  Most seem to like the Falcons but Cincy had a bye week to prepare.

Cincinnati: 30
Atlanta:       27

Washington Redskins vs. Chicago Bears

The Redskins have gone from below average to scrappy with McNabb.  They have a chance to win any game they play.  The Bears are 4-2 but couldn't be less impressive in the process.  If the Bears can't get their protection issues fixed, there won't be too many games they win, even at home.

Washington: 20
Chicago:        17

St. Louis Rams vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After beating San Diego, the Rams season got serious.  They now stand at 3-3 with a winnable game that could vault them to first place in the conference.  The Rams are looking for their first road victory this season.  Much like the Rams, the Bucs have played over their head this year.  They got a dose of reality courtesy of the Saints last week.  They are also 1-2 at home.  I'm taking my third upset and third road team in three chances.

St. Louis:    23
Tampa Bay: 21

San Francisco 49ers vs. Carolina Panthers

The Niners hammered out their first win last week and have a great chance to make it two in a row.  They still didn't look dominant in any fashion, but they came away with the W which should provide some momentary reliefI'm not sure there is anything to say about the Panthers.  Okay, here's something...They had a bye last week.  Fourth straight road team.

San Francisco: 27
Carolina:           17

Buffalo Bills vs. Baltimore Ravens

The real tragedy of the Buffalo Bills is that they don't have Carolina on the schedule this year.  That is a game I think they can win.  The Ravens lost a heart breaker to the Patriots last week.  They have played a very tough schedule so far this season and get a break this week at home.  I would not want to participate if I were the Bills.

Buffalo:      13
Baltimore: 34

Philadelphia Eagles vs. Tennessee Titans

This could be one of the best games of the week.  Both teams are coming off big victories, and both stand at 4-2.  The Eagles have the edge with quarterback but the Titans have arguably the best running back in the league.  This game will most likely come down to defense and turnovers as good games often do.  Here is one unbelievable stat: Both teams are 3-0 on the road and 1-2 at home this season.  By that pattern, the Eagles look good here.

Philadelphia: 24
Tennessee:      22

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Kansas City Chiefs

The Jags were embarrassed at home against the Titans last Monday night.  Now they travel on a short week to Kansas City where the Chiefs have been surprisingly good.  Whenever I talk about the Chiefs at home I have to give their fans credit because they enjoy one of the two best home field advantages in the NFL.  Even though they lost in Houston last week, I am starting to believe this is a serious playoff contender based on their division.

Jacksonville:  17
Kansas City: 26

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Miami Dolphins

Regardless of who's taking snaps, the Steelers will be favored in 90 percent of their games thanks to the defense.  They are playing Steelers formula football and pounding out wins each week.  The Dolphins are a solid team but are still seeking their first home win.  No one knows exactly what kind of team Miami will bring to the stadium.  Whichever team shows up, they won't be good enough to beat the Steelers.

Pittsburgh: 27
Miami:        14

Cleveland Browns vs. New Orleans Saints

The Browns have three quarterbacks that I wouldn't ever bet on.  Their best player is out with a concussion, and they have to travel to New Orleans.  The Saints got back on track after smoking Tampa Bay.  The Browns haven't been pushovers, but I don't see any way the Saints lose this game.  Of course, I didn't see how they could lose to Max Hall and the Cards in New Orleans either.

Cleveland:       16
New Orleans: 31

Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks

The Cards are coming off a bye week where Max Hall was able to get lots of reps in practice.  I really don't think much can help the Cardinals other than playing in the worst division in the NFL.  That being said, one of the few teams the Cardinals should beat is the Seahawks.  The game is in Seattle where the Seahawks are always a threat.  They are right up there with K.C. for best home field advantage.

Arizona: 13
Seattle:  17

New England Patriots vs. San Diego Chargers

The Pats established themselves as a top team (once again) after beating Baltimore last week.  New England and Tom Brady just knows how to win.  Even when the Chargers were good they couldn't get it done against the Pats.  This year they are not good and find themselves in a pivotal game.  Last year it was a win in New York that sparked a playoff run.  Could it be a win against the Pats this year?  No way.

New England: 35
San Diego:       20

Oakland Raiders vs. Denver Broncos

Oakland strengths: Running the ball, defending the pass.
Denver strengths: Defending the run, passing the ball.
Oakland weaknesses: Passing the ball, defending the run.
Denver weaknesses: Defending the pass, running the ball.
Oakland is 0-3 on the road.

Oakland: 20
Denver:  28

Minnesota Vikings vs. Green Bay Packers

Only a sex scandal could derail the fanfare around Favre returning to Green Bay.  The Vikings seem to be slowly coming together, but Favre has to get going.  Adrian Peterson has been productive, but not as effective as he could be if the passing game could loosen up defenses.  The Vikings need Favre and Moss to develop some chemistry.  The phrase most commonly used when describing the Packers is, "decimated by injuries."  There really isn't much teams can do about a rash of injuries to key players.  Not to the degree the Packers have been hit.

Minnesota: 27
Green Bay:  24

New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys

At 4-2 the Giants are getting comfortable which is never a good place for them to be.  They have been great on defense and put together some nice offensive games.  The Cowboys are beyond desperate and another loss at home could mean Wade Phillips' job, regardless of what Jerry Jones says.  It would also cost them their season.  Aside from eliminating penalties, the Cowboys have to run the ball better.  It is do or die (again) for the Cowboys.  I'm not confident, but they need this game so much more than New York.

New York: 17
Dallas:      21


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