2017 World Series Prediction

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The Fall Classic is upon us, and with apologies to the Indians, it’s fair to say we are down to the two best teams in baseball. The Dodgers have made mincemeat of their postseason competition so far, while the Astros are on an emotional high coming off of a thrilling 7-game series. I’m coming off of an amazing week in which I was 9/10 in predicting games during the Conference Series including picking the two league champions. Who do I think has the edge? Let’s take a look at who will be the 2017 World Series Champions.

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The Astros have won the pennant for the second time in franchise history, but it’s their first in the American League. Yes, because they switched leagues in 2013, they are the first franchise in baseball history to win both the AL and NL pennants. However, their last trip to the World Series didn’t end so well, as they were swept by the White Sox in 2005. Of course, their goals this week stretch far beyond just winning their first World Series game.

At 5’6″, second baseman Jose Altuve leads the charge for Houston as he carries his MVP numbers into the playoffs. His unreal .346 average in the regular season actually jumped to .400 in October, along with a proportionally impressive 5 home runs and 8 RBIs. Altuve is a tough out, and there is nobody more passionate about the game in either clubhouse than this superstar. Well maybe one person… but I’ll get to him.

Altuve isn’t alone on this stacked batting order. Everyone from top to bottom is a threat including George Springer and Carlos Correa. It seems as though the Astros are now on the top of their game after a slight dip towards the end of the regular season. Without a home loss this postseason, it’s hard to imagine the offense will let up anytime soon.

As for the pitching, Charlie Morton shut out the Yankees in Game 7 and proved that Houston is more than just Dallas Keuchel and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander.  Morton’s contributions will be desperately needed, as the latter pitchers will not be able to hoist the trophy by themselves. Having depth at pitching is crucial, and Morton might be the unsung hero to make it happen for the Astros.

Speaking of depth at pitching, if the Astros  have a weakness, it’s their bullpen. Their two best arms have combined for a 9.00 ERA in October, which puts a lot of pressure on the starters to perform. Unlike the Dodgers, the Astros don’t have that security blanket to reliably come in and bail out a bad start. If Ken Giles and Chris Devenski don’t turn it around, it just might be the undoing of the Astros.

On to the Dodgers, who appear to be on cruise control. Continuing their dominance of the regular season and putting aside their September struggles, L.A. looks to seal the deal and secure their first championship since 1988. It’s a little weird to think that the 5-time defending NL West champions haven’t won “the big one” yet, but they’re confident that the drought ends now.

Perhaps the best thing about the Dodgers is the fact that literally anyone in the lineup can be the hero on any given night. For example, none other than Enrique Hernandez hit 3 long balls for 7 RBIS in a Game 5 series-clinching victory for L.A. Six All-Stars or not, having every single man in the lineup capable of taking the game over is a nightmare for opponents.

Also a nightmare? Yasiel Puig. Love him or hate him, this man loves baseball. No one else has the guts to do a bat flip-stare down combo on a routine single. Honestly, his gumption infuriates me, but if I’m a Dodger fan, I love his heart and how he can spark the team at any moment. He might not be the most talented guy, but it would behoove the Astros to make a note of shutting Puig down.

So far, the Dodger pitching has been phenomenal, but they haven’t faced an offense like Houston’s yet. Clayton Kershaw has the worst ERA of the starts with a respectable 3.63 and 0.98 WHIP. Rich Hill is right behind him with a 3.00 ERA but a 1.11 WHIP. Those are the Dodgers’ #1 and #2 pitchers. It’s definitely concerning to see that they’ve struggled the most, but you could chalk that up to more high leverage situations because the Dodgers haven’t lost at home or lost before Game 4 in any series so far. This leeway surely takes a lot of pressure off of the back end of the rotation and the bullpen.

The bullpen is what really separates Los Angeles from the Astros. Of the 34 relief appearances, these pitchers have combined to give up only 3 runs. Kenta Maeda has yet to allow a hit, and Kenley Jansen is getting about 1.5 strikeouts per inning. While I still think the Yankees had the best bullpen in baseball, the Dodgers are certainly a close second, and that’s a big reason why they could win the World Series.

Predictions:

Game 1- Dallas Keuchel at Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers win 7-6

Game 2- Justin Verlander at Rich Hill, Astros win 8-2

Game 3- Yu Darvish at Lance McCullers, Dodgers win 6-3

Game 4- Alex Wood at Charlie Morton, Astros win 7-5

Game 5- Clayton Kershaw at Dallas Keuchel, Astros win 8-3

Game 6- Justin Verlander at Yu Darvish, Dodgers win 2-1 (Instant Classic)

Game 7- Lance McCullers/Charlie Morton at Rich Hill, Dodgers win 8-5

Dodgers in 7.

World Series MVP: Justin Turner

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2017 NLCS Predictions

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It’s a rematch of last year’s NLCS in which the Cubs won in 6 en route to their 1st World Series championship in 107 years. The Dodgers made quick work of the upset-minded Diamondbacks in 3 short games, while Chicago gutted out 5 tough games against the Nationals in NLDS play. You may wonder who has the advantage: L.A. had nearly a week off while the Cubs have a rhythm going even on short rest. Let’s take a look at who’s got the edge in the NLCS.

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The Dodgers enter Saturday Night five days removed from their sweep of the Dbacks. It’s hard to generate a report on L.A. because there isn’t much to go off of. However, we do know that Clayton Kershaw continues to struggle in October. He got the win in Game 1 of the NLDS, but not before allowing four long balls which were luckily solo shots for Arizona. He is still in search of his first World Series trophy, and that search could continue if he doesn’t improve soon.

The Dodgers need him, too. Rich Hill wasn’t great in Game 2 either, and Alex Wood and Hin Jin Ryu have very limited postseason experience. Luckily, Yu Darvish came to play after a disappointing playoff stint with the Rangers. Whether or not he keeps up his 1.80 ERA remains to be seen, but it won’t get much more difficult than a series-clinching Game 3 win on the road.

The late-season struggles of the Dodgers appear to be behind them as they tore up Arizona’s aces. Five starters are currently hitting over .333, but again, this is only over the course of 3 games. However, L.A. had an MLB-best 6 All-Stars, so they are definitely not slouching at the plate. As well as the Cubs pitched against the Nats, the Dodgers will be a different story.

Lastly, phenom Corey Seager has been left off of the roster for the NLCS citing a back injury. The Dodgers will surely miss his glove at shortstop as well as his base running ability. He can still be a fiery leader from the dugout, but it’s a huge loss not to have him in the lineup this week. Los Angeles is hoping they can keep up their stellar team play without him.

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The grittiest team in baseball keeps on grinding as they survive and advance past the Nationals. I could go on forever about D.C.’s woes, as their last chance to finally win a playoff series may come down to next year despite consistently dominating the NL East. Hopefully the Nats can get a good playoff manager to get them over the hump.

Anyway, Chicago is back in the NLCS with a chance to repeat as champions behind some really good starting pitching and Wade Davis. Kyle Hendricks shutout the Nats in Game 1, but let up 4 runs in Game 5. Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta performed admirably in losses, but Jose Quintana has emerged as a game changer as he has yet to allow a run in his short postseason career.

The Cubs are surely a bit gassed after a long week and flight to L.A. from D.C., but they’re fired up to bring back the Commissioner’s Trophy. After Quintana squares off against Kershaw, the rotation gets a bit foggy.  Regardless, I really question their bullpen. Wade Davis has been great, but Joe Maddon is already pushing him to his limit.  It’s only a matter of time until he blows up.

For the most part, Chicago hitters had a tough time against Nationals’ pitching, and it barely gets easier in Los Angeles. The bottom of the lineup was picking up most of the hits, but unlike the Dodgers, Chicago only has one player hitting .333 or above: Albert Almora Jr. I’m not counting out Chicago, but they are probably too tired to hang with the Dodgers in this NLCS.

PREDICTIONS:

Game 1- Jose Quintana at Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers win 5-4

Game 2- John Lackey at Rich Hill, Dodgers win 8-6

Game 3- Yu Darvish at Jake Arrieta, Dodgers win 3-2

Game 4- Alex Wood at Kyle Hendricks, Cubs win 5-1

Game 5- Clayton Kershaw at Jose Quintana, Cubs win 4-2

Game 6- Jon Lester at Rich Hill, Dodgers win 10-7

Dodgers in 6.

2017 ALCS Predictions

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The Astros and Yankees have battled their way one step closer to the World Series, but they first meet to determine who is the best in the American League. Houston shelled Boston with a barrage of hits on their best pitchers all series long, while the Yankees mounted a historic comeback over the red-hot Indians. Let’s take a look at who has what it takes to advance to the Fall Classic.

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The Astros are certainly the favorites in this series after a convincing win over the Red Sox. After two crushing 8-2 wins at home behind the arms of Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, the Astros put the final nail in Boston’s coffin in a comeback win at Fenway in Game 4. In doing so, ex-manager John Farrell’s time with the Red Sox is over as Boston looks for answers to what they can do better next year with their loaded roster.

Meanwhile, the Astros march on to the ALCS to face the Yankees. A benefit of finishing off the Sox in Game 4 gave Houston a few extra days of rest to give their bullpen some time to rejuvenate and get ready for another tough series. Keuchel gets the ball for Game 1 after an incredible performance in Game 2 of the ALDS.

Keuchel is 3-0 in his 3 postseason starts with an impressive 2.29 ERA to show for it. However, this is his first time advancing to the ALCS, so it remains to be seen if he has the stamina and mental stability to keep it going. That said, I’m not too worried. He’s had an incredible season for the Astros, and his phenomenal postseason numbers should hold up against some inconsistent Yankee bats.

Justin Verlander is no slouch either. He was 2-0 in last week’s ALDS, and 9-5 in the postseason during his 12-year career. While the Yankees have an experienced C.C. Sabathia at the top of his game, the Astros have Verlander. Unfortunately, behind these two studs are some questionable starters. Part of the reason the Astros lost their momentum in Boston was because there is a steep drop off after their 2 aces have made their starts. The Yankees love to punish opposing pitchers for mistakes, so look for manager A.J. Hinch to have a short leash on the rest of the rotation.

Honestly though, the pitching questions might not even matter considering how hot Houston’s hitting is. Six of the nine batters have a batting average over .375 including (future) MVP Jose Altuve’s .533. Obviously, that’s an unreal standard to keep up, but there is no pitcher in the world ready to take on this lineup right now. I’d point out the three-headed monster of Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer, but everyone on this team is so dangerous right now that the gassed Yankees have their work cut out for them.

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Here’s the thing: The Yankees are ahead of schedule. Just like the 2015 Cubs, the Yankees weren’t expected to be a World Series contender until next year. Well, here they are in the ALCS for the 16th time as they carry a league-best 11-4 record at this level. Pretty good numbers for perhaps the greatest baseball franchise of all time! And if you don’t think they belong here, I’d direct you to them winning 3-straight elimination games last week against what was the most dominant team in baseball…the Indians.  But how do they move forward?

First off, a well-rested Masahiro Tanaka will start Game 1 in Houston. In a roller coaster of a year, Tanaka spun a gem in Game 3 of the ALDS by going 7 shutout innings and tossing 7 strikeouts. It was a great outing to keep the Yanks’ hopes alive, and wouldn’t you know it, here he is trying to steal one on the road. We’re about to find out which Tanaka shows up to the ballpark for this one.

On that note, the Yankee rotation is totally backwards. Their #1 and #2 pitchers have been terrible as of late, while C.C. Sabathia and Tanaka carried the team into the next round. So, either New York is destined to have really good pitching across the board if Sonny Gray and Luis Severino show up, really bad pitching if the 3 and 4 pitchers revert to normal, or inconsistent pitching in any other case. The odds are not in New York’s favor.

However, they do have the best bullpen in baseball. Tommy Kahnle, Jaime Garcia, and Aroldis Chapman have yet to give up a run in a combined 14.1 innings of work, and David Robertson isn’t far behind with his 1.13 ERA over 8 innings. The Astros have some really good hitters, but if anyone is going to shut them down in crunch time, it’s these guys. Disclaimer: Joe Girardi still has to use them correctly… something he doesn’t like to do apparently.

Now to the Baby Bombers. “MVP” Aaron Judge has a .125 batting average and Gary Sanchez only has .222 behind him. Yeah, that might be because of Cleveland’s insane pitching staff, but it’s also no excuse for some of the best young hitters in the MLB today. So, unlikely heroes Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks have carried the Yanks this far, but how long can New York balance on their shoulders? The theme for the Yankees is unlikely players filling in for their stars’ struggles. That’s going to have to change for the Yankees to advance.

PREDICTIONS:

Game 1- Masahiro Tanaka at Dallas Keuchel, Astros win 7-3

Game 2- Luis Severino at Justin Verlander, Astros win 9-3

Game 3- Charlie Morton at C.C. Sabathia, Yankees win 7-6

Game 4- Brad Peacock at Sonny Gray, Yankees win 6-4

Game 5- Dallas Keuchel at Masahiro Tanaka, Astros win 4-3

Game 6- C.C. Sabathia at Justin Verlander, Astros win 5-2

Astros in 6.

2017 ALDS/NLDS Predictions

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I really can’t explain to you how excited I am. I’ve been waiting most of the year for these playoffs to finally begin, and here we go. All six of my preseason picks to win their divisions are joined by the Yankees and Diamondbacks in what will be some really entertaining games. Let’s take a look at what we can expect in the Division Series.

Red Sox vs. Astros

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If you like offense like you saw in Arizona last night, this one is for you. However, the Sox have a distinct advantage in the form of Chris Sale. Yeah, the Astros have Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, but they can’t match the perennial Cy Young candidate who thrives in any environment he’s thrown into. What remains to be seen, however, is if Sale is a David Price postseason pitcher or a Madison Bumgarner.

For a moment, let’s check out the lineups. The Red Sox bats aren’t as hot as we’ve seen in the past, but they’re still scoring an impressive 4.85 runs per game. Mookie Betts leads a balanced group of talented sluggers like Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, and Hanley Ramirez to name a few. There is no containing the depth of this team which makes every at-bat stressful on the pitcher.

Luckily for Houston, they can probably do better. Jose Altuve, my pick for AL MVP, George Springer and Carlos Correa make an unstoppable trio. You don’t even have to mention role players like Alex Bregman and Josh Reddick who can contribute any night. As good as the Red Sox lineup is, the Astros undoubtedly are the best hitters in baseball.

Right…so there is going to be a lot of scoring. There is going to be some good pitching, too. Where’s the edge? Boston’s bullpen. The Red Sox made a lot of moves at the deadline and among those were insuring that they have a strong bullpen for the postseason. Well, here’s where the fruits of their labor pay off. Craig Kimbrel is probably the best closer in baseball besides Kenley Jansen, and he has a lot of strong arms to set him up. For the Astros, Chris Devenski is a really good long reliever, but he can only do so much by himself.

Game 1- Chris Sale at Justin Verlander, Red Sox win 4-3

Game 2- Drew Pomeranz at Dallas Keuchel, Astros win 8-5

Game 3- Lance McCullers at Rick Porcello, Red Sox win 9-7

Game 4- Justin Verlander at Chris Sale, Red Sox win 4-2

Red sox in 4. Disclaimer: As my preseason World Series champion pick, I have to go with Boston. If this series goes to Game 5 without Sale, I’m in trouble.

 

Yankees vs. Indians

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The age-old rest vs. play debate. The Yanks just played and scored a huge victory over the Twins to now face the best team in the American League. What don’t the Indians have going for them? They have stacked starting pitching, a solid bullpen, and some of the best clutch hitters in baseball. BUT…they haven’t played in 4 days… their longest rest since the All Star break.

The Yankees just played on Tuesday and are riding high on momentum. The bats are there, and they were hardly perturbed by Luis Severino failing to get out of the 1st frame. Aaron Judge homered, Brett Gardner came up big, and the bullpen locked down the Twins when they had to. Doing so against the Indians is a different story, but with a day off before Game 1, they should be healthy and ready to go.

I must say, the Indians are going to start on the wrong foot by starting Trevor Bauer against Sonny Gray, but I’m sure that’s by design. Either they steal Game 1 against the Yanks’ ace and go for the sweep, or they win it in 4. Their rotation is simply that good. Honestly, they could probably square up Corey Kluber against Sonny Gray and win, but whatever.

The Yankees are up against a juggernaut of a baseball team right now. They have an awesome bullpen that really shortens the game, but the Indians aren’t far behind in that aspect. The Bronx Bombers are going to have to come up with some really good, consistent situational hitting which has been very hard for them to do this season. It’s not something that comes naturally for anyone… except the Indians.

Game 1- Sonny Gray at Trevor Bauer, Yankees win 8-4

Game 2- CC Sabathia at Corey Kluber, Indians win 7-1

Game 3- Carlos Carrasco at Masahiro Tanaka, Indians win 3-2

Game 4- Trevor Bauer at Luis Severino, Indians win 6-5

Indians in 4.

 

Cubs vs. Nationals

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They may be friends in the picture, but this is business. The defending world champs were the final team to clinch their division and for their efforts will face the Nationals on the road. Primarily, they bring the same roster as last year, but without the same ‘pop’. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo aren’t MVP-caliber anymore.  The chemistry is there, but they just aren’t as hungry… as is the case with most defending champions.

On the other hand, the Nationals are starving just to get past the first round. They boast one of the best offenses in the National League with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, etc. Each pack their own skill set to compliment the others, and Jayson Werth is one of the most clutch hitters in the MLB in my opinion.

It doesn’t get better than Nats pitching either. Max Scherzer is a 50/50 shot to win the Cy Young Award against Clayton Kershaw; Stephen Strasburg is healthy and on the top of his game, and Gio Gonzalez is a strong #3 pitcher. The X factor is Scherzer’s tight hamstring. He injured it on his final start of the regular season and D.C. is taking it slow with their ace. If Strasburg gets the win in Game 1, I imagine manager Dusty Baker will be even more cautious before bringing Scherzer back, but if they get in a 0-1 hole early, we’ll see Scherzer for Game 2.

The Cubs have a really good rotation too, but they’ve just underperformed. Kyle Hendricks is getting the nod for Game 1 while Jake Arrieta will get the 4 seed. It seems backwards relative to last year, but Joe Maddon is going with the hot hands early on. Honestly, they are no match for the Nats. Washington finally revamped their bullpen too, so Chicago has their work cut out for them if they’re hoping to repeat.

Game 1- Kyle Hendricks at Stephen Strasburg, Nationals win 4-3

Game 2- Jon Lester at Gio Gonzalez, Nationals win 6-4

Game 3- Max Scherzer at Jose Quintana, Nationals win 7-2

Nationals in 3. Note: I’m not sure who’s pitching Game 2 at the time of this article. If Scherzer pitches Game 2 and Gonzalez goes in Game 3, I think Quintana can win at home and force a Game 4. If that’s the case- Nationals in 4.

 

Diamondbacks vs. Dodgers

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I’m telling you, this is going to be “can’t miss TV.” My dark horse rides on to the NLDS and has a legitimate chance to knock off the slumping Dodgers. The nation saw how explosive the Dbacks’ offense was last night when they were able to outlast the Rockies. Colorado threw the kitchen sink at Arizona and hung around all game, but the Dbacks just kept scoring. And they look to do the same against L.A.

However, the pitching staff did give up 8 runs. Pitching wins championships, and Arizona doesn’t have it. Clayton Kershaw isn’t the best postseason pitcher, but the Dodgers’ rotation is still deep. Kenley Jansen is still the best closer in the MLB, and there are some hard throwers in that bullpen.

The problem is that their offense is so unpredictable. They have the ability to put up 15 on an opponent, but they might get shutout the next night. Cody Bellinger has had a phenomenal rookie season as he eagerly awaits his first playoff appearance. Meanwhile, veterans like Justin Turner and Corey Seager have been here before, and they know what it’s like to lose. Experience definitely helps in October, so I’m excited to see if L.A. can put it all together now that it matters the most.

The series comes down to how hot Arizona will be. If they have an off night, the Dodgers will win no question. If they’re hitting like they did last night, L.A. doesn’t have a chance. No one has been more consistent than the Diamondbacks, but again, the playoffs are different. The Dodgers have the best record in the National League. This one is going the distance.  Are the Dbacks consistent enough to overcome subpar pitching?

Game 1- Taijuan Walker at Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers win 6-3

Game 2- Robbie Ray at Rich Hill, Diamondbacks win 10-5

Game 3- Yu Darvish at Zack Grienke (HELL YEAH), Diamondbacks win 3-2

Game 4- Clayton Kershaw at Zach Godley, Dodgers win 7-5

Game 5- Taijuan Walker at Alex Wood, Dodgers win 8-6

Dodgers in 5. Note: I have no idea how the Dbacks are doing their rotation after expending their #1 and #2 options in the Wild Card game. That’s my best guess.

2017 NFL Previews: NFC

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If you have already read my AFC Previews, I’m sure you’ve been looking forward to this post all week. It’s been 3 years since a team from the NFC won the Super Bowl, which is the 2nd longest losing streak in the NFC’s history. Let’s take a look at who has the best shot at ending the drought.

NFC East

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This whole division hinges on the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott suspension hearing. If his 6-game suspension is overturned like Tom Brady’s was last year, it’s incredibly hard not to see Dallas repeating as NFC East Champs. However, if the suspension is upheld, or even just reduced by 2 or 3 games, the division race gets a little murky.

The main contenders are the Giants. With the addition of Brandon Marshall, New York’s air raid will be nearly unstoppable. With proven veteran Eli Manning already developing great chemistry with Odell Beckham Jr., now defenses have to fear two elite receivers on both sides of the field. Unfortunately, that’s about all the Giants have going for them. They’ve never had a sure running back and their defense has been average at best. The NFC East isn’t known for its offensive prowess though, so maybe that’s enough.

The sneaky team is the Washington Redskins. Similar to Manning, QB Kirk Cousins has gelled with Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, and now he has Terrelle Pryor. However, there is no doubting that while they are good, they’re no match for the NYG’s core. With everything else mocking the Giants formula, the way the Redskins find their way to the top is by executing better than their counterparts.

Philadelphia is in trouble. Not satisfied with having both one of the worst baseball and basketball teams right now, their football team has joined the others in the cellar. The Eagles have a nice young, developing quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they are very thin. Alshon Jeffrey and Torrey Smith are past their prime, and if they get hurt, there is no one to fill in. Furthermore, while LeGarrette Blount can run like the toughest in the league, he is a terrible fit in the Eagles’ offense. I expect Darren Sproles to take over as the lead back. With all that said, I can’t imagine the Eagles making it back to the playoffs for a little while.

Since I don’t have much confidence in any of the other teams, even with the worst case scenario, Dallas should still win this division. Also, the truth is, Elliott and Dak Prescott probably aren’t even that good together. It’s just that insane offensive line giving Prescott time in the pocket and creating holes for Elliott to run through. So as long as that O-line is intact, it doesn’t matter who is behind them. The Cowboys are winning the NFC East. I promise.

NFC North

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The NFC North is projected to be the biggest runaway division on the “Blue Brand”. Like the Patriots in the AFC East, the Packers are the odds-on favorite to advance here. I’m not disagreeing with anyone here, but there are a few reasons not to overlook Green Bay’s rivals.

Well, that is, besides the Bears. Since Mitch Trubisky seems to be the best thing going for the franchise, Chicago has some hard years ahead. While people are saying he’s had a great preseason (which I still couldn’t care less about), he got shut out by the Browns. In fact, he never got his offense past midfield. So, whether you pay attention to preseason or not, he’s still a bust in my book.

But then we check out the Lions. Maybe Matthew Stafford isn’t among the elite quarterbacks in today’s game, but there’s a reason he’s the highest paid player in the NFL, right? Sure, that reason might be that Detroit has money left over due to the lack of depth of their roster but… Stafford can still sling it, okay? If the Lions want to be in the postseason, count on Stafford to carry them there.

I think the Vikings are dangerous because of one word: speed. Stefon Diggs has serious wheels, QB Teddy Bridgewater is a well-known dual threat, and now they have Dalvin Cook. Cook is my favorite to win Rookie of the Year because he has a great offensive line and a really easy division to run on. With this offense, it will be no easy task to go win in Minnesota.

All and all, it’s definitely still the Packers’ division. There is no stopping Aaron Rodgers and his deadly weapons. If it wasn’t for Green Bay’s porous defense, they’d probably be a bigger favorite to win the NFC and the Super Bowl. However, with such a predictable one-sided attack, the NFC North crown should be enough. Although, it’s never smart to underestimate Rodgers’ magic to take it further.

NFC South

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You might be quick to think the reigning NFC Champs are a shoe-in for the NFC South title… but not so fast. This division is completely up for grabs. Everyone has a high-powered offense, and there is no telling who will come out on top when these foes meet. I’ll shed some light on the rosters.

You’ll notice a trend. First, we have the Panthers. Superstar Cam Newton had a down year in 2016 with injuries and just an overall funk after their previous Super Bowl shortcomings. Now, he’s back with a versatile rookie in Christian McCaffrey and the same sure hands out wide. With an abundance of options and a variety of play opportunities, Carolina’s offense is still very dangerous.

Next, the Saints. Drew Brees has come to be one of the most deadly passers in the NFL. Despite being shorter than some of his offensive linemen, all the man does is rack up yards. Even without Brandin Cooks, Brees has plenty of passing options. Michael Thomas had a phenomenal rookie season and appears to be on track to take New Orleans’ #1 WR spot. However, because Brees’ vision is so good, we can expect seven to nine men to touch the ball throughout the game. I’m excited to see who else will emerge in New Orleans’ explosive attack.

I’ve waited this long to mention Tampa Bay for a reason. They’re my dark horse this year. I’m not crazy! Listen, Jameis Winston survived the sophomore slump with an above average year in 2016, and he made Mike Evans the #1 WR in Fantasy Football. Then the Buccaneers got Desean Jackson, a lethal deep threat. Winston has a cannon, accuracy, and a toughness that improves every game. Plus, he can even run a little bit…oh yeah, and so can Doug Martin after his suspension. I’m telling you, look out for these guys.

That’s a lot of offense. Atlanta has more. Matt Ryan. Julio Jones. Devonta Freeman. Even Tevin Coleman can light it up. So what’s the problem? Well, their offensive coordinator is spending the season in San Francisco. Kyle Shanahan was a huge reason Atlanta’s offense clicked and without his leadership, I have to wonder if they can keep up the pace in 2017. Time will tell, but I imagine the NFC South is up for grabs once again.

NFC West

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There is a huge spread of talent in the NFC West. Two of the worst teams in the NFL, the 49ers and the Rams, battle two playoff contenders in the Seahawks and the Cardinals. Unlike divisions like the NFC and AFC South, where anyone can win or at least better their chances next year, here it’s evident that L.A. and San Fran will probably stay at the bottom of the league.

But someone has to be last. The Rams have last year’s #1 overall pick in Jared Goff. He’s a hometown kid from Cal who is itching to make his first start. It won’t happen in Week 1, but I hope that once things start trending south, he’ll get his chance. In the meantime, running back Todd Gurley is a monster. He was injured most of last year, so his durability is an issue, but I think he can be a real dynamic back that is among the elite in the NFL. It’s just a little unfortunate he has to play for the Rams.

As for the 49ers, as mentioned above, they have Kyle Shanahan! Despite having virtually no talent on the field (sorry), they do have one of the best offensive masterminds on the sidelines. If anyone is going to bring out the best in this stale offense… it’s him. However, even if he can work his magic to put up some more points, the defense is still pretty terrible. It’s going to take years to fully bring the 49ers back to their glory days. San Fran is still probably looking at a top 5 draft pick come April.

Finally, we see the two-horse race between Arizona and Seattle. These franchises have gone back and forth for the NFC West crown every year since 2003 besides Jim Harbaugh’s first two years in San Francisco. So who’s got the edge this year? It’s hard to tell.

The Seahawks have the experienced QB Russell Wilson who always performs in big games, but the Cardinals have one of the toughest defenses in the league. Arizona brings elite defensive backs in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, but they’re matched by Seattle’s Doug Baldwin and Jimmy Graham. I’m still torn. You’ll have to wait for my 2017 NFL Predictions to find out who I’m picking…

2017 NFL Previews: AFC

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It’s finally football season again! It seems as though the whole country is counting down until action kicks off on September 7th. There are plenty of stories to look forward to, so let’s jump in and take a look at what we can expect from each division in the AFC in 2017.

AFC East

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We’ll start with the Patriots’ division…I mean, the AFC East. It’s easy to forget that there are actually 3 other teams that play with New England as the Pats have taken the division title 13 out of the last 14 years. In addition, they have put up no less than 10 wins each season since 2002, and dominate their division rivals with an NFL-best record of 73-20 during that span.

The Bills, Jets, and Dolphins are far behind New England and would need a miracle and a half to unseat the defending Super Bowl champions. I’d say the Dolphins have the best chance to make some noise though. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, Miami looks to repeat playoff appearances for the first time since 2000-2001.

Their story doesn’t start well this season as starting QB Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL in a non-contact play in practice. Miami called upon the services of retired signal caller Jay Cutler who will happily return to the gridiron donning the orange and green. While I might agree with those who call this move an upgrade from Tannehill, Cutler definitely has a lot of rust and some chemistry to build. Still, an 8-8 season should be an easy goal to meet.

As for the Bills and Jets, it might already be time to look ahead to 2018-2019. It’s been a rough couple of years for these New Yorkers, but it only seems to get worse as each day passes. The Bills have one of the league’s best running backs in LeSean McCoy, but because he carries the entire offense, it’s going to be incredibly easy for opposing defenses to shut Buffalo down.

Not to be outdone, the Jets maintain instability (get it?). They face relentless quarterback questions, they’ve let two top receivers leave, and they also have one of the most porous defenses in the league. I guess the Browns are getting a run for their money…

AFC North

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Speaking of the Browns, here we have the AFC North. While I loved Cleveland’s draft, they still won’t get more than 3 wins this year. But hey! That’s 3 times the amount they got last year! Circle the calendar for October 8: Browns vs. Jets; the loser gets the #1 draft pick. It’s a process, Brown’s fans. Hang in there.

A lot of analysts speculate that the Steelers are running away with this division. I have to disagree. While Pittsburgh will most likely repeat as AFC North champions for the first time since 2007-2008, there is a reason it has taken so long. This is, and always has been, one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL year in and year out. With four great drafts and opposing rosters at full strength, the Steelers can’t be on cruise control to claim the top spot.

Antonio Brown and a returning Martavis Bryant are among Ben Roethlisberger’s loaded receiving core. Also, despite not being present for the preseason, Le’veon Bell will certainly make his presence felt across the country. The Killer Bs are back.

Not so fast! Pittsburgh has 2 huge arch-rivals to look out for. Joe Flacco and the Ravens picked up speedster Jeremy Maclin to improve their deep-threat offense, and Baltimore drafted 4 nice talents in April to strengthen a mediocre defense. If they fall just short of the AFC North crown, the hard-nosed Ravens are definitely a Wild Card threat.

And the Bengals. The problem with Cincinnati isn’t their lack of talent… it’s their attitude. They always shoot themselves in the foot during key matches through strategic mistakes, clock management, or by notoriously racking up pointless penalties to put the opposition in game-winning field goal range. I’m sure Joe Mixon will be a great addition and help Cincinnati finally break into the Divisional Round, right?

AFC South

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Oye. Here’s another competitive division, but for all the wrong reasons. The last time a team from the AFC South became World Champions was the Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy Colts way back in 2006. Since Manning’s infamous departure, it’s been a power struggle. Starting with Manning’s last season for Indy in 2010, no division winner has surpassed 11 wins on the season besides the 2012 Texans. With abysmal records like that, it’s no wonder the AFC South can’t escape the Wild Card round.

The Houston Texans will try to win the AFC South for the 3rd straight time, which would be the first time in franchise history that they would do so. While the first two titles were shaky at best (limping into the playoffs with a 9-7 record), they hope 2017 will be different. With the atrocious contract of Brock Osweiler finally behind them, the era of Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson has begun. Yeah… they still don’t have a firm starting QB. Maybe 2017 won’t be so different…

Speaking of quarterback questions, the Jaguars have suddenly run into the league-wide problem. Blake Bortles has been awful this preseason. While his cannon is still there, his accuracy has disappeared. I’ve never been a huge believer in preseason (or spring training, for that matter) being a huge factor on how the season will go, but maybe there is reason to think that Bortles’ job, and Jacksonville’s future, is in jeopardy.

The Colts are hanging in there too. They’re always a contender, and despite a handful of key injuries this past season, they hope Andrew Luck can be back to full strength and propel Indianapolis back to prominence. If he is indeed 100%, the Colts’ weakness will be the defense. Despite some muscle on the defensive line, Indy constantly struggles to stop the run which opens them up for big passing plays downfield. Which is exactly what team #4 does very well…

Now, my pick to come out on top for the first time in 9 years, the Tennessee Titans. Marcus Mariota is locked in. Demarco Murray loves this offense. The addition of Eric Decker makes this group of receivers dangerous. This is going to be a really fun team to watch. However, with a poor defense as well, the Titans are going to be in their fair share of shootouts. Luckily, they have one of the most potent offenses in the NFL and should be able to rise to the challenge.

AFC West

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Meanwhile, the AFC West has quietly been one of the strongest divisions in the NFL. They have sent 8 teams to the playoffs over the last 4 years, which is the most by any division during that span. Leading the pack have been the Denver Broncos, who before last year had won 5 straight AFC West titles.

Well, before last year the Broncos were a different team. Again, an aging Peyton Manning retired and Denver was left to “rebuild”. They did a pretty good job with Trevor Siemian at the helm, as a 9-7 record would have been good enough to win the aforementioned AFC South. Instead, they were left out of the playoffs to hope for better luck in 2017. With much of the same talent and a good draft class including OT Garett Bolles, Denver has a real shot at getting back on top… but it won’t be easy.

Before I get to the top contenders, pardon the Los Angeles Chargers. I guess San Diego was sick of them, because they couldn’t match L.A.’s pitch to host the team in 2017 and beyond. For the fans who will stick with them through the move, let’s hope a change of scenery jumpstarts the franchise. I feel for you, too. Philip Rivers has done all he can with some really good wide receivers, but in some way or another they always seem to find defeat in the last few minutes of the game. I’m sure new head coach Anthony Lynn will make it a priority to work on those clutch moments.

Now we get into one of the most bitter rivalries in the NFL…the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. It was easy to forget them behind the glory of the Pittsburgh Steelers- Baltimore Ravens or even Dallas Cowboys- Washington Redskins rivalries, but there’s no hiding from them now. The Chiefs and Raiders are firmly in the limelight, but for different reasons.

The Raiders own the 2nd highest-paid player in all of football…Derek Carr. After an MVP-caliber year cut short, he is back to 100% with the same receivers that got him there… but also the same defense. Infamously and consistently one of the worst defenses in the league, Oakland needed to find some support for Carr. Their A+ draft class did just that.  For the Chiefs, it’s the opposite. They have a great defense that suffocates opponents and allows some of the fewest points in the NFL, but hardly an offense to capitalize on it. Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill carry the load for Alex Smith, and unless more playmakers can emerge, KC may surrender their AFC West crown to their hated arch rival.

Complete Guide to NBA Free Agency (Part 2/2)

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This is Part 2 of my NBA Free Agency Preview. If you haven’t done so already, please check out Complete Guide to NBA Free Agency (Part 1/2). If you have, enjoy reading about where I think these big targets should land. Let’s take a look, shall we?

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Yeah, I know he’s not actually a free agent, but he might as well be one with all of the rumors flying around. I won’t spend too much time with him because I think we’ve all heard enough about it, but I want to put my piece in.

Here’s the thing. I have no idea where he’s going. Indiana wants him to go to the Celtics because they can probably get the most from Boston, but the Celtics only want George if they can get Hayward. So, if they don’t, Indiana has to look at offers in the meantime, and there is a lot to sort through. First, the Cavaliers want to work out a three team trade (because they have nothing to offer the Pacers), that would give Indiana some prospects from a different team in exchange for Kevin Love. That sounds fine and dandy, but if the Cleveland Championship plan falls through again, both Paul George and LeBron James will likely leave to get a trophy in 2019, as they are UFA. So the concept of George being a potential one-and-done spices things up in the short term.

Second, the Los Angeles Lakers have made their cycle around the rumor mill, but with little getting done over the past week, I’m not sure this is realistic as a 2018 destination. Especially considering that the Lakers don’t have anything to offer the Pacers at this point. However, I could easily see George going to L.A. next offseason if he still doesn’t have any jewelry. But let’s cross that bridge when we get there.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguing beyond the Boston chaos, the Houston Rockets have emerged as legitimate contenders after picking up Chris Paul. Owner and fellow data analyst Daryl Morey is swinging for the fences and quickly assembling the Avengers to try to take out the Warriors. I would love watching George team up with Harden and Paul as they would certainly become the most fun team to watch in the entire NBA. We’ll see if these rumors come to fruition, but if I know Morey (and I think I do), he won’t quit until he gets his man.

The Celtics are still very much in control of these discussions, and Indiana and Boston have already gone back and forth on various offers. Basically, the Celtics think the Pacers want too much, and it’s a gamble to comply if the don’t pick up Hayward. However, if they do, GM Danny Ainge claims he is more willing to go the extra mile for George. That said, if the Hayward decision takes too long or he signs elsewhere, the Pacers might get impatient and pull the trigger with the Rockets or Cavs. It’s an insanely tense time as we wait for all of these pieces to simultaneously play out and unleash a bomb across the NBA.

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Lowry is a complicated case because he’s 32, and no one wants to commit on the superstar long term. The Raptors have stated their interest in Lowry, but they’re more willing to sign him for a 3- or 4-year deal with a possible team option. Obviously, that doesn’t tempt Lowry too much, but as his career dwindles, his options are beginning to slim.

Lowry, in turn, has expressed interest in moving west. I don’t blame him either.  With James and the Cavs breaking the Raptors’ hearts every year, I’d want to move, too. However, interested and affordable parties include the Lakers and Nuggets, so if Lowry does in fact move West, it’ll be part of a rebuilding effort, which he doesn’t need in his mid 30s. The Philadelphia 76ers have reportedly thrown their hat in as well, which might be more tempting because of the weaker Eastern Conference. Stacked with young talent, they are much farther in the process, but still no farther away from the Cavs.

With all of this in mind, despite the Raptors lackluster offer, it’s the best option if he wants to continue to contend. So I expect Lowry to reunite with his brother DeMAr DeRozan and continue their lethal backcourt dominance in Toronto and to hope the Raptors’ front office can put the pieces together to beat the Cavs and Celtics. It’s a tough spot for the veteran, but there are plenty of less desirable places to end up.

One more thing – there are no rumors about this, and I don’t know why. The San Antonio Spurs. Talk about contender, and talk about a need at guard with Tony Parker on his last breath, and Manu Ginobili perhaps already retiring. These parties need each other. Lowry is a perfect fit to play at a high clip with Kawhi Leonard, and the Spurs can keep LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol around to keep a solid front court. The Spurs were 2nd in the West last year, and adding the depth with Lowry provides a smooth transition from old to less-old and keeps them in contention a little bit longer. Done and done. Make it happen. …I wish…

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Last but not least…Paul Millsap. Often overlooked due to his team’s constant finishes in the 1st round of the playoffs, Millsap excelled for the Hawks last year and has put himself in a great spot at the right time. Though he is not the first option for top contenders, or maybe even the second option, Millsap can fill the role at PF that so many teams struggle to find.

There are a ton of teams pursuing Millsap from all over the standings. The most high profile team is the Rockets. Other teams in the mix are the Nuggets, Kings and Suns, but I don’t see Millsap moving to any of those if he didn’t like Atlanta’s set up when he opted out of his contract. Millsap is the type of forward that can mold to any offensive scheme, and can earn a max contract from those who can afford it.

With the Rockets signing Chris Paul, and going after Paul George, it’s no surprise that Paul Millsap is on their radar. Can you imagine all of those Pauls on one court?? A commentator’s nightmare… With the Rockets coming out of nowhere and throwing out deals, I can easily see Millsap going to Houston if George goes to Boston. And that’s not the worst thing in the world.

I also want to send my apologies to the Nuggets.  I know they want a few of these guys, but I just don’t see what they have to pull them in. With the way this NBA is formatted to make superteams to compete, I’m not sure Denver can ever make it happen…especially being stuck in the Western Conference. By the way, if you don’t know what I mean by that, Google and compare the teams in the West to those in the East. The difference is staggering.

Homebodies

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One last thing before I wrap up. There are plenty of other free agents worth noting, but they are 99.99% going to re-sign with their current teams, and it’s easier to focus on the big story lines. In my opinion, it’s worth mentioning that Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are unrestricted free agents. They can literally sign with the Brooklyn Nets if they wanted. Obviously, the only drama is how much money the Warriors can give them to keep their team intact… but I’m just saying.

Other notables like this are Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony. Nowitzki was actually persuaded by the Mavericks to opt out only so they could restructure his contract to his liking. Melo, on the other hand, has been rumored to go everywhere but to New York. However his deal is such that it is his decision and not the team’s, so expect him to stay put. Although, in the past he has expressed interest in teaming up with his good friend LeBron James in Cleveland, so I guess anything’s possible.

 

Whew. Okay. That’s all for me today. I apologize for such a long post, but this free agency is unlike any other with so many variables in play. I can’t wait to see how the dominoes fall. Let me know your opinion in the comments below! I’ll be back shortly to react to the hurricane that sweeps through the NBA over the next week. Cheers!