Friday, August 20, 2010

Legends of the Fall

This past Monday morning started out like most other Monday mornings. After hitting the snooze a half dozen times and fending off a couple wicked elbows, I was up and at it, wiping the weekend out of my eyes. My wife had talked me into buying our two Pomeranians by committing to morning and winter dog duties. As I fumbled for my glasses, the pups waited anxiously for me at the door, a five-year routine we started five days after their adoption. I pick my battles. I'll cash in my super-husband points throughout the fantasy football season. After overfilling my cup of coffee, we were out the door.

I immediately noticed that something was different. To my delight, there was a cool bite to the air. I knew it all too well; I'd missed it. For a brief moment, I let my mind drift back a decade to the days of pep rallies and post routes. I quickly have to remind myself that, as a washed up 28-year old, my morning conditioning now consists of chasing my dog, who's chasing my other dog, who's chasing a rabbit through the woods. It's a pathetic existence. I'm sure you can relate. But I digress - back to that crisp morning chill. Like a double rainbow, it signifies something much bigger to me. What does it mean? Simple. It represents the culmination of a long baseball season intersecting with a promising new football season. Fellow sports fans, welcome to the most wonderful time of the year.

I'd be hard-pressed to recall an autumn that had more hope attached to it than the one we're entering. Our Twins are pulling away down the stretch, and for the first time under Ron Gardenhire's management, they have a realistic chance of advancing past the Yankees and making a serious World Series run. After losing 12 straight to the Bronx Bombers, they've split their last four, and this time around they have the offensive firepower to compete. Just down the road, the Vikings are returning all 22 starters from a final four squad. They're on the short list of Super Bowl contenders, and Brett Favre has reignited the locker room and the fan base. I can confidently say in mid-August that Minnesota has two legitimate title contenders, and their paths are overlapping right before us. But it's even more than that. It's the new stadium and the old quarterback. It's the hometown hero and the Metrodome magic. It's the unfamiliar national spotlight, and the seemingly never-ending optimism for "next year" giving way to "it's our time." Yes, the stars are aligning, and for once, other cities envy us. If just for one year, we're like... like... Boston.

Don't take this for granted, Minnesota. Make this fall about friends and family, beers and brats, and the teams that we love. Take some time to soak it in. Take some time to make some memories. Opportunities like this don't come often enough for us; we have to make them last. Sub-zero temperatures, and worse, mediocrity, are always right around the corner.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

2010 NFL Playoff Predictions

Admittedly, my board does not coincide with most "expert" predictions you'll find across the interweb. But until proven otherwise, I'm going to assume that I'm right and they're wrong. That's how I roll (just ask my wife, she loves that).

1.) New Orleans Saints** - Fresh off their magical Super Bowl run, MVP Drew Brees and the Saints draw the league's 6th easiest schedule. Head Coach Sean Payton will continue to rotate a seemingly endless supply of fresh backs and receivers in and out of Brees' huddle. Outstanding Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams returns most of his ball-hawking defense, including underrated cornerbacks Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer. The Saints are locked and loaded for another shot at the title.

2.) San Francisco 49ers** - Hear me out. With the retirement of Kurt Warner, the Downy-soft NFC West is the 49ers' for the taking. San Francisco wisely used both of their first round picks on offensive linemen to protect the slowly improving Alex Smith. The 2005 #1 overall pick has an extremely talented trifecta of playmakers to distribute the rock to in tight end Vernon Davis, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, and running back Frank Gore. Defensively, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin is one of the league's most underrated players. What gets by Franklin doesn't get by freakish middle linebacker Patrick Willis, the best defensive player in the NFL. The 49ers will get fat on a cupcake schedule, and they should finish with their best record since Jeff Garcia was hooking up with Terrell Owens in 2001.

3.) Minnesota Vikings* - Brett Favre unofficially retired this morning. He unofficially unretired this afternoon. Unlike many Vikings fans, I never flinched. The Vikings will return all 22 starters, Favre included, from a team that had no business losing the NFC title game last season. From Adrian Peterson to Jared Allen, the Vikings have the most talented roster in the NFL, as was reflected by their league-leading eight Pro Bowl selections in 2009. They have a wonderful blend of veteran leadership and youthful talent, and anything less than a Super Bowl appearance would be a disappointment. Vikings' cynics declare the team "cursed" by the Herschel Walker trade and the Drew Pearson push-off. With this year's Super Bowl in Dallas, Vikings' enthusiasts are insisting it's "destiny." Hogwash. The Vikings were the best team in the NFL last season, and nothing's changed. It's that simple.

4.) Dallas Cowboys* - I can't quite figure out the hype surrounding the Cowboys. The last time we saw them, they were up in arms over the Vikings running up the score in the divisional playoffs. You surely remember left tackle Flozell Adams going down early in the game, and the carnage that ensued. The 5-time Pro Bowler has since been released. He'll be replaced by Doug Free, the same saloon door swing tackle who replaced him in the aforementioned 34-3 massacre. Sure, adding rookie Dez Bryant to the aerial attack is nice, but not nearly enough to justify the media buildup of the club. Bryant joins 2009 breakout star Miles Austin and the dependable Jason Witten to give Tony Romo another weapon. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff and linebacker DeMarcus Ware give opposing offensive coordinators nightmares, and all skepticism aside, the Cowboys should have no problem winning the NFC East on talent alone. But until Tony Romo proves himself in a big game, I can't project anything more.

5.) Green Bay Packers - (Deep exhale). Much to the chagrin of Vikings fans, Aaron Rodgers is the best young quarterback in the game, and the Packers will push the Vikings hard for the NFC North crown in 2010. They improved their weak offensive line with the addition of rookie Bryan Bulaga, and Rodgers has a deep pool of talented pass catchers at his disposal. Running back Ryan Grant is ordinary but steady. Playmaking cornerback Charles Woodson is coming off an incredible 2009, and entering the second year of defensive whiz Dom Capers' new 3-4 scheme, the Packers second rated defense shouldn't miss a beat. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to be sick.

6.) Atlanta Falcons - Workhorse Michael Turner is healthy, and once again, Atlanta is garnering a lot of preseason buzz. The Falcons are coming off the first back to back winning seasons in their history, and all conversation begins and ends with budding star quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan had some growing pains in his sophomore season, but he's poised to take the next step with star receiver Roddy White and future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. Rookie linebacker Sean Witherspoon and free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson should instantly improve the defense. Unlike many, I don't see the Falcons as a realistic threat to the Saints in the NFC South, but I think a third straight winning season and a return to the playoffs are within reach.

1.) San Diego Chargers** - A perennial playoff disappointment, I'm predicting more of the same from San Diego in 2010. The team is still in contract squabbles with receiver Vincent Jackson, linebacker Shawne Merriman, and most importantly, left tackle Marcus McNeill. I expect McNeill to be taken care of, and even without the other two, the Chargers have a clear path to the top seed with the league's 4th softest schedule. Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates are money, and as odd as it may sound, explosive rookie Ryan Mathews is a big upgrade over the celebrated LaDanian Tomlinson at running back. On the other side of the ball, the Chargers defense isn't scaring anybody. For that reason, I fully expect an early playoff exit for the media's Super Bowl favorite.

2.) Indianapolis Colts** - Yawn. Another year, another first round bye for the boringly spectacular Colts. If ever there was a team immune to the Super Bowl runner-up hangover, it's Indy. The Colts' 115 wins from 2000-2009 are the most by any team in any decade. Featuring the uninspiring Joseph Addai, the Colt's had the league's worst rushing attack in 2009. Yet Peyton Manning, and his arsenal led by Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, ranked 7th in the NFL in points. The pass rushing tandem of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis sets the tone on defense. When Bob Sanders is on the field (which is never a guarantee), the secondary is very good. The 2009 roster is still largely intact, and Manning, the NFL's only 4-time MVP, will again keep the Colts in the Super Bowl conversation.

3.) New York Jets* - The Jets are a polarizing team. There are those who are buying the hype, and those who are scoffing at it. Obviously, I'm one of the former. With this lofty projection, I'm clearly assuming the Darrelle Revis contract situation gets resolved. Already an elite pass defense, the Jets added Antonio Cromartie, stud rookie Kyle Wilson, pass rushing legend Jason Taylor, and a healthy Kris Jenkins. A rock solid offensive line will pave the way for the second year backfield foundation of Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene. Ladanian Tomlinson will keep Greene fresh, and Santonio Holmes provides Sanchez a speedy target with a Super Bowl pedigree. Head Coach Rex Ryan is a defensive genius who oozes confidence, and he's made a believer out of me.

4.) Baltimore Ravens* - The Ravens aren't going to blind side anybody in 2010; they're legit Super Bowl contenders. Long known for their dominating defense, they've become very balanced. An outstanding offensive line will protect emerging star Joe Flacco, and new addition Anquan Boldin is sure to help a subpar passing game. By season's end, electric running back Ray Rice will be a household name. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are in the twilight of their careers, but defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and linebacker Terrell Suggs lead the next wave of defensive talent. The Ravens' achilles heal is the health of their secondary. Reed's early season availability (hip) is in question, and they've already lost starting cornerback Domonique Foxworth for the season. They'll have to outscore teams, but for once, they have the firepower.

5.) Houston Texans - OK, this is going to be the year. The Texans have been a fashionable sleeper pick the last few seasons, but have yet to put it all together. However, as AFC stalwarts like Pittsburgh and New England have begun to deteriorate, the Texans' talent has ripened. On offense, Matt Schaub can light up the scoreboard, chucking to Andre Johnson and Owen Daniels. On defense, the core of Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, and Bernard Pollard should make enough plays to mask a pair of young cornerbacks. They'll be tested with a tough schedule, but the time is right for Houston to finally crack the postseason.

6.) Kansas City Chiefs - The Chiefs will become the darling story of the NFL this year. They've put together a very solid nucleus of young talent, headlined by breakout running back Jamal Charles. They added veteran leaders Thomas Jones and Ryan Lilja to compliment their youth. Star rookie safety Eric Berry joins the budding cornerback duo of Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr in the secondary, instantly improving a bad defense. I could certainly be a year or two early on this call, but I'm betting that a soft schedule, and the addition of coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel, will expedite the maturation process. I'm on an island with this one.

Whew. That turned into a bigger project than I expected. Am I right? Am I crazy? Feel free to discuss, but be sure to come with a solid rationale - I've gone deep in my analysis and I'm sticking to my guns!