The World Of Sports Viewed Through The Eyes Of A Yankees And Red Sox Fan

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

AFC East Preview and Predictions

By: Mike Wagenman

New England Patriots

The Patriots are the epitome of a what an NFL franchise should be: great coaching, great ownership and management, excellence on the field, and smart and successful draft picks. The Patriots are among the Super Bowl favorites every year, and this year is no different thanks in part to their all-world quarterback Tom Brady, genius head coach Bill Belichick, and successful offseason. The Patriots are bringing back a more explosive offensive unit than the one that went 14-2 last season. They are looking to go farther in the playoffs than a divisional round exit to the Jets. The Pats bring back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and Danny Woodhead as far as running backs go, and drafted two more in California's Shane Vereen and LSU's Stevan Ridley. Both rookies have been impressive thus far in camp. New England also returns Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, two second-year pass catching tight ends, and they drafted Marshall's Lee Smith to serve as a blocking tight end. Their receiving core is extremely deep as well. Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, and Brandon Tate all return and will welcome in a true number one wideout in Chad Ochocinco. Six running backs, three tight ends, and five wide receivers, all as viable threats. Tom Brady also gets Logan Mankins back on the offensive line along with rookies Nate Solder from Colorado and Marcus Cannon from TCU. The one glaring hole for the Patriots last season was their defense, which, according to Jets linebacker Bart Scott, couldn't “stop a nose bleed.” I hate to say it, but Mr. “Can't Wait” had a point. The Patriots were ranked in the bottom five of most defensive categories, but they hope that rookie Ras-I Dowling from Virginia can sure up the secondary along with Pro Bowler Devin McCourty. New England brought in former Defensive Player of the Year Albert Haynesworth along with veteran Andre Carter to help Vince Wilfork penetrate the line up front. Jerod Mayo led the league in tackles last season, and if just one of the other young linebackers, preferably Jermaine Cunningham, can step up, the defense will drastically improve. The tough schedule (including the Jets twice, Chargers, Steelers, Eagles, and Colts) includes potent offenses that may be a bit tough to handle for the Pats defense. However, Tom Brady will get it done to bring home another AFC East title.

Season Prediction: 13-3, 1st Place AFC East.
Leading Passer: Tom Brady
Leading Rusher: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Leading Receiver: Wes Welker
Defensive Standout: Jerod Mayo (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Stevan Ridley (RB)

New York Jets

Not far behind the Patriots are the New York Jets. Gang Green always stands a legitimate chance to take down their opponents because they play an aggressive and impressive defensive game, led by head coach and defensive mastermind Rex Ryan. Although Ryan's antics may seem overdone and somewhat irritating, they do the trick to fire up the Jets. Quarterback Mark Sanchez has not proven himself as an elite quarterback yet, although he has won four road playoff games in two seasons. His regular season inconsistency (three more interceptions than touchdowns in his career) must change for the Jets to really consider themselves Super Bowl favorites. The Jets bring back much of the same squad from last season, especially on the defensive side of the ball which is key. Their defense is guaranteed to be a top 5, and their opponents' top receiver is sure to be stuck on Revis Island for most of the game. The Jets failed to address their one defensive problem from a year ago, however, and that was their pass rush. Most of their tackles in the backfield and their sacks were influenced by the secondary, whether it be from great coverage or from them blitzing. Ryan has faith that rookie lineman Muhammad Wilkerson from Temple can be a true force. He has to be, so he can replace Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins. The Jets offense was a bit lacking at times last season, thanks to a sub-par year from Shonn Greene. This season, LaDainian Tomlinson may show some age and may not be able to carry the load, so Greene must step up. Also, the offense relied mostly on quick slants and screens last season thanks to Sanchez's inaccuracy down the field. With the addition of 6'5” Plaxico Burress and slot reciever Derrick Mason, Sanchez has weapons to hit a few home runs. All in all, the Jets will be a good team and will snag a wild card spot. The loss of Brad Smith will hurt more than many people think, and the effortless attitude of Plaxico Burress may not sit well with Rex Ryan, but he usually finds a way to win, despite a somewhat difficult schedule.

Season Prediction: 11-5, 2nd Place AFC East.
Leading Passer: Mark Sanchez
Leading Rusher: Shonn Greene
Leading Receiver: Santonio Holmes
Defensive Standout: David Harris (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Jeremy Kerley (WR/KR)

Buffalo Bills

Yes, Buffalo is somewhere other than last place. The Bills haven't been very good for quite a while. Jim Kelly, where are you? Anyway, the Bills will actually improve and are relying on the Harvard graduate Ryan Fitzpatrick again this season, but he does not have many places to throw the football. Stevie Johnson had a monster breakout season in 2010, but now Lee Evans is gone. So, with Johnson as a true number one receiver whom defenses are aware of, a lot of double coverages will be thrown his way. Roscoe Parrish will probably be assuming the duties of number two wideout, although he is much more effective in the slot or returning punts. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller will have to carry the load in the backfield, which, quite frankly, isn't all that bad. It's actually very workable. The addition of Brad Smith sparks some hope for Bills fans because he can do absolutely everything, and he did do absolutely everything against the Bills while a member of the rival Jets. He can throw, run, catch passes as a wide receiver, return kicks, and run the offense through the wildcat, not to mention he is very adept at all of those tasks. The Bills offensive line must improve, and that is the big x-factor. They have ample talent in Johnson, Parrish, Spiller, Jackson, and Smith, but those guys need room to operate and need time to get the football in their hands. Tackle Ed Wang is a real key. The Bills defense also must step up, so Buffalo used this offseason to acquire some man power to do so. Aside from rookie Marcell Dareus from Alabama, the Bills have a very makeshift defensive line. Their linebackers are very formidable however, especially now that they got rid of that disaster Aaron Maybin. Chris Kelsay is solid, although aging, and the same holds true for free agent signing Nick Barnett (former Packer). If those two can stay healthy, their veteran leadership can go a long way to helping the Bills win some games. Shawne Merriman has a lot to prove coming off countless injuries,but has shown glimpses of his Pro Bowl form from a few years ago with the Chargers. Linebacker Arthur Moats has emerged as the tackling machine, and a leader on the defense. Buffalo's secondary is actually very good. Jarius Byrd is a ballhawking free safety who intercepts a lot of deep balls, and they have four legitimate cornerbacks to help him. Leodis McKelvin, Terrence McGee, Drayton Florence, and rookie Aaron Williams have the ability to make big plays and lock down on some good receiving cores. The key for the defense is that they have to play together. They have a lot of pieces, but they must play together as a unit. Some age, some holes, and some lack of offense leave some question marks in Buffalo coming into the season, and make a playoff chance a bit of a long shot. A tough schedule also factors against the Bills, because I would love to put them at 7-9, but I just don't see them upsetting enough teams with a sub-par passing game. They will finish third in the AFC East.

Season Prediction: 6-10, 3rd Place AFC East
Leading Passer: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Leading Rusher: C.J. Spiller
Leading Receiver: Stevie Johnson
Defensive Standout: Marcell Darius (DL)
Other/Surprise Standout: Shawne Merriman (LB)

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have been underachieving recently, much thanks to their quarterback Chad Henne. He seemingly has lost all confidence in himself and looks like a deer in headlights in the pocket. In 2011, that must change from the outset if the Dolphins want any chance at a winning season. Miami drafted Mike Pouncey from Florida and signed former Cowboy Marc Columbo to help All-Pro Jake Long protect Henne. They also drafted explosive Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas in the second round and acquired former Heisman Trophy winner and New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush to replace the departed Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams in the backfield. Thomas will be the feature back, and the sky is the limit for him, but with Bush's NFL struggles, Thomas will not have that veteran presence to teach him the tricks of the trade. The wide open and wildcat style of Tony Sparano, however will allow Bush to create his own lanes, but nothing compared to what he did at USC. Henne has Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall, Davonne Bess, and Brian Hartline as wide receivers and Anthony Fasano as his tight end, four very nice targets, but the problem is that he is almost incapable of delivering the ball to them. The Miami defense, like New England's is suspect. Linebacker Cameron Wake emerged as a dominant pass rusher and run stuffer, and the resigning of Jason Taylor (yes, again) will only help Wake improve. Too bad Taylor is nothing like the animal he used to be. The defensive line is lacking and the secondary is average at best, two spots that will really demoralize the Dolphins this year. Having to play the Patriots and Jets twice each, as well as San Diego, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Dallas, and even the Giants, plus the fact that they went a baffling 1-7 at home last season, will prove to be too much to handle for the Fish. They will miss out on the playoffs for another year, which will end Chad Henne's reign under center in South Beach.

Season Prediction: 4-12, 4th Place AFC East
Leading Passer: Chad Henne
Leading Rusher: Daniel Thomas
Leading Receiver: Brandon Marshall
Defensive Standout: Cameron Wake (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Davonne Bess (WR)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

AFC North Preview and Predictions

By: Mike Wagenman

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are seemingly a staple in the AFC playoff picture year after year, but since their Super Bowl victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Baltimore cannot seem to get over the hump en route to another championship. The Ravens are known for their stingy, hard hitting defense and efficient, but not extremely explosive offense. This year may be a bit different. The Ravens defense is still going to be one of the league's best, but the departure of starting safety Dawan Landry and cornerback Fabian Washington could prove to be huge losses. Defensive leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are a bit up there in age, but still can make a big difference for Baltimore. The offense will become more explosive than in recent years. Joe Flacco is another year older, wiser, and more experienced, and he has some proven weapons. Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans, and rookie Torrey Smith are Flacco's main targets and are three players who are electric and quick. The signing of running back Ricky Williams gives the Ravens a great change up back to spell Ray Rice. Throw in the 31st toughest schedule in the NFL (second easiest), and Baltimore will once again earn a spot in the AFC playoffs, as the AFC North champion.

Season Prediction: 12-4, 1st Place AFC North.
Leading Passer: Joe Flacco
Leading Rusher: Ray Rice
Leading Receiver: Anquan Boldin
Defensive Standout: Terrell Suggs (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Ed Dickson (TE)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh is another team that seems to be in the AFC playoffs every season, along with Baltimore. These two teams create the Red Sox and Yankees of the NFL, as one always wins the division, and the other claims a wild card birth. The Steelers are known for their brick wall defense, but it is now the oldest defensive unit in the NFL. That age could provide the difference in an overtime game or a late season game, but they will still be skilled enough to shut down many of the league's great offenses. As long as safety Troy Polamalu is on the field, the Steelers have the upper hand. Pittsburgh's offensive skill players are poised to put up a lot of points. Two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has Rashard Mendenhall, who ran for 1,273 yards a year ago, and two of the fastest receivers in football in Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger also has his two favorite target in Hines Ward and Heath Miller back, and a new veteran wideout, Jerricho Cotchery. The only concern for Pittsburgh is their offensive line. It was a problem last season, and they must do everything they can to protect Roethlisberger. The Steelers are the defending AFC champion, and will get the opportunity to repeat as they will make the playoffs again as a Wild Card.

Season Prediction: 11-5, 2nd Place AFC North.
Leading Passer: Ben Roethlisberger
Leading Rusher: Rashard Mendenhall
Leading Receiver: Mike Wallace
Defensive Standout: Troy Polamalu (SS)
Other/Surprise Standout: Antonio Brown (WR)

Cleveland Browns

The Browns are coming off a 5-11 season, and to the naked eye, that may seem very disappointing. However, the 2010 Browns season was actually very encouraging and points to a bright future in Cleveland. The Browns hung around with the big boys in most of their games, beating New England and New Orleans, and forcing the Jets into overtime before losing with no time on the clock. Colt McCoy, emerged as a true NFL quarterback, and although his numbers may not be incredibly impressive, he showed poise and awareness in the pocket. Peyton Hillis took the league by storm and quickly became a number one running back and a fan favorite, as evidence by the fans voting him to the cover of Madden 12. And the league's best X-Factor Joshua Cribbs can break a huge gain in the blink of an eye on any given play. Cleveland's defense wasn't its usual swiss cheese self, as defensive backs Joe Haden and T.J. Ward emerged as players that quarterbacks must be wary of. The Browns have a very tough schedule, playing Baltimore and Pittsburgh twice each, and visiting Indianapolis. They also have three upstart teams in Seattle, Jacksonville, and Houston on their schedule. The Browns do not have much of a shot at the postseason, but they do have the incentive to perform at a high level to keep their jobs under President Mike Holmgren, who has promised radical change and improvement.

Season Prediction: 5-11, 3rd Place AFC North.
Leading Passer: Colt McCoy
Leading Rusher: Peyton Hillis
Leading Receiver: Mohamed Massaquoi
Defensive Standout: Joe Haden (CB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Joshua Cribbs (WR/KR)

Cincinnati Bengals

It pains me to write about the Bengals. This season will be a mess inside Paul Brown Stadium. Quarterback Carson Palmer refuses to play for Cincinnati, and has threatened retirement. Running back Cedric Benson had yet another run-in with the law. Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, Cincy's two leading receivers from a year ago, are no longer on the team. Finally, their defense is terrible, and it will only get worse after the loss of Jonathan Joseph, one of the league's best lockdown cornerbacks. Andy Dalton or Bruce Gradkowski, whoever wins the quarterback job, will be at the helm and will have to stand behind an offensive line that would have trouble blocking the Cincinnati Bearcats defensive line. Their receivers are young, and aside from A.J. Green, all seem to be slot receivers at best. Cedric Benson has been fantastic for the Bengals, however, and if he can stay consistent, he may help the development of Dalton. Nate Clements is the number one corner on the defense and Manny Lawson was signed during the offseason, two capable defensive players but not enough to stop very many offenses. The Bengals will have a poor season, and have zero chance of making the playoffs. Hopefully for them, Green and Dalton can emerge as stars.

Season Prediction: 3-13, 4th Place AFC North.
Leading Passer: Andy Dalton
Leading Rusher: Cedric Benson
Leading Receiver: A.J. Green
Defensive Standout: Manny Lawson (LB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Jermaine Gresham (TE)

Friday, August 12, 2011

AFC West Preview and Predictions

Football is back and we here at The Tales Of 2 Cities will be doing breakdowns and predictions/projections of each NFL division until the regular season begins. Check back over the weekend for another preview.

San Diego Chargers

San Diego is well known for their slow starts, and last year was no different. However, last year was the first year that the slow start eventually caught up with them, leaving them out of the playoffs. The Chargers led the league in overall offense and defense last year, but overall had abysmal special teams play that ultimately led to the team’s demise. San Diego will have Vincent Jackson suited up from the outset this time around, and will benefit from a fairly easy schedule. A lot of weight will be put on the shoulders of running back Ryan Mathews, but Philip Rivers passing attack will allow him to get off some decent runs. Rivers has been one of the more consistent quarterbacks in the league and will lead the team back to the playoffs.

Season prediction: 11-5, 1st Place AFC West.
Leading Passer: Philip Rivers
Leading Rusher: Ryan Mathews
Leading Receiver: Vincent Jackson
Defensive Standout: Eric Weddle (FS)
Other/Surprise Standout: Bob Sanders (SS)

Kansas City Chiefs

2010 was a good year for Kansas City as they won the division and made it to the playoffs. The Chiefs are led by a young offense led by quarterback Matt Cassell at the helm. Cassell benefits from having one of the leagues best rushing attacks with Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. The two backs combined for well over 2,000 rushing yards, which was led by Jamaal Charles near 1500 yards. Charles is one of the most explosive backs in the league, and is used very frequently in Kansas City’s passing attack as well. The Chiefs will certainly compete for the division title again this year, but San Diego just has too much fire power on both sides of the ball, and KC will come up a bit short.

Season Prediction 8-8, 2nd Place AFC West.
Leading Passer: Matt Cassell
Leading Rusher: Jamaal Charles
Leading Receiver: Dwayne Bowe
Defensive Standout: Tamba Hali (DE/OLB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Jonathan Baldwin (WR)

Oakland Raiders

The Oakland Raiders are a good owner away from being a playoff caliber team. There’s no other way to slice it, Al Davis has done bad for this organization for a long, long time. Oakland has fielded a solid defense the last few years, and has also made strides on the offensive side of the ball, but the coaching and ownership inconsistency has dwelled on the team for a while. There are a few games on the schedule that can go either way for the Raiders; Oakland could possibly place second in the AFC West, and maybe squeeze into the playoffs as a Wild Card team, but to do that they’d have to win those games and as of right now I don’t believe that they will. As mentioned before, Oakland's defense has played well over the years, but lot of the team's success this season will depend on the play of Jason Campbell and whether or not Darren McFadden can stay healthy. If Campbell performs well and McFadden stays healthy Oakland can surprise a lot of people.

Season Prediction: 7-9, 3rd Place AFC West
Leading Passer: Jason Campbell
Leading Rusher: Darren McFadden
Leading Receiver: Louis Murphy
Defensive Standout: Tyvon Branch (SS)
Other/Surprise Standout: Kevin Boss (TE)

Denver Broncos

There’s no other way to say it, if you finish with the second worst record, you had a bad year. Denver switched quarterbacks last year giving then rookie Tim Tebow the opportunity to get his feet wet and start a few games. While Tebow didn't play extremely well, he didn't play extremely poor either. In the offseason there was much discussion on whether who would be the team’s starting quarterback, Tebow or veteran Kyle Orton. Orton certainly provided a much better passing attack last year, and in my opinion would be the better option going into this season. However, offseason trade talks, and “The Tebow Factor” have created a quarterback controversy in Denver. Tebow was a 1st round draft pick just a year ago, and although he may not be ready to be the starter, the fans may pressure ownership into putting him in that role. The Broncos will finish last in the division regardless of who the starting quarterback is due to question marks throughout the offensive and defensive side of the ball, but if the team starts Tebow the win total could possibly decrease even more. Kyle Orton gives the team the best chance to win, and it's hard to argue against it.

Season Prediction: 5-11, 4th Place AFC West
Leading Passer: Kyle Orton
Leading Rusher: Knowshon Moreno
Leading Receiver: Eddie Royal
Defensive Standout: Elvis Dumervil (DE/OLB)
Other/Surprise Standout: Ryan Clady (LT)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On The Prowl

By: Mike Wagenman

As expected, the 2011 post-NFL lockout free agency period has been chaotic and rapidly developing. It seems as though a different player signs a contract every time the channel turns to the NFL Network. Some teams, like the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, have acquired household named superstars to help bolster their Super Bowl chances. Other teams, like the Washington Redskins and Chicago Bears, have signed an extraordinary amount of formidable players to fill out salary cap space. Organizations such as the New York Jets focused mainly on bringing back most of their free agents, a successful bunch in the recent past. And then there were teams such as the Dallas Cowboys, who did virtually nothing since the free agency period started. While the Eagles and Patriots, and maybe even the Jets and Redskins are the obvious choices for big free agency winners, one team has flown completely under the radar, yet has signed quality football players to significantly improve their squad: the Jacksonville Jaguars. Obviously, free agency is not over, but the Jags have caught my eye this offseason.

Jacksonville is a city that was spoiled in the late 1990s. In 1995, the NFL introduced two new franchises, the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. In just their second season, the Jags made it all the way to the AFC title game and made the playoffs in four of their first five years in the league. Jaguars fans were becoming accustomed to winning. However, in 2000, the franchise took a turn for the worst and realized it could not afford key players due to financial problems. Since that year, Jacksonville has only reached the postseason twice. The situation in Jacksonville was beginning to brighten, however, in 2007 when David Garrard and Maurice Jones-Drew emerged as leaders and cornerstones, and carried the Jaguars to the playoffs. The success was short lived, as the team went 5-11 in 2008, 7-9 in 2009, and 8-8 in 2010. Jaguars owner, chairman, and CEO Wayne Weaver and GM Gene Smith knew the time was now, and the improvements had to start with the 2011 NFL Draft.

The Jaguars made headlines on draft night, as they traded up to the tenth pick to get Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. This was a huge roll of the dice, but something that needed to be done. With Garrard on his last leg, the Jaguars needed a quarterback of the future, and they got one with whom many considered the top pure quarterback in the draft. Jacksonville also addressed other key needs during the draft, as they added offensive lineman Will Rackley from Lehigh, and defensive backs Chris Prosinski from Wyoming and Rod Isaac from Middle Tennessee State. The Jags were desperately in need of offensive line depth and, with many free agents in an already poor secondary, defensive backs were necessary. Also in the draft, the team rolled the dice again and took division-III wideout Cecil Shorts from powerhouse Mount Union (Pierre Garcon's alma mater). His quick route running and sure hands should translate to the NFL, and could fill the void left by Mike Sims-Walker, who signed with the Rams. A decent draft from the Jaguars got the faithful excited for the upcoming season. But the biggest splashes were yet to come.

In 2010, the Jaguars did not rank particularly high in team defense; 28th to be exact. They gave up 26.2 points per game, 371.8 yards per game, and only forced 18 turnovers. Weaver and Smith went to work quickly when free agency began. After trading Reggie Nelson to Cincinnati last season, the safety position became an issue. That issue was resolved when the Jags resigned second year safety Courtney Greene, and went out and inked former Ravens safety Dawan Landry. Landry had 111 tackles and one sack last year, and had four interceptions back in 2009. Furthermore, the experience of playing in one of the best defenses in the NFL for the past five seasons will bode well for Landry, as he can assist some of the younger defensive backs on the Jaguars roster. William Middleton, a nickel corner for the Jags last season, was also brought back to the team along with former Jets cornerback Drew Coleman. Coleman has played nickel, dime, and base cornerback in his career, so he has experience covering all types of receivers in all different packages. Also, Coleman, like Landry, comes from one of the NFL's top defenses in New York, so his skills and experience are without question.

The biggest area of improvement on the Jacksonville squad comes at linebacker. The Jags dipped into their wallets and signed possibly the top free agent linebacker in Paul Posluszny, former Penn State Nittany Lion (Linebacker U) and Buffalo Bill. Posluszny recorded an astounding 151 tackles last year in Buffalo, and had two sacks. This was with most of the blocking attention on him because of the Bills sub-par defense. Posluszny brings toughness and grit to the Jags, something they have been lacking in recent years. Jacksonville did not stop there, as they then signed former Colts linebacker Clint Session. Session is just 26 years of age and is still maturing, but he flies around the field with no mercy. He had 38 tackles last season before injury sidelined him after just five games, but had 84 in 2009. Finally, the Jaguars signed Matt Turk, the 15 year veteran, to ensure that they have no concerns with their punting game.

With all of their draft picks and signings boosting their roster on paper, these players still have to prove it on the field. The Jaguars look to be an exciting and contending young team in an upstart AFC South division in the 2011 season. It should be a fun ride, and hopefully for Jacksonville, their free agent signings and rookies can stay healthy enough to attain success between the lines.