Trick or Treat? NFL Week 8 Preview

Happy Halloween to all! As the World Series rages on, The NFL’s week 8 slate features more “tricks” than “treats”. In my estimation, there are four really interesting games this week. Two are obvious. Let’s take a look.

Bengals (6-0) at Steelers (4-3)- Have the Bengals finally arrived? If they win this game the answer is yes, but Big Ben is back and the Steelers are at full strength for the first time in over a month. This is typically bad news for Cincinnati as the Steelers have won eight of ten meetings this decade. Unlike recent years, this will be a high scoring affair. Big Ben, Le’veon Bell, and Antonio Brown vs. Andy Dalton and his bevy of weapons is enticing. However, the winner here will be the team that gets a late defensive stand. I’ll go with the Steelers until the Bengals show me they can knock off big brother. Even with a loss, Cincinnati would still control the division, but objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear. Pit 28 Cin 24

Packers (6-0) at Broncos (6-0)- Believe it or not, Sunday Night Football really does feature two undefeated teams this week, despite the talking heads on TV and the internet already putting Green Bay in the Super Bowl and writing Denver’s eulogy. If you have read this blog or know me at all, you know where my allegiance lies. The keys to this one are as follows. Denver must find a run game similar to the one they had in Cleveland two weeks ago. It may come from CJ Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, or both, but it has to come from somewhere. They must also rush the passer and continue to get sacks at will. Aaron Rodgers will make this harder than it has been with his lightening quick release. Peyton Manning is actually playing okay. He just needs to cut out the turnovers. My head: GB 31 Den 20. My heart: Den 24 GB 21

Jets (4-2) at Raiders (3-3)-These last two games are fairly cut and dry for me. After playing New England to the wire on the road, the Jets cemented themselves as the most underrated team the league. The Raiders may be the most improved, but this is a mismatch. Young QB Derek Carr was shelled against Denver. That is the only defense he has faced that is anywhere close to the caliber he will see tomorrow. Look for the Jets to run over Oakland behind Chris Ivory. NYJ 31 Oak 13

Panthers (6-0) at Colts (3-4)-The Colts are a mess. 40 year old Matt Hasslebeck has been more effective than golden boy Andrew Luck who still doesn’t look quite right and it’s not 2008 anymore for high priced signings RB Frank Gore and WR Andre Johnson, but they are in first place. This test on Monday night against the hard hitting Panthers led by freakishly talented QB Cam Newton will either bring them together or spark a mutiny. I’ll go with the option B. Car 24 Ind 10.

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Mets/Cubs NLCS should give hope to fans everywhere

There is something going on in baseball that is truly amazing. After pulling out a tight game five last night, the Mets will advance to the NLCS to face the Cubs. Think about that… The team that has spent most of its existence as the redheaded stepchild of the mighty Yankees will face the team that has not sniffed a championship in well over a century and whose fans believe the team is cursed for the right to go to the World Series. This will not be longest post I write, but it will be my favorite. I am writing this not as an analyst or predictor, but as a fan. At my core, that is what I am.

Across sports, many franchises either have horrendous overall histories or are currently in really tough 8-15 year stretches. The Raiders, Brewers, Chiefs, Lions, Vikings, Browns, Wizards, Clippers, and Twins all fall under at least one of these two umbrellas. In some cases, both are applicable. The two teams from my hometown can be added to this discussion as well. You have the Bengals, who have never won a Super Bowl and are winless in the playoffs since 1990, and the Reds who have never recaptured their glory days of the 1970s. Despite winning it all in 1990, they have been a below .500 team for most of the last 20 years. They were tantalizingly close to building something special 3 to 5 years ago, but got impatient, blew it up, and are now back to being a grease fire.

The two teams who will play to represent the National League in the World Series fit the description in the last paragraph as well as any two franchises in all sports. I see it all the time. Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers, Yankees, and Red Sox fans coming out of the woodwork. My point? If you have spent years rooting for a bad team who breaks your heart time and time again, do not change your colors and move to the front of the line now. Stick it out, because if the Cubs and Mets can play for trip to the World Series, every sports franchise and fan will have their day in the sun. No one knows when, but it will happen. Even the New Orleans Saints whose fans invented the concept of covering their faces with paper bags have won a Super Bowl in the last ten years. So, all sports fans should stick with their teams through thick and thin, because someday your team will be on top. For the record, I like the Cubs to reach the World Series in 6 games.

NFL Early Season Buy, Sell, or Hold

The second quarter of the NFL season got underway Thursday night with the banged up Colts knocking off the Texans for their third straight win. The Texans are finding out the hard way that in the modern NFL, if you do not have a QB, you do not have anything. In this blog, I will be buying, selling, or holding on some storylines from around the league.

The impressive Bengals- We have seen great starts from Cincinnati before that have fallen by the waist side when the weather turns cold. However, this team sure looks different. They are blowing teams out… Good teams. Everyone is contributing and much talked about QB Andy Dalton is not making mistakes. They have not really been hit in the mouth by an opponent yet. Seattle and Buffalo will do just that in these next two weeks. I need to see how they respond to that before judging if this team can finally make a deep playoff run. Verdict: Hold

The Eagles being a mess- At 1-3, Mess is an understatement. Mad scientist/head coach Chip Kelly shipped his starting QB from last year’s playoff team out of town along with the top RB and WR. The replacement are all having their issues. Mainly RB DeMarco Murray. He led the league in rushing as a Cowboy last year, but most QBs have more rushing yards this year. It is not all his fault. Most Eagle runs start out six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Chip Kelly’s ego is killing this team. He is learning the hard way that no matter how good the “system” was/is, if the players do not fit, you are screwed, and they are. QB Sam Bradford seems to be afraid to get hit. After missing the last two years with ACL tears, I do not blame him. Also, no one in the receiving core has distinguished themselves. All this leads to turnovers, making things that much harder on an already mediocre defense. They will play meaningful games into December because the rest of the division is flat out bad or dealing with injuries, but they have too many issues to get out of their own way. Will Chip Kelly survive this? I do not know. Verdict: Buy

Mike Vick keeping the Steelers in it while Big Ben heals- Look, if the Steelers make one of two 4th quarter field goal attempts, Mike Vick and the Steelers beat the Ravens last Thursday. He moved the ball and did not make mistakes. RB Le’veon Bell is any QB’s best friend. I could conceivably see the Steelers running the table for the next month or so until Big Ben gets back. Verdict: Buy

The surprising 3-1 Jets- I have said it for almost two years. The Jets defensive front seven is as good as any team in the league. The return of Darrelle Revis has made the secondary formidable again. Combine that with steady QB play from Ryan Fitzpatrick and a rejuvenated Brandon Marshall catching anything within his reach, a trademark tough running game, and this team is going nowhere. They will not challenge New England for the division, but they will fight with division rival Buffalo for a wildcard down the stretch. Verdict: Buy

The 4-0 Falcons- With weapons like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, the offense did not need much work, but new head coach Dan Quinn has this defense playing with its hair on fire. They also found a running game behind a few good young backs. However, division rival Carolina is also playing above its head at 4-0. Despite having two undefeated teams, I cannot see this division sending two teams to the playoffs. The rebuilding process in Atlanta is miles ahead of schedule and they should notch another win against Washington tomorrow, but I think they will be a victim of the numbers game. If I have to pick just one team from the NFC South, I think Carolina is better. Verdict: Sell

Sharapova and Bouchard Search For Answers as Tennis Season Winds Down

Maria-Eugenie-Re

With the tennis world still in shock from Serena Williams failing to complete the Calendar Grand Slam at the hands of Roberta Vinci of all people, the world’s top women start the fall Asian swing in Wuhan, China this week. Serena is missing, but was never supposed to play. Russian icon Maria Sharapova and her Canadian counterpart Eugenie Bouchard were slated to return to the court after long injury layoffs, but neither did. These two feisty competitors and marketing tycoons have each had rough 2015 campaigns since facing off in the Aussie Open quarters in January as pictured above.  The story of each woman is worth a closer look.

For Sharapova, 2015 started as if it was going to be a banner year with a title in Brisbane and a runner up finish to Serena at the Aussie Open. After January though, it was a struggle for Sharapova to merely stay on the court. She withdrew prior to the semis of a small event in Acapulco with a viral illness. She followed that up by losing early at both North American hardcourt events in Indian Wells and Miami. She seemed to be hampered by a leg injury. Her struggles carried over to the clay. She lost her first match in Stuttgart, where she was previously unbeaten. Despite a brief resurgence that included a title in Rome, Sharapova failed to reach the 2nd week in her French Open title defense. The five time major winner grinded through to the Wimbledon semis three weeks later, where she was thumped by Serena. Shortly after Wimbledon, she suffered another leg injury in training. Despite terming the injury as “minor”, Sharapova eventually withdrew from events in Toronto and Cincinnati, as well as the U.S. Open. She finally returned this week in Wuhan, but was forced to retire from her opening match after a fall that injured her wrist. It is unclear when Sharapova will return to the tour. She has pulled out of Beijing next week, which means it may not be until 2016. Clearly, 2015 is a year to forget for Sharapova.

Bouchard broke through in 2014, reaching the semis or better in three of the four majors. She started this year with a solid quarterfinal showing in Australia. What happened after that is a total mystery. She won a grand total of 2 matches from February-mid July. She played a full complement of tournaments too, and was not injured as far as anyone knows. This stretch included first round losses at the French Open and Wimbledon. She enlisted the help of tennis legend Jimmy Connors for the U.S. Open and finally seemed to get back on track, reaching the 4th round. Then, she was hit by a cruel stroke of bad luck. Bouchard fell in the locker room after her mixed doubles match at the Open and sustained a concussion. She was forced to withdraw before her singles quarterfinal and has not played since.

The question on everyone’s mind is can these two megastars get their groove back? Sharapova has earned the benefit of doubt with 35 career titles, including five majors and an Olympic silver medal. I also like that she has not made any radical changes to her game or her coaching team. It is has worked for her for over a decade now. She clearly has the skill set, drive, and right people around her to get back to the top. In her press conference after her retirement this week, she said that she was “extremely frustrated” by all the injuries, but “could not wait to get back out there.” It may not be a straight line for Sharapova, but she will get back to the top. Write her off at your own risk. Bouchard is a tougher call. I think she is capable, but she has never been dealt with this kind of adversity before. She has been through three coaches this year and seems utterly confused as to why she has not won many matches. She needs to hear one consistent voice and stick with that person, even if the results do not come quickly. You do not accomplish what Bouchard did in 2014 without being talented and extremely mentally tough. I think she will get it all back as well, but it may take her a few years. She is still in her early 20s.

I wrote this post because watching incredibly talented athletes like these two struggle when they have is fascinating and their stories show you that it does not matter what you have done in the past in sports, you have to bring it at the highest level every single day. Trust me, Maria is aware of that. Genie is learning this the hard way. However, every athlete must learn at some point. Also, these two are extremely popular and marketable. Having them both off the tour hurts attendance and television ratings. Their faces need to be out front, just like Serena’s, not losing in the first round or on the trainer’s table. Love them or hate them, the sport needs both Maria and Genie back at their best in the worst way. Here is to hoping they get there and do it soon.